“One of the most wonderful manifestations of God’s benevolence during the struggles of the primitive Church in these United States” – such is the impressive estimate of the learned Jesuit scholar, Father Joseph M. Finotti, concerning the extraordinary but little known spiritual drama which took place some 200 years ago near Martinsburg, West Virginia.
And in fact, in the year 1797, on a farm near the present Middleway, Jefferson County, West Virginia, a Lutheran family was saved from diabolical persecutions by a Catholic priest and then instructed in the Catholic religion by a mysterious, invisible Voice from the other world, that continued for seventeen years to enlighten, guide, and inspire these former Protestants and their Catholic friends to live as fervent and model Christians. Frequently during those years, this mystic Voice, whose “influence was always beneficial,” communicated timely warnings, prophecies, and messages of charity and mercy for many persons, which resulted in numerous conversions.
That such seemingly miraculous phenomena did actually take place has never been questioned by serious historians. According to the scholarly Professor P. J. Mahon, in his Trials and Triumphs of the Catholic Church in America (Chicago, 1907), “no facts are better substantiated.” Non-Catholic authorities also confirm the truth of the events. In 1904, an article in The West Virginia Historical Magazine admitted, “the people there had no doubt of the facts related.” And as recently as 1941, the West Virginia guidebook of the American Guide Series compiled by the Writers’ Program of the Works Project Administration gave nearly a whole page to an objective account of the locally famous Mystery of the Wizard Clip.
We shall now narrate the principal incidents of this fascinating and significant chapter in the early history of the Catholic Church in the United States; in the same words, for the most part, as they are recorded by eyewitnesses and by the children of eyewitnesses in Father J. M. Finotti’s valuable collection of documents entitled The Mystery of the Wizard Clip (Baltimore, 1879, 143p.). Holy Scripture teaches us “it is honorable to reveal and confess the works of God” (Tobias 12:7). And it is our hope and prayer that many American Catholics – and non-Catholics too – may come to share Father Finotti’s conviction that this stirring historical narrative “draws our heart near to God; it teaches lessons of supernatural wisdom; the Finger of God is Here! … Herein lies the beauty of the story.”
Adam Livingston was an honest and industrious Lutheran who owned considerable property in York County, Pennsylvania. Due to mysterious causes, however, his property began to diminish in various ways: his barn burned down, and his horses and cattle died. As these losses continued, Livingston and his family decided to move. Early in the seventeen nineties, therefore, with his second wife and several children, he left Pennsylvania and migrated to the lower end of the lovely Shenandoah Valley, where he settled on a large estate of the triangle formed by Charlestown, Martinsburg, and Winchester, all of which were then in the state of Virginia.
But there too the same mysterious forces continued to afflict the Livingston household. There too the cattle and horses died. Now the very house in which Adam and his wife and children lived seemed to have become haunted: at night, they were kept awake by weird noises, such as loud knocks and rumblings as of galloping horses and wagons. But even in daylight, their furniture would be suddenly banged about and their crockery smashed onto the floor by invisible hands. Chunks of fire rolled out of the beds across the rooms. At times, the heads and legs of chickens and geese were seen to drop off suddenly. But by far the most sensational of these devilish afflictions was the strange persistent clipping and cutting that attacked almost every piece of cloth and leather on the Livingston estate. Sheets, table clothes, shirts, dresses, suits and even leather boots and saddles, whether in use or locked up in closets, were skillfully slit and clipped into crescent-shaped strips by invisible shears! The noise of the scissors clipping merrily away was distinctly heard on many occasions by members of the family.
