For three years before his untimely death on the Titanic, British newspaper man W. T. Stead gathered the bereaved and curious in a room in Cambridge House so they could communicate with the dead. Several psychics, including the blind medium Cecil Husk and materialization medium J. B. Jonson, worked these sessions which had become known as Julia’s Bureau. After Stead’s death, Detroit medium Mrs. Etta Wriedt sought to channel the dead newspaper man. Wriedt was also known to channel a Glasgow-born, eighteenth-century apothecary farmer named Dr. John Sharp. Other frequent visitors include an American Indian medicine chief named Grayfeather, the Welsh pirate Henry Morgan, and a female Seminole Indian named Blossom who died in the Florida everglades as a young child. But the bureau’s most important spirit visitor can also be said to have been the founder of the bureau, Julia herself. Who was Julia? And how do these seances fit into the long history of Spiritualism? Find out today!
Transcript for Julia’s Bureau: The Temperance Virtuoso, the Father of Journalism, and Life after Death in the Spiritualist Anglo-Atlantic
Written by Marissa Rhodes, PhD
Recorded by Marissa Rhodes, PhD and Averill Earls, PhD
Marissa: The seance is beginning. It’s Spring 1912 and we’re in Cambridge House, the Wimbledon home of recently deceased British journalist W. T. Stead. The room where we sit is 22 feet long and 14 feet wide. It is furnished with two tables, a bookcase, 12 chairs, and a mechanical music player called a symphonion. The room is illuminated with electric lights, one of which is covered with red paper so that it emits a crimson glow. The room is adorned with beautiful flowers. A rather respectable party is assembled. W. Usborne Moore, Vice-Admiral in the British Navy, Irish poet W. B. Yeates, Lawyer, publisher and politician Dr. Hinko Hinković (from Croatia), Frau Professor Margarette Selenka (a renowned German scientist), Spirit Medium Mrs. Etta Wriedt who hailed from Detroit Michigan, USA, and their hostesses, Julia’s secretary Miss Harper and her mother.
We are gathered here today to invoke the spirit of W. T. Stead who lost his life in the dreadful Titanic disaster some weeks ago. For three years before this untimely death, Stead had been gathering the bereaved and curious in this room in Cambridge House so they could communicate with the dead. Several psychics, including the blind medium Cecil Husk and materialization medium J. B. Jonson, have worked these sessions which have become known as Julia’s Circle or Julia’s Bureau. But now it is his turn to pierce the veil between the spirit world and our world.
Averill: Behold! Mrs. Wriedt is channeling a spirit. She holds the large end of a conical, aluminum trumpet to her mouth. The voices of the spirits who control her will be magnified by this trumpet, coming out of the smaller end. We are holding our breath waiting to see who is coming through. Will it be Julia? The spirit who directed Stead to host these seances back in the 1890s? She often comes through. Mrs. Wriedt is also known to channel a Glasgow-born, eighteenth-century apothecary farmer named Dr. John Sharp. Other frequent visitors include an American Indian medicine chief named Grayfeather, the Welsh pirate Henry Morgan, and a female Seminole Indian named Blossom who died in the Florida everglades as a young child. Everyone, especially Miss Harper, holds onto hope that W. T. Stead will grant us with his presence.
What luck! W. T. Stead manifests, taking control of the voice of Mrs. Wriedt. Her eyes do not roll back and she does not fall into some sort of trance. She sits, placid as ever, occasionally talking to the other sitters in the spirit’s presence. Stead’s voice emanates from her, magnified by the trumpet, “All I told you is true!” says he. Always skeptical, the attendees ask the spirit to confirm his identity which he does, happily, with three tests. We have a brief conversation with the spirit. He requests that we meet again the next day and bring his beloved daughter Estelle. For a brief moment, he shows his face, materialized in light within the dim room. As his face fades, he repeats, “All I told you is true!” He does not visit for long but even this short visit is a thrill. You can hardly contain your excitement. This is proof, right? Incontrovertible proof of the afterlife! Julia’s Bureau has come full circle!
Marissa: And… scene! Today we’re discussing Julia’s Bureau, a series of seances and spirit-writing session conducted in Britain from 1890 to the 19-teens. We’ll answer the question of how the bureau fits into the history of Spiritualism and Temperance and, most importantly, who the heck is Julia?
I’m Marissa C. Rhodes
And I’m Averill Earls
Marissa: and we are your historians for this episode of Dig.
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Marissa: Julia A. Ames was born in 1861 near Odell, Illinois to wealthy, well-educated parents. Little Julia was the second youngest of the four Ames siblings. Her father, Isaac Ames, founded the local schoolhouse of which he eventually became headmaster. She began tagging along with her older siblings when they attended school. As a result, she learned to read when she was only three years old. The Ames family had always attended church, as any respectable family did in the nineteenth-century midwest. When she was twelve, however, Julia got swept up in the Methodist revival in Streator, IL. Julia remained dedicated to the evangelical cause from that point forward.
