- "Grievances at the treatment she received":Harriet E. Wilson's Spiritualist Career in Boston, 1868-1900
This essay will explore the Boston spiritualist career of the pioneering African-American female novelist, Harriet E. Wilson. The bare outlines of this part of her life were discovered recently by P. Gabrielle Foreman and Reginald Pitts, who incorporated their discoveries into a new edition of her autobiographical novel, Our Nig (1859), which Wilson had written some time before her Boston spiritualist career commenced in 1867. One of the earliest published novels by an African-American woman, Our Nig was rediscovered almost 30 years ago by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. At first little was known about its author. The available evidence pointed to her life being short, as she struggled to make her way in southwestern New Hampshire and northwestern Massachusetts, in and around the town of Milford, New Hampshire. The novel and its accompanying paratexts suggested that she had been reduced to chronic poor health by years of abuse while a species of indentured farm servant laboring for the Hayward family in Milford. Town records show that Wilson was a pauper for much of the time immediately following her departure from the Haywards' service; that her son had to be taken into care, most probably [End Page 234] because of her straitened circumstances; and that, not long afterwards, he died. Following his death, Wilson was once more reduced to the status of a pauper, before she disappeared from Milford's records after 1863.1
Foreman and Pitts discovered that Wilson, despite being represented in her novel's appended testimonials as a pauper and chronic invalid in the mid-nineteenth century, nevertheless survived—and, indeed, for a time thrived—becoming a spiritualist in Boston for over 30 years, until she died in 1900. Such almost miraculous medical recoveries were not unknown. Indeed, careers in spiritualism could be launched from the sickbed: a history of sickness or physical suffering was regarded as promoting a medium's receptivity to spirit guides (Moore 215, 218). This important discovery concerning Wilson's survival, and her career as a spiritualist, casts new light on her writings and continues the story of the "Life of a Free Black" in the North. It also sheds new light on the place of African Americans in the white-dominated spiritualist movement. Tracing Wilson's career as a spiritualist also helps address the fact that "too little is known about the activities of black mediums" (Bennett 40).
1. Wilson's Initial Involvement with the Spiritualist Movement
Our research has confirmed that, after Wilson had composed and published Our Nig and lived through her son's death, she developed a prominent career in Boston as a medium and spiritualist, a move which occurred certainly no later than mid-1867. We know this because in June 1867 the Banner of Light, the prominent Boston spiritualist weekly newspaper, begins to make multiple references to her. The first records a speaking appointment in Chelsea on 18 May 1867. Soon afterward the Banner reports that she contributed to a spiritualist convention. Describing Wilson as "the earnest and eloquent colored trance medium," the Banner details how "The President [of the convention], on taking the Chair, called upon Mrs. Wilson, the colored speaker, to occupy the platform" and how Wilson then "improved the opportunity, or rather the intelligence controlling her [did so], by delivering a fluent speech in favour of labor reform and the education of children in the doctrines of spiritualism" (BL 21.13: 3).2 In this account, Wilson, in a trance, serves as a medium through which a spirit speaks. This "controlling intelligence" advocates both spiritualist education and labor reform—the first a cause dear to a spiritualist audience's hearts, the second surely dear to Wilson's, after [End Page 235] her experiences with the Haywards. One difficulty in assessing Wilson's career in Boston is that much of what she is recorded as saying is uttered in a state of trance. Because she is performing as a professional spiritualist, what she says is plainly affected by her awareness of this role and its impact upon her...