Enchanted Ground: The Spirit Room of Jonathan Koons, by Sharon Hatfield
Reviewed by James McClenon
Sharon Hatfield’s Enchanted Ground reviews the astonishing evidence pertaining to the mediumship of Jonathan Koons. Koons conducted innovative séances in the virtual wilderness of rural Ohio in the early 1850s. Audiences gathered each evening to witness seemingly paranormal phenomena inside a dark “spirit room” constructed for that purpose. Hatfield draws on eyewitness reports, newspaper accounts, and other documents to portray the people and social environments associated with these events. Phenomena included spirits speaking through trumpets, spirits playing musical instruments while Koons played, instruments flying rapidly about the room while being played, and spirits writing long messages describing reality, the afterlife, and the meaning of life.
Hatfield, an award-winning journalist, authored previous books about Appalachian literature and a famous murder trial in the 1930s. For Enchanted Ground, she assembled and organized a huge body of evidence regarding Koons’ activities: his early mystical and paranormal experiences, introduction to Spiritualism in 1852, construction of the “spirit room” in a frontier area of rural Ohio, and the astonishing seances. Hatfield is a skilled writer and this book is both entertaining and a valuable contribution to the psychical research literature.
The narrative portrays recurring elements within Spiritualism, shamanism, and all psychic phenomena: (1) Koons’ early biography included mystical, anomalous experiences, suggesting that he was a potential medium. This is a common pattern in shamanic and Spiritualist folklore. (2) The phenomena had a contagious quality. After witnessing séance phenomena, Koons discovered he had mediumship ability. This also coincides with shamanic and Spiritualist folklore. (3) Mediumship was prevalent in Koons family, suggesting it had genetic basis – an idea prevalent in shamanic/spiritualist traditions. (4) The phenomena had qualities that defied skeptical explanations. As with most collections of anomalous experiences, many witnesses explained that they attempted to preclude the possibility of fraud. 5) The phenomena had trickster qualities. Audiences reported behaviors suggesting fraud and a quirky unwillingness to allow full investigation. (6) Koons’ writings, and eyewitness testimony, shaped Spiritualist doctrines, supporting belief in spirits and life after death. This coincides with shamanic/Spiritualist traditions. These patterns suggest that anomalous experience, and religion in general, have universal features derived from anomalous experience and that these episodes have genetic basis (McClenon, 2018).
Enchanted Ground provides special insights regarding the trickster element within anomalous experience. Koons did not allow careful investigations and his séances were conducted in darkness. What is the probability that all the séances were fraudulent? Although the evidence did not allow a conclusive answer, most participants believed the effects were authentic. How did the musical instruments fly about while playing? Audiences reported that the instruments moved so rapidly that spirits must be involved. How did the spirits generate lengthy messages, written with paranormal speed? Some visitors brought unique pencils and paper and verified that the resulting messages had been transcribed during the séance. The spirits must have done it. Yet Hatfield reviews other Spiritualist mediums who were discovered cheating. These performances had also seemed remarkable before fraud was detected.
Hatfield captured special features regarding the psychological environment created by the Koons family. Audiences noted that the Koons were extremely sincere and that the Koons did not charge money for food, lodging, or the séances. Participants described poltergeist events that seemed beyond the Koons family’s control. The family conducted séances even when no one else was present. The phenomena, although more prevalent when certain family members were present, did not require any specific individual. A visitor, sleeping in the séance room, experienced poltergeist-like phenomena. All in all, the evidence suggests that a poltergeist-like force was active.
The nature of fraudulent events, associated with the Koons family, had features parallel to “trickster phenomena” in psychical research literature. Some parapsychologists feel that psychic phenomena are actively elusive, that it has qualities that thwart scientific investigation (Hansen, 2001; Kennedy, 2001). The trickster effect includes the kinds of fraud prevalent within shamanism. The most famous example of Koons family fraud occurred during their journey to New York City. During a séance (in complete darkness) at the home of Linus Smith Everett, a Spiritualist supporter, Johnathan Koons asked the spirit to raise his hand to the ceiling. Everett wrote a shocking expose of what followed: “A match, held by the spirit hand, ignited – and behold, there stood the medium, the daughter of Mr. Koons, revealed as the active and only performer in this solemn farce” (page 201). The text implied that the daughter intentionally revealed the fraud. This case is parallel to both Spiritualist and modern observation of mediumship (McClenon, 2018). People, in medium-like roles, sometimes engage in clumsy forms of deception for unexplained reasons. During the Spiritualist era (1850s-1920s) mediums, such as Eusapia Palladino, were known to engage in fraud whenever given the chance; some believed the behavior was associated with trance.
Modern table-tipping sitter groups reveal similar dissociative propensities (McClenon, 2018). Participants do not feel they are physically moving the table but reveal dissociative behaviors (unconscious muscular movements). According to Batcheldor’s (1994) theory, their behavior helps overcome their fear of psi, a condition that thwarts psychokinesis (PK). Groups that interpret their unconscious muscular movements as anomalous overcome this fear and, as a result, authentic PK can occur.
Batcheldor (1994), in later life, sought to explain the “hiding” qualities that seemed part of sitter group experience. When experimental conditions were well-controlled, the phenomena were reduced or thwarted. He suggested that a “universal creative principle” shaped a kind of collective consciousness forming reality. Sitter group cognitions, also involving the principle, could overcome this reality, allowing PK. Because this process involved hypnotic-like dissociation, sitter group experiences sometimes included fraud-like events since fear of psi might manifest as phenomena. Although this theory coincides with Koons’ experiences, it has qualities that defy scientific evaluation.
Whatever the reader’s thoughts regarding the unusual nature of Spiritualist phenomena, Hatfield should be commended for her through portrayal of Koons’ mediumship. Her work is scholarly but surprisingly entertaining. Anyone curious about PK should read this book.
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Hansen, G. P. (2001). The Trickster and the paranormal. Philadelphia: Xlibris.
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McClenon, J. (2018). The entity letters: A sociologist on the trail of a supernatural mystery. San
Antonio, TX: Anomalist Books.