When Things of the Spirit Come First, Part Four: The Organization of Spiritualist Churches in Niagara Falls

by Michelle Ann Kratts

By the dawn of the 20th century, Spiritualist churches were steadily organizing throughout the United States and especially within the city of Niagara Falls.  The National Spiritualist Association, founded in 1893 by Cora L.V. Scott, a medium and trance lecturer (as well as an abolitionist in earlier years) who lived in Buffalo for a time, was established in Niagara Falls as the First Spiritualist Association. 


Cora L. V. Scott 


 In January of 1903 the Niagara Falls Gazette advertised that a Spiritualist medium and adviser from Buffalo, “Mrs. Atcheson,” would be “at the home of Mrs. Onan, cor. Pine and 29th all day Wednesday, January 7th, for personal readings.” Proceeds would benefit the Spiritualist Association of Niagara Falls.  It went on to read that a Séance Circle would also be held that same evening at the Maccabees Hall, 2207 Main Street.  It is believed that this event may have represented the birth of the first officially organized Spiritual Church in Niagara Falls.   Previous to the inception of the First Spiritualist Church, most practiced privately within their homes and even following the creation of organized churches a great majority of Spiritualists preferred to practice in such a manner (particularly, the new immigrants who continued to read tea leaves and interpret dreams at their own kitchen tables).

Mrs. Ellen Onan, the hostess of the day-long event in 1903, had come to Niagara Falls “to take advantage of the job opportunities created by the expanding electrical industry following her husband’s death in 1900.” She was the mother of three young boys, as well as a nurse.  Descendants today are more than curious as to the true reasons for the young widow’s sudden move to Niagara Falls.  Family records reveal, among other tidbits, that she had at one time “taught school in Cuba, NY, which was not far from (her husband’s hometown of) Allegany.” It is just conjecture, but it is possible that it may have been at this point that Ellen became infused with Spiritualism for the founder of the National Spiritualist Association, Cora L.V. Scott, one of the most prominent and influential women in the Spiritualist movement, a woman who had revealed her craft as medium at the White House for President Lincoln, was born in Cuba.  This section of New York was aflutter with Spiritualism during this time period.   Lily Dale Assembly, established in 1879, was only about 50 miles away from where a 20 year old Ellen would have been teaching.  It is also possible that Ellen had become interested in Spiritualism as a comfort following the grief of the loss of loved ones.   She, herself, may have been witness to great human tragedy as a child, as well, for she had been born in 1858 in Richmond, Virginia, just a few short years before the onset of the Civil War.  For southerners, the Civil War had been a horror not too far from home. 


Ellen Morris Onan

 (Courtesy www.onanfamily.org)


Niagara Falls had clearly become an important location for the national Spiritualist community. In January, the New York State Spiritualist Association gathered at the Maccabees Hall for a “most important” meeting.  Vine H. Hickox, a pioneer of Niagara Falls, wrote several lengthy pieces that were published in the newspaper about Spiritualism, the spirit messages and concerning Mrs. Atcheson’s discourses.  Ella Atcheson, the wife of a Buffalo baker, was Niagara’s First Spiritualist Church’s founding minister. People came from quite the distance to hear her speak and to benefit from her mediumship.  Hickox often gave specific and emotional examples of her incredible work.  He wrote of the large crowds of desperate Niagarans longing to reconnect with their deceased loved ones.  He described the ideals of Spiritualism through Rev. Atcheson’s own words…”Spiritualism not only has opened the door between the mortal and the immortal…it has spread the truth…it is freeing the minds of men and women from doubt and error…


May 3, 1924 


Mr. Hickox, himself a follower of a form of Christian Spiritualism, wrote of the “whispers of dear departed friends…of mortals touched by their loved ones who are ministering angels…”  He explained the basic tenets of Spiritualism to the general public as follows:

Spiritualism asserts that the soul spirit is the real man;  the natural body is but the medium through which the soul of man interprets itself to its fellows….

His family believes that the loss of his own dear wife, while still quite young, may have been the catalyst for his fervent embracing of Spiritualism.  He also wrote in an article, dated February 6, 1907, “The Benefit of Spiritualism,” that his own father, Thomas B. Hickox, had been a “strong adherent to the Methodist Church, fond of reading the old family bible and having prayers in his home…”  However, his mother, Mercia Harrington Hickox, “did not have so much interest in those exercises, in fact she seemed to feel glad when the family prayers were over….”  He also went on to say that she “could read people seemingly in a Psychic way and prophesy.” 

On a sultry summer’s evening in July of 1907, less than a year before Mr. Hickox became one of the departed, a large audience attended a gathering at the Maccabees Hall in order to receive a message “from some loved one in the spirit land.”  He went on to add that “this phrase of mediumship is becoming very interesting to many in this city….they begin to realize the truth of the continuity of life, after the death of the mortal body.” On April 21, 1908, Vine H. Hickox entered the spirit land, himself. 


Vine H. Hickox


Other Spiritualist churches grew out of the First Spiritualist Church of Niagara Falls.  Some adhered to a more Christian sort of Spiritualism, whereas others focused on the more titillating aspects of mediumship.  The Progressive Spiritual Church of Truth began meeting at Whirlpool Street, at No. 933 Main Street opposite the Armory and eventually at the Unitarian Church at 639 Main Street.  The Spiritual Tabernacle met at the IOOF Hall on South Avenue, near Main Street.  The Trinity Spiritualist Church met at the corner of Ashland and Main Street and at 320 6th Street.  The Unity Spiritualist Church met at Silberberg’s Hall, between Main Street and Niagara Avenue.  The Center of Psychic Spiritualists met at the Hotel Niagara in Room A, and the White Rose Center of Free Psychic Truth which had been active throughout the 1940’s held their services in the basement of the Unitarian Church.  These churches opened their doors to people of all faiths and backgrounds.  All are welcome, was commonly added to the advertisements.  They offered lectures such as “Angel Ministrations,” ”The Force of Spirit,” and “Psychic Teaching for Adults and Children.”  Messages were given, as well as the reading of sealed ballots, clairvoyance, healing services, worship, psychic classes, unfoldment (meditation) classes and much more.  Message, or séance, circles were usually held afterwards or at various mediums’ homes.  Often prominent psychics and mediums came to Niagara Falls for ballot reading sessions. T. John Kelly, a noted Spiritualist medium associated with Lily Dale, came to the Spiritualist Tabernacle at the IOOF Temple, on South Avenue, near Main Street, Niagara Falls in 1932.    He was considered the “premier in this phase of psychic phenomenon” and his presence in Niagara Falls would “open the door (to) the spirit world, where… loved ones are anxiously waiting to communicate…