Part travel log, part guide to colonial spiritualists, part almanac and eye witness account of history, readers in 1908 must have found shockingly exotic Willy Reichel’s book An Occultist’s Travels, with its combination of beautiful scenery, gold mines, the ruins of San Francisco, and dead friends materializing and speaking obscure dialects. Willy seemed to be saying to his old enemies back in Germany “while you closed minded nitwits who exiled me enjoy your eight months of winter Willy is living in paradise, visiting the inferno, walking with angels and devils in the gold mines and natural splendors of the freedom of the Wild West.”
TESTING THE AMAZING MEDIUM MR. MILLER
In the August 1904 issue of Revue Spirite, a Spiritist journal published in Paris, Willy wrote of his favorite medium Mr. Miller: “In January, 1905, 1 heard from San Francisco that a letter had come from Valence-sur-Khone to Mr. Miller, from a gentleman, J. Debrus, requesting him to give twelve séances for de Rochas, himself, and several friends, because I had remarked that Miller would visit France again in 1905. My wish was fulfilled in so far as Colonel Count de Rochas desired to see Mr. Miller. So, full of good cheer, I went to San Francisco to try what was to be done, and with the intention of eventually accompanying Mr. Miller to Paris.”
But Mr. Miller was not enthusiastic about the prospect of being tested in Europe. “I did not find Mr. Miller in the best state of mind, as certain recent psychical excitements had made him somewhat nervous. His controls told me that he could not go to Paris under four or five months, and on account of the sudden change of atmosphere, and other conditions in France, I must not expect such wonderful séances as in California; but perhaps M. de Rochas might be persuaded to come here.”
Lt. Col. Eugène Auguste Albert de Rochas d’Aiglun, officer of the Legion of Honor, expert on a wide range of ancient technologies, including fortification, water clocks and temple machinery, researched the influence of music on human emotions, meanwhile earning awards for his translations from ancient Greek. Though he published a very long list of scientific articles, he is most remembered for his research into the paranormal. He documented the phenomenon of “externalization of sensibility” that causes some hypnotized people to display sensitivity to pinches and other stimuli at a distance. Stewart and Betty White explored the same territory, considering it evidence of the soul outside of body. Rochas was also among the first to explore past life regression.
Willy arranged a visit by Professor van der Naillen, a friend of Rochas. A séance that very evening produced “two fully materialized phantoms–” van der Naillen “–was permitted to touch them, and other things induced him to give me his support in every way, in order to persuade de Rochas, in the interest of occultism and humanity, to accept my invitation. In order to lead the latter investigator to do this, that is, to be able to send him a report which might induce him to undertake this long journey, we were obliged to forward to him a report of a test séance under absolutely conclusive and unobjectionable conditions, with signatures from persons of scientific reputation.”
It’s hard to imagine any enthusiasm in Miller’s response to this new challenge: “Do with me as you please.” After all, Miller was either a fraud in danger of detection, or a man with a talent so rare it could revolutionize several fields of science and modify every religion; a heavy responsibility for a skill that depended on indefinable atmospheres.
Willy provides a detailed description of Miller’s test:
“Professor van der Naillen called in as a third, Dr. Rem., a universally esteemed German physician, and we agreed what tests we must require. I first bought a new black shirt, black under vest and trousers, then ordered a new suit for Miller, and had these articles sent directly to the Palace Hotel, where I was living, so that Miller did not see them before the séance. I then hired at the Palace Hotel — it is the most aristocratic one in San Francisco— a second room, whose selection I left to Professor van der Naillen, and had the cabinet constructed of black material by an upholsterer. On the 2nd of February this test séance took place. Besides Dr. Benz and his wife, Dr. Burgess, Professor Braunwalder, Professor of Electricity at the School of Engineering in San Francisco, Mr. Charles Dawbarn, the Californian philosopher, the Turkish consul, and other prominent persons who had accepted our invitation were present.”
When Mr. Miller arrived: “we took him to my room, where before our eyes, he undressed entirely and put on the articles of clothing already mentioned. Then we went into the séance room, where Professor van der Naillen and Dr. Benz bound the medium with strong ropes, previously purchased, by his arms, hands, chest, neck, and feet, three or four times to a chair, and sewed the ends fast to the carpeted floor. The room was about forty feet above the street. During the whole séance Miller was not in a trance and the cabinet was almost always open. In spite of these difficult conditions, nine phantoms gradually materialized sometimes ten or twelve feet from the medium. Betsy, the principal control spirit, went away so far that Mr. Miller called:
“Betsy, come back, I am suffering terribly.”
Mr. Miller passed his test with flying colors. “I received later from Professor van der Naillen a very long and full report in the French language, which, with a letter of introduction from myself to de Rochas, I sent to Paris to be forwarded. There was not one in this séance of sixteen persons, among whom were several avowed skeptics, who did not become convinced of the genuineness of the phenomena by this sitting under such conditions.” Again, we are left to wonder whether some unexplained phenomena actually occurred, or if perhaps Willy was in on the hustle. What would he gain? Buyers for his book? A reputation for expertise in such matters?
