John Harvey Mott, known as “Medium Mott,” was a sensation in his brief time in Kansas City.

Conjuring the Dead: J. Harvey Mott and Spiritualism in Kansas City

The newspapers had called Mott “one of the most remarkable materializing mediums of the age.” 

By Diane Euston

  There’s always been a fascination with ghosts and the dead. What happens to someone after life has captivated people for centuries. 

  Spiritualism emerged in the 19th century predominantly among the middle and upper class and centered on the belief that the dead could communicate with the living. The most common image depicted in movies and in some practice today is the séance conducted in the dark, candles lit, and hands held around a table.

  Spiritualist practices were often more complicated than that, and the emergence of the medium who could communicate with the dead was the rage during the Victorian era.

  Were these mediums frauds – magicians of their day? Or, were these men and women actually able to manifest the spirits of those who passed? 

  One man – a medium who came from northeast Missouri became famous nationwide for his alleged ability to materialize the ghosts of those who passed in front of a small room of spectators. And when he arrived in Kansas City, there were skeptical people ready to expose him as a fraud.

John Harvey Mott’s Early Life and Introduction to Spiritualism

  John Harvey Mott, known by friends as Harve, was born in 1847 in Illinois to Elias P. Mott (1812-1893) and Susan Maxton (1812-1903). The fifth born of eight children, Harve’s father was a well-respected blacksmith and his mother was a very involved member of the Methodist Episcopal church.

   In 1859, the family decided to move further west and settled near Boonville, Mo, and by 1863, the family had relocated to Memphis, Mo. 

  When the Civil War broke out, Harve, three of his brothers and his father all joined the Union army while his mother and his sisters looked after the home. Harve served as a private in Company A of the 5th Missouri Calvary. 

  Harve’s older sister, Rachel, married a well-known businessman of Memphis named Horace Goodwin Pitkin (1830-1895). Pitkin ran a three-story dry goods and grocery store in Memphis and served on the board of a local bank.

Horace Pitkin, Medium Mott’s brother-in-law, introduced Mott to Spirtualism.

  Harve’s sister would later tell people that after the Civil War, Harve could feel himself going under the influence of spirits, and he was terrified. Albert Pitkin, a stepson of Harve’s sister, later said, “Harve fought with all his strength against the spirits, but they took control of him and made him do their bidding.” He recalled how on one occasion, Harve, a man with no musical talents, sat down and played the piano with no effort when a spirit took control of him.

  Harve was introduced to Spiritualism by his brother-in-law, Horace Pitkin.

  In 1866, Harve married Mary Knox (b. 1845) and began farming. Even though he was a deacon in the Methodist church, he continued to investigate Spiritualism, and it was said that his older brother, Loami, also was able to communicate with the dead.

  When Harve was invited to a séance at his brother-in-law’s house, it was said he went “into a trance and thereupon started upon his career as a medium.”

The Pilgrimage to Memphis, Mo.

  By 1874, John Harvey Mott, or “Medium Mott” as he was often referred, had developed a large reputation as a materializing medium. Standing 5’8” tall with no facial hair, deep blue eyes that were “a trifle cross-eyed,” Medium Mott was a sensation. He started offering seances at Pitkin’s house free of charge. But, his popularity and long lines to get in, naturally, led to an entrance fee.

  While many Spiritualist seances centered around tables conjuring spirits, the emergence of materializing mediums changed the game. Instead of lifting tables, mediums who could allegedly bring spirits forth in front of people became the rage. 

  Starting with the Davenport brothers in the mid-1850s, these mediums would build “cabinets” that would act as a place to trap spirits. These cabinets would separate the medium from the people “sitting” who hoped to hear from long lost relatives and friends and allow the medium privacy while conjuring spirits. The medium was often bound to a chair within the cabinet as unexplained phenomena surrounded them.

J. Harvey Mott was a materializing medium and utilized a cabinet for his manifestations. While Medium Mott sat inside a large cabinet that he called a “spirit room,” his wife, Mary would announce which paying visitor should step forward to the cabinet for a message.

