The Mississippi Valley Spiritualist Camp, also known as Mount Pleasant Park, came into being in 1885. It has been there ever since, on Bluff Boulevard at 2nd Avenue So. At one time, they owned considerable land north of the Camp as well. Nowadays, however, many people are unaware of its existence. In 2007 it had its 125th Chautauqua or summer meeting.
Groups around the country with similar interests began having summer “chautauquas,” (named after Chautauqua, N.Y.) about the same time. These were relaxing meetings for literary readings, physical fitness outings, dance symposiums, and so on. The word “chautauqua” has become archaic, but the definition is: “an assembly for education and entertainment of adults by lectures, concerts etc., held for several days.” The Clinton Schools dropped the word “chautauqua” from its lists of spelling words a few years ago. Old words often die and new words, like “fax,” are invented.
Clinton’s Mississippi Valley Spiritualist Association grew to be quite prosperous. They were the first ones in our area to build an outdoor swimming pool! Hundreds of people came to their events, but Spiritualism actually began out East. The Fox sisters from Hydeville, N.Y. were early proponents of this form of Christianity in 1848. It was at this time that scientists and other intellectuals desired proofs of the hereafter and the world of the spirit. Séances became quite popular and were held in different ways. Mediums were perceived as instruments of other-worldly communication, and they practiced healing, channeling, premonitions, and other clairvoyant behaviors as they worked through trances -- with loud knocks and rappings, or sometime trumpets, which ushered in “voices from the netherworld.”
As you may know, spiritualism became quite popular in the 1900’s. Some religions and organizations believed strongly that one could contact those who had died, and that conversation with them was possible. Others were afraid of this concept. Although their faith might accept an occasional miracle, contact with the deceased was unheard of and made them queasy. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and many famous persons believed in this new occult theology. Franz Mesmer was a proponent of spiritual healing, and his name has come down to us in the common word, “mesmerized.” Spiritualism was at the forefront of new thinking about God and that ethereal place beyond the grave.
One famous person, Erich Weiss, better known as Houdini, was a staunch believer in spiritualism. He believed that it was possible to speak with the dead, and his belief never wavered -- even though he attended many séances and visited many mediums and always figured out the trickery to which Spiritualism was prone, being the good magician that he was. Unfortunately, this chicanery was a common offshoot of the religion.
Houdini and his wife made a pact that whichever of them survived the other, that spouse would attend séances as often as possible and attempt to prove that communication across the life and death divide could take place. Houdini himself was killed in an accident in 1923, just at the height of his career. He was an escape artist (having found it to draw a much bigger audience than straight “magic”). As part of his act, he often showed his great strength by being able to take serious blows to the stomach. However, one day when he was not prepared, someone punched Houdini hard in the stomach; it caused a ruptured appendix; an infection set in, and he died. Dutifully, his wife went to hundreds of séances over the next ten years, and he often appeared but, alas, he never once used the secret code they had devised!
On summer evenings, as our family “took rides” in the old Hupmobile, all of us children would ask questions about the Spiritualist Camp as we passed it, and my mother would always say, “Shhh. Quiet! I don’t want to talk about it!” So, naturally, our interests were sparked and we were forever trying to learn more about séances, mediums, Ouiji Boards, and talking with the dead! My mother was one of those afraid of all things supernatural …. except for her in own religious beliefs!
In the late 1940’s and 50’s, probably most children played with the idea of speaking with ghosts. Motion pictures often featured séances whereby flying candles, and strange wisps of wind would announce the approach of a poor soul from the Great Beyond. It made for fine scary theater and, of course, really embellished murder mysteries! A favorite movie ploy was the infamous dagger or gun edging through the curtains just as the person at the piano was about to be killed or someone was about to divulge the murderers name!
The foregoing is not meant to denigrate the movement, but shows how people have viewed this somewhat unorthodox theology. Duke University, center for Spiritualism, reports that it was an important exploratory front in advancing the study of theology and that, at one time, ten million people were members of some form of it. It is part of what has evolved into parapsychology, extrasensory perception, mental telepathy and precognition.
Today, skeptics have pretty much decimated the believers’ ranks. Still, there are active participants. Spiritualism lives on at Mt. Pleasant Spiritualist Camp, in the families who yet live there and believe. Currently, there are several families living at the Camp, and quite a few active members meet there every Sunday. Regular séances are still held. The bell, book, and candle are continuing symbols of times when those spirits walked the earth, and it’s said luminous sightings eerily appear in darkened rooms.
The land above the bluff has been a central spot in Clinton for over 100 years. There is a monument located in the camp, near the last remaining cottage, that commemorates the first séance. It says, “There is no death, there are no dead.” …. DO spirits abound there??