When 19th-Century Spiritualists Believed a "God Machine" Would Save Humanity

Benjamin Franklin, whose ghost was said to have contributed some of the instructions for the New Motive Power
Benjamin Franklin, whose ghost was said to have contributed some of the instructions for the New Motive Power
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the 19th century, Universalist minister John Murray Spear was well-known as a radical prison reformer and defender of the oppressed. From his pulpit in New England, he advocated for nonviolence, the end of slavery and the death penalty, and equal rights for African Americans and women. For his efforts, Spear might have earned his place in history, if only as a footnote. Instead, it was his later, stranger endeavors—notably his attempt to build a mechanical messiah—that made him infamous.

Meet the Spirits

The first sign of Spear's odd new interests began in 1844. That December, after attending a controversial lecture by an anti-Catholic speaker in Portland, Maine, he was beaten by a group of ruffians until he was comatose (Spear had encouraged the audience to speak their mind after the lecture, even if it meant booing the lecturer, and the ruffians apparently disagreed with his position). When he came out of his coma, Spear reported having strange visions and premonitions of the future while unconscious. No one paid much mind to it at first, but as time passed, it became clear something about him was different.

Soon, he came in contact with someone who had a decisive impact on his transformation. In 1847, Spear wrote a review of The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind, calling it “the most wonderful work ever made by mortal man.” In fact, the “mortal man” who had written the book, Andrew Jackson Davis, also known as “The Poughkeepsie Seer,” said he had not written it at all. Instead, he claimed the text was composed of communications with deceased scientist and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg and the ancient Greek physician Galen.

Davis was among the first proponents of the Spiritualist movement, a 19th-century religious phenomenon that claimed to offer proof of life after death. The next year, in 1848, when the Fox sisters began communicating with “ghosts” through coded knocking or “table rapping,” the movement spread quickly. Soon, all across America spiritual seekers were experimenting with séances, mediumship, and precursors to the Ouija board.

Whatever affinity Spear also felt for the more otherworldly elements of Spiritualism, at first he was attracted to their humanist convictions: the unjustness of the death penalty and the basic equality of all human beings. Publicly this was what Spear and Davis talked about at their first meeting in 1851, after which Davis praised the minister as a model man for his philanthropy. Privately, though, he recommended Spear open himself up further to the spirits. As Spear later recounted, Davis told him [PDF], “You will meet them! They will come to you."

It was a suggestion Spear did not take lightly. Within a few months, he was not only attending séances but speaking to the dead on his own, delivering spontaneous “channeled” speeches and written messages, including from his deceased namesake, John Murray, one of the founders of American Universalism.

By the end of 1852, Spear's roster of dead “correspondents” had expanded, along with their ambitions. Spear claimed he was the mortal mouthpiece of the “Association of Beneficents,” a committee of deceased luminaries that included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, all of whom had decided they could not stand aside as America failed to live up to its revolutionary promise. Jefferson's spirit was particularly voluble: He supposedly said that government leaders who backed slavery were "infernal scoundrels" who should be "shut up in pits of everlasting infamy," and that the country's progress toward liberty had been thwarted by "a nation of thieves" who had stolen "that which is of most value—human rights." Within a year, Spear’s spirits were no longer satisfied by giving advice, and began delivering orders for radical changes to the government and social structure—orders that Spear and his followers, the “Practical Spiritualists,” would attempt to implement.

In 1853, this took the form of Spear’s announcement that these spirits, especially Benjamin Franklin, would share with them their greatest (and posthumous) invention. Spear called it “God’s last, best gift to man.”

The God Machine

The High Rock Tower, Lynn, Massachusetts
The High Rock Tower, Lynn, Massachusetts
Boston Public Library, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This “New Motor,” or “New Motive Power,” was a generator of sorts. At its simplest, Spear described it as a perpetual motion device that “will have the power to impart its electric forces to any number of machines.” At its most complex, however, it was a God machine, the culmination of what Spear (speaking for “the Association” [PDF]) called “a grand practical movement for the redemption of the human race.”

Naturally, as a direct revelation from the spirit world, this would be no ordinary device. A “living working mechanism,” the New Motor would “bear offspring”: a race of self-replicating, self-powering machines. As a remedy to the so-called “Curse of Adam”—humanity’s need to earn wages and food by the “sweat of [its] brow," as the Bible describes it—the New Motor would bring about Edenic leisure for all people, ending slavery, farming, factory work, and women’s house work. Liberated from daily labor, people would be free to open themselves up to the spirits as Spear had, and to mentally connect with the New Motive Power. Through the etheric transmission of humankind’s collective thoughts, knowledge, and desires, the New Motive Power would remake the world, an action Spear compared to fire boiling a pot of water. In essence, by removing humanity’s material limitations, the New Motor was a God-like machine that would bring out the God-like qualities in man.

