Edited by HENRY REED, Ph.D.
September 03,   2009
What Is the Occult

What Is the Occult?

(And What Is It Doing In America?)

An excerpt from

Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped our Nation*

Mitch Horowitz

 

Introduction

 

          Religious history, like literary or any cultural history,

          is made by genius, by the mystery of rare human personalities.

          -- Harold Bloom, The American Religion

         

          In the summer of 1693, the philosopher Johannes Kelpius and a small band of followers fled their Rhine Valley homeland. The region had once been a sanctuary of political independence and esoteric spirituality. It was now a charred land of devastation, crushed by the papal Hapsburg Empire during the Thirty Years' War.

          The twenty-one-year-old Kelpius, a protege of mystical scholars who survived in the Rhine corridor, led his German pilgrims to the New World. Fewer than forty in number, they first traveled over land and later endured a five-month sea voyage, which proved less dangerous for the weather than for warring French and British ships crisscrossing Atlantic routes. By late June of 1694, the group reached Philadelphia, then a cluster of about five hundred houses. They settled along the wooded banks of the Wissahickon Creek outside town. There they lived a monastic existence, occupying caves and constructing a forty-foot-square log tabernacle, topped with a telescope from which they scanned the stars for holy signs. By sunlight and hearth fire, they studied astrology, alchemy, number symbolism, esoteric Christianity, Kabala, and other philosophies that had once flowered back home. Newcomers journeyed to America to join their Tabernacle in the Forest, and in the years following Kelpius's death from tuberculosis in 1708, they created a larger commune at Ephrata, Pennsylvania.

          News drifted back to the Old World: A land existed where mystical thinkers and mystery religions, remnants of esoteric movements that had thrived during the Renaissance and were later harassed, could find safe harbor. And so began a revolution in religious life that was eventually felt around the earth. America hosted a remarkable assortment of breakaway faiths, from Mormonism to Seventh-Day Adventism to Christian Science. But one movement that grew within its borders came to wield radical influence over nineteenth and twentieth-century spirituality. It encompassed a wide array of mystical philosophies and mythical lore, particularly the belief in an "unseen world" whose forces act upon us and through us. It is called the occult.

          The teachers and purveyors of the American occult -- colorful, audacious, and often deeply self-educated men and women -- shattered every stereotype, real and imagined, of the power-mad dabbler in dark arts. Rather than seeing mystical or magical ideas as a means to narcissistic power or moral freedom, they emphasized an unlikely ethic of social progress and individual betterment. These religious radicals, acting outside the folds of traditional churches and mostly overlooked or ignored in the pages of history, transformed a young nation into the launching pad for the revolutions in therapeutic and alternative spirituality that swept the earth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, even reigniting mystical traditions in the East.

Sons of Frankenstein

          In her 1818 novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley offered a stirring portrait -- not sympathetic, but not as unsympathetic as many suppose -- of the European occult in the Enlightenment age of the 1700s. Her budding scientist Victor von Frankenstein was torn between the occult visions that drew him to science as a child and the materialist philosophy of his peers: "It was very different when the masters of science sought immortality and power; such views, although futile, were grand; but now the scene was changed. I was required to exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur for realities of little worth." In the public mind, the occultist craved immortality, deific power, and limitless knowledge. It was an image that popular occultists often fed. The nineteenth-century French magician Eliphas Levi fancied the occult arts "a science which confers on man powers apparently superhuman." England's "Great Beast" Aleister Crowley extolled self-gratification in his best-known maxim: "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law."

          The standard bearers of the American occult took a different path. They sought to remake mystical ideas as tools of public good and self-help. The most influential trance medium of the nineteenth century, Andrew Jackson Davis, called the "Poughkeepsie Seer" after his Hudson Valley, New York, home, enthralled thousands with visions of Heaven as a place that included all the world's people -- black, white, Indian, and followers of every religion. In early America, the occult and liberalism were closely joined, especially in the movement of Spiritualism -- or contacting the dead -- whose newspapers and practitioners were ardently abolitionist and suffragette. For women, Spiritualist practices, from seances to spirit channeling, became vehicles for the earliest forms of religious and political leadership. The first American-born woman to become a recognized public preacher was Jemima Wilkinson, who in 1776, at age twenty-four, claimed to have died and returned to life as a medium of the Divine spirit, calling herself the "Publick Universal Friend."

      The Friend, like the Rhine Valley mystics and Andrew Jackson Davis, remained a Christian. While her claims of supernatural rebirth and spirit channeling fell squarely within the occult framework, her religious perspective was unmistakably Scriptural. For a time, this was the nature of most American occultists (and it would never fully disappear). Few of them expressed any feelings of contradiction between Christian devotion and arcane methods of practice. Eventually, the occult and its acolytes came to branch ever more clearly into a separate and distinct spiritual culture, though not necessarily shedding a Christian moral outlook. 

    In the years between the Civil War and World War II, Americans took a do-it-yourself approach to many aspects of life, including the occult. Their enthusiasms resulted in strange inventions like the Ouija board, a boom in pop astrology, and a revolution in metaphysical mail-order courses and "how-to" guides. Breaking with the habits of the Old World, American occultists often proved wary of secret lodges and brotherhoods; they wanted to evangelize occult teachings as tools that ordinary men and women could use to contend with the problems of daily life. In their hands, methods that had once seemed forbidden or even sinister in the Old World -- such as Mesmerism, soothsaying, and necromancy -- morphed into a bevy of friendlier-sounding philosophies, some involving mind-body healing, positive visualization, and talking to angelic spirits.

          The early twentieth-century progressive minister Wallace D. Wattles, whose writing later inspired the book and movie The Secret, conceived of a psychical "science of getting rich," which he saw more as a program of wealth redistribution than a means of personal enrichment. Similarly, the black-nationalist leader Marcus Garvey attempted to harness the "mind power," or positive-thinking, principles so popular within American mysticism as a path to black liberation. Even at the highest rung of American politics, the Iowan farmer-seeker Henry A. Wallace, who served as Franklin Roosevelt's second vice president, drew ethical ideas from his lifelong passion for the occult and envisioned the dawn of a spiritually enlightened "New Deal of the Ages."

            Since the mid-nineteenth century, denizens of the American occult had foretold a "New Age" in education, cooperation, and inner awakening. In the depth and reach of their careers, in their marriage of arcane methods with self-improvement philosophy, and in their determination to bring mysticism to the masses, they remade occultism into the harbinger of a new era in self-empowering and healing spirituality. Though its arcane roots became overgrown and forgotten.

The Silver Moon

          Mysteries can be found wherever you look -- especially when you're not sure what you're looking for. My brush with the occult began on a quiet Sunday morning in the mid-1970s at a diner in the Queens neighborhood where I grew up, a place of bungalow-sized houses and cracked sidewalks that straddles the invisible boundary between the farthest reaches of New York City and the suburbs of Long Island. As a restless nine-year-old, I fidgeted at a table crowded with parents, aunts, and older cousins. Bored with the grown-up conversation, I wandered toward the front of the restaurant -- the place where the real wonders were: cigarette machines; rows of exotic-looking liquor bottles above the cashier counter; brochure racks with dating-service questionnaires; a boxy machine that could print out your "biorhythm." It was a carnival of the slightly forbidden.

          One vending machine especially caught my eye: a dime horoscope dispenser. Drop in a coin, pull a lever, and out would slide a little pink scroll wound in a clear plastic sleeve. Unroll it and there appeared a brief analysis for each day of the month. I was a ripe customer. I had just borrowed a book of American folklore from our local library. It contained an eerie pentagram-like chart over which, eyes closed, you could hover a pin and bring it down on a prophecy: A NEW LOVE; LOSS; GOOD HEALTH, and so on. My prophecy read: A LETTER. At nine, letters rarely found me. But the very next day one arrived -- from the library. My hands shook when I opened it, only to remove a carbon-copied overdue slip. But still.  

          In the 1970s, the supernatural was in the air: I overheard my big sister on the phone considering whether ex-Beatle Ringo Starr had shaved his head in solidarity with the youth culture's Prince of Darkness, Charles Manson. Books on ESP, Bigfoot, and "true" hauntings appeared in the Arrow Book Club catalogues at my elementary school. Friends huddled in basements for seances and Ouija sessions. The Exorcist was the movie that no one on the block was allowed to see. On TV, Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas chatted with clairvoyants, astrologers, and robed gurus.  Everything seemed to hint at a strange otherworld not so far away from our own.   

