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The Wee-Jee Fiends
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From the Oakland (CA) Tribune, December 26, 1919:
Richmond Milliner Is Run Down by Speeding Motorist, Who Fails to Halt Car After Fatally Injuring the Victim.
No trace has been found of the machine that struck Miss Moro at San Pablo and Potrero avenues, just out of Richmond toward El Cerrito. She was found unconscious in the road, the speed of the machine indicated by the finding of her hat 60ft [18m] away, but no assistance had been rendered her by its occupants.
She was taken to the Craven Hospital in Richmond, where her death from a fracture of the skull and internal injuries followed. Richmond and El Cerrito officials are seeking the machine which caused her death but with almost no clews upon which to work.
Chief of police W. H. Wood was confident that the driver would be caught: “We have the testimony of an eye witness who saw the car run the girl down and flee,” he told the Oakland Tribune. “We know where the car was going and we expect to seize the guilty person at any time.” But his prediction proved wrong.
The hit-and-run driver was not found, and eighteen-year-old Jennie Moro’s funeral was held on December 31, possibly the last of 1919’s 3,808 traffic fatalities to be buried that year. “Each year it becomes more and more dangerous for a person to walk the streets,” declared the Census Bureau, but if Stutz Bearcats and Model T Fords endangered American bodies there was another, more subtle danger threatening their minds, and it would twist the Moro’s sorrow into madness.
The Mania Begins
Jennie Moro came from an Italian family that lived in what was then the small Bay Area town of El Cerrito, California. She was survived by her recently widowed mother, Mary, fifty-one, and a twenty-nine-year-old sister named Josephine. She had two small children and was married to Charles Soldavini, a plumber. They lived together in a two-story frame building on San Pablo Avenue, near the place where Jennie was killed, and from which the late Mr. Naggaro Moro had run his blacksmith and plumbing businesses.1
The family apparently had a Ouija board since 1918, though they seldom used it and had no faith in its communications. When Jennie died, however, the Moros began holding séances and consulting the board in a psychical search for the hit-and-run driver.
Josephine Soldavini approached town marshal Curtis Johnson, “with a jumble of numbers which she claimed that she had received in a dream” and believed that they formed the fatal car’s registration number. When a corresponding number was not found in the automobile register, the séances continued. Mrs. Moro contacted the spirit of her late husband, Naggaro, who threatened to punish her daughter’s killer, and the family was “gradually drawn into the belief that communication with the dead was being had through the board and through dreams.”2
The “board” at the center of their efforts was patented as a “toy or game” in 1891, and a popular craze by 1920. Most players took a lighthearted approach to the results, using it to find missing objects or learn the future (“Tell me Ouija, that’s a dear / Who’ll be president next year?”), while others worried about its effect on the user’s mental equilibrium.3
At the University of Michigan, Ouija boards were reportedly “replacing Bibles and prayer books,” so that a local nerve specialist was treating female students for “extreme nervousness” brought about by “too close association with the Ouija board and too great belief in its wandering. They had become fascinated by its message and had come to place so much trust in them that they were in a serious condition when they were turned over to him.” Men were also vulnerable, and a member of the staff warned that “[T]he ouija is becoming a serious menace to this country.”4
Séance in the House of Mystery
On February 25, the Richmond Independent reported that, “Tony Bena, a neighbour, said that Mrs. Moro came to his house . . . and said she was going to save him and his family. She had wept on his arm at the time and he had tried to calm her. This is the first time he had noticed anything peculiar in the actions of his neighbors.”
A few days later, a hole appeared in the Moro-Soldavini yard (or, perhaps, a block away from their house) that was about the size of a grave, and appeared to have dirt added or removed every day. This looked like the work of the spirits to Mrs. Moro, her family, and a growing circle of séance participants that came to include two nephews, Louis and Henry Ferrerio, and the Moro’s neighbors: John (Giovanni) B. Bottini, forty-five; his thirty-six-year-old wife, Santina; and their daughters Rosa, age twelve, and fifteen-year-old Adeline.
