October 1853, on a hilltop in Lynn, Massachusetts, a group assembled to create the New Messiah. They had not come to pray or to praise God: they were actually going to build Him out of metal and wood under the supervision of spirits. When the body was complete, they believed it would be infused with life to revolutionise the world and raise mankind to an exalted level of spiritual development.
The spirits gave their instructions through John Murray Spear, a former minister of the Universalist church and recent convert to spiritualism. Born in Boston in 1804 and baptised by his namesake John Murray (the founder of the American branch of the Universalist church), Spear has been described as a “gentle, kindly, ingenuous” man who possessed a beautiful simplicity and an idiosyncratic mind 1.
Spear became a minister of the Universalist church at the age of 24 and, by 1830, was married and had his own church in Barnstable, Massachusetts. Universalism teaches that all souls will be saved, stresses the solidarity of mankind and “sees the whole creation in one vast restless movement, sweeping towards the grand finality of universal holiness and universal love”2. When his father died, the family was left poor; he may have been apprenticed to a cobbler and worked in a cotton mill, but these ideas influenced the course of his life.
Spear held reformist views on slavery, women’s rights and temperance, on which he was frequently outspoken, upsetting his congregation. By the late 1840s, he had lost the Barnstable church and he went on to be driven from churches in New Bedford and Weymouth. In 1844, after delivering an anti-slavery speech in Portland, Maine, a mob beat him senseless, invaliding him for months. When he recovered, he operated a portion of the ‘Underground Railroad’ in Boston, helping runaway slaves get to Canada, and acquired a name as the ‘Prisoner’s Friend’ for his work in improving penitentiaries and abolishing the death penalty.
While Spear crusaded in Boston, strange things were happening in rural New York which would completely change his approach to reform. The Fox family – a father, mother and two young daughters – moved into a farmhouse in Hydesville, New York, in December 1847. Immediately, they began hearing inexplicable sounds; before long, the Foxes found themselves in the middle of full-blown poltergeist phenomena.
Months of noise, especially knocking sounds, exhausted the family. On the night of 31 March 1848, 12-year old Kate invited the ‘ghost’ to rap the same number of times she snapped her fingers. It did, and this display of intelligent control led to more detailed communication. The poltergeist claimed to be the spirit of a murdered peddler, and the two basic tenets of spiritualism were established: the soul survives death; and the dead can communicate with the living3. The same day that Kate began communicating with the ghost, Andrew Jackson Davis – a visionary writer and healer known as the ‘Seer of Poughkeepsie’ – had a revelation that “a living demonstration is born”. The age of spiritualism began.
The Fox sisters gave public demonstrations of their mediumship, and within five years spiritualism was everywhere. Countless amateurs experimented with spirit communication in home circles or attended séances by professional mediums, and hostesses were advised to introduce the “fascinating subject of spiritualism [at dinner parties] when conversation chances to flag over the walnuts and wine.”4 Reformers were especially attracted to the way it challenged almost all accepted views, its lack of hierarchy and its promise of unlimited possibilities.
In 1851, Spear left the church and became a spiritualist. With the encouragement of his daughter Sophronia, he developed his powers as a trance medium and accepted guidance from the spirits of Emanuel Swedenborg, Oliver Dennett (who had nursed Spear after the mob attack) and Benjamin Franklin. Spirits led him on trips to faraway towns, where he was directed to cure the sick by laying on hands or making inspired prescriptions.
That summer he received 12 messages from the late John Murray and published them as Messages from the Superior State. He followed this with a series of public demonstrations in which he entered a trance while spirits spoke through him on a wide variety of topics – including health and politics – and delivered a 12-part lecture on geology, a subject about which Spear claimed to be almost wholly ignorant. The speeches, however, were not well received, as it seemed to be the medium, rather than spirits, speaking5.
Spear trusted his spirit advisors without reservation. Among their ‘projects’ was an experiment in which Spear “subjected himself to the most scathing ridicule from his contemporaries by seeking to promote the influence and control of spirits through the aid of copper and zinc batteries so arranged about the person as to form an armor from which he expected extraordinary results6.”
Despite all his efforts, Spear’s reputation remained small, while the Fox sisters triumphed as famous mediums and Andrew Jackson Davis as a well-known visionary and prophet. This promised to change after a spirit-inspired journey to Rochester, New York, in 1853 revealed to Spear his special mission.
