William Lyon Mackenzie King served longer than anyone else as Prime Minister of Canada, over 21 years, in various stretches from 1921 to 1948. He was one of Canada’s most influential individuals and would lay the groundwork for Canada becoming a middle power and welfare state.
One thing many people know about him of course, was that he had an interest in the occult. In this episode, I am going to look at that interest. How it developed and how he used it through his life.
Throughout his life, King never married and did not have close family ties after the death of his mother. He was not particularly close with his siblings and he often kept himself at arm’s length from his colleagues. There are many reasons for this, likely the demands for his time and people always needing something from him. That is likely why he was so devoted to his dogs, three in all through his adult life, all named Pat. The dogs gave him affection and attention without ever needing anything from him in return.
Due to his lack of connection with others around him, it is possible this led him to become more interest in finding connections through the spiritual world. Highly devoted to his faith, he would begin to note the spiritual world more and more in his diary as he aged.
During the First World War, King would lose most of his family. His father, mother, brother, sister and a close friend all died. This would begin his move towards the spiritual to make sense of the loss that impacted him. The loss of his mother was particularly difficult. He was on the campaign trail in 1917 and was not by her bedside, something that would fill him with regret for much of his life.
His closest friend, Violet Markham, would call the mother fixation of King a tragedy, and she would write she hesitated to quote:
“Hold Mrs. King responsible for the cult into which her son’s love developed but in the jargon of the psychiatrists, it is undeniable that the mother-complex was a misfortune for Mackenzie King.”
Markham would blame this mother fixation for the fact that King never married.
In 1916, he would write of visiting the grave of his sister and father in Toronto quote:
“To me the spiritual presence of both Bell and himself was far more real than their graves which my eyes were witnessing.”
King truly believed his family was watching over him, a belief that only increased when his mother died. He would regularly see coincidences as a sign of their presence and he would interpret his dreams as messages from the beyond. This was highlighted when John Buchan, the Governor General of Canada, died suddenly in 1940.
One week after Buchan’s death on Feb. 18, 1940, King would attend church and find significance in a hymn, stated to be hymn 629. He felt that the hymn, titled Recover With The Lord, was a direct message from Buchan. On the page were the words “Faints to reach the land I love”, written to music. He would state in his diary quote:
“If it were not in the book before my eyes, I could not believe that this could possibly be true. Clearly it was to let me see that Buchan was sending me the message that his fainting had brought him into the bright inheritance of saints which are lying just above. If one asked oneself how could one friend let another understand the significance of his death from the hereafter, using only the materials of the earth for the purpose, I wonder if so much could be placed in so small a place.”
King would then add up the numbers of 629, which came to 17, a number he felt had great significance in his life.
There is some evidence that his interest in the occult came from Lady Aberdeen, wife of the Governor General in the 1890s. She would introduce him to mediums, who would then become a part of King’s life.
King would become intrigued as an adult in forecasts of the future based on tea leaves and his own horoscope. He would consult a fortune teller throughout the 1920s named Rachel Bleaney, who was based out of Kingston, Ontario. During a trip to London, he would meet Sir Oliver Lodge and he would write about Lodge’s comments on the ordering of human lives by spirit beings.
When he was not prime minister, but serving in the Opposition, he would have more leisure time and that led him to seances.
Seances with paid mediums was common for a time for King. As a lifelong Presbyterian, he was not into spiritualism as a religion, but he believed in life after death and saw it as a fact because he believed he had communicated with the dead through mediums throughout his life
He would claim to have spoken with Sir Wilfrid Laurier, his deceased dogs, his grandfather, President Franklin Roosevelt, Leonardo da Vinci, and his mother.
After his first séance in 1932 at the home of a Mrs. Fulford in Brockville, who was the widow of a senator, King would write, quote:
“This is something too wonderful for words. It is all part of divine leading, I believe.”
King’s favourite medium during this time was Henrietta Wriedt and he would often travel to Detroit to have a séance with her.
In 1933, he met Thomas Glendenning Hamilton, who was based out of Winnipeg. He would take part in seances there, and discuss Hamilton’s Physical Research experiments.
It is important to give the distinction that King looked to the spiritual world for personal assurances, rather than political advice. In many cases, he simply wanted to talk to those he loved, who had been taken from his life many years previous.
