Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Practice of Spiritualism turns deadly

The Nashville News, Dec. 20, 1913
By Brian Irby, archival assistant

In the 19th and early 20th  centuries, a fever for Spiritualism, a new religion in which adherents would attempt to communicate with the spirits of the dead, swept across the United States.  Spiritualist circles formed across the country, their members holding seances in darkened rooms, hoping to talk to deceased loved ones. Many such Spiritualist circles formed in Arkansas, including one in Pike County where the practice of the religion ended with tragedy.

Like many of their fellow Americans, Thomas and Margaret Turner, Lee County farmers, became adherents to the new religion around the turn of the 20th century. In order to spread the word about Spiritualism, they published a book titled The War of Ages or Two Worlds Blended, Linking the Known with the Unknown that recounted past attempts to communicate with the dead.  About 1903, the couple invited Rhoda Carter, a fellow spiritualist, and her six-year-old son, Robert, to move in with them. Soon after, the Turners formally adopted young Robert.

In addition to the book, the Turners hoped to establish a hotel in Lee County devoted solely to Spiritualist guests. Thomas Turner approached a partially blind farmer originally from Pike County, James Farrell, to invest in the hotel, but Farrell declined, arguing that he did not believe in Spiritualism. The two parted ways amicably, and the Turners never found the capital to build their Spiritualist hotel.

In 1913, Farrell left Lee County and settled in Glenwood in Pike County to work as a farm laborer. Farrell appeared to be an elderly man, although he was only 30 years of age. This discrepancy between his age and his appearance was most likely due to deep scars on his face, the result of an accident that also cost him much of his vision.

Back in Lee County, the Turner family experienced tragedy when young Robert died (records are unclear as to when or how Robert passed). The family decided to move from Lee to Pike County where they became reacquainted with Farrell. Once in Pike County the Turners convinced Farrell to join their Spiritualist circle, which met in their home.

Distraught over the death of their beloved adopted son, Margaret and Thomas Turner set out to communicate with his spirit. As the months dragged on, Margaret Turner started to sense that the messages she was receiving from the great beyond were growing fainter. Part of the problem, the Turners suggested, was that communications were being thwarted by “grounders,” malevolent spirits that attempted to disrupt communication between the realm of the living and the realm of the dead. The most difficult of the “grounders” was a spirit named “Billy Bedamn” who seemed to take a particular interest in preventing the Turners from speaking with Robert. Thomas Turner found that playing the harmonica, especially the tune “Red Wing” was usually enough to calm Billy and allow them to speak with Robert.

As the months passed, however, the Turners were still having difficulty. They decided that the best way to communicate with Robert was to contact a professional medium who would facilitate the communication. The family chose Farrell, whom Thomas Turner had known since he was a child, to join the circle.  

The Turners gathered with Farrell in their living room and attempted to contact Robert’s spirit. First, they brought out a gramophone and put on music to “entertain the spirits.” Unfortunately, they left the lights burning, resulting in no contact with the spirit realm. Next, they turned off the lights. At that moment, sparks of light began floating around the room indicating that the spirits had made their appearance. Unfortunately, along with Robert’s spirit, the “grounders” that had so bedeviled communications in the past, again made their presence known, disrupting attempts to communicate with Robert. Farrell and Carter grabbed brooms in order to shoo away the spirits.

The method of communicating with the spirits involved one of the group asking a question, and the spirits answering with flashes of light. One flash indicated the answer was “no;” two flashes meant “I don’t know;” and three flashes represented “yes.” In some cases, the group needed a more complex method of communicating with Robert. In these instances, the spirit communicated via dots and dashes, like Morse code.  Carter interpreted the messages once they had been copied down on paper. Significantly, only Farrell, who was partially blind, saw these flashes of light. No one else in the room could see them, so this left the family at the mercy of Farrell’s psychic gifts.

According to Farrell, most of the conversations were banal. But, after weeks of conversation, Robert’s communications became prophetic. Farrell announced that Robert was declaring that the world, particularly the United States and Mexico, were soon going to be engulfed in a tragic war that would destroy the United States. Robert warned his adoptive parents of the coming catastrophe and begged them to enter the spirit realm themselves so that they could avoid the coming problems. Additionally, Farrell claimed that Robert’s spirit wished them to sign over their property to Farrell. True believers, they willingly followed Robert’s command.

Turner signed over a deed for all the Turners’ properties, valued at $3,000, to Farrell. Then, on September 18, 1913, Turner sat down and wrote a suicide note, which the rest of the family signed. The note declared, “We are simply tired, and we wish is that all should go together… With malice toward none and good wishes for all mankind, we bid you good-bye.” The three then took a large amount of morphine mixed with strychnine and laid down.

That afternoon, Farrell returned to the Turner home to find Carter dead, and Margaret and Thomas Turner dying. The Turners were rushed to the hospital to be treated. Shortly after arriving at the hospital, Margaret Turner died.

Law enforcement immediately arrested the ailing Thomas Turner and charged him with second-degree murder. When he recovered, Turner accused Farrell of encouraging them to commit suicide. As proof, Turner produced the receipt for signing over the property to Farrell. Glenwood law enforcement immediately swore out a warrant for Farrell’s arrest. Farrell, tipped off that he would be arrested, filed a quit claim on the Turner’s property absolving any interest he may have had in the property with the hope that no one would suspect that he encouraged the suicides for personal financial gain.

Nevertheless, the police arrested Farrell for second-degree murder. When Farrell’s trial began in Murfreesboro in October 1913, it seemed that the evidence was on the prosecution’s side. Prosecuting the case was a young attorney from Sevier County, Thomas Collins. Although a mere 28 years old, he was widely known for his skills in the courtroom.

Turner was the star witness for the Farrell murder trial, but when he took the stand, he seemed to back away from his earlier accusations. For example, Turner told the jury that he could not remember whether “Robert” urged them to deed their property to Farrell. Turner’s recantation of earlier testimony left the prosecution in disarray. Collins, however, brought up the transcripts of the interviews he held during preliminary examination. He told the courtroom that he would bring out the transcripts, “for the purpose of refreshing Mr. Turner’s memory.” The transcripts were the lynchpin of the state’s case against Farrell.

Further, other witnesses strengthened the case. Will Babbitt, an acquaintance of Farrell’s, told the court that he had discussed Spiritualism with Farrell in the past. According to Babbitt’s testimony, “Farrell told me that he didn’t take any stock in the darned dope [the belief in Spiritualism], but that it was to his interest to have the Turners believe in it.”

Dr. J.P. Witt, a pharmacist in Glenwood, then testified that he had sold Farrell the morphine that the family ended up taking. The evidence was overwhelming, and the jury quickly convicted Farrell and sentenced him to five years in prison.

The next day, Thomas Turner’s trial began. His defense attorney convinced the jury that Turner was mentally ill, so the jury sentenced Turner to spend the rest of his life in the State Hospital for Nervous Diseases. On Feb. 10, 1914, Farrell began his sentence. He continued to plead his innocence from behind bars, “I am innocent. They convicted me solely upon circumstantial evidence.”

Nevertheless, he served two years of his sentence before Gov. George Washington Hays pardoned him. In 1916 he returned to Pike County, where he lived out the rest of his days in obscurity. By that time, it may have seemed that Farrell's prophecy had indeed come true: Europe had collapsed into the horrors of the First World War.  The United States soon followed.