          Or so it seemed that Sunday morning as I bounded back to the table to show off my star scroll. "Look what it says!" I announced, reading out predictions that were always just reasonable enough to come true. "Does it also say you're a sucker?" asked my grandfather, the perpetually exhausted manager of a flower shop. His lack of even the slightest curiosity in the mysteries of the world was as impossible for me to understand as my boyish enthusiasm was for him. While I didn't yet know the lines from Hamlet -- There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy -- I felt their meaning in my guts. Peering down at my star scroll, I wondered: Where did this stuff come from? The zodiac signs, their symbols, the meanings -- all this came from somewhere, somewhere old. But where -- and how did it reach Queens?

          Although I wouldn't know it until many years later, my dime scroll contained a surprising likeness to the ideas of Claudius Ptolemy, the Greco-Egyptian astrologer-astronomer of the second century A.D. who had codified the basic principles of heavenly lore in his Tetrabiblos. In Ptolemy's pages stood concepts that had already stretched across millennia and followed a jagged path -- sometimes broken by adaptations and bastardizations -- from the philosophy of primeval Babylon to classical Egypt to Ptolemy's late Hellenic era to the Renaissance courts of Europe to popularizations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and, finally, down to the star scroll bought by a nine-year-old one morning in a local diner (a place aptly named "The Silver Moon").

          In Ptolemy's day, astrology remained a mainstay of royal courts and academies, but by the fourth century A.D. it would fall into disfavor under the influence of early Church fathers, who warned that divinatory practices were an easy portal for demonic powers. In the Church's zeal to erase the old practices -- practices that endured throughout the late ancient world (even Rome's first Christian emperor, Constantine, personally combined Christianity with sun worship) -- bishops branded pantheists and nature-worshipers, astrologers and cosmologists, cultists and soothsayers, in ways that such believers had never conceived of themselves: as practitioners of Satanism and black magic. It was a new classification of villainy, entirely of the Church's invention. Once so characterized, the religious minority could be outlawed and persecuted, just as pagan powers had once done to early Christians.

          The fall of Rome meant the almost total collapse of esoteric and pre-Christian belief systems in Europe, as ancient books and ideas were scattered to the chaos of the Dark Ages. Only fortress-like monasteries, where old libraries could be hidden, protected the mystery traditions from complete destruction. By the time Greco-Egyptian texts and philosophies started to reemerge in the medieval and Renaissance ages, astrology and other and divinatory methods began to be referred to under the name "occultism."

          Occultism describes a tradition -- religious, literary, and intellectual -- that has existed throughout Western history. The term comes from the Latin occultus, meaning "hidden" or "secret." The word occult entered modern use through the work of Renaissance scholar Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, who used it to describe magical practices and veiled spiritual philosophies in his three-volume study, De occulta philosophia, in 1533. Twelve years later an entry for "occult" appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary.

          Traditionally, occultism deals with the inner aspect of religions: the mystical doorways of realization and secret ways of knowing. Classical occultism regards itself as an initiatory spiritual tradition. Seen from that perspective, the occultist is not necessarily born with unusual abilities, like soothsaying or mind reading, but trains for them. Such parameters, however, are loose: Spiritualism is impossible to separate from occultism whether believers consider channeling the dead a learned skill or a passive gift; its crypto-religious nature draws it into the occult framework. Indeed, occultism, at its heart, is religious: Renaissance occultists were particularly enamored of Jewish Kabala, Christian Gnosticism, Egypto-Hellenic astrology, Egyptian-Arab alchemy, and prophetic or divinatory rituals found deep within all the historic faiths, especially within the mystery religions of the Hellenic and Egyptian civilizations. They venerated the ideas of the Hermetica, a collection of late-ancient writings attributed to the mythical Greco-Egyptian sage Hermes Trismegistus. The name Hermes Trismegistus meant "Thrice-Greatest Hermes," a Greek term of veneration for Thoth, Egypt's god of writing, who the Greeks conflated with their own Hermes (and later with the Roman Mercury). The Hermetica reflected the final stages of the magico-religious thought of Alexandria, and formed a critical link between Ancient Egypt and the modern occult.

          The sturdiest definition of classical occult philosophy that I have personally found appears not in a Western or Egyptian context, but in Sino scholar Richard Wilhelm's 1950 introduction to the Chinese oracle book The I Ching or Book of Changes:

          "Every event in the visible world is the effect of an 'image,' that is, of an idea in the unseen world. Accordingly, everything that happens on earth is only a reproduction, as it were, of an event in a world beyond our sense perception; as regards its occurrence in time, it is later than the suprasensible event. The holy men and sages, who are in contact with those higher spheres, have access to these ideas through direct intuition and are therefore able to intervene decisively in events in the world. Thus man is linked with heaven, the suprasensible world of ideas, and with earth, the material world of visible things, to form with these a trinity of primal powers."

Of Dime Horoscopes

          Back, for a moment, to the Silver Moon diner. What of the coin machine where I bought my horoscope that morning? It had its own story, one perhaps less august than that of ancient scholars or Renaissance courts, but, to a young boy, no less fascinating: It was invented in 1934 by a clothing and securities salesman named Bruce King -- or, as he was better known by his nom de mystique, Zolar. ("It comes from 'zodiac' and 'solar system'," he explained. "Registered U.S. trademark.") His initiation was not in the temples of Egypt, but on the boardwalks of Atlantic City, New Jersey. There he witnessed a goateed Professor A.F. Seward thrusting a pointer at a huge zodiac chart while lecturing beachgoers on the destiny of the stars. Professor Seward sold one-dollar horoscopes to countless vacationers -- so many, rumor went, that he retired to Florida a millionaire. (The rumor, as will be seen, was true.)

          Bursting forth from the boardwalks, Bruce King knew he had what it took to sell mysticism to the masses. "I felt the competition wasn't great," he told John Updike in The New Yorker in 1959, "and I could become the biggest man in the field." Zolar immersed himself in astrology, Tarot, palmistry and all the "magical arts," on which he could expound with surprising erudition. "Everything I've ever known I've taught myself," he said. "I've studied psychiatry, sociology, and every field of human relations as well as the occult." For all his have-I-got-a-deal-for-you pitch, Zolar knew his material. His biggest breakout came in 1935, when the dime-store empire Woolworths agreed to sell his pocket-sized daily horoscopes, the first generation of mass-marketed horoscope booklets that now adorn the racks at supermarket checkout lines.  

          The secret to Zolar's success was that he spoke in a language everyone could understand. "I'm like the old $2 country doctor -- a general practitioner," he once said. "If you want a specialist, you go somewhere else." Zolar could even sound like my grandfather when giving a reporter the lowdown on the resurgence of astrology in 1970: "It sounds kind of crazy -- but you know that screwy play 'Hair' that has that Aquarian thing?" -- Zolar was speaking, of course, of the rock musical's rousing opener "Age of Aquarius" -- "I think that's sold five million horoscopes."

          So it had -- and in America the old mysteries were on the move.  

         

Chapter One

The Psychic Highway

         

          Yet who knows but the institution of a new order of labourers in the great Spiritual vineyard, is to prove the signal for the outpouring of such blessings as have been hitherto unparalleled in the history of our American Israel.

          -- Western Recorder, 1825

         

          The Age of Reason could seem anything but reasonable for people with unusual religious beliefs -- or those accused of them. In 1782, Switzerland sanctioned one of the Western world's last witch trials, which ended in the torture and beheading of a rural housemaid. In 1791, the Vatican sentenced the legendary Italian occultist called Cagliostro to death on charges of heresy and Freemasonry. While his execution was stayed, the self-styled "High Priest of the Egyptian Mysteries" died of disease four years later in the dungeons of the Inquisition.

          In eighteenth-century England, a young woman with the simple name of Ann Lee, living in the industrial town of Manchester on Toad Lane (where she was born in leap year), told of magical visions and spoke of prophecies. The girl -- who belonged to a radical Christian sect that would become known as the Shaking Quakers or the Shakers -- was hounded, beaten, and jailed on charges of sorcery and public disruption. Local authorities were aghast at the otherworldly possession that seemed to grip her and the other Shakers when they gyrated and shook in a spirit trance. But she was not destined to become another casualty. Ann Lee escaped.

          In 1774, the woman now called Mother Ann sailed from Liverpool to New York with eight followers and hangers-on. They included an unfaithful husband with whom she had already suffered through the birth and death of four infants. As legend goes, the ship almost capsized in a storm. But Ann, in a state of eerie calm as waves crashed over the bow, told the captain that no harm would befall them. She reported seeing "two bright angels of God" on the mast. The ship survived. 

