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Looking Backward - Something's Up on Downer Street -- Part II

Last week, we recalled two seemingly unrelated events, both of which occurred right here in upstate New York circa 1850. Willard and Jane Downer became the namesakes of the street that still bears their name in Baldwinsville, while less than 50 miles away the Fox sisters founded the spiritualism movement in Hydesville. Although my religious convictions prevent me from subscribing to spiritualism, adherents believe that spirits of the dead can communicate with the living from the afterlife. All one requires is a medium or someone to "channel" these messages. But sometimes, as Marshall McLuhan once wrote, "the medium is the message."

Carrie Downer, born the youngest of four on April 18, 1854, marched to the beat of a different drummer. According to one local paper, Carrie became "a spiritualist or trance speaker while recovering from a severe illness, and that, we understand, against her own wishes and that of her parents, the influence coming upon her unsought." While the exact nature of Carrie's ailment is unknown, it launched the very spiritual calling and career that estranged her from her beloved oldest brother, W.W. Downer, partner in the prominent family firm, W.H. Downer & Son.

Our first inkling of Carrie's eccentricities is her brother's harsh letter "To the Public" in the Baldwinsville Gazette on Oct. 28, 1880. He wrote to "disclaim all connection and sympathy with one Carrie E. Downer, a so-called Spiritual Medium. As to the merits of the business, religion, amusement, game or whatever it is called in which she is engaged, I have nothing to say .I should be pleased to have the woman above named say she had already disowned me, or had never considered herself in any way related (should like to have it done without her going into a trance, if possible). Such an avowal from her could not but advance me in the estimation of that entire portion of community whose esteem I, or any sensible man, cares for. W.W. Downer."

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