Ozark Spiritism: The Stringfellow House

Here in Fayetteville, Arkansas, there’s an otherwise unassuming Victorian home over in the Historic District that some know as the “Stringfellow House” but few are aware of the full tale of the Stringfellow family. More information about the family can be found in Stephen Chism’s book, The Afterlife of Leslie Stringfellow: A Nineteenth-Century Southern Family’s Experiences with Spiritualism. It’s a fascinating story that I was very surprised to read when I found Chism’s book in the library one day. I will try and get the details as close to accurate as possible.

The Stringfellow family wasn’t originally from Fayetteville, but moved here from Texas in 1910 when their adopted daughter, Lessie, married a pharmacist name James Read who thought business would be better in Arkansas. At this point, Henry Stringfellow and his wife Alice had been communicating with the spirit of their son Leslie since his death in 1886. These nightly sessions with the planchette remained a secret known only to the family until around about 1919 when Lessie (born Mabel, but whose name was changed to be closer to that of her spirit brother) worked with her elderly mother to find a publisher for these remarkable letters from the afterlife.

Lessie Stringfellow Read was famous across Northwest Arkansas in her own right. Few knew about her connection to spiritualism, but she was widely known as an active member in the women’s suffrage movement, founder of the Washington County Women’s Suffrage Association, and editor of the Fayetteville Democrat for many years. More information about this amazing woman can be found in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

Lessie and her mother spent years trying to find a publisher for their manuscripts. Through various channels within the world of spiritualism they happened to get into contact with none other that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, himself a spiritualist. Doyle agreed to read their manuscript, now titled, Leslie’s Letters to His Mother: Being a Collection of Messages Received by Henry Martyn Stringfellow and Alice Johnston Stringfellow, His Wife, Through the Medium of the Planchette in the Form Known to Psychology As Automatic Writing, in the Privacy of Their Own Home, and Never Before Published in Any Form. He was hesitant at first, having received many manuscripts like this one, most of which offered no new insights on the subject. He wrote to Lessie and Alice telling them that if they could send the spirit of Leslie to speak with the spirit of Raymond Lodge (the dead son of Sir Oliver Lodge, a famous English spiritualist) and have Raymond communicate with his own deceased son Kingsley, he would be much more convinced of their work.

There are no letters talking any more about the experiment they were to hold, but in subsequent communications, Doyle speaks as though he is indeed convinced of Lessie and Alice’s work. He then goes on communicating with the women for quite some time after this and eventually does publish their work. Only a few copies remain of this limited run of books. One is in Special Collections at the University of Arkansas.

The Stringfellow house continued to be a gathering place for spiritualists and other occult groups for many years until Lessie’s death in 1971. Some say the place is still haunted by the spirits of those summoned by the family and their acquaintances.

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