Willy’s world travels weren’t really about exploring the beauties of nature, unless you include among those beauties, the certainty of life after death.
Imagine how pristine the sky, the beach and the ocean must have been that summer in the town of Hamilton, in the Bermuda Islands in 1908 when Willy Reichel signed the preface of his book An Occultist’s Travels, a work made more poignant by its descriptions of lost wonders of the natural world irrevocably damaged in less than a hundred years.
Equally poignant is the innocence and enthusiasm with which Willy explored his world. Not all of nature’s wonders entranced him. He found the American prairie, then nearly endless, depressing. The strange shapes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains he thought “grotesque.”
With equal gusto he explored the world of the occult. His is not the vantage point of a self-conscious postmodern. Willy is convinced that despite the crowd of frauds harvesting the fertile field of spiritualist phenomena, here and there real mediums have manifested experiences inexplicable by the commonly accepted laws of nature.
In fact, Willy had several such adventures to share from his own personal experiences. Willy was eager to bring these new wonders to the world of science. He believed once credible scientists made the acquaintance of credible mediums a new world of knowledge would dawn.
A THWARTED HEALER FINDS A NEW MISSION
For ten years Willy had fought for recognition of healing by magnetism. Having had success in his own practice, he insisted science should thoroughly investigate this phenomenon. But Willy found that being “an expounder of animal magnetism and occult and spiritualistic science” invited “brutal persecutions on the part of certain representatives of the medical world in Germany, together with the opposition of the clergy.”
Seeking to escape the stress of his losing battle over the legitimacy of magnetic healing, Willy wandered the world. “I set out on my travels in order to forget these troubles and to continue my studies. I have traversed France, England, Italy, Africa, America from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Japan, China, the Philippines and Hawaiian Islands.”
But this was the not the first time Willy had journeyed to faraway places. His first reference to a specific occult practice is to palm reading. “Experts in chiromancy (or palmistry, as the science is called in England and America) have told me that the lines of my hand showed a predestination for long journeys, especially the well-known chiromancer, Mme. de Thebes in Paris, whom I visited twice.”
Willy elaborates: “By the time I was twenty I had travelled through the Riviera, Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Russia. And I have pleasant memories of the time when, in the ruins of Pompeii, I read Bulwer’s exciting romances, “The Last Days of Pompeii,” and “Zanoni.” The latter he recommends to readers with “transcendental” interests. But it was not in Pompeii that Willy’s sense of mission awakened.
Frequent vacations in Monte Carlo, where he wryly notes he could safely travel because he refused to gamble, culminated in an epiphany. “Often have I sat on a bench, high up on the cliffs of Monaco, olive, orange, and lemon trees seeming to smile at me, when I fixed my thoughts upon the mysterious organization of human nature…and again feelings which I believed long buried awoke within me…”
Willy immediately travelled to Paris and to Nice to consult with mediums there but he was disappointed. He reports he experienced nothing worth repeating. Nevertheless he remained dedicated to his goal of touring the world in search of natural wonders and supernatural revelations.
FROM EGYPT TO NEW YORK CITY
Willy was a hardy traveler. On board a ship headed for Alexandria, Egypt in 1902 Willy enjoyed the storm off the coast of Crete that humbled his servant with seasickness.
In Egypt Willy toured the monuments wishing he had a trance medium alongside him to tell him stories of the mysterious ruins. He next travelled back to Paris and from there to Dover and London where he met more highly recommended mediums but experienced nothing worth reporting. His arrival in New York City moved him.
“I had previously visited many harbours: Genoa, Trieste, Marseilles, Naples, Brindisi, Alexandria, Port Said, Dover, Calais, Cherbourg, Kiel, Cronstadt, St. Petersburg, etc., but not one of them compares in magnificence with the harbour of New York. The first sight of it is simply overwhelming!”
In New York City a member of the Swiss Consulate known for his writing in German journals on psychic phenomena took Willy to visit “a medium whose specialty is direct writing on a tablet. I am positive that this is a genuine medium…but the purport of the writing received did not impress me.”
WILLY VISITS LILY DALE
His friend from the consulate told Willy to visit Lily Dale. These days with an HBO documentary and nearby highways Lily Dale is easy to reach, but it wasn’t an easy journey for Willy. Leaving New York on the night train he “reached Dunkirk on Lake Erie, from which a small branch road goes to Lily Dale. Violent rains had washed away the embankment of the road, so after waiting nearly six hours at the little station, I determined to take a carriage, in order at least to reach Lily Dale by night.”