The high school principal described Adeline as one of her brightest girls and said that she had been perfectly normal “until this change came down on her.” The teenager came to believe that she was clairvoyant, a trance medium, and possessed by the spirit of Jennie Moro, who “was completely in control of her body dictating every action.”5 The spirit of “Mrs. Thomas, a colored woman who had been dead for some years,” was also said to have power over her.6
As the séances continued, the spirits wanted Adeline to have a comb decorated with “six stones of different hue.” But Mrs. Bottini was unable to find one and bought her daughter a six-colored corset instead. This, and other odd requests, might have been part of the preparations being made for a grand “Passion Display” that was expected to take place at five P.M. on March 3, when “the evil in all of them would be cast out” through the influence of Jennie Moro’s spirit. The mystery of the hole would be revealed soon after.7
Adeline dreamed that evil spirits were in her clothes, so those were burned along with some money and, possibly, the Ouija board itself.8 Mr. Bottini also bought her an expensive new dress, and possibly a $150 diamond ring; the spirits apparently liked clothing and jewelry.
With the Passion Display drawing near, séances went on twenty-four hours a day. Rosa Bottini was unable to keep food down and needed to be revived several times with “holy water.” Adeline said that Rosa’s hair must be cut to save her life and it was, along with that of another child, and the clippings burned to dispel evil spirits. There were now five children in the house, as well as Mrs. Tony Bena, who was threatened with “bodily harm” if she tried to leave.9
Mrs. Bena had been there twelve hours when the Ouija board commanded the group to collect her daughter. Finding the Benas’s door locked “the enthusiasts beat upon it with a hammer. Tony Bena, worried concerning his wife’s absence drove the messengers away and decided to seek police aid in breaking up the séance.”
El Cerrito did not have a police department in 1920, so town marshal A. W. MacKinnon was informed that the two families had drawn their curtains, barred the door and were “acting queerly.”
At three P.M. on March 3, MacKinnon asked Chief Wood, from neighboring Richmond, for help. They met at the Moro-Soldavini house—dubbed “the House of Mystery” by journalists—along with six officers and two patrol cars.
The police were refused entry but did not have to force their way in. Perhaps Chief Wood met the family after Jennie’s death, or knew that the Moros and Soldavinis were “highly spoken for by neighbors as law-abiding hard-working Italian people.” Whatever the reason, Father J. J. Hennessy, a pastor of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Berkeley, was sent for and persuaded the group to open the door and let officers enter the house. Adeline was “scantily clad” or wearing her new dress, the children were hungry, and the communicants “in a state of high nervous excitement and nearing exhaustion from lack of food and sleep.” When the group realized they were being arrested, Mrs. Moro reportedly screamed, “My husband is here and he will kill you!” Whether or not the late Mr. Moro was present, a “lively tussle” ensued and the eight Ouija board enthusiasts taken to the county hospital at Martinez. Mrs. Bottini went into a trance and told officers “she had gone through the torment of the crucifixion, and then, being addressed by the Deity through her daughter, she had been brought back to Earth.”
John Bottini was released and instructed to appear in Judge R. H. Latimer’s courtroom the next day, so the County Lunacy Commission could evaluate those who had been arrested. In the meantime, Bottini looked after his youngest daughters, while Mrs. Moro’s cousin, Joe Ferrerio, cared for the Soldavini children.
The hearing lasted several hours. Tony Bena and Joe Ferrerio were present, and Rosa Bottini gave the panel of three doctors “a clear and lucid description of what took place.” This contrasted with the account given by the four female “Ouijamaniacs” who talked “wildly” whenever the board was mentioned. All four were judged insane “on their own testimony,” and Judge Latimer committed Adeline and Mrs. Moro to the state mental hospital at Stockton, and Mrs. Bottini and Josephine Soldavini to the Napa asylum. The men were released after they “disavowed their belief in the alleged messages of the board and said they took part in the séances in an effort to dissipate the hallucinations of the women.”
