Feb 17, 2010 Steve McMahon Uncategorized
Spiritualism swept across the western world in the second half of the nineteenth century. As a movement, its popularity peaked in English-speaking countries on both sides of the Atlantic. Its followers included prominent people like Mary Todd Lincoln in America and Arthur Conan Doyle across the pond. The latter was famous worldwide for his reinvention of the detective fiction genre and his creation of the most skeptical sleuth in literary history, Sherlock Holmes. But, few folks have heard of Conan Doyle’s fervent belief that spirits of the dead could communicate with the living from the great beyond. Religious convictions aside, even fewer folks know that spiritualism first sprung to life right here in upstate New York.
On March 31, 1848, in Hydesville, New York, two sisters, Katie and Maggie Fox, were awakened from their slumbers by a succession of strange sounds. Their parents searched for the source of these sounds by candlelight. Suspecting that the inexplicable noises emanated from a restless spirit, they began to ask it a series of “yes” and “no” questions. The alleged spirit responded with raps and taps. According to an affidavit later signed by Mrs. Fox, “we could not rest, and I then concluded that the house must be haunted by some unhappy restless spirit. I had often heard of such things, but had never witnessed anything of the kind that I could not account for before.” After a few sleepless nights, the Fox family invited friends and neighbors into their home, all of whom witnessed the same strange events.
The spirit revealed that he was once Charles Rosna, a peddler who had been murdered there five years earlier. Mrs. Fox said in her affidavit that, “On the next Saturday, the house was filled to overflowing. There were no sounds heard during the day, but they commenced again in the evening. It was said that there were over 300 persons present at the time. On Sunday morning, the noises were heard throughout the day by all who came to the house. I am not a believer in haunted houses or supernatural appearances….It was our misfortune to live here at this time; but I am willing and anxious that the truth should be known, and that a true statement should be made. I cannot account for these noises; all that I know is that they have been heard repeatedly.”
About this same time, less than 50 miles away, a young man’s move to the village of Baldwinsville would ultimately lead to the rise of spiritualism right here in our hometown.
Willard Hosmer Downer had originally departed for Warners in 1833 from Columbia, Connecticut, where he had been born on Dec. 31, 1815. In Warners, he clerked in a shop owned by John Norton. In 1837, he became partners with Norton and Chauncey Betts in a store at Betts Corners, better known today as the hamlet of Lysander. In 1840, Downer was engaged to marry Sarah Ann Kennedy, daughter of Dr. Dennis Kennedy, Lysander’s first physician. According to the Lesley E. Voorhees’ Records, “The wedding was very near and Sarah Ann was returning home after purchasing her wedding bonnet, when the horse stumbled or ran away and she was thrown out.” Tragically, she died two days later on May 31, 1840. Devastated, Downer decided to make a fresh start. On Sept. 6, 1843, W.H. Downer married Jane Eliza Smith.
In 1845, Downer and Norton relocated their mercantile business to the Dunbar block on the south side of Baldwinsville. According to “Retracing Earlier Footsteps: A Walking Tour of Historic Baldwinsville,” published in 1993 by McHarrie’s Legacy, “The Downer store relocated several times over the years with each move bringing it into larger and more prominent quarters. With a talent for merchandising, Downer was a regular and large advertiser in the weekly Gazette. He also put in a fleet of brightly colored delivery wagons for the convenience of his customers and to let the village know that the store was being patronized.” W.H. Downer & Son sold over $100,000 in goods in 1882, equal to more than $2 million today. The business once occupied an entire block on Canal Street, so called because it bordered the Baldwin Canal to the south. Today, this block sits on the southwest corner of West Genesee Street between Oswego and River streets.
The Downers made their home on the south side in 1845, where Syracuse Street crosses the one that now bears their name, Downer Street. According to “Retracing Earlier Footsteps,” “In the mid 19th century, Downer Street was the southern edge of the village. Several of the Downer Street residences were actually farms with extensive properties extending to the south. The north side of the street had few structures, with a preponderance of Greek Revival style homes on the south side where they created a formidable boundary for the young village.” Among these was the W.H. Downer house. Built circa 1835, it sits at 19 Downer St., the third from the corner today. But, “For many years this was the first home on the block as one came from the east.”
W.H. and Jane Downer had four children, William Willard, Benjamin Harrison, Jane “Jennie” Malvina and Carrie Eliza Downer. The last was born April 18, 1854. The eldest, known as W.W. Downer, eventually joined his father’s firm. But the youngest pursued a course quite different from that of the others. According to one local paper, “She had a severe fit of sickness and her inspirational qualities date from that time.” While the exact nature of Carrie’s ailment is unknown, her spiritual gifts served to launch her rather unorthodox career while estranging her from her beloved, oldest brother. Next week, read the conclusion to “Something’s Up on Downer Street.”
Looking Backward will appear in the Messenger every other week, as long as there are stories to tell. If you have questions about this story or suggestions for future ones including any local historical images or information, please contact me via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Store of W.H. Downer & Son. When this image appeared in a Messenger article in October 1964, Historian Tony Christopher had this to say: “A general store of large proportions is shown in this photograph from the collection of Miss L. Pearl Palmer, taken in the late 1870s. It shows the W.H. Downer & Son store, then located at 8-14 Canal Street. The three delivery wagons in the foreground carry signs advertising groceries, dry goods, carpets, oil cloths, crockery, boots and shoes. Seated on the wagons are (from left) John Graham, who ran a farm near New Bridge (Belgium); Willard H. Tappan, who later ran a grocery of his own; and Edward Lockwood. Standing in the doorways are (from left) William Downer (W.H. Downer’s son), proprietor, Marcellus Johnson, George Hosler, Charles Adsit, M. Homer Smith and Erwin E. Wells. Note the street lamp near the white wagon.” This block is located on the southwest corner of what is now West Genesee Street between Oswego and River streets.