Lily Dale was born as a summer campground for spiritualists in the 1870s. $1,845 bought twenty acres of farmland. Initially christened the Cassadaga Lake Free Association, then The City of Light, shortly before Willy’s visit the site became Lily Dale in honor of the water lilies of Cassadaga Lake. In 1915 Lily Dale became even more famous when the house where American spiritualism was born in 1848, the cottage of the Fox Sisters, was purchased and moved there.
“The Spook House” as it had been known locally in Hydesville New York was set for demolition when in 1915 Spiritualist Benjamin F. Bartlett bought it and after having it dismantled into pieces moved it by barge over Lake Eerie 150 miles north to Lily Dale.
Lily Dale medium Flo Cottrell made the cottage a shrine for Spiritualists. But in 1955 a “fire of undetermined origins” burnt the cottage to the ground. Back at 1510 Hydesville Road, the site of the original cottage, a replica was built, a cause championed by Spiritualist John Drummond. But it burned down, too, in 1983.
What impressed Willy most about Lily Dale was not the mediums, whom he found performed much better when in group sittings, than face to face. What impressed Willy was the fact that Lily Dale existed at all.
“The liberty of Spiritualism here is entirely different from what it is in Europe. Charmingly situated on Cassadaga Lake, N. Y., the little wooden houses of the mediums stretch in various directions; perhaps fifty of all descriptions live here together. Before each house is a sign, stating the kind of power the occupant possesses, and no one disturbs them in the exercise of their calling; on the contrary strangers come here from all quarters, seeking the mediums which seem to them best suited to their purpose.”
Willy’s own experience was pleasant but by his standards unimpressive. “I can say that I was most kindly received, perhaps partly because my name was not unknown there, as I have contributed a great deal for several years to American publications. So I visited many trance, speech, and materialization mediums. True, I did not obtain much here at least concerning the question of identity, which perhaps can never be proved, aside from the fact that it is probably extremely difficult for foreign intelligences, that is, in this case the Germans who were closely connected with me, to put themselves, quickly and without ceremony, into communication with American mediums, whose views and comprehension of life are in many respects wholly different from theirs.”
Yet his disappointing experience would be a marvel to any of us. “I have seen at the séances of the mediums
Winans and A. Nermann, within two hours, in the presence of perhaps thirty people, probably twelve different materialized phantoms, large and small, Indians, Englishmen, and Americans, each of whom appealed to some one present to prove himself a relative or friend. I, too, was summoned, but I could not recognize the being in question as the person he alleged himself to be.”
Were these apparitions an elaborate theatrical ruse to which Willy and thousands of others fell victim? His further adventures will leave us wondering if he is a liar, or if some inexplicable phenomena have all but disappeared from human experience.
In Lily Dale Willy got a tip to visit a medium in Chicago. “Miss Bangs possesses a very peculiar power as a medium, which I had never witnessed before. A letter is written to some intelligence from whom one desires to receive a communication, a few empty sheets are enclosed for a reply, then the envelope is sealed with one’s own seal and put between two slates on a table in the bright sunshine. Miss Bangs, after placing an inkstand and a penholder on the slate, sits down opposite with folded arms. The noise of writing is now distinctly heard, then rapping, and then the slate may be taken. My letter lay exactly as I had left it, with the seal uninjured. I opened it, and all the empty pages were filled with writing in ink, and all this was done at noon, in broad daylight! In spite of all skepticism, I could discover no fraud there.”
CHARMED BY CALIFORNIA
Next came the dreary trip to California. “Nothing but endless prairies — enough to drive one to despair!” Arriving in San Francisco before the devastating quake he quickly moves on to Los Angeles, “a further ride of eighteen hours.”
Willy loved L.A. “Still a comparatively new city, at the junction of the Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe railroads. On this account its growth has been incredibly rapid, even for American conditions. All kinds of tropical plants — only the dates and bananas do not ripen — grow there in unexpected magnificence, which is increased by countless humming-birds. Situated at the foot of the Sierra Nevada, three quarters of an hour distant from the ocean it possesses a climate superior to that of the Riviera, for I could not endure the heat there in April, while in Los Angeles, after noon, there is a sea breeze from the ocean which renders the nights cool.”
Willy liked Americans but like many European travelers before and after him he found us lacking in culture. “The Americans have treated me with the utmost cordiality, and are generally very courteous and hospitable; I have not a word to say on that score. The country, however, lacks the Art, and especially the poetry, of which the German is so proud.”
