Thursday, 17 January 2013

Sothern and the Spiritualists

In February 1866 a court case attracted the attention of the media, when the popular actor Edward Askew Sothern was libelled in the pages of a Spiritualist newspaper.

The periodical Spritual Times published allegations that Mr Sothern had, during his time as a pretend medium on a travelling show in the United States, abused (sexually, it is supposed) a woman after having put her in a trance.

"We remember Mr Sothern when, as Mr Stuart, he played the "walking gentleman" at Barnum's Museum, and was considered hardly worth his meagre salary of fifteen dollars a week. We also remember the same Mr. Stuart when, as a small actor at some other place of amusement here, he professed to be a mesmeriser. He created quite a sensation by admitting the truth of an accusation brought against him by a certain new actress that he had grievously wronged her after placing her in a state of mesmeric influence."

The case was initially brought against Robert Cooper, the printer and publisher of the Spiritual Times. His defence was that he was in Dublin at the time, and had no idea of what was being published in his own weekly periodical. Additionally, it was merely a reprinting of a letter that had appeared in the New York Sunday Times from 31 December 1865. Notwithstanding Mr Cooper's defence, Mr Sothern eventually accepted an apology from Cooper. Meanwhile, the writer of the piece in question, Mr Coleman, pleaded guilty, and was fined £50.

Additionally, another journal, The Spiritual Magazine had published the allegations with the offending parts blanked out with asterisks. They, too, were forced to apologise in print, which they did in a very backhanded manner, stating that "we entirely repudiate and retract and charge or intention to make a charge on those matters, which were out of the knowledge of the writer of the article, or of any one known to us" but in the following paragraph justify their statements by reminding their readers that "Spiritualism, he [Mr Sothern] says, is a delusion, a snare, and a swindle, and Spiritualists are personally guilty of imbecility, irreligion, fraud, impudent chicanery, and blasphemous indecency."

The story may have ended there, were it not for a very peculiar turn of events.

Barely two days after the court case had ended, on the 11 April 1866, Mr Sothern was served with papers regarding a divorce in which he was named as a co-respondent. A certain Mr Robertson, from the United States, wished to dissolve his marriage on grounds of adultery, naming Mr Sothern as the third party involved.

However, right from the start, this action had certain aspects that did not make sense. For a start, ten years had passed since the adultery was alleged to have taken place and Mr Robertson admitted he had no money with which to serve papers. In his affidavit he describes how a stranger had approached him. The Era for 8 July 1866 transcribes the section of the affidavit written by Mr Robertson:

"On or about the 6th of April I received a call at the office of the Cash Payment Association (Limited) from Mr Walter Weldon, whom I had never seen or heard of before. He was a total stranger to me. He apologised for introducing so delicate a subject as the domestic affairs of a man to whom he was a stranger, but hoped I would excuse him. He informed me that he called about steps necessary for me to take to procedure a divorce from my wife."

The same issue of The Era, it relates how this same Mr Weldon had written to say that "Robertson's affidavit contains statements respecting him which are wholly untrue, and which he has contradicted on oath."

By the time Edward Sothern appeared in court in mid-July, the case was almost at an end. The judge observed that the petition for divorce seemed to have been presented "under circumstances that would amount to a conspiracy." It was also announced that the petitioner, Mr Robertson, wished to withdraw the accusation.

But the timing of the case, coupled with the curious nature of how the petition was funded and its sudden collapse, raises some questions about how certain members of the Spiritualist movement were unable to forgive Mr Sothern for his time as a fake medium, followed by a successful libel action against two of their most prominent journals.

"Mr Sothern and the Spiritualists," The Era, 18 February 1866,
"Mr Sothern and the Spiritualists," The Era, 11 March 1866,
"Mr Sothern and Spiritualism," The Spiritual Magazine, 1866, New Series Vol 1, p143
"Cout of Probate and Divorce," The Morning Post, 4 July 1866
"Robertson v. Robertson and Sothern," The Glasgow Daily Herald, 6 July 1866
"Lord Dundreary and his Persecutors," The Era, 8 July 1866
"Mr Sothern in the Divorce Court," The Taunton Courier, 18 July 1866

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