Instead, Willy reports another of Mr. Miller’s miracles. “At a séance, held three days later, at Mr. Miller’s house something occurred so interesting that I would not like to pass it over. The sitting took place at noon. Before it began, and while Mr. Miller was standing in front of the cabinet, I heard Betsy’s voice whisper: “Go out into the sun with the professor a moment.” I took Mr. Miller by the arm and went with him into the street, which was reached directly from the room by merely opening a door, after which we immediately returned. At the moment we entered the dark room, I and all present saw Mr. Miller completely strewn with a shining, white, glittering mass like snow that entirely covered his dark cheviot suit. I have witnessed this singular occurrence several times; even when he had not previously been in the sun, even for a moment, his clothing, as soon as the room was darkened, gradually appeared covered with snow. This is evidently the white element of magnetism which the phantoms use in their development, as distinguished from the blue, which is effective in healing operations.”
The white magnetism apparently explains the sartorial variations among spirits. “It is more difficult for phantoms to appear in the garments which they wore in life, because they must take these materials from those present, while, so they told me, they could find the “white magnetism” in the atmosphere. In the séances at Miller’s I almost always felt, just before the appearance of the phantoms, the well-known almost icy breath of air, which has been so often described in test sittings.”
De Rochas and alleged ghost
But de Rochas disappointed Willy. He had been severely ill and could not take a journey to California though he admitted he was tempted he also confessed that results outside of France itself, and the strict controls of French scientists, would never be taken seriously. But de Rochas was ready to put his money where his mouth was. He suggested several suitable locations, and a suitable group of scientists, and offered to set up Willy and Mr. Miller in something like a research compound, and at his own expense.
FLOWERS ON THE BEACH, CRYSTALS AND A GYPSY NAMED MADGE
Meanwhile back home in Los Angeles, Willy’s love/hate relationship with the new city swung back to love as summer gave way to winter: “Eleven palm-trees of different kinds stand in my garden, among orange, lemon, peach, banana, and fig trees, which latter produce black figs almost as large as my hand. The lemon trees are already bearing new blossoms, although the old fruit is not yet fully ripe. The magnificent bougainvillea, with its thousands of lilac blossoms and the yellow begonia are twining up to the roof of my house, and in the so-called winter season.” Willy can’t help gloating a little: “zero weather and snow in Berlin. While reading this, I do not feel much longing for the low-lying plains of North Germany.”
Flowers led to the Pacific that April in Ocean Park, California in 1905. “As has already been mentioned, the Pacific Ocean is about three-quarters of an hour’s ride from Los Angeles. From Port Los Angeles to San Pedro — the two extreme northern and southern points— are various watering places. Santa Monica, Redondo, Long Beach, Playa del Rey, Ocean Park, all more or less primitive; if one finds fault, the American answers: “What do you expect? California is a new country,” in which he is certainly correct. “ Willy could never have imagined that a couple of generations down the line those quaint beach villages would be clogged with boulevards, shops, condos and houses, made increasingly ridiculously expensive by their proximity to the sea.
Willy had a favorite, though, and not just because of the wonderful natural scenery. “The best place is Ocean Park — Yesterday, April 24, I went by electric car through fields of grain ready for harvesting, past Hollywood, a French colony, and along the spurs of the Sierra Madre of Southern California to Ocean Park to enjoy the sea air and the magnificent flowers, which extend directly to the ocean. Here I fed the pelicans, which, with the sea-gulls, people the ocean and reminded me of Egypt.”
There Willy found another supernatural wonder. “A sign on a cottage by the shore attracted me: “Madge,” the Romany Gypsy Queen, palmist and clairvoyant and crystal-gazer. The latter particularly interested me. Palmists and clairvoyants, of whom in this country there are several in every city, I had visited by dozens, and found three-quarters of them ignorant people, who had their wisdom from worthless books; but every visit costs a dollar, and they often earn an immense amount of money, for the otherwise smart American is superstitious. Extremes meet.”
Before returning to the crystal gazer, Willy reports that in California mediums could get a license simply by paying thirty dollars a month. He adds sardonically: “in Germany, they always stand with one foot in jail.”
“A crystal-gazer,” he writes, sharing one of his most picturesque experiences “was something new to me; I knew of the existence of such people from occult literature,* but up to this time I had had no personal experiences in this province. Mrs. M. Ingalls — this is her real name — placed a flat crystal cube with octagonal cutting, “a Chinese” one, she said, upon the palm of my left hand, which it nearly covered, and then told me actually almost my entire life. I was not a little surprised. She saw, so she explained this gazing, symbolically in this cube pictures come and go, whose interpretation was the outcome of her experience. The first thing she saw were medical instruments and her first statement was that I must be a physician. True, I was not in the ordinary sense, but for nearly twelve years I made cures with excellent success. She then, with wonderful accuracy, told me my thoughts, my character, my disappointments, and my struggles; all this in a little cottage, directly on the shore of the great ocean, whose waves almost washed the walls of the little wooden house.”
