by Tim Gilmore, 9/3/2017
It had been almost 40 years, the senator’s wife told the committee chairman, since her father had purchased the Stradivarius.
“The owner of that violin had passed into the higher life. The boy who had inherited the violin was eight years of age, and left the violin with my father and disappeared.”
The great Harry Houdini sat comfortably by in a padded chair. The world’s most famous magician had spent much of the 1920s crusading against Spiritualism, leading in 1926 to what became known as the “Houdini Fortune Telling Bill” and Congressional investigations into Spiritualists.
Anna Louise Fletcher continued her story, saying she’d assumed the boy “had joined his father in the higher life.” Then the messages came. In 1924, “the directions” led her to the boy, now a man, who’d traveled “eight times around the world” and had lived in Russia and France. “He had known the city of Jacksonville had been destroyed entirely by fire, and supposed that his violin […] had gone that way.” After all these decades, Mrs. Fletcher reunited the man and the violin.
The boy was George Storck. The story of his survival of Jacksonville’s 1888 yellow fever epidemic had appeared in a book of the same year called Experiences in a Stricken City.
When Congressman Henry Rathbone told Mrs. Fletcher he found the story “remarkable,” but not necessarily dependent on the talents of Spiritualists, she responded, “May I say that these messages purported to come from my father, who was interested that I should return the violin to the boy to whom it belonged.”
Her father had been dead for years. Anna Fletcher then told the Congressman that her mother “was a natural medium,” and that her first memories were of “certain marvelous things which had happened in the family circle.”
In her 1929 book Death Unveiled, she writes that her mother, from her deathbed, heard the singing of a choir outside her window where no one was visible. Her mother told a nurse that her medicine stung her like a viper. A physician responded, “That is remarkable, because that remedy is made from the sting of a viper!”
The Flow of Light through Anna’s Last Home
The house in which Anna Louise Fletcher died is open, airy, graceful, and full of light. The simple elegant symmetry of the house faces Riverside Avenue with two bay windows either side of its many-paned front door. The wide central hallway opens the house from front door to back, each room graciously apportioned to the sides, the formal dining room to the left, the Spiritualist’s bedroom to the right.
Jennie Hugo, who operates her interior design firm in the house, has heard the central corridor flows so magnanimously wide because it was built to accommodate Mrs. Fletcher’s wheelchair. When her husband, Duncan U. Fletcher, former Jacksonville mayor and 27 year United States senator, died in the summer of 1936, Anna moved back to Jacksonville from Washington, D.C. and hired Britton Kirton, a young architect from the firm of Marsh and Saxelbye, to design her last home.
Ghosts of the Fire in the Mayor’s Mansion
Duncan and Anna married on March 23, 1881. After first locating his law offices in Jacksonville upon graduating Vanderbilt, Duncan soon served on the City Council and was elected mayor from 1893 to 1895 and again just after the Great Fire of 1901.
The Fletcher Mansion once stood at Church and Julia Streets, the intersection where several of Jacksonville’s grandest mansions rose just after the Great Fire. Only the 15,000 square foot Thomas Porter House remains now, but Anna Fletcher wrote of strange goings-on in the mansion her husband built just across the street.
Though the mansion was new, “an old woman had lost her life upon that spot, when she had returned to her burning cottage to secure some treasures. Only her spirit emerged and her so-called treasures were useless.”
Anna writes in Death Unveiled of how a “small picture fell from the wall” in the music room. “About ten days later a small picture, hanging in an upper hall, fell, with the wire broken in the same way.” Then, in the same room where the first picture had fallen, “an image toppled off its pedestal.”
Similarly, “on a landing leading to an upper hall,” a “grandfather clock” stopped and started of its own will. “It would start in the middle of the night, after days of silence.” Everyone heard “creaks and knocks about the home.” Then, one day, “a young lady” walked by the grandfather clock, “not touching it in any way,” and the clock “cast itself upon her, pinning her to the floor.”
Voices spoke out in the night in the dark spaces deep in the Fletcher Mansion, but anyone who emerged from a bedroom to answer the voices found no one present.
Ectoplasm and Photographs of Ghosts
Syndicated full-page stories appeared throughout the country in February and March, 1931, with such openings as: “Given here for the first time is an authorized account of recent spirit manifestations in the Washington residence of Mrs. Duncan U. Fletcher, wife of the Florida senator.”