Charles Soldavini reportedly burned the board that night, but the Ouija’s resilience is legendary and it continued to fascinate those living around San Francisco Bay.10
Four days before the families were arrested, a brick was thrown through a jeweler’s window, reportedly at a “suggestion from the Ouija board.”11
A few days after that, Captain O’Day, of San Francisco’s Potrero police station, filed a report with his chief on March 4 expressing concerns about officer Elmer H. Dean, who “had been acting peculiarly and talked much of the information he had obtained from a Ouija board. He said he had a message instructing him to capture some mysterious enemy.” Dean borrowed a revolver from the station and did not report to work the next morning.
He was found at Berkeley and sent to the Anderson sanitarium at Fruitvale but escaped, jumping onto the running board of a passing car, pointing the gun at the driver, and demanding to be taken back to Berkeley. He undressed along the way (no small trick while clinging to the outside of a moving car) and when they reached downtown Oakland, the naked Dean took refuge in the Central Bank Building. A patrolman brought a blanket and returned him to the hospital, where doctors attempted to evaluate “the effect the Ouija board produced upon his mind.”12 Such incidents were not restricted to California.
The citizens of Macon, Missouri, had become so preoccupied with the board that “one person in five of the entire population . . . had fallen a wild-eyed victim to the strange malady” and preparations were under way at a local institution for their “wholesale reception.”13
Back at El Cerrito, it was reported that “Ouija mania has gripped the entire city.” A meeting held at town hall on March 4 resolved to ban the board and have the town’s 1,200 residents examined to see if they were under its influence. A committee was formed to approach psychiatrists at the University of California and enlist their help.14
Meanwhile, the “varnished and nimble ‘wee-gee’” was being denounced from the pulpit (“People who consult the Ouija board rather than Christ are displaying a yellow streak”), in the lecture hall (“as dangerous as a shot-gun in the hands of a maniac”), and by newspaper editors (“time for an end to the tolerance that has given the Ouija a wide and claptrap popularity”). San Francisco’s Spiritualist churches proposed a “Ouija board test” for the police force, claiming that “insanity of the kind disclosed by the Ouija board prevails to a degree 250 times greater among policemen than another other people.”15
The board was called a drug “that is put into the brain directly . . . and the damage is swiftly and directly done,” and an illness with a recognizable course. “Dementia Ouija usually does not manifest itself in the form of frank delusions or hallucinations, but rather in an insidious way. The victim first regards the instrument with amusement, later with interest, still later with mystification and finally when the mind is sufficiently debased by the insane business, with actual reverence.”16 Furthermore, Ouija madness was a communicable disease.
Sacramento’s health department ordered detectives to break up Ouija board meetings, and that city, along with Oakland and Richmond, considered ordinances to prevent sales of the board. State senator William R. Sharkey prepared a bill to prohibit the “spirit’s switchboard” in California altogether, but unlike the Prohibition of alcohol that began two months earlier, attempts to ban the board proved unsuccessful
Richmond discovered that it did not have the authority to prohibit Ouija boards, the citizens of El Cerrito were not subjected to mass analysis, and there is nothing to suggest that police “séance squads” carried out raids. In July, Oakland detectives did arrest a medium for producing “spirits” that advised her clients to buy oil stocks that she controlled, but this was not the “War on clairvoyants, spiritualists, séances and Ouija board manipulators” described by the press.17 In fact, a determined anti-Ouija movement never appeared, and most of those deranged by the board soon recovered.
The fate of the naked policeman is not known, but the four women at the center of the Ouija hysteria were freed before the end of April; their descendants still live at El Cerrito, where the events of 1920 are largely forgotten. The House of Mystery is also gone, and a Target superstore stands on the site.
Cinema de Ouija
Cerritoans might have put the business behind them, yet the story remains intriguing.
