Menopause as Crisis: Gender and the Spiritualist Body

Carol Faulkner

Andrew Jackson Davis, Clairvoyant Physician

As a young, and increasingly famous, clairvoyant, eighteen-year-old Andrew Jackson Davis learned how to heal. Though he had little formal education, he communicated with the ancient Greek physician Galen (d. circa 200 AD) while in a trance state. From Galen, Davis learned physiology, medicine, and how to treat diseases with a rod. Renouncing any economic motives, he decided to use his powers to help others, writing "I seemed to be a sort of a connecting link between the patient's disease and its exact counterpart (or remedy) in the constitution of external Nature" (From The Magic Staff, p. 252). Indeed, Davis's letters to his friend, follower, and benefactor, William Green Jr., in Yale University's Manuscripts and Archives, are filled with medical advice. In many of the letters, Davis asks Green for money (on June 5, 1848, he assured Green, "If ever it is within my power to reciprocate benevolence and duty it will be done according to my predominating affection"), but he also prescribed homeopathic remedies and coached William's wife Cornelia as she went through menopause, or what Davis called "the crisis." To be clear, Cornelia's health problems were much more serious than Davis realized. Did he take advantage of the Greens? Maybe. But his letters offer a tantalizing peak at Cornelia's physical and emotional experience, albeit from a male perspective.

Historical experiences of menopause are hard to find. When suffragist Lucy Stone went through menopause at age 46, she was severely depressed, but such evidence about nineteenth-century women is rare.* Judith Houck's book, Hot and Bothered: Women, Medicine, and Menopause in Modern America, examines the medicalization of menopause over the course of the twentieth century, including the adoption of hormone therapy, and the way women (particularly feminists) and their doctors redefined the physiological stage. At the end of the nineteenth century, however, doctors viewed menopause as having no "medical consequence." When women did consult doctors about hot flashes and other symptoms, "Physicians generally treated these patients with education and reassurance, supplemented, perhaps, with prescriptions for bland food, sensible fashions (no corsets), and temperate living" (p. 5-6).  Yet in a society that valued women as wives and mothers, menopause raised questions about "the nature of women" and the "breadth of women's roles" (p. 3).

Even as a supporter of women's rights, Andrew Jackson Davis's treatment of Cornelia Green was based on his belief in the biological and moral differences (harmonious ones) between women and men. Beginning in 1850, from his home in Hartford, Connecticut, Davis put himself in a trance state in order to examine Green in her home in Boonton, New Jersey. In a document titled "Mrs. Green's Prescription," Davis advised taking a mixture of cramp bark, valerian, sage, elecompane, squaw bine, brandy, and molasses by teaspoon six times a day. To improve her bowel function, he recommended sage and mint tea as well as a cold flax seed poultice.  In another paper titled "Cornelia's Physical Condition," he attributed her problems to her stomach and "organs of reproduction" (surprise!). Davis advised rest, baths, and riding, but cautioned against long walks. By July 1851, Davis optimistically concluded that Cornelia's "change of life" would resolve by the fall. Cornelia did not improve, and Davis suggested that William carry her into the hall twice a day for a change of scene. He also prescribed belladonna and iron. She died later that year.

In "Cornelia's Physical Condition," Davis wrote that her crisis was aggravated by "mental and spiritual disturbances." Though Davis did not go into detail, he may have referred to the Greens' tumultuous religious search that culminated in their embrace of Spiritualism. In the early 1830s, the Greens had been respectable middle-class evangelicals. William Green Jr. was a friend of the Tappan brothers and a member of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Cornelia Green was a member of the New York Female Moral Reform Society. By the end of the decade, they had severed these ties in favor of perfectionism.** In the 1840s, impressed with Davis's clairvoyant ability, the Greens placed their spirits and bodies into his care. I have been unable to find any mention of a subsequent religious crisis, though Davis comments on Cornelia's morbid concern for her adult children. While the Greens had made these religious choices together, Davis assumed they had been more "disturbing" to Cornelia. He connected her spiritual state with her gendered body. At the end of the document, he addressed the former: "Let us Love God and Be Happy."

Andrew Jackson Davis diagnosed Cornelia's illness as a result of a physiological change, compounded by spiritual anxiety about death and motherhood. Though she probably would have received the same tips--at least for her menopausal symptoms--from a trained physician, Davis may have been more sensitive to Cornelia's mental state. I wish had some evidence of Cornelia's perspective. Did she share her husband's devotion to Andrew Jackson Davis? Did she know something else was wrong with her? Did she want to consult other medical or spiritual experts? After her death, Davis and William Green continued their friendship. Davis wrote Green with medical advice, especially for his bowels, and Davis made several unsuccessful attempts to contact Cornelia in the spirit world. After Green's death, Davis sought new legitimacy for his medical skills, founding and enrolling in a short-lived, unaccredited medical college in New York City (discussed in his second memoir Beyond the Valley). Even without the respect of the medical profession, Davis viewed himself as a physician. And ultimately, like many nineteenth-century doctors, Davis saw menopause as another example of women's emotional and physical delicacy. 

 * See Leslie Wheeler, Loving Warriors, p. 189. Stone's physical and psychological response to menopause must have been strong, as even Elizabeth Cady Stanton (p. 257) commented on it.
**For discussion of the Greens see Anne Boylan's essential The Origins of Women's Activism, p. 45-46.


Popular Posts