How a Shoemaker Became America’s Most Controversial Mystic—and Inspired Edgar Allan Poe

Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain

Andrew Jackson Davis may not be a prominent figure now, but in the 19th century, he amassed a dedicated following that helped give rise to Spiritualism, a once-popular religion that believed in communicating with the dead. Davis used the teachings of a German doctor named Anton Mesmer to enter trance states that he claimed allowed him to see into space, the afterlife, other worlds, and even the human body. His metaphysical exploits earned him the nickname the “Poughkeepsie Seer,” and while frequently derided by his contemporaries, he inspired at least one well-known American writer: Edgar Allan Poe.

A HUMBLE SHOEMAKER

By all accounts, Davis had a fairly unremarkable childhood. He was born in Blooming Grove, New York, in 1826. His father, a shoemaker, was prone to drink, so Davis and his sister picked up odd jobs to support the family. Most of his schooling came from a then-popular program where teachers taught advanced students, who then taught one another. Ira Armstrong, a shoemaker/merchant he apprenticed under, later recalled that Davis's education “barely amounted to a knowledge of reading, writing and the rudiments of arithmetic.”

In the 1830s, Anton Mesmer’s teachings became popular in America thanks to several impassioned lecturers in New York and New England. Mesmer, who had found fame in Europe in the late 18th century, believed he could use magnets and his own touch to move “magnetic fluids” through the body, healing his patients of everything from the common cold to blindness. Though his theory of animal magnetism, as he called the existence of such fluids, was discredited by the French Academy of Sciences in 1784, medical professionals later became curious about Mesmer’s ability to manipulate his patients into altered mental states. Doctors—conventional or otherwise—studied the phenomenon of mesmerism, traveling across the country to demonstrate their findings.

It’s this mesmerist renaissance that first brought Davis into the public eye. In 1843, a Dr. James Stanley Grimes traveled to Poughkeepsie, New York, advertising his ability to induce trance states. Many Poughkeepsie residents attended the production—including Davis, although he wasn't entranced as advertised. The visit excited the community, especially a tailor and acquaintance of Davis's named William Levingston, who began dabbling in mesmerism himself. One day in early December, Levingston asked if he could mesmerize Davis, and he succeeded where Grimes had failed: Davis, while blindfolded, was able to read a newspaper placed on his forehead, and listed the various diseases of a group of witnesses.

Rumors soon swirled about Davis’s abilities. After that first session, Levingston mesmerized him nearly every day, and hundreds crowded into Levingston’s home to gawk at the spectacle. The sessions followed a pattern: Davis would enter a trance state and diagnose visitors with maladies, and then Levingston would sell remedies. The pair eventually began to travel, taking their show to Connecticut.

Some of Davis’s advice was unorthodox. For deafness, as Davis wrote in his autobiography, The Magic Staff, he once recommended a patient “catch thirty-two weasels ... take off their hind legs at the middle joint, and boil that oil which Nature has deposited in the feet and the parts adjacent thereto.” This preparation, he went on, “must be dropped (one drop at a time) in each ear, twice a day, till the whole is gone—when you will be nearly cured!”

Sketch of Andrew Jackson Davis on a yellow background
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain

However, Davis swore off parlor tricks in 1844 after he claimed to have teleported 40 miles in his sleep. During the episode, he purportedly spoke with the ghosts of the Greek physician Galen and the Swedish scientist and philosopher Emmanuel Swedenborg, who hinted that Davis had a higher purpose. Galen gifted him with a magic staff, although he was not allowed to keep it. The tale mirrored that of Joseph Smith, who around 1827 had claimed a holy messenger guided him to golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was written. The year after the teleportation episode, Davis decided to part ways with Levingston, and moved to New York City in the company of Silas Smith Lyon, a doctor, and two Universalist ministers, William Fishbough and Samuel Byron Britton.