Many of the mediums he worked with didn’t even know he was a politician. In fact, Geraldine Cummins would describe in her book Unseen Adventures in 1951 that she held several seances for a British Commonwealth statesmen. She did not know at the time, since his identity was concealed from her, that it was King.
She would state she was impressed with him and his quote:
“realistic and critical analysis of evidence presented by other psychic experiments.”
One of the few times he did bring politics into a séance was when he asked if he would win the 1935 federal election.
Helen Hughes, a medium from Glasgow, would sit with King as a medium for several years whenever he made trips to Britain. She would say in 1951, quote:
“It was as if he had his mother living over here in Britain. What would any son do if he came here on business? He would look her up. He would want to see her and talk to her. He did not want advice about public affairs, for he knew more about them than she did. He wanted to know how she was. He wanted to talk to her about family matters.”
Hughes would go on to say, quote:
“He was warned. At least three years before he died. His mother told him he was doing too much; his heart would not stand it. He took her advice in the end, but not soon enough.”
Interestingly, during a séance with Cummins in which she apparently communicated with Roosevelt, he was told, quote:
“Don’t retire, stay on the job. Your country needs you there.”
Hughes would talk about how King would speak to his beloved dogs, including his Irish terrier, Pat. She said quote to him,
“Your sister is here, and she has a beautiful dog with her. The dog doesn’t seem to have been very long over there.”
King would tell her that the night before Pat died, his watch fell off his bedside table for no reason, and he found it face down in the morning, stopped at 4:20 a.m. He would say quote:
“I am not psychic, but I knew then, as if a voice were speaking to me, that Pat would die before another 24 hours went by.”
According to King, that night, his dog got out of his basket with his last effort, climbed onto the bed and died. When King looked at his watch, it was 4:20 a.m.
One night in early 1929, King awoke having had nocturnal visions. He called his personal secretary and dictated his account. This document was then sent off to King’s medium in Kingston for interpretation. She told him that honours would be coming to him and a trip to England was about to happen. She signed it, “your most sincere and true spiritual friend and advisor.”
Mercy Phillimore, who was the secretary of the London Spiritual Alliance also stated that King never sought spirit guidance in affairs of state. She would say quote:
“Mr. King was an investigator. He did accept the spirit hypothesis and he had the courage to say so, but he never ceased to be critical in appraising evidence. He was a highly intelligent man with shrewd judgement, and to say he consulted mediums for advice in statecraft is preposterous. It is also outrageous, an insult to his memory.”
Often, he focused on his family and their connection to him from the beyond. He wrote in his diary quote:
“In a vision last night, I saw my mother quite clearly dressed in a rather dark dress with her white hair over her shoulders. She seemed to be out in the open and looked quite happy. My father was near her looking very well. I do not recall the rest of the vision but it would seem to me it must have meant to make clear that they were near at hand and watching over me.”
King would also state that he could sense the presence of the dead himself, especially if he believed it to be a member of his family. During one year on his brother Max’s birthday, he stated he felt the presence of his brother very strongly in different ways.
During one trip to the home of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who had passed on some years previous, he wrote about his journey to the home quote:
“While having a light, late dinner on the train about 9:30, I began to hear voices distantly singing Hark Hark my soul Angels’ voices singing and the particular words Angels of Jesus, Angels of Light, Singing Welcome to the Pilgrims of the night. I had not been thinking of the hymn at all and it seemed to come of its own accord. It was not until the word pilgrims was reached that I saw the relationship with the pilgrimage of the day.”
When his beloved terrier Pat passed away, one of three, he would find instances of his dog in many places. At one point, he would mention that long shafts of sunlight were shining on a cloud in the shape of pat. He would write quote:
“These things may seem imaginary and ridiculous but I imagine that behind our invisible hands weave for us manifestations of their continued presence, tenderness and love.”
King always believed that his passed on dogs were around him through life. During a visit to the home of Tommy Wayling, he would write about Wayling’s dog acting strange around him. He stated quote:
“He walked some little distance from me, as if he saw some object between me and him. He kept barking at it, wagging his tail, looking first here, and then there, running about and coming back. Altogether it was the exact performance of a dog who might have been seeing another animal which was keeping close to myself. He was very playful, and never cross. I feel perfectly sure that in the psychic presence of some spirit, which, I doubt not, was that of little Pat.”
