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She Spoke to the Dead. They Told Her to Free the Slaves.

In 1850s Vermont, Achsa Sprague swore that the spirits who miraculously helped her walk again also possessed her with a crucial mission: freeing every soul in America.

She Spoke to the Dead. They Told Her to Free the Slaves.

Awoman with dark, glossy hair and sharp cheekbones stood confidently under a tent with her eyes closed. About a thousand convention-goers waited for her to speak, standing patiently or sitting on the grass. Five full minutes ticked by on the timepiece the organizers had provided to keep the convention schedule on track. Still she stood there with her eyes closed, and the crowd waited.

It was Friday, June 25, 1858, and the first day of the Rutland Free Convention had already been momentous, and hot. The massive tent was set in a green field on the outskirts of Rutland, Vermont, then a city of about 7,500 people, and it was visible from half a mile away. Booths surrounded the tent, selling lemonade, root beer and soda pop. “The whole aspect of the locality was precisely that of a Country Fair,” a New York Times reporter wrote. The convention-goers’ only other relief from the heat was ice water poured out of faucets set into two casks that were continuously being refilled by men driving horse-drawn wagons. The overheated crowd congregating here were a motley crew of people dedicated to various causes: abolitionists, women’s rights advocates, supporters of nonviolence, death penalty protesters, Spiritualists (followers of a religious movement based on communicating with the dead) and other progressives dedicated to ideas considered radical in 1858.

The woman the crowd was eagerly waiting to hear was not just another convention speaker.

Achsa W. Sprague was one of the convention’s instigators, among 150 people to petition for a convention of “all philanthropists and reformers” to be held in the small, central-Vermont city “to discuss the various topics of reform now engaging … progressive minds,” according to an announcement from the organizers. That morning, the 30-year-old Sprague had been elected one of the convention’s 18 vice presidents, one of three women chosen for the role.

Portrait of Achsa Sprague, taken in the mid-1850s. (Photo courtesy of Silver Special Collections Library, University of Vermont)

Five years earlier, few (if any) who knew Sprague would have imagined her playing a lead role in something like this, or even standing in front of a thousand people. Back then, she struggled to walk across a room, due to debilitating chronic pain. She rarely left her family’s house, except for frequent visits to doctors. But things had changed dramatically, and Sprague’s gratitude toward the “spirit friends” who had taken away her pain would motivate much of the rest of her life, including her involvement in the Rutland Free Convention.

After the election of officers that morning in Rutland, the congregators took turns proposing resolutions for the convention to adopt. The second of the 11 resolutions stated, “that Slavery is a wrong which no power in the universe can make right.” Taking a radical stance against slavery’s institutional enablers, the resolution explained that any government or any religious body or figure that “by silence or otherwise, authorizes man to enslave man, merits the scorn and contempt of mankind.”

To modern readers, Spiritualists may seem strange partners to abolitionists, women’s rights advocates, and other 19th-century radicals, but Spiritualism was more than just floating tables. The movement sprang up in the United States in the 19th century and encompassed a wide range of beliefs. But unlike mainstream Christianity, it had no doctrine and no official leaders. The only thing all Spiritualists had in common was a belief that the dead could communicate with the living.

Angels and spirits were credited with acting through mediums who painted, sang, recited poetry, wrote, lectured and took daguerreotype photographs under their influence. Freedom and the shedding of chains were popular Spiritualist themes, particularly of Sprague’s.

Sprague herself was a “trance medium.” While standing in front of audiences of dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people, she willed spirits to possess her — and she spoke as they bid her to.

Not everyone at these events was a believer. Sprague was sometimes heckled. She was particularly vexed by a group of rowdy ladies in Middlebury, Vermont, who rapped and laughed during her lecture. But for those who listened carefully, her lectures delivered a surprisingly radical message.

By the time Sprague took the floor in Rutland, as the last speaker of the convention’s first day, the sun had set. The New York Times reported that after standing with her eyes closed for five minutes, her face twitched, her legs were unsteady and her hands spasmed. Then, she spoke, addressing the crowd as if giving a sermon. Her words were later published in a book of the convention’s proceedings:

“Shall any say, ‘Let the captive go free, burst the gyves [shackles] from the slaves, take poverty away from the world, let every one be blest with enough and to spare, let ignorance be enlightened, in this world, before we raise the question of the immortality of the human soul?’