In 2003, writer-director Ryan McKinney began work on a supernatural horror movie about a young married couple who move into a Victorian house where they discover Mrs. Moro’s twice-burned Ouija board in the attic. The husband warns his wife not to touch it, but the film’s promotional tagline is “One little question won’t KILL me!”
McKinney “looked into some of the stories of what happened, what was reported, and then took it a level further to see what happened to people who participated in it.”18 The result was The Invited, starring Carlos Alazraqui and Pam Grier, which was released in 2010.
Films sometimes revive interest in the events that inspired them, and much of what happened in 1920 remains unexplained. What was the group trying to accomplish? Did Mary Moro, or the others, consider themselves psychic before the séances began? And why were the men released when John Bottini is quoted as saying: “We believe in the Ouija board and our faith is unshaken. The board will drive away evil spirits. Do you think we look like maniacs?”19
In addition to insanity, Ouija boards have also been blamed for a handful of murders, but millions of divorces and suicides. But millions have experienced nothing more traumatic than a giggle. Nevertheless, it is worth remembering El Cerrito before dimming the lights, resting your fingertips on the planchette, and asking: “Is anybody there?”
Mrs. Wakeman vs. the Antichrist
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On the morning of Monday, December 24, 1855, a man’s bloody corpse lay on the floor of a house at New Haven, Connecticut. In life, he belonged to a small religious sect that believed he was possessed by the Antichrist, a belief that he more or less shared. As a result, he participated in his own death, during which he was bound and beaten with a stick, had his neck cut open, and was stabbed, to prevent the spirit’s malignant power from harming their leader, Mrs. Wakeman. She was one of the more eccentric products of the Second Great Awakening, a religious revival that kept America at a rolling boil for nearly a century.
The First Great Awakening lasted from the 1730s to the 1770s, and during that time evangelizing ministers preached a passionate fire-and-brimstone religion that led to the growth of all denominations, particularly the Baptists and Methodists. Around 1790, the Second Great Awakening began and forever changed the country’s religious landscape.
Revivals, camp meetings, and circuit-riding preachers attracted church members in unprecedented numbers, especially in the South and West. It was also during this period that a pious farmer named William Miller calculated that Jesus would return to Earth around 1843. His prediction led to the most popular and sustained expectation of Judgment Day in American history, with stories, mostly untrue, told about Millerites dressed in “ascension robes” gathering on roofs, hilltops, and cemeteries, singing hymns, and waiting to rise into the sky.
When nothing happened, Miller revised his calculations and when these proved wrong, he stopped making predictions. Another preacher named Snow, however, claimed that the world would end on October 22, 1844; when it did not, the day became known as “the Great Disappointment.” While most Millerites went on to join conventional churches or start new ones, millennial expectations were not confined to whites. The northern Paiute prophet, Wovoka, taught that the Ghost Dance ritual would reunite the Indians with their ancestors, while a “Messiah craze” swept black residents of Georgia in 1889, with no less than five Christs proclaiming that the Judgment was near, and causing a labor shortage.1 America, however, has a long history of sects and cults.
Some, like the Seventh-Day Adventists and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, became part of the religious mainstream, but most were obscure or short-lived.
In Vermont, the Dorrilites were sexually promiscuous vegetarians who wore wooden shoes and sang songs “that would defile a brothel.”2 By 1800, their leader, William Dorril, was claiming to be invulnerable and while preaching that “No arm can hurt my flesh,” a man stood up, punched Dorril in the face, and kept punching him until he admitted that it hurt; they disbanded soon after. Eighty years later, the spirit of Jesus entered red-haired George Jacob Schweinfurth and he set up a “heaven” at Rockford, Illinois, where several female disciples “conceived by the Holy Ghost” and had redheaded babies (Schweinfurth later joined Christian Science and became a life insurance salesman).3 The alchemist and messiah Dr. Cyrus Reed Teed taught a “cellular cosmogony” in which the universe is a bubble of space within an infinite expanse of stone; Earth’s surface is on the interior wall of the bubble, which surrounds and encloses the sun and sky. His followers (“Koreshans”) carried out elaborate experiments to prove that the world is concave and built a utopian community called New Jerusalem at what is now Estero, Florida (when Teed died and failed to resurrect, his followers put him in a tomb that was swept away by a hurricane). While the Koreshans were merely eccentric, zealotry made groups like the Cobbites dangerous.
