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Ronnie Pontiac

The Eclectic Life of Alexander Wilder: Alchemical Generals, Isis Unveiled, and Early American Holistic Medicine



Alexander Wilder, pioneer of holistic medicine, helped Madame Blavatsky finish her classic book Isis Unveiled.  As a young man he was a member of the notorious Oneida cult.  As a politician and journalist he fought against slavery then helped kick Boss Tweed out of New York.  He lectured at the famous New England Transcendentalist Concord School of Philosophy. The author of a nine hundred page history of medicine, and of books like Theurgia: The Egyptian Mysteries, he somehow found the time to write, edit and translate articles on esoteric subjects like alchemy, Neoplatonism, and the dynasties of ancient Egypt, for dozens of publications over almost sixty years.

As a kid working for Manly P. Hall in the Philosophical Research Society I had the privilege of spending hours each day browsing the library shelves.  The spiritual heritage of the entire world organized into subjects that caught my imagination.  Over there the mysteries of Tibet were waiting for my perusal.  Here books exposed secret codes in the works of famous authors.  MPH also provided through his own writing and in conversation a wonderful treasure map to obscure tomes full of flights of creative imagination filled with fascinating details of history and food for the soul.  Thanks to his recommendation I read Plotinus On the Beautiful and so the Neoplatonists were one of my first studies.  Like every other English speaking enthusiast before the recent renaissance in academic work on Proclus, Porphyry, Iamblichus and the others, I depended on the torturous translations of Thomas Taylor, joining the likes of Shelley, Blake and Emerson, finding gems of insight in the cave of run on sentences.

I also found, to my surprise, American translators of the Neoplatonists from a time that most of us associate with Billy the Kid and the shoot out at the O.K. Corral.  I imagined one of those dusty western streets, ripe with horse manure, an upstairs office in a plank building, and there inside some small room in the glow of a lamp a hardy soul burns the midnight oil, scribbling out the sublime communications left by pagan philosophers over a thousand years before.  Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie, Alexander Wilder, and Thomas Johnson, I could find out very little about them.  Even MPH didn’t have much information.  My curiosity was intensified when in a store called Hippocampus on Sunset Boulevard I stumbled on a bound edition of The Platonist, a rare 19th century Midwestern periodical.

Perhaps my favorite part of The Platonist volume 1 is “Platonic Technology:  A Glossary of Distinctive Terms” by Alexander Wilder M.D. appearing in four installments, in alphabetical order.   His Platonic dictionary is Neoplatonic, almost Christian.  For example: “On or Ontos On.  Real being; Absolute Being; that which really is; the really-existing as distinguished from the transitory; the permanent, eternal, and unchangeable; the Eternal Goodness, Truth and Excellence; the real being underlying all existence; the whence and why of all things; God.”  Would Plato have been comfortable with such a mystical definition of mere being?

paint12“First American Macadam Road” painted by Carl Rakeman in 1823

Born in New England in 1823 to a family that left Lancaster, England in 1638 to settle in Massachusetts Bay Colony, Alexander Wilder grew up on a farm.  “I often thought that my father had a dislike for the professions,” he later wrote. “He used often to decry professional men as lazy, indisposed to work, etc., and seemed to be determined to make his sons all farmers. Yet my second brother had been disabled while an infant by a young girl lifting him by the arm, and so dislocating his shoulder. There were few surgeons in those days, and though physicians boasted loudly of being a learned body, and invoked special legislation to protect them from competitors, few of them were very expert, and the result was that my brother’s dislocation was never reduced. Later, in boyhood, he fell from a ladder and broke his ankles. The family doctor was called but never discovered the trouble, or was able to deal with it, and the result was an additional infirmity. He must therefore be something else than a farmer.  A neighbor advised that he study law; but this was contrary to family prejudice, and he became a teacher.”

Thanks to his brother, the fifteen-year-old Wilder became teacher in the one room schoolhouse where he had been a student.  “It was found that several of my brothers could teach in the district schools; so four of us and one sister became teachers, as did also others of our schoolmates. For myself, this was not a very successful employment. The work of instruction was to my liking and I had rare success in communicating what I knew, but the governing was beyond me. Every parent passed judgment on methods, and the children behaved in school according as they were managed at home.”

Wilder’s father had new plans for Alick, as he called Alexander.  He wanted him to get religion so along with some zealous friends he attempted a conversion.  “It took days to overcome my stubbornness,” Alick wrote,  “but the endeavor was successful. I became a Presbyterian of the New School.”  But Alick didn’t want to be a preacher.  He wanted to be a doctor.  After seeing how doctors had failed his brother and other members of his family, Alick wanted to find out about medicine for himself.  He would be a good doctor, if such a thing were possible.  But he seems to have made a trade with his father instead.  If he could give up religion, he’d become a farmer like dad originally wanted.  Alick wrote: “When at seventeen I withdrew from religious associations, I gave up the purpose of going to college, and decided to follow farm work. I worked at home two years.”

But Alick wasn’t happy farming.  So he went to Vermont to learn typesetting, but his employer was a petty tyrant.  “I saw the religious boss exhibited in his hatefulness.”  Slaves, baseness, treachery, unmanly servility are the words he chose to describe his employment.  He added: “My own health succumbed to it.”  Then he had an inexplicable experience that set him on a search for wisdom.  In Orange, Massachusetts he got a job as a lumberjack during timber season.  His job was “to cut the dead trees into firewood.  One day in April I was felling a tree some fifty or more feet high.  The limbs had all decayed and fallen away.” Inexperienced, Wilder cut the tree in a way that caught it in a nearby tree.  So he had to cut down that tree, too.  “As I was striking I felt a voice. It seemed to reach my head at the top.”  But it hit him right in the gut “with all the force of peremptory command: ‘Step back!’ I obeyed, going some eight steps. That very instant a limb, about six feet long and several inches in diameter, fell from the top of the tree. It fell along my footsteps, and with such force as to bury itself in the soft earth.  If I had failed but a step it would have hit and crushed me.”

Wilder’s spiritual yearnings now took over from his restless search for a career.  “From 1844 to 1851 I drifted from one place and employment to another part in Massachusetts and part at my father’s in New York. My religious experiences consisted in becoming disentangled from the various beliefs and opinions, which for a few years had held me fast, and in the endeavor to learn more of the world of reality. Prompted by a lady who had been one of my teachers in boyhood, I procured and read with interest the philosophical and theological works of Emanuel Swedenborg.”  But in this biographical sketch Wilder leaves out perhaps the most disturbing community that entangled him.


group-1860sOneida in the 1860’s

According to his own affidavit, in winter of 1842, eighteen-year-old Wilder joined the Calvinist Perfectionist community, where he lived in the house of John Noyes, the founder of the Oneida community.  It’s hard to imagine what the future Platonist must have thought of life on this religious commune.  By then the original community of 87 had grown to 172 and it would nearly double again by 1878.  They believed that the return of Jesus was not imminent but that it had already happened in 70 A.D.  Therefore a life of perfection was possible.  Essentially, the world had been waiting around for almost one thousand and nine hundred years for someone to notice that heaven is now.

