Dead... And Not So Dead > The Dead and the Undead

Turning table


Mackenzie King's crystal ball sits on the piano of his library, but don't leap to any conclusions. The prime minister of Canada did not use a crystal ball to consult the spirits.

"Mr. King," explained my guide, Marjolene Alie, "did table-rapping."

She pulled open the door to what had been an oversized closet.

"This is the room where he did his seances. Now it's our air conditioning system."

William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada's leader during World War II, would retire to this room with a few friends, notably a socialite named Joan Patteson. There, in the darkness of a second-floor closet, King conversed with his dead mother and his brother, Max, chatted with his grandfather and occasionally took advice from his predecessor as party leader, Sir Wilfrid Laurier. He would set up a small wooden table and wait for the summoned ghost to rap on it as a signal to begin.

King did table-rapping. The crystal ball was just a gift from a superstitious friend.

On trips to his country estate, Kingsmere, on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River, King would have the seance table brought along. It was at Kingsmere that King had workmen build a set of ruins from scratch, an act for which he never offered a cogent explanation.

King's diaries, which his butler could not bring himself to destroy after his boss died in 1950, are filled with the sorts of things which would today bring down a government or prevent one from ever forming.

His entry for Feb. 26, 1932, is illustrative:

"We all came upstairs and Joan waited in the library while I had 'conversations' with dear mother and Max, Senator Cox, Sir Wilfrid & grandfather, then Joan came in & the talks were with Isabel, Joan's little girl Nancy, her mother."

King consulted spirits on sundry matters. In the election of 1935, which returned him to power, he took seriously a vision of Lord Oxford giving him advice that found its way into a radio speech. In 1944 he was visited by Sir Wilfrid, his mentor, who had died in 1919. After decoding the advice, King assumed it was about whether to reinstate conscription.

It is unnerving, in retrospect, to think that the leader of a nation just coming into its own in the world, talked to ghosts and made a significant distinction between "visions" and mere dreams. King seemed to know as much. He left instructions that his diaries were to be burned, but his butler read them and they are now archived.

Statesmanship is populated with illustrious weirdos. William Gladstone, prime minister of Britain in the 19th century, prowled the London streets lecturing the prostitutes, then went home and beat himself with a whip. John Kennedy and his wife celebrated the night of the 1960 West Virginia primary by taking in a porno flick. Ronald Reagan insisted that the address of his post-presidential home in Los Angeles be changed from 666 St. Cloud Drive to 668, doubtless forcing the devil to move.

King's occult habits did not undermine him for a few reasons. Spiritualism -- meaning a belief in conversing with the dead -- was a popular belief at the start of the 20th century. But more importantly, King was able to keep his personal silliness personal.

"Private life was really private," said Marjolene. "They didn't have a National Enquirer."

It no longer requires a National Enquirer to undermine the great for their oddities. If John Kennedy had run in the West Virginia primary of 1992 or Gladstone had run for mayor of New York, the uproar would have rendered them unserious at best, deviant at worst, unelectable at all.

Visitors to Laurier House (Sir Wilfrid's widow willed the home to King) rush these days to get a peek at the crystal ball that, while never used, symbolizes the very personal weirdness of Mackenzie King. Had his spiritualism been broadcast generally, he might have found himself unelectable to leadership and Canada could have gone through the war years under the mastery of Robert Bennett, a man of no superstitions but with less grasp of reality than King.

At the depths of the Great Depression, when Canadians in the west were eating weeds, Bennett issued a Thanksgiving proclamation urging his penniless countrymen to renew their loans to the country. He told traveling salesmen to "sound a note of confidence in all your contacts." He did so from London. Better a man who talked to another world than one who seemed to reside there.

Because every religion begins as a blasphemy of its predecessor, and every new belief system is condemned for its novelty, leaders tend to hew to convention. But because it is easier to grasp the silliness of a seance than to tell whether a tariff helps or hurts the unemployed, political approval now depends on seeming innocuous. Because privacy isn't what it used to be, only the most conventional of superstitions will be allowed, and only the sins the rest of us will admit to can possibly be committed by those who want to lead.

At least that's what the spirit of the times tells me.


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