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Spiritualism & The Morris Pratt Institute

Updated: Jul 17, 2023

Unpublished paper given October, 2011 in Whitewater

One of the most fascinating institutions of historic Whitewater was the Morris Pratt Institute, a school for studying spiritualism, a belief-system that became very popular in the nineteenth century. Spiritualism had, among its other beliefs, that people could contact the spirits of the dead to gain further understanding of God and heaven. This institution, which operated between 1889 and the 1930s, is, I believe, the foundation for most of the supernatural stories that have fascinated Whitewater’s citizens for many years. Many of these stories of ghosts, witches, haunted cemeteries and the like many have come out of a misunderstanding of spiritualism and spiritualists. The true story of spiritualists in Whitewater is, in my opinion, a fascinating part of the city’s history and needs no embellishment.

Morris Pratt established an institute or “college” for spiritualist study in 1889 in Whitewater. He operated the institute until 1902, when he died. The institute lived on into the 1930s when classes ended, but the organization remained active and in 1946, it was moved to Milwaukee, where it still exists today. Now, these facts, in and of themselves, are not very interesting, but when put into the context of what Spiritualism is all about, what Morris Pratt accomplished, and how Spiritualism was an important part of nineteenth century social history, you get a fascinating story, indeed.

So, what is Spiritualism? And what about Spiritualism so fascinated Americans in the nineteenth century. To understand Spiritualism, as practiced in Morris Pratt’s time, we have to look at how Spiritualism began. Humans, of course, have had a long history of believing in spirits and a spirit world. And the desire to communicate with spirits has always been of interest. But during the mid-nineteenth century, this interest suddenly became a popular movement known as Spiritualism that ranged from parlor-room séances and table tilting to a spirit-centered system of religious belief and practice. Between the late 1840s and around 1920, the belief in and practice of Spiritualism was a phenomenon in the United States, particularly in the northeast and the Midwest. This phenomenon peaked in the late nineteenth century, then gradually declined. It was during the heyday of Spiritualism that Morris Pratt founded his institute.

Historians often trace “Modern Spiritualism,” as the movement is called, back to the mid-1700s and Emmanuel Swedenborg. A Swedish intellectual, Swedenborg was a scientist, inventor, and successful businessman who, in 1744, reported having visions he said were from God, who told him to go out and explain the real meaning of the Scriptures to the world, as defined by the “spirits” he was seeing. He began to nurture his visions by limiting his diet to coffee and sweets and staying in trances for hours. Until his death in 1772, Swedenborg spread his version of the bible and his beliefs.

One of his basic beliefs was that there was a connection between this world and the spirit world and that what we do on earth influences the spirits as well as what the spirits do in the spirit world influences living people. In order to see that connection, people must let go of all of their individual selves so that they can see or communicate through the wall that separates the earthly world from the spirit world.

After Swedenborg died, followers in England established a church based on his beliefs called the New Church. Followers in America established the Convention of the New Jerusalem in 1817. While individual Swedenborgian churches did not flourish in the United States, interest in the spirit world grew during the first half of the nineteenth century. This interest coincided with social, economic, and political changes occurring in the United States, particularly in the northeastern, most settled, part of the country.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, the generation that fought the Revolutionary War and founded the country was disappearing and many people thought that the values of the founding fathers were disappearing as well. Economically, the northeast was rapidly changing. Industrialization and economic competitiveness was changing the way people worked and bringing economic uncertainty. Changes in the economy were also felt socially, as factory development resulted in urbanization and the need for workers brought increased immigration, some of which included poorer classes of Europeans. Reform was in the air as the abolitionist and women’s rights movements were forming. The result was the proliferation of new ideas, particularly spiritual ideas.

Change was particularly active in upstate New York and resulted in such diverse activities as Joseph Smith’s revelations that resulted in the founding of the Mormon Church and the first women’s rights convention. It was probably no coincidence that an incident in upstate New York resulted in the proliferation of spiritualism. In another part of the country, the rappings of two teen-age girls may have been dismissed as a prank, but in the highly charged world of upstate New York, this incident resulted in the growth of a movement that would take much of the country by storm.

