1839 (October 18): Cyrus Reed Teed was born near Trout Creek, Delaware County, New York. His mother and father were Sarah Tuttle and Jesse Teed; later Cyrus would call attention to being the “root of Jesse” (King David).
1859: Teed married Fidelia M. Rowe, his second cousin. She died in 1885.
1860: Teed and his wife had a son, Douglas Arthur Teed, who became a noted artist.
1862: Teed enlisted in Company F, 127th New York Infantry of the New York volunteers as a corporal.
1863: On a march in Virginia, Teed suffered sunstroke, which led to paralysis of his left arm and leg. He was hospitalized in Alexandria, Virginia, for two months and then discharged from the Army.
1868: Teed graduated from the Eclectic Medical College of the City of New York.
1869: In his electro-alchemical laboratory in Utica, New York, Teed had what he later called “an illumination,” a visit from an angel who revealed to him his divine purpose: to redeem humanity.
1880: Teed founded a community in Moravia, New York. Eleven people lived there; three (his mother, father and one sister) were not followers.
1881: Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, started the Massachusetts Metaphysical College. Her ideas about spirituality and health clearly influenced Teed, though he gave her no credit. A Koreshan advertisement in a Chicago paper in 1887 indicates that Teed considered his college in competition with Eddy’s.
1882: German homesteader Gustave Damkohler and his family came to southwest Florida to settle the land that would become the Koreshans’.
1882: Teed and one brother and sister moved to Syracuse, New York, where they opened a medical electricity practice, which failed after a patient accused him of extorting money from her by claiming that he was a messiah.
1886 (September): Teed got his big break when he was invited to Chicago to speak to the Mental Science National Association conference. Here, he found the audience he had sought, and he began attracting followers.
1886: Teed moved from New York to Chicago and established the World’s College of Life, a publishing office, and a secular society, the group an outsider joined as the first step toward joining Koreshanity.
1886 (December): The Koreshans began publishing a monthly magazine, The Guiding Star, “the expositor of the divine science.” After a brief hiatus in 1889, the magazine began again as The Flaming Sword, which was printed continuously through 1948.
1888: One of Teed’s patients, a Mr. Fletcher Benedict, died under Teed’s faith healing treatment. A coroner’s inquest determined that Teed had practiced medicine without a license in Illinois. This is the last record of Teed’s practicing medicine.
1888: Teed founded the first communal home in Chicago, on College Place opposite Groveland Park and near the old University of Chicago. Within a year, between thirty and sixty followers lived in the home.
1890: Teed published “The Illumination,” an account of his visit from the angel 21 years earlier.
1890-1891: Teed established a community in San Francisco on Noe Street, called “Ecclesia.”
1891: The Shakers initiated Teed into their novitiate order.
1892: Teed changed his name to Koresh, the Hebrew transliteration of “Cyrus,” after King Cyrus in the Bible who freed the Jews. His followers began using A.K. (Anno Koresh) to track the years after Teed’s birth.
1892: The Koreshan colony in San Francisco moved to Chicago, and 110 Koreshans crowded into the communal home in Chicago.
1892: The Koreshans moved from College Place into two places: One was a mansion in Washington Heights; the other, a crowded apartment building in Normal Park. Tension built between Chicago’s citizens and the Koreshans.
1893: Teed and two Koreshan women visited Florida, looking for land where they could build a new settlement.
1894: The Koreshan Unity bought 300 acres in Estero, Florida, from the German homesteader, Gustave Damkohler, for $200.
1894: The first group of Koreshans moved to Florida from Chicago and began building on the land.
1903 (September): The Koreshan Unity incorporated under New Jersey laws. It was a for-profit corporation, modeled after Standard Oil’s structure.
1903 (November): All remaining Koreshans in Chicago moved to Estero.