For the next nine months, Spear went into daily trances, drawing designs that detailed every aspect of the device. Finally, in 1854, the construction of “the greatest spiritual revelation of the age” began at the High Rock Cottage in Lynn, Massachusetts.

The Practical Spiritualist newspaper, The New Era, detailed the construction of the “electrical infant” that May, claiming the device “corresponded” to the human body [PDF]. The machine consisted of a black walnut table with insulated legs, topped by a series of copper, zinc, iron, and magnetic plates. From there, two magnetized struts rose from either side, suspending magnetized balls on copper chains between them. Later descriptions included details such as hair-like antennae to conduct “etheric power” and metal plate “lungs” that would rust as a symbolic form of respiration.

In all, Spear and his followers are believed to have spent $2000 on its construction (more than $50,000 today) [PDF].

The Mary of the New Dispensation

The strangeness of Spear’s efforts caught the attention of other Spiritualists. When Andrew Jackson Davis decided to see what his old friend was up to, the scene he encountered at High Rock Cottage horrified him.

Describing what he had seen in The Spiritual Telegraph that June, Davis emphasized the Practical Spiritualists’ enthusiasm for their project, stating “[for them] each wire is precious, sacred as a spiritual nerve" [PDF]. He believed that the New Motor was genuinely spirit-inspired and supernatural in origin. But he also left with the impression that something had gone very wrong. Davis, who had first told Spear to speak with spirits, worried that this “model man” had turned into a mad one.

Spear suffered from “the terrible misfortune of being easily imposed upon by his own impulses,” Davis wrote, saying he “mistak[es] them at least two-thirds of the time for ‘impressions’ from higher intelligences.” This delusion, Davis said, had warped whatever actual spiritual messages Spear was receiving into misguided fanaticism, a resurgence of his old religious tendencies. In Spear, the Poughkeepsie Seer saw something frighteningly close to a cult leader, urging his followers on in pursuit of a false messiah.

What disturbed Davis most was “The Mary of the New Dispensation,” Sarah Newton—the wife of one of Spear’s followers—who had been declared the New Motive Power’s “mother” after a series of visions. Upon accepting her role, Newton began living at the High Rock Cottage laboratory full-time in order to maintain an “umbilical link” with the device. There, Spear and the other Spiritualists made daily efforts to “charge” the machine and infuse it with life, with some evidence suggesting these exercises were decidedly sexual.

Eventually, Newton went into “labor.” After two hours of writhing in pain, she reached out and touched the New Motor. Its inner rotor is said to have started moving for a moment, but the promised self-perpetuating motion did not manifest. Although the Practical Spiritualists took the temporary movement as a sign of success, Davis was skeptical. The supposed “virgin birth,” he said, was just the power of suggestion and superstition [PDF].

Disaster—or Spiritual Victory?

Nevertheless, Spear’s followers defended their project. In a rebuttal to Davis’s account reprinted in The Spiritual Telegraph that July, Spear’s collaborator Simon Hewitt said the Motor was still gestating. “Would it not be wiser to wait a little and witness its growth, than to attempt the strangulation of the infant?” he wrote [PDF].

Following Davis’s public disparagement, the Practical Spiritualists became pariahs within their own movement. Worse, Davis's article earned the attention and mockery of the broader public. P.T. Barnum declared the New Motor one of the “humbugs” he was the self-proclaimed prince of, opining, “If things like this are going to happen, the ladies will be afraid to sleep alone in the house if so much as a sewing-machine or apple-corer be about.”

Having exhausted local support, Spear moved the machine to Randolph, New York, hoping to utilize the area’s superior “magnetic” energies for their experiments. The New Motor was taken apart for transport, and once reassembled at its new home, efforts to animate it redoubled.

But then Spear’s work came to a disastrous conclusion. One night, a group of local young men broke into the Practical Spiritualist compound, tore out the machine’s copper “heart,” and threw the New Motor into the local mill pond in pieces.

Or so Spear said. In November 1854, Scientific American wrote, “We do not believe a word respecting a mob breaking into the building and destroying the spiritual machine. We are of the opinion that it was broken by the crafty author of it, whose schemes had come to the exact point of exposing his ridiculous pretensions.”

Despite what looked like a failure to anyone else, Spear and his followers declared a spiritual victory. As Sarah Newton’s husband, Alonzo, wrote in the Spiritualist publication The Educator, the machine was “a model for the embodiment of the idea.”

Until his retirement from mediumship in 1872, John Murray Spear never stopped trying to bring about “the Divine Social State on Earth” that the New Motive Power had promised. This new order was to treat men and women of all races and religions as equals, allow for free love, and help children to be brought up unburdened by outdated ideologies. The New Motor would live again, Spear said, but in its “second coming” it would not be the engine that remade the world. Instead, its completion would be the sign the New Era had finally arrived.

