The Case of Cora Scott Richmond?

Nearly Two Centuries Later, Her Story Still Arouses Debate

Thomas Edison may get all the credit for lighting up the world, but it was a woman—actually, a young girl—who began providing light well before Edison invented the light bulb in 1879. It was a different kind of light, however, more often referred to as “enlightenment.” Much of it had to do with what is called the “greater reality.”

Beginning in 1851, 11-year-old Cora Scott, born and raised in Cuba, New York, would go into a trance and speak on subjects far beyond her education, experience, and exposure. It was estimated that by age 18 she had given over 600 lectures on social, political, religious and reform matters, including the emancipation of the slaves, many to standing-room only crowds. During the winter of 1856, when she was just 16, she spoke to audiences of more than 5,000 in Philadelphia. It is said that President Abraham Lincoln, at the urging of Mary Lincoln, attended, with several congressman, one of her lectures on the abolition of slavery, in Washington, D.C., and that they were very much impressed by what they heard.

By the time she toured England and Scotland in 1874, at age 34, she had given, it was estimated, more than 3,000 lectures throughout the United States.

At age 14, she lectured to a large audience in New York City, stating, in part, that, “Man’s sphere is ascertained on Earth by the external application of his interior powers. Men rear grand architectural places, whose marble halls and lofty turrets are emblazoned with the choicest gems of Earth, surround themselves with every treasure of art, science, and beauty. The poet weaves for himself the silken robe of song in all nature a grand lyric of perpetual beauty. The sculptor chisels for himself an embodiment of his ideal of Nature’s perfect images. All these are but birth of the inferior man, and illustrate the sphereal or harmonic development of the soul…” Her lectures usually lasted around an hour.

One reporter described her as “a bright young woman, ‘divinely fair,’ in chaste attire, with clear cut features and sweet blue eyes, radiant with beauty, purity and intelligence from a righteous indwelling soul, crowned by a rich profusion of pretty, blonde hair, falling from a perfect typical head, in graceful ringlets upon her shoulders, with countenance benign and voice of melody orating in sweetest tones of deep, religious fervor, on the love of the infinite, the glories of the universe, and kingdom of the soul.”

In some of her lectures, the audience was asked to provide a topic. When the topic was given, Cora would immediately begin speaking extemporaneously and continue elucidating on the subject. Ministers, scholars, scientists, and lawyers attempted to confound her, but it was reported that all went away with their mouths shut or agape.

In 1854, Professor James J. Mapes, a renowned American chemist and inventor, traveled to Buffalo, New York, to observe and study the then 14-year-old girl. Mapes asked her to speak on “primary rocks,” to which she replied with a discourse on geology that left Mapes awestruck. “I am a college educated man, and have been all my long life an investigator of scientific subjects and associated with scientific men,” he reacted, “but I stand here this afternoon dumb before this young girl.”

On an earlier occasion, when Cora was just 13, Mapes asked her to explain the difference between absolute momentum and continuous force, to which she responded with an answer that was “perfectly intelligible” to Mapes and others present.

“She renders the most abstruse points perfectly understandable to the most common auditor,” Mapes declared. “In close analysis of words she is not surpassed, and her knowledge of natural law seems to be an intuition amounting to almost a certainty. Her high-toned moral character has at all times defied the tongue of calumny. In metaphysics she shows a degree of erudition hitherto among the greatest scholars of the world.”

A committee of scientific men queried 17-year-old Cora after a lecture given in Lynn, Massachusetts, during December 1857. The committee put the question to her: “Will you please define the Pythagorean proposition?” The immediate reply was: “Which proposition do you mean—the Moral Code or the so-called Scientific Proposition?” When no answer came from the committee, Cora took up the Moral Code. Following that discourse, a committee member asked, “What is the diameter of a bucket filled to the brim with water?’ The response was: “The diameter of a bucket of water is probably as great as the diameter of a cranial structure, destitute the grey material denominated ‘brain’ by so-called scientists.”