One old woman in Martinsburg, wishing to satisfy her curiosity, went to visit the Livingstons, but before entering the haunted house, she carefully took off her new silk hat and wrapped it in her large handkerchief, to save it from being clipped. Upon leaving, however, she found her new hat cut into small ribbons! Poor old Mr. Livingston’s mental torture was acute and he turned to the Bible for help against these attacks, which were clearly diabolical. As Father Gallitzin later wrote, “the good old man reading in his Bible that Christ had given to His ministers power over evil spirits, started from his home to Winchester in Virginia, and having, with tears in his eyes, related to his minister the history of his distress, losses and sufferings, begged of him to come to his house and to exercise in his favor the power he had received from Jesus Christ. The parson candidly confessed that he had no such power. The good man. . .therefore rationally concluded that Parson S ____ could not be a minister of Christ …and applied to other persons calling themselves ministers of Christ, some of whom promised relief. They came, prayed and read; but they prayed and read in vain…”
As a result of so many disappointments, Mr. Livingston almost came to the conclusion that Christ no longer had any true ministers on earth. So in desperation he turned to some local conjurers or magicians, one of whom promised to banish the evil spirit if paid a good sum in advance, but refused the job when the shrewd old farmer offered to pay him double that amount – after he succeeded! Three others came very confidently from Winchester, but took to their heels when they saw a large stone whirl around the living room without any support for fifteen minutes!
Then one night, Mr. Livingston had a strange dream. He saw a beautiful church and in it a “minister dressed in peculiar robes” and he heard a voice say to him, “That is the man who can relieve you.” He decided to search that same morning for the minister dressed in robes. He was directed to the estate of a distinguished Catholic family named McSherry. Late that evening Mrs. McSherry saw Mr. Livingston, whose farm was about four miles away, coming toward her house and she met him at the gate. When he asked to see the priest, she told him there was no priest there then, but that one would “hold church” at a home in Shepherdstown the following Sunday morning.
On the next Sunday, the McSherrys met Mr. Livingston in the Catholic home in Shepherdstown. As soon as the priest, Father Dennis Cahill of Hagerstown, appeared at the altar vested for Mass, the old Lutheran farmer suddenly burst into tears and exclaimed, “That is the very man I saw in my dream – he is the one who will relieve me!” When the Mass was over, going right to the priest, he poured out his sad story and earnestly begged him for help. After much persuasion, Fr. Cahill agreed to visit the haunted house. The priest questioned the whole Livingston family, but they all told him exactly the same story. He therefore consented to say some prayers and to sprinkle the house with Holy Water. And as he was leaving, a sum of money that had lately vanished mysteriously from the farmer’s locked chest was suddenly laid by invisible hands on the doorsill between the priest’s feet!
Now the Livingston home became quiet for several days. But soon the weird noises and dreaded clipping started again. So Father Cahill came a second time and celebrated Holy Mass in the house, after which the various disturbances ceased – for good! The old Lutheran farmer was so deeply grateful for having obtained the relief that had been promised him, that he thereupon decided to accept the Catholic religion with all his family.
It was at this time, in the fall of the year 1797, that a very remarkable young priest was sent by his superiors to investigate these strange happenings at Cliptown: the 27 year old Father Demetrius A. “Smith”, who was born Prince “Mitri” Gallitzin, the son of a German countess and a Russian prince-ambassador of the Empress Catherine the Great. Later, during his forty years of holy and heroic service to God at Loretto, Pa., he was to become famous as the great “Apostle of the Alleghenies.” Here is his testimony: “My view in coming to Virginia and remaining there three months was to investigate those extraordinary facts at Livingston’s, of which I had heard so much … and which I could not prevail upon myself to believe; but I was soon converted to a full belief of them. No lawyer in a court of justice did ever examine or cross-examine witnesses more strictly than I did all those I could procure.” Through the divine power of the True Church of Christ, the evil spirits were banished and in their place appeared a Spirit of Light and Truth whose inspiring spiritual guidance brought about profound changes for the good in the lives of the Livingstons, the McSherrys and their neighbors.
One evening, after he had been a Catholic for several weeks, Mr. Livingston perceived a dazzling light in one corner of his room and in an instant the whole house became filled with almost blinding light. And then the old man began to hear a mysterious Voice, which instructed him in the Sacraments of Penance and Holy Eucharist. Often the Voice would come and exclaim, “I want prayers” It would awaken Mr. and Mrs. Livingston at night and tell them to pray hard for perseverance and for sinners. Sometimes it made them pray for three hours; they admitted that it did not seem to be more than a few minutes. And it would suddenly summon the whole family in the evenings with these words: “Come-take your seats!” And then it would instruct them very thoroughly in the various dogmas of the Catholic religion.
