Mediums in the Midwest: the 1800s American Spiritualism Movement
By Mary Giorgio
In 1848, a strange phenomenon took hold across America. Claiming that they could communicate with the dead, Margaret and Catherine Fox toured the country demonstrating their methods. Strange knocking or rapping sounds in reply to their attempts to reach the spirits were widely seen as proof that such communication was possible. The Modern American Spiritualism Movement was born.
Indiana and the Midwest were no exceptions to the national enthusiasm for the movement. Spiritualist societies popped up across the Hoosier state. Such was the momentum behind the movement that it was more than 100 years before interest significantly waned.
Indiana’s champion of spiritualism was John Westerfield of Anderson. Westerfield began arranging for speakers on topics of mesmerism and clairvoyance in the 1840s to lecture at Anderson’s Union Hall. Following the death of his young son in 1855, Westerfield was drawn further into the spiritualist movement. He and his wife began to host seances to communicate with their dead son. Their experiences led them to become deeply involved in the Spiritualist movement.
By the early 1880s, the spiritualism movement had become so popular across America that spiritualist camps began to open as gathering places for like-minded spiritualists and their followers. The Westerfields visited one of these camps in 1883. They were so inspired by Frazier’s Grove, Michigan, that when they returned home, they began making plans for a similar establishment in Indiana.
In 1886, Westerfield formed the Indiana Association of Spiritualists, a group that has remained active for more than 130 years. In 1891, the association purchased land along the banks of the White River in Chesterfield, Indiana. There, they created Camp Chesterfield. Initially, the camp was rustic, with simple tents and summer cabins.
Soon, a shared dining hall, auditorium, séance cabins, and lodging house were built. Newer buildings replaced these early structures in the 1910s. Construction of new buildings continued post-World War II. The last structure, an art gallery, opened in 1958. By then, interest in the movement had substantially decreased and the camp’s attendance dropped significantly.
The camp was not without controversy in its heyday. In 1925, the quiet camp was hit with scandal when 14 of its mediums were arrested for operating under false pretenses. Charges were later dropped. In July of 1960, the Psychic Observerpublished an expose revealing that two filmed seances were hoaxes. In 1976, former camp medium M. Lamar Keene published his memoir, in which he admitted to defrauding customers.
The camp survived these allegations and continues to operate today. The camp is open to the public. Visitors can explore the grounds or make an appointment for a reading with a medium. In 2002, Camp Chesterfield was designated as a historic district and listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its significance as one of the last few spiritualist camps that were so popular in the United States at the start of the twentieth century.