The history of modern Spiritualism weaves itself throughout the history of America and the Western World. While there were – and still are – those who genuinely believe communication with “the other side” was possible, most Spiritualists who advertised their gifts turned out to frauds. Topeka was not immune from this trend. A perfect example of this is the story of William W. Aber, Topeka’s own fake Spiritualist.
What is Spiritualism?
Modern Spiritualism began in the 1840s in a small town in upstate New York. It quickly grew to become one of the greatest – and most divisive – religious movements of the 19th century. Almost all historians point to modern Spiritualism beginning in 1848 in Hydesville, New York, where sisters Maggie and Kate Fox began communicating with a “spirit” in their home through rappings and knockings. The girls became a phenomenon. Before long they were communicating with spirits around the nation in front of hundreds of rapt audience members.
Soon, there were spiritual mediums in almost every town. America’s new religion had taken root and showed no signs of stopping.
Frauds and fakes
Although there were people who truly believed they had the ability to communicate with spirits, there were also many frauds looking to make money off the grief-stricken. The Fox sisters eventually revealed themselves to be frauds. They confessed they created the ghostly knocking by cracking the joints in their feet.
Frauds were so prevalent that world famous magician, Harry Houdini, made it his life’s work to expose every fake medium he could find. There were even secret catalogs available to fake mediums that offered ghost figures, fake ectoplasm, self-playing guitars and self-writing slates.
William W. Aber comes to Topeka
One of these frauds became well-known in Topeka. William Wallace Aber was born on Nov 15, 1861, in Yates, New York (just an hour and a half west of where the Fox sisters discovered their “gift”). According to his biographical summary, his family moved around the United States after his father died, eventually settling in Topeka in the early 1880s. William Aber first went to work as a cigar maker. In his book, Rending the Veil (1899), Aber claimed he knew from an early age he had spiritualist gifts. Around 1881 he sat in on a séance held by a Mrs. Holladay in Topeka, where the spirits declared him to be a powerful medium. Aber recalled:
“I then arranged for séances of my own. It was one year before I was sufficiently developed for the public, but I was being put under all kinds of test conditions with success all the time. Spirits urged that I follow it, and it would not be a great while until they would be able to produce great results. So, in 1882, I went before the public, at Topeka.”
Aber’s star rises
A few years after the “debut,” Aber made news when he claimed to have discovered a 20-inch coal vein about 12 miles outside Topeka. In a newspaper article, which noted that Aber was “well known to some […] as a so-called materializing spiritual medium,” he claimed an “invisible aid” helped him discover the vein. This discovery, however, was most likely a publicity stunt concocted by Aber, as there is no further mention of this miraculous coal vein.
This publicity stunt did pay off. As word of Aber’s mediumship reached J.H. and Josephine Pratt of Spring Hill, Kansas, they quickly became Aber’s patrons. In September 1888, Aber moved in with the Pratts and began “holding séances there almost daily, to June 1890.” Aber did not wish to abandon his clients, as it appears he continued to keep his address in Topeka, where he advertised both private and public séances.
Indecent proposals from a “Spirit”
In the 1890s Aber’s true colors began to show themselves. Aber had a room at the Olmstead residence on Topeka Avenue, near 6th Street. He soon became enamored with Mrs. Olmstead. One night he asked if she wanted to speak with the spirit of her first husband. The “messages” from this spirit soon turned suggestive, saying “she should that night visit Aber in his room.” Mrs. Olmstead was appalled and called off the séance. Aber said the messages had been the work of an “evil spirit” and he had nothing to do with it.
A few weeks later, on Nov 10, 1892, Aber once again propositioned Mrs. Olmstead through a message from her “husband.” She quickly alerted the county attorney, and Aber was arrested and put in the county jail for three days on the charge of “indecent exposure.” He was released on Nov 14 after Mrs. Olmstead had been persuaded to drop the charges. After this, Aber disappeared from Topeka for a few years. No doubt he was trying to let his brush with the law fade from the minds of the public.
The Aber Intellectual Circle
In 1898 Aber returned to Topeka and began advertising his services as a medium once again. He even performed with his wife, Sallie, at the Kansas State Fair in Topeka. Aber also returned to his work with the Pratts in Spring Hill, where he formed the Aber Intellectual Circle, a psychic society.
During séances held by the Circle, the “spirits” began to urge Aber to write a book. In 1899 he published Rending the Veil an account of the various séances held by the Aber Intellectual Circle. The book named those who were in attendance and which spirits came through. Aber was miraculously able to regularly produce the spirits of Thomas Paine, Michael Faraday, John Pierpont, Mohammed, Voltaire and Abraham Lincoln, as well as the departed loved ones of those in attendance.
By this point Aber was regularly using a spiritual cabinet. The “bust shadowy forms [would] talk and write” from the window of the cabinet. Conveniently, these spirits only appeared when Aber was sequestered in the spiritual cabinet, out of sight of the participants. Any time the spirits did not manifest (or manifested poorly), Aber would blame the “new magnetic influences” of visitors to the circle who might not believe as strongly as true members of the Aber Intellectual Circle.
By the turn of the century Aber had pulled up stakes in Topeka. Whether this was because he was outed as a fraud, or his criminal behavior caught up with him, is unknown. But William Aber seemed incapable of staying out of trouble for long.
In the early 1900s Aber’s fraudulent séances were exposed several times in the Kansas City area. In one instance he was exposed by two men who were worried about a woman who had been seeing Aber to contact her deceased husband. The two men grabbed Aber, who was dressed as a “spirit.” Aber managed to escape and locked himself in the bathroom until authorities arrived.
He tried his luck again on the West coast. Authorities arrested Aber in Seattle in 1920 while, once again, dressed as a ghostly apparition. He was told to leave town. Newspapers across the nation carried the humorous headline “Ghost Fined and Must Walk Earth Elsewhere.”
William Aber spent the last few decades of his life in California, where he was the leader of a variety of new-age and Spiritualist churches. The 1930 U.S. Census listed his occupation as a theater showman. He died on Jan 10, 1940, in Chicago, Illinois, at the age of 78.
Learn more at library event
Fri, Oct 13, 6:30-7:30pm I will talk about the history of spiritualism during the event Beyond the Veil in Marvin BC. You’ll learn about Spiritualism’s connections to both the Civil War & World War I, and how it led to a battle of words between Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle and Houdini.