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

14 Facts About International Talk Like A Pirate Day

iStock
iStock

Ahoy, me hearties! As many of you know, September 19 is International Talk Like A Pirate Day, an annual phenomenon that’s taken the world by storm, having been observed by every continent, the International Space Station, and even the Oval Office since it first made headlines back in 2002. So let’s hoist the Jolly Roger, break out the rum, and take a look back at the holiday’s timber-shivering history.

1. Talk Like a Pirate Day was originally conceived of on D-Day.

Talk Like a Pirate Day creators John Baur and Mark Summer (who’ve since acquired the nicknames “Ol’ Chumbucket” and “Cap’n Slappy,” respectively) created the holiday while playing racquetball on June 6, 1995—the 51st anniversary of the invasion of Normandy. Out of respect to the battle’s veterans, a new observance date was quickly sought.

2. September 19th also happens to be the birthday of the ex-wife of the holiday's co-creator.

“[September 19th was] the only date we could readily recall that wasn’t already taken up with Christmas or the Super Bowl or something,” the pair later claimed. Summers claims to harbor no ill will toward his former spouse, who has since stated, “I’ve never been prouder to be his ex-wife!

3. Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist Dave Barry is largely responsible for popularizing the holiday.

Dave Barry was so smitten with the holiday after having been introduced to it via email in early 2002 that he dedicated an entire column to its publicity that September, turning an inside joke into a global sensation. He later went on to make a cameo appearance in one of Baur and Summers’s buccaneer-themed music videos in 2011 (look for him in the video above at the 3:25 mark).

4. Real pirates spoke in a wide variety of dialects.

Despite some extensive “English-to-Pirate” dictionaries that have cropped up all over the Internet the idea that all pirates shared a common accent regardless of national origin is historically absurd, as National Geographic pointed out in 2011.

5. Actor Robert Newton is hailed as the "patron saint" of Talk Like a Pirate Day.

So where did the modern “pirate dialect” come from? Summers and Baur credit actor Robert Newton's performance in Treasure Island (1950) and have accordingly dubbed him the “patron saint” of their holiday. Tasked with breathing life into the scheming buccaneer, Newton simply exaggerated his native West Country accent and the rest is history.

6. John Baur's family was featured on a pirate-themed episode of Wife Swap.

The reality show’s highly-anticipated 2006 season premiere pitted the Baurs (in full pillaging regalia) against a family which, according to John’s wife Tori (a.k.a. “Mad Sally”), “behaved as though ‘fun’ was something that had to be pre-packaged for their protection.”

7. John Baur was also on Jeopardy!

Baur was described to the audience as “a writer and pirate from Oregon” in his 2008 appearance. “I didn’t win,” Baur said, “but the introduction made Alex blink.”

8. International Talk Like a Pirate Day has become a cornerstone of the Pastafarian movement.

Bobby Henderson, founder of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, cited Earth’s dwindling pirate population as the clear source of global warming in his 2005 open letter to the Kansas school board which established the religion. Since then, Talk Like A Pirate Day has been observed by devout Pastafarians worldwide. 

9. A Florida mayor once ignited a local controversy for making an official Talk Like a Pirate Day proclamation.

In 2012, Lake Worth, Florida Mayor Pam Triolo lightheartedly urged her constituents to embrace the holiday last year, writing, “The City … is known to possess a spirit of independence, high spirits, and swashbuckling, all traits of a good pirate.” Her actions were criticized by the city’s former commissioner, Jo-Ann Golden, who took offense to the association with murderous seamen.

10. Day of the Ninja was created in response to Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Not to be outdone by their hated rivals, the pro-ninja community was quick to execute the first annual Day of the Ninja on December 5, 2002. For Summers and Baur’s take on the warring factions, see the clip above.

11. Pirates once celebrated Talk Like a Pirate Day aboard the International Space Station.

In a 2012 interview, Summers recalled being “informed that the astronauts on the International Space Station were awakened to ‘A Pirate’s Life For Me' and joined in the pirate talk from space.”

12. President Obama once celebrated with a costumed buccaneer in the Oval Office.

In 2012, Barack Obama tweeted this image on Talk Like a Pirate Day with the caption “Arr you in?”

13. A congressman later used the holiday to slam President Obama's tax plan.

In 2011, Florida’s 12th congressional district representative Dennis Ross used the festivity as a political punchline after Obama made a speech detailing his tax plan, tweeting, “It is TALK like a pirate day … not ACT like one. Watch ye purses and bury yr loot, the taxman cometh.”

14. It's an official holiday in the state of Michigan.

On June 4, 2013, state senator Roger Kahn’s proposal to grant International Talk Like A Pirate Day official acknowledgement from the Michigan government was formally adopted, to the chagrin of some dissenting landlubbers. 

This story originally ran in 2013.

10 Fast Facts About Jimi Hendrix

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Though he’s widely considered one of the most iconic musicians of the 20th century, Jimi Hendrix passed away as his career was really just getting started. Still, he managed to accomplish a lot in the approximately four years he spent in the spotlight, and leave this world a legend when he died on September 18, 1970, at the age of 27. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the musical legend.

1. Jimi Hendrix didn't become "Jimi" until 1966.

Jimi Hendrix was born in Seattle on November 27, 1942 as John Allen Hendrix. He was initially raised by his mother while his father, James “Al” Hendrix, was in Europe fighting in World War II. When Al returned to the United States in 1945, he collected his son and renamed him James Marshall Hendrix.