1904 (September): The Koreshans incorporated the town of Estero. Note: Though Estero’s incorporation was reported in the Fort Myers paper and reported by the Koreshans, the Clerk of the Circuit Court later told a scholar that the Koreshans never filed a plat for the village and never formally incorporated (Landing 1997: 395fnt45).
1906: As an election approached, people in Lee County feared that the Koreshans might put pro-tax candidates in office, and that the community could take tax revenue from other areas of the county.
1906 (May): During the Democratic primary, tension boiled over between the people of Fort Myers and the community. After the Koreshan men cast votes, the chairman of the Democratic executive committee threw out their ballots.
1906 (June): The Koreshans started their own paper, The American Eagle, and a press war with the Fort Myers Press began. They also started a political party, the Progressive Liberty party.
1906 (October): Teed and several other Koreshans were beaten in a street fight in downtown Fort Myers.
1908 (December 22): Teed died. His followers, believing that he would resurrect, watched over his dead body for five days before burying him.
1940: A Jewish woman named Hedwig Michel arrived, having escaped Nazi Germany. She revived the community economically, reopening its general store and starting a restaurant.
1961: Hedwig Michel and the last three followers donated more than 300 acres of Koreshan land to the state of Florida to form a park. This included the land where the settlement sat and much of Mound Key, believed to be a ceremonial center of the Calusa Indians.
1974: The last original believer, Lillian “Vesta” Newcomb, died.
1976: The park was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
1982: Hedwig Michel died.
1991: Teed’s original for-profit corporation was dissolved and a private nonprofit was created. Now named the College of Life Foundation, it holds what remains of the original Koreshan land, seventy-five acres.
The Koreshans were religious utopians who formed a communal, celibate society in the 1880s. The last original believer died in 1974. History places the Koreshans with religious, communal, celibate organizations like the Shakers and Harmonists.
To understand Koreshanity, it’s necessary to understand its founder and prophet, Cyrus R. Teed, which is no easy task. [Image at right] A charismatic man and a doctor of eclectic medicine, Teed (1839-1908) was probably insane, and certainly narcissistic. He met the characteristics of what Ernest Jones, a contemporary of Freud, coined “the God complex.” Today, Teed would likely be diagnosed with mania and narcissistic personality disorder.
Depending on whom you believe, Teed was earnest or he was a scoundrel. He was harebrained or he was forward-thinking. He was celibate or he had sex with many women, or he merely kissed and fondled them.
The only thing everyone agreed on, including his detractors, was that he had charisma. He looked like any other nineteenth-century clergyman, the media reported: black broadcloth suit, white tie, and hat. He was about five foot six and 140 pounds with a receding hairline. But when he opened his mouth and began to speak, he was so filled with conviction that people fell under a spell.
Teed was born in 1839 near Trout Creek, Delaware County, New York. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to live with his mother’s father, a Baptist preacher, in New Hartford, New York, near Utica, then a boomtown thanks to the building of the Erie Canal. It was also a Baptist stronghold. Teed went to church on Sundays and heard plenty of God’s message in his grandfather’s sermons, and he studied his Bible. He was a charismatic speaker from the time he was quite young. His parents hoped he would become a preacher like his grandfather. Instead, he chose to become a doctor.
In 1869, when Teed was thirty, he was practicing medicine and dabbling in alchemy in Utica, New York. Late one fall evening in his alchemical lab, he transformed lead into gold, he later claimed. That night, he felt that a mystic hand was at work in the lab with him, “the hand of the Alchemico-vietist . . . moved by a desire for human elevation” (Teed n.d.:4).
Teed believed that the physical corresponded to the spiritual, as Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) had written. He reasoned that if this mystic hand had guided him to transmute physical substance, it might reveal an even more important transformation. If it was possible to turn lead into gold, perhaps disease and suffering in the body could be transformed, too (eliminated). Perhaps man could achieve victory over death.
Teed stayed in his lab that night, working and waiting, sensing that there was more to come. The evening, he later wrote, was “fraught with momentous possibilities for the future of the world” (Teed n.d.:2).