The incident that kick-started the rapid expansion of the spiritualist movement occurred in the village of Hydesville, in upper New York state. In 1847, John Fox, his wife Margaret, and their three daughters, Leah (16), Margaretta (14), and Kate (11) moved into a home in Hydesville that some in the community felt was haunted. In March of 1848, a loud knocking began in the middle of the night, knocking or rapping so loud that it disturbed the entire family. The rapping continued each night and the family could not determine its source. Finally, after several weeks of this activity, Kate spoke to the raps as if they were being made by a person. She asked that the raps mimic clapping once, then twice, then three times, and they did. A two raps for “yes” code was developed and Kate and Margaret began to “communicate” with whatever was making the rapping noises, presumably a spirit. According to the girls, the spirit had been a peddler who had been murdered for his money by previous occupants of the house and that he was buried in the cellar. Supposedly, John Fox and his neighbors found fragments of bone and hair buried in the cellar, and the story became a sensation in upstate New York and beyond.

Like the witch stories of Salem, Massachusetts a couple of hundred years before, the stories of Kate and Margaret Fox communicating with the dead through raps or knocking were not readily dismissed, especially after the master showman P. T. Barnum heard about the sisters and installed them as an attraction in his American Museum in downtown Manhattan. Famous people like author James Fenimore Cooper and journalist Horace Greeley came to see the girls and reported that through their communication with the spirit world via rapping sounds, the Fox sisters had accurately answered personal questions about dead relatives.

The Fox sisters went on to have a short-lived, but prominent, career giving lectures where they demonstrated communication with the spirit world via rapping sounds. Meanwhile, self-described mediums, fortune-tellers, and other people who claimed to have a contact with the spirit world soon set-up shop in most cities. A craze of table-tilting parties swept through society. At these mostly social events, a group sat around a pedestal table with their fingers just barely touching the table top and watched as the table tilted or wobbled, or in some cases, lifted off the ground.

The activities of the Fox sisters might have gone largely unnoticed or dismissed as the invention of young girls having a bit of fun if not for the mood of the society at that time. Rapid change, as described earlier, made people uneasy and interest in the spiritual world was high. One of the best selling books of 1848, the same year the Fox sisters began hearing strange rapping, was The Night Side of Nature, a volume of ghost stories by author Catherine Crowe, who stated that her tales were true accounts from friends, newspapers, books, letters, and diaries. She also challenged scientists to explore these stories, not to debunk them out of hand as was common in the scientific world at the time.

The mainstream religions of the time took a negative view of this interest in the spirit world, and, of course, ministers cautioned their members against such beliefs and practices. But organized religions’ disdain for Spiritualism’s ideas was too little, too late for many who became enthralled in the movement. Many Americans were looking for new answers and were rejecting the old answers they had heard for many years in their mainstream churches. If communicating with a deceased relative gave someone insight into the meaning of life when the minister’s weekly sermon did not, then why not embrace the new thinking of Spiritualism. Soon, intellectuals began to define a theology and practice for Spiritualism.

So, what did serious Spiritualists believe? First of all, they were not atheists; they believed in God and especially an afterlife. But, they believed in a distant type of God, one they could not reach directly. They believed they could understand God’s purpose for the world by communicating with spirits who lived on planes closer to God. They did not believe in traditional churches, but they did believe they were part of a larger social society and formed their own social structure.

Spiritualist doctrine was highly complicated. But there are a few basic beliefs that are readily understandable today. One of the most important beliefs was the existence of a spirit world. This spirit world existed within a series of circles or spheres. At the center was God and God emanated influences outward from the center of the universe through seven layers or circles. Six of the circles were spirit layers and the lowest layer consisted of the people living on earth. Each circular layer held spirits in higher and higher degrees of development and influences were passed from the higher to the lower layers. Souls initially entered the spirit layer at the same level of development they had attained on earth. Souls or spirits then gradually advanced into the higher circles toward “perfection,” or God, under the influences from higher spirits.

Spiritualists defined their beliefs using a scientific approach. They believed that the spirit world was subject to earth’s natural laws and was an orderly place. But they also believed that the spirit world operated in a way that helped shape the earthly world.

The mid-nineteenth century was a time when important scientific theories, particularly Darwin’s Origin of the Species in 1859, were introduced. By using scientific principles in their belief system, they were able to accept these new theories in a way mainstream religions were not, and even incorporate them into their belief system. They believed that science would help, not hinder, the exploration into the nature of the soul.