Averill: During high school, Julia excelled in English literature and writing. She was beloved socially because of her quick wit and charisma. Carrying in her father’s footsteps, Julia was highly educated. She attended Wesleyan University to study literature, history, art, and aesthetics. This well-rounded humanities education was quite common among wealthy white women in the second half of the nineteenth century. After two years at Wesleyan, she moved to the Chicago School of Oratory (now called Columbia College Chicago) from which she graduated.
After the American Civil War, it was becoming increasingly common for white American women to seek post-secondary education. College-educated women were definitely an elite minority but women were pursuing university education in large enough numbers that several universities converted to co-educational institutions or opened auxiliary women’s colleges. An even smaller contingent of women, such as famous Temperance leader Frances Willard, became university professors in the 1870s. Their purview, however, was usually limited to the women’s affairs within the university and they tended to teach the “soft subjects” such as foreign languages, literature, and home economics. This would be true until well into the 1930s.
Marissa: But, back to Julia! For most of her young adulthood, Julia planned to become a missionary, which was in line with her evangelical outlook. But this changed after she met and befriended Helen Hood at the Lake Bluff Training School in Illinois. Helen and Julia became inseparable shortly after they met. They had one of those incredibly intense, Victorian friendships which resembled a romantic relationship to contemporary observers. While historians have argued for decades over how to characterize these intense female relationships (some even going so far as to label such women as lesbians), most historians today agree that they are best understood as “homosocial” relationships.
Homosocial relationships were the norm in Victorian society. Men and women’s social lives were strictly bifurcated based a heternomative scheme often called “separate spheres.” Naturally, boys and men spent most of their time with other boys and men. Likewise, girls and women spent most of their time with other girls and women. Surely, homosexual relationships occurred within this framework. We know this to be true. But even intense, intimate, and platonic friendships were often inflected with romantic undertones. Women often wrote each other love letters, slept in the same bed, invented pet names for each other, and waxed poetic about their affections.
Averill: The late-nineteenth-century Temperance movement was the ideal incubator for homosocial bonds. Evangelicals had been preaching the temperance (or moderation) of alcohol for over a century. By 1800, the movement came to include calls for abstinence, with “abstinence pledges” encouraged in evangelical churches. By 1833, there were 6,000 temperance societies in the USA and similar organizations popped up in Ireland, England, Norway, and Sweden. The first international temperance association was the Order of Good Templars (formed in Utica, NY in 1851). The Good Templars was a male-led organization but many women were involved in auxiliary groups.
Marissa: In the 1870s, however, the Temperance game changed due to a revolution of sorts. The fallout from the Civil War had worsened rates of alcoholism among Americans. Women were growing resentful of their husbands who spent their paychecks at the saloon, gambled and used prostitutes while drunk, and brought home venereal diseases and alcohol-induced violence. A critical mass of women felt trapped in penury and abusive marriages. This was the fuel. The match that lit the fuel was a speech by health advocate and homeopath Diocletian (Dio) Lewis (who hailed from the Burned Over District). Lewis, like many Victorian reformers, delivered lectures around the country. He became involved in the Sons of Temperance in the 1850s and began delivering a lecture titled “The Influence of Christian Women in the Cause of Temperance.”
Averill: At one of these lectures in Cleveland Ohio, Lewis delivered an impassioned speech that struck a chord with this critical mass of disaffected wives. Inspired by his words, the women of Cleveland descended on Ohio saloons, praying, singing, and preaching for their closure. This “woman’s crusade” spread quickly throughout the midwest and Northeast, primarily among white, middle-class, protestant women. While Ohio, Chicago, New York, Michigan, and St. Louis accounted for the bulk of the crusaders’ activity, the movement reached 900 communities in 31 states. Nearly 50,000 women participated in the disorganized but effective uprising. The media LOVED the woman’s crusade, covering its most salacious details in print.
Marissa: In direct response to the Woman’s Crusade, women organizers from temperance societies in Fredonia, NY networked with similar societies all over the midwest and Northeast. The founding convention of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was planned in Chautauqua, NY and held in Cleveland in November 1874. This was an organization for and by women. They published a newspaper called the Union Signal which boasted readership around the world. One of the first of its kind. Reformer Frances Willard served as delegate for the Evanston, IL temperance society. Annie Turner Wittenmyer was elected president of the WCTU in that first year. She remained in that position for five years.
In 1879, Wittenmyer was unseated by the liberal wing led by Frances Willard. Willard and her liberal camp had slowly come to accept that woman suffrage was a critical component of temperance reform. This radicalism was a step too far for the more conservative women in the movement like Wittenmyer. Under Willard’s tenure, the WCTU grew into the largest, most important reform movement of the nineteenth century. Willard expanded their brief to include prison reform, labor laws, and suffrage. Temperance reformers overlapped with additional reform movements such as vegetarianism and activism against domestic violence. The WCTU grew internationally under Willard’s care. In 1891, Willard became president of the World WCTU. Now back to Julia…
Averill: Helen and Julia, protegees of Frances Willard and believers in the liberal approach to temperance reform, had one of the intimate, homosocial bonds we described earlier. For example, Julia was affectionately called Yolande by her intimates, (more on that soon). Helen Hood reflected on how she sought out her dear friend whenever she had the chance, “Often I would miss the dear one [Julia], and going into the parlor would find Madame Willard and herself talking over some passages of scripture.” Helen and Julia lived together for a time and of this, Helen wrote, “It was in the home life that Yolande was the most charming. To a sweet, lovable disposition was added a graciousness of manner and cordiality that made her a most charming entertainer.”
