The Post-Civil War Era brought along with it in the wake of countless deaths and destruction an interest in Spirit Communication. During Antebellum times, Spiritualism was very popular in the North especially in New York and Massachusetts. A few Mediums would travel to New Orleans during the winter months to conduct Seances.
A Seance is defined as a sitting, generally a circle of people who attempt to contact the dead through a Medium. Spiritualism gained a larger following after the Civil War especially in the South. Even Mary Todd Lincoln had a deep interest in communicating with dead loved ones.
Henry Louis Rey Arrives in New Orleans
Henry Louis Rey was a Free Man of Color and a descendant of Haitian Immigrants who came to New Orleans after the Haitian Revolution from Cuba in 1809. He was a Medium who held regular Seance Circles in New Orleans during the Reconstruction Era. He also worked at G. Pitard’s Hardware Store from 1877 until his death in 1894. The store was located near the corner of Rampart and Canal. In St. Louis Cemetery #1, Mr. Rey rests in his in-laws’ tomb, labeled CROCKER.
As a fascinating side note, Pierre Crocker a married man had a long and intimate relationship with the daughter of Marie Laveau. Her full name was Marie Heloise Euchariste Glapion but she eventually went by the name of her famous mother, Marie Laveau. Pierre was 24 years older than this young woman. They met when she was sixteen and had several children together but two died in childhood.
Henry Louis Rey was not only a Medium but he was also a Postbellum fair skinned black political activist. Housed in the Special Collections at the University of New Orleans are Rey’s seance notes. These notes are written in French showing that many Black Creoles felt more comfortable with their French heritage than with Americanization. Mr. Rey was also an accountant. Many free men of color held very skilled jobs.
Henry Rey’s Interest in Spiritualism
An interest in Spiritualism began when his own father died in 1852. At the time, he lived at 126 Rue de Craps. Henry’s father’s spirit visited him. Thus, he began a long journey into the depths of spirit communication. He and many other Black Creoles who identified with Whites actually fought for the Southern cause during the Civil War. They did this in hopes of pensions and the right to vote, but neither materialized easily. After the war, a school board appointed Rey which led to his hard work for an integrated school system. From 1868-1870, he served in the Louisiana House of Representatives and he also became the Third District Assessor, a very coveted and respected position.
Life in the War-Torn South
In the war-torn South, especially for free persons of color, life became more difficult and many ran into racial discrimination that they had not encountered before the war. The Seance notes start out with an optimistic viewpoint but eventually become somewhat acrimonious. Seance Circles were usually held at a person’s home. It was widely believed at the time that spirits were there to assist the living with spiritual betterment and give advice. Henry Louis Rey’s Cercle Harmonique ended in 1877. There is some indication that there was still an interest in Spiritualism in New Orleans but it was waning. A hall, located at 321 Camp Street (American Sector) was devoted to Spiritualist Activities but it was more for the White Anglo population not Mixed Race or Black Creoles.
Henry Louis Rey lived a diverse and colorful life in ever changing 19th Century New Orleans. His Cercle Harmonique began in 1858 (No Register from 1860 -1864 due to the war) and ended at the official end of Reconstruction in 1877. Seances lost popularity but out of this tradition, the modern day Ouija Board originally called a Planchette was born.
Thank you Melissa Daggett of Texas for writing this wonderful and impeccably researched book, Spiritualism in 19th Century New Orleans.