WHEN TEMPERANCE WAS MORE THAN A TAROT CARD
While most of what he had to say about Americans was complementary, the temperance movement inspired Willy to describe less praiseworthy American characteristics. “In my opinion the United States has a tolerably large dark side in their temperance movement. I am no drinker, though I do not at all despise a glass of wine, but what the temperance people have accomplished here is almost incomprehensible to German ideas. In the states of Maine, Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota, the sale of alcohol is prohibited. Now in Los Angeles beer can be had only when a whole meal is ordered. And what beer! Germans would refuse it. In social gatherings one almost always receives only ice water at lunch or dinner. In the Luxor Hotel, at Luxor, in Egypt, I witnessed for the first time this sight, which is positively comical to Germans.” The comics were Americans slurping away at their glasses of ice water.
Here and there Willy lets the attentive reader know that there’s more to him than meets the eye. He’s not some uncultured adventurer on the fringes of metaphysical phenomena, but a gentleman well read in the esoteric.
The Indian “Vedanta Society,” he writes, “has established a mission here, as well as in San Francisco, a mission which has a very agreeable representative and teacher in Mr. Swami Sachchidananda. — he preaches a sort of pantheism in the meaning of Spinoza, combined with mystic ideas, such as we find in Xenophanes, Plato, Eckhart, Theophrastus Paracelsus, Giordano Bruno, Bohme, and others.” I have not been able to find a reference to this swami online. Swami Sachchidanand and Swami Satchidananda were born after the publication of Willy’s book.
Elsewhere Willy reveals that his study of the esoteric included star reading. “–astrology, which I studied through its best representatives, as George Wilde and Alan Leo in England, and especially Albert Biniepf in Hamburg.” He shares that his experience with astrology left him wondering about predestination.
Willy doubted whether Buddhism would do very well in the United States because American women would not tolerate the Buddha’s allegedly low opinion of women “to whom falsehood is like truth and truth like falsehood.”
WONDERS OF THE PACIFIC COAST AND ALASKA
Once again Willy grew weary of the monotonous weather. “My desire to see ice and snow again, and once more be able to shiver, was fulfilled more quickly than I anticipated. The Pacific Coast Steamship Co., whose ships run from San Diego, on the Mexican frontier, to Alaska, arranges in summer several excursions from Tacoma in Washington to Alaska, and so I immediately joined the first one, which left Tacoma on the 8th of June. From Los Angeles to this place is a journey of sixty hours by rail, before reaching the steamer.”
Willy’s west coast tour included natural wonders that would soon be lost as the cities he visited grew and the population multiplied. Soon industry, highways, smog, and billboards would cover the coast, but Willy saw the splendor before it was lost. He describes Mt. Shasta, and the town of Tacoma beautifully situated on the ocean near Mt. Rainier, but his greatest praise is saved for Alaska. “Our first landing was at Seattle, the second Port Victoria at Vancouver, which belongs to British Columbia, Canada, then we went forty-two hours northward between the island of Vancouver and the continent of British Columbia, till, as the first stopping-place we reached Ketchikan in Alaska, where our ship was received by a band of Indians with music. The United States purchased Alaska in 1867 for $7,200,000. The House of Representatives in Washington opposed the purchase, as many of them thought it valueless.” Apparently a clueless House of Representatives is an American tradition.
“Today Alaska produces about $30,000,000 in gold annually, aside from the great wealth in fisheries. Russia might, therefore, greatly regret having sold Alaska. Alaska has the greatest gold stamp-mill in the world, the “Treadwell mine,” whose owners are said to be the London Rothschilds” (they were not the owners, but were among the investors). “The journey was beautiful everywhere; as soon as we approached the Taku glacier, which rises from the sea between two mountain peaks and is about half a mile wide and two hundred feet high, blocks of ice in the strangest forms, blue as sapphire, came floating toward us. A wonderful spectacle! The most northern point that we reached was Skagway and the White Pass, which travelers must traverse to reach the Klondike gold fields. An icy chill came to us from the Muir glacier, and our ship slowly ploughed her way through the ice-sea of Glacier Bay. On the heights of Killisnoo, on Admiralty Island, we fished with excellent success; a sixty-pound halibut was the largest catch.”
“The inhabitants of this region are the Alaska Indians, but they are tolerably civilized. One still sees many “totem poles,” the idols carved from the trunk of a tree by these Indians; but the United States has done a great deal here and established missions everywhere. It was broad daylight until eleven o’clock at night, and the sun rose again at two o’clock in the morning.”
Having seen many natural wonders in America Willy reports: “The Yosemite is beautiful; the Yellowstone is wonderful; the Grand Canon of Arizona is colossal, and Alaska, with its fjords and mountains, glaciers, and rivers, possibilities and distances, is all of these. It is not only colossal, but wonderful and beautiful as well.”
MORE MARVELS BY MILLER
Returning refreshed to his preoccupation with the supernatural Willy visited Miller again with the usual spectacular results: “A former patient, the widow of a Grand Duke of a South German reigning House, who had died about eight weeks before, also came, embraced me with great delight, gave her full name, and showed the same mannerisms, which to one familiar with occultism, is the most difficult thing in such cases. A short time after death it is more possible; but when the spirit has progressed farther in its development, that is, has especially developed the principle of love, it has, according to my experience, to struggle to forget the mire of earth more and more in order to progress, and then the identity is difficult to prove, because the personality has vanished, and only the individuality has remained, which, however, usually has to develop in a totally different direction from what the sphere of earth permits.”
