Joseph Peace Hazard (1807-1892) was born in Burlington, New Jersey, the son of Rowland Hazard I and Mary (Peace) Hazard ...(The last few posts for this month—coming, alas, very belatedly—will be based on tidbits I've gathered while doing research for an interesting project involving the republication of an eighteenth-century moral text by American and Russian occultists and enlighteners.)
Like his brother Thomas, Joseph was a dedicated spiritualist, and wrote an article titled "Dignified Versus Undignified" for the March 14 1857 issue of the Yorkshire Spiritual Telegraph and British Harmonial Advocate. In this article, he asserted that "spirits appear to be quite as anxious to communicate, as we are to hear."
... This collection is divided into three series: personal correspondence; subject files; and memorandum books. The correspondence files are quite incomplete, with the bulk relating to various land disputes from the final years of Hazard's life. The subject files cover most aspects of his life, but especially spiritualism, genealogy and his property in South Kingstown.
The memorandum books contain mostly a daily log of Hazard's expenses, but may contain virtually anything else. The later books, especially from 1885 and 1886, are primarily concerned with daily reports on Hazard's pocket watch, which he apparently believed was a medium for spirit communications. Typical is the October 28 1885 entry: "On retiring to bed last night at about 9:30 I laid my watch under my ear, and was mentally speaking to the watch (that was ticking entirely normally) and had been so doing some minutes when it suddenly gave two or three consecutive ticks that rang like a bell, as was its old wont. I think this ringing may have been an accident on part of my spirit friend who was then attending me."
- from the "Historical Note" to the Joseph Peace Hazard Papers at the Rhode Island Historical Society
I stumbled on this set of papers, which I've yet to physically examine, almost at random—Hazard happened to publish an ediiton of the book I was studying. The Note itself, and the material on and by Hazard that I've been able to locate online, is fascinating. Why would this strange man, who built a turreted "castle" in his town as an apparent attempt to attract summer resort patrons, believe that his watch was a medium for spiritual communications?
As far as I can tell, the better question would be: why wouldn't he? Nineteenth-century America (and Europe) was, it seems, chock-full of people with spiritualist beliefs, and many of them went beyond the traditional table-séances. Many of them were religious, but many were not; some embraced all the kookiest occult paraphernalia, others (like, perhaps, Hazard) led apparently ordinary lives. Some even prefigured the '50s and '60s in their attempts to seek out and repackage Asian mysticism for mass consumption—the late nineteenth century was the point of origin for commodified yoga, which, as it turns out, was more "invented" than "discovered." The craze could even include respected, serious men of science like the ornithologist Elliott Coues.
What's striking is that although we—not historians, but ordinary people—have a pretty good mental image of the nineteenth century in our minds, it rarely includes this world to any substantial extent. We imagine robber barons, frontier capitalists, dour and unphotogenic Midwestern farm families, Civil War soldiers, but the idea that these people could be regularly taking notes on the activities of their pocket watches or contributing to spiritualist publications seems radically alien to us. Mysticism is supposed to be socially marginal, because the mystic's authority is supposed to come from isolation. Even if we don't believe this particular version of spirituality, we still assume that cults and sects come into the public eye only by accident. The mainstream was always soberly Methodist.
The more you look, however, the more this appears to be wrong. It's not just that lots and lots of normal-looking people were involved in various ways in the spiritualist phenomenon. It's also that the most arcane and esoteric trappings of spiritualism were also its most saleable commodities. It didn't even matter whether they were founded on genuine hidden knowledge; as soon as it became apparent that they fit the basic structures and expectations of spiritualism (self-empowerment being a major theme), any secrecy they possessed was instantly brought to market. The spiritualist manual was a creature of the mass reading public. In my research, I came across this blockbuster book:
And then this delightful comment from the New York Times, 1912:
The central paradox of American spiritualism, then, is that it both claimed to be a body of secret knowledge and would not have been able to survive outside of the mass culture that created it. This meant that any response to the phenomenon would have involved one of two elitist, exclusionary, diametrically opposed standards of taste: the spiritualist versus the mundane, on the one hand, and the arbiter of taste versus the vulgar consumer, on the other. (A similar dynamic is, of course, at work with similar contemporary phenomena such as The Secret.) That is why, I think, it's still so hard to see spiritualism as normal. The very terms of the debate it sets up make it difficult.