This year’s Guided Spirit Walks at Victoria Lawn Cemetery roar loudly into the tumultuous era of the 1920s. The stories featured on the 2022 tour peel back the layers of what we often think of as a frivolous and optimistic decade. Instead, the historical figures we hear from reveal a period also characterized by grief and loss, the desperate search for individual purpose and legacy, and rapid technological and economic change that left some uncertain and uneasy.
The spirits on this year’s tour come from all walks of life; we hear from new immigrants arriving to St. Catharines to work on the construction of the Welland Ship Canal, a wealthy female philanthropist, an architectural visionary, a grieving widow, a proud wife, an unstoppable industrialist, and a journalist with a guilty conscience. While each may have little in common, the spirits are brought together, and connect to the audience, through our guide, the renowned spiritualist Jenny O’Hara Pincock.
Who is Jenny O’Hara Pincock?
Poet, musician, author, and spiritualist, Jenny O’Hara was born at her family’s farm in Madoc, Ontario in 1890. Musically inclined at an early age, she went on to study music at the Ontario Ladies’ College in Whitby, Ont. (c. 1908) and at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto (c. 1912). When Jenny married Robert Newton Pincock in June 1915, she moved with him to St. Catharines where he maintained an osteopathy practice.
According to her 1930 spiritualist publication, The Trails of Truth, Jenny and her husband were first introduced to the spiritualist movement in 1927. Her sister Minnie and brother-in-law Reverend Fred J.T. Maines were also involved in the movement. Though suspicious at first, Jenny’s belief in spiritualism solidified in 1928, after her husband died of kidney disease. In the forward for The Trails of Truth, well-known Canadian spiritualism leader B.F. Austin wrote that after Robert’s death, Jenny “was plunged by bereavement into an abyss of sorrow and despair until the testimony of scientific-men led her to make personal investigations for herself.” From those personal investigations, Jenny allegedly made contact with her husband six weeks after his death. She was now a believer.
With American medium William Cartheuser, Jenny continued her “personal investigations” into the realm of spiritualism and conducted dozens of séances in her own Church Street home through the rest of 1928 and 1929, taking meticulous notes of each meeting. These records became the body of The Trails of Truth, where Jenny published her detailed accounts of the séances she led and the experienced shared by the sitters (séance participants). The accounts published in The Trails of Truth detail sitters making contact with their dead loved ones, feeling their invisible touch, and even exchanging full conversations. The details recorded in The Trails of Truth were meant to prove with “full conviction that the so-called dead are consciously alive and can and do manifest intelligence and their old-time characteristics and manners thus proving beyond question their identity.” One of the séances published in Jenny’s work is featured on this year’s Guided Spirit Walks, her notes informing the details of the scene.
Beyond The Trails of Truth¸ Jenny’s involvement in spiritualism led to the founding of the Church of Revelation in St. Catharines alongside her sister and brother-in-law, who was ordained minister of the church. The church operated between 1930-1935. At this time, Jenny seemed to have cut ties with William Cartheuser and the spiritualist movement. She eventually returned to Madoc to purchase and move onto family’s property. She died in July 1948.
The Spiritualist Movement
As both a religion and a movement, modern spiritualism developed in the mid-nineteenth. Its origins are largely credited to sisters Margaret and Kate Fox of Hydesville, New York in 1848 after it was reported that they were able to communicate with the spirit of a peddler through rapping noises. Public interest in the sisters’ mediumship abilities spread rapidly across Canada and the United States through the 1850s, and the phenomenon surrounding the beliefs and practice of spiritualism grew.
Appealing mostly members of the well-educated and upper classes at this time period, spiritualism is grounded in the belief of life after death. Its practice surrounds human contact and communication with the dead through mediums, and that such contact serves as evidence that the spirit of a person lives on after bodily death. In a spiritualist séance, all participants, or sitters, arrange themselves in a circle and communicate with spirits through a medium, who has the supernatural ability to cross into the spirit world. Spiritualist séances often place physical objects at the centre of the circle to help facilitate communication. In the séances recorded by Jenny, often one or more spiritualist trumpets (an aluminum cylinder-shaped megaphone) were set in the circle, along with flowers, a bowl of water, and items of personal importance to the spirit the sitters were attempting to contact.
