Wellesley Historical Society

Wellesley's Spiritualist Past: One Family's Travel Through Space and Time

Alden Ludlow, contract Archivist
October 30, 2018

At this time of year people may be wary of things that go bump in the night. With Halloween, the following All Souls Day, and the celebration of Dia de Muertos, we seem just a bit closer to the Dearly Departed. Of course, here at the Wellesley Historical Society, we are always closer to the spirits of the past. Some of our collections even document 19th century experiments to contact eras long gone, attempts to reach out to spirits from past eras… and even other planets.

Wellesley was home to two of the most prominent practitioners of spiritualism in the country at that time, William Denton (1823-1883), and his wife Elizabeth Melissa Foote Denton (1826-1916). William argued that there was “a wide realm lying between the known physical and the comparatively unknown spiritual, -- a realm as yet almost entirely unexplored” (Denton, iii). The Dentons felt these connections, between the physical and spiritual worlds, needed to be explored. William took spiritualism to another level, attempting to demonstrate that it had a scientific basis; he believed that ancient objects and artifacts could be used to communicate with ancient peoples and connect with ancient places, and that these observations could be scientifically studied and recorded. This “science” was Psychometry, and those who acted as mediums were called “psychometers.”

The Wellesley Historical Society archives hold the Denton Family Papers, a veritable treasure-trove for those interested in this fascinating pseudo-science. Denton was by profession a geologist, lecturing far and wide in the United States and Canada; he worked with mining companies, government agencies, and engineers, lending his expertise to their business ventures. Denton, however, had interests beyond just pure science. From the 1850s until his death in 1883, Denton published extensively on science, religion, spiritualism, and psychometry; for him, all these disciplines were connected.

How did psychometry work? In his The Soul of Things, he notes that “the specimen to be examined was generally placed upon the forehead, and held there during the examination; but this was not absolutely necessary, some psychometers being able to see when holding a specimen in the hand” (36). In his published works, his psychometers were his wife Elizabeth, or sisters, Elizabeth Denton Seybold and Anna Denton Cridge; he occasionally used a spiritualist medium while traveling on his lecture tours. His unpublished notebooks and journals, in the Society’s collections, reveal that it was a family affair, with his children often participating. 

William wanted to demonstrate that natural objects, like rocks, acted like a photographic plate, with impressions recorded over long expanses of time. He asks, “Why could rocks not receive impressions of surrounding objects, some of which have been in the immediate neighborhood for years, and why could they not communicate these in a similar manner to sensitive persons, thus giving us the clue to the conditions of the earth and its inhabitants during the vast eras of the past?” (Denton, 36).

“Impressions” on these artifacts acted like a series of pictures. The descriptions of these impressions read like motion pictures, long before that technology had been developed. Psychometers had the ability to “behold pictures connected with the history of those specimens and perceive sensations that have been treasured up in them” (Denton, 255). While the psychometer was engaged with the artifact, William would write down the impressions, often illustrating them with drawings of what was “seen.”

In the collections we have rocks, fossils, and other artifacts that William Denton collected for research purposes. But they were also used for psychometric experiments; their value went beyond just being geological specimens. The Wellesley Historical Society holdings include William and Elizabeth’s journals, book manuscripts, lecture notes, correspondence on psychometry, as well as hundreds of artifacts used in their experiments.



Much of the Denton’s psychometric research is a reflection of the context in which they lived, a time of increased industrial and scientific progress, a time in which religious doctrines and values were being questioned. The scientific and the spiritual were diverging, and many, like the Dentons, sought to find a common foundation for both.

As we approach the Halloween season, remember the Dentons. Pick up an ancient stone, or an old object, and see what you can glean from it. You may find the veil separating the remote past from the present is thinner than you think.

 

The reprocessing of the Wellesley Historical Society Denton Family Papers has been made possible by support from Mass Humanities, whose grants inspire considered thought, conversation, and action through the humanities. The Wellesley Historical Society is happy to participate in their mission to improve civic life in Massachusetts. See more about what Mass Humanities does here: http://masshumanities.org/. Explore the Wellesley Historical Society on the web: http://www.wellesleyhistoricalsociety.org.

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Quotes from: Denton, William and Elizabeth M. Foote Denton. 1888. The Soul of Things; or Psychometric Researches and Discoveries. Wellesley, Massachusetts: Denton Publishing Company. 8th edition, revised. Originally published 1863.


No Glasses Needed to View This Solar Eclipse!

         

August 15, 2017

With an upcoming solar eclipse on August 21st, I was inspired to pull out the Denton collection of lantern slides. The first is of a solar eclipse and the second is a more rare, "orrery" mechanical lantern slide. The orrery lantern slide shows the movement of the solar system when rotated with a hand crank. The image on the left shows the entire slide while the image on the right is a close up with light coming through. 

These lantern slides were used by Wellesley resident William Denton (1823-1883) to illustrate his many scientific lectures.  These lantern slides are composed of images on glass encased in a wooden frame. The slides were used with magic lanterns, an early form of a slide projector, first invented in the 17th century.  Popularized in the 19th century, they were used for both entertainment and educational purposes (see image below).

William Denton was a geologist and writer who traveled extensively in the 1870s through the early 1880s giving lectures with the visual aid of his magic lantern projector.  Denton’s lectures and published works focused on science, religion, spiritualism and politics. The Wellesley Historical Society has Denton’s magic lantern, hundreds of lantern slides, and lecture notes with titles such as “Our Planet,” “Is Darwin Right?” and “Where does Beauty Dwell?”  

