On Foster’s arrival in Havana in the latter part of April, 1858, he was greeted warmly by a few close friends. He immediately fell in love with Havana’s beautiful weather, exotic flowers and fruits along with the singing of the birds. Foster stayed at the Tyng family villa, three miles outside of the city.
The captain’s home was adjacent to Bishop’s Garden where Foster would take daily strolls. Being a life-long amateur botanist, he enjoyed the beautiful coconut, mango and palm trees along with many rare and fragrant flowers he encountered. Foster would write glowingly of the various flora using their scientific names and classifications. He also wrote back to the Banner of Light on several occasions keeping them (and the spiritualist world) apprised of his séances there.
Initially Foster was not allowed to give public sittings, only private ones. He was able to confirm what his benefactor, Captain Tyng had said. Foster writes,
“There is not much interest manifested here in Spiritualism. I have met with but few persons who wish to investigate. The rappings and lifting of tables still continue to attend me, and the spirits who are with me appear to be perfectly at home in conversing in Spanish, German and French – names and sentences in these languages are given by rapping and also through the dial, which I am using, as it facilitates communion.”
The dial referred to is an advancement on the alphabet card. The (spiritual) dial actually resembled a form of legitimate telegraphic device employing letters of the alphabet around it’s circumference. After many incarnations, this would later develop into the familiar Quija Board.
At the time the use of scientific instruments to communicate with the dead was quite fashionable in Spiritualist circles. The electric telegraph having been invented by Samuel Morse only twenty years earlier was embraced by Spiritualists in hopes of trying to contact their departed loved ones. They reasoned that if this strange new device called a telegraph could let people communicate over long distances, than perhaps it would also work to contact the spirit world. And so the concept of Spiritual Telegraphs was born. There were many designs including electric but the earliest ones like Foster would have used were quite simple.
In fact, this is the only recorded instance that Foster employed a dial in his sittings. Perhaps it was owned by Captain Tyng and Foster made use of it while staying there. No doubt Foster felt a dial would be especially useful on this trip dealing with languages he was not fluent in. Foster always claimed to not know any other languages (having only finished High School) and yet throughout his career there are reports of him receiving spirit messages in the language of his sitters. Foster’s father was a retired sea captain and it is possible that Charles was taught other languages at home by him.
One of his private sittings was for some of the government officials including the English Consul and the Administrator of Customs. It is probable that Foster had invited the officials to investigate him so he could be given permission for public sittings.
During the séance, everyone was greatly surprised to have obtained their spirit communications in Spanish, a language Foster claimed not to speak. Other manifestations including table tilting and each sitter being touched by spirit hands. No doubt the officials were impressed and within a few of weeks of arriving in Havana, he was given permission to have public sittings.
In a letter dated May 10th, Foster writes, “I have been allowed to open rooms for public sittings at No. 24 Calle de O’Reilly, where I am daily visited by crowds of anxious seekers after Truth, and, strange to say, they are all Catholics; there is not that bigotry among them which I expected to find, and which characterizes so many of our people at the North, of all denominations. They appear to appreciate facts.”
Foster says it was his intention to return in July, but with so much interest in his work, he planned to stay through August visiting other cities before returning back to Salem.
An article in the Banner of Light on the history of Spiritualism states that a Mrs. Margaret Sunderland Cooper was the first medium to give sittings in New England on September 8, 1850. These occurred at her father’s house who would found the first ever newspaper on spiritualism, “The Spiritual Philosopher.”
Here are some of the manifestations recorded as taking place under the mediumship of the young Mrs. Cooper. The usual rapping of answers to questions, and a cradle containing her two month old was rocked by unseen hands. Flowers were moved about the table along with a tea bell, with finally the table itself jerking itself a distance of five or six feet. Most interesting from a historical perspective was the production of two different kinds of spirit writing by Mrs. Cooper. She would do the more usual Trance Writing (where the medium is openly writing what she is receiving) and more unusual, Spirit Writing (where writing mysteriously appears on a piece of paper). Here is a description from the summer of 1850 of one instance of Spirit Writing as done by Mrs. Cooper:
“On one occasion Mr. Henry D. Huston, who was a perfect stranger to her, had a sitting, and, by her request, paper, with a pencil on it, was placed in his hand; his hand was then placed under the table, her hand under his, in immediate contact, his other hand and her other hand were placed on top of the table. The pencil was seized by an unseen influence, without being in contact with anything physical, except the paper, and wrote the name of a spirit-friend, well known to Mr. H., of which Mrs. Cooper had no knowledge.”