Multiple images accompanied the story, including one of Anna Fletcher—wearing round-framed spectacles and a slender and tight-sleeved dress, her bosom overflowing with dainty coiled lace—and “the first actual flashlight photograph of a naked medium…parting the curtains of her cabinet…revealing to the camera’s lens a ghostly figure.”
Clara Louise Leslie writes, “The ghosts do not come to see Senator Fletcher. He has been too busy looking after the interests of Florida for the past two decades to indulge himself so far beyond the mundane. They come to see Anna Louise Fletcher, the senator’s charming little wife.”
Traditional gender divisions could hardly be more clearly drawn. Men took care of business, logical, practical, intellectual. Women indulged in fantasy and fancy, emotional, excitable, and at worst or at best, intuitive or witchy. Of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, was one of Spiritualism’s greatest advocates.
“Our bodies,” Anna says, “are to a certain extent electrical, or electrically motivated. Since our eyes do not measure light vibrations beyond a certain speed, or, as we may say, at the speed or tempo that constitutes the spirit world, a spirit, to become visible, would necessarily have to be ‘clothed upon’ with matter in our own range of vibration.”
She offers, to illustrate her point, the example of speaking by telephone, wherein the communicants “do not hear each other’s voices,” but “impacts in the air close about them.” Similar startlings in the close atmospheres of our perception might enable us to catch transmissions from beyond and alter them into channels and configurations we might recognize and understand.
At 11 pm, Clara Louise Leslie writes, the gray and wearied senator enters a room in his D.C. mansion just as a séance disperses. His only answer to his wife’s claims that ectoplasm has been successfully photographed is: “I don’t know.”
“Rosabelle Believe” / Interiors of Light
Anna Fletcher’s bedroom is today a model bedroom for Hugo’s Interiors. Decades of attorneys’ and medical offices preceded Jennie Hugo’s interior design practice here.
It’s been 79 years since Anna moved into this house where she died, 80 years old, two mornings before Christmas, 1941. In just two weeks, she’d developed a cold, then the flu, then bronchitis, from which she died in her room, her two daughters at her bedside. She’d lived here three years. One daughter lived in St. Louis, but her daughter Ellen, who’d previously lived in Dublin, Ireland, had moved in with Anna and continued to call this house home until 1953.
It makes a lovely poetic sense that the last home of a Spiritualist, the home in which she died (she—who sought to ease the minds and hearts of the bereaved by showing them they had not lost the loved ones for whom they grieved), shines with a soft and gracious light in the designs Jennie exhibits in the living room, the bedroom, the dining room, the parlor.
You might kneel either side of the bed in Anna’s old bedroom and accidentally echo her painless passing not into the afterlife, but into the “higher life,” that decades-gone-eve of Christmas Eve.
Anna had traveled across the country to speak on behalf of Spiritualism, including visits to the rural Florida Spiritualist community Cassadaga, established in 1875 near DeLand and the Ocala National Forest.
Anyone who read her book Death Unveiled with an open mind, she predicted, would respond one of three ways—“They will either ignore the subject and withhold judgment, or they will follow the subject and remain open-minded, or, if they are going to class it indiscriminately as fraud they will prove their statements.” Those who might treat her book otherwise, she says, “are injuring humanity.”
Anna had chosen to have no funeral. She’d have no service in any church. No pallbearers would carry her casket. Her body was simply, as she’d desired, lowered into the earth.
The house she had built for her death shines light and free, elegant and easy, well-windowed and open. Step into the central corridor from Anna’s deathbed, open the doors front and back, and give yourself to the current that charges through the heart and the spine of the house.
In 2007, Houdini’s grandson proposed digging up the magician to test the corpse for possible murder by Spiritualists. Houdini died on Halloween, 1926, five months after Anna Louise Fletcher’s testimony.
Just before he died at 52 of peritonitis, Houdini predicted Spiritualists would murder him. He’d employed H.P. Lovecraft to write against Spiritualism in his name. “Ghost writer.” He made a deal with Bess, his wife, that he would communicate with her, if he could, from beyond the grave. They’d agreed on a secret phrase: “Rosabelle believe,” referring to an 1882 waltz, but the world’s greatest escape artist never got out of death alive.
For 10 years, Bess held a séance every Halloween and waited for Houdini’s secret phrase. Once she claimed it came, then said it had been faked. In 1943, she explained why she’d finally given up on her husband’s ghost back in 1936.
“Ten years,” she said, “is long enough to wait for any man.”
But Anna Louise Fletcher’s final home invites us still to walk its lifeline through her central passage of light.