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

13 Incredible Facts About Frederick Douglass

Photo Illustration: Mental Floss. Douglass: Glasshouse Images, Alamy. Backgrounds: iStock
Photo Illustration: Mental Floss. Douglass: Glasshouse Images, Alamy. Backgrounds: iStock

The list of Frederick Douglass's accomplishments is astonishing—respected orator, famous writer, abolitionist, civil rights leader, presidential consultant—even more so when you consider that he was a former slave with no formal education. In honor of his 201st birthday, here are 13 incredible facts about the life of Frederick Douglass.

1. He bartered bread for knowledge.

Because Douglass was a slave, he wasn't allowed to learn to read or write. A wife of a Baltimore slave owner did teach him the alphabet when he was around 12, but she stopped after her husband interfered. Young Douglass took matters into his own hands, cleverly fitting in a reading lesson whenever he was on the street running errands for his owner. As he detailed in his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he'd carry a book with him while out and about and trade small pieces of bread to the white kids in his neighborhood, asking them to help him learn to read the book in exchange.

2. He credited a schoolbook with shaping his views on human rights.

Engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa the 1850s.
Engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa the 1850s.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

During his youth, Douglass obtained a copy of The Columbian Orator, a collection of essays, dialogues, and speeches on a range of subjects, including slavery. Published in 1797, the Orator was required reading for most schoolchildren in the 1800s and featured 84 selections from authors like Cicero and Milton. Abraham Lincoln was also influenced by the collection when he was first starting in politics.

3. He taught other slaves to read.

While he was hired out to a farmer named William Freeland, a teenaged Douglass taught fellow slaves to read the New Testament—but a mob of locals soon broke up the classes. Undeterred, Douglas began the classes again, sometimes teaching as many as 40 people.

4. His first wife helped him escape from slavery.

Portrait of Anna Murray Douglass, Frederick Douglass's first wife.
First published in Rosetta Douglass Sprague's book My Mother As I Recall Her, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Anna Murray was an independent laundress in Baltimore and met Douglass at some point in the mid-1830s. Together they hatched a plan, and one night in 1838, Douglass took a northbound train clothed in a sailor's uniform procured by Anna, with money from her savings in his pocket alongside papers from a sailor friend. About 24 hours later, he arrived in Manhattan a free man. Anna soon joined him, and they married on September 15, 1838.

5. He called out his former owner.

In an 1848 open letter in the newspaper he owned and published, The North Star, Douglass wrote passionately about the evils of slavery to his former owner, Thomas Auld, saying "I am your fellow man, but not your slave." He also inquired after his family members who were still enslaved a decade after his escape.

6. He took his name from a poem.

He was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, but after escaping slavery, Douglass used assumed names to avoid detection. Arriving in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Douglass, then using the surname "Johnson," felt there were too many other Johnsons in the area to distinguish himself. He asked his host (ironically named Nathan Johnson) to suggest a new name, and Mr. Johnson came up with Douglas, a character in Sir Walter Scott's poem The Lady of the Lake.

7. He was deemed the 19th century's most photographed American.

Portrait of Frederick Douglass
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There are 160 separate portraits of Douglass, more than Abraham Lincoln or Walt Whitman, two other heroes of the 19th century. Douglass wrote extensively on the subject during the Civil War, calling photography a "democratic art" that could finally represent black people as humans rather than "things." He gave his portraits away at talks and lectures, hoping his image could change the common perceptions of black men.

8. He refused to celebrate Independence Day.

Douglass was well-known as a powerful orator, and his July 5, 1852 speech to a group of hundreds of abolitionists in Rochester, New York, is considered a masterwork. Entitled "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July," the speech ridiculed the audience for inviting a former slave to speak at a celebration of the country who enslaved him. "This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine," he famously said to those in attendance. "Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?" Douglass refused to celebrate the holiday until all slaves were emancipated and laws like the Compromise of 1850, which required citizens (including northerners) to return runaway slaves to their owners, were negated.

9. He recruited black soldiers for the Civil War.

The Union attack on Fort Wagner, Charleston, during the American Civil War. The fort was under attack from July 18 to September 7, 1863, by soldiers including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African-American regiment in the U.S. Army.
The Union attack on Fort Wagner, Charleston, during the American Civil War. The fort was under attack from July 18 to September 7, 1863, by soldiers including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African-American regiment in the U.S. Army.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Douglass was a famous abolitionist by the time the war began in 1861. He actively petitioned President Lincoln to allow black troops in the Union army, writing in his newspaper: "Let the slaves and free colored people be called into service, and formed into a liberating army, to march into the South and raise the banner of Emancipation among the slaves." After Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass worked tirelessly to enlist black soldiers, and two of his sons would join the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, famous for its contributions in the brutal battle of Fort Wagner.