William Denton was the father of William D. and Robert W. Denton, internationally known for their stunning butterfly specimens, innovative mounts and jewelry. Established in 1895, The Denton Brothers company was located in a barn on Denton Road near the family homestead.

Kathleen Fahey, Curator  

 

The Malden Trinopticon illustrated in The Magic Lantern Manual by W.J. Chadwick, published in 1878, is almost identical to William Denton's magic lantern found in the collection of the Wellesley Historical Society.  This model features three lenses instead of the more common single or double lens construction.  Multiple lenses provided dissolving views, allowing one image to fade away as the next began to appear.



Denton Watercolors in Bloom!

                

Spring brings our annual collaboration with the Wellesley Hills Garden Club as they select a series of items from the Wellesley Historical Society collection to inspire floral arrangements. This year, the WHGC was inspired by the colorful and detailed watercolors of tropical fish by Wellesley’s own Sherman Denton (1856-1937).  Six groups presented their elegant interpretations of Denton’s watercolors at their annual meeting on May 10th at the Wellesley Country Club. Kathleen Fahey, Curator of the Wellesley Historical Society was on hand to speak to the WHGC about the history of the turn of the twentieth-century watercolors from the Denton collection. The Wellesley Hills Garden Club also gave a nod to Denton by creating delightful aquatic centerpieces for each table, complete with a colorful beta fish!

The image above shows a Sherman Denton watercolor of a goatfish, c.1900 with its floral interpretation by the Wellesley Hills Garden Club.

Kathleen Fahey, Curator

 

More on Sherman Denton

Sherman F. Denton was born on Sept. 24, 1856 in Dayton, Ohio to William and Elizabeth Foote Denton.  The Denton family moved to Wellesley in the 1860s and lived off of Washington Street in the area now known as Denton Road.  The Denton family were avid naturalists and Sherman’s younger brothers were internationally known for their butterfly specimens sold through the Denton Brothers Company. Sherman assisted his brothers in this business by developing and patenting a plaster mount for the butterflies in 1894.
Sherman Denton was a skilled artist and taught himself to draw and paint.  In the late 1880s, Sherman was hired by the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries to create taxidermy specimens of fish.  His painting skills were put to excellent use as the skin of a fish loses its coloration as it dries.  To record the natural shape and color of the freshly-caught fish, Sherman painted detailed watercolors of the specimen which he then referenced to create the mounted and painted fish.  He also patented a method of mounting the preserved fish skin over a papier-mâché form, creating a surprisingly life-like model that was in great demand in U.S. museums. 
Denton is perhaps most well-known for the chromo-lithographic prints of his fish illustrations that were published by the State of New York Fisheries, Game and Forest Commission at the turn of the twentieth century.  These prints proved to be collectible immediately after publication and continue to be popular with collectors today. 
Sherman F. Denton lived with his wife and two children in Wellesley for several years before moving to Weston.  He died at his home on June 24, 1937 at the age of 81 and is buried at the Woodlawn Cemetery in Wellesley.   


Halloween History Highlight

October 30, 2015

This lantern slide of a spooky vampire bat was used by Wellesley resident William Denton (1823-1883) to illustrate one of his many scientific lectures.  Lantern slides are composed of images on glass encased in a wooden frame. These slides were used with magic lanterns, an early form of a slide projector, first invented in the 17th century.  Popularized in the 19th century, they were used for both entertainment and educational purposes (see image below).

William Denton was a geologist and writer who traveled extensively in the 1860 and 1870s giving lectures with the visual aid of his magic lantern projector.  Denton’s lectures and published works focused on science, religion, spiritualism and politics. The Wellesley Historical Society has Denton’s magic lantern, lantern slides, and lecture notes with titles such as “Our Planet,” “Is Darwin Right?” and “Where does Beauty Dwell?”  

William Denton was the father of William D. and Robert W. Denton, internationally known for their stunning butterfly specimens, innovative mounts and jewelry. Established in 1895, The Denton Brothers company was located in a barn on Denton Road near the family homestead.

Kathleen Fahey, Curator  

 

The Malden Trinopticon illustrated in The Magic Lantern Manual by W.J. Chadwick, published in 1878, is almost identical to William Denton's magic lantern found in the collection of the Wellesley Historical Society.  This model features three lenses instead of the more common single or double lens construction.  Multiple lenses provided dissolving views, allowing one image to fade away as the next began to appear.


 





Denton Butterflies in Bloom!

Denton Butterflies in Bloom!

Spring brings our annual collaboration with the Hills Garden Club of Wellesley, when garden club members create floral arrangements inspired by the Wellesley Historical Society's collection.  This year, six specimens from the Denton Butterfly Collection were selected to inspire these elegant arrangements. 

The Denton Brothers was a successful local business started by Wellesley residents William D. and R. Winsford Denton in 1895.  The brothers, better known as Willie and Winsey, sold their patented butterfly mounts at exhibitions throughout America and also locally from their shop on Denton Road.  The Wellesley Historical Society is fortunate to have both the Denton Brothers business papers and a collection of over 2,400 Denton entomology specimens from the turn of the twentieth century.  

Each arrangement was created by a group of Hills Garden Club members and revealed at their annual meeting and luncheon on May 13th at the Wellesley Country Club.  Floral interpretations were exhibited alongside each Denton butterfly and truly captured the essence of each delicate specimen

Pictured above is a Prioneric Clemanthe specimen from the WHS Denton Brothers Butterfly Collection along with its floral accompaniment. This group arrangement was led by Hills Garden Club President Cynthia Ballantyne and former President Lucy Lynch.


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