When man thinks God is a vengeful and wrathful deity, how can he help wishing to be revenged upon his enemies?”

Her delivery was captivating. Sprague “carried herself with entire ease and self-possession — if that is the proper term to apply to one who is possessed by a spirit,” reported The Burlington Free Press, describing another of Sprague’s trance lectures. “At first, her eyes were closed, but after a while her eyes opened and her appearance was in no wise different from that of a good looking woman delivering with much action and some feeling, a lecture,” the Free Press wrote. “Her discourse was remarkable for its steady flow of words, which rolled out without a moment’s hesitation.”

On that evening in Rutland, the words that flowed forth from Sprague advised that if men and women were confident of their immortality, they would be inspired to act selflessly. These spiritually free people would say, “I will do my duty nobly, because I see its truth and nobleness in my own spirit.”

“The soul, set free from its bondage, hears the clanking of the chains of the prisoner and of the slave with harsher discord than ever before,” Sprague said, implying that the most noble souls are prison reformers and abolitionists.

Sprague spoke for an hour or more as the evening cooled into night and the lights inside the tent were lit. By hinting at how communicating with spirits could inspire reform, especially the abolition of slavery, it was a worthy invocation for a gathering that brought together the disparate goals and motivations of Spiritualists, abolitionists and other reformers under one big, and somewhat leaky, tent.

It was also a profession of Sprague’s own faith. She had been freed from the pain of her all-too-mortal body, and she showed her thanks by becoming a vehicle for spreading the word.

Sprague was born in Plymouth Notch — a village within the nearby town of Plymouth, Vermont — on November 17, 1827. Another resident, A. Nelson Earle, declared that “Achsa Sprague was the brightest woman ever raised in Plymouth,” according to his granddaughter Blanche Brown Bryant, who wrote a remembrance for the Plymouth Historical Society in the 20th century, likely in the 1970s.

At the age of 12, Sprague began teaching in the tiny Plymouth Notch schoolhouse. She was grateful that teaching allowed her to be useful to her family. But she yearned for something else. She wrote in her journal that she had a “thirst to drink of the waters of knowledge, but the fountain was far away, so far that the child of poverty may scarcely reach it, unless possessed of a stern spirit that no difficulty can overcome.”

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Plymouth had no high school. Students in the region who continued their studies after primary school traveled to a larger town, living with a local family during the week.

Sprague was about 20 when, as historian Leonard Twynham wrote, a “malady … overtook her.”

Two years later, Sprague began writing a journal or diary in an unadorned black notebook, which is known mostly from the excerpts Twynham published in a 1941 issue of the Proceedings of the Vermont Historical Society. The first entry — dated June 1, 1849 — reads, “Once more I am unable to walk or do anything else; have not been a step without crutches since Sunday and see no prospect of being any better; see nothing before me but a life of miserable helplessness.”

A few weeks later, Sprague’s pain was still flaring. On June 24, she wrote, “I do not begin to improve any yet and fear I shan’t, am not able to sew or write but very little, my only amusement being reading and riding horseback.” While her symptoms prevented her from partaking in certain activities, Sprague was, she wrote, “doubly thankful for the ability to enjoy myself in the world of books when the works of action seem shut from me.”

A Vermont Historical Society document describes her malady as “tuberculosis of the bones.” A family letter mentions that Sprague’s sister Sarah may have had tuberculosis too, and Sprague’s brother Ephraim died in 1850 of what Sprague calls “consumption,” which at the time often meant tuberculosis too, although the word was also used for any disease that caused people to rapidly lose weight.

While a diagnosis of tuberculosis infecting Sprague’s bones fit with her family history, it can’t explain what came later. Rheumatoid arthritis more closely fits the description Sprague wrote in her journal: specific pains flared up and subsided, particularly in her thumb. She mentions “more of the bad feeling in the joint,” having injured her eyes, and having to sit in darkness. While joint pain is the major symptom of rheumatoid arthritis, it can also cause eye problems, including light sensitivity. In her book Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America, Harvard Divinity School senior lecturer Ann Braude describes Sprague’s illness specifically as rheumatoid arthritis.

