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Can We Talk to the Dead? South Siders Led Movement That Believed We Could

By Sam Cholke | October 23, 2015 5:54am | Updated on February 20, 2016 4:17pm

South Sider Dr. George B. Warne was arguably the most powerful spiritualist during the heyday of the movement. [Int'l Assoc. for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals]

HYDE PARK — While the dead have been known to vote in Chicago, at the beginning of the 20th century many South Siders believed they could do more than that — even talking to the living on a daily basis.

The South Side was a hotbed for a rising spiritualist movement from the 1890s to 1910s. One South Sider ruled a burgeoning flock that believed the dead were talking all the time — and all the living needed to do was listen.

Dr. George B. Warne was the leader of the National Spiritualist Association. He was a man with deep-set eyes and an aquiline nose who lived at 4203 S. Evans Ave., the epicenter of spiritualist life in Chicago at the turn of the century in Douglas, Oakland and Grand Boulevard.

To his followers, Warne held the keys to the realm of the dead.

His association included Cora Scott Richmond, the globetrotting spiritualist who would fall into a trance and channel her Native American spirit guide, Ouina, in front of thousands at the “Church of the Soul” in the now demolished Orpheus Hall of the Schiller Building, 64 W. Randolph St.

But Warne controlled the levers of power in the church and he could often be found patrolling the South Side, outing false mediums that threatened the church's reputation as having the strongest hold over the dead. He was joined in his quest by his wife, a physician who treated the city’s elite with magnetic therapy, and members of the Hyde Park Occult Society and an Australian healer.

Cora Scott Richmond [The International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals]

The Dead Have a Message

Warne was a true believer, a “progressive thinker” as spiritualists called themselves, when it came to transcending the barriers between life and death.

The spiritualists were one of the first American Christian churches to believe that the dead could directly speak to the living. Parishioners were more likely to refer to “Infinite Intelligence” than god, and they studied the Bible for instances of trances, clairvoyance, spirit writing and other acts from beyond the grave.

According to the church’s manual, spirits could write and speak without being seen, make objects appear from thin air or appear to move on their own amongst other feats. If that sounds suspiciously similar to what a magician promises, the spiritualists understood that. Warne and other believers were charged by the religion to put all would-be mediums through rigorous scientific tests before the church would give its blessing, which it seemed to frequently with 1,500 psychics on the church’s rolls in 1902.

Spirits appeared in many ways. Cora Scott Richmond appeared to have the most acquaintances in the spirit world. She claimed in writings about her visions that a spirit instructed her to return to her father shortly before his death. Richmond, then present at her father’s deathbed, channeled a spirit healer, who could not save her father and then fell into a trance where she watch her father be greeted by other spirits and move into a white light that seemed to pierce her father’s head and heart with increasing intensity.

"This luminous, cloud-like appearance took form and shape and stood erect like my father's form; from the portion which outlined the head I saw my father's face youthful, radiant, with an expression as self-poised as though he had just entered from a walk,” Richmond writes. "He was not surprised at the change, and as the spirit friends gathered around to greet him, he seemed as much at home with them as if he had seen them but yesterday."

The spirit world could provide many things for the spiritualists, but for many it was a chance to see the coverings ripped from the mechanisms of some higher order to the universe that they hoped to understand.

Court Backs Spiritualists

For those who think the whole thing sounds insane, James T. Crumbaugh’s nieces and nephews would agree.

Farmer-turned-banker Crumbaugh was converted to Warne’s branch of spiritualism shortly before his death in 1907 and in his will parceled out much of an estate (worth more than $6 million today) for a spiritualist church and library in LeRoy, Illinois. His relatives sued to stop the church from getting the money and Warne was called on to prove to the court that spiritualism wasn’t insane.

The court was convinced and sided with Warne, particularly because of Warne’s burnished reputation as a physician at Hahnemann Medical College, a homeopathic school and hospital that nearly merged with Northwestern University in 1921.

By all accounts, Warne was a man of science, which wasn't a conflict with his church. The church demanded rigor of its members and would only accept what science couldn’t explain.

In 1903, in a prominent spiritualist paper in Chicago, he outed a “spirit photographer” who was doing the early-20th century equivalent of Photoshopping ghosts into pictures.

Warne wanted to open the door to the dead, and he wouldn’t tolerate charlatans with fake spirits.

Money, Power and Ghosts

The church at the turn of the century was growing in power nationally. In 1902 the "World Almanac and Encyclopedia" estimated the church had 250,000 active members and as many as 1.5 million participating in the church in the United States and Canada.

The epicenter was Chicago with Warne and many of the other leaders based on the South Side, particularly in Douglas and Grand Boulevard.

But this was still Chicago — and smoke-filled rooms still played a part in his ascent, although it could have been from wafting incense rather than cigars.

Warne would expose fake spirit photos (pictured: by S.W. Fallis) in an effort to keep charlatans out of the spiritualist movement. [The International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals]

The Chicago Tribune claimed that Warne rose to his position in the church through a coup. It was alleged that in 1899 Warne and a conspirator went to the sick president of the spiritualists and demanded the church charter. The two men then called an emergency meeting attended by only Warne and his conspirator to unanimously elected Warne president.

It was rumored at the time that it was a political move to get Warne’s wife, Dr. Emma Nickerson Warne, into power at the national level in spiritualist groups.

But it was Warne who first rose to national power in 1904 as the second-in-charge of the National Spiritualist Association after his wife fell to scandal in 1901.

For five years, Emma Warne was the personal physician to Francis T. Wheeler, Chicago’s paper bag magnate, who had amassed an estate of more than $42 billion in today’s dollars.

According to newspaper accounts, Emma Warne believed she could transfer her vitality to the ailing Wheeler by a hard rubbing of magnets on his body. But after Wheeler’s death in 1900, the estate refused to pay the $100,000 bill, more than $2.8 million in today’s dollars.

The court ruled against the doctor, and before the appeal could be decided, Emma Warne died in 1903. The estates settled on a fee of $330,000 in today’s dollars, the largest fee ever paid to a woman physician at the time, according to the Warne family genealogy.

Warne himself became the national leader of the church in 1907, a position he held until he “passed into the Spirit World” as the spiritualists put it after his death in 1925.

Spiritualism's Erasure

If Warne and his wife continue to speak from that “Spirit World,” there are some left in Chicago ready to listen.

There are still four spiritualist churches in Chicago, including the Church of the Spirit at 2651 N. Central Park Ave., which is home of the congregation started by Cora Scott Richmond. Many, though, now decline to identify as strictly Christian.

But on the south lakefront, there is no one left to hear them. Despite the church’s persistence, nearly all traces of the denomination are gone from the South Side.

The Warnes’ home is long gone, replaced with the Judge Slater Apartments.

The meeting place of the Hyde Park Occult Society, Alliance Hall at 319 E. Garfield Blvd. next to the Garfield Boulevard Green Line stop, is now gone.

The Church of Psychic Forces at 361 E. 43rd St. is now a vacant lot.

The Church of Spirit Communion is the King Center, 4314 S. Cottage Grove Ave.

The Universal Occult Society, 77 E. 31st St., is now a gas station.

For all practical purposes, the landscape of the spiritualists has itself passed into the “Spirit World.”


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