John Benedict Buescher
John Murray Spear was one of nineteenth-century America’s most interesting characters. A leading social agitator against slavery and capital punishment, Spear also became the nation’s most flamboyant spiritualist, inventor of “spirit machines,” and advocate of free love. In his captivating biography, John Buescher brings to life Spear’s superlatively odd story. While no photograph or engraving of Spear exists, and his letters and personal papers are scarce, Buescher recreates in this book a sympathetic, even heroic, figure who spent the most energetic decades of his career absent, in a sense, from his own life, displaced by other spirits.
Born in 1804, John Murray Spear started his career as a Universalist minister. He later was a close colleague of William Lloyd Garrison and Theodore Parker in the abolitionist movement, an operator on the underground railroad in Boston, an influential leader in the effort to end the death penalty and to reform prison conditions, and a public advocate of the causes of pacifism, women’s rights, labor reform, and socialism. Buescher chronicles Spear’s work as an activist among the New England reformers and Transcendentalists such as Bronson Alcott, Lydia Maria Child, and Dorothea Dix.
In mid-life Spear turned to the new revelation of spiritualism and came under the thrall of what he believed were spirit messages. Spear’s spirits dictated that he and a small group of associates embark on plans for a perpetual motion machine, an electric ship propelled by psychic batteries, a vehicle that would levitate in the air, and a sewing machine that would work with no hands. As Buescher documents, Spear’s spirit-guided efforts to harness technology to human liberation—sexual and otherwise—were far stranger than anyone outside his closest associates imagined, and were aimed at the eventual manufacturing of human beings and the improvement of the race. Buescher also examines the way in which Spear’s story was minimized by his embarrassed fellow radicals. In the last years of his life, retired by the spirits and regarded by fellow Gilded Age progressives as a visitor from another age, if not another planet, Spear helped organize support for anarchist, socialist, peace, and labor causes. Buescher portrays Spear’s life as an odd mixture of comic absurdity and serious foreshadowing of the future—for both good and ill—that provides us with a unique perspective on nineteenth-century American religious and social life.
“There is probably nobody living more qualified to write this work and nobody who has explored the available sources and contemplated the social meaning of nineteenth century spiritualism more completely than John Buescher. His contribution in this area is unprecedented and vital.” —Mark A. Lause, University of Cincinnati
“John Buescher has written a lively, richly-detailed account—and sometimes free-swinging critique—of one of nineteenth-century America’s most idiosyncratic and radical religious leaders. By turns warmly sympathetic to Spear and his spiritualist colleagues, then harshly critical of their “neo-gnostic” tendencies, Buescher both tells a good story and draws many inferences for present-day religious and cultural debates. Even those who might draw different conclusions should be informed and engaged by the tale he tells.” —David W. Wills, Winthrop H. Smith ’16 Professor of American History and American Studies, Amherst College
“Grounded in seldom-used primary sources, this is a rigorously researched, clearly written, and fascinating biography of an important nineteenth-century radical. This volume on John Murray Spear is a valuable and necessary step to uncover the lived experience of spiritualism.” —Stephen D. Andrews, Indiana University
“Buescher’s biography of John Murray Spear offers a transect through Spiritualism’s heyday, from its rise in the reformist circles of the mid-nineteenth century to its increasingly eccentric and esoteric manifestations that marked the movement’s decline toward the end of the century. Extensively researched and engagingly written, Buescher’s biography of this influential and often notorious Spiritualist offers a vivid tour of some of the further reaches of nineteenth-century American culture.” — The Journal of American History
“In this richly detailed biography, Buescher takes seriously both Spear’s most inspiriting ideas and his most outlandish in order to access the inner depths of nineteenth-century radicalism and unravel its hidden logic. . . . Buescher is one of the most knowledgeable students of lesser-used primary sources on nineteenth-century spiritualism. A generous citizen of this area of study, he makes a wealth of research materials including bibliographies, primary sources, and visual images available on his frequently updated website.” — American Historical Review
“Buescher offers a book on John Murray Spear, whose 19th-century life trajectory placed him in some of the period’s most colorful and innovative religious and social movements. Born into a Universalist family, Spear was at turns a Universalist minister, abolitionist, spiritualist, pacifist, death penalty opponent, women’s rights advocate, failed inventor of a perpetual motion machine, and vocal supporter of anarchists and socialists. . . . Recommended.” — Choice
“The Remarkable Life Of John Murray Spear: Agitator For The Spirit Land by John Buescher is the biography of one of 19th century America’s most idiosyncratic and radical religious figures whose flamboyant spiritualist proclivities led him to protest slavery and capital punishment, invent ‘spirit machines,’ and perhaps most surprisingly-advocate ‘free love.’ While Spear help[ed] organize public support for anarchist, socialist, peace, and labor causes, his personal life was an eccentric mixture of the comic and the profane and provides contemporary readers with a remarkable perspective on 19th century American religious and social life. An impressive body of well research[ed] and superbly written detail, The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear is informative, entertaining, and very highly recommended reading on the life and times of a remarkable, distinctive man who helped to shape American history.” — KNLS Bookwatch
“John Buescher draws on a vast array of primary sources to tell the riveting story of an American Faust, a Universalist minister who first gained recognition as a radical abolitionist, labor reformer, and opponent of the death penalty, but who in middle age became a medium for spirits he described as ‘entirely foreign to his own consciousness.’ " — Touchstone
Included in University Press Books Selected for Public and Secondary School Libraries for 2007 by the American Library Association