At a newly formed spiritualist camp nearby Willy saw: “probably eight phantoms within an hour who all appeared in white veils.” Which puzzled Willy because “in Lily Dale, they showed themselves in the clothes they wore in life. It is not clear to me why the spirits in Los Angeles appeared in one way and those in Lily Dale in another.” Later in the book Willy will venture a guess, but his roundabout approach seems less mysterious than perfunctory. The book doesn’t seem to have warranted a rewrite. Willy is fine with statements made early on that he explains away as the book proceeds. More like a contemporary travel and psychic adventure handbook than a serious work of non-fiction, there’s an almost disposable quality to “An Occultist’s Travels” with it’s long gone addresses of mediums and quotes from then current journals like newspaper cut outs stuck in a scrapbook.”
Willy marveled at the beauties of California. The Sequoia redwoods astounded him; he compared them to the Pyramid of Cheops. Not long after Los Angeles became Willy’s home for five years. But first he travelled on a fateful trip to San Francisco. “Port Los Angeles (three-quarters of an hour distant from the city of that name), reaches the capital of California in about twenty-five hours. Whales and flying fish were our constant companions.”
THE AMAZING MR. MILLER
Willy met many mediums on this trip to San Francisco, all recommended by experts and friends but no one impressed him. Until he met Mr. Miller. “Mr. Miller must be described more fully, since my experiences with him surpassed everything that I had previously known, at least in his character as a materialization medium.”
We don’t know much about Mr. Miller. He was not a professional medium. He was born in France not America. According to Willy Miller had a day job: “Mr. Miller then owned a business in Japanese art wares and old pictures at 568 Geary street.” Willy compliments Miller’s ”modest bearing.”
Willy describes extraordinary events at their first meeting: “I mentioned neither my name, nor my occupation, because he did not ask for them. On Thursday, October 1st, 1903, I went to him and found there twenty-five persons, both men and women. His so-called cabinet was a bow-window of three sections, with a curtain of black material, facing directly upon the street. When I entered, the curtain was drawn back, and I investigated everything in the most thorough manner. To come in from the outside was utterly impossible, as Bush street is well frequented and fully lighted by lamps, so that any attempt to enter from without would be impracticable on account of the pedestrians constantly passing.” This is the stage upon which these extraordinary events or fictions will unfold: a bay window in the house of a gallery owner.
Willy continues: “Miller first requested every one present to search this bow-window thoroughly, and he really made so pleasant, simple and frank an impression that harmony, which is a principal matter in such séances, was not difficult to establish. After several persons had changed their places, which is usually necessary at such séances for the proper combination of the fluid emanations of those present, he placed himself before the curtain, which directly afterwards was opened, and now phantom after phantom appeared, whom he, without being in a trance, took by the hand and first asked for the name, which was instantly given.”
What is going on here? Is this some kind of theatrical fraud, a trick of mirrors or projection? But the wonders to follow leave no doubt that either Willy is lying or he experienced something for which modern science has no category. Willy’s adventure with the dead was about to become much more personal.
Willy describes what Miller did next: “After the appearance of the second phantom he said suddenly: “Here is a Spirit, who calls himself So-and-so” — he mentioned a name known to me — “and says that Moppel, a dog that is still alive, remembers you vividly, and is faithfully guarding your home.” Now for the explanation. At my temporary home in Southern California, I had a very faithful white Alaska dog, which I had left there, and to which I had given the name of “Moppel.” Besides, it is a German dog-name, and Miller does not understand a word of German! ” No one in this séance knew me, or was aware of that.”
This detail impressed Willy, though it never occurred to him apparently that he might not be so hard to identify with his German accent and other easily recognizable characteristics. Perhaps it’s possible that a mutual acquaintance knew this detail about Willy’s life in Los Angeles. But then what to make of this: “The spirit, who said this, was, as I have said, known to me by name and seemed to be very familiar with my private affairs. “
What happened next, however, cannot be so easily explained. What it describes must be dismissed as a lie or accepted as legitimate mystery in need of scientific investigation, the message to which Willy dedicated his life’s work.
“After a number of spirits had first mentioned their names, they summoned several of those present and talked with them. Some of those asked for were not present, upon which the spirits withdrew with words of regret. Mr. Miller then stated that he would retire into the cabinet, because then the phantoms have more power, and from it they would go to those present. And so it was. Scarcely four minutes had elapsed, when the curtain opened entirely and Mr. Miller was seen asleep, with six fully developed phantoms in white robes beside him, who all clasped hands. Gradually the different phantoms came out of the cabinet, went to those present, and talked eagerly with them; two spoke German. As I heard later, they were conversing with Germans.”
Now comes the really mysterious part: “Suddenly I heard distinctly, loudly, and clearly a name which I knew very well, from a phantom who wished to speak to me of private matters, concerning which I must keep silent. Another phantom came close to me, bowed, and I recognized it; his name, which he then uttered, corresponded.