Everyone worked according to his or her best abilities in the Oneida community.  Committees and administrations decided every detail of life.  Did Wilder participate in the Oneida practice of Complex Marriage?  Everyone in the community was married to everyone else so no one was unavailable.  In Oneida postmenopausal seniors were encouraged to teach curious teenagers everything they needed to know about sex.  The idea was that the teens would face less risk of pregnancy.  The community also practiced what they called stirpiculture but we call eugenics.  Committees chose breeding pairs hoping to create perfect offspring.  Parents weren’t allowed to bond too closely with their children.  What did Wilder think of the practice they called Mutual Criticism, when a committee or the general assembly would criticize members harshly?  Victims were expected to be grateful for the good advice.

Oneida had branches in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont, and Ontario, Canada.  Their businesses flourished.  From canned fruits and veggies to animal traps, from silk thread to leather bags and straw hats. But their biggest success was silverware. The founder of Oneida, John Humphrey Noyes, is generally credited with being the first American to put free in front of love.  Free love was a scandalous but popular subject in America at the time.

Emerson wrote of nature’s revenge on rugged fathers, how their children are usually delicate.  The founder of Oneida’s father was a businessman, an openly agnostic teacher, and an elected member of the House of Representatives.  Needless to say, Noyes must have been quite a shock to his dad.  In 1879 Noyes was tipped off that he was about to be hauled away for statutory rape.  He fled Oneida in the night, headed for Ontario where a community factory was in operation.  Noyes lived the rest of his life in Niagara Falls, Canada.  He wrote letters back to his community suggesting they give up Complex Marriage and follow more traditional customs.  On New Year’s Day in 1881 Oneida was dissolved, membership was converted to stock in the successful silverware company.  As for Wilder, he didn’t last long at Oneida, perhaps not surprisingly, he also became an advocate of celibacy.

And what did Wilder think of the founder of Oneida?  In an affidavit on Noyes, Wilder testified: “I know him to be a despot – an ambitious self-seeker – and my horror of him is as intense as my horror of a venomous serpent.”  Wilder left before the days described in the only recently published diary of Tirzah Miller.   Noyes was her uncle, and she records with heartbreaking eloquence the consequences of his manipulation of the niece he admitted was his favorite sexual partner.  He assured her that Satan was behind society’s discomfort with incest.  When she and a fellow musician fell in love at Oneida and bore a child Noyes kept the child and parents apart, since community rules prohibited “special love.”  Tirzah was one of the females chosen for the breeding program.


c75After Oneida, Wilder worked at farming and typesetting, reading medicine with local physicians, until in 1850 Syracuse Medical College gave him a diploma. In 1853 he became an assistant editor at the Syracuse Star, then a year later he had the same job at the Syracuse Journal.  And a year after that when the New York State legislature created the Department of Public Instruction he was appointed clerk in the State Department of Public Institutions at Albany.  But he hadn’t given up on his dream of becoming a doctor.

In 1855 Wilder became editor of The New York Teacher, the journal of the New York State Teacher’s Association.  The he became associate editor of the American Journal of Education and College Review, but only served for nine months.  1857 was an important year for Alexander Wilder.  He prepared the charter for the teacher’s college Illinois Normal University.  The American Institute of Homeopathy released a series of pamphlets written by him.   And he moved to New York City to become an editor at the Evening Post.  The job apparently suited him.  He spent thirteen years there.  Political experience and knowledge of financial matters was a side benefit of the job.  “At the suggestion of Hon. John Winthrop Chanler of New York,” he writes,  “I became clerk of the committee on Ways and Means of the Assembly and served in that capacity several sessions.”

Among Wilder’s other extraordinary friends was General Ethan Allen Hitchcock, the Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen’s grandson.  Hitchcock made his name in 1841 when he investigated fraud complaints in the territory of the Five Civilized Tribes.  He found widespread corruption as white agents and traders routinely cheated natives.  His report took five months to compile and was irrefutable, but because negotiations with the Cherokee were underway it was suppressed for over a year, then given to Congress, who ignored it, as did historians for almost a hundred years.  During the Civil War, Hitchcock served in the Department of War as a major general.

Wilder met Hitchcock through a mutual friend, a bookseller, who arranged the meeting for Wilder who was a fan of Hitchcock’s books, including Swedenborg a Hermetic Philosopher (1858), and The Story of the Red Book of Appin (1863) where Hitchcock shared his theories about alchemical metaphors in fairy tales.  In 1857 Hitchcock had anonymously published Remarks on Alchemy and the Alchemists, which anticipated Jung by almost a hundred years in the theory that alchemical language was actually a symbolic code for spiritual experiencesHitchcock argued that the alchemical mercury was the human conscience.  Until the conscience is awakened the alembic (human being) contains only base metals (ignorant suffering).  Hitchcock wrote that fire and sulphur were alchemical symbols for conscience because conscience burns until what is left is pure.  The gold conscience gives us is a spiritually aware soulful life.  Wilder based his own 1869 work Alchemy or the Hermetic Philosophy on Hitchcock’s book.  At the beginning of the Civil War, Hitchcock sold his library to the great regret of Wilder who hated to see such a comprehensive collection scattered to the four corners of the world.  A future blog will explore Hitchcock’s extraordinary life and his hermetic interpretation of alchemy, fairy tales, Swedenborg, and Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

From 1860 to 1878 Wilder fought against mandatory vaccinations.  He thought better methods could be achieved to inoculate the masses than what he dismissed as “animal poisons.”  Ex-mayor Havemeyer, Horace Greeley, and other powerful notables decided New York City needed an Eclectic Medical College.  They turned to Wilder to prepare the charter.  Just after the Civil War ended in 1865 he pushed the charter through the legislature despite the opposition of traditional doctors.  Wilder was the right man in the right place at the right time.  A friend of the governor, he knew every member of the legislature personally.  They all knew him to be an honest, intelligent man, a true man of integrity.  Wilder had a logical answer to every protest the old school doctors could summon.  Besides, after five years of Civil War the United States needed as much medicine as it could get.  The college was established.

Eclectic medicine was botanically based.  Today we’d call it holistic medicine, if defined as mostly herbalism. As for the competition: “Medical Colleges were rare,” Wilder wrote, “except those of the dominant school, and these would graduate nobody except with the assurance that he would adhere to the approved practice. Physicians at this time were often illiterate; physiology was almost an unknown science; materia medica limited to brief dimensions; and practice consisted of bleeding, the administration of calomel, antimony, and little else.”


6-21c helfand-11501-f-17Perhaps Wilder’s own writing about healing explains Eclectic Medicine best.  “When we are cheerful we are safe from disease; when we are depressed and downhearted we are in danger.”  An even temperature or well-kept apartment and cleanliness of person are blessings to be prized.  When they exist many of the external causes of disease are absent.   Our cities are breeding-places of disease, because the sunshine is excluded from the houses and the ventilation is defective. Then, too, the poor, who make up the great majority of the population, and, therefore, should be cared for the most, are pressed into dens that a dog or a pig would shudder at, and there live under conditions that make them easily assailable by infection, after which they prove their common human nature by communicating it to those better circumstanced.”