Sprague lived just before the era of modern medical science. Aspirin would be invented in Germany in 1897 to treat the pain of what was still commonly known as “rheumatism” without damaging the heart or stomach, as preparations of its active ingredient from willow bark and other plants sometimes did. The anti-inflammatory and disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs used to treat rheumatoid arthritis today wouldn’t be developed until a century later.

Modern medical research has found that depression is often prevalent in rheumatoid arthritis patients, and furthermore, that the depression might not only be a reaction to the pain but also a part of the disease itself. Inflammation and depression seem to share some biological processes, which are still being explored by researchers.

Sprague herself experienced suicidal ideations due to her health. In late July of 1849, she wrote that she felt “as though I would gladly shut my eyes to everything, and pass away.” A year later, in an entry on July 8, 1850, she wrote, “What hope is there for me but in Death. And what will Death bring? We may not know, yet to me it brings my only thoughts of rest or peace.”

While experiencing debilitating symptoms, Sprague was occasionally able to resume her activities. For five months, from November 1849 to April 1850, she taught 28 students. She wrote that the work took her mind off her pain, almost as a coping skill.

She sought treatment, first from doctors nearby, then from others farther away. Her first train trip was to Keene, New Hampshire, about 60 miles away, to visit a Dr. Gwitchell. She also paid a Dr. Spencer $15 for medicine and several visits, about $400 today. Later, she explored alternative treatments. She wore galvanic, or electric, bands for six weeks. She saw a psychologist who “magnetized” her twice a day. In the 19th century, magnetism was both common and controversial. Magnets had been used to treat illnesses for hundreds of years, but by Sprague’s time, “magnetism” was something more like Reiki, during which the doctor sought to influence a patient’s internal magnetic flow, often only with gestures. She also prayed, vowing to do God’s will if he relieved her pain.

Yet it was neither prayer nor any of these treatments that Sprague credited with healing her.

Her recovery is not well documented. She wrote only a single entry in her journal between July 26, 1850, and November 19, 1855. On the one day she did write, February 9, 1853, Sprague seems to have believed she was recovering. “Oh! how long I have lain bowed down by disease, shut up from the world in darkness and solitude like a prisoner chained down in his dungeon,” she wrote. “But all this is now passing away. The chains of disease are falling off, my limbs are once more resuming, or — ”

But either her hope was cut as short as her journal entry or the going was slower than she imagined. Most sources say she went into remission in 1854. It was around this time that she first reported being visited by spirits.

In “The Angel’s Visit,” a poem she published years later, Sprague describes a night of despair, then the rush of angels’ wings and a glorious light. In rhyming couplets, she wrote about how her gloom and pain disappeared immediately, and how, gradually, her strength returned. The angels told her that her mission was to “teach the soul it cannot die.”

To do that, she believed, she needed to continue to communicate with the angels and spirits who eased her pain. She saw an experienced spiritual medium in a nearby town, who had her sit in a quiet place and practice clearing her mind. Later, the medium told Sprague to sit with a pencil and paper. Eventually, she channeled written messages — her hand guided by spirits — including one that confirmed her mission.

She was not the first person to come to Spiritualism through recovery. “Illness was a common, although not normative, precondition of mediumship,” Braude writes in Radical Spirits. “Sprague’s experience suggests that Spiritualism may have been made more attractive by the failure of other sources of healing.”

Armed with this new mission of teaching others that the soul cannot die, Sprague gave her first performance speaking in front of an audience as a trance medium on July 16, 1854, at the Stone Meeting House in the neighboring town of South Reading, according to a 1940s remembrance written by Reading resident Maude Edwards and collected by the Reading Historical Society.

Spiritualists were numerous enough in South Reading that they shared a gray stone church with the town’s other religious denominations, Edwards writes. The church’s all-denominational steeple is topped not by a cross, but by a weathervane.

The church was crowded for Sprague’s first trance lecture, Edwards writes. Its twin doors and its enormous floor-to-ceiling windows were opened so that the overflow crowd spilling onto the church grounds could hear what Sprague had to say.

