Mary’s Charlatans: Charles J. Colchester

“Lord” Charles J. Colchester was a medium whose spiritual gifts were as fake as his noble pedigree. He conducted seances for Mrs. Lincoln – including at least one at the Soldier’s Home. His shenanigans were exposed by journalist Noah Brooks, who was one Mrs. Lincoln’s benign male favorites. Brooks not only exposed Colchester; he also broke up Colchester’s attempt to blackmail Mrs. Lincoln:

The most terrifying threat that could be held over a zealous war-correspondent was that of arrest and confinement in the old Capitol prison. Every person who spent much time in Washington during the war will recall with mingled amusement and dread the freedom with which this threat was bandied about among people who were not by any means authorized to promote the rapid transit of anybody to that malodorous bastille. Let me give an instance in which, though one of the unauthorized, I made use of this fear-compelling threat. A seamstress [Elizabeth Keckley] employed in the White House had induced Mrs. Lincoln to listen to the artful tales of a so-called spiritual medium who masqueraded under the name of Colchester, and who pretended to be the illegitimate son of an English duke. The poor lady at that time was well-nigh distraught with grief at the death of her son Willie. By playing on her motherly sorrows, Colchester actually succeeded in inducing Mrs. Lincoln to receive him in the family residence at the Soldier’s Home, where, in a darkened room, he pretended to produce messages from the dead boy by means of scratches on the wainscoting and taps on the walls and furniture. Mrs. Lincoln told me of these so-called manifestations, and asked me to be present in the White House when Colchester would give an exhibition of his powers. I declined; but meanwhile I received an invitation to invest one dollar and attend ‘a Colchester sitting’ at the house of a Washington gentleman who was a profound believer in this pretentious seer. To gratify my curiosity, I paid the entrance fee, and accompanied by a trusty friend, went to the seance. After the company had been seated around the table in the usual approved manner, and the lights were turned out, the silence was broken by the thumping of a drum, the twanging of a banjo, and the ringing of bells, all of which instruments had been laid on the table, ready for use. By some hocus-pocus, it was evident, the operator had freed his hands from the hands of those who sat on each side of him, and was himself making ‘music in the air.’ Loosening my hands from my neighbors’, who were unbelievers, I rose, and, grasping in the direction of the drum-beat, grabbed a very solid and fleshy hand in which was held a bell that was being thumped on a drum-head. I shouted, ‘Strike a light!’ My friend, after what appeared to be an unconscionable length of time, lighted a match; but meanwhile somebody had dealt me a severe blow with the drum, the edge of which cut a slight wound on my forehead. When the gas was finally lighted, the singular spectacle was presented of ‘the son of the duke’ firmly grasped by a man whose forehead was covered with blood, while the arrested scion of nobility was glowering at the drum and bells which he still held in his hands. The meeting broke up in the most admired disorder, ‘Lord Colchester’ slipping out of the room in the confusion. His host subsequently brought down word from the discomfited seer to the effect that Colchester was ‘so outraged by this insult’ that he refused to reappear!

A day or two after this, I was astonished by a note from Mrs. Lincoln requesting me to come to the White House without a moment’s delay, on a matter of the most distressing importance. On my arrival, the lady, somewhat discomposed, showed me a note from ‘Colchester,’ in which he requested that she should procure for him from the War Department a pass to New York, and intimated that in case she refused he might have some unpleasant things to say to her. We made an arrangement by which Colchester came to the White House at a specified hour the next day, and after I had been formally introduced to the charlatan, Mrs. Lincoln withdrew from the room. Going up to Colchester, I lifted the hair from the scar on my forehead, yet unhealed, and said, ‘Do you recognize this? The man muttered something about his having been insulted, and then I said: ‘You know that I know you are a swindler and a humbug. Get out of this house and out of this city at once. If you are in Washington to-morrow afternoon at this time, you will be at the old Capitol prison.’ The little scamp pulled himself together and sneaked out of the house, and, so far as I know, out of Washington. I never saw or heard of him afterward.1

Lincoln scholar Daniel Mark Epstein noted: “Lincoln was concerned enough about Colchester’s influence to consult with Dr. Joseph Henry, an eminent scientist and secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. The scientist invited Colchester to demonstrate his powers in one of the rooms of the Smithsonian. Henry reported to the president that the ‘medium’ was a fake – the sound he produced were coming from his own body; but Henry could not prove this without thoroughly examining him; and the trickster refused to disrobe.”2 Epstein wrote: “Colchester’s banishment, occurring in the summer of 1863, marked the beginning of the end of Mrs. Lincoln’s séances at home, but it was not the end of her commerce with spirits. She continued to consult with mediums in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia until a few years before she died.”3


  1. Herbert Mitgang, editor, Noah Brooks, Washington in Lincoln’s Time, pp. 66-68.
  2. Daniel Mark Epstein, The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, p. 385.
  3. Epstein, The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, p. 386.


Noah Brooks
Mary Todd Lincoln
Soldiers’ Homes