Marissa: Much later, newspaper man W. T. Stead would describe them as “two women, in the prime of their years… united by a lifelong friendship, which not even death was strong enough to sever.” The two women cemented these bonds in the coach ride after the National Women’s Christian Temperance Union Convention of 1885 which was held in Philadelphia. Julia served as a delegate to the convention for her home state of Illinois. Helen later wrote, “Miss Ames was ill en route, and it was my great privilege to be the one to take care of her and arrange for her comfort.” (So this is some real besty-holding-back-a-drunk-girl’s-hair-as-she-vomits type bonding. Obviously Julia wasn’t drunk… since she was a temperance advocate… but you get the kind of intimacy we’re talking about here).
Averill: Helen had been a “white-ribboner” for some time already, serving as secretary to the Illinois WCTU. “Miss Hood’s” early life is shrouded in mystery. She is conspicuously absent from the biographical sketches of Temperance leaders and her obituary was outrageously short. What we know is that she spent her early life in Illinois and began her Temperance career as secretary to Temperance reformer and suffragist Frances Willard. She was deeply involved in the movement for her entire life, serving as the WCTU’s president for nineteen years. At the behest of British Temperance reformer, Lady Henry Somerset, Hood traveled to England to establish the Duxhurst Inebriate Farm Colony, England’s first shelter for women and children affected by alcohol abuse.
Marissa: Back to 1885… As the coach bumped along, and Helen nursed Julia through her illness, the two chatted animatedly about the Temperance movement. Helen urged Julia to join the WCTU in a more permanent fashion, making temperance work her career. This coach ride was also the setting in which Julia received her nickname. Temperance leader Matilda B. Carse was sharing a car with Julia and Helen during this fateful ride. She spent the time reading William Black’s novel Yolande and expressed her delight at how much Julia resembled the titular character.
Carse “called [Miss Ames] to her side, and requesting her to kneel, put her hand on her head, and kissing her lovingly on the forehead, said: ‘Arise! I dub thee Yolande!’” The Temperance establishment became as smitten with Julia as her coach-mates and continued to call their new Temperance darling Yolande for the rest of her life.
Averill: Yolande was the WCTU’s rising star in the second half of the 1880s. She lived in the WCTU’s headquarters, Rest Cottage, with Frances Willard, Madame Willard (Frances Willard’s mother), Helen, Kate Jackson, and various other Temperance giants. Willard immediately recognized Yolande’s talent for journalism, giving Julia a position on the Union Signal. At the tender age of 28, Julia was made head of the newspaper. Her fellow reformers marveled at her editing abilities and credited her with maintaining the newspaper’s acclaimed international reputation. Reformer Mary Allen West recalled, “hers was no passive receptivity; she did not simply absorb, but culled, adapted, digested. “She asked other folks’ advice and then did as she had a mind to,” an admirable thing to do, by the way, as it implies the power of discrimination, which she possessed in eminent degree. I never knew one whose judgment was more trustworthy.” This was high praise for a young woman in her twenties.
As part of her temperance journalism work, Julia traveled to England in 1890 to organize the press operations of the British Woman’s Temperance Association. During her trip, Julia met British newspaper man W. T. Stead. Stead is often credited as the founder of investigative journalism. He was a controversial figure, much of the controversy owing to his unorthodox newspaper methods and, after 1890, his fixation with Spiritualism. Julia made an impression on the world’s most famous journalist. W. T. Stead wrote of her, “I have never met a young woman who struck me as having so great a talent for journalism.”
Marissa: During her time in England, Julia also befriended the British Temperance reformer Lady Henry Somerset. Lady Henry was an heiress to her father, the 3rd Earl Somers. After a friend died by suicide while under the influence of alcohol, Lady Henry devoted herself to the cause of Temperance reform though she was influential in the areas of vegetarianism, birth control, and women’s suffrage. As the president of the British Women’s Temperance Association, Lady Henry presided over its massive growth in size and influence. SHe also actively pursued an alliance with the American WCTU. In 1913, the readers of London Evening News voted Lady Henry as the woman they would most like as the first female prime minister of the United Kingdom.
Julia was introduced to Lady Henry after the British reformer finished her first presidential address to the BWTA. Julia charmed Lady Henry immediately and the two remained close for the rest of Julia’s life. Lady Henry later recalled meeting Julia, “Her warm greeting and her earnest manner were singularly striking, and as I left the hall I thought that America had certainly sent us one of her choicest spirits.”