Spears's later years were a return to more earthbound social justice campaigning. He died on October 5, 1887, at the age of 83. His obituary, published by the Spiritualist newspaper The Banner of Light [PDF] and entitled “Transition of a Veteran Reformer,” spoke about the “indefatigable nature of the man who has now gone to participate, as an arisen spirit, in new efforts for human good.” Despite cataloguing his work toward temperance, abolitionism, women's rights, and prisoners' rights, his 39 years of spiritualist practice were condensed into three sentences. There was no mention of the goal to which he had dedicated his life, and which had ultimately escaped him: the New Era, and the machine his spirits had said would bring it into being.

Additional Sources: The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear; Occult America

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16 Things You Might Not Know About William Shakespeare

Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Despite his many contributions to English literature, surprisingly little is known about William Shakespeare’s life. For the past four centuries, historians have had the difficult task of piecing together the Bard's biography with only a handful of old legal documents. Here's what we do know about the celebrated actor, poet, and playwright, who was born (and died!) on April 23.

1. Shakespeare's writing was likely influenced by his father's legal troubles.

When Shakespeare was about 5 years old, his father, John—a glovemaker—was accused of illegal money-lending and wool-dealing by Crown informers. The ordeal plunged the elder Shakespeare into legal troubles that would plague him for the next decade. "William grew to adulthood in a household where his father had fallen in social and economic rank," historian Glyn Parry told The Guardian. Parry argued that the experience likely shaped Shakespeare's attitudes toward power, class, and the monarchy—major themes in his future works.

2. Shakespeare got married because of an unexpected pregnancy.

Shakespeare was 18 when he learned that Anne Hathaway, 26, was pregnant with his first child. The couple quickly decided to marry in November 1582 and greeted daughter Susanna in May 1583. Two years later, they had twins Judith and Hamnet. Unfortunately, Shakespeare has no living direct descendants: Hamnet died at age 11, probably a victim of some disease; Judith outlived her three children; and Susanna had one daughter, Elizabeth, who was childless.

3. Nobody knows what Shakespeare did between 1585 and 1592.

After the birth of his twins, Shakespeare fell off the map for seven years. One unsubstantiated theory (and there are many) suggests that he supported his family by working as a lawyer or legal clerk. Indeed, Shakespeare's plays show an impressive grasp of legal knowledge. "No dramatist of the time … used legal phrases with Shakespeare's readiness and exactness," wrote 19th-century literary critic Richard Grant White. (High praise considering that Shakespeare once wrote, "Let's kill all the lawyers.")

4. Shakespeare was, first and foremost, an actor.

An engraving of Shakespeare by E Scriven, after Humphrey's drawing known as the 'Chandos portrait,' circa 1590.
An engraving of Shakespeare by E Scriven, after Humphrey's drawing known as the 'Chandos portrait,' circa 1590.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Shakespeare became an actor at a time when the job was considered downright unsavory. "[A]ctors were already marked as undesirables by England's vagrancy laws, which mandated that traveling troupes had to find aristocratic patronage," John Paul Rollert wrote in The Atlantic. "Rogue players ran the risk of being flogged, branded, and finally hanged." Little is known of Shakespeare's acting chops, but it's believed Shakespeare favored playing "kingly parts," including the ghost in his own Hamlet.

5. Shakespeare may have participated in organized crime.

In the 1590s, many of London's theaters operated as shady fronts for organized crime. (The Lord Mayor of London decried the theater—and specifically plans for the new Swan Theatre, where Shakespeare may have briefly worked—as a meeting spot for "thieves, horse-stealers, whoremongers, cozeners, conny-catching persons, practisers of treason, and such other like.") In 1596, Swan Theater owner Francis Langley accused William Gardiner and his stepson William Wayte of making death threats. Soon after, Wayte retaliated with the same accusations against Langley and—for some reason—William Shakespeare. This has led historian Mike Dash to suggest that Shakespeare may have been involved in some unspoken criminal activity.

6. Shakespeare was a matchmaker (and a marital peace-maker).

It may be no surprise that the author of Romeo and Juliet had a penchant for bringing lovers together: He once helped arrange the marriage of his landlord's daughter. The only reason we know this, however, is because the marriage had a rocky start. When a dispute over the dowry boiled over, Shakespeare had to go to court to act as a character witness for his landlord, whom he called a "very honest fellow." The transcript is the only record of Shakespeare speaking.

7. The first printed reference to Shakespeare as a playwright was an insult.

The first mention of William Shakespeare as a playwright appeared in 1592, when the dramatist Robert Greene (or possibly Henry Chettle) called him an "upstart Crow [who] … supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you." (In other words: A jack-of-all-trades, and a master of none.) Future reviewers would offer kinder words; in 1598, the critic Francis Meres called him "mellifluous and honey-tongued."