Not the only inexplicable wonder Willy claims to have experienced on this trip: “I also attended a “trumpet sitting.” I heard the trumpets flying about in all the corners of the room, heard voices speak through them, saw everywhere little flames from which words were spoken; but as the room, meanwhile, was kept perfectly dark, I will not describe this séance as at all conclusive.”
But not all the séances were positive experiences: “this time an unhappy spirit — the control Betsy said she had been too much occupied to be able to prevent it — stole into his séances. It was a female black spirit that went about the circle of fourteen persons, striking and spitting upon nearly all of them, and continually using abusive language. She touched me on the left leg and said in English: “You want to go to Europe with this medium — I’ll fix you” (that is, I’ll prevent the manifestations)” Willy explains. “Betsy told me afterward that this spirit had given a minister of the Episcopal church two hundred thousand dollars, because he had promised her that, after her death, she should see Christ. As this had not followed, she was so furious that she injured Spiritualism wherever she could. Whole companies of Jesuit spirits were doing the same, and in Europe Spiritualism would have advanced much farther, if such spirits, whose influences and thoughts, hung like a wall over Europe, did not so eagerly oppose Spiritualism.” It’s quite an image: an invisible army of deceased Jesuits impinging their will on Europe to prevent spiritualists from proving life after death.
WILLY REVEALS HIS PURPOSE?
By page 100 Willy’s interest in the book he is writing has subsided so drastically that he takes to quoting at length some of the authors he’s been reading, especially Schopenhauer, and he includes snipped out newspaper and journal articles he considers worth sharing. Reincarnation, free will, and technical terms and details of Spiritualism are his principle interests.
For Willy death is the ultimate healing and homecoming. Reincarnation may separate loved ones for lifetimes, but lifetimes are merely a blink of the eye viewed from beyond. Of course, having been so bitterly persecuted for it he must write to defend the honor of animal magnetism and magnetic healing. Here is the heart of his defense, and perhaps the purpose of his book: “Surgeon General von Stuckrad personally expressed to me the following opinion, which I will add in his honor and the interest of the cause:
“After repeated treatment by Professor Willy Reichel, I have reached the conviction that by the direct contact through laying the palms of the hands on various parts of the body there passes from Professor Reichel to the patients an invigorating, extremely beneficial influence, which may be compared to an agreeable and strengthening current affecting the nervous system; under the palm of the hand a feeling of increased warmth instantly developed in me, and quickly spread, radiating in every direction, whether the application of the hands was on the back laterally from the spine, or in the pit of the stomach, in the region of the heart. The direct effect of the magnetic treatment consisted in the undoubted feeling of warmth, strengthening, and invigoration, combined with the comfort of repeated, very deep inspiration. What has hitherto become known to me concerning the efficaciousness of animal magnetism especially through its obvious success in curing various diseases, leads me to the earnest wish that it might be generally and minutely studied, and find the most extensive application possible in healing institutions of every description; and this wish is fully supported and justified by the literature and practice of many years past, as well as of the present time.”
“Db. von Stuckrad, Surgeon General.
“Berlin, August, 1894.”
WILD TIMES IN NEVADA’S GOLD FIELDS
Willy’s fascination with gold mining inspired an adventure in Nevada. “On the 19th of August, 1905, I found occasion to visit the newly discovered gold fields of Nevada. The trip there is somewhat complicated, for though Nevada joins California, there is no direct road, but one must go by way of San Francisco.”
Willy visited The Queen of the Silver Camps: “Tonopah is a gold-mining city in the true sense of the word. Saloons, tingle tangle, gambling houses with roulette a la Monte Carlo, only here one does not see thousand-franc notes, but one-dollar coins, principally in tents or wooden sheds, dirty and destitute of any touch of refinement. I slept at a so-called hotel (Merchant Hotel) in a room which the dairy maid at Nussdorf at the inn in Upper Bavaria, where, in 1897, I lodged with a mountain peasant, would have refused to occupy.” However, Willy points out the Merchant Hotel was not the worst he ever visited. “The worst hotel I encountered on my travels was at Vera Cruz, on the Gulf of Mexico, for that had not even a roof.”
Willy is fascinated not only by the gold mines themselves: “The whole country around Tonopah is worked by the gold-seekers, and the desert sand whirls through these extremely primitive hamlets. From Tonopah automobiles run to Goldfield through the deserts, whose soil consists of rock covered with pebbles and sand, so that the trip of thirty-one miles to Goldfield can be made in two hours. It is a peculiar feeling to pass at sunset in an automobile through the wilderness. Nothing grows there except dried bushes, and here and there the yucca palm. Goldfield is a city of tents, in a deep valley through which the sand continually whirls. But I was obliged to go farther to the Ralston desert, between Goldfield and Bullfrog. A tent in the midst of the wilderness was my lodging for the night.”
As always logistics interest Willy: “The Goldfield mines, in less than two years, have produced more than four million dollars in gold. The worst feature is the lack of water, which must be brought in casks twenty miles by wagon to the Ealston desert; but, nevertheless, everybody flocks there, and there is now a road being built to Goldfield. Rattlesnakes and lizards are the only creatures that live there, and it is fortunate that the rattlesnakes leave their hiding-places only in the hot noonday, otherwise one might have very unpleasant visitors in an open tent at night.”
