The Trance Man

A former Methodist minister, E.S. Tyler came to Auburn and Skaneateles in 1857 to lecture on spiritualism and the rights of women. It was an odd time in America; depending upon one’s capacity for belief, it was possible to be a spiritualist, abolitionist, phrenologist and woman’s rights activist all at the same time. A lecturer on any of these topics could pack a hall with listeners and make quite a bit of money by touring.

In Tyler’s case, spiritualism was window-dressing. He billed himself as a “trance medium,” but shortly after his arrival he was being described as an “egregious blockhead,” “humbug,” “despicable villain,” “sensualist” and a “festering mass of moral corruption.”

It would appear that Tyler’s modus operandi was to impress his listeners with the supernatural, then glide into a discussion of the rights of women and show that marriage was an institution designed to reduce a woman to slavery, when actually a woman should be a man’s equal and free to have sex with a charismatic man like E.S. Tyler.

In Skaneateles, he lodged with the family of Dr. Harlow Lewis, complained of illness, and was nursed by Mrs. (Mary) Lewis. In later divorce proceedings, Dr. Lewis said that Tyler “received from Mrs. Lewis attentions that no woman could, with propriety, render to any man but her husband.”

In September of 1857, Mrs. Lewis was off with Tyler to a “Free Lovers Convention” in Berlin Heights, Ohio. Also that month, letters were published in the Auburn newspapers stating that Tyler had a wife and four children in Farmington, Illinois. He had been expelled from two different Methodist churches, and the Odd Fellows lodge, for improper familiarities with an “adopted daughter” and then with a prostitute he had brought home to “reform.” After the reformed prostitute began to exhibit “the best evidence for having had illicit intercourse with Tyler,” he took her to Kansas. Returning alone, he lectured on that state’s struggle against slavery and collected funds for “Bleeding Kansas.” It was doubtful, however, that he’d be taking the funds to Kansas, as he was wanted by the authorities there.

When Tyler and Mrs. Lewis returned to Skaneateles from Ohio, they asked Dr. Lewis for $300 with which to buy a “water-cure” in Berlin Heights, “the best investment he could make.” Mrs. Lewis then left her husband and three sons (George, Sanford and Otis) and returned with Mr. Tyler to Berlin Heights.

When Dr. Lewis followed, he discovered that his investment was in fact a “Free Love Hotel.” He appealed to the local authorities in Berlin Heights for help in extracting Mrs. Lewis from the clutches of Mr. Tyler. The authorities obliged by arresting all seven tenants of the hotel, including Tyler and Mrs. Lewis, on charges of adultery and fornication, and conveyed them to the nearest courtroom, in Sandusky. At the arraignment, two of the women wore bloomers and “avowed their repudiation of the legality of marriage, and the right of affinnitive or attractional cohabitation.” Mrs. Lewis, on the other hand, appeared to have been weeping.

At the trial the next day, all were convicted, but released when they agreed to post bail and leave the county. Mrs. Lewis departed with her husband and father. “The whole colony is broken up,” the newspaper claimed. Two weeks after the trial, Dr. Lewis filed for divorce. The Sandusky Register noted, “He looks, acts and talks like a man upon whom a heavy burden has fallen.”

The final chapter appeared in January of 1858 in the Auburn Advertiser:

“E S. Tyler, the free love villain, has left Skaneateles in company with his leman, Mrs. Lewis, for a lecturing tour through the East. He leaves the husband of Mrs. Lewis insane, under the care of a guardian. He will pollute every town he enters, and damn every community he visits. Eastern editors will do well to post him. Tyler is a man six feet in height, thick shoulders, long hair and very long whiskers; always-wears a heavy gold chain dangling across his breast — He assumes meekness and piety, carries a pistol, and is the most arrant knave and coward in existence. Look out for him! He will lecture on spiritualism, free love, or Kansas.”

And so E.S. Tyler slithered from our midst.

* * *

Note: “Leman” is a medieval term for mistress; I had to look it up.

Sources: “E.S. Tyler – Some Ugly Facts” Auburn Daily American, September 18, 1857; “Berlin Free Lovers Arrested” Buffalo Courier, November 29, 1857; “The Free-Love Trials at Sandusky” New York Daily Tribune, Dec. 1, 1857; “A ‘Free-Love’ Development” The New York Times (quoting the Sandusky Register) November 28, 1857; “Parting Salute – Post Him!” the Auburn Advertiser quoted in the Putnam County Courier, January 12, 1858

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