Devout Catholics and energetic members of a radical integrated Masonic lodge, the Herrimans also were regular participants in a remarkable series of seances that were led by their friend, neighbor, and fellow lodge-member, Henry Louis Rey. Born into a prominent Free People of Color family, Rey was a bookbinder, a Civil War captain, and during Reconstruction served both in the Louisiana House of Representatives and the newly integrated Orleans Parish School Board. As the hopes of Reconstruction gave way to the bitter realities of Jim Crow, Rey conducted seances at a number of locations in which members were encouraged by the spirit world to “en avant,” or “keep going.” Spirits might be historic or spiritual figures such as Ben Franklin or Jesus Christ, or they might be deceased family members, including George Herriman Sr.’s brother, Frederic Herriman. Seances were conducted in the evening, in a darkened, quiet room, according to historian Melissa Dagget. A medium would receive and record the spirit’s words to the gathered.
Cartoonist George Herriman’s grandfather and father both participated in “le circle harmonique,” which lasted from the 1850s through the 1870s. Locations included Henry Louis Rey’s house on Villere street, just a few houses down from the Herrimans’ home. Most of the seances, however, took place in Joseph Lavigne’s cigar shop at 162 Esplanade Avenue (today 1140 Esplanade Avenue). According to Dagget’s research, Lavigne and Rey were childhood friends and served together during the Civil War, and both were active in public education.
Lavigne died in 1877. Due to increased political and work pressures, the seances came to an end. By then, the mood had changed. Writes Dagget: “During the last two years of the registers, the zealous calls for political action and the euphoria over an anticipated change in the racial structure in Louisiana were replaced with melancholy communications that urged Rey to be patient and to be content with the present.” Rey’s final message from beyond came on November 24, 1877. In a time of diminishing fortunes, the spirit reminded Rey that “we are with you for an eternity.”
The cartoonist George Herriman was born three years later. It’s not known if he was aware of his father and grandfather’s participation in the seances. Years later, however, he would include seances and spirits in his comics, especially during an increased wave of spiritualism in the United States following World War One.