W.L. Mackenzie King: Canada's Spiritualist Prime Minister
In 1989, I published an article discussing two séances attended by Canada's long-serving Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, in London in 1947 and 1948. The article, which appeared in the British Journal of Canadian Studies, iv (1989), 109-35, is republished here, with some minor updating and corrections. No attempt has been made to cite work published on Mackenzie King since 1989, but it should be noted that his diaries may now be consulted on line via the Library and Archives Canada website.
MACKENZIE KING, THE MEDIUM AND THE MESSAGES
The scene is a London street. It is a November Saturday afternoon and the year is 1947. A chaffeur-driven car arrives and a detective bodyguard helps an elderly man — dressed in a heavy overcoat, short, but with a certain air of consequence — from the back seat and escorts him up the front steps of number 25 Jubilee Place, Chelsea. William Lyon Mackenzie King, the senior statesman of the British Commonwealth of Nations, had arrived at the home of a spiritualist medium intent on communicating with the dead.
Canada's longest-serving prime minister had been interested in spiritualism for many years — certainly since the years around the First World War, when death had taken both his parents, his sister Bella and his brother Max all within a few years, underlining the isolation of the enclosed bachelor politician. He had begun in a small way -- reading tea-leaves, noting significant alignments in the hands of clocks and consulting fortune-tellers, graduating in the nineteen thirties through table-rapping, to full-scale séances with spiritualist mediums.2
One such séance had been held in August 1942, while King was on a brief visit to Toronto. In the evening, he attended a séance held by 'a rather frail looking little person' named Alma Brash. Miss Brash specialised in discerning spirit figures close to the sitter, and spotted 'a Chief' standing behind his chair. 'She did not know that it was an Indian chief but they called him Chief,' King recorded. 'He had a fine face, white hair, looked very distinguished.' Still attempting to tune in, Miss Brash began to pick up the Chief's name: 'Said something about Laura or Arrier.' Canada's prime minister suggested it might be Laurier. 'She called out: yes, and he is so glad that you know him. He is pleased with what you have done. Says he has been helping you: watching you and is very pleased.' Laurier was succeeded by Florence Nightingale, who gave advice on his health (no ordinary deceased nurse would do for King), and by Norman Rogers, the cabinet minister killed in an air crash in 1940. King by this time was becoming concerned that he might miss his train. 'A little later, 'Queen Victoria and Anne Boleyn came, but I do not recall what they said.'3 King appears in this episode to be both naïve and self-centred. He was surely also irresponsible. This was the same Mackenzie King, we should remind ourselves, who had been prime minister of Canada for most of the previous two decades. A few months earlier, he had brilliantly out-flanked the opposition campaign for conscription for overseas service, and condemned the Conservative leader, Arthur Meighen, to a humiliating by-election defeat.4 Two weeks later, Canadian troops would go into action at Dieppe. What would Canadians have thought had they learnt that their wartime leader regarded death as a minor incident in the soul's voyage through the cosmos?
However, in mediumistic resources, Canada could not compete with the United States and Britain. King met Mrs Etta Wriedt from Detroit as early as 1932, and by 1936, he was in touch with the London Spiritualist Alliance. His path was smoothed by Lady Aberdeen, an early patron of his career from her Rideau Hall days, and by the Duchess of Hamilton. At Jubilee Place, it was to emerge, his name was linked with Lady Aberdeen, and the Duchess of Hamilton does not seem to have been a by-word for discretion. King seems to have kept clear of London mediums during his wartime visits, but the return of peace brought more relaxed opportunities for European travel and journeys into the other world. In the autumn of 1945, Miss Mercy Phillimore, secretary of the London Spiritualist Alliance, arranged sittings for him, and there were further — though unsatisfactory — sittings in March 1946. November 1947 was thus the third time in just over two years that Canada's prime minister was loose among the mediums of the metropolis.
Before we follow Mackenzie King through the front door of 25 Jubilee Place, the episode should be placed in a broader context. Although this paper assumes that reported spiritualist phenomena have no validity, the sincerity and integrity of all concerned should be recognised, To a generation which had experienced the mass slaughter of two wars and witnessed first the miracle of wireless and then the beginnings of television, it did not seem entirely unreasonable to suspect that the human personality might be similarly transmissible beyond physical death. Eminent scientists certainly thought so. Mackenzie King had met the physicist, Sir Oliver Lodge, an enthusiast for psychical research who had undertaken pioneer experiments in wireless. Adherents included former prime ministers, Britain's A.J. Balfour and Australia's Alfred Deakin, as well as an impressive array of Anglo-Irish figures, including Shaw and Yeats.6 The `psychical researchers', as they called themselves, may have been self-deluded, but none ever attempted to violate the trust which King placed in them. While King entrusted only his confidential secretary, Edouard Handy, with his spiritualist record, his staff knew of his interests and kept a secret which would surely never be secure in these times — a discretion shared that day even by the chauffeur and detective, who tactfully left Canada's prime minister to his foibles and went off for a cup of tea. Even King himself comes surprisingly well out of the tale. He was naïve, but his naiveté adds a rare note of charm to his frosty being, and to the two spinster ladies he was to meet that day for the first time, he behaved with an unforced charm and sensitive courtesy.
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To follow Mackenzie King's European tour of November 1947 in the pages of his edited diaries is to read of a meeting of Commonwealth statesmen at a time of world crisis on an occasion of royal pageantry.'Officially, Canada's prime minister was in London for the wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten — an occasion which would also be marked by the bestowal upon him of the Order of Merit, Britain's highest decoration — distinguished enough, in King's eyes, to permit him to exempt it from the general ban on acceptance of British honours. In practice, the royal wedding provided an opportunity for Commonwealth consultations about the dangerous post-war world, in which Britain still hoped to maintain itself and its Empire as a world power.
Canada's prime minister did not seem especially well-informed about the drift of world events. He was taken aback when Britain's foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, warned that the Russians might try to blockade West Berlin — the crisis which came the following year and produced the Berlin Air Lift. He was even more taken aback by table-talk from Churchill, relaxing in opposition with a million-word history of the War, who talked knowingly of the likelihood of a Western ultimatum threatening a nuclear attack on Moscow. 'This came as a revelation to me,' King noted. 'I had not thought of plans being already in existence for war against Russia by bombing from the air.'8 Yet in 1947, Mackenzie King's stature was more than that of an innocent abroad. He was the only major Western leader to have survived the war, physically or electorally, as head of government: Roosevelt was dead, Churchill had been defeated. For a year between the fall of France in 1940 and the German invasion of Russia in 1941, Canada had been Britain's chief ally. In the battle of the Atlantic and the campaign in Normandy, Canada's navy and army had ranked third behind the American and British effort — a remarkable effort for a country of just ten million people. Canada's reputation stood high among the embattled and liberated European democracies, and Canada's leader, who would soon overtake Sir Robert Walpole's record of prime ministerial longevity, was honoured accordingly.
Mackenzie King arrived in London on 22 November, after a two-week visit to France and Belgium. The following day, he went to Buckingham Palace, to receive the Order of Merit and to present Canada's wedding presents, which included a mink coat, to Princess Elizabeth who neutrally remarked that 'she had received some protest about accepting anything which involved the killing of animals'. Tuesday brought congratulations from South Africa's Smuts. The two ageing leaders discussed their retirement plans, each urging the other, to write his memoirs. Wednesday was the day of the royal wedding. King was seated between Smuts and Britain's prime minister, Clement Attlee — (`The best seat in the Abbey to see the ceremony') — with Churchill next in line. Smuts was moved by the magnificence of the service, but Mackenzie King felt uncomfortable and mildly irritated by the provocation of display. Nonetheless, he joined the procession back to the Palace and mingled with the royal families of Europe. On Friday, there was a poignant luncheon at Gray's Inn, attended by Hamar Greenwood, comrade-in-arms in the celebrated University of Toronto student strike of 1895 — an episode which had propelled Greenwood into exile and a career in British politics. The two men gripped hands on parting, conscious that they might never meet again. King was moved by this recollection of times past, and confided to his diary, `Father was much in my thoughts today.' The scene was set for a day of spiritualist indulgence on Saturday.' 
Ever a man to preserve his own independence by taking counsel on all sides, King had arranged not one but two sittings with mediums. After dictating some letters, King was driven to the residence of Mrs Sharplin at Cheyne Walk, where he was conducted to a first-floor drawing room which looked out over the Thames. King sat at a table with her while she went into a trance, and took notes of the messages which she received. It was not the first time King had sat with Mrs Sharplin, and he thought it an especial courtesy to be invited into her home. Her 'control' or spirit guide, an Indian called Silver Fox, was perhaps also a compliment to the Canadian leader. Certainly he was delighted by the 'marvellously evidential' information he received. 'Roosevelt took up most of the morning,' he baldly noted, as if annoyed by the late President's volubility. He was particularly pleased by a message from his mother which mentioned 'Woodside', the King family home in Berlin [Kitchener] Ontario, and referred to violets which he had taken from the garden to plant at Kingsmere, his estate in the Gatineau Hills. Woodside had been illustrated in a biography which — appropriately perhaps — King had ghost-written, but it seems unlikely that Mrs Sharplin had carried out minute research. King was equally impressed when his father's spirit mentioned a man who had been recommended to King a few days before. The most likely explanation is that King either let slip the information himself or interpreted general references as applying to specific examples.
