Local author Tim Gilmore offers a fascinating look at the wife of former Florida Senator Duncan U. Fletcher in his new book “Channeling Anna Fletcher: On Seances and Women’s Rights.” Gilmore tells the story of the woman who struggled to reconcile the constraints and proprieties of a senator’s wife with her belief in Spiritualism.
Gilmore will host a book launch will be held from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Oct. 19 at the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum, 101 W. 1st Street, Jacksonville. The event will include a discussion on the convergence of early women’s rights activism and psychic investigation with live music by the Dead Shepard Sounds.
“Anyone who has spent a little bit of time in the Jacksonville area knows the name Duncan Fletcher, although most people don’t know anything about who he was,” says Gilmore of the namesake of Duncan U. Fletcher Middle and High School. “But [Anna] is a whole other category of interesting.”
While Duncan Upshaw Fletcher devoted his life to politics twice as mayor of Jacksonville from 1893-95 and again from 1901-03 and later as the longest serving senator, in Florida history Anna Louise Fletcher hosted séances, opened the Fletcher home to mediums, penned books about spirit trumpets and ectoplasm and argued in favor of Spiritualism against Harry Houdini before Congress.
In 2017, Gilmore penned a piece about Anna Fletcher’s stately home for his website Jax Psycho Geo where he’s published nearly 500 stories on local history. When he set out to research the history surrounding the Riverside Avenue house she built after her husband’s death, he discovered a complicated story of a woman who struggled against the current of women’s rights and responsibilities of her time.
“I was just writing about the house at first,” recalls Gilmore. “The first thing that I found that was really kind of startling and exciting was I found a copy of her book called “Death Unveiled” on eBay. There’s all this stuff about Spiritualism and ectoplasm and all of the psychic mediums that she visited so I pretty fascinated instantly.”
“Death Unveiled” was written by Fletcher in 1929. She penned a follow up book entitled “Between the Slates: Tails from the Happy Hunting Ground” which detailed the connection between owners and their former pets in the afterlife.
Seances, ectoplasm and Spiritualism are all themes that don’t often intersect with the traditional role of a politician’s wife, particularly during the 27-year period that Duncan Fletcher served in the Florida Senate. Anna Fletcher navigated her position with great care, keenly aware of her public persona and the public’s perception of her as a senator’s wife.
“She was an early leader in the Jacksonville Woman’s Club. She was president for a couple of years and she was always navigating what the wife of a politician’s responsibilities are supposed to be with this interest that she had with Spiritualism. She always had these interests but she became more and more public with it the older she got,” says Gilmore. “There are all these interviews with her where she talks about how women wouldn’t make good politicians but she’s clearly always thinking about what’s appropriate so it’s kind of hard to get at who she was underneath that political layer.”
In 1920, women earned the right to vote with the passing of the 19th amendment. According to Gilmore, Fletcher never publicly supported the amendment though she was in favor of women’s rights. “She was the president at the time of what was called the Congressional Club and the club consisted of the wives of Congressmen. There’s a newspaper interview with her and the reporter is asking her whether women should be able to vote or not and she won’t say,” he says.
“She seems to come close a couple of times to saying she believes women should be able to vote but she always pulls back and says there’s lots of members of the Congressional Club who do not think women should vote. Because the Congressional Club’s presidency is not supposed to be a political position, she refuses to make a direct statement. It’s really frustrating because you want to get past all that and find out what are you really thinking but that’s part of her story.”
Public interest in Spiritualism came in waves, notes Gilmore. It peaked following the Civil War, rising again after World War I but Fletcher’s belief in and practice of Spiritualism echoed the heightened interest in women’s circles and within the Congressional Club. Many women pursued different spiritual endeavors, which Gilmore chronicles in the book.
“There are definitely times when newspaper stories could be kind of dismissive and sarcastic,” he says, remarking that her own husband was perceived to be embarrassed by his wife’s practices. Upon his death, he instructed in his will that all of his papers, including hundreds of boxes of correspondence, be burned.
“What did he not want people to see? One of his biographers blames Anna for his destroying his correspondence and for his being an unusually private politician. I think the phrase that he uses is ‘Fletcher’s wife’s embarrassing interests’ so I think that from a larger political perspective, which meant men at the time, there may have been embarrassment about it,” Gilmore says.
One of Fletcher’s most well-known adversaries was the illusionist Harry Houdini who presented The Houdini Fortune Telling Bill to a congressional subcommittee to “Impose a Fine on Fraudulent Fortune Tellers in the District of Columbia.” According to the 1926 bill, “any person pretending to tell fortunes for reward or compensation” within D.C. be sentenced to pay a $250 fine or spend six months in prison.
An additional twist offers a connection between Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whom he considered a friend. The creator of Sherlock Holmes was a believer in Spiritualism and his wife claimed to be a medium who attempted to contact Houdini’s departed mother. Houdini felt the séance was a farce because his mother reportedly spoke from beyond in English though in life, she’d never learned the language.
“It set Houdini on this anti-spiritualist path and he wrote these big syndicated newspaper articles that brought him eventually to the Congressional Committee testimony,” Gilmore says of Fletcher’s argument in favor of the existence of ectoplasm and spirit trumpets. “Anna Fletcher was really dismissive of him. She kept referring to him before Congress as ‘our little friend’ but Houdini was pretty politic as well. Someone asked him flat out if he thought Anna Fletcher was a fraud and he said that anyone who claimed to have mediumistic powers was a fraud but Anna Fletcher was sincere in her belief in Spiritualism so he was actually kind of fair to her in that respect.”
Gilmore also reveals that Spiritualism gave a lot of prominence to women at a time when women had no public voice. The first woman to run for president Victoria Woodall was a Spiritualist and the Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy wrote of the parallels in the early 19th Century.
Launching a book about Anna Fletcher in the historic building which once housed a Christian Science Church holds a special significance for Gilmore and brings Fletcher’s story full circle. “I absolutely love the place but also that Christian Science had direct connections to Spiritualism in the 19th century,” he says. “It just seemed really appropriate to me.”