In a few days, Halloween will roll through the city, with the trick-or-treating gaggle of supermen, frankensteins, skeletons and witches roaming the streets. There will also be a fair amount of ghosts and ghouls among them. The gossamer-looking ghosts will be swaying by the front porches and windows even past October 31st, until the obligatory turkeys and pilgrims will replace them.
Brooklyn loves a good ghost story and is protective of several such legends. All Brooklyn ghost hunters know of the haunted apartment on the corner of State and Clinton once occupied by none other than H.P. Lovecraft, and the Brooklyn Naval Hospital is positively teeming with ghosts, not to mention the Green-Wood Cemetery which offers ghost tours to all willing to be spooked.
But none of the ghosts that ever graced Brooklyn with their "presence" had so prominent a progenitor as that of Henry Ward Beecher himself. Beecher is one of the best known and most celebrated Brooklynites of all time. The first preacher of Plymouth Church served his congregation for forty years, and in the course of his long public life he certainly had his fair share of controversy and scandal, but they had to do with affairs of a more earthly nature such as adultery and gluttony. Still, Henry Ward Beecher is mostly remembered for social activism, his long ministerial service and abolitionism. He masterminded famous “slave auctions” during which the public donated money and valuables to secure the freedom of several enslaved women and girls.
How did this man who spent his lifetime in service of God get ensnared in these dark matters?
Enter Dr. Isaac K. Funk.
Dr. Isaac Kaufmann Funk was the founder of Funk & Wagnalls publishing company, famous for its dictionaries, as well as a Lutheran minister, editor and lexicographer. Despite his religious occupation, he was drawn to spiritualism and psychic research and often attended “spiritualistic sittings.” In full fairness, as fashionable as Spiritism was at the time, there was always a healthy measure of skepticism about it. On May 7, 1904, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle published this snarky observation: “It seems a pity after all these years of scientific research, when the world appeared to be settling down into fairly ordered behavior and things by and large seemed to be going pretty well for humanity to be brought up with a round turn and told in effect that we 'incarnate men' are only very insignificant understudies to the real persons who are running things, the 'discarnate men' who hover about us in the soul 'ether', but occasionally see fit to show themselves.” Dr. I.K. Funk himself was initially doubtful and admitted that he was inclined to believe that mediumship was more likely “an excellent case of secondary personality, not of spirit control.”
However, “The Case of the Widow’s Mites” would have corrupted even the most cynical of minds.
During a séance, in 1903, the ghost of a John Rakestraw made an unexpected appearance and, speaking on behalf of the ghost of Henry Ward Beecher, accused I.K. Funk of harboring ancient coins, so-called “Widow’s Mites,” which he had borrowed years ago from Charles E. West and never returned.
Professor Charles Edwin West was a prominent educator, as well as an enthusiastic numismatist who amassed a valuable collection of ancient and rare coins. He was also a close and loyal friend of Henry Ward Beecher and remained by his side during the turbulent period of the Beecher-Tilton trial when many of the preacher’s friends turned away from him.
Funk and West, both friends of Beecher, surely belonged to the same society circles and knew each other rather well, since Mr. West agreed to lend Dr. Funk two “Widow’s mites” from his collection. Isaac Funk wanted to include the images of the coins as an illustrative plate for the dictionary which he was preparing at that time. Funk & Wagnalls' “Standard Dictionary of the English Language” was published in 1895. Professor Charles West passed away in 1900. Dr. Funk was positively sure that he had returned the coins to their rightful owner. That is ... until the ghost appeared and confronted him – on behalf of another ghost! He insisted that the coins were still in Dr. Funk’s possession and that Henry Ward Beecher wanted them returned where they belonged.
Isaac Funk was flabbergasted. He even confronted the spectral John Rakestraw and interrogated him on the details of the loan and the lender. And it looked like the ghost knew what he was talking about. He gave all the right answers, to Dr. Funk’s considerable dismay. He also mentioned that the coins were kept in an iron box.
Next day, back in the editorial office, Funk shared this encounter with his brother and colleagues. E. J. Wheeler, the editor of The Literary Digest, who decidedly did not believe in “spirit communications,” egged Dr. Funk on: “Now, find that coin. It would be a good test." They summoned the company cashier and asked him to search the strong box they kept in the office. Twenty minutes later, as Dr. Funk wrote in his 1904 book “The Widow’s Mite and Other Psychic Phenomena," “one of the assistants came into the office, and handed me an envelope in which were two 'Widow’s Mites'. The envelope had been found in a little drawer in a large iron safe under a lot of papers, where it had lain forgotten for a number of years.”
Just like “John Rakestraw” said.
The coins were promptly returned to Charles West’s heirs. Their return was gratefully acknowledged. And all that would be the end of this weird episode. However, the ghost of John Rakestraw warned that the return of the coins was not the ultimate objective. The main goal was to convince Dr. Funk that the netherworld existed and wanted to stay in touch.
Sure enough, a few weeks later, Dr. Funk was urgently summoned to another séance: the spirit of the great preacher himself demanded the presence of his old friend. This time, it was not just a message communicated through a medium; it was a full-on apparition, “wonderfully life-like.” Henry Ward Beecher’s spectral incarnation showed his face and torso through open curtains. “I am glad to talk to you in this way. I and others here wish you to organize on your side, and we shall organize on our side, for an effort to bring about conditions that will make it easy for us to come in a visible form and talk to you face to face. If we shall be able to do this, it will greatly tend to bring to end all thought of materialism on earth, and it will lift the world to a much higher plane of thought and action.”
(Ah, Mr. Beecher, ever the social activist….)
After awhile, “The image, or whatever it was, slowly sank to the floor and then disappeared. Before it sank, a hand was placed upon my shoulder. The hand was substantial – very human.”
The contemporaries of Dr. Funk remarked on many occasions that the good man was rather gullible, and there were documented cases that he was duped by seers and other spiritualists. However, the “Case of the Widow’s Mites” remains unexpained.
So next time you stroll by Henry Ward Beecher’s statue on Cadman Plaza, ask yourselves if you owe anything to anyone, or else Mr. Beecher may dispatch his emissaries to scare you into action.