Sprague was so grateful for the opportunity — and was so popular there — that she returned to South Reading’s stone church to lecture throughout her life, even turning down big-city engagements to do so.

On November 19, 1855, after marveling that she had just walked a mile and a half, she wrote, “Is it possible that I am the same being who three years ago lay in a dark room in pain & anguish with no hope of relief?” Sprague credited her improved health to “this change wrought by my Spirit Friends.”

Sprague’s experience fits a cutting-edge theory of symptom relief through spirituality that has been supported by hundreds of scientific studies over decades. According to a 2011 article by Nikola Kohls and other researchers in the scientific journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, neuroscientists now understand the placebo effect not as a “dummy or sham” treatment but as an improvement of symptoms outside of active medical treatment. Kohl’s team adds that the symptom relief seen from “subjective, experiential and private dimensions of transcendence” tracks closely with the placebo effect. The trance that Sprague entered to hear and speak for spirits was an altered state of consciousness that was likely similar to the meditative states that have been clinically proven to help people to better tolerate pain. In other words, whatever one thinks of speaking to spirits, Sprague’s experience may have improved her health.

Despite the benefits to her own health, Sprague’s beliefs, and her dedication to speaking out about them, were in conflict with the era’s expectations of women. Braude writes that the sight of a woman speaking from a church pulpit in the mid-19th century was rare. Some of the appeal of Spiritualism to the women of this era was that it accepted them as spiritual leaders, something the major Christian sects of the time did not allow.

Now in remission, Sprague began traveling across the Northeast for paid engagements to give trance lectures. She became known as “the preaching woman,” Twynham writes.

“The style of Miss Sprague’s discourse is usually argumentative, but simple, and adapted to the ready comprehension of the ordinary mind,” Twynham quotes from the report of an unnamed “Boston paper.” “Personally, Miss S. is extremely modest and retiring, possessed of those attractive and amiable qualities of head and heart that at once secure the confidence, respect, and affection of all who come into contact with her.”

On her second trip to Philadelphia, in June 1857, Sprague juggled her trance lectures at Sansom Street Hall, a public lecture hall, with informal talks at a local women’s prison, as well as a restorative stroll among the paintings and sculptures at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

On June 11, she walked into a meeting of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. There, two of the main passions of Sprague’s adult life, besides Spiritualism, came together: women’s rights and the abolition of slavery.

Spiritualism had close ties to abolitionism from its start. The Fox sisters, who began the Spiritualist movement by reporting mysterious sounds in their upstate New York house, were favorites of the Rochester, New York, reformer Amy Post, who introduced the girls to leading abolitionists of the day, including William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, Braude writes. Individual freedom was a fundamental value for Spiritualists. For abolitionists who viewed mainstream religion as corrupted by its support of slavery, Spiritualism offered an alternative.

Famous women’s rights advocate and abolitionist Lucretia Mott was one of 11 white women to form the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, along with Sarah Mapps Douglass (no relation to Frederick Douglass), one of seven Black women founders. The women created the society in 1833, after they were shut out of other abolitionist groups because of their gender.

Mott had been speaking in public since Sprague was a girl, and Sprague may have looked to her as an example of how a woman could take charge of a mission. In 1857, people were still writing about how Mott had put down an “insolent” minister who had interrupted the Women’s Rights Convention in Syracuse, New York, five years earlier. Sprague may have used this as inspiration to deal with her own hecklers.

After the meeting was called to order, Mott told the group that she and a male abolitionist had held “large and encouraging” abolitionist meetings near the Maryland border, which was also the border between the slave-owning states and the free ones. Sprague wrote in her journal the next day that “Her conversation is very agreeable, & her whole soul seems to be enlisted in the cause of humanity.”

Aside from meeting Mott, what captured Sprague’s attention at the meeting was the plight of enslaved people. “They reported that for the last two weeks, the fugitive slaves that had come there for help to Canada had averaged two a day,” Sprague wrote. “Horrible indeed is the necessity that compels the poor negro to fly like a hunted deer to the land of Kings, for that freedom which he cannot find amid The land of the free, & the home of the brave.”