It emphasized that although they could not see the person who was speaking to them, they should always obey the visible voice, which was the priest. Some of the young children are reported to have seen the author of the Voice. It revealed to Mr. Livingston that it had once been in the flesh as he was, and that if he persevered he would know who it was before his death. But he must have taken the secret to the grave when he died in 1820. The Voice, having sung three times, very beautifully in Latin and in English the Livingstons naturally thought that their mysterious visitor had perhaps been a priest. And indeed, during the next seventeen years the Voice acted as a wise but strict spiritual director for the Livingston and McSherry families.
Whenever it came – sometimes accompanied by the bright light, it would say, ” In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, three great Names! None greater on earth! None greater in Heaven!” Once it ordered the Livingstons to keep a forty days’ fast with three hours of prayer each day. It also commanded them to keep March 4th each year as a special holy day, in thanksgiving for their conversion. And it was on that day, at the end of the forty days’ fast, that Mr. Livingston heard it sing so beautifully, as also on one All Souls Day. It said the souls in Purgatory were much rejoiced on the day of All Souls on which the whole world was praying for them.
Every night the Voice would join the family in their prayers, saying the Rosary with them and instructing them how to pray well. It also explained the Mass to them and stated that “One Mass was more acceptable to Almighty God than all the sighs and tears of the whole world put together, for it was God, a pure God, offered up to God.” It stressed what a blessing it is for us to have the merciful Mother of God as our Advocate and that she has great power on behalf of poor sinners. And because Mrs. Livingston, who had been a Presbyterian, was somewhat stubborn about honoring the Blessed Virgin, the Voice insisted that in the second part of the Hail Mary they say, “Holy, Holy, Holy Mary, Mother of God…”
Once when one of the Livingston girls went to confession and failed to mention a certain sin through shame, the Voice not only told the whole family that she had not mentioned it, but reminded her of it and pressed her to confess it as soon as possible.
When Mr. Livingston’s son Henry came of age, he refused to do the reaping unless his father paid him regular harvest wages. But very soon he was taken with a pain in his knee, which became so swollen and infected that he was confined to bed for eighteen months. After he had suffered that length of time, the Voice announced that “he had satisfied the Justice of God for his disobedience and disrespect to his father,” and the young man was healed. He must have taken this severe lesson to heart, for it is recorded that he too lived a very holy life henceforth. On the other hand, Father Gallitzin wrote that some of the other Livingston children, “I believe they care very little for the Church.”
It was particularly for the souls suffering in Purgatory that the Voice urged the Livingstons and McSherrys to pray, promising them that these souls, when delivered, would intercede for them at the throne of Almighty God. It told Mr. Livingston that every prayer they said for the poor souls was like a fresh plaster on a sore wound. And it gave them several unforgettable examples of the sufferings of Purgatory.
One day when Mr. Livingston was working in the fields with his sons, all of a sudden he was apparently taken ill, for they saw him turn deathly pale and double up. As they helped him to walk home, he explained that he had just heard a soul in Purgatory screaming for help. And later he often said that he could never forget that shriek – it had been so dreadful!
One night the Voice made the Livingstons get up three times to pray for a certain soul in Purgatory. And when one of the girls began to think that after all the souls could have saved themselves and they deserved their pains and anyhow the whole thing was exaggerated, suddenly they all heard a voice shrieking: “Help! Help!” When asked what kind of help was needed it replied, “Prayers – for we are in excruciating torments. Hand me something – and you will be convinced!” And as soon as a shirt was held up, a whole human hand was burned into it, leaving the spaces between the fingers not scorched. The entire family saw both the flame and the hand. On another occasion, the letters IHS were cleanly burned in deep red colors on a vest. These supernaturally marked objects, as well as some of the clipped cloth, were kept and seen by many persons for over thirty years, although unfortunately they were all eventually lost or destroyed.
The Voice often spoke of the grave troubles that were hanging over the world, and it told Mr. Livingston to inform Mrs. McSherry “she would not live to see it, but her children would – war, pestilence and famine!” It added that those of the family who would remain faithful to God would not suffer from these scourges and that they would know when they were in God’s favor. And as a matter of fact, during the Civil War, none of the eight sons and daughters received the slightest injury, except for one son who died from overexertion in his work in a military hospital.
