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Psychiana: Idaho's Mail Order Religion

"Oh I had to write you telling you that before I started reading these lessons, I was deaf in one ear. I could not hear at all, and after reading the lesson you sent to me, to my surprise on the 17th of December (one week later) my hearing came back to me."

Letter from a Psychiana Devotee, 1944

Frank Robinson was no one’s idea of a prophet. A recovering alcoholic, he had twice been discharged from military service for refusing to dry out. The son of a fire-breathing reverend, his views on organized religion were dispirited. It seemed like all the devout people in his life were hypocrites who lied and cheated.

Robinson rejected concepts of heaven, hell, and salvation that required a person to leave the earth to receive a spiritual reward. He believed everyone, no matter their circumstances, could use the power of affirmation to enjoy life in the moment.

In 1929, he decided to start his own religion from his home in Moscow, Idaho. He called it Psychiana. His initial $2500 investment in advertising and printing would yield hundreds of thousands in profit, close to a million followers, and enough enemies to warrant carrying a gun.

Robinson claimed he was born in New York City in 1886, although his brother insisted England was his birth place—an important distinction that would eventually land him in federal trouble. His early years were spent in and around Ontario and the U.S., alternating odd jobs with stints in the Royal Mounted Police and the Navy before his alcohol issues would force a change of plans.

In 1919, he married a woman named Pearl and settled into what seemed to be a steady career as a druggist. Robinson had been to Bible Training College but found it unsatisfying. He was a persuasive, bombastic man, but Christian doctrine didn’t sit with him. By the time he was living in Portland in 1925, he had begun to write down thoughts about a religion that preached internal power—what he called the “Now-God.”

In 1928, Robinson convinced his employer at a pharmacy chain to relocate him to a job where his shift ended at 6 p.m. so he could have more time to write and develop his ideas. That request landed him in the tiny city of Moscow, Idaho, with 5000 residents. It very quickly became the headquarters for Psychiana, a name that had come to him in a dream.

Robinson hosted local lectures proselytizing his belief in a spiritually bankrupt world that could be cured by affirmative thinking. Eager to reach a wider audience, he raised $2500 from a co-worker at the pharmacy and local businessmen to start a mail-order operation. He used the funds to print 10,000 form letter responses, 1000 lesson plans, and an advertisement in the nationally-distributed Psychology magazine. The ad claimed he could teach people how to “literally and actually” speak to God.

According to Robinson’s autobiography, that single ad netted $23,000. With the stock market crash of 1929 devastating the nation’s confidence and the Great Depression settling in, Robinson could have found no better time to promise—with a money-back guarantee—that he held the answers for increased wealth and happiness.

It was certainly working for him. By the end of its first year, Psychiana had sent correspondence to 67 different countries and earned over 36,000 subscribers. By the early 1930s, so much mail was coming in—by some accounts, 60,000 pieces a day—that the Moscow post office was forced to move to a larger facility after being granted first-class status by the postal service. Letters addressed to “Psychiana, USA” still made their way there.

Robinson offered a “course” of 20 lessons that totaled between $20 and $40. Each lesson could be as long as 10 single-spaced pages of Robinson’s self-actualized advice. Letters poured in from people who testified to recovering from health issues or financial loss based on his teachings. Bruno Hauptmann, who had kidnapped Charles Lindbergh’s baby, wrote to say he was a convert not long before going to the electric chair; Italian dictator Benito Mussolini praised Robinson’s movement.

Quitting the pharmacy business, Robinson soon found himself in a lavish fur coat, a custom Duesenberg car, and massive office space that held over 100 employees, making him the largest private employer in Idaho’s Latah County. One devotee, an Alexandria, Egypt-based cotton exporter named Geoffrey Birley, wrote Robinson congratulating him on a breakthrough in self-help. When Robinson looked at Birley’s photo—he requested all correspondence come with one—he told Birley he was the man he had seen in his dream who had urged him to label his movement "Psychiana." An honored Birley sent him $40,000 for the cause.

By 1933, Robinson was so deluged with business that his printing costs totaled $2000 a month. To save money, he decided to buy his own printing press and have it shipped to Moscow. This didn’t sit well with George Lamphere, a local printer and newspaperman who was printing Robinson's mailings and sending him the bill. Lamphere felt threatened by the arrival of a competing printer and warned Robinson that there would be retaliation if his business was affected. In response, Robinson decided to print the city’s second daily newspaper, which only enraged Lamphere further.

