The Materialization of John Newbegin

On December 19, 1874 a long letter appeared on the front page of the New York Sun. The letter, according to the editor of the Sun, was a communication from a businessman who lived in the small community of Pocock Island, located seventeen miles off the coast of Maine. This businessman had a very unusual tale to relate.

Apparently a few months earlier, in August, 1874, a heavy gale had hit the coast of Maine. The members of the Naugatuck Yacht Club, who were returning from a summer cruise, were forced to seek shelter on Pocock Island. One of the members of the Naugatuck Yacht Club was Mr. E________, a famous medium. To pass the time while they waited for the storm to blow over, Mr. E________ announced that he would lead a seance in the town's schoolhouse, and that all the townsfolk were invited to attend.

Everyone gathered in the schoolhouse. The lights were dimmed, and the seance began. Mr. E________ then announced that he would cause spirits to materialize in the large wooden cabinet that stood in the schoolroom. Some rattling was heard from the cabinet, and then a succession of spirits opened the cabinet doors and stepped forth. First came an Indian chief, then a small child, next a French canadian, and finally a fat man who identified himself as the first governor of Maine. Once they had emerged, these figures all then returned to the cabinet and disappeared inside of it, never to be seen again.

Mr. E________ lowered the lights some more, and announced that he would try to summon one more spirit. More rattling was heard, and then a figure emerged clutching a dead fish in his hand. Upon seeing the figure all the townsfolk screamed and rushed out of the building. They had recognized the fish-clutching spirit as John Newbegin, a local resident who had died four years earlier.

In life Newbegin had been a rather inconsequential, unambitious man. He had lived a solitary, eccentric life as a fisherman. Many townsfolk had suspected that he was insane. He had drunk himself to death one day and had been buried anonymously in a pauper's grave. Now, however, Newbegin walked forthrightly over to the club members, turned up the kerosene light, sat down in a chair beside them, and announced that he liked being materialized and proposed to remain that way.

And so he did. He refused to walk back into the cabinet from which he had emerged. Instead he resumed his previous life as a fisherman. The members of the Naugatuck Yacht club all left the next day, suspecting that Newbegin was a fraud hired by Mr. E________. But the residents of Pocock Island knew that it was really John Newbegin, and so they found themselves having to adjust to life with a materialized spirit living in their midst.

The businessman who wrote the letter to the Sun decided to interview Newbegin, and this is what he wrote about that experience: "I found him affable and even communicative. He is perfectly aware of his doubtful status as a being, but hopes that at some future time there may be legislation that shall correctly define his position and the position of any spirit who may follow him into the material world."

Apparently Newbegin was glad to be alive again, but he refused to discuss what being dead had been like. He also regretted having wasted his earlier life, and resolved to stop drinking and to earn the respect of his fellow islanders. But he was somewhat reluctant to shoulder the burden of his previous debts. The letter writer stated that, "Mr. John Newbegin is a most respectable citizen (if a dead man can be a citizen) and has announced his intention of running for the next Legislature." The letter then concluded by theorizing that Newbegin was just the first of a possible flood of immigrants from the spirit world.

This letter was widely reprinted, without any indication that it wasn't true (though doubtless many suspected that it wasn't entirely on the level). But the letter wasn't written by a businessman from Pocock Island at all. It had been composed by an aspiring young journalist named Edward P. Mitchell. Mitchell had been inspired to write the letter after witnessing a seance in Boston. The editor of the Sun, in turn, was so impressed by Mitchell's letter that he gave him a job on his staff.

This letter was not the only hoax that the Sun ever published. In fact, the New York Sun occupies a prominent place in the history of hoaxing. Some of its other, more famous hoaxes include the Great Moon Hoax of 1835 and the Great Balloon Hoax of 1844.

  • Fred Fedler. Media Hoaxes. p.165-167.