During his long military career, Warren County, Kentucky native Richard Vance (1833-1902) indulged many extracurricular interests – French, ornithology, botany, literature, politics, religion, travel, and women. He also cast a curious, if doubtful, eye on spiritualism.
In March 1873, while stationed in New Orleans, Vance paid a visit to the “celebrated Spiritualist, Mr. Charles Foster,” who was offering seances featuring “rappings” and other manifestations said to emanate from the realm of the dead. Ushered into Foster’s room at the St. Charles Hotel, Vance found an amiable, somewhat heavy-set man of about thirty-five. Foster listened politely while Vance made clear that he believed neither in life after death nor in the power to summon those who had passed to the other side.
At Foster’s request, however, Vance wrote down on slips of paper the names of acquaintances who had died. Holding one of the slips, Foster then asked if the spirit of the person named thereon would communicate with Vance, and received in reply a “series of loud raps,” first from the table, floor and walls, then from “all parts of the house.” To Vance’s astonishment, Foster then proceeded to relate details about three deceased individuals from his past—a servant, Tony, killed by a gunshot; Rachel, an elderly female servant of his grandmother’s; and an old friend, Gus Montague.
At a loss to explain Foster’s revelations, Vance insisted to himself that this spiritualist must have had the power to read his thoughts. Writing of the encounter in his diary, he reviewed his religious evolution—from “firm believer” to skeptic to a refusenik on the subject of immortality. That “was where I was this morning,” he admitted, but where “I will drift after what I have seen to day remains to be seen.”
Richard Vance’s diary recording his spiritual experience is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections . Click here for a finding aid. During this Halloween month, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat for other collections relating to spiritualism, ghosts and views about death.