At the heart of their beliefs was the existence of people who could be spirit mediators. These people were important because contact with the spirits, for serious Spiritualists, went beyond just finding out if Uncle Joe had a message from the afterlife. In order to reach God, Spiritualists believed that one needed to go through the various layers of the spirit world. To Spiritualists, God was relatively remote—at the top layer of a seven layer spirit world. Spirits were responsible for the day-to-day maintenance of the physical, spiritual, and moral order of the world. So, if a Spiritualist wanted to understand his or her world, they needed to communicate with the spirit world, and it was understood that specially trained or gifted people could mediate this communication, people known as mediums.

The foundation of spiritualist practices was the “circle;” that is, a group of people that congregated frequently to communicate with spirits, usually with one or more mediums. Some groups also branched out, inviting people to conferences where members of the circles could share their stories of spirit communication and spiritualist philosophy. Spiritualists also offered public lecture series to promote spiritualism.

Of course, some groups were more serious than others and séances were held for entertainment value by non-serious participants. Some mediums were out-and-out frauds, as well. Some people were only interested in making a connection to lost relatives; gaining comfort from the idea they could get messages from beyond the grave. But serious Spiritualists saw their circles and séances as a form of religious practice, a sacred way of communicating with spirits in order to understand the universe. They followed strict rules for séances, such as sitting at equal distances around the table, joining hands, and singing spiritualist hymns. They demanded regular attendance at their séances and that participants be of a reverent state of mind. It is this type of spiritualist practice that Morris Pratt engaged in and that he attempted to foster with the institution he founded in Whitewater in 1889.

It is probably no surprise that Morris Pratt spent his formative years in upstate New York. He was born December 13, 1820. Like many Yankees in New England, Morris’ parents, Joseph and Clarissa Pratt, moved westward into upstate New York in 1831, when Morris was 11. When Morris was 20, in 1840, he migrated with many other upstate New Yorkers into Wisconsin, settling at Whitewater with his three brothers. The Pratt brothers soon earned enough money to buy land in the Town of Lima, then improved it into farms they resold. After about 10 years, each of the brothers settled on their own farms and Pratt married Mary Jane Austin.

During the late 1840s and 1850s, Pratt became interested in Spiritualism and began practicing it at a serious level. Reportedly in 1884, a medium advised him to invest in lands in far northern Wisconsin. It probably did not take a medium to encourage this investment. Northern Wisconsin was in the throes of a lumber boom and land speculators made good profits selling to lumber companies. Also, iron ore was being found in the far north. Pratt supposedly took the advice of the medium and invested in an iron ore mine. This mine proved to be extremely successful and Pratt made a considerable profit.

Reportedly he had promised that if he made a lot of money, he would invest it in the promotion and practice of Spiritualism. He kept his promise, using the profits from the sale of his mining stock to build what he called the “Temple of Science.” In April of 1888, Pratt began building a large structure at the Corner of Center and Third (now Fremont) Streets. In December of 1888, the building was nearing completion and the editor of the Whitewater Register got a grand tour.

Sitting on a tall stone foundation, the building rose three stories with the last story being a mansard roof in the Second Empire architectural style. The editor noted the “highly ornamented” double veranda on the front and smaller matching porch on the side wall. The building was lit by large windows, two of which were large plate glass windows (an innovation at the time) with decorative transoms. The editor noted that Pratt, himself, was the architect and contractor of the building.

The interior of the building was unusual. On the first floor there were two apartment suites flanking a central hallway. One of the apartments was to be occupied by Morris Pratt and his wife, Mary. At the back of the building was a large lecture room that featured a maple floor, low stage, and massive iron columns supporting the second floor, necessary due to the size of the lecture hall. The second floor had two large lecture rooms and the third floor had 12 dormitory rooms, six on each side of a long hallway.

During the time the building was constructed, apparently Morris Pratt was somewhat tight-lipped about its purpose, resulting in many rumors and stories circulating through the community. Pratt’s spiritualist beliefs may have been known in Whitewater and if not understood, may have given rise to much gossip. Even to the Register editor, Pratt was somewhat vague about the building, stating that he “hopes it may prove a useful factor in the education morally, mentally, scientifically, and philosophically of that class of society that needs it most.” The editor summarized as follows, “. . . let us give him the credit he deserves, of making a splendid improvement which adds to the beauty and the business of our city, and of having done it without a selfish motive.”