Preacher Cobb’s first name is forgotten, but he arrived at White County, Arkansas, in 1876. One source claims he practiced “infant sacrifice,” and while that is unlikely, the Cobbites did hold possessions in common, reportedly believed the sun rose and set at Cobb’s command,4 and demonstrated their faith by walking along roof ridges with their eyes closed. This might have gone on indefinitely, and produced nothing worse than an occasional broken neck, had local developments not put the group under pressure.
They were not popular in the neighborhood. Agitating against saloons made the Cobbites enemies, and Preacher Cobb interpreted the arrival of a drought as punishment for man’s sins and a warning that the world might be coming to an end. With that, his followers at Gum Springs, Arkansas, destroyed their property and began dragging passersby inside to hear the gospel, whether they wanted to or not. Two men from the town of Searcy came to see what was happening and one of them, a bartender, apparently planned to amuse himself at the believers’ expense.
When the pair arrived, the bartender reportedly made a sarcastic remark that infuriated the already overwrought Cobbites, who dragged him to an exposed tree root normally used as a chopping block and cut off his head with a dull axe. The gory trophy was kicked like a ball and a “ritual dance” performed around it, before being impaled on “a front yard picket for all to see.”5 The victim’s companion escaped back to Searcy and returned with armed vigilantes.
Believing that faith made them invulnerable to weapons in the hands of the wicked, the Cobbites were defiant. Two were shot dead, most of the others ran away, and those who were captured were put on trial and released. Preacher Cobb reportedly fled into the woods or was escorted from the area by a posse, and nothing more is heard of him. (There is a postscript to the story; according to Heber Taylor of the White County Historical Society, the house where the murder took place “was used as a community amusement center for a while after the Cobbites left. That arrangement didn’t seem to work too well. Some folks said the forms of the men killed there appeared and joined in the dances to the wail of the fiddle.”)6
Though the bartender’s death was gruesome, it happened far from the media and received little attention outside the state. In the Connecticut murder, “[a] bloody tragedy of this sort, enacted under the very eaves, as it were, of Yale College, in the intelligent, enlightened and pious city of New Haven, must strike every one who hears it with a sudden and creeping horror.”7 And there were newspapers at New Haven and New York City to make sure everyone heard about it.
What happened on the day before Christmas 1855 was the culmination of a long struggle between a woman named Rhoda Wakeman and the Antichrist. She was God’s Messenger, whose divine mission left three dead and made Wakemanite synonymous with religious fanaticism for decades.
Married to Sin
Prophesying is a difficult trade. Jonah was swallowed, then vomited up, by a fish; Tiresias’s gender was changed twice; and no one believed Cassandra. St. Stephen asked, “Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted?” before he was stoned to death,8 and the children of Bethel mocked Elisha’s baldness, saying “Go up, thou baldhead, go up thou baldhead!” God sent “two she-bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them,” but God did not send “she-bears” often enough to deter most critics, and Rhoda Wakeman’s career, like those of her predecessors, was punctuated by difficulties.9
She was born Rhoda Sly on November 6, 1786, in Fairfield, Connecticut, the first of four children fathered by Phineas Sly and his unnamed wife. Sly later married Eunice Baker, who was fifty-three years old when she gave birth to Rhoda’s half brother Samuel in 1803. At age four Samuel, called “Sammy,” suffered a serious head injury that damaged his brain and left him weak-minded.