Mackenzie King returned to lunch at the Dorchester feeling 'a great peace of mind and clearness of perceptions' despite the pressures of the past week. He signed his letters and prepared to go to Chequers, Attlee's official country residence, that evening. Then followed the day's second outing, to 25 Jubilee Place, where he was to consult Miss Geraldine Cummins at the home of her friend and companion, Miss Beatrice Gibbes.1 3
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Geraldine Cummins had been born in Ireland in 1890, and she retained 'a lilting Cork accent'. In many ways, Miss Cummins fitted the stereotype of a 'bluestocking' — except, perhaps, that indifference to dress sense meant that she did not always wear matching socks. Descriptions speak of a serene face and beautiful eyes; a contemporary photograph shows her in serious profile, with short, straight hair — the only hint of a curl severely pinned into place. She was an Irish Protestant, one of eleven children of a professor of medicine. At the age of seven, she was captivated by the swirling world of ghosts in a performance of Richard III at the Cork Opera House: Hamlet and Macbeth followed. Yet there was nothing bookish about the young Geraldine. She rode to hounds and at the age of eighteen, played hockey for Ireland. There is some mystery about her choice of career, for she 'dreamed of being a doctor', but abandoned the ambition in response to her mother's entreaties. Yet her four sisters were graduates, one becoming a surgeon and another a pioneer in nuclear research at Harwell. Instead, Geraldine wrote — she was joint author of three plays, two of them produced at Dublin's Abbey Theatre, as well as stories for magazines. In June 1914, she was able to afford a foreign holiday, a much-needed break, for Geraldine had become a suffragette orator and had been pelted on the streets of Cork by unsympathetic women. In Paris, she was introduced to the ouija board by another Anglo-Irishwoman, Hester Dowden, a noted medium. The séance took place during a thunderstorm and produced a message announcing that 'rivers of blood would shortly flow in France' and thousands would die. Mrs Dowden abandoned the séance, with the caustic comment that her communicators often told lies. Two months later, war broke out..14
Too many men were abruptly cut off in the fighting for survivors to cope with their loss. Geraldine had six brothers in the forces. Two were killed, and she experienced vivid premonitions of their deaths. After the war, Geraldine settled in London to pursue her literary career but in 1923 she met Beatrice Gibbes, 'Bea' in her private notes, 'E.B.G.' in their joint case records. Miss Gibbes was an Englishwoman, evidently with private means, whose 'capacity for blunt, honest speech' aroused a shocked admiration in her more retiring friend. Miss Gibbes devoted herself to Geraldine's work, providing her with a London home, keeping case records and protecting her gifted friend from the importunate. Miss Gibbes possessed no spiritual qualities herself." Her letters suggest an unsophisticated and jolly personality — 'an ignoramus' as she put it'6 - with a gushing torrent of single-minded enthusiasm.
Geraldine's special skill lay in the reception of messages through `automatic writing'. Messages were transmitted while she was 'in a semi-trance or light dream-state or sometimes in a deeper condition of trance'. Miss Cummins would sit at a table, in full light but with her left hand shading her eyes, 'her right hand resting on a block of foolscap paper'. She would then try to make her mind a blank, at which point 'Astor', her control, would take charge. Astor was an ancient Greek whom Miss Cummins had first encountered through Mrs Dowden in the 1920s. A decade later, Mrs Dowden had also provided Mackenzie King with a spirit guide, a German Knight Templar called 'Johannes', who had taken an active role in King's occult attempts to penetrate the mind of Adolf Hitler in 1939. Johannes had presumably not survived wartime internment, but the cynical may wonder whether some form of communication, not necessarily of a transcendental kind, might have taken place between Miss Cummins and Mrs Dowden regarding the prime minister of Canada.
Astor acted as a kind of otherworldly master of ceremonies, introducing spirits and transmitting their messages, which Miss Cummins recorded in rapidly penned, unpunctuated longhand. The 'sitter' or 'investigator' would sit close to the 'automatist', removing the sheets of paper as they were filled, reading the messages aloud and offering 'the comments or questions necessary to carry on the conversation'. This last point is crucial in the understanding of what happened that afternoon at Jubilee Place.' 7
Geraldine Cummins came from a highly talented family and was undoubtedly a woman of no mean ability. Evidently, she possessed a voracious and retentive memory. She had never learnt Greek, but Astor once transmitted a message in his own language through her pen. 'I was not impressed,' she recalled, 'for it was quite possible my eye might have strayed over the page of a book written in Greek. My obliging subconscious mind might have memorized a paragraph or two, and then, under the name of Astor, written the passage automatically.' Perhaps her most remarkable mediumistic achievement was the million-word Scripts of Cleophas, transcribed in the nineteen-twenties and published in four volumes, which purported to be a history of the early Church and impressed eminent divines by their stylistic similarity to the Apocrypha, which Miss Cummins insisted she had never read. She had been a regular churchgoer in early life, and the Cleophas writings can only have been a product of a retentive memory combined with a playwright's imagination.
On that November afternoon, did Geraldine Cummins have any inkling that she was about to meet William Lyon Mackenzie King? The question can be firmly and unhesitatingly answered: no, she did not and yes, she probably did. The apparent conflict between them can be explained by the fact that King's appointment had been made, in confidence, through Miss Gibbes, whose many excellent qualities did not include subtlety. Miss Phillimore had contacted her about 'a certain project' the previous week, probably while Mackenzie King was still on the continent. 'I had only told G. that someone wanted a sitting who wished to remain anonymous but who was very kind and a complete believer so that she should not be unduly nervous,' noted Miss Gibbes. Geraldine had formed the notion that he must be a clergyman. The two ladies were in fact engrossed with a communication involving the late President Roosevelt. Thoughts of Roosevelt, Miss Gibbes concluded, were 'in the air'. Yet neither lady was prepared for the events of Wednesday 19 November 1947, the day of the royal wedding.
At 25 Jubilee Place the radio had been tuned to the commentary, which surely must have mentioned the presence of Canada's prime minister among the distinguished guests. Later, the two ladies decided to walk to Buckingham Palace, barely a mile from Jubilee Place, but were forced back by the crowds. Discouraged, they returned home and partook of afternoon tea. Fortified, Miss Cummins announced that someone was attempting to communicate, 'so that we had better sit soon'. Miss Gibbes was solicitously concerned for her friend had recently been exhausted by 'a very difficult communicator who was in the most dreadful darkness'. However, on this royal afternoon, Astor had a surprise in store.
Astor announced that he had a message of 'special significance' which meant 'I must put my child deeply asleep'. After a slight pause, Miss Cummins began to breathe deeply. Astor then introduced two very anxious people, whom Miss Gibbes recognised as associates of the late President Roosevelt. The matter was 'very confidential': Roosevelt was anxious for 'a meeting between — wait — I see a crown, King is it [?]: Yes, between King and F.D.R. F.D.R. wants a quiet fireside talk with the public out of it — a talk with King.' The spirits feared the scheme had failed, for 'King is not here long' but they pleaded 'if you get a message, to arrange a meeting here, to let nothing prevent it'. Miss Gibbes then assured Astor, via the entranced Miss Cummins, 'As it happens, someone was here the other day, and asked if we could arrange a meeting if required but no answer yet from him.' Astor was insistent, and Miss Gibbes again assured them: 'we are waiting for a reply from the — "crown". Your child does not know who he is.' Miss Gibbes punctiliously used the code-word 'in order to avoid saying the name aloud — or rather in my customary undertone — and so avoid putting the name into the mind of the medium'. Astor agreed that it would be better if his child was not told. However, Astor's companions were anxious to report that Roosevelt was
disturbed in mind about the drift apart between his country and the King's [sic] Land. it is something financial. He would like to see his own people less fond of the dollars. . . . He always wanted free trade between them while the independence of King's country was totally recognised. He hopes that, however difficult it is for King's country to buy from his own, that King will leave no stone unturned to keep up the good will between the two nations.
Miss Gibbes could only reply 'The crown has been written to and we are waiting to hear from him.' In fine wireless style, the messages were 'fading out' but there were some family greetings for Miss Gibbes and when Geraldine Cummins emerged from her trance, tired and sleepy from the mental effort, these were the only communications she could recall.
The following morning, Miss Phillimore telephoned to confirm Mackenzie King's appointment. Miss Gibbes had been careful not to tell Geraldine Cummins who was coming. All she had done was to telegraph to Astor, in her 'customary undertone', that she was doing her best to put the spirit of Roosevelt in touch with 'Crown', the leader of adjacent country, who was accidentally referred to by his real name. Miss Cummins may equally be acquitted of fraud. Thirty years as a medium had endowed her with a filter which protected her against undiluted reality and twenty four years of close association with Bea Gibbes had presumably not left her totally unable to read her companion's unsubtle signals, even when conveyed in a 'customary undertone'.