What followed was a visit from an angel who told him he was chosen to redeem humanity. Teed’s description of the angel matches the woman described in the Book of Revelation: “a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars. . . . And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron” (Rev. 12:1, 12:5: King James Version).
Teed believed himself to be this man child. The angel promised Teed that he would have an earthly woman to help him with his work. She would be Teed’s equal. And when the time was right, the angel (the Divine Motherhood) would descend into this woman and inhabit her. Teed referred to this experience as his “illumination.” He published an account of it twenty-one years after the purported visit.
Teed was distantly related, by marriage, to Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, and no doubt influenced by Smith’s success. Many of the images from his illumination are similar to Smith’s accounts of his own visits from angels.
Following his illumination, Teed reflected on his beliefs and began organizing them into a set of principles that would become Koreshanity. These may have come to him all at once, full-blown, or they may have developed over time. It isn’t clear, because he revealed them to his followers gradually. In developing his religion, he had plenty to work with, having lived during a time of religious fervor and popular mystical beliefs.
Teed believed he was the king Cyrus from the Old Testament, and he called himself Koresh, the Hebrew transliteration of Cyrus; hence, his followers were the Koreshans.
He preached that he was the last in a line of seed-men, who had included Adam, Enoch, Noah, Moses, Abraham, and Jesus, men who had received knowledge (dispensations) from God that allowed them to lead people into a new age. Teed taught his people that God had revealed to each of these earlier men only what they were able to understand and what their people were capable of accepting. Teed said that as the seventh man, he was the most evolved, and God would reveal all, making everything knowable through him so that he could usher in the age of Koreshanity [the previous ages being Judaism (Abraham) and Christianity (Jesus)].
According to Teed, God would dispense wisdom through him as his people were ready for it. Only Teed fully understood the doctrine.
A doctor, he tried to convert his patients and became known as a crackpot. He and his wife moved from Utica to Binghamton to Equinunk, Pennsylvania, but in each place, as he attempted to gain followers, he alienated people. Others were slow to pay, and his medical practice suffered. Teed even tried practicing in his hometown and the surrounding areas, but even there, in his birthplace, “he was without honor,” wrote Carl Carmer, a writer for the New Yorker, years later (Carmer 1965:269).
He moved to western New York, leaving his ailing wife, Delia, and their son in Binghamton with Delia’s sister. He practiced medicine in Sandy Creek, before failing there, too.
In 1880, he moved to be with his parents in Moravia, New York, and to help them in their mop-making business. At his parents’ house, he formed a small group of followers, which included his sister, brother and nine others. His father, mother and another sister lived with them but were not followers.
The mop business failed, and Teed moved to Syracuse with his brother and sister, where they practiced medical electricity. This business, too, failed, and Teed found himself in New York City for a time.
Then in 1886, a woman named Thankful Hale heard Teed lecture and invited him to speak in Chicago at the Mental ScienceNational Association conference. It was in Chicago, at a lecture in a converted church, that he gained attention and began gathering followers. In this lecture, he discussed the Bible as a scientific text, and the power of the brain to heal. [Image at right] He used an illustration of the parts of the brain to make his points, impressing several of the audience members with his knowledge of anatomy and its tie to faith and healing. He seems to have avoided mention of the religion he was developing or of his belief that he was a prophet.
Soon after this successful speech, Teed took over the Mental Science National Association and used it as his platform. He started a college, the World’s College of Life, where he and his faculty taught courses in anatomy, physiology, gynecology, and mental obstetrics. The college awarded psychic and pneumic therapeutic doctorates for fifty dollars. The Koreshans also ran a publishing house, the Guiding Star Publishing House, from which they published reams of literature and a dense monthly magazine, The Guiding Star (later The Flaming Sword ). The mission of the magazine, Teed wrote in the first issue, was “to induct the early wakers from the dreamy past into the presence of the coming day.” In addition to publishing their own literature, the Koreshans completed print jobs for outside clients. The followers also ran a lunchroom that served the public, and a women’s exchange, where fine lace and embroideries were made and sold.
