"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Case of the "Spirit Baby"

Throughout recorded history, there have been "spiritualists" who do seem to possess some sort of genuine wild talents. Others are well-meaning, but deluded types. Many are nothing but cynical crooks. And, unfortunately, you occasionally find one who was downright evil. One particularly poignant case of spiritual betrayal played out in American newspapers in the early 20th century.

A young couple named William and Ada Robbins lived on a rented farm near Dysart, Iowa with their three-year-old son Harold. They were a prosperous and happy couple, but Mrs. Robbins longed for a daughter to make their family complete. On October 1, 1919, her dearest wish was granted when she gave birth to a girl, whom she named Vivian Constance. Tragically, the baby lived for just five hours.

Ada was devastated, and seemed utterly unable to deal with her loss. She became so morbidly obsessed with mourning the child she had known so very briefly, that her husband and friends feared for her sanity, and even her life. Always a deeply religious woman, Mrs. Robbins became fixated on the Biblical story of Elisha, who raised the Shunammite's son from the dead. In her fixation on death, she seemed ready to give up on the world of the living.

Then one day, James Wheeler, a hired hand on the Robbins farm, told William that his wife Sylvia was a talented spiritualist. Perhaps she could help Ada deal with her tragedy.

By this point, Mr. Robbins was so concerned about his wife's mental health that he was ready to try anything. He agreed that Mrs. Wheeler should be summoned. What harm could it do? he told himself.

When the "medium" arrived at the farm, she immediately told Mrs. Robbins that she was in constant communication with the dead baby's spirit. Ada was transfixed by the news, and desperately peppered Mrs. Wheeler with questions. "What did the baby look like? How was she being treated? Did she miss her mother?" The "medium" responded with vague, but highly soothing answers, and assured the young woman that she, too, could be taught to make contact with her lost daughter.

From that day on, Ada Robbins put herself completely under Mrs. Wheeler's control. She gave the medium her complete trust and obedience. Mrs. Wheeler took the Robbinses to Chicago, where they heard the prominent spiritualist Sir Oliver Lodge lecture on life after death. This experience turned Ada into an utter, unwavering believer in the spirit world--particularly the spirit world as shown by Mrs. Wheeler. William Robbins was a bit more skeptical, but he was so relieved by his wife's newfound hope and energy that he kept his doubts to himself.

Ada continued to read and re-read the story of Elisha. Eventually, she worked up the courage to mention it to Mrs. Wheeler. Was there any reason, she asked longingly, why such a miracle could not happen to her? Could her baby be brought back from the grave?

Mrs. Wheeler smiled and replied that it was quite possible indeed. She reminded Ada that Christ had empowered the disciples to heal the sick and raise the dead. With enough faith, Mrs. Wheeler assured her, there was no reason anyone might gain the same powers. "The trouble with people nowadays," she sighed, "is that they have no faith." When Ada hesitatingly pointed out that her child had been dead and buried for months, Mrs. Wheeler scolded her. This just showed that Ada did not "believe" sufficiently.

Mrs. Wheeler set out to train her to "believe." Under the medium's tutelage, Mrs. Robbins devoted herself to a life of fasting and prayer that would have done the most rigorous ascetic proud, all in the name of strengthening her "faith." She was encouraged by Mrs. Wheeler's assurances that her baby's guardian angels were pleased by her efforts.

As they neared the first anniversary of little Vivian's death, Mrs. Wheeler began hinting that the "guardian spirits" thought Ada was nearly ready to have her wishes granted. Finally, one day, after coming out of a "trance," she told the ecstatic young woman that the spirits promised to bring her baby back from the grave. However, she could not yet say when and how this revival would take place.

Mrs. Wheeler then announced that she must go to Chicago. Communications were better there, she explained. After her arrival in the Windy City, she wrote Ada letters saying that she was spending all her time in a trance, preparing for the great moment when baby Vivian would rematerialize. "My spirit has been suspended for six days and I believe I am fit for this supreme materialization. My body is turning green and the spirits tell me that this greatest of miracles will soon come to pass."

When she returned to Iowa, it was with the news that June 14 was the day chosen for this resurrection. An adult spirit would accompany the child on her journey back to earth. On the morning of the great day, Ada, as Mrs. Wheeler instructed, filled their cottage with fresh flowers to welcome their ethereal visitors. The medium also directed everyone in the house to wear white robes and to leave the door of the kitchen ajar. She added that they were absolutely forbidden to tell anyone else of what was to take place.

William Robbins was becoming increasingly uneasy of what his family had gotten into, but by this point he had no idea how to get back out. He flatly refused to wear his white robe, and refused to wait up that night for the expected miracle. He went off to bed around 9 p.m., probably muttering some very unspiritual words under his breath.

Ada sat up alone in the quiet darkness. The anticipation so unnerved her that she finally became frightened and went up to bed herself. But she could not sleep. Around ten, she began to hear strange noises.

Someone was in the house!

The trembling young woman saw a shadowy human figure enter the bedroom. It was carrying something in its arms--a baby! The figure placed the child in her arms, whispering, "This is a gift to thee from the Father." The strange being then slid to the doorway, and quietly disappeared.