Spear (left) began producing automatic writing which proclaimed him to be the earthly representative for the ‘Band of Electricizers’. This was a fraternity of philanthropic spirits directed by Benjamin Franklin and dedicated to elevating the human race through advanced technology. Other groups that made up the ‘Association of Beneficence’ were the ‘Healthfulizers’, ‘Educationalizers’, ‘Agriculturalizers’, ‘Elementizers’ and ‘Governmentizers’, each of which would choose their own spokesmen to receive plans for promoting “Man-culture and integral reform with a view to the ultimate establishment of a divine social state on earth.” The Electricizers began speaking through Spear, transmitting “revealments” that ranged from a warning against curling the hair on the back of the head (bad for the memory) to plans for electrical ships, thinking machines and vast circular cities7.
The first, most important task, however, would be construction of the New Messiah (“Heaven’s last, best gift to man”), a universal benefit that would infuse “new life and vitality into all things animate and inanimate”. Spear – or the Electricizers – chose High Rock as the place to build it. High Rock (above) is a hill rising 170ft (52m) above Lynn, a town north of Boston. Lynn is now poor and unemployment is high, but it was once well known for shoe manufacturing and has a history that is pure Lovecraft, full of witchcraft, sea serpents, spontaneous human combustion and rioting Quakers8. Spiritualism received an enthusiastic reception in Lynn, and some of its most devoted followers owned a cottage and observation tower on the site Spear needed.
High Rock Cottage (shown above in 19th-century stereoscopic photographs) belonged to the Hutchinsons, who were both spiritualists and reformers. The cottage was a favourite destination for visitors, especially after 1852, when Andrew Jackson Davis witnessed a meeting of the Spiritual Congress from the tower and was introduced to the disembodied representatives of 24 nations. Spear had known the Hutchinsons when he was minister in Boston and allowed them to rehearse in his church when they began singing professionally9. Spear was given the use of a woodshed and work on the Physical Saviour began in October 1853.
Assisting Spear and the Electricizers was a group that included Rev SC Hewitt, editor of the Spiritualist newspaper New Era; Alonzo E Newton, editor of the New England Spiritualist; and a woman called “the Mary of the New Dispensation”. The identity of the New Mary has never been clear10.
Vivifying the Messiah was a four-step process that began with Brother Spear entering a “superior state” and transmitting plans from the Electricizers. Building it required nine months for construction (gestation) and in that time he received 200 ‘revealments’ providing detailed instructions on the materials to be used, how the different parts should be shaped and the pieces put together. The group was not given an overall plan but built it bit by bit, adding new parts “to the invention, in much the same way [..] that one decorates a Christmas tree.”11
Spear’s total lack of scientific and technical knowledge was considered an advantage, as he would be less inclined to alter the Electricizers’ blueprints with personal interpretations or logic (what remote viewers might call “analytical overlay”). The parts were carefully machined from copper and zinc, with the total cost reaching ,000. (A prosperous minister then earned around a week.)12
No images of the New Motive Power exist, but apparently it was impressive, sitting on a big dining room table. “From the center of the table rose two metallic uprights connected at the top by a revolving steel shaft. The shaft supported a transverse steel arm from whose extremities were suspended two large steel spheres enclosing magnets. Beneath the spheres there appeared [..] a very curiously constructed fixture, a sort of oval platform, formed of a peculiar combination of magnets and metals. Directly above this were suspended a number of zinc and copper plates, alternately arranged, and said to correspond with the brain as an electric reservoir. These were supplied with lofty metallic conductors, or attractors, reaching upward to an elevated stratum of atmosphere said to draw power directly from the atmosphere. In combination with these principal parts were adjusted various metallic bars, plates, wires, magnets, insulating substances, peculiar chemical compounds, etc… At certain points around the circumference of these structures, and connected with the center, small steel balls enclosing magnets were suspended. A metallic connection with the earth, both positive and negative, corresponding with the two lower limbs, right and left, of the body, was also provided.”
In addition to the “lower limbs”, the motor was equipped with an arrangement for “inhalation and respiration.” A large flywheel gave the motor a professional appearance.13 This, however, was only a working model; the final version would be much bigger and cost 10 times as much.
The metal body was then lightly charged with an electrical machine resulting in a “slight pulsatory and vibratory motion [..] observed in the pendants around the periphery of the table”.14 Following this treatment, the Engine was exposed to carefully-selected individuals of both sexes, who were brought into its presence one at a time in order to raise the level of its vibrations.
Then Spear encased himself in an elaborate construction of metal plates, strips and gemstones and was brought into gradual contact with the machine. For one hour he went into a deep trance which left him exhausted and, according to a clairvoyant who was present, created “a stream of light, a sort of umbilicum” that linked him and the machine.15
It was at this time that the New Mary began exhibiting symptoms of pregnancy. The spirits instructed her to appear at High Rock on 29 June 1854 for the final stage of the experiment. On the appointed day, she arrived and lay on the floor in front of the engine for two hours, experiencing labour pains. When they ended she rose from the floor, touched the machine and it showed signs of… something. Precisely what happened is not clear; Spear claimed that for a few seconds the machine was animate.