          After toiling at menial labor in New York City, the pilgrims -- now twelve, minus Lee's husband -- scraped together enough resources in 1776 to form a tiny colony in the knotty, marshy fields of Niskayuna, near Albany in New York's Hudson River Valley. The twelve apostles, as they saw themselves, anointed the place Wisdom's Valley. It was a punishing, swampy stretch of 200 acres swept barren by icy winds in the winter and transformed into muddy, mosquito-infested fields in the summer. Their neighbors were no friendlier than the landscape. Angry rumors painted Mother Ann and the Shakers -- each a sworn pacifist -- as British sympathizers or spies. Revolutionary authorities briefly jailed the religious leader in Albany on charges of sedition. During a Shaker missionary trip to Petersham, Massachusetts, a band of thirty townsmen seized Mother Ann and subjected the celibate woman to the humiliation of disrobing, ostensibly to determine whether she was an English agent in drag. Some accused her of witchcraft or heresy. ("There is no witchcraft but sin," Mother Ann evenly countered.) But oddly, the little sect -- celibate, poor, steeped in a life of hard labor and little rest -- began to grow.

          Following a brutal upstate New York winter in 1780, two men from across the Hudson River in the farming community of New Lebanon took advantage of an early spring thaw to visit the Shaker settlement. The men were disappointed followers of one of the many Baptist revivals that had been sweeping the region, and they longed to see the woman who followers called Christ returned in female form. When they located Mother Ann and her colony in the wilderness they were astonished at the small group's survival. They began asking Mother Ann about her mystical teachings and rumors of the sect's practices, in which members spoke in prophecies, saw visions of the dead, danced, jumped and shouted in the thrall of the Holy Spirit. "We are the people who turn the world up side down," Mother Ann enigmatically told them.

          The men returned to New Lebanon to spread word of the people in the woods -- and more curiosity seekers trekked to Niskayuna. Strange natural events drove newcomers into Mother Ann's little world. On May 19, 1780, many parts of New England experienced "The Dark Day" -- a period when the daytime skies mysteriously blackened and the sun's rays were blotted out. The cause may have been a rash of local fires to clear fields, but the effect was panic over the coming of Armageddon. Mother Ann's warnings about the debased nature of the world seemed suddenly prophetic -- and new converts came to her. To the Shakers, it was all expected. The previous year, Mother Ann had told her followers to store up extra provisions: "We shall have company enough, before another year comes about, to consume it all." Soon New Lebanon itself sprouted a new and much bigger colony, eventually sporting the immaculate white-washed buildings, tidy yards, and brick meeting houses for which the Shakers became famous.

          Though Mother Ann died by 1784, her influence extended further in death than in life.  The late 1830s saw the dawn of a feverish and profoundly influential period of Shaker activity called "Mother Ann's Work." The departed leader appeared as an otherworldly spirit guide directing a vast range of supernatural activity and instruction. Shaker villages -- now spread as far south as Kentucky -- recorded visits from spirits of historical figures and vanquished Indian tribes. The devout reported receiving ghostly visions and songs, which they turned into strangely beautiful paintings and haunting hymns (many of which still survive). Villagers spoke in foreign tongues, writhing and rolling on the floors in meetings that lasted all night -- some even getting drunk on "spirit gifts" of unseen wine or Indian tobacco. In an America that had not yet experienced the Spiritualist wave of seances, table tilting, or conversing with the dead, the Shakers foretold a prophecy that beings from the afterlife would soon "visit every city and hamlet, every palace and cottage in the land." And events unfolding outside the manicured grounds of Shaker villages were already bringing that prophecy to life.

The Burned-over District

          The Shakers had laid down their roots in an area that would prove pivotal in American culture, its influence vastly surpassing its size. The region's role is as central to the development of mystical religions in America as the sands of the Sinai are to Judaism, and no account of American religion is possible without taking stock of it. The twentieth-century historian Carl Carmer called this area "a broad psychic highway, a thoroughfare of the occult." A snaking stretch of land in central New York State, it was a place of pristine lakes and rolling green hills, about twenty-five miles wide and 300 miles long, extending from Albany in the east to Buffalo in the west. It became one of the main passages through which Americans flowed west. It remains so today as U.S. Route 20, an east-west highway that begins in New England, gently traversing the bends and slopes of Central New York's farmland before heading across the expanse of the nation to the Pacific Northwest. It is the longest continual road in the United States. As fate and geography would have it, this great corridor cuts directly across a part of Central New York that in the nineteenth-century became so caught up in the fires of religious revival movements -- the fires of the spirit -- that it became known as the Burned-over District.

          Before the Revolutionary War, the Burned-over District was home to the Iroquois nation, whose remnants the new American government pushed out, partly in retaliation for the tribe's alliance with the British and partly to satisfy the land-hunger of early settlers and speculators. And when settlers did arrive after the war, most of them unaware of the Indian lives that had been extinguished or hounded from the rich soil, the place could seem like an Eden of bountiful, open land and vast lakes.

          Throughout the first decades of the nineteenth century, itinerant ministers continually traveled the newly settled region, crisscrossing its hills and valleys with news of the Holy Spirit. The circuit-riding preachers and their tent revival meetings often left the area in a torrent of religious passion. For days afterwards, without the prompting of ministers or revivalists, men and women would speak in tongues and writhe in religious ecstasy. Many would report visitations from angels or spirits.

          Folklore told of the area once being home to a mysterious tribe -- older than the oldest of Indian tribes, maybe even a lost tribe of Israel. These ancient beings, so the story went, had been wiped out in a confrontation with the Native Americans. Some believed their ghosts and messengers still walked, composing a world within a world amid the daily goings-on of Burned-over District life.

          The Burned-over District's early religious communities thrived on a steady pool of migrants drawn to the region's abundant land. This new breed of Yankee, streaming westward from New England, was spiritually curious, ready to listen, and to believe. In the star-lit nights of pioneer life, many minds and hearts turned to the whispers of the cosmos and the mysteries of what-might-be.

Apocalypse Postponed

          If the Burned-over District became a staging ground for a young nation's foray into unconventional and alternative religious ideas, it was in the mood and mindset of its residents that journey took flight. The mental habits of the Burned-over District can best be understood by looking at one of the great schisms of American religious history. It concerns an early nineteenth-century sect called the Millerites, later known as the Seventh-Day Adventists. This group of believers, which numbered in the thousands by the 1840s, followed the utopian-millenarian ideas of a Freemason and Baptist clergyman named William Miller. Born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Miller grew up estranged from his strict Baptist upbringing, more or less indifferent to religion. But after fighting in the War of 1812, he took up a common view among returning soldiers that his survival had somehow been divinely ordained. The former secularist came home with a deep interest in questions of immortality.

          Convinced that the Bible was a record of literal truths, Miller undertook a comprehensive study to determine the time of Christ's return -- and the millennium of peace he believed it would bring. Though only moderately educated, Miller spent fourteen years poring over Scripture, organizing and cross-referencing all that he found, and endeavoring -- in true Yankee fashion -- to find an orderly blueprint to God's plan. Miller's data pointed to the end as falling somewhere between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. He later recast the final call to October 22, 1844. By the early 1830s, he began to gain a serious audience, first as one of the Burned-over District's legion of itinerant religious speakers and later as a Baptist minister.

          As Miller's portentous dates neared, hundreds and then thousands of followers gathered at tent revival meetings throughout Central New York. They filled -- and sometimes overflowed -- the biggest tent the nation had ever seen, one that could seat 3,000 people. Once near Rochester a wind squall snapped fifteen of its chains and several inch-thick ropes, violently ripping the tent from its moorings like the opening of a gigantic clam shell. Amazingly, no one was hurt -- which deepened local belief that Miller's movement was charmed. When an economic depression swept the Burned-over District in the late 1830s and early 1840s, it served only to heighten the yearning for deliverance and the feeling that familiar institutions were slipping away. 

           A widely promulgated myth tells that as 1843 approached, the man the press called "Mad Miller" and his followers shed their last possessions, donned white "ascension robes," and waited on hilltops for the new advent. Stories abound that some ran amok, engaging in "free love" and throwing money to the wind in anticipation of a world without wants or demands. So it is repeated in popular histories and local tales. Not only is this portrait historically inaccurate -- without any viable source material in newspapers of the day -- but it misunderstands the unusual blend of magical beliefs and practical habits that marked so many lives in the Burned-over District.