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The two hours which Mackenzie King spent at Jubilee Place are perhaps the best documented example of his spiritualist enthusiasms. King wrote of the séance at some length in his diary. Miss Gibbes reported breathlessly to Miss Phillimore. Miss Cummins published two autobiographical versions, and a surviving draft indicates that she decided to delete some of her more extravagant claims.21
When King arrived at 25 Jubilee Place, 'Miss Cummings' (he was always slipshod about proper names) was in her sitting room upstairs and he was admitted by 'Miss Gibbs'. The voluble Bea Gibbes at once began to tell him about 'the extraordinary surprise' of the message from Roosevelt. 'Most anxious to have a talk with me,' King noted, not commenting that Roosevelt had already taken up 'most of the morning' with Mrs Sharplin. Miss Gibbes assured King that her friend had 'no idea who I was', and ushered him upstairs to a well-lit room, where the medium was sitting behind 'rather a long table'. King recorded that he 'merely shook hands with Miss Cummins'.22 Miss Gibbes reported to Mercy Phillimore that he 'put Geraldine at ease even before the sitting, by saying that he had many sittings with Mrs Wriet [sic] etc.'23 Miss Cummins recalled that he 'made two or three remarks of an encouraging character. But I cut him short. Conversation before a sitting may lead to some involuntary disclosure. . . . I do not approve of what has been described as "fishing for information by the medium".'24 Two out of three versions state that Mackenzie King did in fact speak on entering the room, and it must be said that reticence was hardly in his character. It is a caution against taking the apparent immediacy of his diary accounts as absolute truth.
For her part, Miss Cummins was taken aback to find that the visitor wore no clerical collar and concluded that he was a businessman. She was struck by his 'good humoured face' and 'attractive smile' and noticed a 'slight American accent'. At once, the three fell to business. Miss Cummins picked up her pen, shaded her eyes with her left hand and rapidly 'went off into a deep trance'. Miss Gibbes sat beside her friend, 'indicating to her where to start writing and when an end of a sheet was reached, placing a different sheet before her'. King was placed on the opposite side of the table. This, however, was not close enough to the scene of the action for him: he could not read the automatic script upside down and apparently could not hear the low tones in which Miss Gibbes read aloud. After a few lines had been written, King and Miss Gibbes changed places — he said at her suggestion, but no doubt in response to his impatience. 'He read and removed the foolscap sheets as they were rapidly filled with writing, and occasionally addressed a remark to the alleged communicator.'
This change in position is important, for it meant that King did not know what had passed in the opening minutes of the séance until he had a chance to consult the script in detail some days later, when he was amazed by its contents. Whether or not Geraldine Cummins knew the identity of her sitter, Astor was in no doubt. 'This man is of special interest to me for he has the spiritual insight of an ancient Scottish Gaelic race,' he announced. Moreover, Astor noted, the sitter was no ordinary Gael, for he had the 'genius of the chief of a clan'. Close by — according to the typed version —was 'Wilfred'. (Edouard Handy, King's confidential secretary, who later typed the script, quickly identified who was meant, and the remaining references are to `Wilfrid'.) He was a spirit 'who, when on earth, was delicate and frail in physique. He has been much with King since he passed over after the Great War — Wilfrid Laurier.' A less credulous sitter
might have wondered if his anonymity had been penetrated. 'Wilfrid says Mowat and Fielding and some other name,' Astor continued, adding 'I think they are people with him.' 
All of this came as 'a complete surprise' to King when he read the script a week later, and it certainly deserves some discussion.27 Noting that Mowat and Fielding had been members of Laurier's first cabinet, King rushed to the conclusion that: 'Their names could not possibly have been known to either Miss Cummins or Miss Gibbs, and were certainly not in my mind at all.'28 Miss Cummins was equally concerned to protest her innocence of all knowledge of the senior dominion, although she deleted the more sweeping protestations of ignorance from her draft memoirs. She claimed, for instance, that 'so far as I can recollect, Mr Mackenzie King was the first Canadian I had ever met' — an admission of a remarkably sheltered life. Not only did she know nothing about him, but she thought of Canada as 'little more than a smear of red on the map' and was 'so little interested in this great country' that she did not know that Ottawa was its capital. How, then, she demanded, could she have been able to pass messages to Mackenzie King which named colleagues of Laurier?29
C.P. Stacey agreed that 'Miss Cummins could hardly have heard of these people' and asked 'where did the references to Mowat and Fielding come from?' His apologetic suggestion was that 'thought-transference in some form took place between King' and the medium', adding that it was 'much easier to believe in this happening between living people than to believe in communication between the dead and the living'. Miss Cummins certainly acknowledged the possibility that King's 'subliminal self had fused with her own mind, but other explanations are possible. The Cleophas scripts suggested that Geraldine Cummins possessed an unusually retentive mind. She had been born into an Anglo-Irish family in 1890, and grew up under the threat of Home Rule and in the protecting shade of the Empire. In her memoirs, Geraldine Cummins cited the phrase 'We'll be tracing' — the battle cry of the amateur genealogist, reflecting the fierce pride in 'pedigree hunting' which was especially strong among Irish womenfolk. Geraldine's mother was a descendant of the ancient family of Aylmer and, in the 1956 version of her memoirs, Miss Cummins proudly noted that one of her kinsmen, Lord Aylmer, had once been Canada's governor-general. Despite her protests, there are clues enough to indicate a modest level of information about the country: her spirits had already spoken of Canadian-American free trade. Geraldine, on the verge of her suffragette campaign, had been twenty-one in the year of Laurier's defeat over Reciprocity. Laurier died in 1919; Astor spoke of him passing over 'after the Great War'.
In short, there is little reason for surprise at the recollection of these two names by an intelligent woman, interested in public affairs, blessed with a retentive memory and matured during the high summer of Edwardian Empire. Both had been important provincial premiers, Mowat for twenty four years in Orange Ontario. Fielding had gone on to serve in the Dominion cabinet throughout the Laurier years, had run Mackenzie King close for the leadership in 1919, and served a further four years in his cabinet. It would have been puzzling had Astor named such forgettable Laurier ministers as Joseph Préfontaine or 'Sweet William' Pugsley, and it may seem odd that King's mentor, Sir William Mulock, was not at Laurier's side. We should also note that Laurier's spirit companions had no messages for King. The war had radically changed the balance of power between Ottawa and the provinces — yet Mowat, the champion of provincial rights, offered no comment. King was shortly to be faced with the perennial nettle of trade talks with the United States. Fielding, the free trader, would surely have had counsel on that issue. Geraldine Cummins, in short, could dredge two reasonably prominent names from the depths of her memory, but there her knowledge ended.
Perhaps, however, the great Liberal figures of yesteryear were unable to get a word in. As soon as he was seated next to the medium, Mackenzie King interjected a question. 'Should I stay on in public life — if so, for how long?' Laurier thought 'you must stay on for some years to come. These are critical years and you alone can manage the numerous conflicting interests.' He was seconded by Roosevelt. 'Say, Mac, it is kind of you to come,' the President began, before begging King at some length to continue in politics.32 (In real life, Roosevelt had in fact addressed King as 'Mackenzie', under the mistaken impression that this put him on first name terms with the Canadian leader. 'Say, Mac' was almost certainly an inspired — but very lucky — guess by Geraldine Cummins.)33
The spirit of Roosevelt could see that from King's own point of view, retirement made sense 'but I feel it is your duty not merely to your country but to the world to stay on'. Specifically, he warned that:
I want you to retain Canada's independence. There is a bunch of roughnecks in finance in the U.S.A. They would like to get hold of Canada through economic penetration. It is not a visible merging of the two countries but an invisible one behind the scenes they are after. . I may be wrong but you want capital for development of your country. In that respect, your care and foresight will prevent any encroachment on your independence and liberties.
Miss Cummins evidently knew more about Canada than she admitted, and the entire séance was in danger of turning into a seminar on the branch-plant economy. King turned it back to his favourite subject. Should he write a book? 'I might be able to watch even if I was not in office.' Roosevelt's spirit understood his reluctance to carry on tut my own feeling is that you are needed still'. The conversation was by now flowing perfectly normally. 'How about Winston?' countered King. 'Did he not stick it out too long? Would it not have been better if he had stepped out?' You are not Winston,' came the sage and characteristic reply. 'Winston was in the opinion of his own people a fighter and, by God, a fine one too. But you have the wisdom he lacks — the caution and that integral honesty that holds a country. I know no man who can do it so successfully as you can.'34
Roosevelt's spirit now began to range more widely about the world, warning that 'that cheerful cut-throat Joe Stalin' did not intend to leave Canada alone, as he had shown 'in that plot, not long ago'. The reference was clearly to the Gouzenko affair, a spy scandal which would have interested someone whose sister worked at Harwell.35 It was true that there were other good men, but none could quite match King's experience and skill. 'Abbott is a sensible fellow, no doubt, but I want your wisdom behind it all.' Douglas Abbott was Canada's Finance Minister, and Britain had just experienced a major foreign exchange crisis. Geraldine Cummins evidently thought of Abbott as a future prime minister: Louis St Laurent had been External Affairs minister for a year and King had hardly allowed him to make much of an impact overseas. A month later, King was to note in his diary that Abbott had solid qualities 'but, on many matters, still lacks depth and understanding of world questions'. Had Geraldine Cummins scored a lucky hit — or did her spirit message shape King's assessment of his cabinet colleague?
