THE SECRET LIFE OF MACKENZIE KING, SPIRITUALIST
For twenty-five years Canada’s famous Prime Minister was a practicing spiritualist. He believed that, through mediums, he had communicated with his mother, Franklin D. Roosevelt and even his dog Pat, after they had died. Here, for the first time, is revealed the best-kept secret of Mr. King’s amazing career
MACLEAN’S OTTAWA EDITOR
ONE WET Saturday afternoon in October 1948, William Lyon Mackenzie King lay ill at the Dorchester Hotel in Park Lane. His visitors were few and uniquely eminent—King George VI, Winston Churchill, Prime Minister Nehru of India—so the London press was keeping a close watch on the hotel lobby.
Reporters were amazed when two plainly dressed women came in, asked for Mr. King’s suite and were shown up immediately. The two women did not reappear. They were ushered out by a side door (they couldn t understand why at the time) and the reporters never did find out who they were Geraldine Cummins, well-known medium and author of ir*' " on spiritualism, and her friend and collaborator Beatrice Gibb That was as close as any outsider ever carne, in Mackenzie K. to the best-kept secret of his career—the fact That; the Pr
of Canada had been for more than twenty-üve years a convinced and practicing spiritualist.
Actually the word is somewhat ambiguous. Mr. King was not a member of the Spiritualist Church and spiritualism was not a religion to him: he remained to the end of his days a good Presbyterian. But he did believe in the life after death, not as a matter of faith but as a proven fact. He did believe it possible to communicate with the departed, and that he himself had talked beyond the grave many times with his mother, his brother and sister, and such friends as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Sir Wilfrid Laurier. He did repeatedly attend seances and have sittings with mediums here in London and elsewhere.
To his real intimates he made no secret of these beliefs. Some of them joined him many times in sessions with the ouija board at Ottawa. They knew from his own lips what comfort he got from ‘'•ommunion with the «lead.” Members of his personal staff knew it i some cases Mr. King didn’t know they knew, but they all did. /crybody kept, the secret, for an obvious reason: If the facts were
publicly known, people might have thought the affairs of Canada were being conducted on advice from the spirit world.
Indeed, Mr. King had not been dead a fortnight before a statement to that effect was published in the spiritualist weekly, Psychic News. His old friend, the late Duchess of Hamilton, in an interview, said Mr. King had always sought spirit guidance in affairs of state.
This was untrue—on Mr. King’s own testimony and on the evidence of those who knew him best. He sought contact with his dead mother and brother and friends not to consult them but simply to talk to them.
Mrs. Helen Hughes, a pleasant Glasgow housewife who is one of the best-known of present-day mediums and who sat with Mr. King often over a period of many years, explained it to me over a cup of tea in the Psychic College, Edinburgh:
“It was as if he had his mother living over here in Britain—what would any son do, if he came here on business? He’d look her up; he’d want to see her and talk to her. He didn’t want her advice about public affairs, for he knew more about them than she did. He wanted
to know how she was, whom st He wanted to talk to her
about family matters.”
Mrs. Hughes cannot recall .stance, in all her sittings with
Mr. King, when there was an^ ;on of public affairs. The only
exception, if you can call it an exception, was the question of Mr. King’s own retirement from public life.
"‘He was warned,” she said. “At least three years before he died his mother told him he was doing too much, his heart wouldn’t stand it. He took her advice in the end, but not soon enough.”
Perhaps one reason he delayed was that he got opposite advice from President Roosevelt. He asked F.D.R.’s counsel at a sitting with Miss Cummins; the answer came back “Don’t retire, stay on the job. Your country needs you there.”
After Mr. King had gone back to Canada Miss Cummins got another message; the President had changed his mind. He now thought Mr. King’s health too precarious for the load he was carrying, and urged him to retire at once. Miss Cummins passed the word along to Ottawa.