Another scientist asked, “When will two parallel lines meet in space?” She replied, “Two parallel lines will meet in space when a speaker can find intelligence for her interrogators and interpret that intelligence to themselves.”

During her 1874 tour of England and Scotland, The Telegraph, a London daily, reported: “For upwards of an hour the lady poured forth an uninterrupted flow of language, without hesitating for a single instance, sentences of the most involved character and abounding in parentheses, being evolved without apparent effort, and every word fitting into the place as in a child’s puzzle. Though somewhat devoid of elocutionary emphasis, her delivery was clear and telling, and her diction of a very high order.”

A report in the August 15, 1874, issue of The Bury Times of Bury, England read: “She is unlike many lady lecturers, having nothing of the masculine about her, either in appearance or style of delivery, but is quiet and ladylike. She has nothing of the strong-minded woman, which characterizes some of our American female cousins. Her voice is sweet and clear, but somewhat low in pitch. She spoke for perhaps three-quarters-of-an-hour on the abstruse subject, given in a very logical style, unusual certainly to a lady, apparently unaware of the subject to be chosen, as she must in this case have been… She was never at a loss for a word, and spoke easily and confidently throughout in what Spiritualists would call the trance state, but in this instance with the eyes open.”

The Newcastle Critic reported that, “her lectures are extraordinarily clever, no matter whether they are the result of spiritual inspiration or that inspiration which is common to thoughtful, intelligent minds. There is an eloquence, which we deem natural to this lady; her articulation is clear and deliberate, her figure is commanding and graceful and she possesses those qualities that are necessary to successful public speaking. Her knowledge is something marvelous, and that is shown by her ability in lecturing intelligently on any subject that may be chosen by the audience.”

According to Harrison D. Barrett, her biographer, Cora was one of the most famous women in the world during the late 1800s. Born on April 21, 1840, as Cora L. V. Scott, she was married at age 16 to Dr. B. F. Hatch, 34 years her senior. She was later divorced and married to Colonel Nathan Daniels. After Daniels succumbed to cholera, she married Colonel Samuel Tappan. After his death, she married William Richmond. Thus, she was known under five different surnames, although her 1895 biography by Barrett is titled Life Work of Cora L. V. Richmond.

Young Cora befuddled scientists, scholars, ministers, and journalists. One theory offered to explain it was called “psychological absorption,” which held that by merely putting her hand on a book or passing through a well-stocked library, Cora could absorb all knowledge stored in the book or in the library. At the same time, she would have had to discern it, organize it in her mind, and deliver it in a coherent and persuasive manner. Another theory was that she was mind reading, drawing from the minds of all those present. Still another far-fetched theory held that she was en rapport with the minds of eminent living men.

The skeptics were prepared to buy into anything but spirits of the dead, the explanation given by Cora, herself, or more accurately, through her lips while she was entranced. It was explained through her vocal cords that there were 12 spirits having different gifts or phases of knowledge controlling her. Some of these spirit guides were said to be from an ancient period and went unnamed, but several of them were from more modern times and were named. They included Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Thomas Paine, Daniel Webster, and Thomas Jefferson. It was reported that the utterances of Clay, Calhoun and Webster were readily recognized by people who knew them when alive.

As explained by Barrett, it seems to have started during the fall of 1851, when Cora fell “asleep” and wrote out a message from a deceased aunt for her mother. A few days later, when she was seated at the feet of her mother, who was sewing, she again fell “asleep” and her right arm began trembling. Remembering what had happened a few days earlier, her mother placed a pencil and slate in her hand. “She rapidly wrote one message after another signed by different members of the family who had departed to the spirit life, all of whom united in saying, ‘We are not dead,’” Barrett writes. “They also assured the anxious mother that they would not harm the child, for they had found through her a means of consciousness with those on Earth, and wished her to aid them in carrying out this work.”

