The hand that rocks the cradle Is the hand that rules the world.
Thus runs the old adage, suggesting that the influence of mothers over sons and daughters is what finally determines who will rise to positions of leadership in the world.
This seems to be true, and then some, for William Lyon Mackenzie King (1874-1950), Prime Minister of Canada for 22 years between 1921 and 1948. King’s mother, Isabel King, daughter of William Lyon Mackenzie, a famous pre-confederation Canadian political rebel, had a powerful shaping influence on her eldest son while she was alive; after her death, at numerous séances arranged by or attended by King from 1920 to 1950, she continued to offer her famous son counsel and support.
Other deceased members of King’s family, including his brother, sister, father, and grandfather William Lyon Mackenzie, also regularly visited him from beyond the grave, as well as deceased political luminaries whom he admired, such as King’s mentor and predecessor Canadian Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier (1841-1919) and British Prime Ministers Lord Earl Grey (1764-1845), Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), and William Ewart Gladstone (18091898). King also, or so he recorded, received spirit messages from his best friend, Henry Albert (“Bert”) Harper, who died at age 27 while trying to save two people from drowning (King wrote a book about Bert called The Secret of Heroism). Other friendly spirits who reportedly dropped by for a visit with King were U.S. Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) and Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1511), and deceased ministers of King’s Liberal cabinet like Minister of Defense Norman Rogers (killed in a plane crash on June 10, 1940). Even King’s deceased Irish terrier, Pat, occasionally made his presence felt.
According to King’s diaries and witnesses who spoke after his death, the Canadian Prime Minister never sought advice from these disembodied visitors about how to run the country and never followed advice proffered to him in unsolicited fashion. During one clandestine visit in London, he told an eminent British medium that, “he made it a rule to ignore advice thus given: he trusted solely to his own and his advisors’ judgment.”
Born in Berlin (now Kitchener), Ontario, King received an M.A. in political science from the University of Toronto, then the same degree, along with a Ph.D. in political economy, from Harvard. King was Canada’s first Minister of Labor, in the pre-World War One Liberal government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Out of politics during the war, he spent much time in the U. S. studying labor problems. King became Prime Minister in 1921; he immediately set about drawing up and enacting important pro-labor legislation. During his entire tenure as Prime Minister, King never lost sight of a personal mission to protect the interests of labor, of minorities, and of the downtrodden in general. During the Second World War, with Canadian troops fighting on a voluntary basis in Europe, King sought to stave off conscription, which had angered the one-third of Canadians of French descent (who felt no loyalty towards the British Empire) during World War One; the unity of Canada had been threatened. King held fast in his goal until late 1944. Over the years he masterminded the careful and gradual, complete separation of Canada from the British Empire. King retired in 1948; by April of that year he had been in office over 21 years, breaking the record of 7,619 days set by British Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole in the 1700s. Mackenzie King still holds the record as the longest-to-be-inpower elected head of state in the English-speaking world.
King never married, though his name was romantically linked with a number of prominent women, including Julia Grant, the granddaughter of Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln’s conquering general during the Civil War and later U.S. President. Violet Markham, a wealthy British woman very active in human rights causes, who gave King financial support and became a close friend, wrote that “the mother-cult stood between him and the normal ties of wife and child, which can humanize and soften the often inhuman job of politics.” Perhaps this mother-cult, persisting in King long after her death, is one reason why the bachelor Prime Minister was open to séances and to talking to the dead, especially to members of his family, and especially to his mother. But King was also intensely interested in the nature of psychic phenomena and spiritualism, and towards the end of his life was well-versed in this subject.
If King’s infinitely—and eternally—caring mother dominated the séances, Mackenzie King’s grandfather, William Lyon Mackenzie (1795-1861), came a close second. In 1837, the territories that would become the Dominion of Canada in 1867 consisted of four British colonies: Upper Canada, Lower Canada, Quebec, and Nova Scotia. In the pre-confederation year of 1837, fiery Scots-immigrant orator/reformer William Lyon Mackenzie fomented an armed rebellion against the heavy-handed, elitist oligarchy, or “Family Compact,” that ruled Upper Canada. He sought the ultimate independence of Canada from the Great Britain with which these Family Compacts were intimately allied by family ties as well as politics. Mackenzie’s rebellion failed; but the man who came to be called the “little rebel” is regarded as a hero in Canada today. King’s brilliant firebrand of a grandfather was an inspiration to him as he “climbed the greasy pole” (in the words of Benjamin Disraeli, who also apparently spoke to King from the spirit world) to achieve supreme power as Canada’s Prime Minister.
