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.

Mrs. Lincoln informed me that she had heard of the wonderful powers of Mrs. Miller, Mr. Laurie’s daughter, and had called to witness the physical manifestations through her mediumship. She had expressed a desire to see a trance medium, when they had told her of myself, fearing that I was already on my way to Baltimore with my brother, as I expected to leave that evening. She has said at once, “Perhaps they have not gone; suppose you take the carriage and ascertain.” Mr. Laurie went, and found me, as I have stated, prostrated from my long anxiety and trouble. But for the loss of that furlough this meeting would not have taken place.

Mrs. Lincoln noticed my swollen eyes and inflamed cheeks, and inquired kindly the cause. Mr. Laurie briefly explained. She quickly reassured me, saying, “Don’t worry any more about it. Your brother shall have another furlough, if Mr. Lincoln has to give it himself. Feeling once more happy and strong, I was in a condition to quiet my nerves long enough to enable my spirt friends to control me.

Some new and powerful influence obtained possession of my organism and addressed Mrs. Lincoln, it seemed, with great clearness and force, upon matters of State. For one hour I was under this control. When I awoke there was a most earnest and excited group around me discussing what had been said; and Mrs. Lincoln exclaimed with great earnestness, “This young lady must not leave Washington.”2
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).

Mrs. Lincoln received us graciously, and introduced us to a gentleman and lady present whose names I have forgotten. Mr. Lincoln was not then present. While all were conversing pleasantly on general subjects, Mrs. Miller (Mr. Laurie’s daughter) seated herself, under control, at the double grand piano at one side of the room, seemingly awaiting someone. Mrs. Lincoln was talking with us in a pleasant strain when suddenly Mrs. Miller’s hands fell upon the keys with a force that betokened a master hand, and the strains of a grand march filled the room. As the measured notes rose and fell we became silent. The heavy end of the piano began rising and falling in perfect time to the music. All at once it ceased, and Mr. Lincoln stood upon the threshold of the room. (He afterwards informed us that the first notes of the music fell upon his ears as he reached the head of the grand staircase to descend, and that he kept step to the music until he reached the doorway.)

Mr. and Mrs. Laurie and Mrs. Miller were duly presented. Then I was led forward and presented. He stood before me, tall and kindly, with a smile on his face. Dropping his hand upon my head, he said, in a humorous tone, “so this is our ‘little Nettie’ is it, that we have heard so much about?” I could only smile and say, “Yes, sir,’ like any school girl; when he kindly led me to an ottoman. Sitting down in a chair, the ottoman at his feet, he began asking me questions in a kindly way bout my mediumship; and I think he must have thought me stupid, as my answers were little beyond a “Yes” and “No”. His manner, however, was genial and kind, and it was then suggested we form a circle. He said, “Well, how do you do it?” looking at me. Mr. Laurie came to the rescue, and said we had been accustomed to sit in a circle and join hands; but he did not think it would be necessary in this instance. While he was yet speaking, I lost all consciousness of my surroundings and passed under control.

For more than an hour I was made to talk to him, and I learned from my friends afterward that it was upon matters that he seemed fully to understand, while they comprehended very little until that portion was reached that related to the forthcoming Emancipation Proclamation. He was charged with the utmost solemnity and force of manner not to abate the terms of its issue, and not to delay its enforcement as a law beyond the opening of the year; and he was assured that it was to be the crowning event of his administration and his life; and that while he was being counseled by strong parties to defer the enforcement of it, hoping to supplant it by other measures and to delay action, he must in no wise heed such counsel, but stand firm to his convictions and fearlessly perform the work and full the mission for which he had been raised up by an overruling Providence. Those present declared that they lost sight of the timed girl in the majesty of the utterance, the strength and force of the language, and the importance of that which was conveyed, and seemed to realize that some strong masculine spirit force was giving speech to almost divine commands.

I shall never forget the scene around me when I regained conscioiusness. I was standing in front of Mr. Lincoln, and he was sitting back in his chair, with his arms folded upon his breast, looking intently at me. I stepped back, naturally confused at the situation – not remembering at once where I was; and glancing around the group, where perfect silence reigned. It took me a moment to remember my whereabouts.

A gentleman present then said in a low tone, “Mr. President, did you notice anything peculiar in the method of address?” Mr. Lincoln raised himself, as if shaking off his spell. He glanced quickly at the full-length portrait of Daniel Webster, that hung above the piano, and replied, ‘Yes, and it is very singular, very!” with a marked emphasis.

Mr. Somes said: “Mr. President, would it be improper for me to inquire whether there has been any pressure brought to bear upon you to defer the enforcement of the Proclamation?” To which the President replied: “Under these circumstances that question is perfectly proper, as we are all friends smiling upon the company. It is taking all my nerve and strength to withstand such a pressure.” At this point the gentlemen drew around him, and spoke together in low tones, Mr. Lincoln saying least of all. At last he turned to me, and laying his hand upon my head, uttered these words in a manner that I shall never forget: “My child, you possess a very singular gift; but that it is of God, I have no doubt. I thank you for coming here to-night. It is more important than perhaps any one present can understand. I must leave you all now; but I hope I shall see you again. He shook me kindly by the hand, bowed to the rest of the company, and was gone. We remained an hour longer, talking with Mrs. Lincoln and her friends, and then returned to Georgetown, Such was my first interview with Abraham Lincoln, and the memory of it is as clear and vivid as the evening on which it occurred.”3
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


Footnotes

    1. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Joshua Speech to Abraham Lincoln, October 26, 1863).
    2. Nettie Colburn Maynard, Was Abraham Lincoln a Spirtualist?, p. 64-68
    3. Nettie Colburn Maynard, Was Abraham Lincoln a Spirtualist?, pp. 69-73
    4. Nettie Colburn Maynard, Was Abraham Lincoln a Spirtualist?, pp. 64-68
    5. Thomas Keneally, American Scoundrel: The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles, p. 256.