Sprague’s diary leaves off a few days later, on June 22, 1857, without explanation. A year later, as night fell on the Rutland Free Convention, a thousand people listened to Sprague talk about how their own spiritual freedom would lead to the freedom of enslaved people.

A month before the Rutland convention began, the New-York Tribune, Horace Greeley’s otherwise liberal newspaper, ran a brief item stating that the vague nature of the convention’s mission would open it to every “hairy-faced, crack-brained apostle of idleness and discontent,” especially those advocating for “free love.”

Free love is a problematic term for the historian because it was more frequently an accusation leveled at others than a positive self-identification,” Braude writes in Radical Spirits. “Similar to the term communist in twentieth-century America, free love denoted a basic undermining of accepted values.” It was a slur aimed at anyone who criticized marriage. Many Spiritualists, Braude writes, believed that women should be free to choose whom they married, and to make their own decisions after marriage, including when to have sex.

These ideas were radical in 1858, and they remained radical enough that marital rape or spousal rape did not become illegal in all 50 states until 1993. At the Rutland convention, Julia Branch of New York spoke about a woman’s “right to love, when she will, where she will, and how she will.” Her statements were so scandalous that the gathering became known as the “Rutland Free-Love Convention,” with newspaper articles as far away as White Cloud, Kansas, printing articles about the “disgusting proceedings.”

Sprague’s portrait printed posthumously on a postcard with a small biography and quotes from her book of poems on the backside. (Photo courtesy of Vermont Historical Society)

Sprague’s frequent correspondent Benjamin Starbuck of Troy, New York, wrote to her, perhaps jokingly, on August 3, 1858, that he hadn’t received many letters lately and feared his friends were snubbing him “… because I attended that ‘Free Love Convention’ up to Rutland. But that can’t be the case with you, for you were there too.”

Sprague left no record of what she thought of this turn in the convention she helped bring to Vermont. However, within a month of the Rutland Convention, a petition to the Vermont legislature circulated. The petition asked for legal rights for women, and its text is taken directly from a talk given at the Rutland Convention. Sprague’s signature leads the list of those from Plymouth and Rutland.

As for Sprague’s opinion on marriage, she received several proposals, and never accepted.

She continued her trance lectures, speaking farther and farther from home, traveling to Washington, D.C.; Memphis, Tennessee; Davenport, Iowa; Chicago; and Milwaukee.

“Miss Sprague seated herself upon the platform,” Twynham quotes from a less flattering report of one of her Milwaukee lectures. “After wringing her palms and passing them slowing across her face for a few moments, she rose with eyes closed and commenced her lecture. It was spoken in a clear, distinct, but not by any means pleasant voice. … The subject was the same pointless collection of beautiful abstractions which it has ever been our misfortune to listen to when Trance Speaking was announced.”

Sprague continued to attend conventions similar to Rutland’s, including one in Utica, New York, in September 1858, as well as others in Boston and South Royalton, Vermont. At yet another Spiritualist convention she helped organize in Oswego, New York, in August 1861, she fell ill with a fever. Did the fever signal a new flare of rheumatoid arthritis symptoms? Decades later, Twynham thought so.

She stayed for months in the house of friends in Oswego, on the shore of Lake Ontario. “When I lay burning with fever,” she wrote in introduction to a poem published in the Spiritualist newspaper Banner of Light, “I used to mingle the sound of the surges [waves] with my own agony, until I could hardly tell whether it was the wave, or me, that was thrown upon the rocks and sent back.”

Eventually, she made her way back to Vermont’s Green Mountains and the room she kept in her mother’s house in Plymouth Notch.

This time, the money she earned from her trance lectures bought her some freedom while she was ailing. Several accounts, including the 1980 book Those Intriguing Indomitable Vermont Women, by Jean K. Smith, state that Sprague dictated poems and letters to an assistant during this period of illness. Smith writes: “Occasionally she would pace the room, dictating with such rapidity that her amanuensis could barely keep up with the flow of words.” Twynham writes that “she composed in … such a nervous state that the spinning wheels, latches and roosters were all muffled for her peace of mind.”

