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.