Around 1800, Rhoda married a distiller named Ira Wakeman (b. 1777) at Fairfield; they had fifteen to seventeen children, of which she acknowledged nine (the Wakeman Genealogy (1630–1899) mentions seven).10 Little can be said about Mrs. Wakeman’s spiritual development, though she reportedly attended Methodist meetings and read the Bible, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and a popular devotional book titled The Saints Everlasting Rest by the Rev. Richard Baxter, a “Treatise of the Blessed State of the Saints in their Enjoyment of God in Glory.” In 1825, Ira threatened to kill her, and the prospect of meeting God unprepared provoked some kind of crisis in Mrs. Wakeman, who prayed until Jesus appeared.
He showed her the sufferings of the saints and martyrs and said, “Thou art justified forever—peace to thy soul!” This marked the beginning of “seven years of travail,” when she believed Mr. Wakeman might murder her at any time; according to their daughter Selina, her mother’s fears were well founded, for Mr. Wakeman “used to drink a great deal of liquor and frightened her a great deal because she was determined to get religion. I have heard him threaten her life, saying that if she spoke a word or read a word in the Bible he would be the death of her instantly. . . . I have known my father to carry a razor to bed with him threatening to kill her with it.” His treatment left Rhoda Wakeman “partially deranged.”11 She produced a written account of her experiences and describes how he finally made up his mind to kill her, so “the enchantment of hell would then be broken and the world would be at peace. He told me that the world would never be at peace as long as God let me live.”12
On the day of the murder, Wakeman declared, “Last Saturday night I took my razor and went before the glass to kill myself. I made a league with the devil, more steadfast and strange than ever, if he would clear me. And then I would Kill you first—and by the great Jehovah Christ I will do it—and they may execute me on the gallows.” He lit a small fire, put two chairs in front of it, and told Mrs. Wakeman to prepare for death. She commended her baby to God, prayed, and sat in one chair while her husband sat in the other. He used “dreadful language and cursed God and d____d me to hell. I thought when he stopped swearing he would cut my throat.” Instead of a razor, though, Wakeman “drew a light on me from the fire,” a length of burning wood, which he thrust into her heart, and it was “the last I knew of this world.”13
She found herself surrounded by a thousand little black spirits that were preparing to take her away when a white spirit came down and the imps vanished. The white spirit escorted Mrs. Wakeman thousands of miles away, to a place of bright white clouds, where she had a series of visions:
I went up to Heaven: there was a red light and many white clouds there: Christ came to me when I was in Heaven with his nails in his hands, spoke peace to my soul; because he spoke peace to my soul I raised up, and another spirit came to me and spoke saying, “Make your peace with God.” I then kept on praying; he soon took me to Paradise and told me all about Adam and Eve and all the other spirits; this light then come on me so that I had to look up, and the spirits said I was numbered as one of them; I was taken up to Heaven from this place of light, and then saw Christ and all the Holy Angels; Christ had on the thorns and looked as he was when crucified; then saw God sitting upon his throne in all his glory; about the throne where all the angels in their white robes, and they were all happy spirits there; this spirit then came and took me back to earth, and when I got to earth again I saw my dead body lying on the floor; felt bad because I had come back to this wicked world again: I soon saw my wicked husband, who said, “By God, she’s raised!” soon after I saw two [angels] came and spoke to me kindly and then Christ appeared to me and I fell down before him. And oh! How happy I felt! And how happy I then was!14
The room was also filled with angels six inches tall and her husband repeated three times, “By God, she’s raised!”
According to other sources, Ira Wakeman gave his wife a brutal beating that left her unconscious; nevertheless, she had an experience that she understood as a revelation. Some idea of the beliefs it inspired can be cobbled together from court testimony, newspaper interviews, and personal writings.