Here Willy describes something like cosmic consciousness. Impressed by the vast universe of stars above him he feels as many have before him: consoled and more certain than ever that life goes on beyond death. “In the desert of Nevada, as formerly in the
Libyan wilderness in Egypt, I suffered the magnificence of nature at sunset to exert its influence upon my spirit.”
WILLY AND THE SAN FRANCISCO EARTHQUAKE
Willy’s many spiritualist adventures in San Francisco abruptly came to a temporary halt. Signs of the great natural disaster reached all the way to Los Angeles. “On April 18th the frightful catastrophe at San Francisco occurred. I also felt a short shock at Los Angeles on the 19th, just as I was cutting a palm-tree in the garden; in the early morning, at five o’clock, black clouds with ashes had been seen to draw over Los Angeles, a thing which seldom occurs in the almost constantly cloudless sky. There are also earth-heavings at times in Southern California (the so-called cold earthquakes, produced by the drying and contraction of the interior of the earth, and not of volcanic origin), but people there are accustomed to them, and the houses are almost all built of wood, so that they yield to the shocks and are seldom damaged. “
Then as now the media was not to be trusted, even when seeking information about the biggest stories. “The newspapers in the Eastern States published many stupid errors, which I afterwards found copied into the German papers, such as that Santa Catalina Island, in the Pacific Ocean, had disappeared, and that the port of Los Angeles had been over-whelmed by a tidal wave.”
Willy decided to view the tragedy first hand, and to check up on his friends in the devastated city. “On May 16th I took my passage on a steamer of the Pacific Coast Steamship Co., in order to go from Los Angeles to San Francisco. —On May 17th, at four in the afternoon, we reached the Bay of San Francisco. The Cliff House, which is seen soon after passing the Golden Gate, is still standing, and the seals still sun themselves on the cliffs in front, while the azure heavens are mirrored just as ever in the lightly curling waves of this noble bay. Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, etc., are seen as before, lying like pearls in the sunshine on the slopes of the ridges, and at last our steamer rounds the last promontory and San Francisco is in sight — or at least the place where it once stood!”
One would think that since the book is about the occult Willy might immediately address the question of whether Mr. Miller in any way saw it coming? Did he even survive? But Willy is no rush to reveal the results of what may have been the most important test Miller ever faced.
“It is a frightful sight from a distance a heap of ruins, which is still partly smoking, four weeks after the catastrophe. Even the pier, to which our steamer makes fast, is half burnt away, and the “Spokane” in which I went to Alaska in 1905, lies at the pier, converted into a hotel, for not one is left in San Francisco.”
Here Willy glances back at an icon of occult literature, Edward Bulwer-Lytton who is considered a joke these days, the father of the contest where every story must begin “It was a dark and stormy night.” But back in Willy’s day Bulwer was still respected, and occasionally dangled as a possible Rosicrucian. With his mysterious healing practice, his world travels, and infrequent but pithy quotes from occult classics, could Willy be setting himself up to be mistaken for an adept?
“Bulwer relates how Glaucus wandered about in the ruins of Pompeii; many thus wander about in San Francisco, seeking friends and acquaintances, mainly in vain, for nearly three-quarters of the city is a heap of ashes, and about 250,000 people have had to leave it already. How many have met their deaths will probably never be known. From 500 to 2000 persons are believed to have been burnt to death, or buried under the ruins. Eye-witnesses of this terrible event told me that no pen could describe the horrors of the scene, when the inhabitants were aroused from sleep at 5:15 on the morning of the 18th of April by the first shock, and their houses began to tumble about their ears. Twenty thousand buildings were destroyed, including the great stores and office buildings in the business quarter of the city. The next result was that conflagrations broke out everywhere, against which the fire brigade was powerless, because the water-pipes had been broken by the powerful earthquake shock.
One might walk for hours among heaps of ruins, and see many safes, which offered no resistance to the fire, but were burnt out. The flames reached a height of 200 feet, and made night like day. “
Willy was impressed by the country’s response to this disaster at a distant port. “The help afforded by the United States filled me with admiration and respect. Hallway trains poured in uninterruptedly from all quarters to Oakland with provisions, for there were about 400,000 people to be taken — I myself stood in the so-called bread-line, where thousands took their places every day to receive meat, potatoes, milk and crackers free of cost, for nobody had any money, the banks dared not open their vaults for four weeks, in order to allow them to cool, and there were no longer any stores in existence where people could buy anything. “
Then as now the self-righteous were eager to blame natural disasters on sin. “San Francisco will be rebuilt, and this may take five or ten years. Care will be taken to provide a better water-supply, and the world so easily forgets. I heard people say that this frightful catastrophe was a punishment sent by God for San Francisco’s immorality. Certainly there was a considerable amount of loose life in San Francisco, as in all seaport towns. Almost the whole trade between Japan, China, Australia, etc., and the United States passes through San Francisco; a portion also through Seattle and Vancouver, and where so many nationalities come together, morals are not often very strict.”
