The Spook Priestess Swindler

A sketch of George Sherwood c. 1895. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Those People from Chicago

Joining a nationwide trend, the Sherwoods, particularly Emeline, became interested in spiritualism. (The root of their particular interest may stem from their grief at the early loss of their only son.) Mrs. Sherwood traveled to Chicago in the early 1890s to a “spiritualist camp meeting” and became friendly with a forty-year-old “trance medium” named Jennie Moore. At the time, Mrs. Sherwood was a rich woman and an obviously attractive mark. She invited the medium to visit Duluth, and Moore gave séances in the Sherwood home. These séances became a gathering place for Duluth’s spiritualists.

This sojourn came at an opportune time for Jennie Moore. In fact, it is probable that the sympathetic Mrs. Sherwood was helping the medium escape “religious persecution” by the Chicago police.

In the first half of 1892, Moore and a female partner were repeatedly arrested for various offenses. The Chicago Daily Inter Ocean called Mrs. Moore the “spook priestess,” a plumber’s wife by day and medium by night. The newspaper reported that, in her court appearance, Moore was “richly clad in furs and satin,” had “dodged all the important questions,” and claimed to have been conversant with the spirit world since she was a young girl in Minnesota.

Moore was reported to the police by one of her clients, who accused her of being a fake. According to testimony, she would gather her audience in a darkened room lit by a single blue light. At one end of the room was a cabinet. In a trance, Moore would enter the cabinet and “materialize” as a spirit. Several of her devoted followers claimed to have seen her transform into their dead loved ones. They were especially convinced of the genuineness of this experience because the “spirits” sometimes spoke in foreign languages.

The first time the police arrested Moore, it was in a sting operation during a gathering. An audience member was talking with his “dead daughter”—a ghostly figure in the cabinet—when she suddenly said, “The armed men with stars are here; you had better be careful; the officers will get you.” The plain-clothed officers sprung at the cabinet, but some members of the audience tackled them, which was apparently enough of a diversion for Moore to escape from the cabinet. When the lights came on, she had mysteriously reappeared amongst the audience, and though the detectives searched high and low, they could not find any evidence of the masks, whiskers, or costumes that would serve as evidence of her fraud.

In the end, Moore was let go on a technicality: the arrest warrant was issued on a Sunday, which was apparently against the law. Soon after, she was re-arrested on the charge of “keeping a place of amusement without a license.” As this trial dragged on, she was quoted:

“Three petty lawyers who want a little cheap notoriety are responsible for all this trouble, but they have had their trouble for nothing. Why, there is no fraud about my business as they allege. I run a legitimate spirit hall, and nobody can say anything to the contrary. There were no wigs or other paraphernalia found in my cabinet when the police burst it in and furthermore we made no resistance until they did that.”

In this second trial, witnesses reported that they could recognize Moore’s own features in the “materialized spirits” in the cabinet. Moore’s main defense was that the meeting was a religious gathering, but one of the witnesses said, “It was no more religious than a brace faro game. Why it was the rankest show of the kind I have ever seen. The whiskers worn by Mrs. Moore didn’t fit her and kept coming part way off when she nodded her head!” She was convicted and fined $200.

In 1893, Mrs. Sherwood became ill and went to Chicago to stay with Moore for “treatment.” She fairly well recovered and returned to Duluth, but not before the medium warned her she would die in two months. When Sherwood relapsed, Moore came to Duluth to nurse her. Moore’s patroness was soon dead, purportedly within the two-month deadline.

Afterward, some of Emeline’s family members contacted Mr. Sherwood to retrieve some letters of sentimental value, but the widower told them that immediately upon Mrs. Sherwood’s death, he and Mrs. Moore had sat up all night burning her personal papers, except those that were “necessary.” Though these relatives had been told there was a more recent will, only one from 1881 was found, and it left her husband her entire fortune, around $100,000 (akin to $2.6 million in today’s money).

In the years after Emeline’s death, the Sherwood home at 309 West Second Street continued to host Jennie Moore’s séances. While the medium made visits to San Francisco, where she advertised herself as “Rev. Jennie Moore, whose fame as a materializing medium astounded the courts of Chicago,” Moore and her husband essentially moved in with George.

A postcard showing the Free Cliff Museum in Santa Cruz, California, owned and operated by Jennie and John A. Moore after the couple moved to California from Duluth with George W. Sherwood circa 1900. Sherwood’s fortune financed the venture, but it was not a long-standing success. (Image: Public Domain)

During the séances, the dead Mrs. Sherwood would supposedly “materialize” in the cabinet to give her husband direction regarding his business affairs. Soon, mortgages were taken out on the Sherwood properties and Mrs. Moore became the sole owner of the Sherwood residence. In 1900, “Emeline” told the captain to sell all his worldly goods and leave Duluth at once, which he did, moving to Santa Cruz, California, with Moore and her husband. The remaining real estate was sold very quickly at severe losses.

Before he left town, Sherwood told his extended family that if he died in California, he didn’t want his body returned to Duluth, despite the expensive family monument waiting for him at Forest Hill Cemetery. In late May 1902, Sherwood’s family in Duluth was suddenly notified that an unknown man and woman had presented themselves at a San Francisco bank with a will declaring them the beneficiaries of the remaining $14,000 in Sherwood’s account. Sherwood’s family was surprised that they’d received no notice of the old man’s death, but in the end didn’t dispute the Moores’ claim, magnanimously declaring that “the care Mrs. Moore gave him was a boon to him” in his lonely old age.

Captain George W. Sherwood would have been 72 years old. Despite extensive searches, no obituary notice or official California death record appears to exist telling where, when, and how he died.

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Story by Heidi Bakk-Hansen. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Heidi Bakk-Hansen.