Thursday, March 29, 2012

From the Stacks: A False Deathbed Confession

Thomas Skinner, Another Voice From the Grave (Philadelphia, 1819). 
A handwritten note on the cover of this pamphlet hints at the intriguing story within: "This tract is an entire fiction. The particulars were fabricated by a base woman (Mrs. Sayres) and imposed on Dr. Skinner. The detection of the imposture produced very great excitement."

The pamphlet is Another Voice From the Grave, or, The Power of Conscience Exemplified in the Dying Confession and Exercises of an Unfortunate Female. Published According to Her Dying Request, written by the Rev. Thomas H. Skinner and published by the Tract Society of Philadelphia in 1819. It gives the deathbed confession of a woman who committed terrible sins, including adultery, prostitution, and murder. Her last words were, "Hell, hell is my everlasting doom."

This was meant to be a true cautionary tale to scare sinners into repentance. It was based on the testimony of a woman named Mrs. Sayre, who had witnessed the woman's last days. Skinner's introduction to the story assured readers that "of its entire authenticity there is no room to doubt." Unfortunately, it was soon discovered that Mrs. Sayre and another woman had fabricated the whole story. He investigated and published his findings in the American Sentinel, apologizing for the mistake.

The Rev. Skinner was sternly criticized in another pamphlet written in response: A Voice From the Living: addressed to the Rev. Thomas H. Skinner. By A Friend to Truth (Philadelphia, 1819). The anonymous writer observed that a visit to the street where this woman supposedly lived would have immediately revealed the story to be false. Moreover, he questioned whether it showed good judgment to publish the story, even if it was true. Surely it would do more harm than good to describe such terrible crimes in detail, and would be unlikely to cause any sinners to repent.

Skinner served as pastor of the fifth Presbyterian Church until 1823. He was a professor of sacred rhetoric at Andover Theological Seminary (1833-1835), pastor of the Mercer Street Church in New York (1835-1848), and professor of sacred rhetoric, pastoral theology and church government at Union Theological Seminary (1848-1871).

Other works by Thomas H. Skinner in the Clements Library:

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