Editor’s note: Mark Bushnell is a Vermont journalist and historian. He is the author of “Hidden History of Vermont” and “It Happened in Vermont.”
Lucy Cooke must have been something of an enigma even in her own day. During her unusual life, Lucy became a healer of local renown, who eventually developed a national – some say international – following. What made Lucy stand out was her technique; she is said to have been clairvoyant.
Born Lucy Ainsworth on May 4, 1819, in Calais, she was one of nine children. With so many children to raise, the Ainsworths were understandably poor. The older children, including Lucy, were expected to find work to help support the family. Lucy learned to make bonnets and was later apprenticed to a tailor.
Sometime during her childhood, Lucy fell gravely ill. (Historic accounts of her life are vague and sometimes contradictory. In this instance, they don’t mention the age at which she became sick. In other cases later in her life, they offer little detail of her practice and little substantiation for claims of her great fame.)
What ailed her is unclear. Accounts state merely that she was confined to bed for the better part of two years and that doctors feared for her life. At one point, she fell into a particularly deep sleep. One version of the story says her brother had returned home from New York state and used his skills at “Mesmerism” to put her into a sort of trance. Mesmerism was named for18th-century German physician Franz Anton Mesmer, who believed in the power of hypnotism to cure patients
During her slumber, Lucy later explained, she heard voices telling her she needed to drink a medicine made from certain herbs and roots. As she slept, she supposedly spoke these detailed instructions to those around her. None of the family members had a medical background, nor did anyone know what effect the concoction would have. But given the girl’s condition, they apparently believed it couldn’t hurt. They prepared the draught to her instructions and Lucy drank the medicine. From that moment, her health returned rapidly (or gradually, if you believe another account). And from that moment on, according to one version of the story, Lucy began exhibiting extraordinary powers. (Another version says that these gifts didn’t emerge until she married at the age of 27.)
Whenever these powers surfaced, Lucy was reportedly able to dream where people had lost objects. Some accounts suggest she had this skill from early childhood, when in a dream she “saw” where a neighbor had lost his pocket watch. She was even said to have used her mystical powers to help a sheriff with difficult cases.
More importantly, Lucy began to use her talents to cure numerous ailments. Despite her complete lack of medical training, she would enter a hypnotic state and prescribe a cure for her patients. She was even said to set bones and treat dislocated joints with the laying on of hands. When she came out of her trance, she professed no knowledge of what she had done. For her skills and unusual technique, she became popularly known as “Sleeping Lucy.”
The times were right for people to entrust their health to a practitioner who relied on a mystical form of medicine. The mid-1800s were an era of extreme change brought on by industrialization, urbanization, national expansion, and regional strife. Religious revivals grew up in response to the turmoil. Others turned to unconventional beliefs; spiritualism captivated the nation with its belief that a parallel spirit world could communicate with and help people in this world. People were understandably impatient with the medical establishment, which, faced with epidemics and chronic illnesses, dished out doses of mercury and tinctures of opium.
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In 1848, Lucy and her husband, Charles Cooke, moved to Reading, Vermont, and set up practice. Charles is commonly believed to have helped Lucy enter her trance and recorded prescriptions she made while in that altered state.
Lucy and Charles had a daughter named Julia Ann in 1851, but their family life was short lived. Charles died in 1855. Lucy and Julia Ann remained in Reading for another five years, before moving north to a house on Liberty Street in Montpelier and again starting a practice. An 1860 listing of physicians in Montpelier includes “Lucy A. Cooke, clairvoyant.”
After Charles’s death, Lucy hired an assistant, Everett Raddin, who presumably took over Charles’ old role of hypnotizing her and recording her medical advice. Lucy practiced in Montpelier until 1876, then moved to Boston, taking Raddin with her. The pair eventually wed; some of her relatives seemed to believe he did so only for her money. Shortly after this move, Lucy became estranged from her daughter, who then was in her early 20s and married. At one point, Lucy is said to have given Julia Ann a dollar and announced that she was disinheriting her.
If her family life was failing, her medical practice was not. In 1878 and 1880, she published leaflets promoting her work.
“ ‘SLEEPING LUCY,’ formerly of Montpelier, Vt.,” read one. “This is the name by which MRS. LUCY A. COOKE has been known to the public for many years, and under which she has by her ASTONISHING AND UNEQUALLED GIFTS AND WONDERFUL SUCCESS during that time, acquired a national reputation as the best and most reliable Mesmeric Physician and surgeon of the age.”
She challenged the medical establishment but also distanced herself from the charlatans of her era. In her broadside, Lucy challenged any surgeon to best her at setting bones and treating dislocations. Then she added that “Mrs. COOKE wishes it to be distinctly understood that she is NOT a ‘fortune teller,’ a ‘mind reader,’ nor ‘a spiritualist.’ Her gift is PECULIAR, GENUINE, and WONDERFUL.”
The pamphlet claimed she had “cured diseases of every character” and had treated more than 200,000 people, “many of whom were individuals occupying the highest civil and social positions.”
In coming up with that number, Lucy may have included the customers who used her mail-order medicine service. Her leaflets advertised a variety of medicines, each made according to her own recipe. She promised delivery to anywhere in the United States, Canada or the “Old Countries.”
For a quarter, she offered Pith of Sassafras, Beth-Root Bitters, Catarrh Snuff or her Cough Lozenges, which the pamphlet said she had supplied for years to “our leading Orators, Clergymen and Singers, for whose use they are the best in the world.”
For 50 cents, you could get medicines with such unsettling names as Diuretic Drops, Diarrhoea Cordial, Volatile Linament or Black Salves. Seventy-five cents would get you a bottle of Blood Syrup, and for one dollar you could get Woman’s Friend or Lung Syrup.
The leaflet included the names of 99 patients who were willing to offer references for Sleeping Lucy.
But Lucy also had her doubters. In mocking the gullibility of investors in a fictitious silver mine in Brandon, a contributor to the 1877 Vermont Historical Gazetteer took a swipe at her in an essay entitled “Credulity”: “How is it that two itinerant and perhaps imbecile vagrants have … drawn a rich revenue from the pockets of independent and respectable citizens of this immediate neighborhood, returning naught but the sleeping insane mutterings of a modern Pythoness, (named) ‘Sleeping Lucy.’”
Lucy’s later years seem to have been difficult ones. She fell into debt. Some blamed Raddin; or perhaps the market for “clairvoyant physicians” had simply dried up. In her mid-70s, Lucy seems to have contracted colon cancer. Nearing the end, she suffered severely – the illness, however, seems to have helped her reconcile with her daughter. Julia Ann nursed Lucy during this, her final illness, one for which she could find no cure.