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The Smith Blog

SMITH HISTORY BLOG: William Smith, Spiritualism, and the Hall of Science

By Gretty Hollister

We know that the 1894 Smith Opera House was torn down in the 1930s in order to create the building we know and love today. But more than just the auditorium disappeared with the update. While today’s front upper floors host a dance studio and various offices, back in 1894, offices occupied the second floor while a unique, forgotten space occupied the third. According to an April 1893 article in the Geneva Daily Gazette, the third floor was to house a “Science Hall,” which William Smith intended to use as a lecture hall on a wide variety of scientific topics (“Untitled Article”). Lecture topics have been lost through the ages, but what we know about Smith can help us infer what may have been discussed: astronomy, philosophy, and, of course, Spiritualism.

It was well – known at the time that William Smith was a Spiritualist. Most accounts affirm that Smith really turned to Spiritualism after the death of his mother in 1872 (Comstock 4). He’d been raised in the Church of England and felt a deep connection with the Creator throughout his life. However, his questions about science and the Universe as a whole caused him to turn towards Spiritualism as a medium (no pun intended) of seeking answers to his questions.

For the most part, he disregarded jeers and ostracism from his community peers, seeing them as the result of narrowness and blindness, though he was sometimes hurt (Comstock 4). Among other things, Smith was also a militant defender of his faith, and therefore discredited the fraudulent. In her biography of him, Anna Comstock writes, “He was keen to detect trickery and vehement in repudiating it” (Comstock 4). Many other celebrities of the age were known for trying to “debunk” Spiritualists such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini. William Smith was somewhat unique, however, in that he wasn’t searching for fraudulent practitioners; rather, we assume, he went in genuinely believing and, therefore, disapproved when he was taken advantage of.

One of the things that today may seem the most bizarre about Smith’s faith is how he chose to interact with “the Universe,” as he called it, or the spirit world. One of the more common ways he did this was through automatic writing. Automatic writing is produced by Spiritualists involuntarily either when in a hypnotic state, or when a subject’s attention is focused elsewhere. In one of his automatic writing ledgers, contained in the Warren Hunting Smith Library archives, there are messages from family members such as his brothers and mother, his father, and other more famous spirits—Chief Tecumseh of the Shawnee Tribe to name one. Whether it is possible to interact with and talk to the dead, William Smith believed it was.

The third floor of his opera house was originally hypothesized to be a place where, among other things, the study could be discussed with like-minded as well as skeptical people, all in the name of science.

Works Cited:

Comstock, Anna. William Smith. n.d.

“Untitled Article.” Geneva Daily Times, 14 April 1893, p. 3.