Averill: By all accounts, Julia Ames was poised for a long and meaningful career in Temperance reform and journalism. By the time Julia arrived state-side, she was under the weather. She pushed through a cold to attend the 1891 WCTU National Convention in Boston where she chaired several committees, prepared the convention’s press releases, and continued her work on the Union Signal. While she was in Boston for the convention, her cold turned into pneumonia and she was hospitalized. Her dear friend Helen Hood attended her vigilantly for a fortnight. Of this time, Helen would later write, “In our room there [in the hospital], together, we lived some of the happiest days of our lives.” Their WCTU colleagues, including Frances Willard, visited the pair.
It seemed, for a short time, that Julia was improving. Until, suddenly, one night, she took a turn and died. About that moment, Helen wrote, “Then something in me, also, died.”
Marissa: Though Julia’s Bureau is named after Julia Ames, its history begins only after her death. Skeptics may even say Julia had nothing to do with it. According to Helen, Lady Henry, and W. T. Stead, Julia Ames would return in spirit many times after her death. Julia’s spirit would even (with W. T. Stead’s mortal help) set up a seance service for those interested in the afterlife. (Which we’ll describe in detail in a bit.) But we want to note that the story of Julia’s life after death is told by W. T. Stead and his daughter Estelle. (I will borrow from their writings heavily from this point forward. Oftentimes they portray conversations as direct quotes. I suspect they are more paraphrases gleaned from how they remember the conversations going– as you often see in memoirs. But it’s the best we have.)
Averill: Interestingly, Julia and Helen’s experiences with the spirit world remain absent from the WCTU’s histories. Frances Willard and Lady Henry published a book about Julia’s life shortly after her death and the following events (some of which had already come to pass at the time of the book’s publication) remain absent from its pages. This suggests that Helen did not speak openly about her spiritual experiences after Julia’s death. Indeed, her involvement is cloaked in secrecy as W. T. Stead and his daughter anonymize her with an alias.
Marissa: I had to do some real arm-chair detective work to identify Julia’s anonymous friend. W. T. Stead “anonymizes” her by giving her the alias “Ellen” and W. T. Stead’s daughter anonymizes her further by referring to her as “Miss E.” I confirmed by cross-referencing the stories given about Julia and Miss E by the Steads and about Julia and Helen Hood by the WCTU in order to confirm that Miss E was indeed Helen Hood.
Averill: Let’s be clear. Julia and Helen were not Spiritualists. Julia was a devout Methodist. Helen presumably adhered to an evangelical faith, as all Temperance women did. While many spiritualists were also temperance advocates, most temperance advocates were not spiritualists. There is some evidence that Spiritualism could even ruin one’s reputation. Historians have asserted that W. T. Stead’s dedication to Spiritualism damaged his illustrious reputation. Actor, publisher, and author Grant Richards went as far as to say that “The thing that operated most strongly in lessening Stead’s hold on the general public was his absorption in spiritualism.”
Marissa: This was certainly the case in the 1890s which was a time of transition for Spiritualists. The fiery revivals of the Second Great Awakening were largely over. Americans and Europeans were increasingly turning to science and skepticism to improve their daily lives. Spiritualism would enjoy a renewal of sorts in the 19-teens and some segments of society were always interested in spirits, mediumship, and faith healing. But by and large, Spiritualism’s hold on the general public was on the wane in the 1890s. Perhaps this accounts for Helen Hood’s discretion. Julia’s spirit had materialized in her room in Rest Cottage in the weeks and months following her death. There is no evidence that Helen told anyone about this until her visit to England in 1892.
Averill: Helen visited England in 1892 to do some reform work with Lady Henry on behalf of the American WCTU. While she was in England, Helen approached one of the people in Lady Henry’s close circle, in fact he and his wife were staying in the same castle as Helen. This was W. T. Stead. Helen asked Stead to introduce her to a spirit medium (it was well known that Stead was an avid Spiritualist so she must have known this about him). When asked why Helen wished to make an appointment with a medium, she explained that her dearest friend in the world, Julia Ames, had recently died and that her spirit had come to her on more than one occasion. Helen and Julia had purportedly made a pact, one that was very common among evangelicals, that whoever died first would return in spirit form to prove the existence of an afterlife.
Marissa: Most people who make this pact with a friend are disappointed. But not Helen. She recounted several instances when Julia’s spirit had materialized right in front of her:
“She had not been dead six weeks before I was awake and I looked, and there by my bedside was Julia, looking radiantly happy, with a bright light all around her. I could not speak. She stayed about five minutes and then she faded away, and I only saw the light in the place where she had been standing. I thought afterwards this might have been an hallucination, as her death was recent, and I was in such terrible distress about her. But I know now it was no hallucination, but Julia herself, for she came again last night I was wide-awake I had not gone to sleep.She
came to my bedside and looked at me very lovingly. I know she wanted to say something to me, but I couldn’t speak to her. There was no mistake about it; I saw her quite distinctly; I know it was Julia ; she has come back to me as she promised. I cannot bear to think that she may have come back with a message for me, and yet I could not hear what she had to say. That is why I want to go to a medium to see if she can tell me what Julia wants to say to me.”