Our instinct as self-conscious post moderns is to dismiss this as pure fiction, a money grab by a guy with a vivid imagination. Yet thousands of such experiences were reported, often under strict conditions provided by leading scientists of the time. What was this phenomenon? Why did it stop happening?
Willy closes his account of the extraordinary event:
“Almost at the same moment that the last phantom withdrew from our circle, Mr. Miller came out of the cabinet. There was ample light during the whole séance. The following phenomenon was also extremely interesting: a white ball, which looked like muslin, hovered a short time in front of the curtain, then sank before the eyes of all, and in scarcely two minutes a new spirit figure formed itself. The dematerializations principally took place in full view, in front of the curtain. I can only say that during many years I have seen a great deal, but nothing like this, and I only regret that Germany does not possess such a medium. Unfortunately I was obliged to go away, but I hoped at no distant time to see Mr. Miller again. “
LOST WONDERS OF PRISTINE CALIFORNIA
From his adventures with the dead Willy returned to appreciation of the beauties of life in southern California. “In December, 1903, I spent some time in San Diego, the last city this side of the Mexican frontier; the Coronado Hotel there, built on Coronado Beach, is probably the most aristocratic place on the coast of Southern California.”
But his journeys always return to the metaphysical: “Near San Diego (a carriage drive of an hour and a half) at Point Loma, the Theosophists have built a wonderful monastery, from which one has a magnificent view of the wide ocean, San Diego Bay, and the Mexican mountains. In winter, after the heat has somewhat diminished, everything grows here in tropical glory of colour. The wonderful begonias and the superb bougainvilleas with their thousands of yellowish red and blue flowers here twine around almost every one of the little houses, which, of course, on account of the frequent earthquakes, are built of wood, as they are nearly everywhere in California. In this institution Theosophy is taught according to the ideas of Mme. Blavatsky. Point Loma Homestead is the name of the monastery, in which any one who is seeking rest and recuperation can find accommodation at the rate of three dollars a day.”
In January Willy traveled to the San Gabriel Canon, where he learned about gold mining and the gold miners. Their life was hard: dry “digging in sandbanks, hills, mountains.” Their justice didn’t depend on law enforcement. “Strict laws prevail in these mountains. Every thief is pursued and shot without mercy. The gold miner, who lives in a tent, to which every one has easy access, spends the day in his mine, and his tent is usually filled with stores of provisions, which are brought on horses from long distances. Any one can take from them, but he must leave a note there, stating who he is, and what he has carried away, or “to horse,” — the search for him begins, and woe betide him!”
Willy proves once again that he could enjoy rough travel: “I spent the winter in these mountains very comfortably, rode to the mines almost daily, often helped in washing the gold, and met among these people very excellent men, who hospitably offered me everything they possessed (dried canned goods and fried bacon).“
Not only he could he survive rough conditions. He could stand up to trouble, too. “There was only one Indian, whose Spanish-English-Indian dialect was difficult to understand, whose insolence forced me to hold a loaded revolver under his nose; but I had been warned against him.” Willy hastens to add: “I have often met this race in various parts of the United States and in Mexico but have almost always found them peaceful.”
For Willy the mountains of southern California were an endless holiday: “The rest of the time I spent in trout-fishing and hunting. Here the California bears may still be found, and in summer numerous serpents, especially the dangerous rattlesnake. The temperature in these mountains in January is about the same as it is in May in Germany.”
Willy describes what it took to make his time in the mountains comfortable: “My equipment was shoes with spiked soles, a revolver in my pocket, and an iron-shod cane; many days I rode on horseback for six or eight hours through mountain streams and over peaks, and then in the evening, in Follows Camp, where I lived, made a fire in the little iron stove, for at night it grew cold. I had with me a few works by Schopenhauer” and some books by leading psychic researchers of Germany.
Again he waxes poetic about the area around Los Angeles: “the climate of Southern California in winter is about the same as I found in Sicily, only the magnificent floral display is greater in California. As soon as the first rain begins to fall in December or January, after an interval of nearly seven months, everything commences to grow with wonderful luxuriance.”
But Willy was not impressed by the desperate seeking healing in L.A., and the throng of questionables who ministered to them. “From December until the end of March Los Angeles is crowded with invalids and people who wish to escape the cold weather of the eastern states. With these strangers a number of mediums usually arrive, and so now came a “Count Gabriel Dizara,” who calls himself “Anglo-Hindu Palmist and Medium, Member of the Ancient Order of Occult Scientists, Psychical Research Society of America,” and President of the “Balfour Institute of Science” in New York. He boasts of knowing the secrets of the Lama priests, and will allow himself to be buried six days, like some Hindu fakirs.”