Apparently forgetting that King had won an election just two years earlier, Roosevelt's spirit argued that 'even in opposition, you would be mighty useful — a break on the men who are too impulsive'. Then followed another echo of the Laurier years. 'Mac, you know the old saying. The 19th century was the century of the U.S.A. The 20th century will be Canada's century.' Roosevelt's spirit flatteringly added that the prediction was far more likely to be realised if King stayed at the helm. Modestly, the sitter remarked that the deceased President was 'far too kind, too generous. You have much too high an opinion of me.' 'My God, man, no,' came the reply. 'I had my faults but you will admit I could size up character pretty rapidly. You have that slow Scotch way with you. You are not clever, you are wise.'
Mackenzie King enquired after various Roosevelt associates in the other world. Roosevelt pledged their collective support to King's continuing efforts. 'You will not know how we come, but when you sleep, we will put suggestions into your mind. Wilfrid L. will of course join our brains' trust. So go forward with confidence, knowing we are behind you.' King replied that he would 'have to think it all over very carefully' for he had told his party he would retire in the summer of 1948. Roosevelt's spirit missed the point of the remark, and launched off into warnings about the world situation. Perhaps Miss Cummins sensed that the ex-President was wandering from the point, for suddenly he announced 'I am talking too much' and invited King to ask questions. Equally baldly, Mackenzie King enquired, 'What does Sir Wilfrid think I should do with Laurier House?' Miss Cummins, who claimed not to know that Ottawa was the capital of Canada, was evidently entirely in the dark about Laurier House. 'He thinks you should keep a careful watch at present,' responded Roosevelt's shade. `Does not want you to make any hurried decision.' Then came the lame admission that Sir Wilfrid 'did not quite grasp question'. Far from wondering why Laurier's spirit had forgotten that King now owned his old home, the prime minister patiently explained, 'Would he like me to keep it as a Memorial for him and for me in my Will.' There was evident relief beyond the veil. 'He says: yes, a Memorial,' reported Roosevelt. 'He would like that.'
Laurier then passed on a shoal of tips for better health, which included drinking cold water and eating 'with care'. Mackenzie King replied that the advice was very helpful. 'We want to keep you going, old man, for the sake of the whole continent of America,' Roosevelt assured him. 'Canada has a great future, no doubt, but not if the United States gets too strong a financial hold there. You can keep her big business within bounds. They can't fool you.' King asked if Roosevelt had met his parents. He had, and had fallen in love with Mrs King, 'a sweet and loveable woman — one of the best', who had generously waived her claims to communicate because of the importance of Roosevelt's pleas for him to continue in office. FDR also admired the 'honesty and straightforwardness' of King's father, and passed on good wishes from Ishbel Aberdeen. 'She was in Canada early years of the century and her husband was Governor but I think she governed him.' The redoubtable Lady Aberdeen had introduced King to automatic writing in 1934, and the mention of her name at this point further suggests that London mediums had a bush telegraph which identified the true believers. With the fading spirit of Roosevelt still pleading for King to stay on in public life, and the prime minister sending messages to FDR's staff, the séance ended.37
Miss Cummins rested in the upstairs sitting room, while Miss Gibbes took King downstairs for a cup of tea, where he promptly showed her a miniature of his mother and confirmed everything that had been reported about the sweetness of her character. When the medium joined them, she had no recollection of what had passed, and 'was quite embarrassed and non-plussed' to learn that her sitter was the prime minister of Canada. King soon put her at ease, and was full of praise for the séance, which he was to describe in his diary, as in some respects 'the most interesting situation I have ever had'. The description of his parents struck him as being 'as accurate as anything could be'. He talked pleasantly of the royal wedding, of Lady Aberdeen, and how she had been 'the first to interest him in psychical research', of Roosevelt, and how he had acted as the link between the President and Churchill in the dark days of the War while America was still neutral. The two ladies were 'not merely captivated by his charm' but 'deeply impressed by his wisdom and by a sense of his rare spiritual integrity'. Miss Cummins reckoned she had met her fair share of famous people, yet only 'two or three times' had she been as impressed by anyone. 'He was plain and homely in appearance, yet after this meeting I felt that I should be prepared, if required, to make every sacrifice for such an inspiring leader.'38
Afternoon had given way to dark when Canada's prime minister reminded his hosts that Attlee was expecting him. As Miss Gibbes went to fetch his overcoat, Miss Cummins was overcome with a sudden premonition that King would soon become an invalid. She felt she should warn him, and hurriedly spoke of his taking a holiday. King laughed. 'I haven't taken a holiday for years.' Miss Cummins felt awkward, but repeated her advice, adding that he must get bored with politics. 'No', King replied, 'I find the game fascinating — so full of interest.' Miss Cummins feared for the worst, but was deeply touched by his parting words. 'It was an honour to spend the afternoon with you, and I shall always remember it.'39 Thoroughly pleased with his afternoon, Mackenzie King was driven back to the Dorchester to change, and then through the darkness to the depths of Buckinghamshire, to tell Attlee of his plans to turn Laurier House into a national memorial. Before retiring to bed, he wrote a full account of what had passed in his diary. At one point, he glanced at his watch and noticed that the hands were together at midnight. When next he checked the time, they were together again at five past one. It was the end of a splendid day.
Mackenzie King was a busy man when he returned to the helm of Canada's affairs at the end of 1947, but he did not forget the importance of the automatic writing script which he had taken on loan from Jubilee Place. He sent the two ladies a telegram from Southampton on his return to Canada, and had time to write them a brief letter while at sea, but then a series of domestic and international crises had engulfed him. There was a parliamentary storm over emergency measures taken to stem the outflow of dollars, and a cabinet row in which King resisted any Canadian commitment to the defence of Korea. January 1948 brought renewed fears of war both in Europe and between India and Pakistan. It was also the month in which King finally announced his retirement. On 20 February, he read External Affairs briefings on Palestine, and consoled himself with the thought that they proved 'the wisdom of proceeding in international affairs along the lines laid down in my "Industry and Humanity" for a settlement of industrial differences'.42 That same day he sent his humble apologies to Miss Gibbes, promising early action on the transcript. 'You and Miss Cummins and Miss Mercy Phillimore will think I am a strange sort of person indeed never to have followed up my promise to send you a transcript of the sitting I had with Miss Cummins when recently in London,' he wrote apologetically to Miss Gibbes. 'The truth is that, since my return, I have been so overwhelmed with the pressure of public business, from day to day, that I have had little or no chance to give any thought or attention to some of the personal matters in which I am most interested.' He had certainly not had the opportunity to make a transcript from the automatic writing. 'I have not cared to give the document to anyone to copy, and have not had a chance to dictate the transcript myself. I have only one confidential secretary to whom I would care to dictate.' Meanwhile, he could only assure them that the names mentioned 'and the absolute correctness of some of the situations to which it refers could not be more remarkable than they are'. In default of the transcript, he sent a copy of his address to the National Liberal Federation 'in which I announce my intention to retire from the leadership of my Party in the course of the present year. . . . This subject, among others, was one referred to by my friend in the communication with Miss Cummins.'
Mackenzie King's kindly letter produced a guilty reaction in Geraldine Cummins. She had been ill, and felt depressed. The news of King's retirement meant that the spirits had got it wrong. The two ladies had fallen heavily for 'Mac', and Miss Gibbes freely admitted that 'his nice letters and general charm when he sent the booklet, may have stirred up the thoughts of these communicators'. Be that as it may, the afterworld was keen to put the record straight, for on 22 March 1948, the spirits reported that they had 'a message from the President for his very dear friend Mac':
He regretted that he brought pressure to bear on him to stay on as premier of his country. He felt very strongly about it at the time and wrote vehemently. Now he realises that Mac has earned his rest or rather earned the time to indulge in another form of work.
With his friend Mac as a 'consultant', Roosevelt was sure that Canada 'will not be swamped by USA but will retain independence of action'. In fact, the President was now very keen that King should write his memoirs, and gave him 'full leave to use any material in his own connection — that is to say what they talked about when Mac made a home from home from Frank' — a rosy interpretation of King's wartime summonses to the President's country home in New York State. Roosevelt also wished King to 'allude to his present survival' since he 'would be glad if the world knew that, he, Frank, lived on and could send greetings to his fellow men'. However, the spirits felt it would be better not to 'write anything of a more intimate character' just then, since 'you may have to send this message by post'. Miss Gibbes did just that, and thereby jogged Mackenzie King into transcribing the original seance.