          In fact, Miller's followers never en masse sold their belongings, retreated to hilltops, or -- but for rare cases -- threw responsibility to the winds as they awaited their Savior. What few such episodes did occur were seized upon and exaggerated by those neighbors who mocked, and in some cases even physically attacked, the Millerites as they congregated in meeting halls and homes. Most evidence shows that these Yankee acolytes toiled right up to point of Miller's end-times, working at their jobs, maintaining their farms, and attending school. Barns were swept, haylofts loaded, and fireplaces stoked before the arrival of the "last days." While followers believed -- and were passionate for -- progress and perfection, they never abandoned the worldly. And this was the distinct habit of thought in the Burned-over District: The ability to believe so deeply in the otherworld that it could be felt as a palpable presence; but also to possess the soundness of mind and instinct to, in the Shaker formulation, keep hands to work even as hearts soared to God. It was a key facet of the occult and metaphysical mindset being born in America.

The Universal Friend

          The dreamers and planners who flourished along the Psychic Highway seemed to relish splitting apart orthodoxies, remaking Christianity as a new source of mystery and magic. One woman, in particular, today long forgotten, created in the mind of her followers a dramatically new idea of what a divine messenger could be. A New Englander by birth, she became the first American-born woman to found a spiritual order. Unlike Ann Lee she wasn't seen as a female return of Christ, but rather as a medium or channel possessed of the Divine Spirit. Her name was Jemima Wilkinson. 

          Wilkinson was born in 1752 to a moderately prosperous farming household of Quakers in Cumberland, Rhode Island. She lost her mother at age twelve and grew up under the care of older sisters, riding horses, gardening, and reading the basics of Quaker theology. The girl grew into a young woman of "personal beauty" who "took pleasure in adding to her good appearance the graceful drapery of elegant apparel," historian Stafford C. Cleveland wrote in his 1873 History and Directory of Yates County, which became the earliest biographical narrative of any repute of Wilkinson. Later in Wilkinson's life, onlookers commented on her fresh complexion and gently tanned skin, the ringlets of chestnut-brown hair that draped her neck, and her black, flashing eyes. The attractive young woman presented a strikingly different figure than Mother Ann Lee -- that is, if the testimony from the spirit world can be relied upon.

          Although no images survive of Mother Ann, some of her nineteenth-century followers doted on a "psychometric portrait" of their founder, created by a New York artist who, when handed an object, claimed to clairvoyantly summon the vision of its owner. Whatever his abilities, the "psychometrist" was not attempting flattery. The supernatural image of Ann Lee revealed a dark, straight-haired woman with an unusually large forehead, dull eyes, and thick masculine lips. To her followers, it accurately captured in Ann Lee a degree of world weariness far different from anything that would have been known by Jemima Wilkinson, raised amid the relative comforts of a successful New England farm.

          By about sixteen Wilkinson was educated in the subjects expected of a girl from a modest estate -- poetry, current news, and light literature. But in a short time, she became wrapped up in a Rhode Island religious revival and her life took a dramatically different turn. It was the last phase of the "Great Awakening" brought to New England by charismatic British preacher George Whitefield, who in 1770 was making his final tour of the area. Wilkinson fell in with a group of revivalist Baptists in Cumberland, and began to comb through the Bible with strange intensity. She often meditated and sat alone in her room. Within a few years of her religious rebirth, Wilkinson showed signs of another wave sweeping the area: Typhus fever.

          On October 4, 1776, Wilkinson stumbled to her bed with a high temperature. She slipped in and out of delirium, returning to consciousness to describe dreams of heavenly realms and their angelic inhabitants. Her health worsened and she fell into a comatose state where her breathing grew faint and her pulse slowed. The end seemed imminent. But after thirty-six hours immobile in a near-lifeless state, she suddenly bounded from bed with a burst of renewed energy. Jemima Wilkinson had "passed to the angel world," she told her family. And the girlish form before them was now "reanimated by a spirit" destined to "deliver the oracles of God." This new entity told visitors and family that she would respond to no other named than: Publick Universal Friend.   

          On the Sunday following her recovery, though still skinny and pale from her illness, the Publick Universal Friend went to a local church that was a center of the area's Baptist revival. The congregation was taken aback at the reappearance of the young woman who had been written off as dead. After services, their surprise turned to shock when Wilkinson walked out to a shady tree in the churchyard and began preaching. It was probably the first time any of them had seen a woman deliver a homily in public. Her message -- repentance from sin, humility, the Golden Rule -- was little more than warmed-over Quakerism. But it electrified listeners who marveled at the confidence and eloquence of the formerly bedridden girl who now claimed to be a supernatural channel.

    The Friend soon began traveling around New England and down to Philadelphia -- not exactly seeking converts to a religion, but followers of her as an avatar of God. While in Philadelphia, the Friend came under the influence of at least one close admirer with ties to the mystical commune at Ephrata in Lancaster County. It had been founded in 1732 by Johann Conrad Beissel, a dynamic successor to the Rhine Valley mystic Kelpius. Like the Ephratans, the Friend came to reject the formality of church service, liturgy, confessions of faith, and vows. She adopted the Ephratan practice of identifying the Sabbath on Saturday. And also like the German mystics from Lancaster, she encouraged, but stopped short of demanding, celibacy among her followers. If anything, the Friend's appeal was characterized by its almost total lack of hardened doctrine. Instead she relied upon the lessons of Scripture and a simple do-unto-others ethic. Indeed, the Friend's teachings -- in contrast to her fantastic claims about herself -- could seem downright ordinary, extending to the virtues of punctuality and good neighborliness.

    Unlike the intense devotees around Mother Ann Lee, the Friend attracted a milder circle of landowners, merchants, and gentry. Shakerism, by contrast, was always running afoul of authorities as a migrant British movement whose converts came largely from the rear pews: kitchen maids, hired hands, and hardscrabble farmers. Followers of Mother Ann were once jailed simply on a rumor that they were driving sheep into British-held territory. The Universal Friend, on the other hand, moved freely around Rhode Island during the Revolutionary War, preaching to both American and English troops. Even when the Friend did end up in court after the war the results were almost comical. In a dispute with an angry ex-follower, the Friend was once dragged before a Central New York circuit court on charges of blasphemy, only to hear the presiding judge calmly inform the parties that blasphemy was not an indictable offense in the new republic. In a tale that would be dismissible as legend were it not on public record, Judge Morgan Lewis -- later the governor of New York -- then invited the Friend to preach before the court and applauded her "good counsel." It was a reception Mother Ann never could have dreamed of.

Pioneer Prophetess

    After learning about the success of Ephrata, the Friend's followers began to discuss creating a colony of their own. By late 1788, a cluster of devotees journeyed from New England to the lakes of Central New York to break ground on a settlement to house the Universal Friend. In so doing, followers of the "pioneer prophetess," as Wilkinson's impeccable twentieth-century biographer Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr. dubbed her, became some of the earliest white settlers of Central New York. Their community of Jerusalem eventually grew near Crooked Lake -- now called Keuka Lake -- where it continues to stand as an incorporated town today, a place in which family names belonging to the Friend's earliest followers still appear in the local telephone directory.

          Many Central New Yorkers harbored conflicting attitudes toward their spirit-possessed pioneer, who cut a theatrical presence in her trademark cape and wide-brimmed hat. Their ambivalence resulted in a wide range of tall tales that depicted the Friend as a shrewd operator of slightly ill repute. One story of the Friend is as deeply ingrained in the folklore of New York State as the Legend of the Headless Horseman. Like many folk tales, its location changes with nearly every recitation, the setting variously put at the banks of Seneca or Keuka lakes, or on bodies of water stretching as far north as Rhode Island or as far south as the Schuylkill River near Philadelphia. It gets repeated today on the tidy main street of the Central New York town of Penn Yan near Jerusalem, where one teller sincerely placed it at a canal at the end of the road. Based on prevailing versions, it goes this way:

          One morning, the Friend led a band of followers to a lakeshore where she preached to them on the powers of faith. She built to a fiery conclusion and then proclaimed she was going to walk on water.

          "Have ye faith that I can do this thing?" she demanded of the crowd.  

          "Yea, we believe!" followers replied.

          "Then if ye have faith," the Universal Friend said, "there is no need for any vulgar spectacle."

          And with that she turned around, got into her carriage, monogrammed with her initials U * F, and rode off.