10. He served under five presidents.

Later in life, Douglass became more of a statesman, serving in highly appointed federal positions, including U.S. Marshal for D.C., Recorder of Deeds for D.C., and Minister Resident and Consul General to Haiti. Rutherford B. Hayes was the first to appoint Douglass to a position in 1877, and Presidents Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, and Benjamin Harrison each sought his counsel in various positions as well.

11. He was nominated for Vice President of the United States.

As part of the Equal Rights Party ticket in 1872, Douglass was nominated as a VP candidate, with Victoria Woodhull as the Presidential candidate. (Woodhull was the first-ever female presidential candidate, which is why Hillary Clinton was called "the first female presidential candidate from a major party" during the 2016 election.) However, the nomination was made without his consent, and Douglass never acknowledged it (and Woodhull's candidacy itself is controversial because she wouldn't have been old enough to be president on Inauguration Day). Also, though he was never a presidential candidate, he did receive one vote at each of two nomination conventions.

12. His second marriage caused controversy.

Frederick Douglass with Helen Pitts Douglass (seated, right) and her sister Eva Pitts (standing, center), circa the 1880s.
Frederick Douglass with Helen Pitts Douglass (seated, right) and her sister Eva Pitts (standing, center), circa the 1880s.

Two years after his first wife, Anna, died of a stroke in 1882, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white abolitionist and feminist who was 20 years younger than him. Even though she was the daughter of an abolitionist, Pitts's family (which had ancestral ties directly to the Mayflower) disapproved and disowned her—showing just how taboo interracial marriage was at the time. The black community also questioned why their most prominent spokesperson chose to marry a white woman, regardless of her politics. But despite the public's and their families' reaction, the Douglasses had a happy marriage and were together until his death in 1895 of a heart attack.

13. After early success, his Narrative went out of print.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, his seminal autobiography, was heralded a success when it came out in 1845, with some estimating that 5000 copies sold in the first few months; the book was also popular in Ireland and Britain. But post-Civil War, as the country moved toward reconciliation and slave narratives fell out favor, the book went out of print. The first modern publication appeared in 1960—during another important era for the fight for civil rights. It is now available for free online.

This article originally ran in 2018.

Belgium's Blue Forest is One of the Most Beautiful Natural Areas on Earth

iStock.com/antonyspencer
iStock.com/antonyspencer

Imagine if the poppy fields in The Wizard of Oz were all blue—and real. That's how Belgium's Hallerbos forest looks for a short time each spring. For roughly 10 days in April or May, innumerable bluebells blossom, covering the forest's floor in a lovely violet.

Dutch for "Halle's forest," Hallerbos is located about 30 minutes outside of Brussels. But while the forest is currently part of the Belgian state, its ownership has varied, starting with its first known owner in the 7th century. Records list it as having been part of the expansive land of the Abbey of St. Waltrudis, in Mons (about an hour south of the forest). A few centuries later, it became part of the duchy of Arenberg before passing to the French Republic after their troops invaded in 1794, then to the Netherlands in 1815, and eventually returning to the Duke of Arenberg in 1831.

Unfortunately, when World War I hit Europe, the German army felled much of the forest for wood, diminishing its original size of 1125 hectares down to 569 hectares (or roughly 1400 acres). Belgium regained control of the Hallerbos forest in 1929 and spent the next 20 years actively reforesting the land. This extensive history is what, in part, makes the forest look the way it is today—because though the trees are relatively new, the bluebells are ancient.

In fact, an abundance of bluebells is an indicator of the age of a forest. Certain types of flowers, including the small, white wood anemones and pale yellow native primroses, are very often markers of ancient woodlands—this flora grows deep underground and doesn't spread through trafficked or harvested land, meaning that that larger groves of them tend to only be found in secluded areas. And for bluebells (also called wood hyacinth or wild hyacinth), their life cycle is dependent on brisk weather and sunshine, so they sprout and bloom before the trees above them have fully budded. Then, as quickly as they came, they turn to seed and continue growing their roots deeper to survive another year.

And thus, the extraordinary sight of a blanket of bluebells scattered through the forest is best observed during the early spring. Of course, this effect makes for some absolutely gorgeous photographs, so it's no wonder that visitors flock to the woods each year. Hallerbos provides directions to the forest by both car and public transportation, as well as two different maps for walks through the growth and a bloom tracker to plan for the prettiest possible visit.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER