It was a great surprise for the Canadian public to learn after Mackenzie King’s death in 1950, that the man who had served as Canada’s prime minister for 22 of the previous 28 years, had taken a great interest in spiritualism while in office, and had communicated with the dead on many occasions. This had been a well-kept secret, known only to his close friends and some members of his staff. This revelation caused Canadians to question the purpose of this activity, the extent of it, and its effect on King’s public policy. Many of the answers can be found in his diary and other papers.
The origin of King’s belief in spiritualism was his Christianity. He was a devout Christian, a lifelong member of the Presbyterian Church. Through his faith, he believed in heaven and the afterlife. When four members of his family died over a fairly short time period – his sister Bella in 1915, his father in 1916, his mother in 1917 and his brother Max, in 1922 – King was consoled by his belief that he would see them again in the afterlife. When King visited his dying brother Max in Colorado, they talked of life after death. “I spoke of love being stronger than all else and of my belief in immortal life, … he said he looked on death as ‘The Great Adventure’ that even the strongest materialist had to admit that there was much beyond their knowledge & might exist. I told him we would ever be together … he said to me ‘You will be with me and I will be with you always’.” (Diary, Jan. 8, 1922) King was certain that departed members of his family continued to exist and remained with him in spirit, guiding him and encouraging him. This belief was so strong that it was not difficult for him to accept that it might be possible to communicate with them.
Mackenzie King was at first skeptical about spiritualism. In 1902, he recorded that he threw away a book by Arthur Chambers called Our Life After Death after reading 30 pages. He felt it was blasphemous. (Diary, Feb. 9 1902) After some experience with fortunetellers and mediums, he remained suspicious of them, but he did believe that the departed were still with him. He wrote, “My nature and reason revolt against ‘spiritualism’ & all that ilk – but not against things of the spirit – belief in spiritual guidance – thro’ intuitions. It is the material manifestations I feel charry about – on the other hand when in faith and prayer I have asked for them, and they come in such an unmistakable manner, are they not to be accepted in all faith and humility – just at this time when guidance from on High is needed. It is all very beautiful as well as lonely.” (Diary, Oct. 30, 1925) After the loss of four members of his close-knit family in seven years, King was lonely. It was partly this loneliness that induced him to try to speak to his departed relatives.
King had consulted a fortuneteller in Toronto as early as 1896. She had told him “some strange truths.” (Diary, May 2, 1896) She correctly predicted that he would be going to Chicago in the fall. She told him that he liked intellectual girls and had thought of entering the ministry. She also predicted that he would live to be old and would be successful. He had other casual encounters with fortunetellers over the years. In Calgary in 1920 he had his palm read by a Syrian fortuneteller. He concluded that she was “Pure fake, but some amusement.” (Diary, Oct. 13, 1920) During a trip to Atlantic City in January 1925, he visited an “Indian phrenologist and palmist astrologer … had a three dollar reading.” (Diary, Jan. 27, 1925)
King first took a serious interest in fortunetellers in March 1925, when he consulted Mrs. Rachel Bleaney of Kingston. He was fascinated when she was able to see the spirits of his mother and his brother Max. In October of the same year King had another reading with Mrs. Bleaney and also asked her to interpret one of his dreams. He was in the middle of an election campaign, and when her prediction that he would win justice after a hard fight, proved accurate, he was very impressed. In 1926 she correctly predicted King’s election victory. He continued to have sessions with Mrs. Bleaney over the next few years but was very disappointed and somewhat disillusioned, when he lost the election of 1930 after she suggested to him that 1930 would be a good year for an election and that he would surely win.