Among the outpouring of poetry she created during this time was the 20-page poem “I Still Live: A poem for our times,” presented as a slim, red, hardcover book. Published a year into the Civil War, “I Still Live” is a patriotic poem that places the fight for the abolition of slavery in the company of every fight for freedom, from the Roman Empire to the American Revolution to the then-ongoing fight for Italian unification.

“The rights of all must be uncramped, unstrained,” Sprague wrote. Tyranny will always be answered with war, the poem continues. “While burning with the wrongs no soul forgives, / Shall seal in blood these words, ‘The black man lives.’”

Even after Sprague became ill, lecture invitations continued to arrive, with a representative of one Boston venue telling Sprague that its going rate was $15 for a Sabbath lecture, the same amount she had paid for a series of doctor visits 14 years before.

But Sprague gave no more lectures. She died at home in Plymouth Notch on July 6, 1862, at the age of 34. Her death record at the Plymouth town office states, in handwriting that has faded with time, “inflammation of the brain,” according to Plymouth town clerk Sandie Small. Today we would call that meningitis.

Even now, with improved modern medicine, studies show that rheumatoid arthritis can shorten a person’s lifespan by an average of 10 years. Typically, it’s the complications that often come with the disease that are the cause of death, including increased risks of heart disease, lymphoma and lung scarring. Sprague’s death may be an example of this. Rheumatoid meningitis is a rare condition in which the swelling associated with rheumatoid arthritis affects the lining of the brain and spinal cord, creating symptoms that are difficult to distinguish from the infectious meningitis caused by a virus, bacteria or fungus, even with today’s diagnostic tools. This rare and often fatal condition occurs, and may even be more common, in people whose rheumatoid arthritis is otherwise in remission.

Sprague’s obituary was one and a half lines in the local newspaper: “In Plymouth, July 6, Miss A.W. Sprague, the well known Spiritualist.”

Within 20 years, Spiritualism as Sprague had known it had sputtered out. In Radical Spirits, Braude explains that attempts to organize the individualistic Spiritualists actually splintered the movement, since each attempt to codify Spiritualist beliefs shut out some adherents. Meanwhile, increasingly sensational séances had become more like magic acts, with people appearing out of cabinets, which made Spiritualist events easier to debunk.

Looking back, some Spiritualists saw Sprague and other trance mediums as the high point of their movement, Braude writes. Sprague’s eloquence and attention to causes like abolition and women’s rights contrasted with the noises-in-the-dark Spiritualism of its early days, and the credibility-straining magic shows of its later years. In the June 1, 1872, edition of Banner of Light, medium Melvina Townsend Hoadly yearned for “… days gone by, when angel Achsa W. Sprague stood as a queen of power, giving utterance to her grand inspirations and prophecies.”

Margaretta Fox, who, as a 14-year-old in 1848, started the American Spiritualist movement with her sister, eventually took to the stage in New York City in 1888 to denounce her own actions as a hoax.

Sprague’s gravestone at the Plymouth Notch cemetery. (Photo by author)

Spiritualism, however, never entirely disappeared. It flares up throughout the generations in fads for Ouija boards and sleepover-party summonings of “Bloody Mary.” People today regularly reach out to their beloved dead through psychics, creating a $2.2 billion industry annually, according to IBISWorld, a business industry research company.

Margaret Tucker of the Plymouth Historical Society considers Sprague’s legacy to be the high school that Sprague’s fellow Spiritualists founded in the town after her death. However, the Vermont Liberal Institute lasted only a few years, and Tucker says that all that remains now is a low spot next to the road where the foundation used to be.

Sprague’s grave in the hilly Plymouth Notch cemetery has never lacked visitors, from the rejected suitor who locals said regularly laid flowers on her grave in the years after her death to the modern-day fans who add to the small collection of objects that adorn her grave. Recent additions to the collection include a dime, a purple crystal and a polished stone.

The delicate lettering at the base of her pale gravestone has been chipped by the harsh Vermont weather, but it remains visible: “I Still Live.” Those words are often mistaken as merely a Spiritualist slogan, but for those who know her poem with that title, they bear a secret message of patriotism and the fight for justice. Beneath those letters lies not just a medium who had been tuned to the vibrations of another realm but also a flesh and blood woman who lived with disease and fought for freedom with every tool allowed her — as well as some that she took anyway.