But Dizara surprised Willy: “At any rate, he is an interesting man. I wrote in my lodgings a number of questions, put them in a closed envelope, and went to him. His companion burned before my eyes this closed envelope in a second room before I had seen Mr. Dizara at all, with the remark that these questions would now be considered and answered by the “Professor,” without my having said a word. Directly after I was called into another room, and stood opposite to this man, who clasped my left hand and repeated all my questions successively, with accurate pronunciation of proper names, at the same time answering them. Whether his statements will prove correct, the future must determine. I can certify that no one had read my questions, and that they were previously burned in their original condition before my eyes in another room.” Perhaps Willy had never seen the old magician’s trick of exchanging one envelope for another? He probably would have been insulted at that suggestion.
Like many transplants to Los Angeles Willy soon found the unrelenting heat and infrequent rain intolerable. Immigrants would echo his sentiments for generations and still do. “I had hoped gradually to acclimatize myself to Southern California, but I had now been a year and a half in this climate and suffered no less than at first in this half- tropical region. It is true, as acquaintances consoled me by saying, that one can make snow-balls, gather roses, and take a sea-bath on the same day; but one cannot be always “in the car.”
But like many non-native Angelenos even while complaining about Los Angeles he winds up singing its virtues: “Mount Lowe, the refuge of the residents of Los Angeles, is reached in about two hours, in connection with which I will remark that the car system in California is much better developed than, for instance, in Berlin, especially as concerns comfort and speed. Snow can be found on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada, whose summit is reached by a cog-wheel road. Returning from there, one reaches in about an hour Pasadena, which in January displays magnificent roses and where, as in Los Angeles, the orange and lemon orchards ripen their fruit in January. From Pasadena one can go by way of Los Angeles in about two hours to Santa Monica or Redondo or Long Beach (all three on the Pacific Ocean), where one can bathe in the open sea in January or take a little voyage to Santa Catalina Island, a romantic isle in the sea, like Helgoland or
Capri. Rowboats, with a glass bottom, permit a view of the floor of the sea, which displays a fairy-like splendour in its plant formations, amid which swim throngs of gold fish and other species. Only on the Lake of Garda in 1896, and later on the road along the Mediterranean, between Nice and Villa Franca, have I seen anything like it. I brought cones seventeen inches long from the pine trees on the snow-clad mountains and adorned my room with them.”
LOST WONDERS OF PREINDUSTRIAL MEXICO
Willy’s wanderlust took him south of the border. “As California borders upon Mexico, I did not wish to miss seeing this country, especially as the feeling was maturing in my mind that I must soon turn northward on account of the climate; so, on the 25th of January, 1904, I set out on the journey.”
But getting to Mexico wasn’t as easy as crossing over at Tijuana in those days. “I left Los Angeles on Monday, and did not arrive in the city of Mexico until Friday. The long ride across Arizona and New Mexico to the frontier station of El Paso in Texas, led everywhere through prairies. At El Paso there is a change of road, and then the journey continues two more days and nights over similar prairies, though in the distance the mountains of the Sierra Madre and the Cordilleras of the coast are constantly in view.”
In Mexico City Willy stayed at the Palacio de Iturbide, then almost 150 years old, the three story Mexican Baroque building had been converted from a private residence to the College of Mining, then finally to a hotel in 1855. “In the city of Mexico, however, I stayed at the Hotel Iturbide — one feels richly rewarded for these fatiguing experiences. A really charming city, thoroughly clean, and built with much architectural magnificence in the new portion. Everything there is nearly one-half cheaper than in the United States; the climate, too, is much more agreeable than in Southern California; yet it lies at a height of nearly 7500 feet, so that it is never too hot and never too cool. “
But the humble ancestor of tequila did not make a good impression on Willy’s palate. “From Central Mexico one travels probably hundreds of miles through plantations of agaves from whose leaves, nearly as thick as one’s fist, the Mexicans prepare their national drink “pulque,” a syrup-like white mass whose taste was not agreeable to me.”
As Willy left luxury behind the wonders he encountered multiplied. “In order to see a genuine tropical landscape, I resolved to go to Vera Cruz, on the Gulf of Mexico, along which road one can most readily become acquainted with the tropics. I did not regret it. Orizaba, Jalapa, and Puebla were recommended to me. I had already seen the beauties of the tropics in Southern Egypt and Nubia, and shall never forget the brilliant starry sky arching above the ruins of the Temple of Ammon of the Pharaohs in Karnak, opposite ancient Thebes, or a wonderful tropical night in Assouan in the Libyan desert, but there one finds no vegetation except palms and cacti. On this route, however, I was to see tropical forests in their full indescribable majesty.”