He described another experience in his youth that influenced his ideas about medicine.  “Being constantly found fault with whether I was right or wrong and overborne by the cruel despotic will of another had depressed me, till the digestive and nervous functions were impaired.” Or as he put it elsewhere “hopelessness kills.”  He turns to Plato’s belief that music could cure illness to support his point of view that a life lived in harmony is a healthy life.

Wilder was a keen observer of human behavior.  “Individuals parting with cherished possessions,” he wrote, “or removed from their home and from habitual scenes of life, or deprived of employment which had engaged attention till it became a habit, are liable to become mentally enfeebled, or to succumb to bodily debility.”

In 1906, less than two years before his death Wilder wrote in Metaphysical Magazine: “We have shown the power of imagination to occasion disease and death. There is such a thing as destroying individuals by mental operation. This far from being a vagary.  There may not be necessarily any ill intention, though such intention may have the same influence. But an apprehending of calamity sometimes operates magically upon individuals. If there should be a strong wish in that direction, it would be very sure to have influence unless the individual had vital energy and force of will sufficient to cast off the pernicious influence. When a person, one who is more or less dependent, is held back from a cherished purpose because of some abnormal apprehension on the part of others; and so is held back when he may properly do something or pursue some object that he wishes, – then such morbid carefulness directly impairs vital energy.  All conflict of mind wears and exhausts the powers of the body.”

He describes a condition, which is both psychic and psychological when he writes: “The conception of evil which exists in the mind of the one may be instilled into the other, and produce disorder and mischief.  There is a killing with kindness as well as with malice.  In daily life there are so many injured and even driven to actual death by overmuch anxiety and carefulness, that there is much need also to acquire what we may call the knack of wholesome neglect. Take away from individuals the consciousness of being constantly watched for slips of misconduct or bodily infirmity. We should keep carefully out of our thoughts the notion that this person or that is ill or liable to become so: lest we inoculate him with the same impression, and so create the very condition which we are seeking to avoid.”

A similar idea is found in Tibetan Buddhism.  In Meditation, Transformation, And Dream Yoga the Venerable Gyatrul Rinpoche wrote about a behavior he had noticed among masters of “advanced realization.  If you don’t ask them how they’re feeling, they will never be sick.  It was very much like this with H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche.  If you went in his presence and said, “Oh, Rinpoche, you must not be feeling very well,” or “How are you feeling today?  Are you okay?” then he would say, “Oh yes, I don’t feel so well.”  Then he would begin to show signs of illness.  But if you went to him and said, “Oh, Rinpoche, you must be feeling very well,” he would say, “Oh, yes, I’m feeling fine.”  This demonstrates to you the power of discursive thoughts.”

Or as Wilder put it succinctly: “There are both an Athens of unblemished fame and an enfeebled, demoralized Atlantis in every human being.”


$(KGrHqN,!oUE63(fpTjqBO6MeNpMeg~~60_57Isis unveiled, third printing 1886

Even though he refused to campaign for the office, in 1871 Wilder was elected New York City Councilman in a landslide on a ticket promising to end the corruption of the notorious Boss Tweed.  He took office on January 1, 1872 but quickly learned the new boss was just as tyrannical as the old.  So he never ran for office again.  In 1872 he became an editor at Harper’s Weekly.  Despite refusing the position repeatedly, in 1873 Wilder became professor of physiology and psychology at the Eclectic Medical College of New York.  He was also made co-editor of their journal The Medical Eclectic.  In the biographical note in his monograph Brethren of the Rosie Cross (1880) Wilder adds that he was “Honorary Member of the Eclectic Medical Societies of Illinois, Michigan, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, Honorary Fellow of the Anthropological Society of Liverpool, Eng.”

Wilder was proud of his low profile.  Few of his colleagues in the political, journalistic, and medical worlds knew about his occult interests.  He took no extraordinary measures, relying instead on his flurry of activity and the fact that the friends who respected his esoteric learning rarely overlapped with his friends in public life.  His contributions to the Transactions of the Eclectic Medical Society of the State of New York, where amid the exchange of cures and medical tips could be found Wilder’s writing about Plotinus and Alchemy, illustrate how his esoteric interests could be considered scholarly, and how expert he was at framing respectable contexts and legitimizing them with historical precedents.

But then Madame Blavatsky entered his life, book first.  “On a pleasant afternoon, in early autumn,” Wilder writes, “I was alone in the house. The bell was rung, and I answered at the door. Colonel Henry S. Olcott was there with an errand to myself. I did not recognize him, as I had never had any occasion to make his acquaintance, but he having had some governmental business with one of my employers several years before, had known me ever since. He had never suspected, however, that I took any interest whatever in unusual subjects; so completely successful had I been in keeping myself unknown even to those who from daily association imagined that they knew me very thoroughly. A long service in journalism, familiar relations with public men, and active participation in political matters, seemed to have shut out from notice an ardent passion for mystic speculation, and the transcendental philosophy.”

olcott14Henry Olcott at your door

Why had Olcott rung the bell?  “He had been referred to me by Mr. Bouton.”  Wilder worked for J.W. Bouton as an editor, proofreader (for English and Hebrew) and expert on esoteric subjects.  Bouton bought the copyright for Isis Unveiled and refused to return it to the author.  Blavatsky wanted to give her book the fetching title A Skeleton Key to Mysterious Gates.  The mystery of why a book that has so little to do with Egyptian mythology should be called Isis Unveiled is solved by Wilder:  “Mr. Bouton is entitled to that distinction. He was a skilful caterer in the bookselling world to which he belonged, but he had business ability rather than a sense of fitness. He once published the treatise of R. Payne Knight on Ancient Art and added pictures relating solely to Hindu mythology, entirely foreign to the subject. This work of Madam Blavatsky is largely based upon the hypothesis of a prehistoric period of the Aryan people in India, and in such a period the veil or the unveiling of Isis can hardly be said to constitute any part. On the contrary, it is a dramatic representation peculiar to the religion and wisdom of Egypt…. Certainly the problems of Egyptian lore are to be considered with other pens than those with which ” Isis Unveiled ” was written.”

In 1878 Bouton had committed the first half of another publishing gaffe.  He released only volume one of the two volume obscurity Anacalypsis: An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil of the Saitic Isis or an Inquiry into the Origin of Languages, Nations and Religions by Godfrey Higgins, an enormous and marvelously learned and imaginative work of mingled fact and mistaken assumptions among the books that inspired Borges to write “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”  Perhaps Bouton never published the second volume because readers didn’t appreciate the way he shrank the size of such a word stuffed tome leaving them squinting at tiny print.  Bouton had started out as a dealer of new and used books.  Bouton published more than occult works, his other titles included a handsome quarto reprint of 18th century Anglo-Irish novelist Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1884) and Thomas Taylor’s classic The Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries in 1891 with “Introduction, Notes, Emendations and Glossary by Alexander Wilder M.D.” Taylor, a British translator who was mocked by the smart asses of his day for being a born again pagan, nevertheless inspired the poets Blake, Keats and Shelley, and in America Emerson and Thoreau.

