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Home of the Spiritual Telegraph: Rochester at the Intersection of Science and Belief

Home of the Spiritual Telegraph: Rochester at the Intersection of Science and Belief by Gerry Szymanski

The first half of our 19th century -especially after the war of 1812- was an era of good feelings and bad judgement, one of holiness, humbug, and hysteria. It was a time of sentimentality and scientific progress, compromise and annexations, Greek Revivals, Gothic Revivals, tent revivals, the uncanny “Fijee Mermaid” of Barnum’s Museum. In short, “Young America” was having some pretty serious growing pains.

And there was no place at mid-century quite like Rochester, N.Y., the pop-up city whose exponential growth in all areas was a microcosm of these United States. Bisected by the Genesee River and Erie Canal, the Flour City birthed and shepherded the flowering of some heady stuff that blossomed in the decade between 1845-55.

Abolition, canal packets, suffrage, the Bloomer costume, phrenology, daguerreotypes, the Whigs, steam engines, mesmerism, button mills, temperance, Masons and Anti-Masons, railroads, etc., etc., were all pretty wild and woolly around the Four Corners of Downtown Rochester. The two movements found in this exhibition, Spiritualism and Telegraphy, were perhaps the most influential in these turbulent times.

The first came via the Fox Sisters at a public exhibition in the new Corinthian Hall. Sponsored by city mother Amy Post, Maggie, Kate, and their older sister Leah Fox Fish demonstrated a direct line with the spirits of the dead through trances and ghostly sounds of clicks and taps, which became known as “The Rochester Rappings.” Newspapers had breathlessly told of the other-wordly encounters in their nearby Hydesville home, but this crowded showing “electrified” the world. The girls brought forth a wide-ranging theosophy which is still with us, held by the faithful worldwide and locally, notably the Plymouth Spiritualist Church on Vick Park A and the Lily Dale community near Fredonia.

It seems odd that this event and the immediate proliferation of séances and experts in communion-with-the-beyond that followed were so quickly embraced here, and with such enthusiasm. But denizens were used to public declamations of supernatural links, even if the new-fangled theologies were ignored, or dismissed out-of-hand. In the 30’s, evangelist Charles Finney passed three years attempting to convert Rochester, preaching a fiery gospel in traditional denominational churches. In nearby Palmyra, Joseph Smith discovered the golden tablets guided by the angel Moroni.

Soon, a more apocalyptic message was heard. Contradicting scripture -“But of that day and hour knoweth no man...”*- one William Miller claimed inspiration and re-calculated Christ’s return to an imminent date. Thousands of Western New Yorkers listened intently, and nodded in approbation. Reports vary in tone: one widely-circulated account states that having sold all earthly belongings save for white adornment -which they then donned the evening of October 22, 1844- true believers trekked to Cobb’s Hill, spending a chilly night awaiting to be taken up. Other less sensational sources say that the Millerites passed a quiet evening gathered inside the comforts of the downtown Talman Hall on Main St.

No matter what exactly took place, this non-event was quickly termed “The Great Disappointment.” But Finney’s Second Great Awakening, and the rise of Mormonism and Millerism (spawning Adventism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses) laid the ground for Spiritualism, which, like these others, found numerous ready adherents. Everyone who was anyone clasped hands around the darkened table, waiting for cousin’s Lizzie’s Great Aunt Mehitibel to answer if she was doing well in Abraham’s Bosom, and replying with one knock, or two.

Late in life, Sisters Fox recanted, announcing it was a hoax: the sounds from the grave being the clicking of foot bones. They later recanted their recantation, but the genie had been let out of the lamp.

The other “movement,” if you will, consisted of the interplay of electricity and a mechanism. Visual Telegraphy was already common, especially in France, with louvers in sequences conveying letters or words that could be spied over distances. Samuel F. B. Morse strung up wires to a nitric and sulphuric acid battery supplying a current. A device attached in between poles allowed current to be broken by depressing a lever, which registered the magnetic click on a duplicate device on the same line. Wires did not convey actual sound, but only a signal that went on and off in rapid succession, that then triggered audibility on the machine. Noises could be long or short, and could signify letters or words. Messages were transcribed, sealed in an envelope, and immediately delivered by hand to their intended recipients.

Two years after its introduction, telegraphy appeared in our town. And now we must mention three Rochesterians: first, the dentist William Tichenor, who like so many peers, tinkered in other technologies. As first manager of the New York, Albany and Buffalo Electric Magnetic Telegraph Company office, he applied for a patent to improve the mechanism that is now lost to the ages. After a six-month stint, though, he returned to the mouths of the city with a new office in the Reynolds Arcade.

