The Lincolns, the Booths, and the Spirits: Two Families and the Otherworld in the Civil War

Time Period
1861 to 1876
Media Type
Civil War
Domestic Life
Politics & Government
Terry Alford

On September 8th, 2022, historian Terry Alford held a fascinating lecture about his newest book, In the Houses of Their Dead: The Lincolns, the Booths, and the Spirits. Two families, one at the nation’s political summit and one at its theatrical, were bound together in the Civil War period by their fascination with spiritualism. Abraham and Mary Lincoln turned to the seance table when their son Willie Lincoln died in 1862. Edwin Booth and his brother John Wilkes were similarly attracted to the otherworld by the death of Edwin’s wife Mary Devlin in 1863. Although there were many mediums in the country, the number of distinguished intermediaries to the other side was limited, and the two families shared several of the most gifted ones. No medium was more controversial than Charles J. Colchester, who astounded the Lincolns with his powers while being an intimate friend of John Wilkes Booth at the same time. Colchester repeatedly warned Lincoln to be careful. Would the president, who received many such warnings over the years, finally listen to the one that mattered?  

Terry L. Alford is Professor of History Emeritus at Northern Virginia Community College. He is the author of several books, including Prince among Slaves: The True Story of an African Prince Sold into Slavery in the American South, which was made into a PBS documentary in 2007; Fortune's Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth, a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist; and In the Houses of Their Dead: The Lincolns, the Booths, and the Spirits.  

The content and opinions expressed in these presentations are solely those of the speaker and not necessarily of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture. 

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