  Medium Mott sat in a rocking chair, oftentimes bound, inside the spirit room off to the side. A small opening in the cabinet would be where faces of the dead would appear. Voices of the spirits were never louder than a whisper, “but different voices” would “come and go like dissolving views.” 

  The room in the Mott home was not completely dark, but lamps would be turned down in the room “like the twilight of an autumn day.”

  Medium Mott’s abilities attracted people from all over the country, and his humble cottage just south of the depot in Memphis on a hill became a pilgrimage for both Spiritualists and skeptics. The area where Mott’s house was became known as “Spirit Hill.” 

  Personal experiences of the phenomena conjured by Medium Mott ended up in the newspapers nationwide. In one account in November 1874, a Macon, Mo. man named Isaac Kelso claimed he, along with “an educated man from Kirksville” and three women from Canton, Ill. witnessed paranormal activity.

  Fittingly, the séance occurred during a thunderstorm with “muttering thunder and vivid lightening.” As Kelso approached the cabinet where a curtain concealed its hole, he witnessed a face appear in front of him. The face, “decidedly human,” was described as a man, dressed in black with short, dark hair and a long beard.

 The man from Kirksville recognized him as a man who died years earlier; he held a conversation with him for several minutes.

  The man disappeared into thin air and was replaced by a man with facial hair and glasses. One of the women from Canton sprung up to her feet; it was her father. She came forward, and Kelso wrote, “There she talked and wept for several minutes. It was truly touching.” Her father lost his life years earlier in St. Louis, and he told her he was murdered for his money.

  Kelso also was quite impressed with Medium Mott’s three-year-old daughter, Effie. She was able to write on a piece of slate a note to Kelso from his dead sisters. Every word was correctly spelled by Effie. “The child. . . has not yet been taught the alphabet,” Kelso commented.

  On another occasion, a woman from St. Louis went to a store and purchased two slates and a pencil, hellbent on exposing three-year-old Effie Mott as a fraud. A small piece of the pencil was placed in between the two slates and then screwed together.

  While the slate was in her hands, Effie put her hands on top of it “and immediately they heard the movement of the pencil writing.” The screws were removed, and both slates had writing on them – one directed to the woman from her deceased husband.

  Unfortunately, Effie died In 1876 after an illness of two weeks. In a short obituary in the Memphis Reveille, they commented, “She was an unusually bright little child.”

Exposing Medium Mott

  In 1878, the New Orleans Times wrote that Memphis, Mo. had become a “Mecca” where people would flock to see Medium Mott. The railway in the town was said to collect an income of $3,000 annually just from travel associated with the paranormal activity, and the medium was making about $20 a day.

  The Cairo Bulletin wrote, “The gullible people are strangers and many hundreds of these visit Memphis, pay their dollar per séance and are deceived to their heart’s content. . . Mott is a failure as a medium but not as a moneymaker.” 

  Clearly, not everyone was a believer. For every criticism written about Mott, there was a Spiritualist believer who would write a raving review of their experiences. 

  In May 1878, one man named James H. Pattee traveled from Monmouth, Ill. to Spirit Hill with a group of three other men. Although some of his friends were believers, 33-year-old Pattee was not and sought to expose Medium Mott as a fraud.

  “I procured a hollow ring with a small hole in front and at tube on one side which was placed in a hollow rubber ball,” Pattee explained. He filled the ball with aniline, a red dye. 

  At dusk, the men gathered in front of the spirit room, accompanied by Medium Mott’s wife and Mott’s brother-in-law, Mr. Pitkin. When Pattee was called to the cabinet, the curtains parted, and a spirit was awaiting him. Pattee recognized Medium Mott’s features in the manifestation.

  When the curtains parted, Pattee released a stream of aniline into the spirit’s face. Within seconds, the curtain closed. 

  Pattee casually took his seat, and a hissing sound came from the spirit room. Mary Mott entered the room, and after a brief commotion, she said urgently, “Mr. Pitkin, you are wanted.”