          The only confirmable part of the story is the monogrammed carriage (which still survives). Another apparent fiction surrounded the Friend's death. Her detractors claimed that the Friend said she was immortal. Hence, when she died in 1819 her deputies snuck her body out of her Jerusalem basement by night and secreted it to an unmarked grave. In fact, Wilkinson's body was interred with several others in a traditional burial vault on her property, until several years later when her remains were moved, in Quaker fashion, to an unmarked plot.

          Legal battles over township land emerged before and after the Friend's death, but, by and large, her followers and their families -- similar in spirit to the Millerites -- showed the ability to contain within them both fantastical beliefs and the canny abilities and competences needed for a successful outer life. Following their teacher's death, these farmers, merchants, and tradesmen moved on to populate many of the region's liberal and experimental religious communities. The Friend's ministry, at once supernatural and down-to-earth, played a lasting if little-seen role in peopling the movements and attitudes that traveled the Psychic Highway and acculturated the nation to religious experiments.

The Lost Tribe

          When Route 20 remained just a well-traveled carriage path, an ambitious, dreamy young man who grew up near its perimeters in the town of Palmyra -- about forty miles north of the Universal Friend's settlement -- became its most influential traveler. Raised on the folklore of the Burned-over District and possessed of ingenious and extraordinary visions, he went on to establish one of the fastest-growing religions of the contemporary world: Mormonism.

          As a teenaged boy in the late 1810s and early 1820s, Joseph Smith of Palmyra was locally known as a clairvoyant guide who could track down hidden treasure using a "seer stone" -- a smooth rock, variously opaque or marked with magic symbols, that he placed in his hat and gazed into to gain the power of second sight. The manner in which Smith went about "peep-stoning" might be compared today with scrying or crystal-gazing. The area's buried-treasure hunters valued his talents. In the early nineteenth century, many Western and Central New Yorkers believed that ancient artifacts were squirreled away within Indian burial mounds or subterranean chambers under the region's hills and valleys. Legend told of buried ruins that belonged to a civilization older than the Indians. 

          Magic and myth were at the firmament of the Smith household. According to historian D. Michael Quinn in his monumental study Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, Joseph's family owned magical charms, divining rods, amulets, a ceremonial dagger inscribed with astrological symbols of Scorpio and seals of Mars, and parchments marked with occult signs and cryptograms popular in eighteenth and nineteenth-century English and American folklore. In her 1845 oral memoir, the family matriarch Lucy Mack Smith recalled the Smiths' interest in "the faculty of Abrac" -- a term that might have been lost on some. In fact, Abrac or Abraxas is a Gnostic term for God that also served as a magical incantation. It forms the root of the magic word known to every child: Abracadabra

          For his part, Joseph Smith venerated the powers of the planet Jupiter, prominent in his astrological birth chart. According to Quinn, Smith's first wife, Emma, reported that Smith carried a protective Jupiter amulet up to his death. The surviving silver amulet displays markings that derive from the work of Renaissance mage Cornelius Agrippa and were spread among British and American readers by the English occultist Francis Barrett in his 1801 book The Magus, a popularization (and partial copycat) of Agrippa. Smith's occult interests closely reflected those that traveled through Central New York. Later in life, his theology suggested the existence of a male-female God, an idea found in Hermetic and Gnostic traditions, though one that Smith may have imbibed locally through the teachings of Mother Ann Lee or Jemima Wilkinson. He also grew fascinated with the temple rites and symbols of Freemasonry, a movement of tremendous influence and controversy in the Burned-over District, as will soon be seen.

          The rebellious, spiritually adventuresome Smith began reporting divine visitations in the 1820s, which culminated in the angel called Moroni directing him to golden plates buried in the Hill Cumorah, near his home. It was the same place where local legend held that a lost tribe of Israel had made its last stand, a pillar of Smith's later theology. Like Smith, many early nineteenth-century observers took seriously the existence of a highly developed, pre-Indian civilization in the area. In 1811, New York's Governor DeWitt Clinton told the New York Historical Society:

          "There is every reason to believe, that previous to the occupancy of this country by the progenitors of the present nations of Indians, it was inhabited by a race of men, much more populous, and much further advanced in civilization. The numerous remains of ancient fortifications, which are found in this country demonstrate a population far exceeding that of the Indians when this country was first settled."

          Clinton and others reported discovering esoteric fraternities among the nineteenth-century Iroquois, which some considered a form of "ancient Freemasonry." These speculations were heightened when the Seneca leader Red Jacket and other New York area Indians were seen wearing Freemasonic-style medals in the shape of the square and compass, a fact well-documented in a 1903 New York State Museum monograph, Metallic Ornaments of the New York Indians by archeologist William M. Beauchamp.

          All of the area myths -- the remnants of a lost civilization, the uses of peep stones, ancient buried treasure -- formed tantalizing threads in Joseph Smith's expanding worldview. It wound together in the narrative of the golden plates Smith discovered at Cumorah -- written in "reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics" and translated by the young seeker through a pair of ancient seer stones. In 1830, he revealed the testimony as The Book of Mormon. Smith's record traced a vast alternate history, involving a tribe of Israel fleeing the Holy Land for the American continent, experiencing the gospel directly from Christ, and later suffering fracture and vanquish in a "great and tremendous battle at Cumorah until they were all destroyed." (Mormon 8:2)  The scale and scope of The Book of Mormon were extraordinary -- seen by followers as buttressing, rather than built upon, the lore of Smith's home district. 

          Yet Smith's theology found little influence within the Burned-over District, where he was often seen as a former "peep-stoner" pedaling himself as a prophet. Like Israel's lost tribe, Smith and his followers would have to journey west to live out their destiny. But the ideas and loyalties that the prophet developed in Central New York converged with profound consequences over the lives of Smith and the small band that followed him down the Psychic Highway.

"Our New Order of the Ages"

          Smith was fascinated with Freemasonry and, for a time, the religious-civic brotherhood was widely popular in the Burned-over District and many parts of America. Early American Freemasons held a sense of breaking with an Old World past in which one overarching authority regulated the exchange of religious ideas and sought to position itself as an intermediary between the individual and the spiritual search. Both American and European Freemasons professed ecumenism and religious toleration. In so doing, they may have taken a cue from the so-called Rosicrucian manuscripts that had aroused the imagination of radical Protestant reformers. Beginning in 1614, Europe marveled over cryptic manuscripts produced by the Rosicrucians, an "invisible college" of adepts who extolled mysticism and higher learning, while prophesying the dawn of a new era of education and enlightenment. There is question over whether a secret fraternity of Rosicrucians actually existed. Regardless, the manuscripts, laced with symbolism and parable, gave powerful expression to the principle of ecumenism -- a nearly unthinkable ideal at the time and one that may have influenced the religious pluralism espoused by Freemasonry as it took shape in seventeenth-century Europe and then in America.

          In another apparent echo of the Rosicrucian texts, Freemasonry drew upon arcane imagery as codes for personal and ethical development. As members rose through the fraternity's ranks, their achievements were marked on ceremonial badges and aprons by rising suns, luminous eyeballs, pentagrams, and pyramids. This practice informed one of the greatest symbols of Masonry, or at least those influenced by it: The all-seeing eye and incomplete pyramid of the Great Seal of the United States, familiar today from the back of the dollar bill. The Great Seal's initial design began, appropriately enough, on July 4, 1776, on an order from the Continental Congress and under the direction of Benjamin Franklin (himself a Mason), Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. [As will later be explored, the Great Seal did not actually appear on back of the dollar bill until 1935. Until then the Seal was an instrument of official government business, of little familiarity to the general public. In a stroke that would make the arcane image instantly recognizable, the Great Seal was placed there on the initiative of a president and vice-president, who also happened to be Masons: Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Henry A. Wallace.] The Latin maxim that surrounds the unfinished pyramid -- Annuit Coeptis Novus Ordo Seclorum -- can be roughly, if poetically, translated as: "God Smiles on Our New Order of the Ages." It is Masonic philosophy to the core: The pyramid, or worldly achievement, is incomplete without the blessing of Providence. In its symbols and ideas, Masonry saw this polity of man and God as requiring a break with the sectarianism of the Old World, and a renewed search for universal truth as it existed in all the great civilizations. Renaissance occultists had viewed Ancient Egypt as the source of a primal, ageless wisdom transcending nation or dogma. The eye-and-pyramid of the Great Seal expressed a tantalizingly similar ideal.

          In the laboratory of religious experimentation that was the Burned-over District, Freemasonry -- this cryptic religious order with liberal values -- should have enjoyed a long and fruitful influence.  But there the secretive brotherhood ran into a scandal that nearly threatened its existence in America. It began in the late 1820s, sparked by a violent episode that played out not far from Joseph Smith's home, and that would leave its mark on Smith's life -- and death.