Bouton was also the first American publisher of Charles Leland’s Fusang, or, The Discovery of America by Chinese Buddhist Priests in the Fifth Century (1875).  Other titles included Medical Economy During the Middle Ages (1874), Private Library: What We Do Know, What We Don’t Know, What We Ought to Know About Our Books (1897), the enigmatic perhaps ominous The Story of the Stick in all Ages and Lands (1891), and Lotos Leaves: Original Stories, Essays, and Poems (1875), an anthology including work by Mark Twain, Alfred Tennyson, and Blavatsky’s friend Henry Olcott.  Bouton also published Christian books: Monumental Christianity or the art and Symbolism of the Primitive church; as witnesses and Teachers of the One Catholic faith and Practice, and others.  Among my personal favorite Bouton publications are Titles of the First Books from the Earliest Presses established in different Cities, Towns, and Monasteries in Europe, before the end of the Fifteenth Century, with Brief Notes upon their Printers (1884) and the lavish collection of color plates Costumes of the Time of the French Revolution (1889) usually described by booksellers as gorgeous.  From the risqué to the pious Bouton made shrewd and interesting choices.

What was Wilder’s first reaction to Isis Unveiled?  “It was truly a ponderous document.”  But digging into it Wilder was impressed.  He surprised Bouton.  “In my report to him, I stated that the manuscript was the product of great research, and that so far as related to current thinking, there was a revolution in it, but I added that I deemed it too long for remunerative publishing.”  Bouton told Wilder to cut away as much as he could.  Wilder wasn’t entirely comfortable with his role.  “This was a discretionary power that was far from agreeable. It can hardly be fair that a person acting solely in behalf of the publisher should have such authority over the work of an author. Nevertheless, I undertook the task. While abridging the work, I endeavored in every instance to preserve the thought of the author in plain language, removing only such terms and matter as might be regarded as superfluous, and not necessary to the main purpose.”  Blavatsky was pleased by the results.  “At my first visit, her reception was courteous and even friendly.  We seemed to become acquainted at once. She spoke of the abridgements, which I had made of her manuscript, extolling what I had done far beyond what it deserved. What had been taken out was ‘flapdoodle,’ ” she declared.”

blavatskyolcottBlavatsky and Olcott

Their first visit had taken some time for Olcott to arrange.  “Colonel Olcott was very desirous that I should become acquainted with Madam Blavatsky. He appeared to hold her in high regard closely approaching to veneration, and to consider the opportunity to know her a rare favor for any one. I was hardly able to share his enthusiasm. Having a natural diffidence about making new acquaintances, and acting as a critic upon her manuscript, I hesitated for a long time. Finally, however, these considerations were passed over and I accompanied him to their establishment in Forty-seventh Street. It was a “flat,” that un-homelike fashion of abode that now extends over populous cities, superseding the household and family relationship wherever it prevails.”  Wilder was almost sixty years old and not inclined to be impressed by purveyors of exotica.

“The dining room,” Wilder continues, “was furnished in simple style with no affectation of anything unusual or extraordinary. Perhaps, I ought to add that later in the years following, this condition was quite considerably modified,” he quips referring to the stuffed baboons and oriental furniture and decor that inspired the New York World (before it became famous for yellow journalism) to nickname it the Lamasery.  “The autumn of 1879,” he continued, “was characterized, as I have never since observed it, by the richness of color in the foliage. Numerous parties visited the woods around to gather the tinted leaves for ornamental purposes.”  Here Wilder describes a wonderful example of lost outsider art.  “One of the inmates of the flat, a foreigner who was in rapport with the Theosophical fraternity, had in this way, procured a large quantity and set herself to use them to decorate the dining room. She made several emblematic figures, the double triangle being the principal one of these. Then she followed with an Oriental landscape extending the length of the apartment. There were to be seen the figures of an elephant, a monkey, and other creatures, and a man standing as if contemplating the scene. This decoration remained through the winter till the household had broken up. I then brought it away to Newark and set it up in a hall. Here it remained several years.  I sent it afterward to Miss Caroline Hancock at Sacramento, and she in turn presented it to the Theosophical Society at San Francisco. Doubtless it has long since met the fate of worn-out furniture. But it had notoriety in its earlier days, from the admiration of visitors for its ingenuity and oddness of conception, and descriptions of it were published in several newspapers.”

Wilder describes Madame Blavatsky’s workspace: “The study in which Madam Blavatsky lived and worked was arranged after a quaint and very primitive manner. It was a large front room, and being on the side next the street, was well lighted. In the midst of this was her “den,” a spot fenced off on three sides by temporary partitions, writing desk and shelves for books. She had it as convenient as it was unique. She had but to reach out an arm to get a book, paper or other article that she might desire, that was within the enclosure.”  Wilder lists only a few: “Jacolliot’s work on India, Bunsen’s Egypt, Ennemoser’s History of Magic and others.  The place could not accord with a vivid sense of beauty, except after the ancient Greek conception that beauty is fitness for its purpose, everything certainly being convenient and handy. In this place Madam Blavatsky reigned supreme, gave her orders, issued her judgments, conducted her correspondence, received her visitors and produced the manuscript of her book.”

And what did he think of Blavatsky herself?  “She did not resemble in manner or figure what I had been led to expect. She was tall, but not strapping; her countenance bore the marks and exhibited the characteristics of one who had seen much, thought much, traveled much, and experienced much. Her appearance was certainly impressive, but in no respect was she coarse, awkward, or ill bred. On the other hand she exhibited culture, familiarity with the manners of the most courtly society and genuine courtesy itself.  She expressed her opinions with boldness and decision, but not obtrusively.  It was easy to perceive that she had not been kept within the circumscribed limitations of a common female education; she knew a vast variety of topics and could discourse freely upon them.” This is not the Blavatsky of dubious miracles.  Wilder says he never saw her do anything supernatural, nor did she claim to, except her telepathic connection with The Brothers, whom she later called her masters.  Wilder was a believer in telepathy; his study of eastern religions seemed to support his idea that in Asian culture telepathy was considered a relatively normal spiritual experience. Wilder became a vice president of the Theosophical Society, but the title was more honorary than active.

ceylon2Statue of Olcott in front of railroad station in Colombo, Sri Lanka

Wilder gives us a glimpse of Blavatsky’s relationship with the perhaps overawed Olcott: “Not even the acts or projects of Colonel Olcott escaped such scathing, and in fact he not unfrequently came under her scorching criticism. He writhed under it, but, except for making some brief expression at the time, he did not appear to cherish resentment.” Henry Steel Olcott fought for the Union during the Civil War, then rose to the position of Special Commissioner of the War Department in New York.  Next, given the rank of colonel, he was put to work at the Department of the Navy in Washington D.C.  When Lincoln was assassinated Olcott was part of the investigation team.  In 1868 he began a law practice.  By 1874 he was exploring the seances that were popping up everywhere.  He had been horrified by what he had seen on the battlefield during the Civil War.  Searching for truth about the meaning of life he was attracted to these alleged spirit communications.  His article about the seances at Eddy Farms was published by the New York Sun and then other newspapers.  He also met Blavatsky that year.  Not long after Isis Unveiled was published they would leave America for India.  Olcott converted to Buddhism and became influential enough to help rekindle interest in Buddhist studies in Sri Lanka, which was denied its culture during the English occupation.  He is still honored as a hero of Sri Lankan cultural revival, with street and place names, and a statue of him stands at the main rail station in the capital city.