In 1966, Chas Chandler—the bassist for The Animals, who would go on to become Jimi’s manager—saw the musician playing at Cafe Wha? in New York City. "This guy didn't seem anything special, then all of a sudden he started playing with his teeth," roadie James "Tappy" Wright, who was there, told the BBC in 2016. "People were saying, 'What the hell?' and Chas thought, 'I could do something with this kid.’”

Though Hendrix was performing as Jimmy James at the time, it was Chandler who suggested he use the name “Jimi.”

2. Muddy Waters turned Jimi Hendrix on to the guitar—and scared the hell out of him.

When asked about the guitarists who inspired him, Hendrix cited Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Elmore James, and B.B. King. But Muddy Waters was the first musician who truly made him aware of the instrument. “The first guitarist I was aware of was Muddy Waters,” Hendrix said. “I heard one of his old records when I was a little boy and it scared me to death because I heard all these sounds.”

3. Jimi Hendrix could not read music.


George Stroud/Express/Getty Images

In 1969, Dick Cavett asked the musician whether he could read music: “No, not at all,” the self-taught musician replied. He learned to play by ear and would often use words or colors to express what he wanted to communicate. “[S]ome feelings make you think of different colors,” he said in an interview with Crawdaddy! magazine. “Jealousy is purple—‘I'm purple with rage’ or purple with anger—and green is envy, and all this.”

4. Jimi Hendrix used his dreams as inspiration for his songwriting.

Hendrix drew inspiration for his music from a lot of places, including his dreams. “I dreamt a lot and I put a lot of my dreams down as songs,” he explained in a 1967 interview with New Musical Express. “I wrote one called ‘First Look’ and another called ‘The Purple Haze,’ which was all about a dream I had that I was walking under the sea.” (In another interview, he said the idea for “Purple Haze” came to him in a dream after reading a sci-fi novel, believed to be Philip José Farmer’s Night of Light.)

5. "Purple Haze" features one of music's most famous mondegreens.

In the same interview with New Musical Express, it's noted that the “Purple Haze” lyric “‘scuse me while I kiss the sky” was in reference to a drowning man Hendrix saw in his dream. Which makes the fact that many fans often mishear the line as “‘Scuse me, while I kiss this guy” even more appropriate. It was such a common mistake that Hendrix himself was known to have some fun with it, often singing the incorrect lyrics on stage—occasionally even accompanied by a mock make-out session. There’s even a Website, KissThisGuy.com, dedicated to collecting user-generated stories of misheard lyrics.

6. Jimi Hendrix played his guitar upside-down.

Ever the showman, Hendrix’s many guitar-playing quirks became part of his legend: In addition to playing with his teeth, behind his back, or without touching the instrument’s strings, he also played his guitar upside-down—though there was a very simple reason for that. He was left-handed. (His father tried to get him to play right-handed, as he considered left-handed playing a sign of the devil.)

7. Jimi Hendrix played backup for a number of big names.

Though Hendrix’s name would eventually eclipse most of those he played with in his early days, he played backup guitar for a number of big names under the name Jimmy James, including Sam Cooke, Little Richard, Wilson Pickett, Ike and Tina Turner, and The Isley Brothers.

In addition to the aforementioned musical legends, Hendrix also helped actress Jayne Mansfield in her musical career. In 1965, he played lead and bass guitar on “Suey,” the B-side to her single “As The Clouds Drift By.”

8. Jimi Hendrix was once kidnapped after a show.

Though the details surrounding Hendrix’s kidnapping are a bit sketchy, in Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix, Charles R. Cross wrote about how the musician was kidnapped following a show at The Salvation, a club in Greenwich Village:

“He left with a stranger to score cocaine, but was instead held hostage at an apartment in Manhattan. The kidnappers demanded that [Hendrix’s manager] Michael Jeffrey turn over Jimi’s contract in exchange for his release. Rather than agree to the ransom demand, Jeffrey hired his own goons to search out the extorters. Mysteriously, Jeffrey’s thugs found Jimi two days later … unharmed.

“It was such a strange incident that Noel Redding suspected that Jeffrey had arranged the kidnapping to discourage Hendrix from seeking other managers; others … argued the kidnapping was authentic.”

9. Jimi Hendrix opened for The Monkees.

Though it’s funny to imagine such a pairing today, Hendrix warming up The Monkees’s crowd of teenybopper fans actually made sense for both acts back in 1967. For the band, having a serious talent like Hendrix open for them would help lend them some credibility among serious music fans and critics. Though Hendrix thought The Monkees’s music was “dishwater,” he wasn’t well known in America and his manager convinced him that partnering with the band would help raise his profile. One thing they didn’t take into account: the young girls who were in the midst of Monkeemania.

The Monkees’s tween fans were confused by Hendrix’s overtly sexual stage antics. On July 16, 1967, after playing just eight of their 29 scheduled tour dates, Hendrix flipped off an audience in Queens, New York, threw down his guitar, and walked off the stage.

10. You can visit Jimi Hendrix's London apartment.

In 2016, the London flat where Hendrix really began his career was restored to what it would have looked like when Jimi lived there from 1968 to 1969 and reopened as a museum. The living room that doubled as his bedroom is decked out in bohemian décor, and a pack of Benson & Hedges cigarettes sits on the bedside table. There’s also space dedicated to his record collection.

Amazingly, the same apartment building—which is located in the city’s Mayfair neighborhood—was also home to George Handel from 1723 until his death in 1759; the rest of the building serves as a museum to the famed composer’s life and work.

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