The Wakemanite Doctrines
Wakeman’s faith can be summed up in twelve points. Three are unremarkable:
The rest are specifically Wakemanite:
One of her most important beliefs comes from II Thessalonians 2:3–10, in the Apostle Paul’s warning to his followers:
3 Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition;
4 Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God. [KJV; my italics]
From these passages, Mrs. Wakeman came to believe that the “Man of Sin,” or Antichrist, is an evil spirit that moves from one person to another in order to slay her and, by killing her, damn humanity and destroy the universe. Her husband was revealed as the Antichrist, and his unsuccessful attempt at murdering the prophetess demonstrated Mrs. Wakeman’s immunity to earthly dangers such as a burning stick of wood thrust into the heart. (Had she been Roman Catholic, this incident might have been considered in terms of the “mystical piercing” or transverberation, described by saints like Teresa of Avila, who was stabbed by an angel with a fiery arrow.) Mrs. Wakeman left home to live with a daughter and began her ministry by preaching from door to door.
When the prophetess next visited her husband, she had several devotees with her who tied him up. Mrs. Wakeman then “drew a knife or poniard, and with it made a most unnatural assault upon him, inflicting wounds of a very serious nature. The assault would doubtless then have proved fatal had it not been for the fear of some of her more responsible disciples, who becoming alarmed, put an end to the attack.”16 The wounds reportedly hastened Ira Wakeman’s death at Fairfield on March 8, 1833.
Samuel Sly said that “he was not killed by any of us, he came to his end when he was fifty years of age by the termination of his league with the Devil. I understood from the revelation given to my sister that his league with Satan was that he should live in health and comfort for fifty years, and during that time he was to work the deeds of wickedness.”17 (That means Ira made a pact with the devil at age six.) In addition to trying to kill God’s Messenger, he bewitched all the invalids in the area and she saw “streams of fire fly out of the eyes of her husband and had seen little devils about two feet high dance around him in the room.”18
Wakeman’s death, however, did not put the prophetess beyond the reach of the Man of Sin.
Little is known about Samuel Sly’s and Mrs. Wakeman’s activities from 1833 to 1840. On July 3, 1836, however, two of her future disciples, Justus Washington Matthews and Mehitable Sanford were married; also that year, at Worcester, Massachusetts, the “prim and precise” Thankful S. Hersey was teaching children to read at her infant school. In 1842, when Millerism was at its height, she closed the school, “much to the regret of parents in that part of the town,” to prepare for Christ’s return.19 At some point after the Great Disappointment she came into contact with Mrs. Wakeman and became a passionate disciple.
In 1840, Sly was living at Orange in New Haven County with an unnamed female between fifty and sixty years old—presumably Mrs. Wakeman—and a year later they were at Greenfield. There she did “all that lay in her power to promote the good of those around her,” and converted Samuel.20
He sometimes attended Methodist meetings, but one Sunday Mrs. Wakeman offered to explain her views of the Bible and an “unseen power” convinced him to remain. She read passages from Hebrews 2:14 (KJV), which refers to “him that hath the power of death, that is the devil,” the power that had been Ira Wakeman’s but now belonged to the second Man of Sin, Eben Gould.
Sly accepted everything Rhoda Wakeman said and stated that the “foundation of our faith” is “that the devil has the power of death, which I had thought before was a power of God . . .”21 (Why Mrs. Wakeman thought Gould was the Antichrist, and even his identity, are unclear. Her daughter, Sarah, was married to an Alden Gould, and the census of 1840 lists an Eben Gould living in Fairfield, Connecticut, who was between fifty and sixty years old; was he Alden’s father?) Samuel embraced the creed with enthusiasm, preaching to anyone who would listen and kneeling to pray anywhere.
When he asked permission to pray at Mrs. Mary Ann Wharton’s house, she agreed but added, “‘pray short, Sammy,’ for he was very tedious—he would pray all day.”22 Sly was considered a “very good, harmless, prayerful man,” though he “acted and spoke like a child” and was always poor. He often worked as a farmhand but would neither slaughter livestock nor step on a beetle, and he seems to have been regarded with the kind of good-humored exasperation reserved for children and harmless eccentrics. (“Once when he called at my house to get a chicken, and wanted me to kill it because he was afraid to do so, but I did not. Some time after, I saw the chicken in his yard and asked him why he had not killed it, and he said he would not do so for all the world.”23)
After Sly’s conversion he stopped walking past the houses of people with the “power,” and upon learning that Mary Ann Wharton was a “great enchanter,” he would run across the street to avoid meeting her. (It might be reading too much into a statement nearly 150 years old, but the situation seemed to amuse Mrs. Wharton.) In addition to enchanters, Sly believed the neighbors were conspiring to kill him and set out across Connecticut to escape them and preach Mrs. Wakeman’s gospel.