What did Olcott think of Wilder?  “A tall, lanky man of the Lincoln type, with a noble, dome-like head, thin jaws, grey hair, and language filled with quaint Saxon-Americanisms.  He used to come and talk by the hour with H.P.B., often lying recumbent on the sofa, with – as she used to say – ‘one long leg resting on the chandelier, the other on the mantel-piece.’  And she, as stout as he was thin, as voluble as he was sententious and epigrammatic, smoking innumerable cigarettes and brilliantly sustaining her share of the conversation.”  What a duet they must have made, Blavatsky’s river of run on sentences packed with arcane facts and Wilder’s pompous but pithy and clever punctuation.

Olcott continued: “She got him to write out many of his ideas to use in Isis, and they will be found there quoted. The hours would slip by without notice until he sometimes found himself too late for the last train to Newark, and would have to stop in town all night. I think that, of all our visitors, he cared about the least of all for H. P. B.’s psychical phenomena: he believed in their scientific possibility and did not doubt her possession of them, but philosophy was his idol, and the wonders of mediumship and adeptship interested him only in the abstract. [HPB’s] salon was never dull save, of course, to those who had no knowledge of Eastern literature and understood nothing of Eastern philosophy, and to them time might have dragged heavily when H. P. B. and Wilder, or Dr. Weisse, or some other savant were discussing these deeper depths and loftier heights of thought by hours together.”  That most treasured remark about Thomas Taylor, often repeated by and attributed to Blavatsky, actually came from Wilder.  Taylor was often dismissed by academics as a poor student of Greek, and not a very good writer in his native tongue.  Wilder commented that his critics may have known Greek better than Taylor, but he knew Plato better.

Perhaps Wilder provides a measure of Blavatsky’s importance as a feminist when he writes about Isis Unveiled: “After the work had been printed and placed on sale, there was discussion in regard to the actual authorship. Many were unwilling to acknowledge that Madam Blavatsky could be sufficiently well informed or intellectually capable of such a production. True that women like Frances Burney had composed romances of high merit. Miss Farley had conducted successfully the “Lowell Offering.” Mary Somerville had written on Physical Science, and Harriet Martineau on Political Economy.” He seems surprised by Blavatsky’s achievement, and he can count on one hand his examples of women whose intellectual achievements might be considered precedents.  But he has no doubts about its authorship.  “The manuscript which I handled I am very sure was in the handwriting of Madam Blavatsky herself. Anybody who was familiar with her, would, upon reading the first volume of Isis Unveiled, not have any difficulty in recognizing her as the author.”

Though Blavatsky’s writing had a romantic flourish, a way with words, and flashes of snide wit that Wilder lacked, those who wonder can’t be blamed for their suspicions.  Wilder’s writing style resembles Blavatsky’s.  Both were given to long sentences and pithy yet extensive quotes from their favorite authors. His book New Platonism and Alchemy spans centuries finding common philosophical ground in the works of Pythagoras, Hermes Trismegistos, Plotinus, and Eiranaeus Philalethes (LINK to Intelligencers).  He quotes Aristotle, Plutarch, Iamblichus, Proclus, Apollonius of Tyana, Geber the Arabian, Hindu stories about Krishna, Agrippa, George Ripley, Roger Bacon, Bulwer Lytton, and Goethe, a who’s who of Platonically and alchemically inclined intelligentsia, more than enough strange names and run on sentences thorny with ancient Greek letters to put off any average reader.  But his eclectic mixture of influences and his urge to present complex ideas quickly and in profusion, are typical elements of American Metaphysical Religion.


MES01483_largeEliza Thompson paid for one of the most famous portraits of Lincoln and his cabinet

One of the doubters of Madame Blavatsky was a rich widow named Eliza Thompson.  She told Wilder a story about a brazen act of plagiarism by Blavatsky.  Wilder doubted her sincerity, and he didn’t find her story logical.  To Wilder Isis Unveiled came from the same stream of consciousness he encountered in his conversations with Blavatsky.  But in telling the story, and telling her story, Wilder givers us a rare glimpse of the lives of patrons who decided the fates of artists, spiritualists and philosophers.

“My informant was the late Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson of Boston. Mrs. Thompson was a woman of wealth, abounding with benevolent purposes, but eager for novelties that were more or less visionary, shifting from one pursuit to another, and accessible to flattery. For example, she gave the money which enabled a medical college to hold several lecture terms, and then let the enterprise die out; she paid for building a chapel for the sessions of the Summer School of Philosophy at Concord, and then tired of the enterprise; she aided Dr. Newbrough with money to print his new bible Oahspe, and employed the artist, Mr. Frank Carpenter, to paint the picture of President Lincoln and his cabinet, which she presented to Congress. The wealth which her husband had bequeathed to her became a bait for all manner of parasites to seek her, and flattery artfully bestowed was often like the magical words: “Open, sesame,” sure to find the way to her purse. But she quickly dropped one for another.

“For a little time she was attracted to Madam Blavatsky. This was somewhat to be wondered at, for it is hard to conceive that Madam Blavatsky flattered anybody.  It might be questioned whether Mrs. Thompson herself was quite sincere. I saw Mrs. Thompson at her own premises, and she asked me my opinion in a manner that impressed me that she was hardly straightforward in her relations with the Theosophical household.”

A year later, in 1879, after Blavatsky had left New York for India: “Mrs. Thompson had become an inmate of the family of Dr. Newbrough on West 34th Street. He was endeavoring to push the “new Bible” into circulation. I called there one day by invitation, and learning that she had rooms in the house, paid her my respects. In our conversation, Madam Blavatsky was mentioned, and Mrs. Thompson spoke of her in these terms: “If Madam Blavatsky should come in at that door I should kiss her affectionately. At the same time I believe her to be a perfect humbug.”  She then related the following story: Baron de Palm, a German gentleman, who spent some time in this country, had died in Roosevelt Hospital. He had devoted much attention to arcane subjects, and had written upon them. He was intimate with the party on 47th Street, and made them recipients of his property, but with the assurance that his body should be cremated. There was a woman in the household who seems to have become unfriendly and ready to talk at random. She told Mrs. Thompson that after the death of the Baron she was with Madam Blavatsky while examining the contents of his trunks. One of these, the woman said, was full of manuscripts. Madam Blavatsky looked at a few of the pages, and then hastily closed the trunk, making an effort to divert attention in another direction.  Mrs. Thompson apparently believed that this manuscript was the material of the work Isis Unveiled. Certainly she endeavored to give me that impression.”