“I am not botanist enough to give the names of all the plants and trees which this tropical climate produces: Mimosas, the logwood tree, figs, bamboos, palms, bignonias, mahogany, and hundreds of other species, all growing wild together, with a magnificence of blossom that mocks description! The fruits of the pomegranate and cherimoya have a wonderfully delicious flavour. The bananas here are red, while the Jamaica banana, which is most eaten in America, is yellow.”
Willy found the cultivated acres he encountered as impressive as the wilderness. “I stood marveling in the midst of the sugarcane, coffee, tobacco, and banana plantations. It was the first of February, 1904; the sugarcane had just been cut, and the coffee trees were full of beans.”
But the journey included less picturesque sights as well: “Dozens of vultures attend to the cleanliness by devouring every animal that dies there; I have seen them myself eagerly sucking up the warm blood of a slaughtered steer.”
Turn of the 20th Century Mexico reminded Willy of Egypt. “The common people in Mexico, it is true, are backward in civilization; in the flat country one usually sees nothing but clay huts, similar to the dirty clay dwellings of the fellaheen on the Nile.”
This time the occult receives only a cursory glance, but Willy does reveal what may have been a chief inspiration to his own work, and a fault that his own book would suffer. “As my time was limited, I could not look into occultism in Mexico, though Max Rahn, editor of *’Die Tjebersinnliche Welt” Berlin, by his valuable compilation of nearly all of the occult societies and publications in the whole world, has materially lightened the traveler’s task in quickly finding the persons connected with such matters, even though many addresses, principally in the English and Spanish speaking countries through which I have travelled, were no longer to be found.”
MORE OF MILLER’S MIRACLES
As was his way, Willy returned from terrestrial wonders to Spiritualist adventures, visiting San Francisco and the astounding medium Miller again. The results were even more spectacular and inexplicable. “I saw, by an amply sufficient light, while Miller was standing before the curtain, a fully developed spirit come out from behind it, go about nine feet, to a lady sitting beside me, embrace and kiss her — it was his mother — and then watched Mr. Miller who — not in a trance — slowly followed him, as he took him by the hand and led him back to the curtain, where he dematerialized before it.”
But that was only the beginning of the marvels Willy claimed to have experienced: “I also saw eight times a gentleman well known to me in life, ten feet away from the medium, first approaching and sinking in front of me as a little floating flame, develop in perhaps a minute and a half, till he stood in his full figure directly before my eyes. He then held long conversations with me, drew back himself to the curtain, where I followed, and dematerialized himself before my eyes, still talking until his head at last vanished.”
Willy provides astounding details: “This spirit, in his voice and his whole manner of speech, was absolutely unmistakable; but as he developed himself in white robes, I asked him if he would be able, that is, if he could remember in what dress he was laid in the coffin, and to materialize in this for a still more positive proof of identity. He promised to do so, and came the next day to a séance in a dress-coat, exactly as I had seen him in the coffin, his face without any covering.”
What are we to make of these alleged phenomena: “I saw with my own eyes little revolving flames, white, blue, and a wonderful light-blue, from which voices spoke to me, giving their full names, and those of friends and relatives; some sank and quickly developed, but others had not yet attained this ability. “
What happened next leaves us again with an apparent choice between calling Willy a liar, admitting unknown phenomena or concocting some scheme of hypnosis, theatrical effects, perhaps even telepathy, to explain it all away; hypotheses Willy himself considered, often by quoting authors from the many Spiritualist and Theosophical journals he enjoyed reading.
“I saw my nephew Helmuth, who died in Berlin, August lst, 1898, as a child four years old, float with his fair hair out of the cabinet, calling constantly: “Uncle, do you see me?” I saw him hovering about in the room a long time and then disappearing through the ceiling. Who, having had such an experience fall to his lot even once, which makes all farther proofs superfluous, could still doubt the truth of Spiritualism? I saw and heard these things several times.”
In the text version of this book on Archive.org, in the sentence “—exactly as I had seen him in the coffin, his face—“ the word “his” is mistyped as “b^s.”
Of course, that’s the only reaction we’re allowed to have, isn’t it? Willy pondered that point, too: “Of course, there is also plenty of swindling in America. But Passavant is right in saying: “These powers would be abused, like all powers in the world, the highest, the most horrible. But call all history to witness, ask all the generations of the earth, whose skeletons are in the soil on which we walk: Has ever any great and glorious apparition manifested itself to the world, even where the hand of the Eternal visibly touched the earth, which was not laughed at by shallowness, deformed by superstition, gnawed like a worm by mockery, and darkened, abused, poisoned by the gloomy spirit of falsehood?