  When Pitkin peeked into the cabinet, he found Medium Mott in his rocking chair with red dye on part of his face. It was announced that the event “destroyed the conditions.” 

  Pattee, along with his friends, entered the cabinet and found Medium Mott had liquid resembling blood on his chin, cheeks and neck.

  Medium Mott denied the stains appeared where it was suggested; he said only one side of his face was stained since he was, according to him, sitting in the rocking chair well off to the side of the cabinet’s opening.

  Mott’s father, Elias, was no Spiritualist and said, “If a gun were placed with its muzzle at the cabinet aperture and fired into the spirit’s face it is his opinion that materializations would cease forever, so far as Harvey has anything to do with them.”

Kansas City Star Headline, Nov. 28, 1884.

Going to Kansas City

  In the summer of 1884, John Harvey Mott and his wife, Mary, relocated to a neat brick home at 822 E. 15thSt. in Kansas City. 

  Metropolitan areas across the nation like Kansas City were havens for Spiritualists. Well-respected citizens such as Dr. Joshua Thorne and newspaperman/civic leader Robert Van Horn (1824-1916) were self-proclaimed Spiritualists who often attended seances at some of Kansas City’s finest residences. 

  “It is not generally known that there are in Kansas City people who pretend that they can bring the souls of the departed back to earth, but such is the case,” the Kansas City Star wrote. “But there are respected men in Kansas City who believe this, and who spend much time in conversing with what they believe to be the friends of other times.” 

  A reporter visited Medium Mott’s new location in Kansas City, and although he remained a skeptic, he said there were many things that he couldn’t explain that happened during his time there.

  Medium Mott manifested a large following of believers in Kansas City, and his nightly seances drew swarms of people to his gate in a short amount of time. With this following came scores of stories of the medium’s talents.

  Of course, just as was true in Memphis, there were also skeptics ready to prove the medium to be a fraud.

  John B. Lawrence, editor of the Kansas City Journal, decided he would be the one to expose Medium Mott to his readers.

  On March 25, 1885, J.B. Lawrence entered Mott’s residence to attend a pre-planned séance. The plan also included Captain Ditsch of the police department who had a warrant charging J. Harvey Mott with “obtaining money under false pretenses.”

   In midst of the séance, Lawrence approached the cabinet opening so he could communicate with a dead relative as the police waited quietly outside.

  Taking from the playbook seven years earlier, J.B. Lawrence hid a syringe filled with aniline in his jacket. When the spirit appeared in the opening of the cabinet, he squirted the dye into the spirit’s face.

  The face disappeared, and seconds later, the police busted into the room and broke open the cabinet as Mrs. Mott yelled that her husband couldn’t be disturbed while in a trance because it would kill him.

A drawing in the Kansas City Times indicated the layout of the cabinet, or “spirit room” that Mott used in his seances.

  The officers found J. Harvey Mott inside the cabinet sitting in his rocking chair, his nose and mouth covered with the aniline. He was unconscious as officers examined the cabinet. They found that in the one-foot square space where the opening was, there was a false wall behind it.

  Mott was arrested. After paying a $200 bond, he was released.

  Interestingly, Robert Van Horn, a Spiritualist, was still a director of the Kansas City Journal –and J.B. Lawrence was acting editor. Lawrence openly called Mott a fraud in the newspaper.  

   Van Horn likely didn’t agree with him. In December 1884, Van Horn wrote a 12-page paper in the Kansas City Review of Science called “A Plea for the Occult.”

  He proclaimed in the pages, “If spirit does take on matter, as we see from our birth and growth, it must {have] had being before it did so. And if it had being before it manifested through matter, it cannot cease to be when the matter is worn out or destroyed as to that use. You may say this is not proved, but so we have said about great many things that have been proved.”  

. Harvey Mott’s arrest warrant was executed on March 25, 1885 and led to one of the most unusual cases in Jackson County Court’s history.