It was during these early days in Chicago when Teed found the woman the angel had promised him. Her name was Annie G.Ordway, [Image at right] a married woman with two sons. She left her husband to join Teed, who renamed her Victoria Gratia, and declared her to be his Pre-Eminent and his female counterpart.
Teed established a communal home on College Place, opposite Groveland Park and near the old University of Chicago. Within a year, between thirty and sixty followers lived there. He also had a community of followers in San Francisco, who moved to Chicago in 1892. The College Place home was too crowded with more than 100 followers, so the Koreshans moved into two places. The first was a mansion in Washington Heights. Teed named it Beth-Ophrah, after the town Ophrah in the Bible, where an angel appeared to Gideon and told him he would save Israel from invasion. The other was far from luxurious, a crowded flat in Normal Park.
The Koreshans faced considerable trouble in Chicago. The newspapers accused them of practicing free love. Two husbands sued Teed in separate lawsuits for $100,000, charging alienation of affection and unlawful intimacy. Citizens held indignation meetings to drive Teed and his followers from the city. And the community was unable to pay its bills.
In the 1890s, Teed tried to confederate with other celibate societies in the U.S., notably the Shakers and the Harmonists (also called Economites), but without success. Both societies developed a mistrust of him.
In 1894, the Koreshans found 300 acres of land in Estero, Florida. It had been settled by a German homesteader, Gustave Damkohler. Teed told Damkohler that the land would be the future location of the New Jerusalem spoken of in the Bible. It would be the largest city in the world, Teed said, ten times the size of New York. Within a decade, Teed said, 10,000,000 people would live there. Damkohler, swept away by religious zeal, accepted Teed as his Lord and sold him his land for $200.
In Estero, the Koreshans could catch fish, hunt, and grow their own food. They were not faced with heating bills as they had been in Chicago. And, for a time, they were left alone by the media and by the prying eyes of citizens.
They began building a community and acquiring acreage, much of it by squatting on the land and filing for ownership based on squatters’ rights. By 1903, all of the members had moved from Chicago and settled. The community was at its height, numbering more than 200 followers.
Between 1894 and 1905, the Koreshans built the following on the settlement: [Image at right] a dining hall with dorms for the women; cabins for the men; a place where the children lived; the Founder’s House, where Teed and Victoria lived; the Planetary Court, living quarters for the seven women who managed the daily affairs; a bakery; a general store; a schoolhouse; a laundry; barns; a small zoo; a sawmill; a printing house; a boat works and concrete works; a tin shop; gardens where they grew their own food; and an Art Hall, where their orchestra and band played, where they performed dramas, and where Sunday services were held. Along the river were places on the banks where they could sit, read, and lose themselves in thought. Flower gardens decorated the grounds, and shell paths connected the buildings. On Estero Island, they built a retreat they called La Parita. At one point, they owned between 5,700 and 7,500 acres in southwest Florida, including almost all of what is now Fort Myers Beach. In addition to their Florida industries, the Koreshans owned an interest in a furniture plant in Bristol, Tennessee.
In addition to providing for the members of the commune, Koreshan industries sold goods and services to the larger community. In their two-story printing building, the Koreshans printed announcements, bulletins, invitations, and booklets, both for the Unity and for outside clients. They had the technology for color printing, a rarity in those days. Their bakery turned out as many as 500 to 600 loaves per day of “’risin’ bread,” made with yeast. The bread sold well because leavened bread was scarce. The general store was fully stocked with fruit grown on the Unity grounds(oranges, pineapples, melons, coconuts, strawberries, tomatoes, and more) along with honey, molasses, jams, and cookies. The Koreshans repaired boats for the citrus growers who shipped their citrus up north, and they sold and shipped their own citrus as well.