The wonders continued. “At a private séance, standing directly behind Miller, who was not in a trance, I saw bright flames floating from every direction from which voices addressed me in the most touching manner. I saw at a public séance, for at least twelve minutes, a spirit, fully materialized, sit among us and talk with us. I saw at least a dozen spirits develop before those attending the séance, usually two or three yards from the medium who, meanwhile, was talking unconcernedly several times; and heard rappings, which sometimes echoed like cannon; also other tests, for instance: bringing back a watch that had been lost six years, I will mention only incidentally, as the materialization was so amazing, that all the rest recedes into the background by comparison.”
Are we to believe that a watch lost six years ago far away from California materialized at the séance? Can we believe it? Apparently, Willy could. His book lacks the smooth veneer and tactical layout of a hustle. His claims are too far-fetched, too numerous, and his narrative too haphazard. It reads like the feverish outpouring of a man encountering something inexplicable.
As for any revelations about what the afterlife holds for the departed, Willy assures us he received them, but nothing that couldn’t be found in other works. “If any one has an interest in the revelations of the world beyond the grave, the works of Swedenborg, Cahagnet, Dr. Friese, A. J. Davis, Hudson Tuttle, Allan Kardec, Annie Besant, Mme. d’Esperance, and others are at his disposal.”
Miller’s chief spirit control Betsy orchestrated another bizarre event. “Mr. Miller was sitting in the cabinet, in a trance, and Betsy summoned me into the cabinet in order to convince myself that Miller was sleeping in it. She called me the “German gentleman.” The séance this time consisted of twenty-seven persons. She said to me: “We will now dematerialize our medium and remove him to the second story, and you and another gentleman and two ladies must get the key to the second story and bring the medium down again.”
Teleportation of a human being was hardly your average Spiritualist phenomen0n. “I will mention that the whole house belongs to Mr. Miller, and the séances were held on the ground floor, while the second story, as Miller is not married, is kept securely locked, since thieving is not rare in California. Betsy also requested us to join hands and sing, in order to obtain perfect calmness of soul, and the greatest harmony, because her purpose was extremely difficult. I again carefully examined everything, convinced myself that it would have been utterly impossible for Miller to get out of the cabinet, since twenty-seven persons were sitting directly in front of it and there was abundant light, while the back of the cabinet faced directly upon the street. Even if a window should be opened — there was no door — any draught of air, and besides, it was stormy, rainy weather, it would have been instantly noticed by us.“
Now that Willy has set the stage, Betsy becomes master of ceremonies: “After about four minutes, Betsy’s voice was heard, asking that we four persons should now go. I had the housekeeper, who was sitting in the circle, give me the key, and we went to the second story, where I unlocked the door, and really found Mr. Miller, breathing heavily, sitting in a chair. I took the medium, who was still in a trance, by the hand and led him back into our circle, where he awoke without any recollection of what had happened; only his heart gave him pain.” Can a modern reader resist the temptation to blame Mr. Miller’s condition on a strenuous illusion?
Sometimes the supernatural became especially entertaining: “I have experienced many other things with Miller; for instance, once two spirits materialized who said that they had been Egyptian dancing-girls; they wound up themselves a musical clock standing beside me, and danced, that is, made the dancing movements, similar to those I had seen the dancing dervishes per-form in Cairo in January, 1902, after which they dematerialized before my eyes.”
The dead were not the only guests at Miller’s séances. “Another time beings appeared, shining radiantly from within outward — words of description fail me — they said that they had never lived upon this earth, but were “Spirits of the Sun,” and allowed me to touch them, in order to convince me that, out of love for mankind, they had adapted themselves for this moment to the earthly sphere.”
Lest we think that Mr. Miller’s house was rigged for these performances, Willy assures us: “Mr. Miller visited me in April, 1904, in Los Angeles, where I was then residing, about five hundred miles from San Francisco. On his arrival I examined him, as well as his two pieces of hand-luggage, and built a cabinet myself in my own private dwelling; but again, as at the first séance, behind my chair five feet away from the medium — the same spirit that I have previously fully described, developed himself in shining robes. Then a female spirit came out of the cabinet, went through the door into the entry, about thirty feet away, and blessed the house. Other spirits, with whose works I had occupied myself years ago, appeared and greeted me in the most cordial manner. The most striking thing with Miller is that all these spirits instantly mentioned their names — Christian and surnames — and with an accuracy which I never before experienced. In a word, these séances in my own residence presented the same phenomena as those in San Francisco. In everything I am writing down here I am perfectly aware of the full significance of my words.”
Willy speculates about the fourth dimension. Perhaps that is how science will explain the wonders he is witnessing.
