(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Spring 2020
Spiritualism began in 1848 in Hydesville, New York when two girls, ages 11 and 14, claimed to be able to communicate with a spirit. The news spread quickly and fomented a movement of people interested in communicating with deceased loved ones. Mary Todd Lincoln was one of the most prominent believers. Connecticut suffragist Isabella Beecher Hooker would use a talking board to commune with the spirits, while her husband John, a lawyer, took notes. During the heyday of the spiritualist movement (1850 – 1929), Connecticut was home to many believers, including the Hookers, and Isabella’s sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe. (See “The Spirits of Reform,” Winter 2008-2009.).
Ward Cheney of Manchester, a pioneer in the manufacture of silk fabrics, was also a believer. The wealthy industrialist invited the famous medium Daniel Dunglas Home, along with Hartford reporters, to his South Manchester residence in August 1852. F. L. Burr, editor of the Hartford Times, reported, “Suddenly, and without any expectation on the part of the company, Home began his ascent … . I had hold of his hand at the time and I felt his feet—they were lifted a foot from the floor!”
By 1882 the movement had become so popular that a group called the Connecticut Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association scouted for a place to share their philosophy. They settled on a quiet spot on Niantic Bay called Pine Grove. The group purchased 40 acres on a peninsula between Smith Cove and the Niantic River for $1,000. At first, visitors had to pitch tents. Soon like-minded people built a hundred or so Gothic-style cottages.
As attendance at Pine Grove Spiritualist Camp grew, residents added an amphitheater, a dance-hall pavilion, a refreshment stand, a roller-skating area, and even a sight-seeing observation tower. As many as 500 horses and carriages carried people to attend outdoor Sunday services, according to Rev. Henrietta Cox, past president of Pine Grove’s Ladies Aid Society (The Hartford Courant, September 6, 1977). In 1894 as many as 200 visitors came to hear mediums such as Edgar W. Emerson deliver messages from the spirits. On Sunday, August 14, 1894, as The Hartford Courant reported (August 17, 1894), Emerson demonstrated spirit communication by announcing the names of deceased loved ones whom visitors quickly recognized. While some came to the camp to hear the messages, others simply enjoyed the entertainment. The camp sponsored dances twice a week in the pavilion and socials on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday evenings. Soldiers stationed nearby stopped by for the dancing and socials, The Courant also reported.
Interest in spiritualism marked its highest point after World War I, when mourners sought to make contact with fallen soldiers. But attendance at Pine Grove declined in the 1930s according Cox. During the Great Depression, the camp suffered financial losses and had to sell many of its cottages to non-spiritualists. In the 1960s most of the cottages were winterized for year-round use. Today about 90 percent of the 135 homes belong to year-round residents. Eventually the amphitheater was torn down and a simple wooden temple was erected in its place. All that remains today of the Pine Grove Spiritualist Camp is the temple, with its rather rustic interior, and the medium’s cottage, a two-story Victorian house across from the temple. Behind the temple, a gazebo hosts outdoor services, and there are picnic tables for those who wish to take lunch by the bay.
Pine Grove may have diminished in size, but not in spirit. Summer visitors still enjoy the cool breezes from Niantic Bay along with messages from their loved ones. In 2019 the camp hosted mediums and Spiritualist ministers Rev. Jackie Randall and Rev. Jean Mandeville from Connecticut, Rev. Kathleen Hoffman from Massachusetts, Rev. Thomas Kerns from New York, and Bonnie Red Basket of Rhode Island. Their topics included meditation, astrology, shamanic drumming, and of course, mediumship. According to Mandeville, “We certainly have paranormal activity in the cottage.” When she felt the spirit of a child nick-named “Abby” in the upstairs bedroom, Mandeville put out small toys and unicorn erasers out for the spirit children. She reported that the next day, all the toys were scattered about the room by unseen hands! Mandeville was not surprised, as spiritualists do not see death as final.
Elaine M. Kuzmeskus is an adjunct professor of psychology at Tunxis Community College and the author of nine books, includingConnecticut in the Golden Age of Spiritualism (History Press, 2017).
Theodate Pope Riddle of Hill-Stead Museum: “Communicating with the Spirits,” forthcoming Winter 2020-2021