(Perhaps I’d better say at this point that I myself am not a spiritualist and do not believe in these alleged communications from the next world. For the sake of brevity and clarity, I haven’t bothered to use words like “alleged” and “purported” in every ot her sentence. Whether or not you or I believe these messages were real, the point is that Mackenzie King did believe it.)
At a later sitting with Miss Cummins he got a message from F.D.R. which did concern public affairs. The President told Mr. King to watch Asia—that’s where the war danger lay. The Berlin airlift which was a focus of attention then was a side issue, a Soviet bluff. There was no mention of Korea by name, but F.D.R. did say he thought there’d be war in the Far East within two years.
Miss Cummins recalls that the Prime Minister “seemed puzzled and a little shaken by this part of the communication. He said he made it a rule to ignore advice thus given, and trusted solely to his own and his advisers’ judgment.”
What he wanted from a medium, and what he normally got, was intimate converse with his own family. Like so many others, Mackenzie King became interested in spiritualism because he was a lonely and a sorely bereaved man.
The mother to whom he was and remained devoted; his beloved brother Macdougall King, the doctor; his favorite sister Isabel—all had died in a few years. His bereavement was sharpened by the thought that he had not been at his mother’s death-bed. At her insistence he had gone back to his 1917 election campaign in North York, leaving her mortally ill; she was dead when he returned. Mr. King never quite forgave himself for this.
He was introduced to spiritualism by the late Marchioness of Aberdeen, who was herself a believer. Lady Aberdeen told him of Mrs. Etta Wriedt, an American “direct-voice” medium who acquired great, fame in her day.
It was Mrs. Wriedt who received, in 1911, the gold watch bequeathed by Queen Victoria to “the most deserving medium” of the time. The Queen had intended the watch for her Highland gillie John Brown, a medium through whom she believed she could talk to her beloved Prince Albert. Mrs. Wriedt in her turn got the watch after having shown, to the satisfaction of British editor W. T. Stead, that she had received a communication from the spirit of Queen Victoria in July 1911.
Mrs. Wriedt decided before her own death that the Queen’s watch ought to go back to England. She entrusted it to Mr. King, who brought it here on his next visit and gave it to the London Spiritualist Alliance. There, mounted on a blue velvet cushion, it is still on display.
All that came later. In the early 1920s Mr. King was convinced of the genuineness of Mrs. Wriedt ’s gift by the experience of a friend of his.
The wife of a Liberal senator, now dead, had lost her fat her, and the father’s will couldn’t be found. After futile search she consulted Mrs. Wriedt. The medium told her it was in a chest of drawers in a house in France. She looked, and there it was. That’s the story as Mr. King used to tell it.
Continued on page 60
The Secret Life of Mackenzie King, Spiritualist
Continued from page .9
Mrs. Wriedt used a silver trumpet from which, at her seances, the voice of the departed would proceed. An old friend of Mr. King recalled: “She’d put the trumpet in u.w middle of the circle and it would roll around and stop in front of the person about to receive a message. I remember the thing rolling up to me and giving me quite a rap on the shin. The voice that came out did sound very like a person I knew who had died.
“However, 1 was a bit shaken when j she got hold of somebody who was I supposed to be French. That trumpet j spoke very bad French.”
Apparently that didn’t shake Mr. King, whose own French was rudij mentary anyway. He became more and more interested in spiritualism as the I years went by. For the last twenty i years of his life he found time, on every i trip to Britain, for sittings with various mediums.
Mrs. Helen Hughes remembers the lirst she ever bad with him, in the early 1930s: “I bad no idea who he was.
They don’t tell us, you know. All I knew was, a gentleman would be coming for a sitting at 10.30 in the morning I le just came in and sat down without saying anything.