Early in April 1948, an international crisis led Mackenzie King to cut short a visit to the United States, as world war seemed imminent. On the domestic front, politicking for the succession was in full swing, and a caucus revolt seemed likely over a proposal to raise freight rates. On 13 April, King lectured his followers on the dangers of defeat in the House if backbenchers paraded their consciences for down-home consumption. 'Any man who voted against the party or was absent at the moment of defeat would be a marked man for the rest of his life. It would not be a question of how he had voted or why he had voted re freight rates — the question would be why had he defeated the Government of which he was elected to be a supporter.' King called it 'pretty blunt talk' and it cowed his caucus. On 26 April, six assorted Maritime and prairie premiers descended on Ottawa to appeal in person against the increases. King was `rather amused to see how most of the Premiers . . . seemed to look upon the Government as enemies' — a feeling which he largely reciprocated. Two days later, the cabinet was due to consider the problem. Loyal Liberals like New Brunswick's Premier McNair or the upright Angus L. Macdonald of Nova Scotia might have been surprised had they known that the prime minister's mind was just then less than totally focused on freight rates.46
On 27 April, King wrote to Miss Gibbes to report that he had 'at last, found time to dictate a transcription of Miss Geraldine Cummins' automatic writing'.47 Enclosing a copy, he commented on 'how remarkable in all particulars the record is'. He was impressed by the names which appeared — 'for example, those of Mowat and Fielding which refer to two of Sir Wilfrid Laurier's colleagues in the Cabinet of 1896; to Abbott who is a member of my own Cabinet, mentioned some times as a possible successor to myself in my present position'. As already suggested, the references to Mowat and Fielding hardly pushed Miss Cummins's general knowledge to impossible limits. Nor did it take mediumistic powers to be aware of the name of Canada's Finance Minister — although it did require a certain innocence to refer to his leadership prospects in a letter to a virtual stranger. 'The references to Laurier, to Roosevelt and to Churchill are all of a character which would relate them, in a natural way, to any conversation I might be having with President Roosevelt,' King continued, adding that they were backed by the references to the President's personal staff. They were, of course, equally characteristic of the imagination of a woman who had written plays for Dublin's Abbey Theatre. 'The reference to Mr Roosevelt's characterisation of my father and mother is in complete accord with what I would expect,' he added. (The characterisation of Mrs King was not one which would have been endorsed by most who knew her.) Furthermore, it was 'quite remarkable that Lady Aberdeen's name should appear'. She was a 'very old friend' and just the sort of person who might join a circle of Liberals and Democrats. Thus far, none of King's observations justified Miss Cummins's later claim that King was capable of 'realistic and critical analysis of evidence' and that he was 'far too intelligent to be credulous'.48
In fact, as the letter continued, so it seemed that King had not simply suspended his faculty of disbelief, but discarded it altogether:
As to the subjects touched upon — my continuance in public life, the use I may wish to make of Laurier House (my present place of residence — the former residence of Sir Wilfrid Laurier but willed to me by Lady Laurier shortly after Sir Wilfrid's death), the tendencies arising out of the economic relations between the United States and Canada, the references to the policies of the British Government — all these and the other subjects mentioned are wholly in keeping with topics that would naturally arise were I to be conversing here and now with the persons referred to.
It can only be hoped that King had read his briefings on freight rates more carefully than he had analysed the transcript of the séance. King himself had raised both his retirement and the future of Laurier House, and had not found the spirits forthcoming on the latter question. The rest of the subject matter could easily have originated in the mind of any moderately well-informed newspaper reader. King found 'most evidential' ('evidential' was a pseudo-scientific buzz-word among spiritualists) that the spirits had been so anxious to bring him into contact with Roosevelt, apparently forgetting the session with Mrs Sharplin, in which 'Roosevelt took up most of the morning'. From the baldness of the diary entry, it would seem that Roosevelt had imparted little of consequence at Cheyne Walk. Why, then, had the President's spirit been so insistent to book time on Miss Cummins in the afternoon, even jumping the queue on King's mother, if he had been coming through loud and clear on Mrs Sharplin before lunch? The Incredible Canadian chose not to probe the mystery. He was, however, pleased by the unexpected follow-up message from Roosevelt, 'a wholly justified corollary', and one which neatly confirmed that his own judgement continued to be the wisest counsel he could take. 'You will recall my unwillingness to accept too readily the suggestions as to my continuing on in public life,' he wrote. Almost the only sign of a grip on reality in the prime minister's letter was his parting request to 'regard the whole matter as confidential' to the two ladies and Miss Phillimore, 'to whom it would be a pleasure to me to have the transcript shown'.49
* * * * * * * *
In April 1948, Mackenzie King passed Sir Robert Walpole's record to become the longest serving prime minister in Commonwealth history. In August, Louis St Laurent was chosen to succeed him as leader of the Liberal party. A United Nations meeting was scheduled to begin in Paris in September, to be followed by a Commonwealth Conference in October. There was every reason for King to make way now for his successor, and enable St Laurent to play himself in on the world stage. Instead, Mackenzie King chose to treat the two meetings as a lap of honour — and, by the time he reached London in the first week of October, his heart was under strain, King was confined on doctor's orders to his hotel room and St Laurent was summoned to take Canada's seat.
Mackenzie King held court at the Dorchester Hotel, receiving Commonwealth leaders, even entertaining George VI. His illness actually enabled King to play the very role which he had discussed with the spirits at Jubilee Place the year before — the elder statesman who watched from the wings, counselling others from his vast experience. He gave India's Nehru 'a little account of my grandfather's life and the times in Canada in 1837/38', and made sure that portraits of both his parents were prominently displayed for the admiration of visitors.
On Thursday 21 October 1948, when George VI called, Mackenzie King's thoughts again went back to 1837, and to his mother's birth in exile. Queen Elizabeth had sent flowers. 'I drew the King's attention to the fact that the flowers were just above my mother's picture.' Just as his sovereign was about to enter his room, his Canadian prime minister had opened at random a book of verse which had been sent to him as a gift, 'thinking that I would find something that would be significant'. His eye fell upon poem number 95 on page 68, which contained the words 'Father and Mother' and then 'Weeping and wild, come to the forest, come to the child . . . come from the palace down to the pool, calling my darling, my beautiful.' He regarded it as 'quite remarkable' that the words 'Father and Mother' and 'Come from the palace' should have struck his eye at that very moment. Yet this was not all, Mackenzie King realised as he ruminated on the meaning of poem 95 on page 68. 'Here is another strange thing: '9 and 5 added together equals 14. 6 and 8 added together equals 14. Four 7's altogether.' Later that day, he was to discuss with a leading establishment figure, Sir John Anderson, the possibility that the Soviet Union had enough uranium to make its own atomic bomb. Later that evening, he reflected on his day as he dictated his diary entries. 'It has been an interest to me to see to-day how often the hands of the clock have been together when I have looked at it.' They were 'exactly together at 12' (as indeed, they always are) and the experience had been repeated on several occasions up to 10.55 p.m. 'This has been an eventful and memorable day,' he concluded.'
Canada's investigative journalists missed a scoop on the afternoon of Saturday 23 October. Three years later, the two ladies at Jubilee Place learnt from Blair Fraser of Maclean's Magazine that 'reporters were hanging around that afternoon expecting another visit from the King, & other notabilities & no one could make out who the 2 strange (& very ordinary looking) nameless ladies were'.53 (The journalists were fooled by a cunning trick: Miss Cummins and Miss Gibbes were subsequently led out of the hotel by another route.) They were enormously proud to be part of a select band of callers which had so recently included their sovereign, but they had not been entirely sure that they should keep their appointment, for Miss Cummins had a bad cold. Miss Gibbes telephoned to warn King's staff, to be told that Mackenzie King was not afraid of Geraldine's cold. 'So feeling slightly feverish and infectious, I arrived at the hotel with Miss Gibbes punctually at 4.15.'
Mackenzie King had been looking forward to their visit, ever since he had drifted into wakefulness just before dawn and noted that the hands of the clock stood at five minutes to five. He had slept again after lunch, 'so as to be rested before Miss Gibbs [sic] and Miss Cummins arrived'. King noted that the medium 'looked quite frail'. She was equally horrified at the ravages which eleven months had inflicted upon her sitter. 'He looked worn out — the invalid I had foreseen.' He was as kind and gracious as before, enquiring about their health, admitting 'a little trouble with my heart', talking easily of the strain on statesmen of world travel, confessing that he had still not taken a holiday. Then they turned to business. 'The room was quite light' and Miss Cummins quickly fell into a deep trance and wrote non-stop for fifty minutes. Miss Gibbes passed the sheets to Mackenzie King as they were completed, and he 'made comments here and there'.