A VISIT TO MOUNT WILSON
Visiting Mt. Wilson is considered a pleasant outing these days but when Willy lived in southern California the observatory was not an easy journey away. “I visited Mount Wilson in the Sierra Madre Mountains, where the well-known Carnegie Observatory is situated. From the place called Sierra Madre a mule has to be taken, and the summit of Mount Wilson, which is 6000 feet high, is reached in about five hours. The trail is rather dangerous, for it is mostly only wide enough for a mule, and in places leads along the edge of precipices a thousand feet deep. It was night when I got to the top, and I could not see my hand before my eyes, but the mule knew the way, and I simply let him go.”
The shimmering lights of Los Angeles move Willy, though the city was much smaller then and not the sprawl of freeways and suburbs we see from the air today. “Very wonderful is the view at night from the top of Mount Wilson over Los Angeles, which lies at a distance of about fifteen miles. From this height one sees in the distance, like a Fata Morgana, a sea of electric flames, enclosed by a sky as black as night. In January, 1902, as I rode back along the Nile towards Assouan from the Temple of Isis, shaded with sycamores and palms, which is one of those wonders which have an overpowering effect, I had a similar view in full sunlight Like a phantasmagoria I saw in the distance, in the midst of the sands of the Libyan Desert, the ruins of a place which, under the reflection of the sunlight and the glowing waste of sand, looked like a ghostly city.“
MARVELS OF LILYDALE AND NEW YORK
The following summer Willy travelled back east to visit Niagara Falls and Lily Dale, among other places. In Lily Dale he reports his experience with a medium named Keeler. “Keeler takes two slates, and after the sitter has wiped them himself with a wet sponge, he places one upon the other and asks the sitter to write questions for the spirits on small pieces of paper, fold them up so that Keeler can see nothing of what has been written, and then lay them on the edge of the slates. Then Keeler himself takes the pencil in his hand and writes — in my case correctly — the names of the spirits to whom the questions have been addressed (I had written five, of which he could not himself have thought). He explained to me that he is clairaudient; his control tells him these names, and these spirits are now present, though invisible. Then he tied the two slates together, and gave them into my hand, so that he held them by two corners and I by the two others, in full noon sunlight, about a foot above the table. Then I heard marvelously rapid writing, and raps, whereupon Mr. Keeler handed me the slates with the remark that the sitting (which cost two dollars) was at an end. I went out with the slates, untied the knots in the park, and found five separate messages, written backwards and forwards, with the signatures of those to whom I had addressed the questions.” It’s a pity that Willy doesn’t give more detail about the content of these messages.
Once again Willy reminds us that he remains skeptical despite his marvelous experience. “This phenomenon is very interesting in itself, for fraud on Mr. Keeler’s part appears to be out of the question; some of the replies were in German, whereas Mr. Keeler, as far as I can gather from himself and others whom I have asked, is quite ignorant of that language.”
Back in New York City Willy had more fascinating experiences with mediums of various kinds. “On October 16, I visited for the first time the celebrated clairvoyant, Mrs. May Pepper, of Brooklyn, who is pastor of the First Spiritualist Church there. I found 38 ladies and four men, so closely packed together in a basement room that an apple could not have fallen to the ground between them. Her Tuesday and Friday sittings are so frequented that her sister, who sits at the entrance as cashier (50 cents each person) simply closes the door when there are no more chairs vacant, and many people are thus turned away.
Each visitor lays a closed envelope, containing the questions to which answers are desired, on a small table, which is so heaped with them that many of them fall to the ground as soon as Mrs. Pepper, at the beginning of the séance, begins to feel among them to find the one she wants. She usually tears off a little piece, the size of a thumb-nail, puts this into her mouth and then tells fluently what is in the letter, gives the names of living and deceased persons, which are not written in the letter, but who are connected with the contents of the letter or with the writer. She tears the veil from the past and present with such striking certainty that in the cases of some twenty persons whose letters she handled in my presence, she only made one single mistake or misconception. As a psychometric clairvoyant she is quite astounding, that is an unquestionable fact.”
Here Willy provides an interesting look at some contrary behavior among spiritualists. “There were two ladies who would not admit that their letters contained what Mrs. Pepper asserted that they did; Mrs. Pepper had these letters opened and read by other persons, and it was plain that everything that she had asserted was correct. Mrs. Pepper revenged herself by revealing, before all present, events in the past life of one of the incredulous, or rather, dishonorable ladies, and they were things that were not suited to publicity; but Mrs. Pepper is extremely sensitive, and does not easily pardon distrust. As I have said, Mrs. Pepper is a most astonishing psychometrist.” What are we to make of this drama? If Willy is telling the truth why did the ladies pretend that Mrs. Pepper missed? Was the threat of dishonorable past lives a way mediums could coerce clients?