The Widow's Son

          In 1826, a disgruntled Mason living in Batavia, New York, William Morgan, threatened to expose Masonry's secret rites in a manuscript he was readying for publication. Morgan soon suffered a variety of persecutions -- ranging from his arrest on specious charges to an attempted arson at the print shop that held his manuscript. He was eventually kidnapped and never seen again -- possibly murdered at the hands of Masonic zealots. Residents of the Burned-over District certainly believed as much.

          The presumed homicide and the dead-end legal investigation that followed raised suspicions about Masonry's influence on law enforcement and the courts. The episode let loose a torrent of anti-Masonic feeling, first in the Burned-over District and soon throughout America, stoked by a general mood of discontent over corruption in high places. In time, fifty-two anti-Masonic newspapers sprang up in the nation and dozens of anti-Masonic representatives were sent to state legislatures. While the waters soon calmed, Freemasonry would never again command the same level of prestige in American life. But the brotherhood's influence spread in unexpected ways.

          The victim William Morgan left behind an attractive widow, Lucinda. She eventually met a new husband, George, with whom she traveled west as part of a dawning religious order: Mormonism. But Lucinda was fated to be more than an ordinary convert. Around 1836, the blonde, blue-eyed ex-New Yorker, though since remarried, became one of the many "spiritual wives" to the prophet himself, Joseph Smith. Smith had lived about fifty miles east of the Morgans in Palmyra, but it is unlikely he and Lucinda met until Mormonism began its westward trek. As a younger man, Smith was initially swept up in the Burned-over District's wave of anti-Masonry; but an older Smith became an enthusiast of the secret society that had once widowed his new bride.

          As the Mormons wandered the nation in search of a safe home, Smith founded a Freemasonic lodge at his large community at Nauvoo, Illinois. According to his compatriots, Smith believed that the priestly rites of Freemasonry represented a degraded version of the lost rituals of Hebraic priests. Such rites, he reasoned, were a precious thread to the ancient tabernacle. And Smith determined to take that thread and, weaving it through with divine revelations of his own, restore the ceremonies of the Hebrews.

          In the early 1840s, he introduced into Mormonism the symbols of Masonry, such as the rising sun, the beehive, and the square and compass. Using adapted Freemasonic rites -- which included ritually bathing neophytes, clothing them in temple garments, and giving them new spiritual names and instruction in secret handgrips and passwords --  Smith conducted initiation ceremonies in a makeshift temple over his Nauvoo store. Smith also studied Hebrew and possibly elements of Kabala with a French-Jewish scholar and Mormon convert named Alexander Neibaur. It was a period of tremendous innovation within the nascent movement. But it reached a sudden end.

          By 1844, Smith turned himself over to authorities at Carthage, Illinois, where he sat in a jail cell to await trial for charges arising from the destruction of an opposition newspaper at Nauvoo. Smith had directly sanctioned the burning and sacking of a critical newssheet, though his indefensible act served merely as an excuse for the state government to finally get its hands on the religious leader. Illinois's frontier towns were increasingly fearful and suspicious of the Mormon newcomers, who maintained their own militia and formed a political power-bloc in the state. While the prophet and his closest colleagues waited in the second floor of the two-storey jailhouse in Carthage, they found themselves without the protection that the state's governor had promised. The days turned tense as armed bands circled through the area. During an early evening on June 27, a mob, including the soot-disguised faces of state militiamen who were supposed to be protecting Smith, stormed the jail.

          Before diving from a window in a vain escape, Smith was reported by witnesses to issue the Masonic distress signal, lifting his arms to the symbol of the square and beginning to shout out, "Oh Lord my God, is there no help for the widow's son!" Musket balls tore through his falling body. On his corpse, descendants claimed, appeared his old protective amulet marked with the astrological symbol of Jupiter, now a just cold piece of silver. At thirty-nine, the most famous son of the Burned-over District was dead -- a man driven by the strange alliances and esoteric philosophies that seemed to grow from the very soil of his upstate New York home. 

Paradise Found

          The people of the Burned-over District believed in the redemptive power of ideas -- whether political or spiritual. Rare was the person with a foothold in a mystical sect who didn't also have one in a social sect, and vice versa. For many, the two worlds naturally blended.

          The area hosted some of the New World's earliest utopian religious communities, including the nation's most long-lived and economically successful commune at Oneida. From about 1848 to 1880, under the leadership of John Humphrey Noyes, the Oneidans thrived in the manufacture of animal traps, cutlery, and other high-quality goods, while experimenting with sexual liberation, Biblical communism, and attempts at human "perfectionism." By the mid-nineteenth century, the Burned-over District housed about twenty villages or active societies based on agrarian socialist ideas. Most were short-lived.

          A dizzying range of reformist, civic, and spiritual movements shared members and melted into each other in the Burned-over District. Suffragism, temperance, and abolitionism each had deep footholds in its terrain. Through the flow of people and ideas heading west from New England, the region spread Transcendentalism, or "Yankee Mysticism," whose influence will be explored. It hosted some of the earliest American branches of Freemasonry and anti-Masonry. And it eventually gave birth to one of the strangest, and most influential, of American religious innovations: Spiritualism.

          Spiritualism shared a common trait with the utopian movements of the area. Spiritualists harbored the Yankee attitude that religion rested not just on faith, but on proof. Like William Miller poring through Scripture to pinpoint the date of Armageddon, Spiritualists found tantalizing "facts" to back up their belief in the physical reality of the afterworld: spirit raps, table tilting, and communication through mediums. In a similar vein, the utopians maintained that they, too, were simply following a process of logic, in their case the cause-and-effect of better styles of living making for better men and women. In the Burned-over District, mystics and radicals felt a shared stake in the prophecy of progress. They believed that spiritual and social forces, if properly discovered and used, could remake a person, inside and out. And a prophet was about to enter their midst would who would herald the dawning of the Spiritualist movement and unify the reformist and religious passions that traveled the Psychic Highway.

          As Miller was foretelling the dawn of a glorious new world, as Noyes was forecasting an earthly utopia, as Smith was spreading a new testament, further downstate, in the Hudson Valley region, a seventeen-year-old, half-educated cobbler's apprentice experienced cosmic visions of his own as he ambled across moon-lit fields and meadows. His name was Andrew Jackson Davis -- or, as he was called in the press after his hometown, the "Poughkeepsie Seer." His influence did more than any other to shape the occult and alternative religious traditions of a growing nation. 

The Poughkeepsie Seer

          Andrew Jackson Davis was born in 1826 to an upstate New York family that scarcely fit his high-sounding name. The four-day-old infant was named "Andrew Jackson" by a boozy uncle who wept with sentiment over the future president and hero of the Battle of New Orleans -- "the greatest man a livin' in the world!"

          Davis's Hudson Valley home life was dreary: His mother spent most of her time bent over housework and his cobbler father was an on-and-off drinker who could barely keep his family fed and clothed. Andrew, his older sister, and parents were forced to pick up odd jobs and harvest chores at local farms to survive. With money short, there was little time for education. Davis's young mind took to local influences: Tales of spooks and witchcraft ran up and down the Hudson countryside. Neighbors showed a sharp interest in strange signs and omens. And Davis's mother -- a dignified and honest woman in the face of both near-poverty and physical frailness -- told of prophetic dreams and visions.

          But Davis was no superstitious yokel: As though possessed of some finer instinct of the mind, he chaffed against the hellfire-and-fury ramblings of the itinerant ministers who crisscrossed the Burned-over District and Hudson Valley. He took careful notice that some of the most outwardly pious men neglected their debts at the country store where he clerked. His neighbors often felt sheepish and tongue-tied before well-practiced preachers who sometimes seized upon unsuspecting "sinners" on local lanes and at store counters, commanding them to repent or face hellfire. But Davis would argue back. "I ain't afraid to meet my God," he once told a local firebrand, sending the pastor into spasms of indignation. "Be--calm!," an inner voice reassured Davis. "The--pastor--is wrong; you--shall--see!"

When the Davis family moved to the growing town of Poughkeepsie in 1839, things began to look up, at least a little. The family was able to enroll its fourteen-year-old son in an inexpensive, experimental Quaker school. It was inexpensive because there were no teachers to pay: Founder Joseph Lancaster's "experiment" was to have its children teach one another. Soon, Davis was placed in charge of his own class, which he recalled in his memoirs as a "miscellaneous band composed of about twenty snarly-haired, bad-odored, dirty-faced, ragged-dressed, comic-acting, squinting, lisping, broad-mouthed, linkum-slyly, and yet somewhat promising urchins."