So Helen fell short of being able to actually speak with the spirit of her friend. She feared that her inability to communicate with the spirit was stopping her from receiving Julia’s full message.
Averill: W. T. Stead was flabbergasted at the coincidence. He had met Julia Ames two years before during Julia’s visit on behalf of the WCTU. If you’ll recall, he was incredibly impressed by her journalistic talent. He was troubled by the news of her untimely death but life went on. Now, her closest friend in the world was approaching him about contacting her spirit. Based on the records we have of this meeting between Helen and Stead, it doesn’t appear Helen knew that Stead and Julia had met. That seems unlikely since Julia told Helen everything but it’s probable that Helen thought Stead would not remember her friend who he’d met briefly years before. She was wrong. To Stead, this was kismet.
Stead had been experimenting with “automatic writing,” also called spirit writing or psychography. Automatic writing is the practice of channeling spirits so that they might write using your hand. The Ouija board is a collective form of automatic writing. The most famous case of automatic writing is probably the case of Charles Dickens and T. P. James. Dickens died in 1870, leaving The Mystery of Edwin Drood unfinished. Publisher T. P. James claimed to have channeled Dickens’s spirit so that the remainder of the novel could be written by Dickens through James’s hand. Automatic writing enjoyed renewed interest during the Spiritualist boom of the 19-teens. Poet W. B. Yeats (a regular at the Julia’s Bureau seances) and Arthur Conan Doyle took up automatic writing in the 19-teens. Doyle’s wife, also a writing medium, channeled the spirit of Harry Houdini’s mother in one of their seances with the Houdinis.
So, in response to Helen’s request, Stead said, “My hand has recently begun to write, and if you
do not object, I will ask Julia if she will use my hand, for she knew me, although slightly, and it would, at any rate, do no harm to make the experiment.” Helen agreed that he should try.
Marissa: The following is what W. T. Stead recorded about his first attempt at channeling Julia through automatic writing. (Remember Miss E is Helen Hood.)
“On the Sunday morning I was alone in my bedroom. I sat before the window, with the pencil in my hand and said: ‘ Now Miss Ames, if you are about and care to use my hand, it is at your disposal if you have anything to say to Miss E.’ Almost immediately my hand began to write, not in my accustomed handwriting, and not in the handwriting of either Mrs. D. or Henry L. The handwriting was clear and distinct.
It ran thus: ‘Julia Ames tell Miss E. not to worry so much about Lady Henry Somerset. We will take care of Lady Henry.’ This was written slowly and deliberately, and I watched every word as it was being written. Then I said, ‘that is all very well, but how do I know that this is not merely the unconscious action of my own subliminal consciousness? How do I know it is you? Can you give me a test?
My hand wrote: ‘ Yes; ask her if she remembers what I said to her when last we came to Mine ,’ then the writing got straggly, and looked like ‘ura.’ I said ‘ this is nonsense.’ Then my hand wrote:
‘You have got it wrong.’ I said, ‘Then write the letters in capitals,’ and my hand wrote MINERVA. When I saw it was ‘Minerva’ I felt sure there must be some mistake. Then it occurred to me that ‘Minerva’ might be the name of some American town, and I asked: ‘ Is Minerva a place?’ My hand wrote, ‘No,’ Is it a person? Do you mean Minerva the heathen goddess? ‘ Yes’
‘But,’ I said, ‘this is nonsense. How could you and Miss E. come to Minerva? Then my hand wrote, ‘Never mind; give that message to Miss E., she will understand. Julia Ames.’ I felt bothered. It was a serious message to deliver, and it is a serious thing to tell anyone that you have received a message from a disembodied spirit of a friend. I went down to breakfast thinking, perhaps I had better say nothing to Miss E. about it, as the test was so obviously absurd.
However Miss E. pressed me to give her the message. I read it to her. I said that the message might be all right, but that anybody could have written that, and that the thing that troubled me was the extreme absurdity of the test. She pressed me to tell her. I hesitated, telling her, quite truly, that I thought it was such utter nonsense that it made the whole thing ridiculous. At last, however, still apologising, I read the message.
‘Ask Miss E. if she remembers what I said to her the last time we came to Minerva.’ To my surprise Miss E. looked very grave and said ‘I remember it quite distinctly.’ Remember what? I said, there is no sense in that. ‘ Yes,’ said Miss E., (she then said just the same about Lady Henry as your hand has written this morning.’ But, I said, how could you come to Minerva. This is nonsense. ‘Then Miss E. smiled, ‘Of course, I forgot, you do not know anything about Minerva. This is how it came about. Miss Ames said, before she died, ‘The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union has come into existence as a great power in America. It is like the Minerva who sprang full grown from the temples of Jupiter, and she suggested we should call Miss Willard Minerva. She bought a Cameo brooch of Minerva and gave it to Miss Willard and always called her Minerva, till the day she died.’
