The Fake Spiritualist Medium, the Scientific American Editor, and His Wife
Sharon DeBartolo Carmack on a Real-Life Nightmare Alley
Stanley Carlisle, the main character of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel Nightmare Alley—which was made into a movie in 1947, and remade by Guillermo del Toro’s last year—begins his career as a “carny mentalist,” then becomes a minister and fraudulent Spiritualist medium to con people out of money. The story does not end well for Carlisle; his wealthy “mark” becomes wise to him, and an alcoholic Carlisle ends where he started, working at the carnival, but in a demeaning act of showmanship.
Gresham became fascinated with fortune-telling tarot cards, thus each of the 22 chapters is titled after one of the 78 cards in the deck to foretell that part of the story. Gresham also took an interest in “cold readings” done by carnival mentalists, as well as mediums who claimed they could speak with the dead. While many fiction writers portrayed stories about ghosts and communication with the dead as part of gothic literature, Graham’s novel deals with a darker aspect of the Spiritualist movement: the credulity of individuals and the charlatans who took advantage of them.
The Spiritualist movement began in March 1848. Many of those drawn to Spiritualism were also advocates of social reform causes such as abolitionism, temperance, and women’s rights. Just months after the Spiritualist craze began, the first Women’s Rights Convention convened in July 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York. Both movements provided women with a public voice, and women made up the ranks of mediums. Learning to communicate with the dead offered a new profession that provided single, married, and widowed women a source of income. They now had a public platform in front of hundreds of people to deliver messages from the departed, as well as to speak about women’s issues. The Spiritualist Register of 1857 counted a total of 780,000 Spiritualists in America, where more women than men were listed as public speakers and mediums holding private séances.
Husbands, in particular, found this new religion, as well was the women’s movement, threatening to their marriages. It was easy to find a sympathetic doctor or two who would confirm that an otherwise passive and obedient housewife was suddenly insane, so he could commit her to an insane asylum. Thus the victims of medium charlatans and their husbands found themselves in their own nightmare alley.
Harriet E. Beach (1828–1905), wife of Alfred E. Beach, co-proprietor and editor of the Scientific American from 1846 to 1896, was swept up in the Spiritualist movement to the disapproval of her husband. She became the victim of not one, but two Spiritualist medium con artists.
On March 29, 1855, at the age of 28, Harriet was first committed to the Hartford Retreat for the Insane in Connecticut. Beach was one of an influx of women patients at the time, many of whom were diagnosed with “religious excitement.” By the end of March 1855, 108 women were in residence as opposed to 85 men. The cause of Harriet’s admittance to the asylum was an “attack” from a “predisposing injury on R.R. [railroad], and Exciting—Ill health—Spiritualism.”
Harriet was released from the Hartford Retreat for the Insane into her husband’s care in November, but when he took her home, he confined her to “a specially protected room in the house, for a year or more.”
Some 30 years later, in April 1888, Harriet described herself as a “student of occult forces and facts that prove the immortality of the soul” when she testified at a hearing for Diss Debar held in The Tombs, the colloquial name for the Manhattan Detention Complex. Diss Debar was described in the press as “the fat spook priestess” with a “crew of bunco spirit painters.” Harriet, wearing a bright red bonnet, said she had received from the medium a picture of an ancient Egyptian who was one of her guides.
Wikipedia calls Diss Debar a “supposed medium and criminal.” She was convicted of fraud several times. Harry Houdini described her as “one of the most extraordinary fake mediums and mystery swindlers the world has ever known.” She went by many aliases, but her true background remains unknown.
Harriet publicly admitted her belief in Spiritualism at a meeting of Spiritualists at Adelphi Hall in New York City in December 1890. She claimed to have recently received a message from a medium that the spirits wanted her to be their champion on earth, and her duty was “to help a sister [probably Diss Debar] in disgrace.” According to the Chicago Herald, Harriet “conducted ‘an exhibition of spirit art and a mediums’ reception extraordinary.” The goal was to raise money to build a home for mediums. Some two hundred people attended, although the group raised only $16.
