Jonathan Koons and his family hosted public seances in the 19th century to spread Spiritualism and test reality
In a dark, candlelit room, people crowd into seats hoping to see and hear the unthinkable. As the final candle is blown out, a presence is felt entering the room and a bodyless voice speaks through a trumpet. For the mediums sitting at the home circle, this is a common occurrence.
Curious people have traveled to Athens County to test the supernatural for more than 160 years, predating the Civil War. Jonathan and Abigail Koons’ family was the first to hold public seances in 1852 inside their spirit room, which operated until 1858. Spiritualists and skeptics traveled from all over early America to witness the family of mediums and their talents.
“That was a period when basic necessities were still being created. They were still creating the foundations of the community that we live in today.”Tom O’Grady, the executive director of the Southeast Ohio History Center.
The Koons moved with their family to Mt. Nebo in 1835 and made a living by farming. Eventually, the news had spread to Dover Township in Athens County that two sisters in upstate New York spoke with a ghost.
According to Brian Collins, the Gawande Chair in Indian Religion and Philosophy at Ohio University, the Spiritualism movement hit in the 19th century after the Fox sisters began communicating with the spirit of a murdered peddler through table tapping. It was believed that by talking through mediums to the dead, aspects of the afterlife and heaven could be revealed. Despite seeming so taboo, the movement was based in Christianity.
Koons converted to Spiritualism in early 1852 and he and his family spent six months privately developing their skill. Afterward, he was driven to create a home circle, and he built a log cabin meant for seances next to the family home. Koons also built a machine which acted as a battery for the spirits.
Sharon Hatfield, the author of “Enchanted Ground: The Spirit Room of Jonathan Koons,” a nonfiction book describing the events of the Koons’ spirit room, said, “a lot of people who went there were simply overjoyed because if you felt you had proof that you were immortal, it would change the way you live the rest of your life.”
According to Hatfield, there were around 20 in the audience with the mediums sitting at a table. Once a candle was blown out and the room was dark, a musical program began with different instruments coming in throughout. Koons claimed the musicians were the spirits. These spirits were known to make a glowing set of hands appear, which would sometimes write out messages. Voices also spoke through a trumpet.
Inspired by what they saw, some of Koons’ followers went home and duplicated the spirit room in Chillicothe and Cleveland, Ohio, Indiana, Massachusetts and even next door. The Tippie family, who started a spirit room of their own in Athens County, lived just three miles from the Koons.
“(The Tippies) copied and built their spirit room on the same model as his. They were able to get some special effects also; they just weren’t as talented on publicity as Koons.”Sharon Hatfield
Koons was well-known for his essays, even writing in newspapers about Spiritualism. Koons’ gift was his ability to write, Hatfield said, but his eldest son Nahum had a gift of his own.
“Nahum was the voice of the trumpet,” Hatfield said. Whenever Nahum was present at a seance, voices would speak through a trumpet in the room, at times conversing with those in the room. If Koons’ son was not there, the trumpet was quiet for the night.
By 1856 Koons had been accused of fraud, which damaged his reputation and made his family reluctant to continue. Their farm also could not continue to operate while housing so many guests, nearly six nights a week, as Koons took only donations for viewing seances. The family left Athens County in 1858 and settled in Illinois.
From its shut-down asylum and cursed cemeteries, Athens County is already widely known to Spiritualists but the Koons’ property kept groups coming back. In 1871, Christian Spiritualists moved into the area, led by one of Koons’ followers, Eli Curtis, who wanted to start a utopian community near the Koons’ old farm. He hoped to attracted mediums, but most of the leaders left by 1875.
In 1969, an art professor at Ohio University, Aethelred Eldridge, started an intentional community near the area. He would interpret the poetry of William Blake, a Romantic poet and writer, and preach in his own log cabin (another spirit room of sorts) until arsonists burned the building down in 1988.
The area seems to attract people looking at the universe in a different way, Hatfield said. Spiritualism is still present today but far different as it now focuses on healing aspects, like reiki. Perhaps the truth of the spirit room will never be known, but the Koons offered magic to Athens history.