The Oahspe Publishing Association in 1882 published Elizabeth Thompson’s The Figures of Hell; Or, the Temple of Bacchus. Dedicated to the Licensers and Manufactures of Beer and Whiskey an enthusiastic attack on alcohol in which she wrote: “Many who recognize the liquor traffic as a great wrong, defend a license system on the ground that it brings a revenue to the State. This motive greatly enhances the shame and disgrace. A revenue derived from widow’s tears and orphan’s groans, and drunkard’s blood! Is it the business of the State to build poorhouses, lunatic asylums and prisons, and then authorize a select few to have the exclusive privilege of filling them if they will pay a stipulated sum? …Whiskey is one of Satan’s whips; beer is his kennel and wine his bait!”

newbroughNewbrough of Oahspe and Shalam

1882 was also the year Oahspe:  A New Bible in the Words of Jehovih and His Angel Ambassadors. A Sacred History of the Dominions of the Higher and Lower Heavens on the Earth for the Past Twenty-Four Thousand Years together with a Synopsis of the Cosmogony of the Universe; the Creation of Planets; the Creation of Man; the Unseen Worlds; the Labor and Glory of Gods and Goddesses in the Etherean Heavens; with the New Commandments of Jehovih to Man of the Present Day was published.  The dentist Newbrough may have channeled it by automatic writing, but deity and the highest angels were claimed as the actual authors.  Channeled over fifty weeks “every morning half-an-hour or so before sunrise,” as Newbrough himself wrote, the 900-page tome preaches service to others as the most important measure of any soul.  Angels are no more or less than disembodied human souls after death.  Whatever your belief, or whether you believe in life after death at all, you will live on.  Low angels who indulged their passions including food derived from animals enter disorganized lower heavens in the afterlife.  Evil angels find their heavens to be hells.  But souls who achieve a high degree while embodied rise to the most organized and delightful heavens after death.

If this sounds like classic spiritualism, it is.  In a letter to the editor of the Banner of Light, written January 23, 1893, Newbrough wrote: “I discovered, many years ago, in sitting in circles to obtain spiritual manifestations, that my hands could not lie on the table without flying off into these “tantrums.” Often they would write messages, left or right, backward or forward, nor could I control them in any other way than by withdrawing from the table. Then I went to work in earnest to investigate spiritualism, and I investigated over two hundred mediums, traveling hundreds and hundreds of miles for this purpose. Often I took them to my own house and experimented with them to my heart’s content. I found that nearly all of them were subject to this involuntary movement of the hands, or to entrancement. They told me it was angels controlling them.”

Newbrough says after ten to fifteen years of these experiments he “began to believe in spiritualism…I did not desire communications from friends or relatives, or information about earthly things; I wished to learn something about the spirit-world; what the angels did, how they traveled, and the general plan of the universe. So, after awhile I took it into my head that wise and exalted angels would commune better with us if we purified ourselves physically and spiritually. Then I gave up eating flesh and fish, milk and butter, and took to rising before day, bathing twice a day, and occupying a small room alone, where I sat every morning half-an-hour before sunrise, recounting daily to my Creator my shortcomings in governing myself in thought and deed. In six years’ training I reduced myself from two hundred and fifty pounds down to one hundred and eighty; my rheumatism was all gone, and I had no more headaches. I became limber and sprightly. A new lease of life came to me.”

Newbrough was not only a spiritual visionary, he was an inventive dentist.  Setting teeth in dental plates was expensive then, but he figured out a much cheaper way to do it.  Goodyear Rubber Company owned that market so they sued him for patent infringement.  At dawn on the day of the verdict the spirits visited Newbrough and told him he would win the case.  When he did he took it as confirmation of his spiritual mission, instead of launching a dental compound company and making a fortune.  The channeled Oahspe material included The Book of Shalam, a plan to collect from all over the world outcast and orphaned children.  Raised according to strict religious principles they would grow up to become the leaders of a spiritual new age.

childhomeChild’s Home, the orphanage at Shalam Colony, or what was left of it in 1945

In 1884 on the banks of the Rio Grande river in Las Cruces, New Mexico, Shalam Colony was established with the help of the villagers of Dona Ana who taught the colonists useful skills like how to make adobe bricks and cook beans, and other skills necessary to survive in this new land.  Financed by a wealthy wool merchant, almost a million dollars was lavished on buildings, on prize dairy cattle, a chicken farm with heated runs, and one of the most modern reservoir and irrigation systems of its time.  By 1889 Newbrough was in New Orleans gathering orphans for Shalam Colony.  But in 1891 he died of influenza.  His followers tried to keep the colony going while they adopted out as many of the orphans as possible but in 1901, defeated by Rio Grande floods and limited local markets for their crops, the colony was closed and the remaining children sent to orphanages in Dallas and Denver.

The followers of Oahspe call themselves Faithists.  Most of their communities failed but the faith continues in groups like the Eloists of New England and the Universal Faithists of Kosmon in Colorado and California.  Other groups continued in New York, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands.  One of the more interesting but no longer active groups were the Essenes of Kosmon, who started out in Salt Lake City, Utah in the 1930s then moved to Colorado communities that flourished in the 1940s.  Within spiritualist circles Oahspe has sometimes been dismissed as a mind control book, but perhaps the more damning accusation is plagiarism, especially of the 800 page Andrew Jackson Davis tome The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations and A Voice to Mankind (1847).  Godfrey Higgins, author of Anacalypsis, coined the term Pandeism to describe a culture, religion and language he thought had once united the world.  Pandeism was neither deism, nor pantheism, rather a way of looking at collections of related gods and heroes, from Pan of Greece to the Pandavas of India, that Higgins argued were the last remains of a collapsed empire.  Many of the ideas in Anacalypsis, reappeared in Oahspe: A New Bible, including the word Pandeism.

Bouton was Wilder’s employer.  Eliza was Wilder’s friend.  She lived with Newbrough who consciously or unconsciously plagiarized ideas from Bouton’s edition of Anacalypsis.  Meanwhile Eliza accused Blavatsky of plagiarism while apparently blind to Newbrough’s.  Did Wilder ever read enough of Oahspe or for that matter Anacalypsis to have noticed these alleged literary thefts?  If so did he tell Eliza?  We don’t know.


hl-abner-doubledayApparently Abner Doubleday, who did not invent baseball but did translate Eliphas Levi, followed Dr. Wilder’s advice regarding haircuts.

1879 was also the year that Wilder met General Abner Doubleday, a prominent member of Blavatsky’s New York circle.  Doubleday is still remembered as the inventor of baseball, though he never mentioned the sport to his closest friends, to whom he did mention the concept of karma and how it helped him find courage, but baseball never appeared in any of his letters or journals.

Doubleday was proud that he fired the first cannon shot of the Civil War, at Ft. Sumter in response to the Confederate bombardment.  During the Civil War Doubleday was a good officer who often found himself in command in drastic situations, performed competently, at times heroically against terrible odds, but he usually received the blame for whatever had gone wrong.  Still, he rode to Gettysburg with Lincoln, because the corps of which he had been forced to take command, had retreated then stood its ground against a superior rebel force, though being almost annihilated.

After the war Doubleday was stationed in San Francisco in 1869 as head of recruiting.  But he had bigger fish to fry.  He got a patent for a cable car system and put a business together.  His cable car company was the first in San Francisco.  In 1771 he became commanding officer of the African American 24th Infantry regiment in Texas, where he spent his last two years before he retired from service.

