The Anomalist

Archive > Features

The Poughkeepsie Seer
by T. Peter Park

Few people today remember the "Poughkeepsie Seer" and Spiritualist author Andrew Jackson Davis (1826-1910). In the 19th century, however, Davis was one of America's foremost writers on paranormal, occult, and "psychic" topics, and the leading thinker of the American Spiritualist movement. Having proclaimed the reality of spirit communication in a book written shortly before the alleged communications from Beyond that inspired Spiritualism, he has been called "the John the Baptist of Modern Spiritualism." He anticipated Edgar Cayce by giving medical diagnoses and treating illnesses while in a hypnotic trance. Like many of the early Spiritualists, Davis was also an enthusiastic supporter of many of the idealistic social reform movements of his day. His life is a good illustration of the frequent close connection between mysticism and social idealism in 19th century America.

To imagine a contemporary version of Andrew Jackson Davis, try to picture, say, Noam Chomsky getting passionately interested in UFO's, abductions, crop circles, and near-death and out-of-the-body experiences. How about Noam Chomsky co-authoring a book with John Mack? The equivalent wasn't all too unusual in Boston and New York in the 1840's!

Davis was born on August 11, 1826, in the Hudson Valley hamlet of Blooming Grove, New York, the son of poor, totally uneducated parents: Samuel Davis, a hard-drinking farmer, weaver, and shoemaker, and a sickly, deeply religious mother with strong visionary powers. They moved frequently from one small upstate New York town to another. He grew up in poverty and received only about five months of formal education.. However, he reportedly heard voices and showed signs of clairvoyance quite early in life. In 1841, at age 15, he was apprenticed to a shoemaker in Poughkeepsie. New York, whence his later nickname "the Poughkeepsie Seer." Davis had little aptitude for the shoemaker's trade, however, and left to work in a general store--but was a failure at the latter job as well.

In 1843, at age 17, Davis became interested in hypnotism after attending some lectures by "Professor" J.S. Grimes, a phrenologist and mesmerist visiting Poughkeepsie. Grimes tried to hypnotize Davis, but with no results. Soon afterward, however, he was successfully "magnetized" (hypnotized) by William Levingston, a local tailor interested in mesmerism and trance states. Davis was an extraordinarily adept hypnotic subject, showing such a "rare clairvoyance" that Levingston gave up his tailoring business and devoted his whole time to Davis and to using the young man's "clairvoyant" powers for curing diseases. Davis performed clairvoyance and medical diagnosis while "magnetized," very much like Edgar Cayce in the 20th century. With his "spirit eyes," seemingly in the middle of the forehead, he reportedly could read newspapers blindfolded, and saw human bodies as transparent, revealing their auras and their internal anatomy, each organ standing out clearly with its own special luminosity, which was greatly reduced in cases of disease. He opened a "clairvoyant" clinic in Poughkeepsie, extending to Bridgeport, Connecticut, though it is said to have only had indifferent success.

Davis served as Levingston's clairvoyant hypnotic subject for two years. In March 1844, he had a visionary experience or "psychic flight through space" launching his life's career as an occult philosopher-prophet. Speeding unhindered over the Catskill Mountains and across the Hudson River either in a somnambulistic trance or in an out-of-the-body experience, Davis met the ancient Greek physician Galen (c. 129-199 A.D.) and the 18th century Swedish visionary spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). Galen gave Davis a magical staff of healing, while Swedenborg promised to instruct and guide him. Thereafter, Davis considered himself personally guided in his steps by the Swedish mystic. The Swede's alleged presence is significant, as Davis' life and thought--like that of Spiritualism in general--are often seen as a combination of Swedenborgian doctrine and mesmerist practice, blending the two most popular streams of occultism in early 19th century America. Skeptics about Davis' clairvoyant powers may reflect that while the poorly educated Davis had probably never read a word of Galen or Swedenborg, he had quite likely heard mesmerists like Grimes and Levingston mention Galen and discuss Swedenborg's doctrines.

In 1845, Davis turned from healing to writing, at first still relying on hypnotism. He began traveling extensively, giving public lectures. From November 28, 1845, to January 25, 1847, he delivered 157 lectures in a trance state in New York City on scientific, historical, and philosophical topics. A Bridgeport physician, Dr. S.S. Lyon, was his "magnetizer" at these séances, while a Universalist minister, the Rev. William Fishbough, served as reporter and scribe, copying down Davis' trance discourses verbatim. Edgar Allan Poe sometimes attended Davis' séances with Dr. Lyon and the Rev. Fishbough, as did the Fourierist (utopian socialist) social reformer Albert Brisbane (1809-1890), a co-founder of Brook Farm, and another utopian dreamer, the ex-Universalist minister, Swedenborgian mystic, and religious communal settlement organizer Thomas Lake Harris (1823-1906).