This was from an account in 1850 in Boston. Charles Foster was 17 years old at the time, presumably out of high school and looking to make his way in the world. It is very possible he had read or heard about these accounts which he would later become incorporate into his own early séances. Many years later, Charles Foster’s mother would even claim the same phenomenon occurred in her home when the spirits would rock the infant Charles to sleep in his cradle when she didn’t have the energy to do it herself.
A letter written to the editor of the Banner of Light in late 1858 emphasized Foster’s reliability over other mediums. The writer stated that while the usually rare occurrence of physical manifestations are never absent from a Foster circle, it is the “mental procedure” that sets him apart from other mediums. His ability to have the personal identity of the spirits consistently confirmed by their family and friends strengthened the writer’s trust and confidence in him to the extent that no medium could exceed Foster in this regard.
At least one reader took exception to this glowing report of Foster’s reliability and wrote responded the following week. The sum and substance of his response was that the writer, “doth protest too much” and raised suspicion in his mind about the ability of Foster and thus repelled rather than attracted him to the medium.
It is interesting to note that many attendees of séances of this period would go hoping for some sort of physical manifestation. Foster gave that to them but no doubt saw the even great impact the “mental” aspects of Spiritualism could have on clients. This combination of physical and mental manifestations was a strong one which attracted many to Foster’s mediumship.
The summer of 1858 was over and Charles Foster was back from Havana. In October, with his reputation growing, Foster came to New York City, possibly for the first time. Among the popular attractions in the big city was the famous Barnum Museum. During August 1858, Barnum was showing the noted magician, Wyman the Wonderful (John Wyman, Jr. aka, Wyman the Wizard*), at his theater. Wyman’s feature trick was making a person invisible!
But Foster was employed not to make people invisible but to see invisible spirits at the séances under the auspices of a Mr. S.T. Munson (Parnell Munson*). Munson had spiritualist rooms located at 5 Great Jones Street in Manhattan where Foster along with other top mediums gave séances (or circles) day and evenings. While previously, the usual Tuesday and Thursday evening circles were open to the public for a cost of fifty cents, when Foster came on board they were now limited to 8 persons at a cost $1.00 each.
It was during this stay in New York City that Foster gave one of his most inexplicable feats of divination. It concerned a young boy who had drowned in the East River. In a letter to the Banner of Light dated Wednesday, October 27, 1858 a mother and daughter, Emily & Ann Kerner described the circumstances of the accident.
They write that about two weeks earlier (October 13, 1858), the mother and daughter went to the rooms of Charles Foster at 5 Great Jones Street, New York. Their purpose was to consult him about a severe family affliction which had occurred that very same day.
They write that they seated themselves at Foster’s table when he immediately became entranced and spoke thus:
“I see, standing upon the side of a vessel, the spirit of a little boy, who gives me the name of Theodore. In the water at a little distance, lies the mortal body of this child. He was drowned from the side of this vessel. I also see men grappling for the body, but they are not in the right place – the body lies further to the west of them. They will not find it now.”
Foster then turned to the mother and said, “I see beside you the spirit of a little girl, who gives me the name of Caroline, and she calls you mother.”
Hearing this the mother and daughter became very excited along with other patrons in the room. Foster claimed he was too disturbed to proceed any further. The mother and daughter left and returned for another sitting.
At this second sitting, Foster again stated that he saw the body of the boy. It had been very much disfigured having been eaten by the fishes and that after floating for nine days in the East River, would be found.
Writing in the Banner of Light, the mother and daughter verify that the circumstances of the boy’s death were accurate. He drowned from the side of a vessel. The body floated for seven days and his disfigurement was such that he could only be identified by his clothing.