He met some Mormons and tried converting them while they tried converting him, endured what he considered persecution, and sold items that his half sister wove on a loom (she “tried by excessive work at a loom to support herself”).24 After work on Sundays, Sammy rode many miles for the “privilege of seeing her, and of hearing her expound the prophecies and tell of the revelations to her, guiding us in our career, was a good reward.”25
The Mad Prophetess
Newspaper illustrations were rare in the 1850s, and no description of Samuel Sly or Mrs. Wakeman has turned up beyond a journalist calling her “the very personification of the wonderful women that lived in Salem in the sixteenth [sic] century.”26
Salem, Massachusetts, is synonymous with witches, yet the Nutmeg State has some claim to being the most hag-ridden place in New England. Connecticut executed its first witch in 1647, put the last one on trial fifty years later, and hanged ten more in between. Mrs. Wakeman certainly believed in all the appurtenances of maleficia, including demonic pacts and magical poisons, yet she always used the word enchanter and, despite looking the part, was not a witch but a lunatic.
She struck some as a “naturally pretty clever sort of woman” and, though her beliefs were often absurd, no one doubted the sincerity with which she held them.27 Mrs. Wakeman’s daughter, Caroline Lane, considered her illuminated by “light from heaven” and accepted her teachings, while agreeing with her sister Selina that Ira Wakeman’s cruelty left their mother unhinged.
The prophetess’s behavior was certainly odd. She wept at the sight of people walking to churches that believed God had the power of death and not the devil (“she could find it in the Bible”), spirits appeared to Mrs. Wakeman at night begging her to preach, and Caroline often found her mother sobbing at two or three in the morning.28 Evil enchanters were everywhere, and many of her relationships followed a distinct pattern.
She apparently held people in the highest regard until they said or did something critical of the prophetess; doing that exposed them as wizards, possessed by an evil spirit, or it meant they were the Antichrist. Moreover, the better her opinion, the further they fell; “Hurld” like Lucifer “headlong flaming from the Ethereal Skie / With hideous ruine and combustion down/to bottomless perdition . . .” (Theology aside, Paradise Lost probably appealed to Mrs. Wakeman’s sense of drama). The experience of Ephraim Lane, Caroline’s husband, is typical.
According to Ephraim, “There was nobody like me with Mrs. Wakeman,” until 1852, when he said, “‘Mother, there’s nothing in your doctrines—it’s all a delusion.’” With that, she became afraid of Ephraim and decided that he had “a bad spirit that wanted to kill the good spirit in her.”29 (What “having a bad spirit” meant is unclear. It might refer to Leviticus 20:27 [KJV], “A man also or a woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death . . .” [my italics]). Caroline’s turn came on March 31, 1854, when the Wakemanites were excommunicating Charles Willoughby, who was another one of Mrs. Wakeman’s sons-in-law. They accused him of causing all the storms that winter and covering Sammy with a thousand little devils that crawled over his head and back, but Caroline expressed doubts and that frightened Mrs. Wakeman, who said, “‘Don’t call me Mother—anybody that wants to kill me needn’t call me Mother.’”30 This reaction might explain why her closest associates included Thankful Hersey, described as Mrs. Wakeman’s “echo,” and a brain-damaged half brother who made her paranoia his own.
In time, Sammy collected enough money to free Mrs. Wakeman from the “hard bondage of weaving,” and moved into a series of rented houses at New Haven where they were able to hold regular meetings.31
City of Scholars and Guns