In 1847, Davis' trance revelations were published as The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind, an encyclopedic 800-page compendium of occult history, philosophy, science, and mysticism, where critics have seen echoes of Swedenborg and Albert Brisbane.  The Principles of Nature began with a description of the creation of the Universe from "liquid fire," curiously anticipating modern "Big Bang" cosmogonies. "In the beginning," The Principles of Nature opened, the "Univercoelum" was "one boundless, indefinable, and unimaginable ocean of Liquid Fire." It was "one vast expanse of liquid substance," the "original condition of Matter," where "Particles did not exist, but the Whole was as one Particle." In it, "Matter and Power were existing as a Whole, inseparable," and "The Matter contained the substance to produce all suns, all worlds, and systems of worlds, throughout the immensity of Space," and "the qualities to produce all things that are existing upon each of those worlds."

The Principles of Nature then described the history of human religion from a Deistic perspective. Davis discussed the destiny of the human soul in passages acknowledging Swedenborg as a precursor but differing from the Swede in points like Davis' rejection of Hell and of the special unique authority of the Bible. In a passage both recalling Swedenborg's doctrines and anticipating 19th century Spiritualism, Davis declared that it "is a truth that spirits commune with one another while one is in the body and the other in the higher spheres--and this, too, when the person in the body is unconscious of the influx, and hence cannot be convinced of the fact." The Principles of Nature favored the Utopian Socialist theories of Albert Brisbane's mentor Charles Fourier, attacked conventional religion, and generally displayed a very liberal, even radical, social and religious spirit. The book went through 34 editions in less than 30 years.

Notably, The Principles of Nature also contains Davis' descriptions, derived from the speculations of Swedenborg and Fourier, of the inhabitants of the other planets of our solar systems, and of planetary spirits. Davis' favorite extraterrestrials, like Swedenborg's before him, were the beautiful, brilliant, virtuous, psychic Saturnians. Blending Fourier's theories of reincarnation, Swedenborg's visions of Heaven, and Swedenborg's & Fourier's esoteric views of the Solar System, Davis and his followers believed that one might be reincarnated after death as a superior being on another planet, or even AS another planet, preferanly one adequately adorned with rings and moons!

From 1847 to 1849, Davis published a magazine promoting his views, Univercoelum and Spiritual Philosopher. In 1848, when the Fox sisters of Hydesville, New York, near Rochester, announced the mysterious rappings that launched the Spiritualist movement, Davis immediately interpreted the phenomena in the light of his philosophy and became a leading spokesman of the new religion--and its chief theologian. After all, in The Principles of Nature he had just proclaimed the "truth" that "spirits commune with one another while one is in the body and the other in the higher spheres." Immediately afterwards, he had added that "this truth will ere long present itself in the form of a living demonstration." The "world" would then "hail with delight the ushering in of that era when the interiors of men will be opened, and the spiritual communion will be established." On March 31, 1848, Davis wrote in his diary, he heard a "tender and strong" voice tell him, "Brother, the good work has begun--behold, a living demonstration is born." When he heard of the Hydesville rappings, interpreted as spirit communications from Beyond by the Fox sisters, Davis felt he understood what was meant by the "living demonstration" mentioned in his book and by the "tender and strong" voice.

In 1850-1855, Davis wrote his major work and Spiritualist "Summa," The Great Harmonia, in 5 volumes--no longer relying on "magnetism." His "Harmonial Philosophy" provided an intellectual framework for the phenomena of Spiritualism, giving the new religion much of its phraseology and cosmology. Beyond Spiritualist circles, The Great Harmonia influenced much 19th century American radical religious, social, educational, and medical thought. Like Transcendentalism and the idealistic utopian socialism of his time, Davis preached social reconstruction as inseparable from spiritual regeneration. In opposition to the supernaturalism and salvationism of orthodox Christianity, Davis saw the spiritual realm as continuous with nature and governed by its own natural laws. After physical death, he believed, spirits gravitate to a level reflecting the degree to which they have lived in harmony with universal Divine law. They progress through a series of six spheres above the Earth to greater and greater degrees of perfection He called the higher of these spheres the Summerland--a term that became the typical Spiritualist name for their Paradise. In the same way, too, Davis believed that the Earth world was becoming better and better. In all this, Davis reflected the buoyantly optimistic mood of most 19th century radical thinkers.