          By age sixteen, Davis was apprenticed to a shoemaker, presumably set to follow in his fathers career path. The boy's new employer considered him kindly and honest -though he wrote in a letter that the lad's learning "barely amounted to a knowledge of reading, writing and the rudiments of arithmetic." Nonetheless, if Andrew could avoid his father's attachment to liquor, life seemed to promise him a stable, if humdrum, existence. But humdrum was the last thing in store for the polite young man. News of a strange practice had begun spreading through the Hudson Valley, one by which men could be induced into a half-conscious condition called a "trance." Teachers from Europe had begun carrying it to America, laying the events for a wildly unexpected turn in Davis's life.

Mesmer's Children

          Like many things American, this one began in Paris. In 1778 a Viennese physician and lawyer named Franz Anton Mesmer arrived in the I-rench capital with a controversial and exotic method of healing. Mesmer theorized thai unseen ethereal matter--what lie termed "animal magnetism"--animated all of life. Mesmer enrhralled members of Europe's aristocracy with a method ofen irancement through which he purported to manipulate this sub stance and cure ailments. News of his practice began to reach the New World.

          In a letter to his friend and fellow Freemason George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette wrote from Paris on May 14, 1784:"A German doctor called Mesmer having made the greatest discovery upon Magnetism Animal, he instructed scholars, among whom your humble servant is called one of the most enthusiastic -- I know as much as any conjuror ever did ... and before I go, I will get leave to let you into the secret of Mesmer, which you may depend upon, is a grand philosophical discovery." On a visit to America that summer, the French Revolutionary War hero not only discussed the inner workings of Mesmerism with Washington but gave Washington a personal letter from the magnetic healer. Washington replied to Mesmer with polite caution on November 25, 1784, explaining that the marquis had described his theories and if "the powers of magnetism ... should prove as extensively beneficial as it is said it will, must be fortunate indeed for mankind, and redound very highly to the honor of that genius to whom it owes its birth."

          The marquis continued his explorations in America that fall, walking ten miles on foot from Albany to the Shaker colony at Niskayuna several weeks after Mother Ann Lee's death. He hoped to inquire firsthand whether the Shaker trances had anything in common with Mesmerism. A colleague of the marquis noted that the Shakers seemed able to spin on one leg with "surprising rapidity," perhaps suggesting some kind of spirit control. The marquis also attempted to entrance one of the Shaker followers, apparently with little effect.

          While the marquis and Washington were considering Mesmer's theories from America in 1784, another American statesman was across the sea tearing them apart. In Paris that same year, Benjamin Franklin sat on a committee of the French Academy of Sciences that blasted Mesmer's ideas as illusory. The highly anticipated report, commissioned by Louis XVI, turned French public opinion against the once highly feted Mesmer, and he was soon run out of Paris. But history granted the self-styled healer a final victory: His trance-inducing technique began to spread throughout Europe and was soon practiced in America, where its influence touched religion, medicine, and the modern quest to understand the human mind.

          Mesmerism began its climb to popularity in America through the efforts of two displaced Frenchmen. Joseph Du Commun, a language instructor at the military academy at West Point, delivered the first widely attended lectures on the topic in New York City in 1829. He lamented that the great American Benjamin Franklin had signed rhe report against Mesmer, insisting that the scienist-statesman had been "sick" at the time. The practice began to spread in earnest through another lecturer, C Charles Poyen, who had received magnetic treatments for anxiety and digestive problems as a medical student at the French Academy. While visiting his family's plantations in the French West Indies, Poyen discovered that both whites and African slaves were equally susceptible to Mesmeric trances. This formed in him a deep belief in commonality among the races and an aversion to slavery. Disgusted with living in a slave-based society, the nineteen-year-old Poyen journeyed to New England in late 1834, soon taking up residence in Lowell, Massachusetts. He became involved in abolitionist circles and scraped together a living by giving French lessons to the daughters of local mill owners.

          The topic of Mesmerism struck a deep chord with Lowell's mayor, a Brown-educated medical doctor. With the mayor's encouragement, Poyen began delivering lectures on the practice. He proved a poor stage presence: Poyen's appearance was boyish, his English was halting, and half of his face was covered by a dark red birthmark. Despite mixed reactions in the press and among audiences, Poyen's stage demonstrations planted a seed. By the end of the decade, a coterie of self-taught Mesmerists was traveling New England and the Burned-Over District, like so many circuit-riding preachers.

          While practitioners used different methods, a stage Mesmerist would typically begin by gently waving his hands around the head and face of the subject, bidding him to release his conscious thoughts and drift into a more relaxed state. It was believed that once a subject was enthralled, the Mesmerist could manipulate the subject's life substance, or animal magnetism, by exercising uncanny powers to heal him of physical ailments, order him about, or even command him to speak in unknown foreign tongues. In the most popular displays, a subject might awaken to the laughter of friends who said he'd barked like a dog or obeyed commands to make love to a broomstick. More seriously, a Mesmerist might -- in a forerunner to hypnotism -- suggest to a subject that a certain pain or ailment was relieved. And many did report healings in this way.

A New Light

When a traveling Mesmerist rode through Poughkeepsie in 1843, Andrew Jackson Davis at first could not be entranced. But Davis good-naturedly agreed to the experiment again with a local tailor who had begun practicing Mesmerism. With his new magnetizer, the youth discovered that he was actually an easy subject -- someone who could enter a trance quickly and deeply. At first, Davis was terrified by the loss of bodily control and the feeling of falling through space. But soon, like many subjects, he found that the trance experience aroused pleasure and even ecstasy. As the hands of his tailor-Mesmerist made their passes over him, Davis recalled a warm, shimmering sensation throughout his body. He felt plunged into a great inner darkness and experienced a sense of weightlessness and loss of mobility. His body glowed with lightness.

          Davis was not the first to describe this kind of experience. In his Journal of Dreams, the eighteenth-century Swedish scientist-mystic Emanuel Swedenborg fondly recalled one of his early trance states: "I had in my mind and body the feeling of an indescribable delight, so that had it been in any higher degree, the whole body would have been, as it were, dissolved in pure joy." In early drawings, Mesmerists and their subjects are sometimes seated closely enough for limbs to be touching or interlocked, conveying an unmistakable sensuality. Indeed, the French report that rebutted Mesmer in 1784 included a confidential rider -- intended for the eyes of Louis XVI alone -- warning of the sexual undertones to Mesmerism and the possible liberties taken under its effects.

          For Davis and Swedenborg, as for many others, however, the experience did not end at physical sensation. After his feeling of dissolution, Davis discovered that his mental acuteness remained intact -- and seemed to expand into higher realms. He had an inner vision of standing on a pitch-dark shore with waves crashing about him. He remained still but with a sense of brilliant alertness, as though poised to receive some great message. "Ain't this exceedingly strange?" he marveled to himself.

          On one "chilly, fitful, disagreeable" winter night in 1844, Davis found that after a particularly deep Mesmeric session he had trouble returning to ordinary consciousness. He stumbled back to the room where he was staying, at the home of his tailor-trance master. Davis dropped onto his bed and immediately fell asleep. Later he awoke at the beckoning of a voice outside that sounded like his recently deceased mother. He ran outdoors and on the road beheld a vision: It was a flock of unruly sheep being led by an overcome shepherd; the shepherd seemed to need his help. At this point Davis embarked on a kind of vision quest -- or what he called a psychical "flight through space" -- traveling in either mind or body (and possibly both, as he vanished until the next day) over the wintry New York terrain.

          He said he traversed west across the frozen Hudson River, scaled steep hills in the Catskills, slept on a pile of tree branches resembling an altar, and beheld incredible visions of nature: mountains caked with snow and ice; dark, forbidding valleys; a thunder-and-lightning torrent of rain. He eventually round his way to a fenced graveyard, where he encountered the spirits of Galen, the legendary Greek physician, and none other than Emanuel Swedenborg himself. "By thee will a new light appear," the Swedish scientist and seer told him.

          Davis returned to the tailor's home the next day, shaken but possessed of a sense of mission. The bearded youngster no longer seemed an apprentice cobbler ready to perform stage tricks. "No more time upon wonder-seekers," he insisted. Instead, Davis began delivering lectures on religious or metaphysical topics while in a trance, or magnetized, state. His ideas, he claimed, came from higher regions that he could visit in his psychical flights. Davis determined that he would dictate an entire book this way: It would be the vehicle for the "new light" Swedenborg told him to deliver to humanity.