“One of the voices I heard was a man who said he was his brother. Mr. King wanted to be told something about him, and it came through that he was a doctor. After a while I got the name, Mac. He said a lot about the family—he’d say: ‘Do you remember, Willie, when we were children, do you remember so-and-so?’ After it was over Mr. King said T know that was my brother. He spoke of things nobody else knew, nobody but the two of us.’ Through Mrs. Hughes and the late Hester Dowden, another medium of considerable fame, Mr. King got in touch not only with the human members of his family but also with his
beloved Irish terrier, Pat. Mrs. Hughes once reported to him: “Your sister
is here, and she has a beautiful dog with her. The dog doesn’t seem to have been very long over there (i.e., very long dead).”
Mr. King was greatly impressed and told Mrs. Hughes a story he had told to many friends in Ottawa. The night before Pat died, Mr. King’s watch fell off his bedside table “for no apparent reason”—he found it in the morning, face down on the floor, with the hands stopped at twenty minutes past four.
“I am not psychic,” Mr. King said, “but I knew then, as if a voice were speaking to me, that Pat would die before another twenty-four hours went by.” Sure enough, that night Pat got out of his basket with a last effort, climbed up on his master’s bed, and died there. Mr. King looked at his watch—it was twenty past tour.
Mrs. Hughes’ method, as a medium, is what they call “clairaudience”—she hears voices and reports what they say to the client. Sometimes, though not always, she can see faces and bodily i forms. Sometimes she is in a trance, ; sometimes fully conscious, but in either ' case the message comes through in her
own Scottish voice. Mrs. Wriedt was a “direct-voice” medium through whom the deceased could speak directly in his or her own earthly accent.
Hester Dowden and Miss Cummins got their communications by “automatic writing.'’ Mrs. Dowden used to be fully conscious and made comments of her own, sometimes rather facetious and irreverent, on the messages coming through. Miss Cummins goes into a trance, she says, and loses consciousness completely before her hand begins to move across the page. She sits down and “goes into the silence,” shading her closed eyes with her left hand; after a while her “control,” an ancient Greek named Astor, announces his presence and begins to send messages from other departed spirits. Miss Cummins writes all this down in a rapid script with all the words run together, no spaces, and in handwriting that varies markedly as different “communicators” speak.
Mr. King’s habit was to take the written messages off the foolscap pad, sheet by sheet as they were completed, and to keep the originals himself. He would send back copies to the mediums, often with comments of his own on the “evidential” material they contained. Of one message from President Roosevelt, reporting that F.D.R. had met Mr. King’s mother, the Prime Minister said:
“The phrases he used, the characterization, were exactly what I’d have expected from Franklin Roosevelt if he’d met my mother in life.”
These spirit messages, the originals as well as the copies, are still extant in Ottawa and in London, but even now they are treated as closely secret. None of the people associated with Mr. King’s spiritualist activities will talk freely or willingly about him. Had it not been for an initial breach of silence just after Mr. King’s death, they’d be even less willing to talk.
Most of King’s contacts with mediums in Britain were made through Miss Mercy Phillimore, secretary of the London Spiritualist Alliance. Miss Phillimore won’t discuss Mr. King’s interest in spiritualism, won’t reveal to whom she sent him or when or where. But she will talk, very strongly and indignantly, about that unfortunate statement in Psychic News that he “always sought spirit guidance in affairs of state.”
“Mr. King was an investigator,” she said. “He did accept the spirit hypothesis and he had the courage to say so, but he never ceased to be critical in appraising evidence. He was a highly intelligent man with shrewd judgment, and to say he consulted mediums for advice in statecraft is preposterous. It is also outrageous, an insult to his memory.”
Actually Mr. King seems to have behaved, in his psychic experiments, with all the caution and circumspection he displayed in other things. The London Spiritualist Alliance, founded under its present name in 1884, is one of the oldest organizations of its kind. It is regarded in spiritualist circles as a pretty careful investigator of medir ms’ claims, and it also has a reputation for secrecy.