After the election of 1930, however, King did not lose interest or faith in spiritualism. On the contrary, with fewer public responsibilities during five years in opposition, he was able to devote more time to what he referred to as “psychical research.” In February 1932 he met Mrs. Etta Wriedt of Detroit at the Fulford mansion in Brockville, where she conducted several séances. King was very pleased when he was able to communicate with his mother, his father, his grandfather, his brother and sister, his old friend Bert Harper, and even Sir Wilfrid Laurier. After further séances at Laurier House and Kingsmere in June 1932, King was absolutely convinced. He wrote, “There can be no doubt whatsoever that the persons I have been talking with were the loved ones & others I have known and who have passed away. It was the spirits of the departed.” (Diary, June 30,1932) One thing that King understood and that was reinforced in messages from his mother was that he should not let too many people know about the sessions because they would not understand. However, Mrs. Wriedt was a “direct voice” medium and used a small, folding trumpet-shaped instrument. After one session, King wrote, “The ‘conversations’ in many cases have been so loud, so clear etc. that I have felt great embarrassment at the servants in other parts of the house, hearing what was said, as I am sure they have.” (Diary, June 30, 1932) King later travelled to Detroit for more séances with Mrs. Wriedt.
In 1933 King was introduced to the practice of table rapping, probably by Dominion Archivist Arthur Doughty. Over the next few years, King and his friend Joan Patteson, spent a good deal of time in sessions at the “little table.” There was no need to use a medium to receive messages during these sessions. King and Mrs. Patteson were able to get messages from a wide variety of people including King’s parents, grandfather, brother and sister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier and Joan’s mother. On his grandfather’s birthday, King wrote, “This is the anniversary of grandfather Mackenzie’s birthday (Dundee, 1795). How amazing it would sound in the ears of the world today were I to answer that I had spoken with him last night and wished him many happy returns of the day. Yet it is true, and it is true my actions today and utterances have been in large part the result of our talk together last night and the talk with Mrs. Mackenzie.” (Diary, March 12, 1934) King was reassured by messages from Sir Wilfrid Laurier telling him he was on the right track.
Before and after the Second World War, King was in touch with several mediums in London, England. He visited the London Spiritualist Alliance on several trips to England and was put in touch with mediums by that organization. Several amazing séances have come to light in the King Papers Spiritualism series. In October 1945, in sittings with Hester Dowden, and a Mrs. Sharplin, King asked advice on the Russian espionage case in Canada (the Gouzenko affair) while the situation was still very much a state secret. Luckily, his brother Max and the late Franklin D. Roosevelt advised extreme caution. In 1947 and 1948 King had sittings in London with medium Geraldine Cummins, who received messages through “automatic writing.”
Although séances and the little table were King’s favorite methods of receiving communications from the dead, he did get revelations from other sources. King was very superstitious. He liked to read tea leaves and often asked his butler, MacLeod, to describe what he saw in the cup. On one occasion King wrote, “At luncheon, in looking at my tea-cup, I saw very clearly a soldier in uniform standing with his legs apart as though over a sort of open space with objects on either side which might have been bodies of men or lumps of earth. I showed the cup to MacLeod. Asked him what he saw. He said without a word with me: a soldier standing with his legs apart. I said to him it probably has reference to the war in Africa.” (Diary, February 7, 1941)
King took note of coincidences in his life. He checked the hands of the clock whenever something significant occurred, and if they were together, for example, at five to eleven, or opposite or at right angles, this signified that someone in the other world was watching over him. Other coincidences involved sudden thoughts of a person or subject, hearing a favorite hymn unexpectedly, or an accidental meeting with a friend or colleague.
King was also superstitious about numbers. Seven and seventeen were two of his favorites. When he was told on May 7, 1945 that the war in Europe was over, he wrote: “I thought of the No. 7 as significant … May the 7th is a beautiful day for a word of the kind.” (Diary, May 7, 1945) King liked the number 17 because his birthday was the 17th of December. When his dog Pat died at the age of 17, King noted that Pat was given to him 17 years before by Joan and Godfroy Patteson: “July 1924 – he has been at my side all that time, that number is his and mine.” (Diary, July 13, 1941)
For King, dreams or “visions” were another method of communicating with the dead. He tried to remember his dreams and record them so that he could interpret them. The later diary of the 1940s contains accounts of his dreams almost every day. By that time, King felt that dreams were the most reliable means of contacting the spirit world. There were no intermediaries and no distortion of the messages by what he called evil influences.
In 1937 King received a beautiful crystal ball as a gift in London, England. He was very pleased with this present and kept the crystal ball in his third-floor study at Laurier House, but he did not use it for séances.