MR. MILLER’S FATE REVEALED
Willy claims it was mere chance that we was in “New York when Mr. Miller returned from Europe. He made a great sensation in France and Germany. After having recovered from the shock to his nerves caused by the news of the destruction by earthquake of his property and business in San Francisco, he went to Paris, where he gave the series of séances, which caused great public excitement in France, and attracted the attention of persons in Europe interested in metapsychics. Miller also went to Munich, Germany, and convinced the scientists in that country of his wonderful powers. Articles in Die Uebersinnliche Welt, Berlin, by Dr. Walter Bormann, and in Psychische Studien, Leipzig, October, 1906, by Colonel Peters, sounded the enthusiastic praises of Miller.” I have not been able to find any references to Mr. Miller in archives available online.
Despite Miller’s apparent success Willy failed in his ultimate goal. “I have, however, to regret that Mr. Miller failed to become personally acquainted with Colonel de Rochas. Had the two met in séances in the sense in which de Rochas wrote to me, then the scientific world would have heard of it. As it is, the world of Spiritualism has been informed that my observations relating to Mr. Miller, as published in Germany, France, and America, were correct; but the world of science, which does not concern itself with Spiritualism, did not hear of these evidences.” So perhaps the intent of Willy’s book is to preserve the evidence he believed he had found, hopefully to help someday inspire science to seriously consider the mysteries of mediumship?
Yet if that were his goal wouldn’t he have taken greater care in his recording of details? Instead he expects his readership to have read the latest articles in the various journals of the time. “I do not think it necessary to give a detailed description of the four sittings with Miller in New York, for they resulted in nothing new, in addition to what I have already described, and what had already been fully described in the French journals, down to the smallest particular.”
Another detail Willy doesn’t provide is whether or not the spirits warned Miller about the earthquake. Perhaps it was enough that he was out of town on their business.
In December 1906 Willy returned with Miller to San Francisco, “glad to see that in the meantime something had been done towards rebuilding the ruined city.
Building is going on everywhere, and trade is already very good. Mr. Miller has reopened his art and antiquities store on Post Street. But I was in search of warmer surroundings, and shortly before Christmas I reached Southern California once more, and took up my quarters in Hollywood, near the Mexican border, where the orange and citron trees ripen their fruit at that season. It is really beautiful there in winter, but in summer the everlasting sunshine makes one dull and takes away one’s energy.”
DR. BENTON’S BALLOON AND THE NEOPLATONISTS
Willy next provides an unusual blend of channeled material and classical philosophy: “I once asked the phantom, who called himself Dr. Benton, as to my former incarnations; he answered that he would ask “my soul,” and tell me next time. I replied that this could soon be done; my soul was here. His answer was, no; that was an error; my soul was not here, but in the “spheres;” it was connected with my body by a cord, like a balloon, so that I, for instance, as my soul was developed, could not be drowned. This of course sounds very mystical, if not downright absurd. But the Alexandrian Neoplatonists, such as Plotinus and his teacher, Ammonius Saccas, asserted something similar. According to Plotinus, man has a double soul, a double Ego: the higher, which lives entirely in the supersensible world, and the lesser one, which is bound up with the body and its activities. Saccas says on this point that the soul is partly on earth and thinks by means of the senses, and partly in the supersensible world without mediated thoughts. This, moreover, is a very ancient idea. Whether it can be accepted as plausible in view of what I have set forth above, and in the present condition of our knowledge, I must leave the reader, who has followed me so far, to decide according to his own judgment.”
WILL THE REAL MADAME SEERA PLEASE STAND UP
Willy now introduces us to yet another of his discoveries in the new world: “Madame Seera calls herself Clairvoyant, Astrologist, and Palmist, and she possesses these talents in such a degree that she surpasses Madame de Thebes, of Paris. She looked at me, and told me things which I had to admit were true, to my great astonishment. Then she asked me to allow her to take an impression of my hands, for I had lines which are very rare, and promised to send me gratis a complete chart. I have not found these lines of my hand mentioned, even in the important work on palmistry. I received the chart by post, very lengthily and carefully drawn out, and must acknowledge that no one has ever yet read my life so correctly as Madame Seera.” According to statements in her prospectus, she has read the hands of President Roosevelt, Governor Deneen of Illinois, President Harrison, J. Pierpont Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Mme. Sarah Bernhardt, and many other celebrated personages. She claims to know nothing of spiritism. I have had a good deal to do with palmistry, or chiromancy, and have visited dozens of so-called palmists, mostly ignorant persons; Madame Seera and Madame de Thebes prove that palmistry is true, but few understand it.
Willy next quotes at length from Proverbs, Exodus, Isaiah and Job to prove that “palmistry is in perfect harmony with the Bible.”
Returning to Madame Seera, Willy shares her PR apparently verbatim. “Madame Seera gives the following remarkable account of the temple in which she studied: “Close to the ancient city of Benares, situated upon a beautiful hill, in the midst of solitude and loneliness, is a cave temple, which has been owned and protected by the Joshi Priests, who have practiced palmistry in all the generations from 1000 B.C. to the present day. In this temple, musty with years and mysticism, are hidden invaluable books on palmistry, written on silver and gold plates. There are three maps of the hand on human skin, written in a bright red colour, which age and sun cannot obliterate. They are supposed to have been written on human skin for preservation, as they have been preserved in the same manner as the mummies. They are finely illustrated, containing great information on palmistry, which has been a perfected science with the Hindus from time immemorial. The dates of two of these hands are unknown, but one shows 1000 B.C.”