As Mrs. Wheeler had told her to do, Ada sat quietly holding the baby for fifteen minutes after the figure had left. Then she excitedly awakened her husband.

William Robbins was flabbergasted by what he saw. He examined the baby carefully. She certainly looked exactly like the dead Vivian...He didn't know what to believe.

Ada, of course, knew exactly what had happened. It was a miracle! Thanks to Mrs. Wheeler, God had answered her prayer and brought her child back to life!

Word quickly spread about the arrival of the "spirit baby." Unsurprisingly, it earned the Robbins family a good deal of attention. People came from miles away to see the child. Newspaper reporters besieged the farm. They became an instant tourist attraction.

When Mrs. Wheeler returned from Chicago a few days later, she announced her severe displeasure with all the fuss, and demanded that the public be banned from the household. "There are spiritual powers who are angry at the child's return to life," she solemnly told Mrs. Robbins. "They will lose no opportunity to snatch it back, and if enough human beings touch it the baby will dissolve again into ether." However, this prohibition did not stop Mrs. Wheeler from taking advantage of the publicity. She and her husband set up a big tent outside the Robbins farm, where they conducted revival meetings. The most prominent feature of these spiritual gatherings was the frequent passing of the contribution plate.

Mrs. Wheeler's domination over Ada became even more complete--and more demanding--than before. The "medium" moved her entire family, as well as two friends, into the Robbins home--getting free room and board, of course. She then had another message from the "spirits." The Robbins family, she announced, must immediately move to California. If these orders were not followed, she said ominously, the baby would dissolve back into the spirit realm, for good. The Wheelers, of course, would accompany them. Mrs. Wheeler planned to utilize the publicity surrounding the "spirit baby" to start a "spiritualist community" in the Golden State.

By this point, William Robbins had had about enough of the Wheelers and their troublesome entourage of spirits, but he gave in when his wife pleaded with him not to risk losing their child a second time. He sold their farm equipment, bought two automobiles, and the strange crew headed West. The Robbinses paid all the expenses.

By the time they arrived in Redondo Beach, California, Mr. Robbins had learned certain things which he felt more than justified his suspicions of the Wheelers. For one thing, a Chicago "medium" his wife had consulted, and who had encouraged Ada's hopes of resurrecting her baby, was a close friend of Mrs. Wheeler's. There were rumors that a female infant disappeared from a Chicago orphanage right before the arrival of the "spirit baby." And a train had arrived in Dysart from Chicago right before little Vivian II's "resurrection."

William Robbins may not have been Sherlock Holmes, but he was quite capable of adding two and two together.

Ada Robbins, however, stubbornly, desperately clung to her trust in the medium. However, even her faith began to waver when she saw Mrs. Wheeler go into a shop and purchase a bunch of cheap necklaces. "I am expected to materialize sixteen gifts at a seance this evening," the medium explained. "The strain is too great, and so I am going to use these." After this, Mrs. Robbins saw her mentor habitually "materialize" numerous other items that she knew had come from the corner drug store, rather than the spirit world. At long last, Ada came to the depressing realization that her "miracle" was nothing more than an incredibly audacious fraud. The Robbinses booted the Wheeler menage out of their lives, and headed back to Iowa, in a mood proverbially known as "sadder but wiser." In March 1922 the couple successfully sued the Wheelers for the car they had bought for the medium's family, as well as other expenses. However, Mrs. Robbins was too frightened to enforce the court's judgment. She feared that if she angered Mrs. Wheeler too much, the medium might "dematerialze" the baby.

Sometimes, our most unreasonable beliefs are the hardest to overcome.

There are many things one would like to see done to anyone who takes deliberate advantage of a mother's grief--public horsewhipping at the very least--but Sylvia Wheeler appears to have gotten away with her hoax scot-free. Which just goes to show what a rare commodity justice is in this world.

The newspapers of time reported that William and Ada hoped to learn for certain the true identity of their "spirit baby," although by this point they had become so attached to the child that they did not want to give her up. (It is unknown to me why the police did not solve the mystery by simply hauling the Wheelers into the nearest station and grilling them like a cheese sandwich.)

I cannot find any evidence they ever did discover the girl's true parentage. Perhaps they really did not want to know. The last reports I can find of the family came from May 1924, when various newspapers revealed that Ada had saved "her 4-year-old daughter, Vivian," from death or serious injury. Apparently the child had climbed up a 50-foot ladder on a windmill. She was within only a few feet of the blades when Mrs. Robbins saw her and frantically rescued the child.

Compounding the sadness of this peculiar story is the fact that Ada Robbins died in March 1926, aged less than thirty. I do not know what became of Mr. Robbins and their children after that, but hopefully they were able to rebuild their lives from the havoc wrought by the Wheelers.

1 comment:

  1. The Wheelers are the sort of heartless monsters who create most of the misery in the world. Their evil is more insidious than a murderer's or a thief's. People like the Wheelers steal whole lives.


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