Mrs. McSherry asked where the soul of her former confessor was, expecting to hear that he was long since in Heaven, as he had been a very holy priest who had died seventeen years before. The Voice replied, “Father F____ is still detained in the scorching flames of Purgatory, on account of some carelessness in the management of some property of orphans he had charge of. He trusted it to someone else, and did not see to it that it was properly attended to.”
Early one morning Mr. Livingston went over to the McSherry estate and told Mrs. McSherry that the Voice had just informed him that her sister, Mrs. Mary Spalding, had died at midnight in Baltimore, that she was in Purgatory “for over-indulgence to her children,” and that Masses should be offered for her soul. Several days later, a letter arrived from Baltimore announcing the death of Mrs. Spalding at the very hour mentioned by the Voice. Mrs. McSherry had eighty Masses said for her sister. And one day when she was walking to the Livingston’s with her husband, the gates were all opened for them to pass through, without anyone touching them. The Voice explained, “Mrs. Mary Spalding had opened them.” Mrs. McSherry had a brother at Georgetown College studying for the priesthood. Through Mr. Livingston, the Voice informed her that her brother had become a blasphemer, who openly stated that he did not believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament nor the power to priests to forgive sins. The Voice added that if he died in that state of mind he would open his eyes in the raging flames below among the damned. The Voice commanded his brothers and sisters to go to him, fall upon their knees and say to him, “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, why will you not believe that there is a God and that nothing is difficult or impossible to Him. It is as easy for Him to give us His Precious Body and Blood as to give us a cup of cold water.” But he did not return to God and, as the Voice foretold, he died in his sins. He was thrown from a horse and died of a broken neck. This sad event occurred in Kentucky.
The mystic Voice from the other world always placed just as much stress upon living a true Christian life as upon praying for the souls in Purgatory. It strongly recommended hospitality and it often severely warned the Livingstons and the McSherrys against the vanities of the world and especially against fashions. It urged the wealthy McSherrys to set aside all pride and vanity and to humble themselves to the earth as though they were sackcloth and ashes. It informed them that some of their relatives who had been long detained in Purgatory because of their worldliness, very much lamented their children being so worldly and so full of worldly grandeur. It claimed that ruffles and fringes, flounces and tuckers and “modesty pieces” (Lace worn over the bosom) were all inventions of Satan. Our Lord had come meek and lowly, it asserted, and so how could we, sinful worms of the earth, deck and adorn our sinful bodies? It declared that thousands of persons were burning in hell forever because of grievous sins that had resulted from their wishing to follow the fashions of the world. Once when three McSherry girls were fitting on some new dresses and admiring themselves, the large mirror before which they were standing was suddenly shattered into hundreds of tiny pieces! In this connection, it is certainly significant that Father Gallitzin, who was intimately acquainted with the teachings of the Voice, always strongly opposed any ostentation in his parishioners, especially in the dress of the women at church and he frequently preached against such display.
On one occasion, when Mr. Livingston’s family assembled in one room, they saw a man in the midst of them and supposing him to be a beggar, as he was poorly dressed and barefooted, the day being cold, Mr. Livingston offered him clothes and shoes, which he accepted but said they were not needed where he came from. He tarried for some time, instructing them in the Christian doctrine and talking to them. He told them; “Luther and Calvin were in Hell and every soul that was lost through their fault added to their torments.” When he left the house, Mr. Livingston thought to watch him, to see where he went, as they had not seen him when he came in; they saw him go out by the front part of the house and then disappear.
As was only to be expected, these extraordinary events and revelations resulted in the conversion of many friends and relatives of the two favored families. In fact, during one winter fourteen persons are known to have joined the Catholic Church in the region around “Priest’s Place,” as the Livingston property now came to be called. And the Catholics nearby of Maryland and Virginia were inspired to lead better lives, particularly when they saw that the Livingstons and the McSherrys, under the guidance of the mystic Voice, had become ardent lay-apostles of Christ. Mr. Livingston, before his conversion, bore his losses very impatiently, but after his conversion, he never complained.