We’re not sure if we’re listening to Willy or Seera as the story continues: “This cave is the most sacred and holy spot to the Hindus, the great men of India, who have astonished the world with their psychic power, having gained their knowledge at this temple. Not only the Hindus themselves, but the most celebrated palmists in Europe, such as the well-known Cheiro and others, have perfected their knowledge in this temple.”
Now Willy himself vouches for her talents: “Madame Seera gives an honest and truthful delineation of future events. Many have already come true. For instance, she gives the following as having already come to pass.”
Willy provides a list of allegedly genuine forecasts of future events: “Roosevelt’s nomination, accidents in July and October, his miraculous escape from death, and his overwhelming victory were forecast through a horoscope published in the Chicago Inter-Ocean newspaper. “ The list continues: ‘The great danger which threatened the Czar of Russia; the great disasters on land and sea, were forecast in a horoscope cast for Alexis, heir to the Imperial throne of Russia, by request for the Chicago Evening American and published August 27, 1904. The accident to King Edward VII of England, which occurred November 15, 1906, was forecast by Madame Seera in an astrological horoscope, published June 16, 1905, in the Chicago Inter-Ocean. The great disaster of San Francisco was also forecast by Mme. Seera on February 4, 1906, in the Evening Post.”
In 1911 in Volume 26 of The Hamptons magazine Madame Seera was featured in Roy McCardell’s article “Dealers in Destinies: “Tricks of Seers, Soothsayers, and Second Sighters.”
“Madame Seera, blonde, unkempt, standing beneath the gaslight of the poorly furnished back parlor of her second-class boarding house, brushes back an unkempt yellow lock and looks at an elderly gentleman with thin, gray hair, and a lean and anxious expression, clad in garb of deepest black.”
As McCardell tells the story Seera’s ads say $2, her client gives her $5 but she tells him that her “angel child” spirit control Baby Ruth likes spirit candy so $10 would probably make for a better experience. When the $10 is paid she kicks herself for not having asked for $20 while slipping the tenner into her stocking. Madame Seera, “or Madame Vashti or whatever highfalutin’ name she calls herself,” as McCardell puts it has none of the skill or charm reported by Willy.
In a sofa chair Seera’s body shakes and shivers with the arrival of Baby Ruth. “Dood Evenin’, she announces in a lisping falsetto, “I’s little Baby Ruth. I’s come from the most booful land, everything white and gold, where everyone is happy. I’s so happy, but I’s hungry, too. I wants some spirit candy.” Baby Ruth, supposedly in control of Seera’s body, arrives on the lap of the intended. McCardell adds: “If the ‘come-on’ is an old gentleman who permits this familiarity, further advances may be made.” It’s a sordid kinky scene McCardell paints. If Baby Ruth can’t hit a homeroom she goes away pouting to be replaced by Mohawk, a curious name for a Sioux warrior who was supposed to have died in the massacre of Wounded Knee.
McCardell wonders at Mohawk’s primitive communication skills yet considerable knowledge of Wall Street. But Mohawk won’t commit too easily. Better come back next week when he’s had a chance to confer with his elders about whether you should buy or sell.
The mediums, McCardell writes, are in cahoots with the stockbrokers. They get a kick back for every share sold. The cops get a piece so they don’t break up a beautiful thing. The mediums he compares to Freemasons, in that they look out for each other. Often, he says, a medium will complain that the atmosphere is disturbed, an excuse reported by Willy, but really a ruse that allows the medium enough time to dig up information from church records, public records, visits to neighbors and even undertakers for information about the recently departed and their surviving relatives, but mostly from other mediums. Mediums, he writes, then recommend the “boob” sending all the juicy information along with the new customer.
It’s common knowledge that the fledgling art of photography boomed when it began providing fake spirit pictures to the large audience of gullible Spiritualists, but can we be sure every such photograph ever taken is false?
At times McCardell seems to be writing at Willy’s book, or at least the genre. While neither Willy nor Mr. Miller appear, Keeler the slate medium doesn’t escape scrutiny. He apparently concocted the will of a dead man whose Spiritualist relatives were outraged when the court rejected it.
What do we make of Willy’s enthusiastic endorsement of Madame Seera? Was he merely a fool or a fraud? McCardell provides no evidence for his allegations against Madame Seera, what if he was merely providing salacious slander for the audience of a magazine that appealed to men who liked to think of themselves as modern?
In the NY Queens archive on Ancestry Web Madame Seera appears incidentally, as mysterious as ever. On one side of a newspaper clipping from Queens is the obit list of locals, on the other: “there is a story (assuming it’s fictional but not sure) about a medium named Madame Seera (aka Madame Vashti).”
In the introductory notes for a 1974 edition of Willy’s book, Colin Wilson wrote: “While I am not a dedicated spiritualist, I am inclined to accept the notion of some sort of “life after death” rather than not. But I also suspect that what man really discovered in the mid-19th century were the strange forces produced by his own subconscious —or super conscious—mind. Before we can even begin to grasp what happened, we may need a completely new picture of nature.”
Part 1 of this article can be read here.
In Part 3 Willy visits Hawaii, Japan, and China.
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.