King’s séances were often conducted alone or with one other person as “table-rapping” sessions. Other modes of spirit communication were used as well. A séance conducted in Laurier House, Ottawa, on February 24, 1932, with King’s friend Joan Patteson, another friend, and the medium Mrs. Etta Wriedt in attendance, well conveys the special flavor of these otherworldly events. A silver-colored trumpet was placed in the center of the floor. The participants gathered around it on their chairs. Feeble voices emerged from the trumpet. One sounded like a gasping, drowning person, another like someone “emerging from ether,” according to one participant. After a few early, tentative sallies, King’s mother addressed the Prime Minister: Yes, Billy, it is your mother. Father is here too and Grandfather. They are very proud of you. We are all here watching you. Now here is Grandfather. William Lyon Mackenzie told the participants: I lost much in the Rebellion. As my grandson knows, one makes great sacrifices in public life. He works so hard. I worked so hard. But it was different work. There are difficult times. Time does not exist over here. I want my grandson to know that I love him and I will always be with him.
Twelve years later, on December 2, 1944, at a session at Joan Patteson’s Ottawa residence (table-rapping being the mode of communication), a host of deceased political luminaries praised King for having held out on conscription until then (he would very soon have to give in). The shade of Sir Wilfrid Laurier told him: The victory has been complete. You have outflanked your enemies at every turn. When King asked him if he had done the right thing, Laurier replied, Absolutely. It was the only thing to do. God directed your course. God guided your steps from day to day. God will guide you to the end. William Ewart Gladstone chimed in, Laurier is right. God is your strength and guide. And King’s deceased father added: Your Mother and Grandfather Mackenzie and my father are all here together. We are proud of you. You have saved Canada from civil war. King’s deceased French-Canadian second-in-command, Ernest Lapointe, added some words: I have been there to guide and direct your actions. You have done the right thing. Quebec has faith in you.
Did Mackenzie King really believe he was talking to deceased loved ones and some of history’s great men? In mid1932, after an exciting week of séances at his summer residence in the Gatineau hills near Ottawa, he wrote in his diary:
“There can be no doubt whatever that the persons I have been talking with were the loved ones & others I have known and who have passed away. It was the spirits of the departed. There is no other way on earth of accounting for what we have experienced this week. Just because it is so evident, it appears hard to believe.”
King also had dreams and visions almost daily, often associated with his dead mother and even with his Irish terrier Pat, that seemed to him to confirm the validity of his séance-initiated encounters with the dead. Martin Ebon writes that King’s diary records show that “he found confirmation of his belief in his mother’s desire to communicate with him when his shaving lather bore the likeness of his mother and of two dogs. . . . [He also] had a vision of his grandfather standing at the back of a small church. Simultaneously, he saw himself walking his dog Pat into the Parliament building in Ottawa. In the vision, King was wearing a white cap, carrying a spade and walking in wet slippers. Seeking to interpret this vision, the Prime Minister wrote: ‘I have no doubt that the spade means keep digging. Little Pat, and the spirit he represents, is at my side.’ He felt that the wet slippers were a warning to be careful not to catch cold.”
Writing in the third and final volume of his biography of the long-term Prime Minister, Historian Blair Neatby concludes that King “knew he could not rely on the information he received but even this was not important. What he wanted most of all was some contact with those who had been close to him, some assurance that they still watched over him and still loved him. It was not political advice he wanted but some sign of the presence of the departed.” Neatby sums up: “Mackenzie King… found the reassurance he needed in the almost daily signs of the presence of loving spirits. It was almost paradoxical that this faith in the occult, which some might have interpreted as evidence of emotional instability, gave King the stability to cope with the strains and stresses of a long political career.”
C.P. Stacey declares, in A Very Double Life: The Private World of Mackenzie King, “All throughout his life, Mackenzie King in his spiritualistic period was a worried and insecure individual seeking for support. It was support, strength, not advice, that he asked for and received from the spirits. Mainly, he wanted approval, and by a strange coincidence that was what he usually got. The spirits did not, in general, tell him what to do; they told him that what he had done, or what he had decided to do, was right. Thus they sent him on his way with confidence renewed.”
Many of King’s friends and colleagues knew about his adventures in the spirit world. Journalist Blair Fraser wrote in the December 15, 1951, issue of the Canadian magazine Maclean’s: “To his real intimates he made no secret of these beliefs. Some of them joined him many times in sessions with the Ouija board in Ottawa. They knew from his own lips what comfort he got from his ‘communion with the dead.’ ” Fraser added that nobody told the Prime Minister’s secret for an obvious reason: “If the facts were publicly known, people might have thought the affairs of Canada were being conducted on advice from the spirit world.” Almost everyone kept the secret until well after King’s death. Only the publication of his diaries in 1950-1953 finally alerted the world to his un-Prime Minister-like interest in the occult. The fact that King owned and used both a Ouija board and a crystal ball was revealed in Time magazine in 1953.
Mackenzie King’s voluminous personal papers were eventually acquired by Library and Archives Canada. Unfortunately, in 1977, his literary executors made the decision to burn the notebooks in which mediums in Canada, the U.S., and Britain had recorded their impressions in response to questions King had asked. Then remaining records of his Spiritualist activities were closed, to be opened to researchers only in 2001, a full 50 years after King’s death. King’s diaries, however, are now online; for the determined researcher, there may well lie, hidden in the intricacies of their details, proof that the brilliant, Harvard-educated Canadian Prime Minister was far from misdirected in his occult interests.