The Trial of Medium Mott

J. Harvey Mott’s career in Kansas City ended in a trial that in 1885 was described as “probably without exception the most extraordinary case in the history of the jurisprudence of this country and many of the legal questions brought up have never before been passed upon by any court.”

  Despite the accusations that Mott was “obtaining money under false pretenses,” Kansas Citians came to his defense. Samuel and Sally Ely along with John W. Dixon wrote a letter to the editor of the Times stating that “Mr. and Mrs. Mott are honest, worthy citizens, who are giving their lives to prove that our spirit friends can and do return to us. . . We know that Mr. Mott is an excellent materializing medium, and we believe he never has a single time deceived us.”   

  At the seances they had attended, they claimed to be visited by their parents, brothers, sisters and other relatives and friends that recalled events only the family would know. 

  The trial of Mott ended in April 1885; people had testified on Medium Mott’s behalf stating they saw spirits. But, the judge saw things a bit differently.

  The court’s decision included that there was no doubt that J. Harvey Mott was a fraud “and that the supernatural powers claimed by him are false and fraudulent. The court is not willing to believe that the spirits of the loved ones who have ‘crossed over the river’ can be recalled to the earth in a materialized form by Mott or any other human being.”

  However, it was ordered that Mott didn’t defraud or deceive anyone because “people went out of their own free will, and not on any solicitation by the defendant.” He was found not guilty.

  A lawyer with a leading law firm said it best. “You can’t conspire with a man to rob you and then sue him for it. This is the whole case in a nutshell.”

   Just one year before the trial, the newspapers had called Mott “one of the most remarkable materializing mediums of the age.” 

  In February 1886, J. Harvey Mott and his wife, Mary, packed their bags and moved to California, leaving the questions so many had of his mediumship unanswered.

Headline from the Kansas City Times, March 26, 1885

Spiritualism and Manifesting Mediums

  Just two months after moving to Santa Ana, Calif., Mary V. Mott died at 41 years old after a long illness. He had purchased a small ranch outside of Los Angeles and was planning to live out his life in peace; however, his wife’s death thwarted the plans.

  Three years later, he remarried, and in April 1889, Kansas City took notice when Medium Mott showed back up in the city.

  “I have returned to Kansas City with the intention of making it my home. Although I have been harshly criticized here, still I have many warm friends among whom I know I will be welcome,” the newspaper reported.

  He took up residence in the Schutte Building, and before long, Medium Mott couldn’t conjure up the energy to fight off his own illnesses. He died in March 1890 at the age of 43.

J. Harvey Mott’s last words were, “I’m going, but it’s alright. There is nothing before me. I see my way clear. I have no confession to make. I am going to the loved ones over there.”

  He had only about $1,000 left in his estate. His sister, Anna, inherited his famous rocking chair he used for his seances. 

  A few years after Medium Mott’s death, Robert Van Horn recognized Medium Mott and his wife, Mary at one of the many seances he attended. 

Robert T. Van Horn (1824-1916) was an early supporter of Spiritualism in Kansas City.

  By the early 20th century, materialization seances declined in their popularity due to so many exposures of fraudulent activity, but some mediums remained active, writing extensively of the power of their abilities. 

  William W. Aber (1861-1940), declared a “powerful medium,” once ran the First Church of the Soul at his residence at 2730 Holmes. He claimed in a book called “The Dawn of Another Life” written in 1910, that his old acquaintance, J. Harvey Mott, came through in a séance.

  He wrote, “The materializing medium is the only one who is the instrument through whom you can see the spirits face to face. . . I say God bless all the pure mediums, whoever they are, and you as Spiritualists, try to remember that the way to keep your mediums pure is not to demand too much of them. We will do all we can for you all on this side.”

J. Harvey Mott and other manifesting mediums appeared to some to have powers past scientific explanation. Medium Mott’s ability to capture some nonbelievers and entrance the large community of Spiritualists in Kansas City is an alluring thought even 138 years later.





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