Really? said I. ‘Yes,’ said Miss E., ‘and the last time we saw Minerva together was the day before Julia died. Miss Willard came to the hospital to bid her good-bye, and it was then Julia spoke to me about not worrying about Lady Henry.’ I felt utterly taken aback. The very thing
that seemed to me the most utterly absurd thus seemed to prove the identity of the communicating intelligence. Well then, I said, it would really seem as if Miss Ames had written with my hand. That being so, I had better sit down again at once, and you can ask any question that you like. No sooner said than done. Miss E. asked several questions, which were answered at once by my hand….”
Averill: W. T. Stead continued to channel Julia who wrote messages to Miss E (remember this is Helen) at regular intervals during their concurrent stay at Lady Henry’s castle. There was one incident in particular that instigated the formation of Julia’s Bureau. During that first automatic writing session, Julia had purportedly written the following (through the hand of W. T. Stead):
“I want you to tell Lady Henry Somerset not to make any engagements to speak in England in
the month of October because she will then be in Denver.” Stead read the message out load to Helen who replied, “You are wrong; she is going to start a big temperance campaign and she cannot go [to Denver].” Stead consulted Lady Henry herself who replied, “This [trip to Denver] is impossible. I can’t go. I have a great deal of platform work to do. It is very extraordinary. I cannot explain it, but it is nonsense.” Stead assumed this was a false alarm.
Marissa: Some time later, Stead returned to London but continued to channel Julia Ames during his automatic writing sessions. He passed along all of his messages to Helen. One day Julia wrote (through Stead): “Lady Henry has made an appointment to speak in Manchester in October. She won’t be able to, because she will be in Denver in October.” Helen knew what appointment Julia was referring to, “She [Lady Henry] is going to speak in the Free Trade Hall [in Manchester] and hold a Temperance Alliance Meeting.”
Averill: Two weeks later Julia wrote (through Stead): “What is the use of my giving warnings of what is about to happen. Lady Henry has made an appointment to speak in Swansea– she will have to cancel it.” When she received this message, Helen protested to Stead, saying that it would be absolutely impossible for Lady Henry to travel to Denver as was predicted. On September 11, 1892, Julia wrote (again, through Stead): “I need not say anything more about Lady Henry’s visit to Denver, that is settled now, and you will no longer doubt that I am making a guess when I tell you beforehand what is coming in order that you may prepare for it.”
Marissa: Stead did not immediately understand this message but within a month he learned that Lady Henry had had to cancel her engagements in Manchester to accompany Frances Willard to Denver. Willard’s mother had passed away and Frances was so devastated that Lady Henry felt she needed company on her trip to the WCTU convention in Denver.
Averill: Stunned at this turn of events, Stead began asking Julia more philosophical questions about the afterlife. He asked how she foretold that incident, for example. She responded:
“We can only foresee what is given to us to see; we cannot see all that we want to see. For instance, I cannot foresee all that you are going to do. I can foresee some things that are going to happen to you, and some of those things I am allowed to tell you. There are other things I am not allowed to tell you. I am not likely to mistake what I actually see.”
Marissa: Stead went on in this vein, asking “Julia” questions about life after death and about the workings of heaven and Earth. During one session, in 1894, Julia wrote (via Stead):
“I want to ask you if you can help me at all in a matter in which I am much interested. I have long wanted to establish a place where those who have passed over could communicate with the loved ones left behind. At present the world is full of spirits longing to speak to those from whom they have been parted, just as I longed to speak to you, but without finding a hand to enable them to write. It is a strange spectacle. On your side, souls full of anguish for bereavement; on this side, souls full of sadness because they cannot communicate with those whom they love. What can be done to bring these sombre, sorrow-laden persons together? To do so requires something which we cannot supply. You must help. But how? It is not impossible. And when it is done, death will have lost its sting and the grave its victory. The Apostle thought this was done. But the grave has not been so easily defeated, and death keeps its sting. Who can console us for the loss of our beloved ? Only those who can show us that they are not lost, but are with us more than ever. Do you not think I have been much more- with my friend [Helen] since I put off my flesh than I used to be? Why, I dwell with her in a way that before was quite impossible. I was never more with her than I have been since I came to this side. But she would not have known it, nor would you have heard from me at all, but for the accident of your meeting her!”
Averill: Julia continued, “What is wanted is a bureau of communication between the two sides. Could you not establish some such sort of office with one or more trustworthy mediums ? If only it were to enable the sorrowing on earth to know, if only for once, that their so-called dead live nearer them than ever before, it would help to dry many a tear and soothe many a sorrow. I think you could count upon the eager co-operation of all on this side.”
Marissa: According to Stead, Julia Ames continued to pester him about starting a bureau for FIFTEEN YEARS. W. T. Stead has published much of his automatic writing in a book called Letters from Julia and they are extensive. I’ve read the whole thing! But let’s suffice it to say that Julia brought up the idea of the bureau frequently and intently for years. She often reprimanded Stead for dragging his feet on the matter. The primary hold up was financial. Stead was unable to find a way to fund the bureau in any enduring way. Stead had calculated that he needed at least £1,000 to establish the bureau and he was broke. In 1904, he’d launched a newspaper that failed miserably, costing him £35,000 (several million pounds in today’s money). The lost bankrupted him and caused him to suffer a nervous breakdown. All the while he continued to communicate with Julia via automatic writing.