There, Lyon placed Davis into trance states several times a day, during which time he would lecture on science and philosophy while also diagnosing patients. Fishbough, meanwhile, would transcribe Davis’s transmissions, which were published as his first book, The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelation, and a Voice to Mankind in 1847. Davis combined Spiritualism with utopianism, describing a heaven-like space where all would be welcomed by a Mother and a Father God. Academics of the time soon noticed Davis’s insights were nearly identical to writings that Swedenborg had published years before: Both Davis and Swedenborg claimed to see a spiritual world beyond our own, where all humans could be welcomed into heaven, regardless of religion.

Christian leaders called Davis’s text heretical, while newspapers referred to the book as “ridiculous” and “incomprehensible.” One professor of Greek and Latin at the University of New York said the book was “a work of the devil,” and displayed an “absurd and ridiculous attempt at reasoning.” Joseph McCabe, in his 1920 book Spiritualism: A Popular History from 1847, declared that there was “no need to examine the book seriously” since it contained so many scientific errors. Notably, The Church of New Jerusalem, founded on Swedenborgian ideas, never publicly endorsed Davis’s theories.

Despite this criticism, Davis attracted passionate defenders. George Bush, a Swedenborgian scholar and distant relative of George W. Bush, was among his champions. He insisted that a simple youth like Davis had no access to Swedenborg’s texts and must have been communing with spirits. In 1846, when the French mathematician Urbain-Jean-Joseph Le Verrier postulated the existence of the planet Neptune, supporters were quick to write the New York Tribune claiming Davis had already discovered the eighth planet. “As to the asserted fact that this announcement by Mr. Davis was made in March last,” Bush declared, “I can testify that I heard it read at the time; and numerous gentlemen in this city are ready to bear witness that I informed them of the circumstance several months before the intelligence reached us of Le Verrier’s discovery.”

Detractors were just as vocal. When Fishbough admitted to extensively editing Davis's words, a reviewer at the London Athenaeum couldn’t contain his derision: “That a seer ‘commercing’ with the Mysteries of Nature should have needed an editor in this technical sense is remarkable enough," he wrote. "It might have been supposed that the Revelations which brought to an uneducated man the secrets of Science might have brought him grammar, too, to express them in.” Fishbough countered that it would have simply been too much work for Davis to pay attention to such tiny details.

"MARTIN VAN BUREN MAVIS"

Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the more prominent people occasionally making fun of Davis was Edgar Allan Poe. In the satirical “Mellonta Tauta,” Poe wrote in a preface that “Martin Van Buren Mavis (sometimes called the ‘Toughkeepsie Seer’)” had translated the story—thus poking fun at Davis and his acolytes. Poe also included Davis in his “50 Suggestions,” brief witticisms published in 1849 that took aim at popular beliefs and theorists of the time: “There surely cannot be ‘more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of’ (oh, Andrew Jackson Davis!) ‘in your philosophy,’” Poe wrote.

Yet Davis’s The Principles of Nature may also have inspired the prose poem “Eureka,” in which Poe proposed his theory of the universe. The work has puzzled critics since its inception: Poe’s use of humorous nicknames in the text (he refers to Aristotle as “Aries Tottle”) point to “Eureka” being a satire, but historians have pointed out that several of Poe’s intuitive concepts actually anticipated the study of scientific phenomenon like black holes and the expanding universe.

Several historians have also remarked on the way Davis’s demonstrations in New York influenced Poe’s short story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” which follows a mesmerist who puts an old man into a trance on his deathbed and watches his body float between life and death. Davis had claimed his trances put him in a state near death, freeing his mind to travel to spiritual realms. In his book Occult America, writer Mitch Horowitz notes that Poe completed the story in New York the year he met Davis. Dawn B. Sova also mentions in Edgar Allan Poe A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work that Poe used his observations of Davis’s trance sessions to complete the story.

For his part, Davis himself seemed somewhat taken with Poe. Of meeting him in 1846, he wrote in Memoranda of Persons, Places and Events, “My sympathies are strangely excited. There are conflicting breathings of commanding power in his mind. But … I saw a perfect shadow of himself in the air in front of him, as though the sun was constantly shining behind and casting shadows before him, causing the singular appearance of one walking into a dark fog produced by himself.”