8. Shakespeare likely helped steal a theater, piece by piece.

In 1596, the Theatre in Shoreditch—where Shakespeare cut his teeth as an actor—went dark. The lease for the property on which it was built had expired, and Shakespeare's acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, were forced to take their show elsewhere. Two years later, the former owners hatched a crazy plan to take their playhouse back. One winter night in 1598, a group armed themselves with swords and axes, snuck into the theater, and began dismantling the playhouse piece by piece—although it would take more than one night to demolish it. While there's no evidence that Shakespeare joined the crew, he certainly knew about the raid. Eventually, parts of the playhouse would go into the construction of a new theater just south of the River Thames. Its new name? The Globe.

9. Only one handwritten script of Shakespeare's exists.

Five examples of the autograph of English playwright William Shakespeare, circa 1610.
Five examples of the autograph of William Shakespeare, circa 1610.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Anyone interested in studying the Bard's cramped handwriting has only one reliable place to look—the original draft of the Book of Sir Thomas More, a politically-charged play that targeted, in-part, xenophobia in England. Written mainly by dramatist Anthony Munday, the play was completed with the help of four fellow playwrights. One of them, presumed to be Shakespeare, helped write a stirring monologue in which the lead character asks an anti-immigrant mob to imagine themselves as refugees.

Say now the king …
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour?

The play, by the way, would not be performed. Censors believed it could start a riot.

10. Shakespeare might have experimented with drugs.

Shakespeare might have had some, well, experience with drugs. According to analyses by South African scientists, a handful of 400-year-old clay tobacco pipes excavated from the playwright's Stratford garden contained potential evidence of cannabis (although the study authors noted that "Unequivocal evidence for Cannabis has not been obtained"). Other pipes nearby contained remnants of cocaine and hallucinogens. (There's no evidence that any of these pipes belonged to Shakespeare, but it does indicate that "narcotics were accessible" at the time, the Telegraph reports.)

11. Shakespeare may have been a tax cheat.

In the late 16th century, English residents had to pay a tax on personal wealth called a lay subsidy. In 1597, Shakespeare was supposed to pay a tax of five shillings. The following year, he was supposed to pay a larger tax of 13 shillings and 4 pence. Documents show that the Bard never paid the piper. (His reasons are a matter of speculation, but it could have been a clerical error because he'd already moved away from the parish.)

12. Shakespeare was a grain hoarder.

According to the UK Parliament, between 1604 and 1914 over 5200 enclosure bills were enacted, which restricted the use of vital, publicly-used farmland. Ensuing riots in 1607, called the Midland Revolts, coincided with a period of devastating food shortages. It appears that Shakespeare responded to the situation by hoarding grain. According to the Los Angeles Times, he "purchased and stored grain, malt and barley for resale at inflated prices to his neighbors and local tradesmen."

13. The Globe Theatre burned down during a performance of one of Shakespeare's plays.

An 1647 engraving by Hollar of Shakespeare's Globe theatre.
An 1647 engraving by Hollar of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.
Rischgitz, Getty Images

On June 29, 1613, a prop cannon caused a fire at the Globe Theatre during a performance of Henry VIII. Sparks landed on the thatched roof and flames quickly spread. "It kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very ground," a witness Sir Henry Wotton claimed. According to The Telegraph, "the only reported injury was a man whose flaming breeches were eventually put out using a handy bottle of ale."

14. Shakespeare laid a curse upon his own grave.

When Shakespeare died in 1616, grave-robbing was extremely common. To ensure he'd rest through eternity peacefully, the Bard is believed to have penned this curse, which appears on his gravestone.

Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To digg the dust Encloased heare:
Bleste be [the] man [that] spares these stones,
And curst be he [that] moves my bones.

Unfortunately, somebody apparently ignored the dead man's foreboding words. In 2016, researchers scanned the grave with ground-penetrating radar and discovered that grave robbers might have stolen Shakespeare's skull.

15. Shakespeare's legacy has killed a lot of trees.

And we're not just talking about the millions of copies of books that have been printed with Shakespeare's name on them. In 1762, an anonymous magazine writer claimed that a drunken Shakespeare, after an evening out on the town, once spent the night sleeping under a crabtree in Bidford-upon-Avon. The story is probably a legend, but that never stopped souvenir-hungry Shakespeare lovers from flocking to the famed crabtree and picking it to pieces. By 1824, the tree was nothing but a stump and had to be uprooted.

16. Shakespeare's legacy lived on thanks to two fellow actors.

The cover of a 1623 collection of Shakespeare's works.
Rischgitz, Getty Images

Shortly after Shakespeare died, two of his longtime friends and colleagues—John Heminge and Henry Condell—edited Shakespeare's plays and collected them in a 1623 book titled Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. That same book, now called the First Folio, helped preserve Shakespeare's work for the coming generations and is widely considered one of the most significant books printed in English.

This story was first published in 2018.

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