Averill: In late 1908, nearly 15 years after “Julia” first suggested the bureau, Stead’s hand wrote the following message from Julia: “The time has come and I think that before Xmas you will see your way clear.” Lo and behold, on Christmas Eve, W. T. Stead received a job offer via telegraph from William Randolph Hearst (the extremely famous American newspaper man) for £500 per annum. Stead, desperate to fund the bureau, responded asking for £1,000 per annum instead. On January 19, 1909, Hearst agreed. Stead founded the bureau that year. According to Estelle Stead, her father’s intentions in starting the bureau (which he wrote about extensively) were “… for one purpose, and one purpose only to enable those who had lost their dead, who were sorrowing over friends and relatives, to get into touch with them again; to minister to the aching heart, not to satisfy the inquisitive brain.”
Marissa: Stead worried that those who attended Julia’s Bureau seances might use it for their own entertainment. His solution was to hand over the reins to “Julia.” Esetelle Stead writes, “To minimise the risks and diminish the dangers attaching to this attempt to bridge the grave, Julia undertook the personal direction of the Bureau, and herself defined the rules and conditions which had to be observed by all those who wished to avail themselves of its advantages.”
Averill: The Bureau solicited applications from interested parties. Applicants were required to make the following attestation:
“I, having done my best to study the subject of communications with the other world, hereby make application for the use of the Bureau in order to attempt to enter into communication with ___________ , my ______________ late of _______________ who passed into the Spirit World on _____________. This application is solely prompted by motives of affection, in the belief that, if it be permitted, the deceased would desire such an opening-up of communication as earnestly as does the applicant. I have read the pamphlet entitled “Julia’s Bureau and Borderland Library,” and also the first series of ” Letters from Julia.” With a full understanding of conditions, limitations, and dangers therein defined, I make this application, and I am willing to submit in all things to the decision of the Director of the Bureau conveyed to me by one or
other of her amanuenses.”
Marissa: All applications were judged by “Julia.” If she suspected any shenanigans, she rejected the application and that decision was final. In order to determine Julia’s decision, the applications were given in triplicate to two secretaries (automatic writers) and a psychic medium. These three channeled Julia and if their messages agreed (Estelle Stead says they almost always agreed) then that decision was enacted. Applicants who were accepted were asked to fill out another form (Form H) which requested any kinds of information the mediums might offer as proof (eg. loved one’s cause of death, incidents in the deceased’s life, the loved one’s personal appearance or mannerisms, etc,). At the bottom of the list, the applicant signed that “If all or any of the above are obtained from the sensitives, I will be satisfied that, if telepathy be excluded, I have been put in communication with my dead.” The form was kept by the applicant in a sealed envelope in their own safe place.
Averill: Then, they filled out another form testifying that: “ I hereby inform you that I have filled in Form H, and have enclosed it in a sealed envelope, affixing the seal on _____ ______19____. When I have received and annotated the reports of the three sensitives [mediums], I will forward this envelope with seal unbroken to the Bureau, together with the annotated reports.”
Marissa: There was also a section in Form H where the applicant was asked to write a word or a name that was entirely unconnected to their loved one. This was meant to serve as a test to see if telepathy was at play. Stead and his associates sought to discover the mechanism behind these communications. They also sought to systematically account for any and all explanations. Skeptics might believe they were grifters, so Stead assured that the service was free. Others believed that the mediums were cheating somehow, gathering information in other ways. Hence the complex policies involving Form H and keeping its contents secret. But there was one other explanation for these messages, telepathy. If mediums could telepathically communicate with the living, then they might be able to read their minds for clues about the dead. While this feat would, of course, be of interest to many, it would have been a huge disappointed to Stead who was convinced that these communications were coming from the dead, not the living. So they embedded this telepathy test into Form H. If the mediums said this word or name, then telepathy was an option rather than communication with the dead.
Averill: Once all the forms were filled out, the service could take place. Many applicants attended the seances in person (where they were called sitters). Some sitters conducted their business from afar. Remote sitters were asked to send three objects or articles of clothing belonging to the deceased (for use by each medium). In any case, whether in person or remote, the mediums who had considered the applicant’s application (with their loved one’s information on it) were excluded from attending the session. All sessions were attended by a stenographer as well who were responsible for reporting on the messages obtained by the three mediums.
Marissa: These reports were sent to the sitters who, only then, forwarded their Form H to the Bureau where it was, for the first time, unsealed and compared to the mediums’ reports. The mediums’ reports and the Forms H of most of the sitters were filed away in the Bureau’s archive. The entire process was free of charge.