Although, during the first four years of her mediumship, Cora was sometimes controlled by a deceased German physician to do healing work, it was made clear at the beginning that her mission was to be a platform speaker and to provide teachings from more advanced spirits relative to the meaning of life, along with an understanding of the spirit world. This came at a time when religion was being harshly impeached by science.

Some of the spirit communication came through in foreign languages, occasionally an ancient language, but a spirit named Ouina, said to be an American Indian who had lived some 420 years earlier, served as Cora’s chief guide and control, and was somehow able to interpret the foreign languages. Ouina also served as an intermediary for much more advanced spirits, who were at too great a vibration to effectively use Cora’s organism. At one lecture, Cora relayed a message in an Indian sign language to a member of the audience. The man rose from his seat, said that the sign language given through her was perfect, and though he had been a skeptic he was now a convert.

The Liverpool Courier reported: “Although it might be assumed by the advertisements that the lady is an American, she spoke with an unmistakable Scotch accent. The lady has a fine presence and much grace of manner, a clear and somewhat impressive delivery…”

An article appearing in the Daily Wisconsin during August 1857 described what took place before Cora began speaking. As she entered the trance state, her eyes rolled upward, followed by a slight nervous tremor throughout her entire body, “then an expression of mingled pleasure and surprise flits across her countenance, lips quiver, and the tears start in her large blue eyes, and then, with a spasmodic jerk, her face resumes a natural expression, but all glowing with a new animation appears to be intently gazing at the Spirits who are entrancing her.”

By the 1870s and 1880s, the educated world had adopted Darwinism and had for the most part totally dismissed religion and spirituality, failing to distinguish between religious dogma and spiritual truths. As a result, much of the press didn’t know what to make of Cora, but Wilbur F. Storey, editor of the Chicago Times, was very much impressed with her and published many of her lectures verbatim. (They were often recorded in shorthand.)

While touring California in 1883, Cora filled a hall with a capacity of 3,000 in San Francisco in successive weeks. The teachings were almost always prefaced with “we,” referring to the band of 12 spirits speaking through her, for example: “We can only say, study your souls as you do your bodies, pursue the science as you do any other. Make the lamp of the human spirit the subject of your inquiries and investigations and, like the happy astronomer who triumphed in the exercise of mathematical faith, you too shall triumph in the certainty of spiritual knowledge.”

Although the Near-Death Experience (NDE) was not so named until the 1970s, by Dr. Raymond Moody, Cora, as Cora L. V. Richmond, might have authored the first book about such out-of-body experiences, a 1923 publication titled, My Experiences While Out of My Body, published following her death that year. It is not entirely clear from her book, but the primary experience reported on appears to have come during a serious illness, when she was near death for a number of days several years before her actual death at age 82.

She begins the book by stating that it is impossible to adequately convey in human language what she actually experienced, especially in the higher states of the afterlife environment, and that the best she could do was make an attempt at offering some glimpses of her experience. She recalled a great sense of relief—of being set free from the limitations of the body and did not expect to return to it as she had previously done. “There was a perception of great Light, a consciousness of Illumination, an awakening to the vastness, the unlimitation of this Realm of Spirit,” she explained. “All else was swallowed up—eclipsed by the wonderful experiences that came—the Beloved Presences—the vistas of luminous Spirits! This was a state of Super-Consciousness; the awakening of faculties and perceptions before unknown, of being aware, almost without limitation; of KNOWING! Whatever is the nature and state of the real Ego this seemed as near to the Absolute as one could well conceive! There was so much of me! There was so little of me! There were so many and such surpassing spirits! How one shrinks in the presences of the mighty ones! How one expands in the Knowledge of the Infinite: His Image!”

She went on to write about deceased loved ones meeting her, a guide taking her on a tour of the spirit world, witnessing scenes in which spirits were attempting to minister to humans under their guidance, seeing her physical body from above, and not wanting to return to it. All of it, she concluded, “is perfectly clear and plain when one is in the unclouded, uncontaminated, and unconditioned Light of that Realm Radiant, but cannot be known when one is passing through the Shadows of Earth Experiences.”

By Michael Tymn