By Alex Matsuo
The story of Achsa White Sprague is an intriguing and fascinating journey from a sickly woman trapped in the confines of a darkened room to a strong woman who became a popular figure in the Spiritualist movement. Sprague became a popular figure as a Spiritualist trance medium and lecturer after she recovered from a serious illness, which in today’s medical terms would have most likely been rheumatic fever and arthritis. She also wrote several pieces for Spiritualist newspapers, as well as poetry of her own. How did Sprague’s journey eventually lead her to Spiritualism? Like a phoenix, Sprague rose from the ashes of an illness that left her as an “invalid” human being for several years, and credited spirits for her drastic improvement of her health. The progression of her health from independent to complete dependency from her mother is crucial to analyze in order to understand what motivated Sprague to rise in popularity and why she became so famous and active in reform in the first place.
Achsa White Sprague was born on November 17, 1827 to Charles and Betsey Sprague in Plymouth Notch, Vermont and she was one of seven children. She was a well-rounded child growing up and had a good education. At the age of twelve, she began teaching school children as a teacher herself. Unfortunately, at age of twenty, Sprague fell ill to a disease that left her bedridden as it weakened her joints. She had been an established schoolteacher, now unable to walk or even be able to write without great difficulty. Sprague began to keep a journal in 1849 and documented her feelings and her experiences undergoing several different types of medical treatment, in order to find a cure for her illness. In Anne Braude’s book, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America, Braude quotes Sprague’s opening diary entry as she describes her illness, “Once more, I am unable to walk or do anything else; have not been a step without crutches since Sunday and see no prospect of being any better; see nothing before me but a life of miserable helplessness” (Braude 100). Sprague suffered not only physically, but also mentally, and it was clear from her journal that she was dissatisfied with her current state.
Before Sprague fell ill, she was an independent woman who could support her family and rule the classroom with the upmost authority in her classroom. She was known throughout the town for her strength and independent lifestyle. It was indeed a long fall back to the bottom, as she became a dependant woman living in the backroom of her mother’s home in darkness. She depended on her family to take care of her and to help her in the basic daily rituals of life. In a quest to return to that once independent woman, Sprague was motivated to research as many possibilities for cures that she was able to obtain. She grew to not trust doctors and she longed to return to a life free of pain and to have a life of independence again. She began to research and investigate several different methods of treatment that varied from traditional and non-traditional cures. She was desperate to become well again. This desperation and urgency to get well laid the foundation for her reputation of becoming a prominent lecturer and Spiritualist figure after her miraculous recovery from the illness. But it would take years before she reached that state.
In a time where religious dependency on healing was prominent, Sprague drifted toward a different direction for healing options, as the treatments she was receiving before were not effective. Braude states that, “Before becoming a Spiritualist, Sprague became an expert on non-religious approaches to healing in antebellum America. She sought cures from a variety of practitioners, often traveling great distances to see a doctor reputed to have success with difficult cases. In addition to taking the medicine various doctors prescribed for her, she wore ‘galvanic bands’ for six weeks and was ‘magnetized’ repeatedly by a ‘psychologist’ (Braude 100). As she attempted as many treatments as she could, she became disappointed and bitter with the medical system and rebelled against her illness. If she couldn’t walk, she would ride horseback. She refused to accept defeat and succumb to the illness.
From her diary writings, Sprague was showing signs of depression from her lamenting diary entries. She didn’t complain of pain, but she longed to return to her more able physical state. But in 1828, the news of the “Rochester Rappings” quickly became popular around the country. As people began to talk about spirits more often in their homes, Sprague was no exception. She was very open and receptive to the idea of Spiritualism. Braude again quotes from Sprague’s diaries, “Tis a beautiful idea, that our departed friends are around us and with us, that they can come back to guard us from temptation, to soothe us in affliction and win us from sin” (Braude 102). Sprague was no stranger to death and loss of loved ones and the people around her. When she was in the earlier stages of her illness, Sprague lost her brother Ephraim, and the town of Plymouth Notch experienced a loss of several townspeople to death for various reasons. During the last few years of her confinement and illness, Sprague stopped writing in her journal. The reason varied from her condition preventing her to write or she lost hope and interest for a brief period of time. She was only able to describe the books she was reading with very short statements that only consisted of a few words.
