For some time I have been fascinated by the story of John Murray Spear (1804-1877), a 19th C. minister who took up spiritualism in 1851. In 1854, he attempted the construction of an electromechanical "god machine" on a remote hill in Lynn, Essex County Massachusetts -- coincidentally right on the southern marches of "Lovecraft Country".
On the surface this is an amusing bit of Americana, part of the the explosion of mystical humbuggery following the 1848 debut of the infamous Fox sisters. But Spear was no humbug. He was a man of unusual energy and prescience; an organizer of the Underground Railroad, an advocate for universal suffrage and a crusader for social justice:
quote:He helped lead the era’s effort to outlaw the death penalty and improve prison conditions. He searched Boston’s streets, courts, and jails for people in need, practically inventing the role of what we have come to call a parole officer. He was an activist for women’s rights, temperance, health reform, labor reform, and the humane treatment of animals.
[The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear: Agitator for the Spirit Land , by John Benedict Buescher, University of Notre Dame Press, 2006, ISBN 0-268-02200-3]
I find a powerful element of pathos in Spear's story. As a medium he didn't produce any of the theatrical effects the Fox sisters did, he simply went into a trance and started speaking. Rival spiritualists used the lack of miraculous phenomena to impugn the veracity of his revelations, but I think that lack shows he was, like A.C. Doyle, a true believer.
Spear first encountered spiritualism on an 1851 prison mission to New Hampshire, where he was introduced to a local medium who channeled the spirit of Spear's dead son. Enchanted, Spear dove into spiritualism with characteristic energy. In 1852 he became a frequent correspondent with local spiritualist journals, and by 1853 his own communications with the spirit world were published [S. C. Hewitt, Messages from the Superior World, Boston: Bela Marsh, 25 Cornhill; 1853].
Spear's conception of the spirit world was peculiarly 19th C. Boston; he saw it as a kind of spiritual university formed for the reform of mankind and organized along different colleges or "associations": the Educationizers, the Agriculturalizers, the Healthfulizers, etc. In 1853 he headed to Chautauqua County New York to found a Utopian community based on the principles revealed by the "Association of Benificents". There is surely an element of wish-fulfillment in this vision of the afterlife. Spear was uncommonly bright and energetic, but he was essentially self-educated. He was prepared for the ministry by what amounted to home schooling in a place and time where theology was dominated by Harvard. It must have been heady stuff to be the sole designated pupil of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Rush, and other great American sages.
The Association of Electrizers, headed by the spirit of Franklin of course, had special task for Spear: direct the construction of a perpetual motion machine. This would be a kind of electric motor, which in 1853 would have been the height of high tech like quantum computing is today. Yet this "New Motive Power" was more than a machine; it was a electromechanical messiah that would usher in a third age of humanity (the first two being the Jewish and Christian eras). The New Motive power would reduce the work day from fifteen hours to four, and provide wealth to be shared by all.
The truth, I think, is that Spear the reformer had simply run out of patience with the mundane course of change. He was 47 years-old when he turned to spiritualism, in an era where the life expectancy at birth was 38 and slavery was ensconced in the Constitution. If he was going to see Utopia in his lifetime it would have to be through the agency of a higher power.
By 1854 Spear had returned to the Boston area and ensconced himself in High Rock Cottage, Lynn, where he directed his followers in the construction of his mechanical messiah. There were no plans; Spear would go into a trance and describe a piece of the mechanism. This would then be skilfully machined in copper or brass and his followers would figure out where they could attach the part to the growing mechanism. Descriptions of the machine are exceedingly complex and hard to picture, but you can see two artists' conceptions if you do a Google image search.
Regardless of the overall layout, the assemblage of magnets, counterweights, and batteries was intended to be spiritually analogous to the human body, and as such the new electrical messiah required a kind of spiritual surrogate mother. A "new Mary" was duly appointed from among Spear's followers, and after she experienced hysterical pregnancy and labor the new messiah was ritually birthed. In the meantime Spear had directed the assembly of batteries and assorted metal plates into a kind of electrical suit which, according to the Electrizers, would amplify Spear's powers as a medium. Equipped with his medium amplifying suit, Spear successfully set the delicately balanced mechanism into subtle motion.
When skeptics pointed out that this supposedly inexhaustible source of motor power didn't have the force to budge a coffee mill, Spear explained that the new messiah was as yet a newborn and of course didn't have the strength yet to do useful work. Spear and his followers moved the machine to Randolph, New York, where the Electrizers assured Spear that “it might have the advantage of that lofty electrical position.” It was reassembled in a temporary shed, but when locals got wind of the sacrilegious experiment a mob broke in and destroyed the machine.
John Murray Spear did not attempt to re-build his machine; instead he spent the rest of his life as a faith-healer and occasional lecturer.
There's a curious coda to this story. Spear, through his involvement with the reform movement, was a moderately prominent figure in his day, and associated with very prominent figures in the abolitionist, Unitarian and spiritualist movements. We know about him and his New Motive Power project from the accounts of others. Yet over the years all physical evidence for Spear and his project seem to have disappeared. The location farm in Randolph is lost, and no part of the new messiah has survived. Surely someone would have kept a souvenir? Papers of other participants related to the project have disappeared from museums where they were reportedly deposited. The sites of the Utopian communities Spear was involved with have disappeared. We don't even have any image of Spear himself; the engraving used to represent him is from the frontispiece of S.C. Hewitt's book, and actually portrays John Murray, the man for whom Spear was named. This is odd, considering Spear's mania for advanced technology. Surely he would have sat for a carte-de-visite portrait at some point in his life as a lecturer and public figure.
Of course this disappearance of physical evidence for the New Motive Power project is just the hand of entropy erasing the uncurated bits of history; but as a writer I could imagine an entirely different agency responsible. I find this kind of genuinely spooky history much more interesting than rehashed fantasy tropes.