Spiritualism in the 1920s
Though spiritualism did garner a significant following through the latter half of the nineteenth century, it experienced an even great popularity in the 1920s. The belief that the spirits of the death lived on in an after-world would have brought relief to many grieving incredible loss following the First World War and the 1918 influenza pandemic. With loved ones dying overseas at war, or falling ill and suffering a rapid death, those they left behind in the land of the living were often not given proper closure or a chance to say goodbye. Spiritualism offered an opportunity to find solace and peace in the death of their loved ones. Audiences on this year’s walks will meet the widow Mary De Biasi, who sought spiritualism for closure after her husband, Giovanni, was killed in an accident on the Welland Ship Canal while she was overseas in Italy.
Rapid technological advancements also caused some to turn towards spiritualism. With the power and wonder of technologies such as electricity, radio, and the telephone seemingly invisible to the eye, the idea that humans could come to understand the invisible forces of the afterlife began to take more solid ground. In her introduction to The Trails of Truth, Jenny writes,
…the world is young and knowledge is infinite… [Humanity] has become accustomed to dealing with invisible forces and, [sic] providing some tangible medium of matter is still left him to handle and to hold, to control or to create, he doubts not their reality.
Twentieth century technology opened the doors to unleash endless possibility and discovery.
The “matter” referred to here, is ectoplasm, a substance or tangible remnant of spiritual energy, said to be exorcized by mediums in a spiritualist séance. Leaders of the spiritualist movement, including Jenny in her work, went to great lengths to emphasize that the existence of ectoplasm was backed by modern science. In her description of ectoplasm and its potential, Jenny writes,
Like the radio, it picks up voices from beyond the vibrations of the human senses but unlike the radio, the broadcast comes from a world which is tuned to rarer vibrations than our own…the operators [belonging] to an etherized world whose ‘sending stations’ are far beyond our present conceptions. 
Early twentieth century technology equipped spiritualists with new language and models to blur the lines between the physical world and spirit world even further. To those in the spiritualist movement, rapid technological change would have been embraced as evidence that anything was possible, including communication with the afterlife. To others, the inventions of electricity, the radio, the telephone, or even the automobile would have signaled a threat to their perception of the world and all they knew. On the Walks, Sir Edward Beatty, President of Canadian Pacific Railway through the 1920s and 1930s, alludes to the unease and distrust technological advancement brought some stalwarts.
A Lens into 1920s St. Catharines
With a spiritualist as our guide, Jenny O’Hara Pincock presents Guided Spirit Walks audiences with an intimate glimpse into 1920s St. Catharines. The spiritualist circle in St. Catharines was both large and dedicated. Witnesses to the séances recorded in The Trails of Truth included judges, lawyers, business-owners, members of the working-class, and even the Inspector of Public Schools D.C. Hetherington. As spiritualism did not see class-distinctions (as long as sitters paid the fee!), Jenny would have likely floated between various social circles. She may have mingled with the well-connected of St. Catharines, like philanthropist Kate Leonard or architects Arthur Nicolson and Robert Macbeth, as well as with working-class immigrants like Persape Krekorian, whose husband Neshan came to Canada from Armenia by way of the Titanic, or Stefano Costantino, one of the many who immigrated to work on the construction of the new Welland Ship Canal. All of whom make an appearance on the Spirit Walks this year.
Those of St. Catharines’ past boldly come into focus on this year’s Guided Spirit Walks at Victoria Lawn Cemetery, as do their very human experiences that we can all relate to. The decade of the 1920s brought St. Catharines great industrial growth, unprecedented suburban expansion, and pioneering modernization, but beneath its bright, determined eyes for the future, were people who just wanted to find peace, ease, fulfillment, and happiness. Isn’t that what we’re all looking for, in the end?
Sara Nixon is a Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre and Writer/Director for the 2022 Guided Spirit Walks at Victoria Lawn Cemetery.
Tickets for the 2022 Guided Spirit Walks at Victoria Lawn Cemetery are now on sale. Performances take place September 9, 10, 16 & 17 at 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. Advanced tickets only, $15 per person. Visit ActiveSTC to purchase online, or call 905-984-8880.
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Jenny O’Hara Pincock, The Trails of Truth (The Austin Publishing Company, 1930).
“ ‘There is No Death’: Spiritualism in St. Catharines and the Tale of John and Mary De Biasis,” Canadian Cemetery History, YouTube, Oct 4, 2020.
 B.F. Austen, “Forward” in Jenny O’Hara Pincock, The Trails of Truth, 2.
 The Trails of Truth, 26
 F. Austen, “Forward” in Jenny O’Hara Pincock, The Trails of Truth, 2.
 Trails of Truth, 15.
 Trails of Truth, 16.