The second séance was less dramatic than the session at Jubilee Place. Astor at first announced the presence of Roosevelt, accompanied by two aunts of Eleanor Roosevelt. They were quickly replaced by 'a lonely spirit George Kent. He was hurled into this world in an air crash.' This was presumably George VI's youngest brother, the duke of Kent, who had been killed in an air crash in 1942 on his way to Canada. 'Albert was here lately he said — some message for him.' Perhaps King waved the duke aside, or expressed alarm at having to pass a spirit message to his sovereign, for the record promptly continues 'But George is of no importance'. Consciously or not, Miss Cummins seems to have been fishing around for an appropriate communicator. Astor now produced a star exhibit.
`There is a lovely spirit here we call the Lady of Light,' he announced. `She is the mother of Mac and part of her work is to release souls from their dying bodies. One frightened soul whom she rescued recently is one JJ. He says I am J.J. Donnelly Ex-Chairman out of a job and very grateful for my rescue from darkest death.' King placed the reference to his mother as among 'the most striking statements of all', and he was equally impressed by the reference to J.J. Donnelly. In the automatic writing, the initials 'J.J.' were 'underlined and repeated' and King had commented to Miss Gibbes that the reference was 'most remarkable'. J.J. Donnelly, he said, was 'an obscure individual and not likely to be known to us'. He had indeed died recently, and the two ladies felt that his obscurity proved that his passing could not have been reported in the British press.
Mackenzie King's wonder was partly to be explained by his habitual amnesia about other people's names. Noting that two men by the name of Donnelly had recently died, King assumed that Astor had referred to a former MP from Saskatchewan. The other Donnelly was from Owen Sound, Ontario, 'though I am not sure of his opinions'. In fact, the Saskatchewan politician was Thomas F. Donnelly, former Liberal MP for Wood Mountain, who had died a fortnight earlier in Ottawa, where he was serving as Chairman of the Farm Loan Board. (The reference to 'Ex-Chairman out of a job' suggests a continuous commentary from King: it is also possible that Geraldine's pen had paused to underline the initials as a subconscious device to draw her sitter into supplying the surname: J.J. is, after all, a common combination of initials.) The J.J. Donnelly referred to by Astor was undoubtedly the one from Ontario: his death had been briefly noted among the obituaries in The Times of 21 October — two days before the séance — because he was the 'father' of the Canadian Senate. Miss Gibbes was sure she had seen no announcement of his death, but her preferred morning newspaper was the undemanding Daily Express. Miss Cummins was much more likely to be a Times person, and given her interests, it is likely that she made a point of reading obituaries. J.J. Donnelly did indeed come from Owen Sound, and was reputed to be 'the largest landowner in Bruce County'. He had served a term as Conservative MP for South Bruce in the 1908 parliament, but although he had coincided with King's freshman term, Donnelly does not seem to have made much of an impact upon his contemporary. In 1913, the Borden government had sent him to the Red Chamber. He had remained active in the Senate, speaking only six months before his death on the dairy industry, an agricultural topic which may help to explain why King confused him with his namesake.
Perhaps King simply could not accept that his mother, a fierce and unforgiving partisan, could possibly be helping the souls of Tories into heaven. Certainly much of the séance consisted of her scolding King for failing to look after his health, sentiments which squared entirely with the concern felt by Miss Cummins. These maternal reproofs were addressed to `My own dearest boy. My pride and joy. Best of sons', but led even Roosevelt's shade into jocular protest that 'Mac' was 'being bossed about'. Canada's prime minister, we should recall, was seventy-three at the time.
Roosevelt was more businesslike. 'I see our boys will pool their resources for defence with your countrys [sic] all right', he commented, in obvious reference to the Berlin Air Lift, then in full swing. King's duty now, according to Roosevelt, was 'to live like a vegetable for while' because `three years from now is the critical time' when he would be needed. 'No war for three years about as we see it here. Then you and others may prevent it but it is going to be touch and go later.' France was going to get 'a big leader who pulls the country out of the mess' but 'Stalin and Co have in hand a big scheme of cold war for Asia. Look out for underground developments in Asia later. It is a weak spot and I don't like it in connection with the defences of my land and of yours. Brings them nearer to us if they get away with their schemes.' Although the European situation was grim. it was 'more a red herring while Asia is being dealt with by the Kremlin'. These comments were exactly what might be expected from the subconscious mind of an informed newspaper reader.
'Most remarkable — just what I wanted', King exclaimed as the sheets were passed to him. Later he noted the 'references to the joint defence of Canada and the United States' were subjects 'which it would be perfectly natural for Roosevelt to speak of and worth further study.' Subsequently, Miss Cummins was to claim that the prediction of trouble in Asia, in which King was 'deeply interested', referred specifically to the Korean War, which broke out in 1950. This claim forgot the statement that there would be no conflict for three years, and ignored the fact that in 1948, such comments applied far more obviously to China, where the Communists were on the point of taking full power.
King asked his visitors to stay for tea, but Miss Cummins was 'speechless with cold' and they declined. He pressed them to call again the following Thursday but, in the event, the third meeting never took place. Geraldine `returned to Chelsea, to bed, and to enjoy a temperature and influenza'.
* * * * * * * *
On 15 November 1948, King had finally handed in his resignation — noting, as he drove into the grounds of Rideau Hall, `that the hands of the clock were together at five to eleven'.62 Almost a year later, he wrote to Geraldine Cummins, enclosing a money order for two of her publications. `Writing to you reminds me that I have still to forward a transcript of the last sitting I had with you.' He had not forgotten, but in retirement he lacked the facilities and 'the desired privacy' for such a sensitive matter. Miss Cummins replied at once, despatching her publications.63 In March 1950, there came a further note from Mackenzie King, speaking of 'the pleasure I have derived . . . from the reading of them', and apologising for his long silence:
The truth is that, on Christmas Day, I found I had been overdoing in the weeks previous and come down with a relapse of the condition I had in London in l948. As a consequence, I have had to remain indoors ever since and, for the most part, confined to bed. I am now beginning to feel with the Spring a new return of life and strength, and am confident that its days something of the kind will again come my way.
He still hoped to send the transcript 'in the near future'. It was his last letter to Jubilee Place, for he died on 22 July 1950.
* * * * * * * *
What are we to make of the two meetings between William Lyon Mackenzie King and Geraldine Cummins? It is tempting to conclude that they tell something of changing public mores: that the foibles of an internationally renowned statesman could not be so openly indulged but so entirely ignored in an age of insight journalism. Yet this may be a misleading deduction, based merely on the provisional nature of our awareness of the politicians of our own time. Decreased respect for the privacy of public figures means that they have good reason to keep their inner worlds to themselves: certainly the report, vehemently denied, that he possessed an astral body which flew around the Pyramids each night was not helpful to Peter Pocklington's campaign to become leader of the Progressive Conservative party in 1983.65 What is clear, as stressed earlier, is the integrity of those around Mackenzie King, who joined in a tacit conspiracy of silence to ensure that his spiritualist enthusiasms did not become public knowledge.
Was their integrity misplaced? If Mackenzie King was in reality a madman, ruling Canada at the random behest of spirits summoned from the vasty deep, was there not an obligation on those who knew to ignore confidentiality and place the issue in the public domain? In short, what do these episodes tell of King himself? In some respects, they reveal a human side of the man which the historian's fascination with his ruthless powers of manipulation may overlook. Two maiden ladies in Chelsea were perhaps overawed, but undoubtedly they were also charmed by Canada's prime minister, who behaved to them with a chivalrous courtesy that now seems almost quaint. There is too something most attractive in the naivety of King's eager acceptance of the 'evidential' material supplied to him: he was not just the conspiratorial machine which half-fascinates, half-repels the historians. Yet naivety is hardly a reassuring quality in a national leader and two very basic issues must be faced. First, did Mackenzie King allow spiritualist experiences to shape political action? Secondly, was he mad? An affirmative answer to either question would have disturbing implications for his Canada — and, by extension, for that of his successors.
Geraldine Cummins recorded that King insisted that 'he made it a rule to ignore advice thus given, he trusted solely to his own and his advisers' judgment'66 — but this was a natural caveat, and still leaves to be explained why King bothered with such activities at all. On an item-by-item basis, there is no proof that Mackenzie King was influenced by the messages which he received from the hereafter through Geraldine Cummins. The spirits urged him not to retire, but he had made up his mind, and it was Roosevelt's shade and not Mackenzie King's will which had to bend. Much of the 'advice' he received was very general in nature, and on specific matters, such as the future of Laurier House, the world beyond the veil merely endorsed his own intentions. Yet if specific examples of decisions made under the influence of spiritualism are lacking, we still cannot dismiss its role altogether, simply because it is necessary to appreciate that King himself believed in the validity of the exercise — as his exclamations to the two ladies and his diary comments amply confirm. The most we can say is while Hamlet felt cursed that the times were out of joint, Mackenzie King seemed to enjoy sitting at the centre of a vast cosmos of the living and the dead.67 He made a point of taking the counsel of others — even to the extent of hedging his mediums — and keeping his own. If we accept that King believed that the messages he received were worthwhile opinions originating in real intelligences, then we must chillingly accept that what Jimmy Gardiner urged on him from Saskatchewan carried equal weight in the last resort of
decision-making with the pleadings of Wilfrid Laurier from the other world. Fortunately, early in his flirtation with spiritualism, King had come to terms with the fact that the august dead could get things wrong — a lesson he had bluntly learnt when the spirit of Sir Wilfrid Laurier had wrongly assured him that the Conservatives would win the 1934 Ontario election.68 To King, the opinions of the dead were valid, but that did not mean that they were any better qualified than he was to determine what was going to happen.
