SL artist communicates with the dead

One of the most controversial residents in Spring Lake history was Charles Orchardson.
Kevin Collier
Feb 17, 2014

He left his wife and kids to become a leader in the Spiritualist movement — either by sincere belief or as a ruse for financial benefit.

Born June 10, 1836, in Edinburgh and educated at the Royal Academy of Scotland, Orchardson came to America where he married Lurissa Norton on March 2, 1861, in Ohio. They moved to Michigan in 1867, taking residence in Spring Lake with 3-year-old daughter, Louise. A second daughter, Mabel, was born in 1872.

A recognized portrait painter, and younger brother of renowned painter Sir William Quiller Orchardson, Charles owned a 64-acre fruit farm and lived in an elegant home. Tri-Cities residents often addressed him as “Professor.”

In the early 1880s, Orchardson began to travel often. His art exhibits exposed him to the world of Spiritualism while hanging out in Cook County, Ill., where he took a second residence. He began to lecture on how the dead can communicate with the living and presented himself as a clairvoyant.

Orchardson also became politically active, identifying himself as an anarchist. In 1889 Orchardson became a Socialist candidate for Chicago Mayor, but lost with fewer than 400 votes.

He then befriended a Spiritual medium — one who talks to the dead — who went by the name of Vera Ava. Born Laura Horos in 1849, Ava would later be described by illusionist Harry Houdini as "one of the most extraordinary fake mediums and swindlers the world has ever known." Soon, the two traveled the spiritualist circuit together.

In the fall of 1891 Orchardson boldly brought Ava to his Spring Lake home to meet his wife, Lurissa. At the time he was contemplating a lecture tour with Ava.

“He has gained national reputation through his eccentric notions and beliefs,” the Grand Haven Tribune wrote of Orchardson. “His connection with the great fraud Vera Ava has gained him more notoriety.”

“(Orchardson) is completely in (Ava's) power,” John C. Bundy, editor of Chicago's Spiritualist publication Religio-Philosophical Journal, stated in an exposé of his friend published January 1892. He also said Orchardson had told him he was “the forty-first Messiah.”

Orchardson also professed that he was addressed by the spirits as “The Son of Wisdom,” “destined to be the savior of the human race” and likened to Jesus Christ.

Enter the rich, elderly, enthusiastic Spiritualist believer, Minerva Merrick.

Merrick, an 83-year-old widow, met Charles Orchardson in Quincy, Ill., in October 1892 at a séance he hosted. The event, which presented medium Vera Ava, took place at Merrick Hall, a structure Minerva had built in 1878 for spiritualists to conduct services. There, Merrick revealed to Orchardson she had kept in touch with her deceased husband — Dr. Marcus Merrick — using mediums since his passing in 1876.

Soon thereafter Vera Ava exited the picture. The “Spook Priestess,” as she was dubbed by the press, ended up serving two years in prison at Joliet for bilking an Elgin, Ill., widow out of $735.

Meanwhile, back in Spring Lake, Orchardson's wife, Lurissa, filed papers of abandonment and was granted a divorce from Charles.

With “permission” from her dead husband Marcus, Minerva proposed to Charles and the two wed on April 9, 1893. Orchardson claimed Marcus had communicated “his blessing” through Spiritual medium William H. Boyer.

Orchardson spent much of his time in Merrick's mansion compiling the book, “The Light of the Ages,” convincing her papers produced using medium Boyer presented “the writings from spirits of persons distinguished in history and long since dead.” Included were Plato, Charles Darwin, Thomas Payne and a Roman Emperor.

After only 14 months of marriage, Minerva dropped dead on June 11, 1894, and Orchardson stood to gain up to $800,000 as beneficiary of her estate. Two nieces and one nephew contested the will, claiming the marriage was void because it resulted from a deception perpetrated by Orchardson.

In 1897 the Illinois Supreme Court “nullified” the marriage, making the nieces and nephew beneficiaries of her estate. The court concluded “if one is led into the delusion that another is a God, a Christ, or gifted with supernatural powers” the believer “is (legally) insane.”

Vera Ava spent the remainder of her life in and out of prison for spiritual scams then vanished in 1909. Charles Orchardson continued to exhibit his works of art until 1911 and passed away on July 15, 1918, in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Orchardson's ex-wife Lurissa remained in Spring Lake, passing away Feb. 16, 1917, at age 75. Her two daughters also died in Spring Lake — Louise (Lorimar) in 1925, and Mabel (Patterson) in 1927.



Former Grandhavenite

Houdini was a stand up guy for using his knowledge of illusions and magic tricks to expose con artists. It's impressive for someone with that level of skill to have that kind of integrity instead of just using those talents to scam people even more effectively. He also helped show that you can put on a great magic show or escape from danger without having any supernatural talents.

It's unfortunate that so many were taken in by the whole spiritualist movement. I guess if you want to believe in something badly enough you'll find a way. If you truly believe that someone can allow you to talk to your deceased relatives you can see how a lot of folks decided it was worth it. The spiritualists taking advantage of bereaved widows and parents who've lost kids to make money were pretty much the lowest of the low.

I think our modern day equivalent are the slick pastors with mansions and sports cars who focus on the "prosperity gospel" idea that God will make you rich if only you do what we tell you, which usually involves making a donation to increase the pastor's level of prosperity. Exploiting the poor into donating what little they have with the promise that they'll get rich is about as low as it gets. And of course, the idea of your financial problems being solved by God is most attractive to the people in truly dire straights. And if you make all the donations like you're supposed to, and then don't get rich in return that would probably be devastating for a lot of reasons. There may be some worthwhile aspects of the prosperity gospel concept (I'm no theologian) but if you have trouble figuring out whether a quote like, "Greed is good!" came from a Jewish carpenter on a cross or if it came from Gordon Gekko from the Wall Street films then something is a bit wrong with the aspects of religion you're focusing on. Of course these pastors are in the extreme minority but a lot of people unfamiliar with Christianity might not make that distinction and simply decide they want nothing to do with any of it.

deuce liti

Yeah, even the bible says the dead are conscience of nothing and owe no debts. No such thing as ghosts.


Right on......when a person dies they simply cease to exist just as they did not exist before they were born. That is what makes our lives here on earth so precious and the birth of a baby such a happy occasion. It is truly sad that there comes a time when our loved ones cease to exist but it is inevitable....we all have to take our turn at death. Live each day as if it will be your just might true...take care of yourself.

Former Grandhavenite

To get a preview of what the afterlife is going to be like, I always encourage folks to think back to where they were and remember what they were doing on the day that Lincoln was assassinated. That's probably what we'll be doing after shuffling off this mortal coil as well.

I sure hope that I'm wrong with this prediction as I'd rather be having fun in paradise with all my friends and family for all eternity. Who knows though, maybe I've already made too many bad puns about people who've died in unusual ways and those jokes about the holocaust and cancer probably won't do much to increase my chances with the doorman at the pearly gates either.

Tri-cities realist

Yep, you may be skee-rewd.

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