Unfortunately, information about Miller is sparse. Most of it depends on Willy’s reports. However according to Willy: “Miller has had a great deal written about him in the American professional press, as well as in the daily papers. I have read more or less detailed descriptions of him in The Better Way, The Searchlight, Light of Truth, Philosophical Journal, Rays of Truth, Examiner (a daily paper appearing in San Francisco, which gave full description of a séance of the Russian Grand Duke Boris with Miller), etc.; but I wish, as I have already re- marked, that this medium might become known in scientific circles in Europe.”
Willy traveled to the World’s Fair in St. Louis in summer of 1904. On the way there he visited the Grand Canyon, describing it only by measurement and noting that “the author of Etidorpha” ought to have had his journey to the Under World commence here.” He complains about the prairies again. He knows they’re supposed to be sublime, but “upon me they have always made a melancholy impression.”
Willy didn’t have much to say about the week he spent at the World’s Fair. “I can omit describing the Exposition; all the newspapers in the world were full of it; personally, I was most pleased with the Japanese, and then with the German, exhibit.” But he says nothing about them.
On the way home Willy visited Yellowstone. “The trip through this vast Paradise—is made by stage in five and a half days. I saw there the buffalo, the elk, the bear, etc., in full liberty; but as these animals are not to be hunted here, even the bear approaches within about two hundred yards of human beings.” The famous geysers reminded him of Dante and his Divine Comedy.
“The Rocky Mountains and the Cascade Mountains, the spurs of the Sierra Nevada, which one crosses, are incomparably more beautiful than the mountains through which the Union Pacific passes farther south. Everywhere there are lakes and rivers and snow-clad peaks — so for nearly four days one travels through perfectly magnificent scenery.”
Back in San Francisco another visit to Mr. Miller becomes less a report of astonishing events than a consideration of the merits of the theory of reincarnation, although Willy does report a strange apparition whose head slowly shrank away.
Now a sense of malaise overtakes Willy (and the book). Again he echoes still popular complaints about southern California: “On the 3d of July I reached Los Angeles again, but I did not feel happy there. Without refined society, without intellectual pleasures, I often fell into dull indifference or a morbid state of excitement. I remember once having read “Chips of Thought” by Maxim Gorki, which apply to me exactly; they run approximately as follows: “The more sensitive a man is, the less energy there is in him, the more he suffers and the harder his life is. Solitude and longing are the destiny of such human beings!”
Willy flees Los Angeles as midsummer pulverized the locals. “As the heat in Southern California this year was unusually great, on the 26th of July I again took refuge in the mountains with my friend Ralph Follows in the San Gabriel canon, this time with my Winchester rifle and Nietzsche’s’ “Zarathustra.” I admire this artist in style, though his view of life, from the ethical standpoint, is diametrically opposed to mine.”
Nietzsche probably would not have been pleased to have his book right beside that of Allan Kardec. “Kardec, too, I read here again after an interval of years.” Kardec a respected educator and intellectual of his day, who held positions of authority, was the founding father of Spiritism, an organized Spiritualism once very popular in France, and still quite popular today in Brazil. Kardec leads to another discussion of reincarnation, which Willy finds plausible but not certain.
It’s rather amazing that having seen all this and having reported it enthusiastically, Willy can’t bring himself to state categorically that survival of death is a fact. “But if there is a personally conscious continued life and for my own part I cannot doubt it, death will lose its terrors, since it will then be only a relative birth, just as the earthly birth is a relative death; for while in the latter the transcendental subject recedes into obscurity to our cerebral consciousness, in death it will again become free. — In a precisely similar sense, Kant has already said in his Lecture on Metaphysics: ‘Death is not the absolute ending of life, but a liberation from the obstacles to a complete life.”
Willy explains one source of his continuing doubts: “It has often happened to me, as it probably has to every trained experimenter in this province, with mediums through whom I spoke to spiritual beings and also saw them fully materialized and believed I recognized them as the persons they announced themselves to be, that afterwards they said something which again awakened doubts of their identity in my mind.”
Willy is all too aware of the opposition and ridicule he invites but he considers it “a moral cowardice to withhold my testimony.” As for those who categorically deny the reality of Spiritualist phenomena, Willy has no respect for their total skepticism. “I do not understand how a man can be so presumptuous as to believe that he knows all the laws of Nature.”
But Willy’s book, and his adventures were far from over. His malaise was really a calm before the storm.
In Part 2 Miller goes to Europe to be tested, Willy sees the smoke from the San Francisco Earthquake from his garden in Los Angeles then visits the devastated city. He finds new mediums in America with strange powers, including a crystal reader in Los Angeles right on the beach at Ocean Park when fields of flowers still reached the sea.
In Part 3 Willy visits Hawaii, Japan, and China in 1907; plus other historical records regarding Willy and Miller raise more questions than they answer.
Article 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.