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The Mysterious Tale of a Humble Farmer, a Ghost Room, and his Amazing Spirit Machine

In the 19th century there was a new movement sweeping through the United States, which brought out dark and taboo beliefs that had long lingered in the fringe, cowering from the light of science and the days of enlightenment. It was called spiritualism, and if you were around at the time, you would have found that suddenly holding séances, using spirit mediums, and trying to conjure up the spirits of the dead were all the rage, with people from all walks of life from the poor right up to high society taking part in these activities. Spirit sessions in which ghosts would rap on tables or speak through mediums were immensely popular, believing in spirits and mediumship was en vogue, something that it was cool to be into, and there seemed to be a medium on every street corner. In this time of great changes in industrialization and increasing urbanization and other social changes, the idea of an afterlife and some sense of control of their destiny was irresistible, and in the mid-19th century this movement was in full swing. Among all of this would emerge a humble farmer, who rose up from obscurity with an amazing and wondrous invention for contacting spirits, who would reach great acclaim, only to fade away once again.

It was during this era of spiritualism and conjuring up ghosts in which a humble farmer by the name of Jonathan Koons lived in a remote part of Athens County, Ohio with his wife and nine children. The Koons lived a simple life, out in the wilderness well away from the big cities and their lavish séances, and they had simple beliefs. Jonathan in fact thought that spiritualism was all a bunch of hogwash, and he was actually at first a hardcore skeptic. So convinced was he that this new fad of spiritualism was fake that in his free time he would travel around Ohio visiting séances and mediums with the aim of debunking them and exposing their trickery. It was at one of these séances in 1852 where he would begin to doubt himself. He found himself unable to rationally explain what he had witnessed, and the medium in attendance then singled him out and told him that he was in fact endowed with great psychic power and potential as a medium himself.

Jonathan Koons

This revelation sent Koons home shaken, and he began to reevaluate what he thought he knew. He began dabbling with several spiritualist techniques, such as automatic writing, wherein the hand writes out messages seemingly with a mind of its own, and it wasn’t long before he graduated to trying to do his own séances. Gradually, over a period of several months playing around with spiritualism he went from staunch skeptic to being convinced that he and indeed his whole family were all in fact powerful psychics. It was during this time that he had his next revelation, and this time it apparently came from the spirits themselves, using his son, Nahum Ward Koons, as a medium. Jonathan would say of this:

At length there was a promise extended to me through the mediumship of my eldest son, (aged sixteen years) that if I would construct a table according to a draft drawn by the spirits through my son as the medium, and place it in a private room for their own use, that then I should have incontrovertible evidence of the existence of spirits, to which I immediately acceded, and the same was built and placed in a private room, and furnished with paper and pencils, as requested through medium agency, when the spirits commenced writing without any medium agency whatever, in said room; which fact removed every lingering doubt from my mind, for the room was kept constantly closed against the entrance of my own family, or any other person during the time the writing was performed.

The spirits allegedly gave very exact, specific instruction for how to build this room and what to place within it. It was to be set within a specially built log cabin measuring exactly 12 x 14 ft, with exactly three windows and a single door. Within this room was to be placed an array of musical instruments, which was specified as including a tenor drum, a base drum, two fiddles, a guitar, an accordion, a trumpet, a tin horn, a tee bell, a triangle and a tambourine. Some requests by the spirits for this room were even odder, such as that there should be small bowls suspended from the ceiling with wires and, bizarrely a few dove shapes cut from copper sheets. In addition to this was to be a “spirit machine,” crafted from copper and zinc to very exacting specifications, which would serve as a type of spirit battery to conjure them up, help them manifest more efficiently, and serve to better keep them in this realm. This device was evidently a very sophisticated, complicated machine, composed of an intricate series of knobs, rods, bars, bells, and a network of copper wires and plates, all set within a six-legged table and framework of varnished wood and the whole of it surrounded by those instruments.