Does this mean that Canada was led for twenty years by a man who was out of his mind? Historians must accept their own limitations in passing judgement. We know of the extent of King's enthusiasm for spiritualism largely by the accident that he kept a diary, and that his executors ignored his instructions to destroy it. Without that detailed record, there would be little more than the evidence in the Geraldine Cummins papers — proof merely of an old man's passing foible. Thus if Mackenzie King was trying to see through a glass darkly, we historians must also recognise that we know only, in part. There is no surviving historical evidence that R.B. Bennett conversed with the Giant Pumpkin, nor that John A. Macdonald's interests in spirits was not wholly liquid in character— but mere absence of evidence does not conclusively prove that they too did not indulge in essentially non-rational activities: any comparison with Mackenzie King must ultimately rest upon partial ignorance not proven certainty. In any case, historians are not psychiatrists: who are we to pronounce who is sane and who mad? The most we can say is that in practical terms, madness involves failure to build a wall between reality and fantasy. There is only one other figure in Canadian history whose inner world is as well documented as that of Mackenzie King, and that is Louis Riel. Riel lost the ability to distinguish between the two worlds of his mind. Mackenzie King did not.
* * * * * * * *
It is eminently fitting that the saga of Mackenzie King and Geraldine Cummins did not end with his death, but continued beyond the grave, as King's trustees attempted to prevent its publication. That, however, is another story.
1. The major biography is the three volume study, William Lyon Mackenzie King by R.M. Dawson (vol. i) and H.B. Neatby (vols ii and iii), sub-titled A Political Biography: 1874-1923 (Toronto, 1958); The Lonely Heights: 1923-1932 (Toronto, 1963) and The Prism of Unity: 1932-1939 (Toronto, 1976). The remainder of King's career is covered in detail by the four volume Mackenzie King Record (vol. i edited by J.W. Pickersgill, vols ii-iv by Pickersgill and D.P. Forster, Toronto 1960-70, cited as MKR). For two rival interpretations of King's early career, see Harry Ferns and Bernard Ostry, The Age of Mackenzie King (Toronto, 1976 ed., first published 1955) and F.A. McGregor, The Fall & Rise of Mackenzie King: 1911-1919 (Toronto, 1962).
2. King's interest in spiritualism is discussed (not very sympathetically) by C.P. Stacey, A Very Double Life: The Private World of Mackenzie King (Toronto, 1977 ed.). See also Joy Esburey, Knight of the Holy Spirit: A Study of William Lyon Mackenzie King (Toronto, 1980), esp. pp. 126-132; Robert H. Keyserlingk, 'Mackenzie King's Spiritualism and his View of Hitler in 1939', Journal of Canadian Studies, xx (1985-86), pp. 26-44; Neatby, King, ii, pp. 202-203, 406408 and King, iii, pp. 73-77. King consulted a fortune-teller, Mrs Bleaney of Kingston, about the date of the 1930 election: not unreasonably, she favoured 1930 over 1931 — a deduction which King was presumably able to arrive at himself. Tea-leaves sometimes proved difficult to decipher: in 1934, Canada's opposition leader was puzzled that they formed an image of a bear. Eventually he decided that it must refer to his mother's 'bearing' him. He was apparently introduced to table-rapping by A.G. Doughty, the Dominion Archivist. The method of communication involved a cumbersome code of knocks. An incidental complication was that the participants had to sit in close proximity, which may have encouraged the spirit of a Hindu priest to make risqué suggestions to King and his friend Joan Patteson in 1934. The origins of spiritualism in Canada are discussed by Ramsay Cook in The Regenerators: Social Criticism in Late Victorian English Canada (Toronto, 1985), esp. pp. 65-85, based on his article, 'Spiritualism, Science of the Earthly Paradise', in Canadian Historical Review, lxv (1984), pp. 4-27.
3. The diaries of Mackenzie King were issued on microfiche by the University of Toronto Press in 1980 [cited as MKD]. References are to typescripts in the second series. The séance is described in MKD, T177, 5 August 1942. [2016 Note; Mackenzie King's diaries may now be consulted on-line through Library and Archives Canada.] This bizarre episode should be compared with the published account of King's visit to Toronto in MKR, i, p. 438. Earlier in the day he had lunched with Sir William Mulock, an early mentor and Laurier minister, now aged 98.
4. For King's political ascendancy in 1942, see J.L. Granatstein, Canada's War: the Politics of the Mackenzie King Government, 1939-1945 (Toronto, 1975), esp. pp. 201-248.
5. Stacey, Very Double Life, pp. 186-188, 190-194, 208-215.
6. Spiritualism in Canada is discussed by Ramsay Cook, The Regenerators: Social Criticism in Late Victorian Canada (Toronto, 1986). For Deakin, see J.A. La Nauze, Alfred Deakin: a Biography (2 vols, Melbourne, 1965), esp. i, pp. 55-65.
7. MKR, iv, pp. 95-119.
8. Ibid., pp. 107-112.
9. Ibid., pp. 93-97. King sailed on the Queen Elizabeth from New York, having browbeaten the Cunard line into giving him a reduction on the price of his suite, an example of 'a Providence watching over me'. King arrived in Brussels ahead of his luggage, but in those more innocent days, Canada's journalists did not judge the skills of political leaders in terms of their skills in baggage-handling. King was alarmed to read a draft citation in Brussels which stated that 'Canada had moved towards full independence under my control. I changed that to full nationhood.' The contrast between King's fine concern for the political implications of sensitive formulae and his reckless excursions into the after-world is striking.
10. Ibid., pp. 97-102. George VI was full of his recent South African tour, but wanted to know if Camillien Houde was still mayor of Montreal. For his part, Mackenzie King was anxious to find out if Princess Margaret could still cross her eyes, a trick he had much admired during a wartime visit to Balmoral.
11. Ibid., pp. 102-105. Like Roosevelt, Smuts thought he was on first name terms with the Canadian leader by addressing him as 'Mackenzie'. Ibid., p. 119. Churchill was under the same misapprehension. MKR, iv, p. 421.
12. MKD, T249, 21 November 1947.
13. Ibid., 22 November 1947. Norman Rogers, Mackenzie King (Toronto, 1935) was written under King's direct supervision. Neatby, King, ii, pp. 97-98.
14. The Geraldine Cummins Papers are collection U206 in the Cork City and County Archives, Ireland [cited as CAI/U206]. I am grateful to Ann Barry for drawing them to my attention. The collection includes a newspaper article from the Cork Examiner, 11 December 1984, and notes by C. O'Sullivan which supplement the biographical information in Geraldine Cummins, Unseen Adventures: an Autobiography covering Thirty-Four Years of Work in Psychical Research (London, 1951), esp. pp. 12-21 [cited as Unseen Adventures].
15. Unseen Adventures, pp. 27-28, 39. The note by C. O'Sullivan in CAI/U206 indicates that Miss Cummins received financial support from Miss Gibbes. It seems that no charges were made for seances but Geraldine Cummins reported that some sitters made 'small gifts of money' which she used for publication costs. Unseen Adventures, p. 41.
16. CAI/U206, E.B. Gibbes to Mercy Phillimore (copy), 22 November 1947.
17. Description by E.B. Gibbes in G. Cummins, They Survive (London, n.d.), p. 11. For 'Johannes', see Keyserlingk, loc. cit., p. 34.
18. Unseen Adventures, p. 23. Elsewhere Geraldine Cummins explained that Astor `describes communicators, introduces them, dismisses them, and in a general sense appears to act as a host and direct the proceedings. He may be a secondary personality. He may be part of what is commonly called my subconscious.' Geraldine Cummins, Mind in Life and Death (London, 1956), p. 20 [cited as Mind in Life and Death].
19. Unseen Adventures, pp. 79, 106-111.
20. CAI/U206, E.B. Gibbes to Mercy Phillimore (copy), 22 November 1947 and typescript of sitting, 20 November 1947.
21. King's account is in MKD, T249, 22 November 1947. The fullest account by Miss Cummins is in CAI/U206, Reminiscences of the Right Hon. W.L. Mackenzie King [cited as Reminiscences]. Under pressure from the Mackenzie King Trustees, the account published in Unseen Adventures, pp. 177-181 was heavily edited to refer to 'a well-known statesman of the British Commonwealth'. King was named Mind in Life and Death, pp. 109-118. The account by Miss Gibbes is in her letter to Mercy Phillimore (copy), 22 November 1947, in CA I/U206.