Averill: In the first four months, the Bureau accommodated 150 parties. It remained active for three years during which they put 600 sitters in contact with their deceased loved ones. Most of them were satisfied customers, convinced they had been in contact with their loved ones. The mediums’ messages were usually compared favorably to the sitters’ Forms H. This convinced Stead, and many others, that the Bureau was indeed facilitating communication between the dead and the living. Interestingly, not one telepathy test word was imprinted on the minds of the mediums. In other words, not one time in the 600 sittings did any of the three mediums say the test word or name on the sitter’s Form H.
Marissa: Each morning, the staff of Julia’s Bureau gathered for the “Morning Circle.” They recited a prayer written by Julia (by Stead’s hand) and left a chair open at the head of the table for her. They sang hymns selected by Julia and asked questions of the spirit which were answered by Stead’s hand. The Morning Circle was, at some point, commuted to the Wednesday Circle.
Averill: The costs of the bureau far exceeded the £1,000 per annum Stead was receiving from Hearst. Estelle Stead hypothesized that while the bureau was operating, it cost Stead more like £2,000 per annum. He ate the cost, which he could not afford to do. After about a year, Stead had to sell one of his properties to finance the endeavor. Friends suggested that Stead charge for the sittings. According to Stead, Julia absolutely forbade it. In 1912, some English papers attempted to breach the protections the Bureau had put in place in hopes of writing exposees on the Bureau. They failed the application process but were given a list of mediums who were employed by the bureau. They wrote an expose with the intel they got from the mediums but, at least according to Estelle Stead, it wasn’t a very good one.
Marissa: Julia’s Bureau continued to process applicants and the Wednesday Circle continued to meet until April 15, 1912, when W. T. Stead died in the Titanic disaster. As we portrayed in the dramatic reading at the top of the show, friends of the Bureau continued to meet after Stead’s death. We’ll leave you with W. T. Stead’s (living) words on the matter:
“The question whether it is possible to bridge the grave and open communications with those who have passed to the other side, is one which most people have answered in the negative. But in all ages there have been some who have answered not less positively in the affirmative,
and as the latter class, although in a minority, include the founders of the religions and the writers of the Bibles of the world, it can hardly be regarded as unreasonable to endeavour to
ascertain the truth by a series of carefully conducted experiments, with carefully-selected subjects, on certain clear and well-defined lines.
Who are the persons with whom such experiments should be conducted? They should be selected exclusively from those who with single souled sincerity desire to communicate with those whom they love, from whom they have been divided by death. They should not be those
who despair or who mourn as those who have no hope. When so many long to hear again a word of greeting from lips that have been closed in death, it is absurd to waste time upon those who have no such desire. But it is not enough that the desire should be there. Its existence should be demonstrated by action. Many people say they desire this or that, but if they refuse to raise their hands in order to grasp it or to make any enquiry as to how they can secure it, no one can regard them as serious. What test can be imposed to demonstrate the sincerity of the suggested subject ?
Fortunately the answer is not far to seek.”
Sources & Notes
Permalink to life of Julia A. Ames
See here for confirmation that Miss E is actually Helen Hood.
A Young woman journalist : a memorial tribute to Julia A. Ames. By Lady Henry Somerset and Frances Willard.
Tyler, Helen E. Where Prayer and Purpose Meet: The WCTU Story, 1874-1949. Evanston, Ill: Signal Press, 1949.
Special to THE NEW YORK TIMES. (1938, Mar 08). MISS HELEN L. HOOD: HEAD OF ILLINOIS W. C. T. U. FOR NINETEEN YEARS. New York Times (1923-) Retrieved from http://login.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/miss-helen-l-hood/docview/102646147/se-2?accountid=4485
Hardesty, Nancy. Women Called to Witness: Evangelical Feminism in the Nineteenth Century. 1999.
Giele, Janet Zollinger. Two Paths to Women’s Equality: Temperance, Suffrage, and the Origins of Modern Feminism. New York: Twayne, 1995.
Martin, Scott C. Devil of the Domestic Sphere: Temperance, Gender, and Middle-Class Ideology, 1800-1860. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2010.\
Moore, W. Usborne. The Voices A Sequel to “Glimpses of the Next State,”. London: Watts & Co, 1913
Moore, W. Usborne. Glimpses of the Next State: (the Education of an Agnostic). London: Watts & Co, 1911.
Crofton, Sarah. 2013. “‘Julia Says’: The Spirit-Writing and Editorial Mediumship of W. T. Stead”. 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century. 0, no. 16.
Stead, W. T. 1933. Life Eternal. London: Wright & Brown.
Stead, W. T. , Julia Ames, and Harry Houdini Collection (Library of Congress). 1907. After Death a Personal Narrative. New York: John Lane.
Stead W. T. 1909. How I Know the Dead Return : A Record of Personal Experience. Melbourne: E.W. Cole.
Stead W. T. 1910. Bridging the River of Death (Julia’s Bureau) a Sequel to “How I Know the Dead Return “. Melbourne: E.W. Cole.
Stead Estelle W and Harry Houdini Collection (Library of Congress). 1913. My Father : Personal & Spiritual Reminiscences. New York: George H. Doran.
Stead Estelle W. 1950. Spirit Return of W.t. Stead. London: Greater World Association.