The mother also verified that the little girl spirit Foster saw standing beside her was an adopted child who, when alive, did call the woman mother.
The New York Daily Tribune wrote up the story citing the above details but it was not published until two days after the mother’s séance with Foster. The article read,
“Drowned – A little boy, named Theodore Kerner, aged seven years, was accidentally drowned on Wednesday evening, 6th inst., at the foot of Eight street, East River. All attempts to find his body have proved unavailing. If it should be discovered, the intelligence would be thankfully received by his widowed mother, at 402 Eighth street.”
The ladies close their letter expressing their most sincere gratitude to Mr. Foster and wanted the account published as a testament to his seership.
I have searched the newspaper Mrs. Kerner cited, the New York Daily Tribune, and could find no notice of the drowning of her son, Theodore. It is a question as to how Foster was able to divine the fate of this woman’s son. Let’s examine some of the facts first.
Foster had come to live in New York City earlier that month, October, giving daily séances at 5 Great Jones Street. This was apparently a community of mediums sponsored by Mr. Munson. It seems likely that Mrs. Kerner, a widow and mother who had previously lost her adopted daughter, Caroline, had visited this or another medium to contact her lost ones. She was a believer by the time she met Foster and since she claims to have come to visit him (or another medium at Munson’s rooms), the very same day her boy drowned, it stands to reason she was familiar with Spiritualism and took comfort there.
Her letter to the Banner of Light was dated October 27, 1858 which was a Wednesday. She writes that about a fortnight earlier (14 days or October 13th) she and her daughter visited Foster. This was the same day her “severe family affliction” occurred. At the sitting, Foster is said to have become immediately entranced and speak about the drowning of her son, Theodore and claimed to see the spirit of her adopted daughter, Caroline.
Assuming these facts are basically true, how did Foster know of the drowning that happened that day and the names of her two departed children? Since most mediums kept notes on their clients and shared them with other mediums, it stands to reason that the those at the Munson rooms did the same. Since Mrs. Kerner lost not only her adopted daughter earlier but also her husband, the Munson mediums probably had her on file already in their “blue book.”
The details of her previous sittings no doubt included the names of her family whom were lost, i.e. the names of her husband, daughters and son. Since Foster had just come to town, these files would no doubt have been made available to him.
The Kerners lived at 402 Eighth Street in Greenwich Village. We know this is an East side address as Eighth Street terminates at Sixth Avenue and the street addresses on the West Side only go up to about 68. Also, 402 Eighth Street is near the corner of Avenue D which is only a short distance from the East River where the boy was drowned. Munson’s rooms where Foster was working was only about ten blocks away from the Kerner home.
During this first sitting, Foster names her two lost children and says boy was drowned, they will not yet find the body, and that the girl had called Mrs. Kerner “mother.” If Foster did receive the names of her children from previous séances, the rest of what he imparted to them could be pure conjecture.
Note that at this point in his work is there any mention made of billets or writing anything down. It is possible he used an alphabet chart to divine the children’s names. Or another just as likely scenario is that the distraught mother started the sitting saying something to Foster about her poor little boy having fallen off a vessel and they haven’t found the body. Foster just did some cold reading with some extrapolation and fed these facts back to her with the names. Having heard the names of her children would tend to enforce her beliefs in Foster. Giving the name of the previously lost daughter had no apparent connection to the boy’s drowning and hence served to inspire confidence in this new medium from Salem. Note that at this first sitting Foster does not give a time frame as to when the body would be found.
Foster now out of facts, becomes as excited as his sitters and claims he is too disturbed to proceed. No doubt recommending they return soon. This not only lets Foster time to gather more information and will receive additional fees from the sitters.
At the next séance, or “interview” as the woman writes, Foster again says he can see the body of the drowned young boy; that it is disfigured from having been eaten by the fishes and that it would float for within nine days whereupon it would be found and returned to the family.
We don’t know when this next sitting was, but common sense says it was probably the next day, anxious as the family naturally was as to the fate of their boy. The two new details that Foster mentions are that the boy has been disfigured by the fishes and that the body would be discovered within nine days. He didn’t say the body would be discovered in nine days, but anywhere from that very day to another nine days.