Diagram of the spirit machine

This strange machine was the heart of the spirit room, the catalyst by which the spirits would appear and work their many wonders. The idea was that the machine would focus their energy, after which they would use the instruments, as well as pens and writing equipment, to speak with the living. It all seems very bizarre to say the least, but by all accounts it actually worked. The Koons began giving public séances in the room, which could hold around 20 people at a time on benches set in a circle, and many of these visitors came away amazed at what they had witnessed. During these sessions the spirits would speak through the instruments, levitate objects, give concerts on the instruments even though no one was visibly playing them, and even manifest as apparitions, much to the delight, astonishment, and sometimes horror of the many spectators who filed in.

A typical session would start with the host of the evening, Jonathan Koons, welcoming the guests and then closing the windows and blowing out the faint illumination of the candles to leave them in almost utter darkness. Koons would then start playing the fiddle, after which the other instruments would hauntingly join in, often flying about the room and either producing music or the voices of spirits, all of which was described as an almost deafening cacophony of noise. One of the main spirits that presented itself was one that called itself “John King,” who claimed to be an incarnation of the Welsh pirate Henry Morgan and would speak through the tin horn. Other spirits, of which numbered a total of 165, claimed to be ancient spirits from before mankind or even angels. When the music stopped there was typically the appearance of apparitions or of a pair of glowing spectral hands that would float about through the gloom and write out messages on sheets of paper, sometimes venturing out to the audience to playfully poke them or even shake their hands before vanishing. One visitor to one of these séances, New York Publisher Charles Partridge, would explain of what he saw:

The spirit room will hold 20 to 30 persons each. After the Circle is formed and the lights extinguished, a tremendous blow is struck by the drum-stick, when immediately the bass and tenor drums are beaten with preternatural power, like calling the roll on a muster field, making a thousand echoes. The rapid and tremendous blows on these drums are really frightful to many persons; it is continued for five minutes or more and when ended, ‘King’ usually takes up the trumpet, salutes us with ‘Good evening, friends’ and asks what particular manifestations are desired. After the introductory piece on the instruments, the spirits sang to us. They first requested us to remain perfectly silent; then we heard human voices singing, apparently in the distance, so as to be scarcely distinguishable; the sounds gradually increased, each part relatively, until it appeared as if a full choir of voices were singing in our room most exquisitely. I think I never heard such perfect harmony. Spirit hands and arms were formed in our presence several times, and by aid of a solution of phosphorous, prepared at their request by Mr. Koons, they were seen as distinctly as in a light room.

19th century seance

Word got out fast about Koons and his spirit room, and soon people were travelling to this remote, isolated cabin from all over the country hoping to get a glimpse of the fantastical. At the time this was groundbreaking stuff, and with the machine and instruments no one had ever seen a séance quite like this before. The whole show got so popular that the Koons family even took to the road to perform séances all over Ohio and beyond. At the same time there were others who tried to emulate Koons’ spirit machine, most notably his own neighbor, John Tippie, who created a nearly identical room and his own version of the machine, although it didn’t turn out to be nearly as popular. Making it all even more remarkable is that Koons never charged admission for these séances, and although he received donations on occasion he never asked for money, and by all accounts was not making very much off of his room and machine at all.

Things started to fall apart a bit for them when they were accused of being frauds and of hoaxing the whole thing. The main thrust of these accusations came from a journalist and editor by the name of Linus Everett, who claimed that during one of the performances he had by chance seen Konns’ daughter in the dark performing the “disembodied” glowing hands, and after this hit the papers people were soon talking about how it was all a big scam. Koons denied all of this, but the damage was already done. In 1858, the spirit room was closed in the face of increasing animosity, and the Koons family moved away to Illinois, where they gradually faded away into obscurity.

We are left to wonder just what really happened here. Was any of this real at all? It is known that the Koons family never sought to make any money off of this, so why would they pull off such an elaborate prank? What was there to gain from such a complicated ruse? If they wanted fame, then why did they just disappear at the first sign of trouble? Sure there was the one report of catching them in a hoax, but it must also be remembered that a great many people also saw these gatherings and were baffled by what they saw, and the family never admitted to faking any of it. If it was fake, then how did they pull it off and fool so many people? If it was real then what was this machine and how did it work? So many questions, so few concrete answers. In the end, whether they were the real deal or not, it has become a rather curious case in the annals of mediumship and spiritualism, and it remains a strange historical oddity that we may never fully understand.