Spiritualism and Theosophy fascinated Doubleday in his later years.  A frequent guest of Blavatsky and Olcott’s he was an early vice president of the Theosophical Society, and became president of what was left of the American branch when Blavatsky and Olcott left for India.  He may have been pleased that thanks to him Blavatsky and Olcott are discussed in books like David Block’s Baseball before We Knew It: A Search for the Roots of the Game.

When Doubleday died in 1893, Wilder, seventy years old, took on the task of writing an introduction and annotations for Doubleday’s translation of Transcendental Magic by the Parisian magus Eliphas Levi.  Six years after Wilder’s death The Word a popular Theosophical magazine published it serially over several years.  Doubleday also translated Levi’s Fables and Symbols but that translation has never been published.


Hillside_Chapel_-_The_Concord_School_of_PhilosophyConcord School of Philosophy

The New England Transcendentalists were Buddhist, Hermetic, and Christian all at once, but they were also Platonists. Thoreau’s translation of an ancient Greek Orphic Hymn to Zeus, found among the Orphic fragments in his notebook, is a revision of Orphic verses translated by the Cambridge Platonist Cudworth, who thought Proclus had written them. Emerson wrote: “…I hear of…the unenvying will of the gods…Plain of Truth, the Meadow…and all the rest of the Platonic rhetoric quotes as household words…I think one would grow handsome who read Proclus much and well…Every abstract idea is presented as a god…the universe filled with august and exciting image.”  In a lecture at the Concord School Wilder eulogized Emerson as “This Plato of America,” and commented that the difficult inspirations provided by Thomas Taylor were now made readily available in the writing of Emerson.  And Thoreau and Emerson were not as ardent Platonists as Alcott the third of the great Transcendentalist trinity, whom Emerson credited with being able to make the vaguest Platonic concepts seem solid.

In 1882 Wilder gave lectures at Alcott’s Concord School of Philosophy.  As the titles of just a few of Wilder’s hundreds of lectures there and nearly anywhere proves he was expert on many subjects: Functions of the Cerebellum, Relations of Food to Health, The Rosicrucian Brotherhood (like so many key figures of American Metaphysical Religion he argued that Sir Francis Bacon was a founder of the Rosicrucian movement), Philosophy in China, Hebrew Scriptures Interpreted Astrologically, The Enigma of Alchemy, The Ethics of the Zoroastrians, Origin of the Universe and Man, Plato on Education, Plea for the Collegiate Education of Women, and Should Men Cut Their Hair (no).

In 1883 when Wilder’s friend Hiram K. Jones, a popular lecturer nicknamed “The American Plato” became president of the American Akademe, Wilder was made vice president.  Thomas Johnson, editor of The Platonist, was corresponding secretary.  Wilder was a principle contributor to The Platonist.  His translation of the seminal Neoplatonic masterpiece Iamblichus on the Mysteries was published serially in The Platonist in 1884, alongside reprints of works by Thomas Taylor.  The inclusion of Eliphas Levi’s “Kabbalistic Doctrine of Spirits” proved the eclectic intentions of The Platonist.  Wilder and Johnson became co-editors of the Journal of the American Akademe.  Later when Johnson started his second journal Biblioteca Platonica Wilder was his most important collaborator.

Wilder filled eclectic medical journals, Theosophical magazines, and Platonic periodicals with wry articles, delivering lectures from friend’s living rooms and university lecterns, with equal enthusiasm, delivering such torrents of information on so many different subjects he earned the nickname “The Walking Encyclopedia.”


Fort_Meyer_Accident-660x463Fort Meyer accident, first death of an airplane passenger

One day before Wilder died in 1908 a passenger on a plane piloted by Orville Wright became the first person in history to die in a plane crash.  Nine days after Wilder’s death Henry Ford made the first Model T automobile.  Earlier that year the vacuum cleaner had been invented and acquired by a company named Hoover.  Wilder’s world of Platonic New England transcendentalists and metaphysically inclined Civil War generals who knew Lincoln had disappeared and the brusque industrial world of the 20th century was just getting underway.

The New York Herald of September 20, 1908 remembered Wilder as neither a medical pioneer nor a quack. His contributions to Isis Unveiled and The Platonist were ignored. “Dr. Wilder, Tweed Antagonist, Dead: Journalist Who Put Bible into Six Languages Helped to Overthrow “Boss.  Dr. Alexander Wilder, who was a member of the Anti-Tweed Board of Aldermen in1872, and who later became known as a writer upon political, literary and philosophical subjects, died Friday night in his residence, at No. 96 South Eleventh street, Newark, N.J., at the age of eighty-five years.  Dr. Wilder had lately been engaged upon a translation of Plato’s works, which he intended for distribution among his friends. He had translated the Bible into six languages and had to his credit a great deal of other literary labor.  He was a member of that Board of Aldermen which took office January 1, 1872, when it was resisted by the old Board of Aldermen, to dislodge which the courts were called upon. It was at a meeting of the new Board of Aldermen that Abraham Lawrence delivered the speech in which the doom of “Boss” Tweed was forecasted.  Dr. Wilder served through the exciting year in which Samuel J. Tilden’s civil suit for $6,000,000 brought against Tweed precipitated the investigation, which ended with Tweed’s sentence to prison. The so-called “Court House jobs” and other cases of corruption were looked into by the Aldermanic body of which Dr. Wilder was a member, and in which he joined with those Aldermen who were opposed to Tweed and the “Tweed ring.”  The Herald did not note that Wilder quit politics in disgust.

Dr. Robert Gunn, his friend for forty years, eulogized Wilder in a thirty page obituary in Metaphysical Magazine: “he identified himself for a time, together with his brothers, with several religious movements of a revivalist kind, but finally grew out of them and into a sphere of spiritual freedom, and became an outstanding – yet, unfortunately, not well recognized – exponent of Platonism and the Hermetic Philosophy, from the life and religion of Zoroaster the prophet he considered the first philosopher, to the dynasties of ancient Egypt.  During the past two years those who knew Dr. Wilder noticed a gradual failing of his physical strength. He soon rallied from this, however, and continued his writing several hours a day, as had been his custom. In spite of his failing strength his mental powers never lagged, and he kept steadily at his work to the end.  I have known him often, after a hard day’s work, not to remember if he had eaten anything since an early breakfast, and it usually developed that he had fasted the entire day.  Aside from his knowledge of Latin and Greek, which he acquired in his younger days, he mastered by his own efforts, German, French, Hebrew and Sanskrit, and was able to read and make translations from them all.

“He was constantly asked to prepare speeches, lectures, essays and other literary work,” Gunn continued, “for physicians, politicians, public men and others, and he never could say “no.” In fact he would take greater pains in writing for others than for himself; and he always delighted in any new theme that required study and careful research.  He always worked for the love of it, and never thought of remuneration for what he did. For this reason he was never adequately paid for any of his work, even when others got the credit and large pecuniary rewards for what he did for them.