At first, the nearby town of Fort Myers welcomed Teed and his followers, even attending events at the settlement. The Koreshans’ concerts, fairs, and dramas were often open to the public, and their Art Hall became a kind of cultural center for the area. The editor of the Fort Myers Press, Philip Isaacs, gave them a regular weekly column, which they used to report on the successes of the community. But tension began to build as Lee County’s citizens feared that the Koreshans would take tax funds away from Fort Myers. Relations between Isaacs, who was anti-tax, and the Koreshans became tense.
The election of 1906 was approaching, and more than fifty Koreshans were eligible to vote. Isaacs also happened to be a Lee County judge and the chairman of the Democratic executive committee. He tried to prevent the Koreshans from voting in the Democratic primary, knowing that they would vote as a bloc for pro-tax candidates. When the Koreshans voted anyway, Isaacs threw out their ballots.
Throwing out the votes affected the primary results for only one minor office. But it made some margins so thin that a few candidates won by single digits. Teed had said once that the Koreshans would outvote the citizens of Lee County, and they had come uncomfortably close. But now they were disenfranchised, and they had no say over how the county’s money would be spent. They wanted to protest, but Philip Isaacs gave them no room in his paper to do so.
They responded by forming their own paper, The American Eagle, in which they complained loudly that they had been wronged. Isaacs threatened to expose nasty stories from Teed’s past and reveal his true character, he said. A full-out newspaper war was on, with Teed and Isaacs trying to destroy each other. Isaacs succeeded in turning most of the citizens of Fort Myers against Teed and the Koreshans.
The Koreshans formed a new political party, the Progressive Liberty Party, and ran a slate of candidates in the election. The party grew, attracting Republicans, Socialists and even some Democrats, who felt that Lee County politics had become corrupt.
In 1906, shortly before the contentious election, Teed came to Fort Myers to meet some friends arriving on the train. A citizen started a street fight, and a crowd descended, beating Teed and several other Koreshan men. The war escalated, with Isaacs publishing sensationalist stories from the Chicago papers years before. The election came, and while the Koreshan candidates made a respectable showing, none of its candidates was elected.
Teed aged and began suffering from debilitating nerve pain. He removed himself to Washington D.C., where he lectured and tried to plan another colony, but his health degenerated, and he returned to Estero in 1908.
Teed died on December 22, 1908, at age sixty-nine on Estero Island, now Fort Myers Beach. The followers believed that he was not dead, rather in “suspended animation” and that he would return, as he had promised he would. They placed his body in a zinc bathtub and waited for his resurrection. After five days, with his body decomposing and the health department forcing his burial, the Koreshans entombed him beside the Gulf.
They felt sure that if they waited, they would be rewarded with his resurrection, and so they continued to wait, reasoning that there must be some meaning that was yet to be revealed. It comforted them that Teed had laid everything out in his writings, and they pored over these. They recalled that he had spoken many times of his translation, or “theocrasis” (his word), when he would take on the form of a woman and lead them in a great battle against evil, and, upon winning the battle, would usher in the kingdom of heaven on earth.
Some of the followers drifted off, realizing that the belief was mistaken. These included Victoria, his counterpart, who left within four months of Teed’s death. She married the community’s dentist. A couple of people declared that Teed had appointed them his successor, and there was a splinter group, which succeeded for a short time. But a surprising number of devoted followers hung on for decades.
In this waning time, two of the most interesting connections the Koreshans developed were with Thomas Edison, who wintered in Fort Myers, and with Henry Ford, who visited Edison in the winter. There’s evidence that Edison and his wife, Mina, came to the Koreshans’ tea garden and visited with the followers. In 1931, Ford came to the Koreshan settlement five times and studied their technological advances, including the building where they generated electricity. The Koreshans began generating their own electricity in 1916 with a steam engine. On one of his visits, Ford bought two steam engines from the Koreshans.
