The other day, I posted about Ben Franklin’s posthumous popularity as the go to ghost for American spiritualists. Probably Franklin’s most frequent and energetic earthly correspondent was an abolitionist minister turned spiritualist named John Murray Spear. In 1851 or 1852, Spear and his daughter Sophronia began seeking messages from the spirit world. In 1853, they announced that Spear had become the mouthpiece for the General Assembly of Spirits, a benevolent association of departed worthies like Franklin, Jefferson, and Emmanuel Swedenborg. The Assembly of Spirits was divided into a number of committees and subcommittees: the “Educationizers,” the “Governmentizers,” the “Healthfulizers,” the “Agriculturalizers,” and so on, but it was the “Electricizers,” headed of course by Franklin, who had immediate plans for Spear.
Franklin tasked Spear with building a series of electrical inventions—a “wizard’s suit” made of minerals and batteries, an electric ship shaped like a duck (they ply the waters of Boston Harbor to this day!), and most famously, a perpetual motion machine known variously as the New Motor, the New Messiah, and the God Machine. From all this I deduce that Franklin got a little freaky in the half-century after his death. The New Messiah, which Spear constructed in Lynn, Massachusetts, was a roughly human-shaped machine, with an electric “brain,” magnetic “lungs,” and many more strange attachments. Bringing it to life involved much channeling of spiritual energy by male and female mediums “mingling into one,” and a “New Mary” going through simulated pregnancy and labor. (Spear had a string of “New Marys” as he drifted into Free Love circles, at least one of whom simulated pregnancy so well as to bear him an un-simulated son.)
On the New Motor / Messiah / God Machine, please see Ken Hite’s “Your Own Electrical Jesus” if you subscribe to Pyramid, this Fortean Times article if you don’t, or for the whole sad story, John Buescher’s richly-detailed biography The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear: Agitator for the Spirit Land. But if you ask me, Spear’s electrical Jesus was only the second or third most daffy-sublime of Dead Franklin’s posthumous schemes.
Another project Franklin and the Electricizers pressed upon Spear was the construction of a “Soul-Blending Telegraph”—a national and eventually global network of towers, in which pairs of male and female mediums would be “sealed” to, again, “mingle as one,” and from there transmit and receive messages telepathically. The goal was to overturn the terrestrial telegraph monopoly, which the spirits deemed sinister and undemocratic.
This catches my eye because: hey, mingling. But also because of my work on the telephone and telegraph. It wasn’t just dead people—everybody in the Gilded Age worried about the telegraph. Nineteenth-century reformers of every stripe singled out telegraph monopolies—first the transatlantic cable companies, later Western Union—as threats to democracy and made the free “transmission of intelligence” central to their prescriptions for reform. Just down the shore from Spear in Cambridge, the lawyer Gardiner Greene Hubbard lobbied Congress for decades to break up or regulate Western Union. Hubbard didn’t have the aid of any ghostly spirits, but he did have a gangly Scots-Canadian named Alexander Graham Bell who wanted to date his daughter. You go to war with the army you have.
As the Civil War approached, the spirits urged John Spear and his associates to form a “Dark Lantern Society” of telepaths and other sensitive spiritualists that might survive to create a new republic after the coming war and chaos, perhaps uniting the Northern free states with Canada if the blighted South could not be saved. (Maybe I need to write another Alternate Canada…)
After the war, Franklin’s ghost kept Spear busy. He quizzed Spear about copper mines and canal routes and whether—now this sounds like Franklin—he knew any prominent capitalists that were also spiritualists? The plans kept coming: a Spiritualist Bank guided in its investments by mediums, a Bread League that would supply inexpensive bread to the poor of New England, an improved sewing machine designed by the spirits to liberate women from drudgery, and hopefully not infringe on Elias Howe’s patents. Spear and his spirit advisors helped form a proto-feminist free love sect called, oddly, the Order of the Patriarchs. They organized conventions of spiritualists to work for women’s suffrage and the rights of Chinese laborers. They fought to reform prisons and abolish the death penalty. Spear and several other spiritualists sat on the executive committee of the Equal Rights Party, which ran Victoria Woodhull and Frederick Douglass as candidates for president and vice-president in the election of 1872. And on and on and on. Finally, pushing 70, Spear received a message from Franklin’s Assembly of Spirits that they had chosen a successor as his communicator (the Mrs. Manley I quoted last time), thanking him for his work on their behalf, and bidding him a happy retirement. It must have been a relief, after three decades of spirit communication, for Spear to get Poor Richard off his back.
In my work on the history of technology, it’s always tempting to get mileage out of the distance between people’s utopian hopes and the realities that play out. We’re so inundated with technohype today that if the failed predictions of the past can inoculate us a little against the cult of the new new thing, that’s probably worthwhile. But when I think about somebody like John Murray Spear—so easy to dismiss as a kook, so blatant in his utopian longings, yet on balance a good man whose spirits drove him to work so hard for others—it seems like a lazy rhetorical device.
Ted Friedman, writing about the technohype of our own electronic age, talks about the “utopian sphere.” Hype is hype, he says, but it’s also one of the few places where idealized visions of the future can be elaborated without instantly being dismissed. “The public religion of technology can momentarily suspend the pragmatism … that derails utopian projects as impossible and utopian thinking as a foolish waste of time,” Friedman writes. “It opens up a space—a utopian sphere—where we can imagine what we might want the future to look like.” That sounds a lot to me like nineteenth-century spiritualism.
In the end, of course, Franklin wasn’t using Spear, Spear was using Franklin. And that’s the great thing about this story: that Franklin, the godhead of Yankee practicality, was enlisted to open up a space for the colossal, heroic impracticality of the New Motor, the Soul-Blending Telegraph, the Woodhull-Douglas ticket, and so on. None of them worked, but in some ways that’s the least interesting thing about them.