In January 1800, when the Protestant wife of the somewhat lax Catholic, Mr. Joseph Minghini, fell dangerously ill, at the bidding of the Voice Mrs. McSherry visited and consoled her. After they had repeated an Act of Contrition together, the dying woman seemed to be truly penitent and ready to see a priest. But her husband protested that she had her own preachers and that there was no priest within forty miles. Finally, however, as the Voice had urged and predicted, Father Gallitzin was summoned and he received Mrs. Minghini into the Church. The Voice had also specified that the messenger would meet both Father Cahill and Father Gallitzin, but that the latter was the one intended for the woman, “as being of a milder nature.” A few weeks later, in a letter to Bishop Carroll, Father Gallitzin described the conversion as “miraculous”. When Mrs. McSherry returned home, she dreamed that she saw a little child strike a great rock with a stick, whereupon the stone crumbled to dust. The next morning the Voice informed her through the Livingstons that Mrs. Minghini had died during the night and that her sins had crumbled away, like the rock, as a result of her sincere contrition and the priest’s absolution.
Another striking incident, however, served as a vivid warning against waiting for a deathbed conversion. The Protestant wife of a Catholic man in Winchester being near death and having finally asked for a priest, a messenger was sent to the McSherry’s estate and found the priest there. But when they searched for the priest’s horse, Old Bull, in a small nearby field called Spring Pasture, where it had been seen only a few moments before, no one could find the horse! After considerable searching and delay, one of Mr. McSherry’s horses was saddled and the priest left. Soon afterwards Old Bull was heard neighing and was found in the middle of Spring Pasture to the utter amazement of the thirty persons who had just searched for him in vain. Then Mr. Livingston was told by the Voice that the horse had been there all the time. That it had been made invisible, because the woman put off her conversion until the last moment, that she had died before the priest could reach her – as was subsequently confirmed – and that Almighty God had permitted this as a warning to the living not to depend on a death-bed repentance. The Voice frequently advised the Livingstons to pray for perseverance and that there was but one Church out of which there was no salvation.
One night, in hard rain, a stranger came to Mr. McSherry and asked for a night’s lodging. It was most convenient for Mrs. McSherry to put him in the room where the Priest usually slept and where the Church vestments, etc. were kept. They both knew him to be a Methodist Preacher. After retiring, Mr. & Mrs. McSherry heard someone walking briskly about in that room, somewhat like one heavily booted. They were kept awake the whole night and much disturbed. In the morning, they asked the stranger whether he had not been sick during the night; but he replied, no, he had slept very well. Mr. Livingston meantime, came and told them they had had an unpleasant night, being kept awake. The Voice had told him to tell them; “God had permitted them to be disturbed to punish them for harboring him in a place where sacred things were kept – a minister of the devil.”
In August 1804, Mr. McSherry nearly died of a severe illness. Having had some unpleasant difference with Father Cahill, he had not been to confession and communion for some time. But now the Voice told Mr. Livingston to go to Mr. McSherry and “his dear helpmate,” as it always called his wife (according to Father Gallitzin), and to tell them that Mr. McSherry “should humble himself and go to confession, and touch Christ through the Church and he would be cured.” The apparently dying man immediately sent for Father Cahill and that same night, which his family thought would be his last, he made his confession, received Holy Communion, made his thanksgiving and then fell into a peaceful sleep. The next morning he was up before anyone else and when his family saw him walking around the house, some of them at first thought he was a ghost. Actually, though still pale and emaciated, he was completely cured. And he lived until September 7, 1822.
Mr. Livingston’s second wife, despite the fact that she heard the Voice more frequently than anyone, was never sincerely converted. She herself used to say that she was the Judas of the family, and she constantly tried to falsify whatever the Voice said. One Thursday evening when some meat-soup was left after dinner, she decided to serve it on Friday and she therefore locked it in the cellar. But the next morning she found the pot in which she had left the soup filled with exactly the same quantity of clear water! And the Voice told her that it had done it for “it was more proper to take water than to violate the rules of the Church!” Mrs. Livingston herself told Mrs. McSherry the whole occurrence. She also stated that the Voice had said, “If she would not submit to the rules of the Roman Catholic Church, she would open her eyes in Hell.” The Voice also prophesied that she would die in her own home and room, and so when she became ill she deliberately left the house, in order to prove the Voice wrong, and went to live with a Quaker family, whose daughter happened to be dying. This girl told Mrs. Livingston that she wanted some spiritual help but did not know just what it was she needed. The Voice informed Mrs. Livingston that it was Baptism and urged her to arrange for it. After the girl died without being baptized, the Voice told Mrs. Livingston that this would appear against her on Judgment Day. And when she was near death, she was obliged by circumstances to beg to be taken home, where she died in her own room, just as the Voice had foretold. Everything that the Voice predicted happened accordingly.