The second gent is Henry O’Reilly, who, though originally from Ireland, immortalized the new metropolis with his 1838 book Sketches of Rochester. Six years later, we find him investing and securing Morse’s contracts to expand telegraphic connections. Described by City Historian Dexter Perkins as “hot-headed,” and “a great man for starting something, and a poor man for finishing anything,” O’Reilly had not the faintest idea what it would take to secure lumber and wire, to string up lines across the wilderness between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and to maintain them. Vague contracts allowed other companies to take over his work with better service, and the courts allowed it.

While Tichenor was an odd private blip, and O’Reilly a drawn out, public, and spectacular failure, the one local fellow who made good (and how!) was Hiram Sibley. Sibley was “in the room where it happened,” when on May 24, 1844 the message “What hath God wrought?” was sent across rudimentary cables strung from Washington to Baltimore in the presence of the inventor, Morse.

As historian Jane Parker Marsh relays: “The idea of the federation which resulted in the Western Union (1854) was that of Hiram Sibley, and it was projected by him alone. The original company of stockholders... was organized in Rochester and composed almost entirely of Rochester men.” Sibley set up the headquarters of the monopolistic endeavor in the Arcade, directly across the street from Corinthian Hall, staying for ten years.

Like today’s gurus of Silicon Valley, these “Rochester men” became fabulously rich in very short order. The company’s value went from an initial $200K to over $48 million in just fifteen years. It was, and still is, almost beyond comprehension how much the telegraph and its industries enriched the individual and civic life of our city. The glorious homes and haunts of two of the original founders of “the” Western Union still stand just blocks away from where you read these words. Henry Selden’s mansion off of Windsor Street and Hiram Sibley’s grand estate on East Avenue are but shadows of their former selves; vestiges of a time when the electric fire was harnessed and tamed, yielding unbridled wealth.

But what of the intersectionality of these two contemporary and seemingly at-odds things?

It is not surprising that folks outside of Morse and Sibley’s circles found telegraphy to be entirely magical. The vast uneducated public was especially ignorant of scientific matters, and had no rudimentary knowledge of electricity. How could a spark be moved through thin copper over miles, practically instantly? How could random noises be translated into actual words on the other end? While entirely real and “hard-wired,” this bespoke some sort of witchcraft, indeed.
The Rochester Daily Democrat of June 2, 1844 declared, “It was perfect magic; and it was no marvel that men’s mouths opened wide, and they looked up the mysterious workings of this wonderful invention.”

And the followers of Kate, Maggie, and Leah Fox were quick to take on the language of the new “medium.” Circa 1851, one Louis Alphonse Cahagnet, published a 456 page tome with an equally weighty title, linking telegraphy directly with spiritualism:

The Celestial Telegraph; or, Secrets of the Life to Come, Revealed Through Magnetism; Wherein the Existence, the Form, and the Occupations, of the Soul After its Separation from the Body are Proved by Many Years’ Experiments, by the Means of Eight Ecstatic Somnambulists, Who had Eighty Perceptions of Thirty-six Deceased Persons of Various Conditions: a Description of Them, Their Conversation, etc., with Proofs of Their Existence in the Spiritual World.

In the introduction, Monsieur Cahagnet describes electrical “Galvinism... the nervous mechanism” recently discovered in living beings (dead frog legs moving with a magnetic battery!) as a correlation to the spiritual energy flowing from “the great beyond” across the veil of death to those who are receptive to speaking with the dearly departed.

The very next year, The Spiritual Telegraph, a weekly newspaper, popped up and for eight years investigated the phenomena and all of its manifestations.

The clicking dots-and-dashes of the code were just as cryptic to the average American as the messages of the spirits, and both needed trained individuals to intercede and make any sense. Even as late as 1862, a scientific journal described telegraphy as “an art occult” in that so few were trained in its mysteries. Henry O’Reilly, in advertising an office in Pittsburgh, requested the spectating public to observe rules of decorum as they were “witnessing the dedication of a highway of thought and information.”

In both a séance and a cablegram, brevity was literally the soul of wit and intention. With Telegraphy, words cost money, and thrift was an upper-most concern (STOP). Long questioning of President Washington on heavenly weather was best rejoined with a loud rap for “fair” and quiet tap for “cloudy.”

But, in the end, Spiritualism and Telegraphy spoke truth directly to all who would either dare listen in the dark silence, or brave opening the hand-delivered envelope. Both translated disembodied messages across vast distances, either physical or meta-physical; both sang out in the short, sharp sounds that still ring in our collective ears.

*Matthew 24:36

This text accompanies the exhibition Messages & Mediums