Ordinarily, I was told, the mediums didn’t know who Mr. King was. Miss Cummins recalls that at her first sitting with him she thought he was a clergyman from New York. (She says she was so ignorant of Canada that she thought the capital city was Montreal, yet the messages on that first day included such relatively obscure names as W. S. Fielding, who was Mr. King’s rival for the Liberal leadership thirty-two years ago, and Sir Oliver Mowat, a
Premier of Ontario in Sir John A. Macdonald’s time.)
Mrs. Helen Hughes says she had been giving him sittings over a period of four years, sometimes two in a single week, before she knew his name. She learned his identity for the first time in 1937, at a party given by the Duchess of Hamilton at the London Spiritualist Alliance headquarters in Queensberry Place, South Kensington.
‘ One of the guests at that party was a Scotsman named J. J. Maclndoe, and it was he who first revealed that Mackenzie King was a spiritualist. He wrote a letter to the Psychic News just after Mr. King’s death; the letter was published, and Psychic News promptly sent a reporter to interview the Duchess of Hamilton for more details. Both stories were widely reprinted in Canada.
With the secret thus broken, Miss Cummins wrote an-appendix to the autobiographical book she was preparing, published this year under the title Unseen Adventures. It comprised a partial report of the two sittings she had with Mr. King in 1947 and 1948. Private and personal communications were deleted, but she did reveal that he had got messages from his family and from President Roosevelt.
She sent proofs of the appendix to a friend in Ottawa who showed them to Mackenzie King’s executors. One of them, Duncan MacTavish, of Ottawa, was flying to England the next day on other business. Leonard W. Brockington, of Toronto, was already in London. 'Together they called to urge Miss Cummins and her publishers to suppress the story. Reluctantly, and at considerable cost and inconvenience, they agreed to cut out Mr. King’s name and a number of identifying details, including the name of President Roosevelt.
In the book as published, the appendix is entitled Reminiscences of a British Commonwealth Statesman; Mr. King appears as Mr. S., F.D.R. as X.Y.Z. Miss Cummins was rather taken aback when I turned up at Miss Gibbes’ small house in Chelsea, already able from previous information to identify these pseudonymous characters and fill in a number of the deleted details. She is still worried lest she be accused of breaking faith in consenting to see me at all.
In general, though, people who knew
of Mr. King’s beliefs are glad the story is coming out.
Mediums differ a lot in their attitude toward their work and their own beliefs concerning it. Mrs. Helen Hughes is a minister of the Spiritualist Church and a professional medium—to her, spiritualism is a religion and sittings an occupation. Miss Cummins, on the other hand, is a devout member of the Church of Ireland, a novelist and playwright by profession. Some of her books are ordinary novels about Ireland, written wjth her conscious mind. Others she believes to have been dictated to her by writers now dead— many are chronicles of biblical times.
She is not a professional medium, indeed she does not give sittings at all except at the request of personal friends. Like Mackenzie King she regards spiritualism as enquiry and experiment, not worship, and she retains a certain amount of scepticism about the results.
But all spiritualists, the believers and the researchers alike, have an interest in letting the facts be known. They feel that if a man as eminent, as astute, as famous for realistic judgments as Mackenzie King was convinced their conclusions were genuine, they have a right to his testimony before the world. While he lived his secret was kept with absolute fidelity, but they see no point in secrecy now.
Moreover they are absolutely convinced that Mr. King himself would agree with them. He told several people here, in the later years of his life, that it was his firm intention to publish a full account of his psychic experiments and beliefs in the memoirs he then hoped to write. He hadn’t quite decided whether this chapter would he published during his lifetime or withheld until after his death, but publish it he would, sooner or later. He wanted to communicate his own unshakeable faith in the life after death.
“People who don’t believe in survival,” he once said to Mrs. Helen Hughes, “haven’t yet begun to live.”
Therefore they feel that whatever Mr. King’s executors may desire, his own wishes are served by publication of the facts. From the little I knew of Mr. King I think they’re right. If j Mr. King’s belief has turned out to be ! true, and if he is indeed looking over my shoulder from some astral sphere,
I don’t think he’ll mind, ic