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Belief in Spiritualism Helped Gifford Pinchot After Wife’s Early Death

gifford pinchot

Gifford Pinchot

Gifford Pinchot carried on a close personal relationship with his wife, Laura, well after her untimely death.

From Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism by Char Miller:

After the death of his wife, Laura, Gifford’s mother stated that, “Things always [come out right] when faith and hope with high mind lead the way. Gifford has all of these, though for the moment they seem to be almost veiled by his sorrow…[B]ut there is on doubt that since God so let it be, that it is right.” Heavenly sanction aside, she had one deep concern about her much-loved son’s bereavement. “I believe that Gifford has a high and noble mission to fulfill and I believe he will do it — but I don’t want to see him narrowing himself down to one thought,” she wrote. “It is not right in this world to live in the past or with the dead.”

Gifford didn’t share his mother’s unease because his faith in another dimension granted him serenity. A mont earlier, even as he expressed hope that Laura would recover, he drew consolation from a prospect of life everlasting: “[B]oth Laura and I have…talked it fully over and are not afraid because we know [her passing] can be nothing more than a temporary separation, short for her, however long it may be for me.” This perception, he explained to his father, was why Laura’s impending demise “is all much less terrible than it must seem to you and indeed to anyone but ourselves. I have not been able to tell this to anyone as yet, so I am glad to write it and especially have you and Mamee [Mary Pinchot] know just how we feel for I am sure you will sympathize with us entirely.”

Gifford’s confidence that there was life after death was reinforced within weeks of Laura Houghteling’s funeral. By day, he worked assiduously to extend his forestry initiatives at Biltmore; from North Carolina he also commuted to New York City, where he was busily establishing his career as a consulting forester. By night, he cultivated his memories of the woman he had lost. Spending time “looking over my Lady’s books and sketches” made him “very happy,” he noted in his diary for March 17, 1894; a month later, he spent a full Sunday in her former room at Strawberry Hill, “mark-ing after her copies of Selections from Browning and Sonnets from the Portuguese.” Holding the books they had read together, remembering the lines of poetry that had defined their love, kept her close. “I have lost no ground. My Lady is nearer and dearer than when she died,” he observed. That Sun-day in April had been a “wonderfully happy day, full of her presence and peace.”

For him, Laura’s presence was no mere figure of speech. He marked her passing, and continued significance to him, by the clothes he wort. For at least two years he was “clad in black, from neck to foot,” as when he and his replacement at Biltmore, Carl Schenck, first met in April 1895. “Apparently he was in mourning,” the German forester learned, “but his cheery eyes were in strict contrast to his mourning attire.”

Pinchot had much to be cheerful about, for Laura inhabited his dreams as much as his waking life. So thoroughly were the two states of consciousness woven together that he was not always certain which he was in. Rattling along in a train to Frankfurt, Germany, in May 1895, he “was blessed with the wonderful nearness of my Dearest…. I could hardly help expecting to sec her with my own eyes.” A year earlier, while staying at Grey Towers, he had taken a walk through the wooded grounds and settled down in the summer house to “read forestry” when “this beautiful thing” happened. “[M]y Lady was nearer than ever this afternoon,” he wrote, even using the first-person plural when he set the scene for his diary: “[W]e looked from the summer house together.”

Pinchot was convinced that such visitations were possible and that they regularly occurred. He and Laura had devoured the literature on spiritualists and spiritualism, mystics and mediums, which was vastly popular at the time. Their reading list ranged from biblical texts—Revelation and The Gospel of John–to the religious ruminations of Emanuel Swedenborg and the revelatory poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson; they scoured too the otherworldly novels of James Lane Allen and, especially, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s The Gate Ajar and Beyond the Gates, sentimental fiction about communing with the dead that Mark Twain took great delight in skewering in Extracts from Captain Stortnfield’s Visit to Heaven.

Nor were they alone in their beliefs. Many of their contemporaries found considerable comfort in the notion that the earthbound might part the veil and communicate with deceased family, friends, or lovers. That idea had taken on added (and understandable) appeal in the years following the bloody Civil War, and only slowly diminished as a force within the American imagination with the dawning of the twentieth century. Pinellas generation had been captivated by the scientific trappings of this insistent search for meaning in poltergeists and strange rapping sounds in the night. Spiritualism  became a self-conscious movement precisely at the time that it disassociated itself from occult traditions of secrecy,” historian R. Lau-rence Moore has asserted. “It appealed not to the inward illumination of mystic experience, but to the observable and verifiable objects of empirical science.” This was as true of the Society for the Diffusion of Spiritual Knowledge, founded in 1854, as it would be of the organization that psychologist William James established in 1885, the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR), whose members included such luminaries as Charles Eliot Norton, Josiah Royce, Charles Sanders Pierce, and Theodore Roosevelt. Like them, Pinchot embraced the scientific enterprise, even in matters of the supernatural.

Such an embrace did not squeeze out Pinchot’s sense of the divine. A careful observer, for twenty years he kept a meticulous log of his innumerable interactions with Laura; most days, he recorded in his diary, were either “clear” or “cloudy,” “bright” or “blind.” These were not meteorological observations but rather indications of the clarity of his encounters with the dearly departed. Yet this record-keeping had an important spiritual end. It brought him to an intimate sense of and a mystical appreciation for an omnipresent God. Laura, who “was one with God,” served as Gifford’s guide to holiness and peace. “One beautiful moment” with her presence in May 1896 reinforced his belief (and hope) “that the natural body is not raised” after death, “but a wholly different spiritual body.” In this new state would Laura also become his bride; they were joined together during a “beautiful evening, following a good day. My Lady and I are one in the sight of God,” he confirmed in August 1894. More direct was his diary entry for April 22, 1896: after a late evening sojourn outside of what he called “our house,” the Washington abode in which Laura had died, he commented that “in God’s sight, my Lady and I are husband and wife.”

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