Based on his diary entries, his peak séance visiting years were when he was the Leader of the Official Opposition from 1930 to 1935, during which he took part in several seances. A common thread of these seances was King writing about having a good day following the séance, feeling peace and happiness.
After a morning séance on Oct. 17, 1933, King would write quote:
“As I drove to the station I felt that I was very near to those I love, and that they were very near to me. There was a feeling of reality about the invisible which seemed to clothe me with a sense of power. This experience has been the most remarkable of all, majestic in its strides, convincing beyond all possibility of doubt of survival, of continuance of memory and the understanding and significance of events and forces.”
He describes another séance on Sept. 29, 1932, stating quote:
“After dinner we had a sitting at which dear Father, Mr. Larkin and Sir Wilfrid Laurier appeared in the order named with Alexander Mackenzie appearing in the background while Sir Wilfrid was speaking.”
The next day, he had another séance, describing it as such quote:
“We had a good hour from 11 to 12 and I wrote till one. The ones to come and speak were Max and mother, Isabel and Lady Laurier and Sir John A. Macdonald in the order indicated. The word Chester appeared and were told later Gladstone had been around.”
An hour later, he had another session stating that Wilfrid Laurier once again appeared. He said quote:
“It was a truly marvelous experience, conditions were very good. I took down in pencil what was said, writing at a table as they spoke.”
In 1937, he was told in a séance that if the British Empire could help Germany through financial troubles, it would ensure good will and the prevention of war. The ghost was apparently Sir Henry Campbell Bannermen, who said according to King quote:
“England is the friend of all peace-loving countries, she will help Germany with her financial difficulties if she is assured of her good will.”
During the Second World War, King rarely visited a medium but he would return to it following the war.
King related in one séance in 1947 that he encountered Hitler and he told him that he should have taken his advice regarding avoiding war. King wrote quote:
“When I said this, Hitler’s lips turned black.”
When King was part of a séance where facts were deemed incorrect, he held no grudges to the apparent spirits he talked to. In 1938, when he was involved in a bitter feud with Mitchell Hepburn, the premier of Ontario, a spirit told him during a séance that Hepburn would pass away that night. In reality, Hepburn outlived King by three years.
During a séance on Dec. 18, 1938, he wrote that he spoke with Sir Wilfrid Laurier who stated quote:
“You have done a great service to Canada and the Liberal Party in exposing Hepburn for his nefarious deeds. God will guide you.”
One time he visited a medium during the war came in the summer of 1941 when King visited a Mrs. Tom Coumbe in New York. King had just received an honorary degree in the city and had received a message from Mrs. Coumbe that she had a vision of someone delivering to the door a newspaper with the picture of a man and a dog. King would write in his diary quote:
“The delivery was by an Indian boy whose body was illuminated by light. She saw an Indian chief and others holding their hands over a man’s head, and finally, the chief pointed to the swastika and having it shot to pieces by his slaves, who were assembled nearby.”
Mrs. Coumbe identified the man in the newspaper as King, and she wrote to him immediately. The woman’s address had 539 in it, which King remarked totaled 17, a number he always found to be significant. He also noticed that the hands on her clock were stopped at 5 to 11, with both hands together, which he saw as a sign of right action.
He would write quote:
“This was truly amazing and a marvelous verification of the dream itself.”
Often, he would choose the date to leave on a trip based on if it was seven or ten days away, or if it was the 17th of a month. During the war when he left for England on Aug. 17, 1941 and returned on Sept. 7, he felt those dates were better for his wartime mission.
In October 1948, King was sick at the Dorchester Hotel. He would receive several visitors including King George VI and Winston Churchill, but two women also arrived and were shown into his suite immediately. Ushered through a side door, one of the women was the already-mentioned Geraldine Cummins, as well as Betrice Gibb.
The interest in the occult was kept secret throughout his time as prime minister and it was only after he died, when his diaries were published, that it became known. Those around him knew that he was a spiritualist and some took part in seances but outside of those people, the country was oblivious to the fact. It would become nationwide news in 1951 when Macleans published an article called The Secret Life of Mackenzie King Spiritualist.
Information Biographi, Canadian Encyclopedia, Toronto Star, Macleans, Wikipedia, Library and Archives Canada, Calgary Herald, Victoria Times Colonist, Ottawa Journal, Regina Leader-Post, Kingston Whig Standard, CBC