There were no more reports of Pratt’s new building in the newspaper until April of 1889, when the Register announced the opening and dedication of “M. Pratt’s Sanitarium and hall of Psychic science,” on April 26, 27, and 28. This announcement was not written by the editor of the Register but was a submission by the institution itself.

In the very next issue of the Register, there was a report on the dedication of the building and it was not a good one. Unlike the usual glowing reports of new enterprises in town, the dedication story was buried in the local news with a very short report. And, apparently, the editor did not like what he heard at the dedication ceremony. He was particularly critical of the main address by Mrs. A. H. Luther, a noted spiritualist from Indiana. Apparently, Mrs. Luther gave a speech outlining the faults of mainstream religion, as practiced by early settlers in New England, and how Spiritualism was a much better religious practice. The Register editor took offence and indicated that most of the audience did not agree with the speaker either.

Having not gotten off to a positive start in the community, apparently things remained tense for a while. In December of 1889, Pratt issued a challenge in the Register to clergy in the city, who may have been preaching against Spiritualism and Pratt, to debate religious issues. He went on to propose a debate topic, “Resolved that the so-called teachings of Jesus Christ, as found in the New Testament, are immoral in their tendencies.” No doubt the mainstream ministers in Whitewater did not jump to get into that debate. In January of 1890, Pratt again issued an invitation to come to his Temple of Science. This time he was a bit more friendly, inviting “both young and old, the president and professors of our schools, the clergy, lawyers, doctors, and business men to meet . . . for a social and intellectual feast, and if they see fit to lay out a plan for future work to build up and maintain a higher state of civilization.”

Other than these invitations, there is little in the newspaper for the first few years that suggests what things were happening in Pratt’s temple. The editor of the Register may not have been a supporter of the institution and did not wish to promote it in the newspaper, or Pratt may have kept most activities private. And, publications or other documents from the temple are not readily available. But, given the make-up of the building, it was most likely used primarily for lectures and meetings. It was not set up as a school or college at that time, but more as a place where people could come and hear spiritualists speak and, probably, where spiritualist circles could meet.

There was one exception when it was announced that W. R. Colby of Indiana, a speaker, medium, and slate-writer, was in town to hold a series of meetings, both public and private. Slate-writing was one of the methods some mediums used to communicate with spirits. They would hold slates up against the bottom of table tops or closed and writing would appear after a time. Like table tilting or raising, this method of communication during a séance was often exposed as fraudulent trickery.

Through the 1890s, Pratt’s Temple of Science operated continuously. One of the most popular of their activities was the Sunday evening lecture that was open to the public. Not everyone in the community understood what went on in Pratt’s Temple and some made fun of it, calling it “Pratt’s Folly,” or the “Spook’s Temple,” a nickname that continued well into the twentieth century.

By early 1902, Morris Pratt was 80 years old and his temple was at a crossroads. Pratt deeded the temple to the newly-formed Morris Pratt Institution Association, which made plans to turn the temple into a more formal spiritualist school, with not only classes on Spiritualism, but general education as well. However, there were issues in operating a school in the building and it was unclear if the community would support it. It was announced in early 1902 that the building might be sold and the school begun elsewhere.

In June of 1902, right before the directors of the Morris Pratt Institute association were to meet, Clara Stewart, the resident trustee, published a letter in the Register inviting the public to meetings to meet the directors of the association and to hear the proposed school’s purpose. She indicated that the school would have an academic course that would be suitable for the general public and needed to know if there was support from the public for such an institution.

In late June of 1902, the Register reported that the meeting of the Morris Pratt Institute trustees was very successful and that public interest was so high that the entire building was to be turned into a school. It was at this time that the building formally became the Morris Pratt Institute, a school that would provide not just training in Spiritualism, but also training in areas of interest to the general public.

Morris Pratt died just after his 81st birthday and his funeral was held on December 25, 1902. But his institute, only slightly changed from its original purpose, lived on for another 30 years. In a 1917 article in a business publication, a comprehensive review of the Institute and its coursework was given. It was one of the few articles that was neutral in describing the school and did not dwell on the oddity of the spiritualist studies.

A physical description of the school at that time showed the changes that had been made in the building since its first description in 1888. The third floor was still dormitory space, but part of the second floor was also used for student rooms, adding six more rooms to the original 12. The large lecture hall on the second floor was still used and was referred to as a chapel. Here was where Sunday evening services were held that were open to the public. The apartments of the first floor had been converted to an office, reception room, reading room, and classrooms. The lecture hall at the rear was still being used. A dining room was located in the basement along with a laundry and kitchen. Bathrooms had been added to each floor and the entire school building was lighted by electricity.