One of the Livingston girls, Eve, became a very saintly woman. However, once after joining the Catholic Church, she went to a Protestant meeting and while there, she was moved to tears at the sight of so many persons who did not know anything of the True Church. But the Voice reproved her for going to the meeting, saying that she “had committed a great sin, as the people thought she was affected by what she heard – they did not know her thoughts.” Eve Livingston spent much of her time with the devout old Mrs. McSherry, and after she died “in the odor of sanctity,” the Voice declared, “Her soul did not even pass through Purgatory.”
Mrs. McSherry, “the dear helpmate,” had at least two remarkable mystical experiences. One day she was frightened at seeing a cradle containing her infant son William being rocked violently without anyone touching it. Later the Voice told her through Mr. Livingston, “it was the Devil who was trying to destroy the child, knowing that he would one day be his enemy.” And in fact, that child became the Very Reverend William McSherry, one of the Provincials of the Society of Jesus in the United States.
One Sunday Mrs. McSherry stayed home with a sick child while the rest of the family went to Church. As she was praying for her child in an upstairs room, she suddenly saw a beautiful person standing before her in a light cloud, with one hand up and the other down, and a nail running through each hand, who said to her: “Whatsoever you do for one of My little ones, you do it for Me.” She told no one about this marvelous vision, until the priest informed her that the Voice had described it to Mr. Livingston.
One night the good old farmer and his daughter Charlotte were sitting together. The Voice spoke from a bright light in a corner of the room and told the girl that the Devil had been trying to tempt her all day and would have succeeded, if she had not been holding in her arms all the time a neighbor’s baby; “the innocence of the babe had protected her.”
Of course, in those times as today many persons refused to believe what they heard about these supernatural events. Once when Mr. Livingston wanted to warn some acquaintances about their way of living, the Voice said, “No – they are like Dives: if they will not hear the Church, they will not hear a voice from the dead.” However, soon after his conversion, the former Lutheran went to Baltimore to see Bishop Carroll and the wise and cautious old “Founding Father” of the Catholic Church in the United States, after a thorough examination, declared he thought the man had received his knowledge from above. Nevertheless, the Voice warned Mr. Livingston that many people would not believe these things, that even some priests would laugh and not believe and that when he saw this, he should not try to convince them.
Mr. Livingston seems to have become especially devoted to Father Gallitzin, whom he visited at Conewago near Gettysburg only a year or two after joining the Catholic Church. He is known to have walked there and back, and the Voice told him “that it had been with him the whole way.” It is also said, though without conclusive evidence, that through Mr. Livingston the Voice disclosed to Father Gallitzin some of his future sufferings and advised him how to bear them. In any case it is a significant fact that, according to Father Gallitzin, “Mr. Livingston removed from Virginia to Bedford County, Pennsylvania, about twenty miles from here (Loretta), where he died in the spring of 1820. I had Mass at his house repeatedly. He continued, to the last, very attentive to his duties, but did not receive the rites of the Church in his last sickness, which carried him off too quick to afford any chance of sending for a priest.”
Let us end our story with this wise advice from Father Joseph M. Finotti, S.J.: “The narrative of the Clip is for edification; it draws our heart near to God, it teaches lessons of supernatural wisdom. With uncovered head, then, unsandalled feet, and humble brow we approach the spot and reverently exclaim – The Finger of God is here!”
One of the greatest truths this story confirms is the infallible teaching of the Church that there is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church. Please recall Mrs. Livingston’s statement that the Voice told her, “If she would not submit to rules of the Roman Catholic Church she would open up her eyes in Hell.” The teachings of the Church, as confirmed by the Voice, not only apply to Mrs. Livingston, but to all who wish to be saved. Pray and work for the salvation of souls. Distribute this wondrous story of the Wizard Clip so that many others may benefit from its revelations.