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Book Examines Athens Legend Jonathan Koons and ‘Spirit Room’

[Jonathan Koons/photo:Alan Taylor]

Having lived in Athens, Ohio, for years, every Halloween writer Sharon Hatfield heard stories about Jonathan Koons. The farmer turned medium claimed spirits from beyond visited the “Spirit Room” he constructed on his farm during the 1850s

“About eight years ago, I decided I really wanted to dig deep into the subject to find out who Koons was and what he was all about,” Hatfield said.

In her new book, “Enchanted Ground: The Spirit Room of Jonathan Koons” ( Swallow Press), Hatfield explores how Koons became a leading figure in the movement known as “spiritualism,” as people believed they could communicate with the dead through séance.

Spiritualism emerged out what was known as “the burned over” district of western and central New York in the late 1840s. The region was the home to what became known as “The Second Great Awakening,” when a number of new religious movements took place.

Spiritualism came along a time of great cultural and social upheaval in the United States, as people tried to grasp with industrialization, urbanization and immigration.

Hatfield said that upheaval caused people to question many things in their lives, including rigid faiths, like Calvinist beliefs only a select few would enter heaven while the rest were condemned to hell.

“People were looking for a more optimistic philosophy, something where they would have control over their own spiritual destiny. So when spiritualism came along in 1848, a lot of people were willing to hear the message. The message was that there was no hell and that you had a chance to spiritually progress, even after your death,” Hatfield said.

[photo: Swallow Press]

Born in Pennsylvania in 1811, Koons renounced his Presbyterianism, moving to Athens, Ohio, in 1835, to become, as he described it, “an infidel.”

While Koons had given up on organized religion, he hadn’t abandoned the quest for the answers that faith provides, making him the perfect candidate for spiritualism, Hatfield said.

“He went through the dark night of the soul, where he was unbeliever. He was always searching for something spiritual. It’s a pretty classic motif. He was so sure that spiritualism and séances were fake, that in 1852 he went to a séance determined to expose it as a fraud, but instead he was told by the medium that he had great potential as a medium. He went home and started meditating and doing ‘automatic writing’ and converted,” Hatfield said.

Eventually, Koons and his family members, several of whom also claimed to be mediums, built what they called the “Spirit Room” where they would hold séances.

“He would admit 20-25 people at a time into the room and shut the door and windows and blow out the candles. Koons would then play his fiddle and other instruments would join in,” she said.

The catch was just who was playing those instruments, because the only person anyone saw was Koons.

“A trumpet allegedly levitated into the air, speaking to the audience and giving out messages,” Hatfield said.

Over the next several years, hundreds of people from across the country made their way to Koons’ “Spirit Room.” No one was charged admission, although goodwill offerings were accepted. The Koons family would house and feed borders, some of whom stayed for several weeks.

Eventually, the Koons family decided to take their séances to other places. According to Hatfield, a trip to Cleveland in 1856 to visit the home of Linus Everett, the editor of the newspaper, “Spiritual Universe,” helped prove to be there undoing.

“The Koons family had séances for the Everett’s. The first two evenings things went very well, but the third evening, disaster struck, because Koons was having the séance in which one of the parts [of] a disembodied hand would come out and be illuminated by phosphorous and move around the room. In the course of this, a match is accidently struck. In the glare, you can see Mr. Koons’ teenage daughter, Quintilla, is up moving around. Everett has a journalistic bent as well as a spiritualist bent, so the editor writes a scathing expose of how Koons is a humbug. This hugely damaged Koons’ reputation,” Hatfield said.

The “Spirit Room” remained open until 1858, when Koons closed it. He moved to Illinois where he lived until he died in 1893. Hatfield said at no point did Koons ever admit that anything that took place in the Spirit Room was a hoax.

For Hatfield, whether the events that took place in Koons Spirit Room were real or fraudulent became less important as she dug more deeply into the story.

“I realized this story was much more about power of ritual and belief. I tried to look at it more from a cultural perspective. I looked at why did all these hundreds and even thousands of people travel to Koons’ cabin to have this experience. What did it mean in terms of their lives? I found that it did give them a lot of hope, regardless of whether it was actually, literally true,” Hatfield said.

Hear more about what drew Koons to spiritualism, whether he made money from the "Spirit Room" and why Hatfield changed the focus of the book