Harriet, who was a “gentlewoman in appearance, manner and dress,” and “slight in figure, almost ascetic in countenance, low voice, and accurate in using language,” was the opposite of Diss Debar—“ponderous in form, worldly in face, loud tongued and illiterate.” Harriet argued at Diss Debar’s trial that “Diss Debar and other mediums…do not get enough to live upon. Often they are almost hungry, and this is a shame on upon us.”
Harriet’s husband, not surprisingly as editor of the Scientific American, did not believe in Spiritualism, but had, up to this point, humored Harriet. He told reporters,
It is a very painful subject. I do not like to discuss it. We humor Mrs. Beach in her weakness; because she is so gentle and loving we do not like to cross her. But this Diss Debar woman and the rest of her set will get very little money from Mrs. Beach. She has given them comparatively small sums, and will, I suppose, continue to do so—she is so fixed in her belief; but they will never get enough from her to build a mediums’ home….
Instead, Harriet’s family took measures to remove her from Diss Debar’s influence. They called in two physicians who certified Harriet was insane. Harriet’s family told them “she had been very eccentric at various times during the previous thirty years, and at different times violent and maniacal, especially when thwarted in her plans and purposes.” On December 31, 1890, Harriet was committed to Bloomingdale Insane Asylum in New York City.
Harriet claimed that it was a disagreement with her husband “and because of his desire to oppose my investigating certain seeming phenomena of spiritualism he caused me to be literally kidnapped and taken to Bloomingdale Asylum.”
Harriet remained at Bloomindale until about April 1891, when she was released into her husband’s care. Alfred felt her condition had improved—that is, she was no longer under Diss Debar’s hypnosis. His reason for committing her was fulfilled: He got her away from a con woman who saw Harriet as an easy, wealthy mark.
When Alfred died intestate on January 1, 1896, Harriet was left a wealthy widow. His personal estate exceeded $200,000 and his real property exceeded $195,000. Alfred owned a one-half interest in the Scientific American. Harriet was entitled to her widow’s third.
Harriet traveled abroad in June 1896. Her plan was to visit England, France, Italy, and Egypt, accompanied by her grandson, Stanley, who was 19; a physician, Dr. J. M. Harris; and a lady’s companion, Mrs. Woodhouse, another Spiritualist medium. Before she left, her son had Harriet sign a power of attorney so he could act on her behalf through the end of the year.
By the fall, Harriet sent her grandson, Dr. Harris, and Mrs. Woodhouse back to New York. She decided to travel with Henry Richardson Rogers and his wife. Harriet believed that her mother, who had died when Harriet was five, her father, and Alfred had selected Rogers to be her protector. Through Mrs. Woodhouse’s mediumship, Alfred told her that “he would sweep every thing or persons from my pathway & that my love nature should be answered.”
Harriet had met the Rogerses in 1887. Rogers advertised public séances by January 1886, but accusations against him appeared in the press in 1895, claiming he tricked and cheated people during his “so-called spiritualistic séances.” Harriet, however, defended him in a letter to the editor in London’s Spiritualist newspaper Light in October 1895. She claimed he was legitimate: “[I] can testify to the genuineness of their mediumship [she included Mrs. Rogers] and to their martyrdom to the cause.”
Harriet’s son, Fredrick, however, knew that Rogers was “a notorious fraud, who posed as a medium and in other capacities at so-called spiritual séances.” Frederick no doubt read the headline in the New York Herald on November 15, 1895: “Deadly Fight in the Dark. Henry A. [sic] Rogers, Spiritualistic Charlatan, Exposed at a Seance by the Herald, Attempts to Brain Detective Browne with a Hatchet.”
The Herald reporter revealed Rogers’s tricks to detectives based on séances he attended on several occasions. Two detectives then attended undercover as businessmen. Rogers “locked the door leading to an adjoining room, pasted a piece of paper over it in such a manner as to convey the belief that it could not be opened without the fact being discovered by visitors, and then assumed to materialize spirits from the other world.” Those spirits were his accomplices dressed in white garments.
With arrest warrants already in hand for Rogers, his wife, and the “alleged spirits,” the situation turned more serious when Rogers attempted to whack Detective Browne over the head with a hatchet. Bail was set for Rogers at $1,500 on the charge of felonious assault and $500 on the charge of larceny. Rogers continued to be held at the Yorkville Jail for three days, until a bail bondsman finally posted for him.