It wasn’t until 1854 when Sprague’s life changed forever. Not only did her life change for her personally, but society as well. This would be the year that Sprague was able to get out of bed and walk. She made nearly a full recovery and she credited spirits and “angelic powers” for her miraculous healing as if the voice of God told her to rise, and she did. From then on, she adopted a strong belief of mental healing because there was nothing that was physically tangible that could be credited to her miraculous healing from her illness. After her recovery, she started to work on her ability as a trance medium and from her inspiring story of healing; Sprague began to tour around the United States and Canada as a lecturer. Like many Spiritualists, Sprague was an abolitionist and fought for women’s rights. In the Proceedings of the Vermont Historical Society, Francis P. Twinem (under the pen name Leonard Twynham) accounts when she first discovered her gift for public speaking when she was “Provoked to public debate by a minister’s condemnation of Spiritualism” (Twynham 273). Sprague was developing a reputation for being a strong, independent woman who often took on the role of a male when it came to public speaking in roles such as, for example, officiating public funeral services. Her skills in public speaking earned her the title of “The Preaching Woman.”
After Sprague became well, she remained cautious of what was modern medicine in her day, and eventually rejected the idea all together. Twynham goes on to state, “She abandoned the materia medica of the day and experimented with magnetizing processes, with galvanic bands, with sensational séances, and seems to have come finally to a sane faith in mental healing, the basic doctrine of Mrs. Eddy, Dr. Worcester, and Professor Murray” (HS 273). She also experimented with different methods of hypnotism and different techniques of trance mediumship. Sprague believed herself to be under the complete control of spirits. She wrote 4,600 lines of her work, The Poet and Other Poems, in 72 hours and on her back. This is a remarkable feet for a human being to accomplish. The poems were not organized or carefully crafted, but instead they displayed the emotional turmoil and anguish of spirits that Sprague was connecting to at the time of the writing.
During her lectures, she would go into trances and speak in different voices. She became a very high demand lecturer and people flocked to hear her speak. There were many Spiritualist towns that strongly believed that in order for their community to prosper and succeed, they needed Sprague to come and speak to their people. This truly shows the amount of impact that Sprague had on the Spiritualism world and how strong of a figure she was to the people. Sprague also wrote for Spiritualist newspapers such as The Banner of Light, The Green Mountain Sibyl, The Peoples World, and The World’s Paper. She wrote several pieces including books, poetry, articles, and even a play. There were several pieces that remained unpublished. She was a well-known figure whose presence was demanded all over the United States and Canada. The people could not get enough of this amazing woman as she rose to fame and made an impact in the world around her.
Sprague played a large role in women’s reform and broke the status quo of the role of women in her time. She also visited prisons and became an advocate for more humane treatment of the country’s prisoners. This was very unheard of for a woman to do that in her time. She took on authority and also exhibited a unique personality that attracted many people to her and also intrigued people to read her writings. Braude describes her popularity, “Within a few months of her first lecture, she was filling halls in Boston, where local Spiritualists implored her to extend her visit […] From complete dependence, she attained a remarkable degree of independence for a woman of her day, supporting herself with lecture fees and traveling alone from state to state […] Sprague embodied in her life the optimistic doctrines of her adopted faith” (Braude 105). In 1861, Sprague’s previous illness returned and began to affect her in a much more dramatic way. The time of traveling and bracing harsh winters had taken a toll on her body and weakened it for the second round of her illness. Achsa W. Sprague died a year later at the young age of thirty-four on July 6, 1862. Her death greatly affected the Spiritualist community and they suffered a tremendous loss. Sprague’s popularity grew even larger after her death and her legacy continued to live on.
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Braude, Ann. Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America. Boston, MA: Beacon, 1989. Print.
Britten, Emma Hardinge, John H. Dadmun, and George W. Walrond. Nineteenth Century Miracles: Spirits and Their Work in Every Country of the Earth. New York: Published by William Britten, 1884. Print.
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Sprague, Achsa W. The Poet, and Other Poems. Boston: W. White and, 1865. Print.
Twynham, Leonard. “Achsa W. Sprague.” Proceedings of the Vermont Historical Society (1941): 271-79. Print.