22. MKD, T249, 22 November 1947.
23. CAI/U206, E.B. Gibbes to Mercy Phillimore (copy), 22 November 1947.
24. Reminiscences, p. 2. The explicit reference to 'fishing' does not appear in Unseen Adventures (cf. p. 177), nor in Mind in Life and Death, p. 110.
25. Cummins, Mind in Life and Death, p. 110; MKD, T249, 22 November 1947; Reminiscences, p. 3.
26. CAI/U206, transcript of seance of 22 November 1947 (typescript). The original automatic script is also in the collection.
27. King's diary entry describing his subsequent discovery of these references is in MKD, T249, 22 November 1947, but was evidently dictated several days later.
29. Reminiscences, pp. 15, 2, 16-17, watered down in Mind in Life and Death, p. 114.
30. Stacey, op. cit, pp. 210-211; Mind in Life and Death, p. 109.
31. Unseen Adventures, p. 14; Mind in Life and Death, pp. 18-19. For Aylmer, see Judy Collingwood, 'Lord Aylmer and the Policy of Conciliation in Lower Canada, 1830-1835', Bulletin of Canadian Studies, viii (1984), pp. 135-161.
32. CAI/U260, transcript of séance, 22 November 1947.
33. MKR, i, pp. 115, 130.
34. CAI/U206, transcript of séance, 22 November 1947. King thought Churchill should see the late President's description of his fighting qualities, and sent him the transcript on 25 November. Later that day 'Churchill sent back the material I had sent him with a most significant little note'. (Lord Moran, had noted in 1941 Churchill's barely suppressed contempt for Mackenzie King — in contrast to his fascinated admiration for Roosevelt. 'Mackenzie King, looking at us through his pince-nez, which were tethered to a button-hole by a long black ribbon' had irritated Churchill by his pronouncement that 'The great thing in politics is to avoid mistakes.') Churchill may have taken the message — if not the messenger — seriously: he had been experimenting with thought transference himself, but does not seem to have gone beyond the parlour game stage. MKD, T249. 25 November 1947; Lord Moran, Churchill: The Struggle for Survival (London, 1966), pp. 19, 316-317.
35. Igor Gouzenko had defected from the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa in September 1945. His revelations of widespread espionage led to the trial and imprisonment of a British nuclear scientist, Allan Nunn May, in 1946. MKR, iii, pp. 16-17, 284. For a recent account, D. Smith, Diplomacy of Fear: Canada and the Cold War, 1941-1948 (Toronto, 1988), pp. 94-109, 129-136.
36. MKR, iv, p. 140, 21 December 1947. King had implied similar reservations in April 1946, MKR, iii, p. 202.
37. CAI/U206, transcript of séance, 22 November 1947. The influence of King's mother, Isabel, on his life was sentimentally portrayed in E. Ludwig, Mackenzie King: a Portrait Sketch (Toronto, 1944), e.g. p. 1: 'When her name . . . falls from his lips, his blue eyes take on a warmer shade and his voice rises to a more emotional tone.' As well as describing King's mother as 'the radiant star of his life' (p, 62), Ludwig stressed 'King's friendship with Roosevelt' (p. 53) and captioned a photograph of the two men 'Old Friends'. Geraldine Cummins had probably not read this brief biography of her sitter (it referred to his ownership of Laurier House on p. 58), but it may be taken as evidence of public awareness of King's personality.
38. The tea-party after the séance is described in MKD, T249, 22 November 1947: CAI/U206, E.B. Gibbes to Mercy Phillimore (copy), 22 November 1947; Reminiscences, pp. 4-5 and Mind in Life and Death, p, 111.
39. Reminiscences, pp. 5-7; Mind in Life and Death, p. 111.
40. MKR, iv, pp. 106-107, MKD, T249, 22 November 1947.
41. CAI/U206, Mackenzie King to E.B. Gibbs [sic], telegram, 26 November 1947: King to E.B. Gibbs [sic] personal, 1 December 1947. In the letter, King said that he was 'disappointed . . . in not being able to tell you, at least over the 'phone, how deeply impressed I was by the afternoon sitting with Miss Geraldine Cummins; and how touched I was by your own personal kindness and that of Miss Cummins in allowing me to join you in a cup of tea, and allowing me to take up so much of your time'.
42. MKR, iv, pp. 160-161.
43. CAI/U206, Mackenzie King to E.B. Gibbes, personal, 20 February 1948.
44. CAI/U206, transcript of séance, 22 March (typescript) and note by Miss Gibbes, 25 March 1948; [E.B. Gibbes] to Mackenzie King (copy), 30 March 1948.
45. MKR, iv, pp. 274-276.
46. MKR, iv, pp. 276-277. King regarded New Brunswick's J.B. McNair as 'a difficult man' and J. Walter Jones of Prince Edward Island as 'crazy'. There was no love lost between King and Angus L. McDonald of Nova Scotia. MKR, iv, p. 50. Of the four Liberal premiers, King approved only of Garson of Manitoba. By comparison, Saskatchewan's CCF premier, Tommy Douglas, and even Ernest Manning, the Social Credit leader of Alberta, were credited with taking positive positions in federal-provincial relations. MKR, iii, p. 210.
47. CAI/U260, Mackenzie King to E.B. Gibbes, private and confidential, 27 April 1948.
48. Reminiscences, p. 6.
49. CAI/U206, Mackenzie King to E.B. Gibbes, private and confidential, 27 April 1948.
50. MKR, iv. pp. 402-404.
51. Ibid., pp. 404-405.
52. Ibid., pp. 410-414, MKD, T261, 21 October 1948. Another visitor was the music-hall artist, Gracie Fields, who had not previously met King, but was staying in an adjoining room and wished to express her thanks to the people of Canada. King, aged 73 and confined to bed, permitted the visit 'only on condition that her husband accompanying her'. Their single meeting at this time was perhaps symbolic, since Gracie Fields was also to retire in protracted fashion. Bruce Hutchison, The Incredible Canadian. A Candid Portrait of Mackenzie King: His Works, His times, and His Nation (Toronto, 1952), p. 440; Globe and Mail, 20 October 1948.
53. CAI/U206, notes by E.B. Gibbes, 1 November 1951, of meeting with Blair Fraser.
54. Reminiscences, p. 9; Mind in Life and Death, p. 112; MKD, T261, 23 October 1948.
55. CAI/U206, transcript of séance, 23 October 1948 (typescript).
56. MKD, T26I, 23 October 1948. The death of Thomas F. Donnelly had been announced in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, 9 October 1948. I am most grateful to Professor Michael Cottrell of St Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan, for this information.
57. The Times, 21 October 1948, p. 4. J.J. Donnelly had last spoken on 21 April 1948, Senate of Canada: Official Report of Debates, 1947-48 (Ottawa, 1948), p. 350.
58. CAI/U206, transcript of séance, 23 October 1948 (typescript).
59. MKD, T261, 23 October 1948.
60. Mind in Life and Death, p. 112. In her draft Reminiscences, Geraldine Cummins at first wrote that King was 'puzzled and a little shaken' by the warning about Asia, but this was altered to 'deeply interested in', possibly because Miss Cummins wished to argue that spirit messages did not influence King's terrestrial politics. Stacey discusses this episode in A Very Double Life, pp. 211-212, correcting William Kilbourn in J.M.S. Careless and R.C. Brown, eds, The Canadians, 1867-1967 (Toronto, 1968 ed.), p. 328.
61. Mind in Life and Death, p. 112; Reminiscences, p. 11.
62. MKR, iv, p. 439. This is a rare example of King's fascination with the hands of clocks getting into the published version of his diaries.
63. CAI/U260, Mackenzie King to Geraldine Cummins, personal, 2 December 1949.
64. CAI/U260, Mackenzie King to Geraldine Cummins, personal, March 1950.
65. Maclean's Magazine, 20 June 1983, p. 21. Pocklington's denial was counter-denied by Alan Fotheringham, Look Ma . . . No Hands: an Affectionate Look at Our Wonderful Tories (Toronto, 1984 ed.), p. 184, which perhaps predictably led Fotheringham to call him 'a married, rich Mackenzie King'. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that Mackenzie King's spiritualist foibles have been a useful staple for a cynical form of national self-identification, which likes to distinguish Canada from the self-assertion of the United States by perversely stressing its perceived smaller-than-life features. Reports that President Reagan consulted astrologers may have reduced King's usefulness in this regard.
66. Mind in Life and Death, p. 112.
67. I owe this specific point to a lecture delivered at Trent University in 1982 by Professor Keith Walden, which began my interest in the subject.
68. 'I felt an anguish of mind and heart,' he wrote, on discovering that this "prophecy" had failed, that Sir Wilfrid had not had the knowledge evidently required and had seen only so much of the whole. . . . he was unable to foretell, had based his knowledge on what he had foregathered, but the knowledge was insufficient.' Diary entry for 20 June 1934, quoted in Neatby, King, iii, p. 75.
69. Cf. Thomas Flanagan, Louis 'David' Riel: 'Prophet of the New World' (Toronto, 1979).