Lamphere wasn’t his only rival. Local church groups disavowed Psychiana, calling it a bunk religion and Robinson a “mail-order prophet” in the tradition of P.T. Barnum. Modestly aggressive adversaries would pull flowers out of his front lawn. Robinson began carrying a gun in case anyone felt he should become a martyr. He donated land, built a park, and gave to charities, but response in Moscow was so mixed that he refused to send any of his teachings to correspondents with a local postmark.

Owing to pressure from Lamphere and other groups, the postal service conducted inspections to make sure Robinson’s mail-order business was legitimate. While no red flags were raised, they did make note of Robinson’s passport, which stated he was born in New York. When it came to light he was from England, enemies seized on the chance to proclaim he was an illegal alien who had come into the U.S. from Canada without proper paperwork.

In 1937, Robinson was deported. But just as Lamphere had threatened the power of his political allies, Robinson wasn’t without friends. Senator William Borah intervened on his behalf, allowing Robinson to go to Cuba, get proper immigration papers, and re-enter the country through Florida.

Psychiana had barely missed a beat. As World War II grew heated, Robinson began advertising about the “atomic power” present in both our nuclear weapons and our own spirits. The power of God that resided in all citizens could, he said, defeat the threat of Adolf Hitler.

With few financial records having survived, it’s difficult to know exactly how much Robinson made from Psychiana. One 1933 balance sheet listed revenue after costs of about $52,000 for the first nine months of 1932, and business seemed steady for roughly two decades. In addition to lessons, Robinson sold his autobiography, individual self-help booklets, and other papers. People believed so fervently in Psychiana that Robinson once declared it the eighth most-popular religion in the world.

It would not, however, outlive him. Following a heart attack, Robinson died in 1948 at the age of 62. Though his son, Alfred, tried to keep the presses going, postage rates and declining interest contributed to Psychiana closing its doors in 1952.

Though Robinson always professed altruistic motives for his work, many believed he was nothing more than an opportunist who used economic strife to feed his own bottom line. While no one will know whether Robinson truly believed his own rhetoric, in 1944 he offered to “train” ordained ministers in Psychiana to help spread the word of his selfless gift. The price: $250 per minister.

Additional Sources: The Strange Autobiography of Frank B. Robinson.

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Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
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Pop Culture
The Cult of Prince Philip
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images

For seven decades, Prince Philip has been one of the more colorful figures in Britain's Royal Family, prone to jarring remarks and quips about women, the deaf, and overweight children.

"You're too fat to be an astronaut," he once told a boy sharing his dream of space travel.

British media who delighted in quoting him are still lamenting the 96-year-old's recent retirement from public duties. But the people of the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu are likely to be optimistic he'll now have the time to join them: They worship him as a god and have based a religion on him.

Followers of the Prince Philip Movement, which started in the 1960s, believe that the prince was born to fulfill an ancient prophecy: that the son of an ancient mountain spirit would one day take the form of a pale-skinned man, travel abroad, marry a powerful lady, and eventually return to the island. When villagers saw the prince’s portrait, they felt the spirit in it, and when he visited Vanuatu in 1974, they were convinced.

Chief Jack Naiva, a respected warrior in the culture, greeted the royal yacht and caught sight of Philip on board. "I saw him standing on the deck in his white uniform," Naiva once said. "I knew then that he was the true messiah."

True believers assign large world movements to the machinations of Philip. They once claimed his powers had enabled a black man to become president of the United States and that his "magic" had assisted in helping locate Osama bin Laden. The community has corresponded with Buckingham Palace and even sent Philip a nal-nal, a traditional club for killing pigs, as a token of its appreciation. In return, he sent a portrait in which he’s holding the gift.

Sikor Natuan, the son of the local chief, holds two official portraits of Britain's Prince Philip in front of the chief's hut in the remote village of Yaohnanen on Tanna in Vanuatu.
TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images

The picture is now part of a shrine set up in Yaohnanen in Vanuatu that includes other photos and a Union flag. In May 2017, shortly after the Prince announced his retirement, a cyclone threatened the island—and its shrine. But according to Matthew Baylis, an author who has lived with the tribe, the natives didn't see this so much as a cause for concern as they did a harbinger of the prince's arrival so he can bask in their worship.

To date, Prince Philip has not announced any plans to relocate.

A version of this story ran in a 2012 issue of Mental Floss magazine.

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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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