Andrew Jackson Davis

Andrew Jackson Davis wasan early magnetist, Andrew Jackson Davis helped bridge the gap between mesmerism and Spiritualism. He is credited with prophesying the coming of the spirits to the Fox Sisters and detailing the progressive creation and spiritual evolution of the world through trance revelations.

Davis was born in Blooming Grove, Orange County, New York, on August 11, 1826, the sixth child and only son. Only one of his sisters survived girlhood, and young Andrew was sickly and nervous. He often heard voices. His mother was illiterate but deeply religious. His father, a cobbler, drank heavily. The family was quite poor and moved frequently, ending up in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1838. Davis had little formal schooling, and drifted from one small job to another as farm boy, grocery clerk or cobbler. He apprenticed himself to a shoemaker named Ira Armstrong in 1841–42 but left in 1843.

What enticed Davis away from the trade was animal magnetism. In the fall of 1843, Davis attended the traveling show of magnetist and phrenologist J. Stanley Grimes. Davis volunteered to be magnetized but did not become hypnotized. Nearly all of Poughkeepsie tried mesmerism; however, a local tailor named William Levingston finally succeeded in entrancing Davis in December 1843.

Levingston discovered that Davis was susceptible to trance and while under could see through the body as if it were transparent, making astounding medical diagnoses. For a year, Davis worked as a clairvoyant and healer, becoming known as the Poughkeepsie Seer. Levingston gave up his tailor shop and devoted all his time to Davis’s work.

In March 1844, Davis underwent a strange, mystical experience. In a state of semi-trance, he wandered about 40 miles from his home into the Catskill Mountains, following an allegorical vision of a fl ock of sheep. He fell asleep near an altar in the woods, again seeing visions of sheep, mountains and a shepherd he recognized as Christ. Next he met a small old man dressed like a Quaker, who carried a scroll that Davis signed. Hurrying down the mountain, Davis again fell asleep and awoke in a graveyard, where he encountered Galen, the Greek physician.

Galen provided Davis with a long lecture on his healing work, explaining his methods, and then presented Davis with his staff. Following Galen was Emanuel Swedenborg, who also lectured Davis and declared the young man would become a vessel for the perception of wisdom, opening the soul’s way to harmony. At that, Davis tried to depart over the cemetery wall and lost his temper when he became caught on a post. After his outburst, Galen refused to give him the staff after all, cautioning him to learn control of his emotions. Dazed, Davis walked home.

Repeated visions convinced Davis that he was to serve as an oracle for some divine truth, and for some reason, he did not feel Levingston was capable of drawing this out. While healing in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Davis met a botanic (herb) doctor named S. Silas Lyon, whom he chose as his new mesmerist. Davis and Lyon moved to New York City, where Davis continued his healing business. Within three months Davis selected the Universalist minister Rev. William Fishbough to act as scribe, and in November 1845 he began the great work.

The three men would gather in the parlor of their New York apartment (like Levingston, both Lyon and Fishbough had quit their jobs to be with Davis) and Lyon would hypnotize Davis. After three or four minutes Davis would shudder in convulsive shock, then remain motionless for another five minutes, blindfolded to protect his eyes from the light. Then he would become cataleptic, rigid and cold, hardly breathing. Finally Davis, although still in trance, would appear more normal and begin dictating a phrase or two at a time. Lyon would repeat each phrase to Fishbough, who wrote them down. The sessions lasted anywhere from 40 minutes to four hours, producing about five pages.

Usually three witnesses, chosen by Davis, watched the transcription. Edgar Allan Poe, the Fourierist Albert Brisbane and trance poet Thomas Lake Harris were frequently present. The most influential visitor, however, was Dr. George Bush, professor of Hebrew language and literature at New York University. A great biblical scholar and Swedenborgian, Bush enthusiastically endorsed the authenticity of Davis’s trance pronouncements as an amazing display of ancient history, Hebrew language, archaeology, geology, language and mythology, especially in one so ig no rant as Davis.

After 157 sessions, The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind, By and Through Andrew Jackson Davis, the ‘Poughkeepsie Seer’ and ‘Clairvoyant’ was published in January 1847. Lyon and Fishbough claimed they had made no changes except in grammar and spelling. Bush wrote a six-column review in the New York Tribune praising the work and Davis, calling him the greatest prod igy since Swedenborg. Four editions appeared before the year was out, and the darkly handsome 21-year-old Davis was an instant celebrity. He was not instantly rich, however, as he had relinquished all rights to copyright and sales of the book to Lyon and Fishbough while in trance. The book eventually went into 34 editions, but there are no records of any beyond the 13th until the 30th.

