|The Marion H. Skidmore Library, Lily Dale, New York|
The advent of Modern Spiritualism is a fascinating part of American history that empowered women and returned to them the role of healer just as Western medicine as we currently understand it was emerging. Beyond that, it has been suggested that high rates of mortality due to infectious disease and war during the mid-to-late nineteenth century motivated members of a growing leisure class to explore communication with the spirit world. The complex relationship between biology (mortality) and culture (religion) demands further investigation.
Lily Dale, New York, is one of the oldest Modern Spiritualist communities in the United States whose history is chronicled in both its library and museum. Marion Skidmore was one of the founding and most influential members of the early Lily Dale community as well as the organizer of its library. Originally just a tent in the middle of the early campground, the Marion H. Skidmore Library now boasts solid construction and a rare collection of the earliest published works on a wide variety of topics, some written by Spiritualists and others written by the spirits themselves. While Skidmore was a strong and formidable woman, Librarian Amanda Shepp suggested that perhaps the loss of Skidmore’s children was the driving force behind her passion for Spiritualism. Marion Skidmore’s library had no shortage of stories of women like her, who overcame tragedy or the limitations placed on them by social convention and accomplished great things.
|Antoinette Matteson. From The Occult Family Physician and Botanic Guide to Healing|
available at the Marion H. Skidmore Library, Lily Dale, New York.
Because I am interested in women as healers, I was drawn to Antoinette Matteson, another strong and independent Spiritualist. She was benevolent, powerful, controversial and talented. As an adult she was known as a clairvoyant healer. She would achieve a trance state to diagnose and devise the treatments for illnesses. Her book, The Occult Family Physician and Botanic Guide to Healing, published in Buffalo, New York in 1894, describes her methods for diagnosis and her receipts for treating a variety of ailments. A first edition signed by the author can be found at the library in Lily Dale.
Mrs. Matteson did not have a medical license, but practiced under the authority of the New York State Association of Spiritualists. Herbal remedies were given to Antoinette by her spirit guide, who was a Native American medicine woman. Her passion for herbal healing is evident in the passage below from her book:
Our object is to give our quota to strengthening the bulwarks of Medical Botany, and we wish it to be so in truth, and trust that the day is not far distant that it will be taught in our public schools, so that the people may gain sufficient knowledge to enable them to remove all diseases that flesh is heir to, and that man may know himself and leave not a single outlet but that of old age. For such is our confidence in the benevolence of the Creator, that within the vegetable kingdom may be found remedies for all the maladies of mankind.
Originally from Boden, Germany, Antoinette came to the United States in the 1850’s at the age of five and lived in the Western New York area, eventually settling in Buffalo. She married Judah H.R. Matteson, a blind musician, in 1867 and had six children. Interestingly, several of her children also found a passion in healing. Her daughter, Martha, attended the Medical Department of the University of Buffalo and graduated in 1891. A second daughter, Nellie, followed in her mother’s footsteps as a spiritual healer and took over Antoinette’s substantial practice upon her retirement in 1912. Her son, George, eventually took over the manufacturing of her herbal remedies and sold them through newspaper advertisements.
Mrs. Matteson practiced what she called The Medicine of Nature for several decades. By many accounts she was a respected healer and had a lucrative practice. There were, of course, those who doubted her abilities. In January of 1882 The Buffalo Evening News reported that she was arrested for telling bad fortunes based on the complaint of a man whose wife became convinced that he was trying to kill her so that he could be with another woman. The man accused Mrs. Matteson of delivering this premonition to his wife, who subsequently ran off. Antoinette vehemently denied both the accusation of fortune telling and that the woman had been a client of hers, resulting in the need to secure an attorney for trial. Unfortunately, a report of the outcome of said trial could not be found.
During the final two decades of the nineteenth century, her name was often found in the newspapers associated with some sort of legal action. Some cases involved lawsuits for non-payment of services rendered. Another, against her daughter Nellie, involved a piece of property in foreclosure. Many of these actions involved the acquisition or sale of real estate holdings. Her last will and testament, written in 1910, recorded eighteen pieces of property in the name of Antoinette Matteson, collectively worth over $30,000.
Mrs. Matteson’s vast estate was a source of controversy for her daughters in the years before her death in 1913. There was an attempt in 1911 by Dr. Martha F. Caul, Antoinette’s physician daughter, to have her mother, by then a widow, declared incompetent. The Buffalo Courier reported that it was Dr. Caul’s opinion that her mother’s considerable estate was in danger due to the greed of Martha’s sister, Nellie Whitcomb. Nellie had taken over the clairvoyant healing practice and was accused of transferring Antoinette’s assets into her own name. Through cross examination it was revealed that Martha had tried to have her mother arrested for practicing medicine without a license and that she had borrowed a substantial amount of money from her mother and only paid back a small portion. The case represents attempts on both her daughters’ parts to claim her assets, which were reportedly valued at $60,000. A jury found Mrs. Matteson competent to manage her own affairs.
A closer look at Antoinette’s will reveals more possible family discord due to financial matters. While the estate was to be divided equally among her four surviving children, she instructed that an amount of $6,000 be deducted from her daughter Martha’s inheritance and $6750 from her son George’s inheritance, these sums being loans from their mother that neither had paid back.
Antoinette Matteson died on October 11, 1913 at the age of 66. The Tonawanda Evening News reported a general nervous breakdown as the cause of death. She left behind substantial real estate holdings, a thriving healing practice and a solid reputation as a clairvoyant healer. In 1933, twenty years after her death, The Erie County Independent ran a story on her, reminiscing about her bravery as a clairvoyant healer in the face of the medical establishment, her considerable skill in herbal medicine and her far reaching benevolence. Clearly Antoinette Matteson was a remarkable woman. She was strong willed and would countenance no transgression against her. She had the tenacity to fight for that which was due her and was not afraid to invoke the aid of the judicial system when needed, even against her own children. She was hardly the average Victorian woman and there is most certainly a place for a character like her in my next book!