Charlatan or not, it was an eerie observation to make of a writer who would meet his end three years later.

Davis himself would live a long and rich life. He continued to lecture and write books until the 1880s, doing away with his scribe for later publications. He then earned a traditional medical license and moved to Boston, serving as a physician until his death in 1910. Though he sought to distance himself from the spectacle of spiritualism later on in life, Davis’s humble background and curious rise to fame made the “Poughkeepsie Seer” one of the movement’s most notable figures—and one who still maintains a strange resonance today.

This Course Will Teach You How to Play Guitar Like a Pro for $29

BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images
BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images

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11 Fascinating Facts About Tamagotchi

Tamagotchi is the toy that launched a thousand digital pet competitors.
Tamagotchi is the toy that launched a thousand digital pet competitors.
Chesnot/Getty Images News

They blooped and beeped and ate, played, and pooped, and, for ‘90s kids, the egg-shaped Tamagotchi toys were magic. They taught the responsibility of tending to a “pet,” even though their shrill sounds were annoying to parents and teachers and school administrators. Nearly-real funerals were held for expired Tamagotchi, and they’ve even been immortalized in a museum (of sorts). Here are 11 things you should know about the keychain toy that was once stashed in every kid’s backpack.

1. The idea for the Tamagotchi came from a female office worker at Bandai.

Aki Maita was a 30-year-old “office lady” at the Japanese toy company Bandai when inspiration struck. She wanted to create a pet for kids—one that wouldn't bark or meow, make a mess in the house, or lead to large vet bills, according to Culture Trip. Maita took her idea to Akihiro Yokoi, a toy designer at another company, and the duo came up with a name and backstory for their toy: Tamagotchis were aliens, and their egg served as protection from the Earth’s atmosphere. They gave prototype Tamagotchis to high school girls in Shibuya, and tweaked and honed the design of the toy based on their feedback.

2. The name Tamagotchi is a blend of two Japanese words.

The name Tamagotchi is a mashup between the Japanese words tamago and tomodachi, or egg and friend, according to Culture Trip. (Other sources have the name meaning "cute little egg" or "loveable egg.")

3. Tamagotchis were released in Japan in 1996.

A picture of a tamagotchi toy.
Tamagotchis came from a faraway planet called "Planet Tamagotchi."
Museum Rotterdam, Wikimedia Commons//CC BY-SA 3.0

Bandai released the Tamagotchi in Japan in November 1996. The tiny plastic keychain egg was equipped with a monochrome LCD screen that contained a “digital pet,” which hatched from an egg and grew quickly from there—one day for a Tamagotchi was equivalent to one year for a human. Their owners used three buttons to feed, discipline, play with, give medicine to, and clean up after their digital pet. It would make its demands known at all hours of the day through bloops and bleeps, and owners would have to feed it or bathe it or entertain it.

Owners that successfully raised their Tamagotchi to adulthood would get one of seven characters, depending on how they'd raised it; owners that were less attentive faced a sadder scenario. “Leave one unattended for a few hours and you'll return to find that it has pooped on the floor or, worse, died,” Wired wrote. The digital pets would eventually die of old age at around the 28-day mark, and owners could start fresh with a new Tamagotchi.

4. Tamagotchis were an immediate hit.

The toys were a huge success—4 million units were reportedly sold in Japan during their first four months on shelves. By 1997, Tamagotchis had made their way to the United States. They sold for $17.99, or around $29 in today's dollars. One (adult) reviewer noted that while he was "drawn in by [the Tamagotchi's] cleverness," after several days with the toy, "the thrill faded quickly. I'm betting the Tamagotchi will be the Pet Rock of the 1990s—overwhelmingly popular for a few months, and then abandoned in the fickle rush to some even cuter toy."

