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November 4, 2011

Thomas and Mary Gove Nichols had managed to defeat Horace Mann at his own game—the war of words—and by early 1857 he represented a distinct minority opinion on the subject of whether they should be permitted to remain in Yellow Springs or not. Despite their victory, however,  before the season was out they would suspend operation of the Memnonia Institute, renounce their long held belief in free love, leave town and, ultimately, the country, never to return.

Spiritualism, the practice of communicating with the spirit world, would factor largely in these seemingly startling developments. Although the criticisms of Mann and Antioch College printed in Nichols' Monthly had had their desired effect, it was the demonstrations of an accomplished spirit medium named JB Conklin, whose travels in the West were a regular feature in the Monthly, that had the greatest impact on the residents of Yellow Springs. Conklin's personal command of the spirit world won the Nichols' many converts, and the Monthly reported triumphantly that “even Mr. Mann thinks the subject worthy of attention.”

Spiritualism had strong connections to the reform movements of antebellum America, especially those advocating rights for women, for medium and “trance lecturer” were among the few acceptable public roles women could play at the time. Herself a medium, Mrs. Nichols regularly conducted seances at Memnonia. According to Nichols' Monthly, at one session she connected with a spirit claiming to be a Jesuit who instructed her to examine Jesuitism. She would later be visited by the spirits of St. Ignatius Loyola (founder of the Society of Jesuits) and St. Francis Xavier (one of its founding members), both of whom reinforced the notion that she and her husband should learn the doctrines of the Catholic Church.

Since they had already embraced the healing power of water, the concept of baptism especially resonated with them, and in March 1857, they presented themselves to the Rector of St. Xavier College of Cincinnati, today Xavier University, for baptism. Converting free-love reformers of their notoriety amounted to something of a coup, and contrary to its editorial policy, the event was published in the weekly newspaper of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, The Catholic Telegraph and Advocate. The Telegraph's account was picked up across the country, and syndicated in such august dailies as the following appearance in Horace Greeley's New York Tribune.

In 1861 Thomas and Mary Nichols left the United States for England, where they would spend the rest of their lives writing and lecturing. With the outbreak of the American Civil War came a wave of mob violence against outspoken Northern Democrats such as Thomas, who were now seen as potentially disloyal to the Union. As Jean Silver-Isenstadt concluded in her excellent biography Shameless: the Visionary Life of Mary Gove Nichols, Thomas had lost all appetite for making personal enemies.


From The New York Daily Tribune, 7 April 1857:

FREE LOVERS CONVERTED TO CATHOLICISM--We learn from The Catholic Telegraph and Advocate of the 4th inst., that Dr. T.L. Nichols and Mary Gove Nichols, of Free-Love notoriety, were baptised on last Sunday afternoon, in St. Xavier Church, Sycamore street, Cincinnati, by the Rev. Father Oakley, Rector of the College, having been duly converted to the Catholic faith. With them were also baptized a daughter of Mrs. Nichols by a former husband, and a Miss Hopkins, of the Yellow Springs institution.

From the following paragraph in The Telegraph, it appears that the spirits were the instruments that effected these wonderful conversions:

“It is not a little remarkable that on either side of the Atlantic, at the same time, the spirits have advised their mediums, Mr. Hume, at Paris, and Dr. Nichols and family here, to seek salvation through the Church. If they are good spirits, we can easily see the motives of this advice; if bad ones, they are like those who went out of the possessed, as we read in the Gospel, confessing Jesus Christ.”

Dr. Nichols, in the name of himself and his wife, has written a retraction of his Free-Love and Infidel teachings, in a letter to Archbishop Purcell, which is printed. The [pith] of the document is in the paragraph following:

“In the infinite mercy of Almighty God, we have been led, by what has seemed to us the direct and miraculous interposition of the Holy Spirit and by the blessed teachings of St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Francis Xavier, to the renunciation of infidelity, and to the humble acceptance of the faith and guidance of the Church. In deep humility and contrition, we submit ourselves to her divine order; we accept what she teaches, and we repudiate and condemn what she condemns. Whatever, in our writings and teachings, and in our lives, has been contrary to the doctrines, morality, and discipline of the Holy Catholic Church, we wish to retract and repudiate, and were it possible, to atone for.”