Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890–1920
Biography of Sara Genevra Chafa Lake, 1844-1921
By Shanna Stevenson, independent historian
Sara Genevra Chafa (birth name) became known professionally as Mrs. H. S. Lake after her brief marriage to Henry S. Lake and was known as Mrs. Cutter before her death. She was a noted poet, lecturer, spiritualist, suffragist and pastor in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Born near Sackett's Harbor, New York around 1844, she taught for a time and later studied elocution. By 1872, she had published a book of poetry, Napoleon Bonaparte and Other Poems. She performed as a “dramatic reader” at the Union Square Theater in New York City in 1874.
Known to be a follower of Victoria Woodhull, the first of her “notorious episodes” was when she met and later married, by her own account, a New York Catholic priest, Henry S. Lake. After their marriage, they fled New York in 1874 fearing persecution in the east for California and settled in Santa Cruz. Henry Lake purchased the Santa Cruz Enterprise in 1875 but he died just a year later. Mrs. Lake began lecturing in California with an anti-Catholic theme and began her quest to connect with the spirit world to reach her husband, H. S. Lake—whose name she kept for most of her life.
In 1877, Mrs. Lake and fellow spiritualist William F. Peck married in Portland, Oregon but with a specific contract, a reflection of her belief in equal marriage. Lake lectured widely—speaking on human rights in 1878 in Portland, throughout Iowa in the 1880s, and in the mid-West. She authored a pamphlet, “Woman's Right in Government” from a lecture she presented in Iowa in 1884.
By 1884, she and Peck joined the Boston First Spiritual Temple—and Mrs. Lake became the official pastor three years later. According to a history of the temple, although a medium, she did not use props or a cabinet but lectured under spiritual guidance, often in a trance state, on a host of topics including political issues.
By 1891, Lake was again in the news as she had broken with Peck and their sensational “marriage” was receiving notoriety. According to accounts, Lake decided in 1888 to leave Peck on the advice of her spiritual guides. The divorce action was featured prominently in the Boston Globe and other outlets. Lake turned the publicity into another speaking opportunity—lecturing on love, marriage, and divorce. She spoke at Lily Dale in Cassadaga, New York and in 1891 the audience included suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Anna Howard Shaw. Shaw commended the spiritualists for their support for women's right to vote.
Lake was widely in demand throughout the northeast and as far west as Ohio and Wisconsin speaking at Spiritualist gatherings which were recorded in Banner of Light, a spiritualist journal.
By 1898, Lake had become a vegetarian and advertised that she was establishing a vegetarian commune near Olympia, Washington and later started a radical independent church there.
She was recognized as a “Poet Prophet and Teacher” and reviewed widely. Olympia newspapers regularly covered accounts of her lectures, poetry and ministry. She had for many years been associated with the Populist and Socialist movements and in 1900 wrote a paean to socialist Eugene V. Debs, Poems of Justice: Inscribed to Eugene V. Debs and the Social Democrats of the World.
Lake continued her suffrage advocacy. The Washington legislature passed a suffrage amendment to the state constitution in 1909 for ratification in 1910. The National American Woman Suffrage Association met in Seattle in July 1909 to kick off the ratification campaign. It was a gathering of the most prominent national suffragists of the day including Anna Howard Shaw, President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. The meeting was held during the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (AYPE). Lake was called upon to memorialize the convention with a well-published poetic anthem to women's rights, “Flags of All Nations Where Woman is Known as the Equal of Man.” She also spoke at Peace Mothers' Congress at the AYPE on October 10, 1909.
Mrs. Lake also used her rhetorical skills for the cause in Washington by participating in a woman suffrage debate in Olympia leading up to the ratification vote in 1910. The amendment to the Washington State Constitution passed in November 1910, empowering most Washington women to vote.
After women secured the vote in Washington, the first all-woman jury in the state was empaneled in Olympia in December, 1910. Jurors had to be registered voters and property owners. The Deputy County Auditor waived the registered voter requirement and the jury was seated. Lake joined four other activists on the jury in what was described in the press as an “all suffragist jury.”
Their service was much commented upon nationally and by 1911 the Washington State Legislature specified that all electors, including women, would be eligible jurors, becoming the first state in the union to formally authorize women to serve on juries although women had a sex-based exemption in the state until 1967.
Lake continued to appear in Olympia papers as a poet and preacher in the nineteen teens until her husband J. B. Cutter, Lake's spiritual companion, died in 1920. At his death, Lake refused to let his body be taken away and a charge of insanity was leveled against her, citing an “over-active brain.”
In early 1921, Lake was committed to Western State Hospital in Washington and died there less than two weeks later, February 12, 1921. She is buried near Cutter in Olympia.
The most active part of Mrs. Lake's career, from 1885 to 1892, is well covered in the Boston periodical Banner of Light, the nation's leading spiritualist journal. See also Albert von Frank and Phyllis Cole, “Margaret Fuller: How She Haunts,” ESQ: A Journal of Nineteenth-Century American literature and Culture, 64.1 (2018): 66-131, which discusses Mrs. Lake on pp. 102-07, and von Frank, “Mrs. Lake and Margaret Fuller's Posthumous Lecture on ‘Home,'” forthcoming in Conversations: The Newsletter of the Margaret Fuller Society, Spring, 2019, Newspaper accounts in the Olympia Daily Recorder and Morning Olympian; Dee Morris Boston in the Golden Age of Spiritualism: Seances, Mediums & Immortality, (Charleston, S. C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2014); “Madame Lake: Speaking for the Future, accessed at: http://madamlake.yolasite.com/biography.php; Washington State Archives records and probate files; Lydia R. Chase, Biographical Sketch of Mrs. H. S. Lake, Speaker of the First Spiritual Temple (Boston: The Spiritual Fraternity, 1891); and the three chapters of autobiography in The Light of Truth, a Spiritualist journal, in March and April, 1900. Special thanks for Dr. Albert von Frank for his assistance.