James V. Mansfield (b. c. 1817) was known as a "writing medium," and a prominent member of the spiritualist movement during the mid- to late-nineteenth century. Born in Dudley, Massachusetts, Mansfield was one of many children of Jera Mansfield (b. c.1790) and Lucretia Corbin Mansfield (b. c.1795). Not much is known of his early life, though he eventually settled in Chelsea, Massachusetts, with his wife, Mary Hopkinson (b. c.1827), and two children, Mary Gertrude "Gertie" (b. c.1854) and John Worthington (1849-1933). The latter became a well-known artist, whose paintings are still extant. Mansfield endured many financial struggles, and was impelled at times to travel in search of work. This included trips to San Francisco, California, and to New York City.
Mansfield provided spirit communications solely through letter writing, and this earned him the title of the "spirit postmaster." Those who wished to communicate with the departed could do so in two ways: they could have a séance with him in person, or they could mail a letter to the spirit in care of Mansfield. In the latter case, Mansfield would provide answers to unopened letters. Being very confident in his abilities, he also referred to himself as a "test medium," providing free communications for skeptics.
Mansfield was both admired and loathed for his "talents." Allegedly satirizing him in his bookLife on the Mississippi, Mark Twain writes, "If this man is not the paltriest fraud that lives, I owe him an apology." Though Mansfield claimed to have converted a number of people into "believers," and many wrote admiringly of his abilities, he could not escape the scrutiny of skeptics. In 1885, he was studied by the University of Pennsylvania's Seybert Commission, which was established to investigate spiritualist phenomena. After observing Mansfield, Dr. Horace Howard Furness of the Commission concluded in the official report that he was at best a charlatan, thus tarnishing his name.