“During his most prosperous days,” Gunn continued, “while connected with the Evening Post, he had accumulated a considerable sum of money. At this time he married a cousin, and bought a handsome home on West Thirty-fourth Street, New York City. The union did not prove congenial, though his wife had great admiration for his intellect.  He was a close student and constant worker, while she was fond of society and wanted constant excitement.  Other interests and pleasures soon occupied her time and she became discontented and irritable. One day, while in a passion, she said to him, “I wish you would go away and never come back.” “Do you mean it?” he asked. “Yes,” she replied, “I mean every word of it, and you know I do.” “Very well,” he replied, and left the house. He went to Albany that day, and on his return he wrote her a note, saying if she meant what she said at their last interview to please send his clothes, and he would send for his books in a few days. They never met again, but when he sent for his books he also sent her a transfer of the house and all it contained.  I feel that this is a delicate matter to refer to, and yet this sketch would not be complete without it, as it gives some insight to the character of the man, and shows his generous spirit in turning everything over to his wife and leaving himself penniless.”

In his final years Wilder was sheltered and cared for by a family of brothers and sisters who were all physicians.  He was working on a huge two-volume analysis or encyclopedia of symbolism, though he wrote hundreds of pages, he didn’t live long enough to finish the first volume, so it was never published. The last medical school of the Eclectics closed in 1939 just as World War 2 began, but what we now call alternative or holistic medicine is a connecting thread from the colonial alchemists through the New Thought, Spiritualist and Theosophical movements in the late 19th and early 20th century, and on through the New Age of the late 20th century, and what appears to be its resurgence in the early 21st.

The Eclectic Life of Alexander Wilder:  Alchemical Generals, Isis Unveiled and Early American Holistic Medicine is part two of a four part series.

Part one: The Platonist on Sunset Boulevard: Hiram K. Jones the Western Wonder

Part three: Thomas Johnson: Pagan Philosopher of the American Frontier

Part four: Twilight of American Neoplatonism: Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie Explains it All to You!  Yes, You!


Mark R. Jaqua’s comprehensive online collection of writing by and about Alexander Wilder is invaluable.

Hiram K. Jones and Philosophy in Jacksonville
Anderson, Paul
Journal of the Illinois Sates Historical Society
Vol. 33, No. 4. Dec., 1940

Platonism in the Midwest
Anderson, Paul
Temple University Publications, 1963

New and Alternative Religions in America: Volume 5
Traditions and Other American Innovations
Ashcraft and Gallagher, eds.
Greenwood, 2006

“The Neoplatonic Revival in North America”
Bregman, Jay
No. 149, Special Issue: The Heritage of Platonism (Winter 1990)

The Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor:
Initiatic and Historical Documents of an Order of Practical Occultism
Godwin, Chanel, Deveney eds.
Red Wheel/Weiser, 1995

Numenius of Apamea:
The Father of Neoplatonism
Guthrie, Kenneth Sylvan
Comparative Literature Press, 1917

Plotinus: Chronologically Translated
Guthrie, Kenneth Sylvan
George Bell and Sons, 1918

Meditation, Transformation and Dream Yoga
Gyatrul Rinpoche
Snow Lion, 2002

Obituary of Hiram K. Jones
Illinois Medical Journal
vol. 5-6, 1903.  p. 173

“Faces of Friends”
Judge, William Q.
The Path magazine, vol. vii

Shalam: Utopia on the Rio Grande
Priestley, Lee
Texas Western Press, 1988

Desire and Duty at Oneida:
Tirzah Miller’s Intimate Memoir
Indiana University Press, 2000

The Influence of Egypt on the Modern Western Mystery Tradition:
The Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor
Scarborough, Samuel
Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition
No. 1, Autumnal Equinox 2001

“How “Isis Unveiled” Was Written”
Wilder, Alexander
The Word May 1908

New Platonism and Alchemy
Wilder, Alexander
Weed, Parsons, and Co. 1869

Written by Ronnie Pontiac

Newtopia staff writer RONNIE PONTIAC is a founding member and primary guitarist of Lucid Nation, executive producer of the documentaries Rap is War, Exile Nation, and the award winning animated short Cohen on the Bridge.  He associate produced The Gits documentary, and was art editor, then poet in residence for Newtopia Magazine in its former incarnation . He’s a published author of works on obscure topics such as ancient Greek religion and the history of alchemy. Follow him on Twitter @AmerMysteries.


10 thoughts on “The Eclectic Life of Alexander Wilder: Alchemical Generals, Isis Unveiled, and Early American Holistic Medicine

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  3. This series of articles is really excellent, Ronnie. Manly Hall would be proud of you!

    Posted by John Uebersax | June 15, 2013, 4:02 pm
  4. Alexander Wilder was my grandmother’s great uncle, her father’s uncle. I have some of his books and at least one personal letter in his handwriting (which was not easily legible), and numerous pictures and at least one daguerreotype or tintype. I also have a daguerreotype of his daughter, Dora, who only lived to the age of 11. I am delighted to find this article which gives a whole different view of “Alick,” not a term in the family materials. Apparently you have other sources as well. I would love a bibliography. He is one of the few relatives in the family that have some type of fame and a clear and easily traceable lineage. I plan to print and place with attribution in the family album.

    Posted by Jeanne Allen | March 28, 2014, 1:47 pm
    • I am wondering if you have any more information on Wilder’s daughter “Dora,” who I’ve never seen a mention of elsewhere. ‘By Wilder’s wife? Are there any references to her other than the daguerrotype? What reference might be on the photo? Thanks for the post. ‘Very interesting that someone is around from Wilder’s family.

      Posted by Mark R. Jaqua | December 24, 2014, 7:23 am
      • In response to your request above. Wilder had a possible liaison with a Sarah Marie Leland as early as 1847. Her family is convinced there was a child of this liaison, but there is no proof of such except the nearness of the families and the fact that a child was born to Sarah with the middle name of Alwilda. Eudora was born of the marriage of Alexander to Sophie Lawrence on May 10, 1849. In While Eudora was not born in time to make the 1850 census when Alexander and Sophie are living with his parents, Abel and Asenath Wilder, Eudora is listed as living with her maternal grandmother, Rebecca Lawrence in the 1860 census. Her name is given as “Eudora or Dora Wilder. Her mother is listed as Sophia Lawrence and is living next door as servant with the Lamb family. Dora died at the age of 11 in 1863. I gather Sophie and Alexander have divorced by this time. Unfortunately, Alexander did not seem much interested in his daughter. Sad! I gather from other material I have read that Alexander’s own upbringing was difficult which probably affected his own family relations. Alexander marries again, this time his cousin Mary Wilder in 1868. This marriage, too, ended in separation. In Alexander’s letter to my grandmother about the time of her marriage, he, while wishing her well makes a joke about the best advice being not to marry at all. In another family letter, a remark is made about Alexander’s wife probably not having patience with him. I also do have a picture of the burial place of Eudora and her mother with the Lawrence family. Sincerely, Jeanne Allen 2nd great grand niece of Alexander Wilder.

        Posted by Jeanne Allen | January 7, 2015, 3:13 pm
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  6. Great article, full of facts and illuminative insights leaving me the reader much to imagine. Rudolf Steiner must have read many of his writings…..i wonder if they met? Probably not, but still….Wilder is profound and vast. Are those last writings he worked on before crossing the threshold into the spiritual worlds around anywhere to read?
    thanks, robert of mayflowerbookshop.com

    Posted by Robert Thibodeau | December 19, 2016, 7:50 pm


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