The 782 pages of complicated and rambling prose challenge the modern reader. But in the mid-19th century, people were fascinated to learn about creation, philosophy and religion in theories that supported America’s belief in optimistic and universal progress. Davis gave his readers hope for future regeneration of mankind both in the secular and spiritual worlds.

Briefly outlined, Davis defined God as the Great Positive Mind, the inner divine essence that causes all external effect. This Mind is by its very nature progressive. God created the cosmos out of a great primordial ocean of liquid fire. Life evolved from lower forms to higher, culminating in man, who is composed of the essence of all other existing life. After death man still progresses through the celestial spheres to the seventh, where he becomes one with God’s infi nite Mind, wisdom, and love.

Throughout the book Davis explained the evolution of the solar system, the geological and biological history of the earth, the development of language, the rise of mythology and religion, the probabilities of prophecy, the Old and New Testaments, the life of Jesus, the precepts of Swedenborg, Calvin and Charles Fourier, the spiritual constitution of man, and the real estate of heaven. Finally, he discussed the evils of society, the wickedness of doctors and clergymen, and the benefits of a Fourierist utopia.

Davis claimed only five months of schooling, but educated readers of The Divine Revelations recognized the creation theories of Robert Chambers and the spiritual con cepts of Swedenborg. Several critics charged Davis with fraud, but it is unlikely that Davis could have re cited, blindfolded, all those previous works. Others believed Davis had hypermnesia (unusually exact or vivid memory), or the ability to remember quantities of tiny details while in trance.

Personal scandal gave the book more publicity. As a healer in New York, Davis had counseled a Mrs. Catherine Dodge, née deWolfe, a very wealthy heiress in Bristol, Rhode Island, and 20 years Davis’s senior. They struck up a correspondence, and she generously paid all publication expenses for The Divine Revelations.

Her generosity extended to buying and furnishing a house for Davis in Waltham, Massachusetts, but Davis declined the gift. Undeterred, Dodge talked editor S.B. Brittan, a friend of Davis’s, into renting him an apartment in Brittan’s home, which Dodge paid for and furnished. Davis accepted and met her in the apartment, proposing marriage. She accepted, and she browbeat the Brittans into renting her rooms next to Davis. This in itself was shocking, but when the Brittans’ maid found that Dodge had spent the night in Davis’s room, the couple was forced to move out. They were married in July 1848 after the Rhode Is land legislature (Dodge definitely had connections) had passed a law dissolving her marriage. Sadly, their union was short and unhappy, as each came from such different back grounds. Dodge died in 1853, leaving her estate to Davis.

Also in 1848, Davis predicted the birth of Spiritualism. In his diary of March 31, Davis wrote that he felt warm breath on his face when he awoke and a strong voice telling him that the good work had begun—a living Demonstration was born. March 31 is the day Kate and Maggie Fox challenged the Hydesville rapper (see Fox Sisters).

Davis enjoyed a long career, lecturing on “Harmonial Philosophy” and writing several more books of divine philosophy and healing, including The Great Harmonia in 1852, his autobiography The Magic Staff in 1857 and various books and treatises on diagnosis and disease. He became a legitimate physician at age 60 with a medical degree and prescribed herbal cures. The Univercoelum, a Spiritualist magazine, was founded in 1847 by Brittan, Fishbough and others just to serve as Davis’s mouthpiece.

Davis also espoused conjugal love, which critics saw Demonstrated in his affair with Dodge. Brittan was so incensed over the scandal that the Univercoelum suffered and finally died. Other projects which interested Davis were the poltergeist haunting of the Phelps home in Stratford, Connecticut in 1850, and the discovery of electrical vibrations in some young girls and children, early evidence of psi (Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis). Davis attributed the Phelps poltergeist phenomena to electrical irregularities from the two older children. He also supported John Murray Spear’s “New Motor,” allegedly powered by spiritual magnetic forces, some of them sexual.

In his later years Davis ran a bookshop in Boston, all but forgotten by later spiritualists who had called him their John the Baptist. He died in 1910.


  • Brown, Slater. The Heyday of Spiritualism. New York: Pocket Books, 1972.
  • Douglas, Alfred. Extra-Sensory Powers: A Century of Psychical Research. Woodstock, N.Y.: The Overlook Press, 1977.
  • Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. The History of Spiritualism Vol. I & II. New York: Arno Press, 1975.
  • Fodor, Nandor. An Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science. Secaucus, N.J.: The Citadel Press, 1966. First published 1933.
  • Moore, R. Laurence. In Search of White Crows: Spiritualism, Parapsychology and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
  • Somerlott, Robert. “Here, Mr. Splitfoot”: An Informal Exploration into Modern Occultism. New York: The Viking Press, 1971.

The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits– Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – September 1, 2007

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