In a nationwide compilation in the 1880 U.S. Census, 555 names identify their occupations as clairvoyant, spirit medium, psychometrist, trance lecturer, magnetic healer among other “pseudo-scientific professions.” These individuals were singled out on a list of occupations to do with Spiritualism, apparently an occupational category of some significance in the late 19th century. It seems especially noteworthy that one of those listed was residing in the tiny village of Ilwaco, Washington Territory.
That individual was 47-year-old C.C. Busby, a “blind tramp” from Alabama. His occupation was noted as a “phrenological lecturer” by census-taker C.A. Reed. Only one other resident of Washington Territory shows up on this listing of “Professional Spiritualists — a clairvoyant living in Seattle.
Although Mr. Busby’s name does not appear again in any articles or documents related to Pacific County, seeing his name and occupation did put me in mind of Virginia Williams Jones’ remembrances about growing up in Ilwaco in the teens and 20s of the 20th century. In her memoir, “Gin’s Tonic,” published in The Sou’wester magazine in 2007, Virginia talked about her grandmother’s belief in the “unexplainable” and, most especially, of her interest in spiritualism.
“Nana or Eliza as her friends called her, was born in 1854 in Clackamas County in Oregon Territory,” Virginia wrote. “Her parents, Isaac and Mary Ann Whealdon had come to Oregon via covered wagon in 1847… After six years and several children they heard that Captain James Johnson of Unity had drowned and his Donation Claim was up for sale. The claim covered most of the present town of Ilwaco.
“Isaac bought it and they moved there in 1859. Johnson had built his house up near where the present-day water tower is in Ilwaco with lumber that was brought by ship around the horn. The Whealdons raised their family there and lived there the rest of their lives.” What Gin didn’t say was that their early residency marked the beginning of the Williams Family of Ilwaco — one of the largest and most influential dynasties on the North Beach Peninsula.
“Nana believed in ESP. She thought there was some power through which we could communicate with our loved ones whether they were quite far away or even dead. She had spells of ‘insight.’ Bon Whealdon, a nephew of Nana’s was an eccentric who believed he could conduct a séance and commune with the dead. They would turn down the coal oil (kerosene) lamps, sit around the table, and Bon would call forth a spirit.
“Uncle Rees told me it was a ‘lot of hog wash.’ He said Bon had arranged it all with him. Rees flicked dry sulfur in his fingers in back of the dark room to make sparks fly! That wowed them. But there were ‘coincidences’ that were fun to hear about… And no matter how much anyone debunked it all, there was always a spark of ‘believing’ — even just a little bit.”
Unfortunately, Gin made no connections between her Nana’s belief in spiritualism and any doctoring or medicine. And not even a whisper about a tramp named Busby or the amazing revelations of a Phrenology Lecture. Still… it seems especially coincidental that Mr. Busby, the self-proclaimed “phrenological lecturer” was in Ilwaco at about the time that Eliza Williams was holding séance. For a little town of Ilwaco, Washington Territory, with a population of 85, the possibilities seem intriguing, indeed.