The toy was, in fact, overwhelmingly popular: By June 1997, 10 million of the toys had been shipped around the world. And according to a 2017 NME article, a whopping 82 million Tamagotchi had been sold since their release into the market in 1997.

5. Aki Maita and Akihiro Yokoi won an award for inventing the Tamagotchi.

In 1997, the duo won an Ig Nobel Prize in economics, a satiric prize that’s nonetheless presented by Nobel laureates at Harvard, for "diverting millions of person-hours of work into the husbandry of virtual pets" by creating the Tamagotchi.

6. Tamagotchis weren't popular with teachers.

Some who grew up with Tamagotchi remember sneaking the toys into school in their book bags. The toys were eventually banned in some schools because they were too distracting and, in some cases, upsetting for students. In a 1997 Baltimore Sun article titled “The Tamagotchi Generation,” Andrew Ratner wrote that the principal at his son’s elementary school sent out a memo forbidding the toys “because some pupils got so despondent after their Tamagotchis died that they needed consoling, even care from the school nurse.”

7. One pet cemetery served as a burial ground for expired Tamagotchi.

Terry Squires set aside a small portion of his pet cemetery in southern England for dead Tamagotchi. He told CNN in 1998 that he had performed burials for Tamagotchi owners from Germany, Switzerland, France, the United States, and Canada, all of whom ostensibly shipped their dead by postal mail. CNN noted that "After the Tamagotchis are placed in their coffins, they are buried as mourners look on, their final resting places topped with flowers."

8. There were many copycat Tamagotchi.

The success of the Tamagotchi resulted in both spin-offs and copycat toys, leading PC Mag to dub the late ’90s “The Golden Age of Virtual Pets.” There was the Digimon, a Tamagotchi spin-off by Bandai that featured monsters and was marketed to boys. (There were also Tamagotchi video games.) And in 1997, Tiger Electronics launched Giga Pets, which featured real animals (and, later, dinosaurs and fictional pets from TV shows). According to PC Mag, Giga Pets were very popular in the United States but “never held the same mystique as the original Tamagotchi units.” Toymaker Playmates's Nano Pets were also a huge success, though PC Mag noted they were “some of the least satisfying to take care of."

9. Rare Tamagotchis can be worth a lot of money.

According to Business Insider, most vintage Tamagotchis won't fetch big bucks on the secondary market. (On eBay, most are priced at around $50.) The exception are rare editions like “Yasashii Blue” and “Tamagotchi Ocean,” which go for $300 to $450 on eBay. As Complex notes, "There were over 40 versions (lines) of Tamagotchi released, and each line featured a variety of colors and variations ... yours would have to be one of the rarest models to be worth the effort of resale."

10. A new generation of Tamagotchis were released in 2017 for the toy's 20th anniversary.

The 2017 re-release of the Tamagotchi in its packaging.
Bandai came to the aid of nostalgic '90s kids when it re-released a version of the original Tamagotchis for the toy's 20th anniversary.
Chesnot/Getty Images

In November 2017, Bandai released a 20th anniversary Tamagotchi that, according to a press release [PDF], was "a first-of-its-kind-anywhere exact replica of the original Tamagotchi handheld digital pet launched ... in 1996." However, as The Verge reported, the toys weren't an exact replica: "They're about half the size, the LCD display is square rather than rectangle, and those helpful icons on the top and bottom of the screen seem to be gone now." In 2019, new Tamagotchis were released; they were larger than the originals, featured full-color displays, and retailed for $60.

11. The original Tamagotchi’s sound has been immortalized in a virtual museum.

The Museum of Endangered Sounds is a website that seeks to immortalize the digital sounds that become extinct as we hurtle through the evolution of technology. “The crackle of a dial-up modem. The metallic clack of a 3.5-inch floppy slotting into a Macintosh disk drive. The squeal of the newborn Tamagotchi. They are vintage sounds that no oldies station is ever going to touch,” The Washington Post wrote in a 2012 profile of the museum. So, yes, the sound of that little Tamagotchi is forever preserved, should it someday, very sadly, cease to exist completely.