On October 26, 2022

The conjurors of Chittenden: fact or fable?

By Julia Purdy

The small farming community of Chittenden, lying between Mendon and Pittsford, was about as peaceful and out-of-the-way as one could want … with one exception: the Eddys. And on everyone’s mind: were they for real?

This is not a story about Mary Baker Eddy (her married name), a New Hampshire-born spiritualist healer who founded the Church of Christ, Scientist in 1879 and is buried in the Mount Auburn Cemetery among the literary titans of the New England awakening, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. However, the Eddys appear to be all distantly descended from forebears who emigrated to Massachusetts in the early 1600s.

In the mid-19th Century, spiritualism was sweeping the Northeast. There were the Fox sisters in Rochester, New York, and the trance medium and abolitionist Achsa Sprague in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. It has been speculated that the horror of the Civil War, when so many families never saw their loved ones again, kindled a desperation to stay in communication. The craze may also have been partially a break from the harshness of Calvinist orthodoxy. In many instances, practitioners credited spirit intervention in recovering from serious illness.

The matriarch, Julia Macombs Eddy, was a known clairvoyant and psychic who passed her “second sight” on to her large family. Strange occurrences that defied the laws of physics, otherworldly visitations, dramatic healings, disembodied voices and sounds, all were standard fare for the siblings.

In any case, Father Zepheniah Eddy, though skeptical and probably in need of cash, farmed out several of his kids as psychic prodigies to traveling spiritualist shows, who subjected the teenagers to severe abuse to prove to audiences the manifestations were real.

With both parents dead, in 1872 the Eddy children — now young adults and as usual in dire need of money — opened a small inn in the farmhouse, the Green Tavern on the current Chittenden Road in North Chittenden, which included a small séance parlor, the “Circle Room,” on the second floor.

The parlor consisted of a small seating area facing a stage with a curtain drawn aside just enough to reveal the medium, typically William or Horatio. The guests were told to hold hands to complete a circle of energy.

There was the “light circle” — dimly lit — during which the medium would go into a trance and summon spirits to reveal themselves. Personages from beyond the grave would appear, move around the room and converse familiarly with members of the audience.

The “dark circle” was held in pitch dark- ness, when audience members felt them- selves being touch or handed an object.

Other goings-on included disembodied hands writing messages on paper and free- floating musical instruments being played above the curtain, levitation, speaking in tongues, prophesying, character readings from sealed letters, hearing of spirit-voices.

There were even outdoor séances in

the surrounding woods, at a rock formation dubbed Honto’s Cave.“Honto” was
an apparition that occasionally visited the indoor séance sessions as well, in the form of an Indian maiden. Since Indigenous people were still a common sight in towns throughout Vermont, the existence of “Honto” would surprise no one.

Skeptics tested the veracity of the visitations by searching for a hidden door by which actors in costume could enter unseen. The floor was pried up. Things were thrown at the apparitions.

Eddys were repeated challenged and debunked by professional psychics but they effectively convinced many in the paranormal community worldwide. Paranormal psychic investigator Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and Theosophical Society founder Madame Blavatsky made a pilgrimage to the farm in 1874. Both were there to confirm — or not — what they had heard about the Eddys. Their findings were inconclusive. Houdini was invited but he declined.

The Eddy house is still standing and is private property, as is Honto’s Cave. For more information contact the Chittenden Historical Society, chittendenhistory.org.

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