The full course of study at the institute consisted of two areas. The first area included general education classes such as grammar, rhetoric and composition, literature, history, geography, astronomy, oratory, psychology, math, and music. This course of study was typical of the general education offered at secondary schools throughout the country.

The second area of study was only open to those who were practicing spiritualists. This was the Spiritualism curriculum that included psychic research (study of the spirit world), comparative religion, evolution, and Bible study as it relates to the principles of Spiritualism.

Tuition at the institute was reasonable, $50 per year plus a room at $1.50-$2.00 per week. Only girls were allowed to board at the building while male students were boarded in private homes. Although it operated its general education program in a manner similar to a college program, it did not give degrees and likened itself to a high school or academy level program. Students taking both the general education and the spiritualist areas of study were not given degrees but would be well-versed in becoming a medium, lecturer, or worker in another capacity in the area of Spiritualist practices.

The purpose of the school, according to this article, was not just to train mediums, but to offer courses for all who sought self-improvement whether they were a Spiritualist or not. It is known that many members of the Whitewater community took classes at the Institute not to become mediums, but to benefit from their general education curriculum.

In the 1917 article, it was also reported that students came to the Morris Pratt Institute from all parts of the United States and that there were 25 pupils in the school at that time, most coming from the Midwest.

As stated earlier, other articles were written during the early 20th century regarding the Morris Pratt Institute. These articles generally played up the story of how Pratt made his money (based on a tip from a medium) and how the school was an oddity in educating Spiritualists and mediums.

The community also had mixed feelings about the Pratt Institute. On the one hand it was an educational institution that added to the city’s economy and was attended by some of its residents. But on the other hand, it was often the object of derision. It was said that students at the State Teachers College in town would attend the Sunday services strictly to make fun of the proceedings and the Spiritualist classes, not open to the public, remained the source of gossip and rumor.

When the Great Depression of the 1930s began, the Pratt Institute suffered. It could not attract as many students as in the past and was closed for a couple of years during this time. It did reopen in the late 1930s, but by 1940, it had closed for good. The structure of the institute remained intact and in 1946, a form of the institute reopened in Milwaukee, where it exists today.

But, once the school vacated the building, the rumors and stories of what took place there intensified. After being vacant for a few years, the building was purchased for use as a girls dormitory for the State Teachers College, probably in the late 1940s. Known as “College House,” the building was used until the first girls dorm was built on the college campus in the early 1950s. It was then, I believe that the real story of the Morris Pratt Institute became mixed with the imaginations of college students and the more outlandish rumors began. Just imagine 18 year old college students living in a building where there were regular séances held and all sorts of ghost stories were probably invented.

And, it is primarily the college students who have passed along and embellished the stories. Hardly a year goes by that the student newspaper, the Royal Purple, doesn’t run a story about Whitewater’s supposed occult practices, ghosts, and witches. This peaked a few years ago on the internet, with a proposed movie on the so-called witches of Whitewater.

The Morris Pratt Institute building was demolished in 1961 for the construction of a telephone company building and the stories and rumors that were attached to the old Pratt building seem to have moved to Whitewater’s water tower and cemeteries. This is typical of stories that are attached to old buildings. If the building is demolished, the stories need a new location and are often transferred to a building next door or down the street. It is definitely spookier to attach the stories to old cemeteries, including one right on campus, and to an old isolated structure, also conveniently near campus.

While the stories of Whitewater’s supernatural activity are entertaining, I invite people to look at the real story of the Spiritualists in Whitewater. They were not witches and did not worship Satan. Their séances were not meant to be occult practices but a sincere attempt to communicate with a spirit world they truly believed in. And, what Morris Pratt did in Whitewater was historically significant. He built a place for serious Spiritualist study, something unusual in the United States. By studying Spiritualism and Morris Pratt’s Temple of Science, we can learn a lot about an influential segment of nineteenth century American society and their attempt to discover new answers to the meaning of life.

*If using this article, please cite: Carol Lohry Cartwright, “Spiritualism & The Morris Pratt Institute,” 2011, Whitewater Historical Society website, Whitewater, WI.

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