The New Era was unrestrained: “THE THING MOVES”, it shouted to its readers. “The time of deliverance has come at last, and henceforward the career of humanity is upward and onward – a mighty noble and a Godlike career.”16 Spear proclaimed the arrival of “the New Motive Power, the Physical Savior, Heaven’s Last Gift to Man, New Creation, Great Spiritual Revelation of the Age, Philosopher’s Stone, Art of all Arts, Science of all Sciences, the New Messiah”.17
The machine’s movements remained feeble, but this was attributed to the “electrical infant” being a newborn; the New Mary began providing it with maternal attention while it gained strength. It’s hard to imagine what this involved. Despite the headlines, visitors to High Rock were unimpressed. JH Robinson – in a letter to the Spiritual Telegraph – pointed out that the New Messiah could not even turn a coffee-mill18; despite claims of success, AE Newton admitted there was never more than a slight movement detected in some of the hanging metal balls.
Andrew Jackson Davis wrote a long, careful critique of the whole project. Although he praised Spear as a man “doing good with all his guileless heart” and as a fearless defender of unpopular causes, he suggested that Spear had mistaken his own impulses for spirit directives or been duped by irresponsible entities into carrying out the experiment. Davis also felt that the precision and intricacy of the machine’s construction was proof that higher intelligences were involved because Spear was “intellectually disqualified for the development of absolute science.” He also praised the Messiah’s excellent workmanship and construction; it didn’t move, but it was beautifully put together19.
The Electricizers suggested that a change of air would provide the machine with a more nourishing environment – so the Messiah was dismantled and moved to Randolph, New York, where “it might have the advantage of that lofty electrical position.” In Randolph, it was put into a temporary shed, but a mob broke in, trampled the machine, tore it apart, and scattered the pieces. Nothing of it survived.
Spear’s High Rock experiment may have been eccentric but it was also characteristic of the period. New technologies profoundly changed 19th century society, producing industrialisation, urbanisation, the rise of capital and a middle class whose values became dominant. A conservative reaction to this might have been neo-Ludditism, but Spear was no conservative; he was on a Christ-like mission to transform humanity and believed technology was the most powerful force of the era, one that could be transformed to serve spiritual ends.
He spent the rest of his life working for reform and acting as spokesman for the Spiritual Congress. When the spirits began preaching free love, he fathered a child by Caroline Hinckley (1859) and, four years later, divorced his wife to marry the mother. They went on a six-year tour of England, lecturing and holding séances, but were disappointed by the lack of interest in radical politics among British spiritualists20.
Several years were spent in California working for women’s rights and socialism before the couple settled in Philadelphia, where they lived contentedly until Spear’s death in October 1887. He is buried in Mt Moriah Cemetery.
Did an angry mob really destroy the New Messiah? This would have been an exciting conclusion to a story that seemed headed for an anticlimax. According to Spear, the Machine was dismantled and transported hundreds of miles to the small town of Randolph. There it was housed in a temporary structure until a mob – in a scene reminiscent of the peasants storming Frankenstein’s castle – destroyed it. Some sources blame Baptist ministers for inflaming local opinion and one guidebook – An Eccentric Guide to the United States – claims the episode took place in a barn belonging to the Shelton family.
Spear’s account was reported in the Lynn News, 27 October 1854, but is he reliable? Many questioned his sanity, but no one ever seems to have doubted his integrity or suggested he was a charlatan. The Randolph story, however, is troubling because there is no corroboration. Randolph historian Marlynn Olson has searched through contemporary sources and found nothing. In 1854, Cattaraugus County, New York, had two newspapers – one Whig, the other Republican – and neither mentions Spear, a riot, a Mechanical Messiah or anyone delivering anti-Mechanical Messiah sermons. No known letters or diaries mention the event. “I think,” writes Ms Olson, “the whole thing was a pipe-dream of the Rev JM Spear.” Perhaps, like so many other failed experiments, the machine was discreetly sunk into a pond or buried in the woods.
If the New Messiah had not vanished, the passage of 147 years would have improved the reputation of both the object and its creator. As a medium, Spear was a failure, but the object he built was a unique, if unintentional, example of 19th-century folk art. If it had actually moved, it would be as surprising as a cargo cult making an airplane that could fly. Spear was not using the language ts vocabulary, to build a statue that expressed the human urge for transcendence.