When Rogers and his wife joined Harriet in Europe in 1896, the relationship between Harriet and Rogers took a turn, causing his wife to file for divorce on grounds of adultery. It’s unclear, though, whether this was a sexual affair. Harriet more likely saw their relationship as a love-spiritual connection. The divorce was granted, and Harriet, age 69, married Rogers on January 26, 1897, in Alexandria, Egypt. He would turn 52 in March. They were to have a spiritual wedding on June 30th of that year in London.
The couple continued to travel around Europe. Sometime in April 1897, Harriet received word that her son, Frederick, and her daughter, Jennie, had filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court of New York attempting to declare Harriet insane and incompetent, and asking for an injunction against Rogers to keep him from disposing of her money and property. As evidence, they provided affidavits from doctors who had previously examined her and certified her to be insane for her commitment to the Bloomingdale Asylum. They also supplied 33 letters Harriet had written to them while abroad.
In response, Harriet supplied 32 affidavits from physicians in America and England, close friends and acquaintances, insurance brokers, business owners, her solicitors in England, and her attorneys in America. All testified to her sanity, unimpaired memory, and keen mind in both personal and business affairs. The majority were not Spiritualists.
Justice J. Lawrence of the New York Supreme Court ruled, “I am satisfied that upon the strong preponderance of the evidence, the respondent should not be subjected to either the appointment of a committee of her estate or the humiliation of a proceeding to inquire into her mental soundness before a jury. The prayer of the petition will, therefore, be denied….” Harriet was declared sane and fit to handle her own financial and personal affairs as she saw fit.
But the fight did not end there. Her son and daughter filed an appeal with the Supreme Court of New York on December 10, 1897. Justice Ingraham said, “A belief in Spiritualism may be consistent with good business judgment, but when the person is avowedly influenced by communications from spirits, and the ‘medium’ is the person to profit from such communications, a case is presented which calls for investigation.” The court felt the “order appealed from should be reversed, and the motion granted.”
The editors of Banner of Light, a weekly Spiritualist newspaper published in Boston, agreed with the court’s decision:
Mrs. Beach is not insane in the usually accepted meaning of the word, but she has been deluded and hypnotized by the will of an unscrupulous man, hence should be protected for her own good, for her children’s sake, and to prevent the one who has deceived her from carrying out his nefarious schemes….
Following the decision, a commission was appointed to determine Harriet’s sanity. The inquiry began in February 1898. On October 3, Justice Cohen judged Harriet to be “incompetent to manage her affairs.” But the court did not feel Harriet was dangerous to society and should not be committed or deprived of her liberty.
Rogers finally appeared in court in February 1899 for assaulting the detective in 1895. He had failed to appear when the case was called on several prior occasions, causing his bail to be forfeited. Rogers was convicted and sentenced to three months on Blackwell’s Island.
The marriage between Harriet and Henry was annulled by 18 May 1899, when her children brought another action, alleging “their mother was insane at the time of the marriage.”
By 1900, Harriet boarded in a household in Manhattan, as did Rogers in another household. Whether the two continued to have a relationship is unknown.
Then in her seventies, Harriet continued traveling abroad. She left for Berlin in 1901, only to die there on January 8, 1905, from pneumonia. Her body was returned for burial in Union Cemetery, Stratford, Connecticut.
Henry Richardson Rogers died by suicide after placing several handkerchiefs saturated with chloroform over his face on February 18, 1904, in New York City. “There was only eleven cents in his pocket.”
Things did not end well for Stanley Carlisle in Nightmare Alley either. Broke and an alcoholic, he went back to carny work, but was given a demeaning act. Gresham’s novel, instead of taking the gothic ghost story approach to Spiritualism, shed light on a darker, more troubling aspect of the Spiritualist movement. Con artists viewed those desperate to hear from their deceased loved ones as easy marks and thus a way to make their fortune. Many of these charlatans were so convincing, like the fictional Stanley Carlisle and the real-life Henry Rogers and Diss Debar, that it took years for their deceit to be uncovered and to bring them to justice. But what Gresham didn’t address is the victims’ own nightmare alley. Harriet’s story is certainly evidence of that.
*The information in this article came primarily from newspaper articles and the New York Supreme Court case files. Sharon is at work on a book about Harriet’s life.