Mary's Charlatans: Nettie Colburn (1841-1892)
Nettie Colburn was a young medium who conducted séances for Mary Todd Lincoln. President Lincoln allegedly attended on at least one occasion. Nettie claimed she was then controlled by a spirit named “old Dr. Bamford.” Even longtime Lincoln friend Joshua Speech recommended Colburn and another medium to Lincoln: "It will I am sure be some relief from the tedious round of office seekers to see two such agreeable ladies."1
Mrs. Lincoln first encountered Colburn at the home of Cranstoun Laurie, an top official in the Post Office. As Nettie Coburn later recalled her meeting, she went with Laurie to his home after failing in attempts to obtain an army furlough for her sick brother:
On my arrival I was astonished to be presented first to Mrs. Lincoln, the wife of President Lincoln, then to Mr. Isaac Newton, misidentified as Secretary of the Interior Department, and the Rev. John Pierpont, at that time one of the chief clerks in the Treasury building. The Hon. D. E. Somes former congressman from Maine was also present.The next day, Nettie and Mrs. Laurie went back to the War Department where they obtained a promise of furlough for her brother after a requisite examination by a doctor. While her brother and mother went back to Hartford, Nettie was prevailed upon to remain in Washington.
The day following my brother’s departure for home, a note was received by Mrs. Laurie, asking her to come to the White House in the evening with her family, and to bring Miss Nettie with her. I felt all the natural trepidation of a young girl about to enter the presence of the highest magistrate in our land; being fully impressed with the dignity of his office, and feeling that I was about to meet some superior being; and it was almost with trembling that I entered with my friends the Red Parlour of the White House, at eight o’clock that evening (December, 1862).The next week, Mrs. Lincoln supposedly used her influence with federal agriculture official Isaac Newton get Nettie a job in the “seed-room” of his agriculture office for a wage of a dollar a day. “This was part of a building on F Street near Seventh, where fifty to sixty occupants, the majority old ladies, and the balance children between the ages of ten and twelve, found employment. My duties consisted of sewing together the ends of curious little sacks – each sack containing a gill of seed corn, beans, etc., as the case might be...”
Mr. Lincoln supposedly later attended a séance at the Laurie’s Georgetown home, according to Nettie. Colburn claimed that her “spirit” took possession of her and advised her of his arrival in advance. “As Mrs. Lincoln had made no mention of his coming in her letter, we were surprised at the statement. Mr. Laurie rather questioned its accuracy; as he said it would be hardly advisable for President Lincoln to leave the White House to attend a spiritual séance anywhere; and that he did not consider it ‘good policy’ to do so.
However, when the bell rang, Mr. Laurie, in honour of his expected guests, went to the door to receive them in person. His astonishment was great to find Mr. Lincoln standing on the threshold, wrapped in his long cloak; and to hear his cordial ‘Good evening,’ as he put out his hand and entered. Mr. Laurie promptly exclaimed,
“Welcome, Mr. Lincoln, to my humble roof; you were expected.” Mr. Lincoln stopped in the act of removing his cloak, and said, “Expected! Why, it is only five minutes since I knew that I was coming.” He came down from a cabinet meeting as Mrs. Lincoln and her friends were about to enter the carriage, and asked them where they were going. She replied, “To Georgetown; to a circle.” He answered immediately, “Hold on a moment; I will go with you.” “Yes,” said Mrs. Lincoln, “and I was never so surprised in my life.” He seemed pleased when Mr. Laurie explained the source of our information; and I think it had a tendency to prepare his mind to receive what followed, and to obey the instructions given.”4
According to John Keneally, biographer of Daniel Sickles, who was a member of Mrs. Lincoln’s social circle, “Dan managed to inject a spirit of skepticism into one of Nettie’s sessions in the White House by persuading Mary to allow him to set a test for Nettie Colburn. He concealed himself behind the draperies of the room and asked Nettie, when she arrived, to name who was hiding there. This plot showed that Mrs. Lincoln may, at some level, have begun to doubt. So, while Dan stood hidden there, Mary Todd jovially challenged Nettie to come up with his name. Before Nettie could oblige, Lincoln came into the parlor and apologized for not being able to stay – he had a cabinet meeting, and his cab awaited. At that moment, claimed Nettie, a sudden silence fell upon the group, and she herself was entranced at once.”5