by Shannon Butler

Do you ever question why we are really here? What is the meaning of life? (Not the famous Monty Python film, we mean the actual meaning of life!) Have you ever tried to connect with the spirits of those who have passed on? Have you ever been hypnotized? Have you ever just spaced out for a bit and felt like perhaps you’ve seen the future? Or have you heard voices that seem to come from nowhere that offer you guidance? We could go on and on asking such questions, but who really has the answers that we’re all looking for? Historically, many odd characters have come along with claims of great otherworldly powers, and we had one right here in Poughkeepsie who amazed some and irritated others. It didn’t take long before he earned the nickname “The Poughkeepsie Seer.”

Andrew Jackson Davis (not to be confused with the prominent architect Alexander Jackson Davis or landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing) was born on August 11, 1826 just across the river in Orange County. In his autobiography “The Magic Staff,” he remembered (perhaps more than anyone could possibly remember of their childhood) growing up in a fairly poor household with an alcoholic father and a religious mother who may have been clairvoyant but could not tell the difference between fact and fantasy. The family moved around quite a bit, but at a young age, he came to the Poughkeepsie area. Davis claimed that he had very little in the way of education, other than a short stint at a school in Hyde Park in the 1830s, when his family moved there for a time. At a young age, Davis started to experience things that he could not quite comprehend. He wrote in his autobiography a chapter entitled, “I yield to the mystic power,” detailing his thoughts when he first discovered his gift: “I have a body, a tangible body – I reside in the form – but is it my natural or spiritual body? Is it adapted to the outer world, or to the post-mortem life? Where am I? Oh, I am so lonely! Alas, if this be death!” It must have been quite the experience.

When Davis realized that he could magnetize (hypnotize) people, he began his work of performing healings on various clients, even opening a medical clinic with a partner named William Levingston. By 1845, he had begun giving lectures, proclaiming that spiritualism was a device to make men “happier, and wiser, and better.” In his work he would sit in a trance and speak with spirits in order to learn about everything from love, health, history, and the future. His first book was published in 1847, “Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind,” in which he discusses the process of creation itself and the spirit world.

Those who believed in Davis’ work were devoted to him and perhaps even benefited from his so-called healings. Thanks to him and others like him, the spiritualism movement took hold in the mid-19th century all over the world. However, those who didn’t believe him were sure to make themselves heard. In 1850, one critic wrote about his book “Harmonia,” saying, “A crazier coot never took flight in the clouds of unutterable nonsense and filled his crop with the vapor and fog that reels up from the great slough of human credulity than this same Andrew Jackson Davis; but we dare say he has believers.” Another critic, an English writer named Joseph McCabe, wrote about Davis’ book “The Principles of Nature” and absolutely tore it apart by saying:

“There is no need to examine the book seriously. The scientific errors and crudities of it release any person from considering whether there was any element of revelation in it… Moreover, Davis was a palpable cheat. He maintained that up to that date he had read only one book in his life, and that book was a novel. We know from his admirers that this was not true, and any person can recognize in his pages a very crude and badly digested mess of early scientific literature.”

Davis died at his summer home in Massachusetts in 1910 at the age of 83. Here in the Local History room, we have several of his books which, if nothing else, are certainly entertaining to read. Regardless of whether or not you believe in this work, it is interesting to think of the commotion that was stirred up all over the world by one guy from Poughkeepsie.

“The Magic Staff: An Autobiography of Andrew Jackson Davis” – 1857 – LH 133.9 D
“Events in the Life of a Seer” – 1873 – LH 133.9 D
Poughkeepsie Journal – 14 Aug 1858, 7 Aug 1847, 27 Jul 1850
“Spiritualism: A popular history from 1847” by Joseph McCabe, 1920.

01 – Portrait of Andrew Jackson Davis –
02 – Diagram from Davis’ book “The Magic Staff” – LH Collections
03 – “A Death scene” image from Davis’ book “The Magic Staff” – LH Collections