The Seer Emerges

          In 1845, the nineteen-year-old Davis decided to leave his tailor friend and his hometown. Accompanied by two new collaborators -- a doctor of "botanic remedies" from Bridgeport, Connecticut, and a Universalist minister from New Haven -- the Poughkeepsie Seer moved to Manhattan. From a series of lowrent downtown apartments, Davis entered a trance day after day for months. He dictated visions of other planets, heaven, angels, afterlife realms, and the spiritual mechanics of the entire universe, all recorded by his minister friend for the pages of a massively swelling book.

          The trance sittings were open to witnesses -- one of whom was a pallid, no-nonsense journalist named Edgar Allan Poe. While Davis was living on Vesey Street in Manhattan's financial district, Poe sojourned from his Greenwich Village apartment to make a survey of the seer's work. Poe was fascinated by Mesmerism, placing it at the center of some of his most famous stories, including "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," a tale completed in New York that same year. Poe's story involves the sickly Valdemar, who agrees to be suspended in a Mesmeric trance at the moment of his death. For seven months, the trance master, called P_, keeps Valdemar's consciousness -- or magnetic fluid -- separated from the man's physical form, suspending him in a state of semilife. The body can move only the "swollen and blackened tongue" in its open mouth, from which issues a horrifying, hollow voice that begs the Mesmerist to set him free. When P_ finally releases Valdemar from the trance, the body "within the space of a single minute, or less, shrunk -- crumbled -- absolutely rotted away beneath my hands. Upon the bed, before the whole company, there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome -- of detestable putrescence."

          It was one of Poe's most widely read tales. Never explicitly billed as fiction and written like a medical case study, the story was initially taken as literal reportage by some in the United States and Britain. The Sunday Times of London reprinted it without comment in January of 1846 under the banner Mesmerism in America: Astounding and Horrifying Narrative. Whatever the author's intent, "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" served to popularize and lend credibility to the mysterious art.

          Whether Poe was equally fascinated with the facts in the case of Andrew Jackson Davis was another matter. The one public reference Poe made to the young medium was a brusque aside in Graham's Magazine in 1849: "There surely cannot be more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of (Oh, Andrew Jackson Davis!) in your philosophy." In one of Poe's last short stories, "Mellonta Tauta," he opened with an obviously satirical letter that parodied Davis's name and called the story "a translation, by my friend, Martin Van Buren Mavis, (sometimes called the Toughkeepsie Seer,')."

          Regardless, when Davis's boldly titled tome, The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind, appeared in its nearly eight hundred pages in 1847, it became an instant sensation, selling nine hundred copies in a single week. (Poe soon followed with his own cosmological tract, "Eureka," in which some noted more than a little more similarity with Davis's grand vision. Humorously or not, Poe read from his work in an apparent trance state before an audience.) Although dense, repetitive, and ponderous, Davis's Principles of Nature attempted grand heights, setting forth its new creation myth: IN THE BEGINNING, the Univercoelum was one boundless, undefinable, and unimaginable ocean of LIQUID FIRE!" Davis described the making of the great universe and all its spiritual dimensions -- of which life on earth was just one.

          He recorded journeys to other planets and provided details of the afterlife and the creative workings of the Eternal Mind. To some critics, the book was an obvious pilfering of Swedenborg. Indeed, some of Davis's passages -- such as his flights through the planets and discourses on the extraterrestrial beings of Saturn and Jupiter -- are direct echoes of the Swedish mystic, who produced his own massive treatises on interplanetary dimensions and higher realms before he died in 1772. These volumes by Swedenborg appeared in their first widely circulated English translations in America in 1845, about the same time that Davis embarked on his trance dictations. Davis openly acknowledged his "deb" to Swedenborg -- but, he insisted, strictly as a student to a spirit guide. Davis maintained that he had read next to nothing in his young life, and certainly not the formidable works of Swedenborg. A preacher who had befriended Davis while the seer was still a local Poughkeepsie boy recalled that the lad displayed a ravenous appetite for "controversial religious works... wheneverhe could borrow them and obtain leisure for their perusal." Rather lamely, Davis countered that he had merely borrowed his preacher friend's books "for others who wished to read but who did not sufficiently know the pastor to borrow for themselves."

           Some influential observers didn't know what to think. A prominent Davis supporter named George Bush, a professor of Hebrew at New York University -- and a first cousin, five times removed, to President George W. Bush -- told the New York Tribune: "I can solemnly affirm that I have heard him correctly quote the Hebrew language in his lectures and display a knowledge of geology which would have been astounding in a person of his age, even if he had devoted years to the study."

          The Church of the New Jerusalem, the ecclesisastical body founded in North America on the principles of Swedenborg, kept its distance from the controversial medium. Indeed, the Swedenborgian Church already had its own American icon: He was a curator of apple nurseries from Ohio named John Chapman -- or, as the world would come to know him by legend, Johnny Appleseed. According to the 1817 minutes of a Swedenborgian society meeting in Manchester, England:

          "There is in the western county a very extraordinary missionary of the New Jerusalem. A man has appeared who seems to be almost independent of corporeal wants and sufferings. He goes barefooted, can sleep anywhere, in house or out of house, and live upon the coarsest and most scanty fire. He has actually thawed ice with his bare feet He procures what books he can of the New Church Swedenborg, travels to the remote settlements, and lends them wherever he can find readers, and sometimes divides a book into two or three parts for more extensive distribution and usefulness. This man for years past has been in the employment of bringing into cultivation, in numberless places m the wilderness, small patches (two or three acres) of ground, and then sowing apple seeds and rearing nurseries."

          By the time of John Chapman's death m 1845 and the advent of Davis's fame, the Church of the New Jerusalem was on a quest for acceptance and respectability. The last thing it needed was the backcountry mystic Davis claiming to be the protege of its ghostly founder and quite possibly lifting ideas from the theologian's texts. Johnny Appleseed was apostle enough for the Swedenborgians.

          Davis's controversial reputation served only to fuel public interest. He would never again dictate a book in a trance state, but -- in an unusual feat for a cobbler's apprentice -- he began writing his own cosmic treatises, which would number more than thirty by the time he died in 1910. They continued to be based on his psychical visions, now freely entered. Davis discovered that he could go into a "Superior Condition" on his own, without a Mesmerist, and return to consciousness with fresh insights. Up until this point, trance writers or spirit mediums were considered mere channels of otherworldly forces, passive vessels for communication from higher powers. Not any longer in America. "In the land of democracy," wrote nineteenth-century English historian and psychical researcher Frank Podmore, "we are confronted with a singular development unknown to the older monarchies. The transatlantic seers constantly tend to be independent; they assume the authority of the prophet...."

          And to a growing body of readers, Davis's trance-induced writings were a divine revelation. Davis wrote reassuringly of heaven -- or the Summer Land, as he called it -- which sounded a lot like an idyllic version of the Burned-Over District and the Hudson Valley: "Its streams, rivers, fountains flitter with their own immortal radiance. Its mountains and undulating landscapes are ever green, beautiful with diamond effulgence, more 'delectable' than any pilgrim dreams, while the firmament glows with suns and planets, clusters within clusters, constellations within universes, far beyond mind's conception. High thoughts visit us from the Heavenly alps."

          The landscape, metaphysics, and reformist ideals of Central New York formed the model for Davis's cosmology. His Summer Land included people of all races and creeds -- Africans, American Indians, Jews, and followers of "Mahomet." The Hudson Valley prophet went further still, declaring the existence of "a Mother as well as a Father in God," echoing Mother Ann Lee and Jemima Wilkinson. He proclaimed a social gospel "of freedom equally to man and woman, young and old, lord and serf." For many, the true magic of Davis's message was in its liberalism: sexual and racial parity, religions on equal footing, and a universal faith based on reason.

          In the philosophy of Andrew Jackson Davis, the ideas of utopianism, Mesmerism, and Swedenborgianism were becoming joined. The concept of entering a trance state to reach the afterworld was playing on the public imagination. And the notion that higher dimensions were open to an everyday American -- an uneducated cobbler's apprentice, no less -- made the possibilities all the more enticing. If mystical visions were no longer the exclusive domain of biblical prophets but were in reach of ordinary people, what splendors might lie in store for inhabitants of the American Israel?

 

* Reprinted by special permission of the publisher, Bantam Books and Random House Publications. Copyright C 2009. All Rights Reserved.

 

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