(HOST) To conclude our Women’s History Month series of stories about remarkable Vermont women – told by Vermont women who are notable in their own right – commentator Cyndy Bittinger tells about Achsa Sprague.
(BITTINGER) “Whenever she appeared in the towns and cities of the 15 states of the Union in the 1850s, lecture halls were filled. Her newspaper columns supported equal rights for women and prison reform, and they made her one of the best known women in America. She was a native of Plymouth Notch, Vermont. Yet today no one makes a pilgrimage to the cemetery to see her grave. She is a forgotten soul – Achsa Sprague.
She was known to the world as a trance lecturer and she communed with the dead souls of her neighbors. She was a medium who delivered messages from the spirit world to lift her listeners into the higher regions of thought and feeling. Her first public speech was given at South Reading in July of 1854. Her earliest lectures were to Vermonters often coming from miles away to hear her. Her hold upon the public mind was very deep here.
Her early life was marked by a struggle with poverty and hardship. Born in 1827, she was the sixth child in a family ruled by an alcoholic father. Achsa was a graduate of Plymouths one room schoolhouse. An ungraded school could be a challenging place to learn and teachers did not always have the advantage of higher education themselves. Achsa was so advanced in class that she helped teach her classmates. It is not surprising that she became a Vermont teacher herself at the age of 12. However, in her late teens she was stricken with arthritis and she became first house-bound, then confined to her bed. She could barely walk. For seven years she was ill. Then a religious conversion restored her to health and kindled her ability to be a trance medium. She believed that spirits could provide useful knowledge about moral and ethical issues. She promoted Spiritualism, but also spoke out for urban reform, expanding roles for women, improved prisons for women inmates, and freeing slaves.
Mostly self educated, she lectured and wrote poetry and essays. She raised money for her causes. She drew from her own experience with illness and recovery to shape her ideas of the afterlife. Women were attracted to the Spiritualist movement because it enabled them to speak in public before audiences of both men and women.
Achsa was a religious leader for the Spiritualists, an activist on social issues, and yet her life was cut short by another mysterious disease, brain fever. She spent her final days in a frenzy of writing poetry. She died in Plymouth in 1862.
When fourth graders learn Vermont history, many travel to Plymouth on their field trips to scamper through the cemetery.
And if they pause to ponder at the headstone proudly proclaiming: I still live! They’ll be communing with the spirit of Achsa Sprague.”
(Host) Cyndy Bittinger is executive director of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation. Her new book is titled, Grace Coolidge, Sudden Star. Our music is from the classic television programs, “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits.” Look for the complete Vermont Women Series and other VPR commentaries on line at vpr.net.