Speaking to the dead

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Seances held at the Mabry-Hazen House Museum are meant to recreate an experience that was likely common to people living during the height of Spiritualism’s popularity in the United States. Photo Credit: Mabry-Hazen House Museum

“Cast aside your doubt!”

The cries of a Victorian medium rattle through the halls of the spacious home, filled with relics of another time.

Guests wait anxiously around an antique table that’s illuminated by flickering candles as they hope for an opportunity to pose a query to someone on the other side. 

The most commonly asked questions for which answers are sought from beyond the grave? 

They’re usually related to the future of the Tennessee Volunteers football team, according to seance veterans. 

The Mabry-Hazen House Museum — a site steeped in East Tennessee history — is hosting a series of seances this month as part of an annual Halloween tradition. 

The expertly executed re-enactments could easily be mistaken for the real thing, thanks in no small part to the impressive ensemble comprised of actors dressed to the hilt in period costumes. Who’s to say that even ghosts could tell the difference?

“What we typically do during seances, we change out all the lighting in the house so it’s pretty much just candlelight. So you get to kind of scare yourself as you look through the house and pretend you’re seeing spirits. You’re kind of primed for it because once you finish the seance you get to walk the house,” said Patrick Hollis, Curator and Executive Director at the Mabry-Hazen House Museum.

The reenactments are meant to transport visitors to a time when the Spiritualism movement led to seances being popularized in homes across America. 

Up until 1987, Evelyn Hazen (pictured) lived in the home that is now the Mabry-Hazen House Museum. Her interest in spiritualism and attempting to contact the dead inspired curators to begin offering reenactments of traditional seances at the location. Photo by Megan Sadler

According to historians, the popular fascination with seances began in the mid-19th century and peaked in popularity just before the turn of the century. From the rituals held by Mary Todd Lincoln at the White House during the Civil War to the notorious Fox sisters and Edgar Cayce, seances were meant to provide answers for those desperate to know what happened to their loved ones after death.

The inspiration for recreating seances at Mabry-Hazen came from real events in the life of one of the home’s former residents, Evelyn Hazen.

“Evelyn was a big fan of Spiritualism,” said Hollis. “It’s believed that she likely participated in seances and that she believed in the existence of spirits and the ability to communicate with them.”

According to historians, Hazen even claimed to have communicated with the ghost of an old friend named Jack McKnight, whom she met on a trip to New York City during the 1920s. Hazen reportedly said she would have conversations with Jack in her bedroom at night. However, one day she declared that she had grown bored of what the man had to say and, as a result, she refused to ever sleep in the room again.

Hazen sparked a media frenzy during the 1930s when she sued a former lover for “seduction and breach of promise to marry.” Surprisingly to many at the time due to the law’s antiquated nature, Hazen won the suit against Ralph Scharringhaus and was awarded $80,000, which in today’s money equals approximately $1.3 million.

For reasons that remain unclear, researchers suspect Evelyn never saw a penny of the money awarded to her in the suit. Due to the media circus, it’s speculated that her damaged reputation warded off any potential suitors as she never married or had any children of her own.

Evelyn resided in the home until she passed away in 1987 at nearly 88 years of age. Evelyn’s sisters also remained childless so, with no heir to the family residence, Evelyn declared that she wanted to see the home either demolished completely or turned into a museum. Thankfully, the house and many of the antiquities inside were spared from destruction and are now available for the public to enjoy.

All the furnishings are believed to date back to the 1800s. Visitors will find shelves filled with silver once used to impress party guests, dozens of books from different eras including a family Bible, and many other odds and ends that make the home feel as if it remains inhabited.

“It’s like a time capsule. The home is similar to how it would have been when the family lived here. I always love opening drawers and cabinets around the house because you never know what you might discover,” said Hollis. 

As Hollis spoke, he showed an old bar of soap that he’d found stashed away in a drawer as if its owner was expected to return home at any moment to use the antique wash basin.

Despite how real the presence of the spirits may seem during the seance, Mabry-Haven staffers hope visitors can manage to maintain their composure. In previous years, as the actors attempted to reach into the spirit world for answers about the past, present and even the future, several guests have reportedly attempted to resist the manifestations of spirits to the detriment of the actors’ safety. 

Those interested in learning more about Evelyn’s life can read about how she and Scharringhaus met while attending the University of Tennessee in the book titled, The Seduction of Miss Evelyn Hazen, which is available for sale through the museum website.

Seances will be held every 20 minutes between 6:30 and 10 p.m. October 28-30.

Attendees must reserve a seat at a table in advance and adults must provide evidence of a negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination along with a valid photo ID. Children 12 and under must wear a mask.

Additional details and ticket information are available from the Mabry-Hazen House Museum website or via phone at 865-522-8661.

A table set for game night in the Mabry-Hazen House Museum’s casual parlor. Nearly all the objects and furniture inside are believed to be original to the home. Photo by Megan Sadler.

Megan Sadler can be reached at news@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on October 21, 2021.