In 1863, Davis gave a lecture in New York idyllically describing the education of children in the Summerland in garden schools called Lyceums--a name used by the popular adult education lecture programs of 19th century America. He inspired his listeners to found such schools here below on Earth, starting the Children's Lyceum or Spiritualist Sunday School movement. The Children's Lyceums were based on Davis' belief that "a child is the repository of infinite possibilities," bearing the "image" of an "imperishable and perfect being." This educational method anticipated much later progressive educational theory in aiming to draw out a child's own innate potential rather than injecting knowledge and forcing development into predetermined channels.

Davis was married three times, exhibiting his radical views in that area of life also, In 1848, he married Catherine ("Katie") DeWolfe Dodge, a wealthy, sickly divorcée 20 years his senior, whom he called his "Spiritual Sister." She died five years later, in November, 1853. In 1855, he married another divorcée, Mary Fenn Love, an active Spiritualist and campaigner for women's rights, who escaped an oppressive marriage by embracing Spiritualism, feminism, and Davis. Davis claimed that marriage is truly valid only between soul mates. Those trapped in non-spiritual unions have the right and even the duty to seek divorce. Genuine soul mates, when they come together, have the freedom to determine whether their conjugal partnership will be temporal or eternal. These views of love and marriage, most controversial at the time, were tested in 1884, when Davis sought to divorce Mary on the grounds that he now realized they were not true soul mates. Davis defended his action at length in his autobiography, Beyond the Valley (1885), but the divorce greatly harmed his reputation at the time. In 1885, he married his third wife, Della E. Markham.

After The Great Harmonia, Davis published over 30 other books, covering subjects from philosophy and cosmology to health to descriptions of the afterlife. Like The Great Harmonia, they were no longer written with the aid of "magnetism," showing Davis' relative distance from his original 1840's mesmerism. Perhaps the most important of these were The Penetralia, Being Harmonial Answers (1856), The Philosophy of Spiritual Intercourse (1856), The Harbinger of Health (1861), A Stellar Key to the Summer Land (1867), and The Children's Progressive Lyceum (1893), He also wrote two autobiographies, The Magic Staff (1857) and its sequel, Beyond the Valley (1885). In 1878, Davis disassociated himself from the Spiritualist movement to form the short- lived First Harmonial Associated of New York. It expressed his disappointment with the tendency of most Spiritualists in his view to look for sensational séance room phenomena rather than for philosophical depth. In 1886, Davis took a degree from the United States Medical College in New York. He then moved to Boston, where he practiced medicine and ran a small bookstore. There, Davis sold books and prescribed herbal remedies to his patients. He became a close friend of Marcellus Ayer, founder of the First Spiritual Temple, and served with Ayer on a committee for promulgating the work of Professor Joseph Rhodes Buchanan, a pioneer researcher in psychometry or psychic object-reading. Davis died in Boston on January 13, 1910.

Historians credit Davis with largely creating 19th century Spiritualism's synthesis of Neoplatonic/Swedenborgian metaphysics, mesmeric trance, and radical/utopian social attitudes on issues like marriage and education. Davis is largely unread today, but his books and lectures had great influence in 19th century America. In his insistence on social reconstruction as going hand in hand with spiritual regeneration, Davis echoed the Transcendentalists. Even more, he recalled Spiritualist social reformers like Robert Dale Owen (1801-1877), author of Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World (1860) and The Debatable Land between This World and the Next (1872), who combined a belief in Spiritualism with optimistic social utopianism. In their blend of mysticism and "love-and-peace" social idealism, figures like Andrew Jackson Davis, Robert Dale Owen, and Thomas Lake Harris remarkably prefigured the 1960's "Age of Aquarius."

William Hall Brock, Phalanx on a Hill: Responses to Fourierism in the Transcendentalist Circle, Chapter 6, "The Swedenborgianized Fourierism of Henry James, Sr.: A Study in  Pathology"  < >
Robert S. Ellwood, "Davis, Andrew Jackson," American National Biography , Vol. 6, pp. 164-165.
H.W.S & R.R., "Davis, Andrew Jackson," Dictionary of American Biography , Vol. 5, p. 105.
First Spiritual Temple, The Ayer Institute (Brookline, MA), "About the First Spiritual Temple:Forerunners: Andrew Jackson Davis (1826-1910)" < > (2001; accessed April 17, 2002).

©2002 T. Peter Park