In 1940, when thirty-five believers remained and the settlement was crumbling, a Jewish woman who had fled Nazi Germany came to the settlement. For a time, she revived the community economically, opening a restaurant and adding a Western Union office. Michel soon saw that with no new members joining, there would be no one to preserve the legacy of the Koreshans. In 1961, with only four members left (including her), she donated the land where the settlement sat to the state of Florida for the creation of a state park. Also included in this donation was a large portion of nearby Mound Key, thought to be a ceremonial center for the Calusa Indians.
After Teed died, because he had not shared his full belief system, there was no one to take up the mantle and lead the group. No new believers joined, save Michel, though there is debate over whether she believed the theology. The followers grew old and died, and the commune died with them. Michel died in 1982.
At the state historic site today, visitors can tour the grounds and see several of the buildings that have been restored, including the bakery, the art hall, the founder’s house, cottages, and the Planetary Court, which housed the prominent women of the community.
A private nonprofit foundation, the College of Life Foundation, holds the remaining seventy-five acres of the Koreshans’ land. Its name is a callback to the “college” Teed started in Chicago in the 1880s. The foundation’s mission is to preserve and educate about the history and environment of south Florida with an emphasis on the communal Koreshan activities.
The Koreshans believed that by removing themselves from sin and from everything objectionable, they would be God’s chosen people. They pooled their resources and labor and rejected what they viewed were the evils of capitalism. When someone joined the community, he turned over all of his assets, to be shared in common. Teed had the ultimate say over how the money would be spent.
Many of the people who chose to become Koreshans grew up during a time when utopias were flourishing, the first half of the nineteenth century. Communal living and socialism didn’t seem strange and, in fact, were desirable. By pooling resources and labor, the members had more time for music, art, theater, leisure, and self-improvement. In the early 1800s, so many communal utopias had blossomed that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote to Thomas Carlyle in 1840, “We are all a little wild here with numberless projects of social reform. Not a reading man but has a draft of a new community in his waistcoat pocket” (Carlyle 2004: section 58).
Koreshanity formed in the latter half of the 1800s, when utopia was taking a different form. There was a growing mistrust of capitalism, a system that mistreated workers, as depicted in Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle. Reacting to the ills of capitalism and industry, many utopians, rather than living in isolation in literal utopias, undertook reform from within society.
But for the Koreshans, communal living was the divine way, and the only way to counter capitalism, which they believed enslaved men and was of the devil. By isolating, the Koreshans believed, they would effect reform by living as an example.
Koreshanity had many things in common with Mormonism, Seventh-Day Adventism, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. They all began as millennialist movements whose followers believe that Christ will return, establish a kingdom on earth, and reign for one thousand years, as prophesied in the Book of Revelation. The people in these groups did not worship their prophets as messiahs; instead, the leaders were divine interpreters who prepared them for the Second Coming by translating biblical scripture and messages from God. This is what Teed was doing, and those who followed him believed that there would be a big event during which he would “translate” and redeem them, and they would be among the chosen people who would begin a new immortal life on earth.
Teed masked his beliefs in flowery, often inscrutable language that included made-up words. For this reason, many of the society’s tenets were hard to suss out, even for a Koreshan. His believers took this for brilliance, for something they could dig into intellectually.
Teed said he had many answers and messages for them, but could not reveal them all at once. They were dispensed to him by God, and he would dispense them to his followers as he felt they were ready to accept them.
His religion was a mix of millennialism, mesmerism, the beliefs of Swedenborg, Theosophy, Spiritualism, mind healing, Buddhism, the primitive Christian church, Egyptian myth, Gnosticism, electromagnetism, and more. He called his system Koreshanity, giving no credit to others, and he proclaimed that it contained the answers to every question, including the mystery of immortal life.
Teed called his system a religio-science, which reconciled science and faith. His mission, he preached, was to interpret the Bible for the scientific age. This appealed to people who were troubled by the conflicts between faith and scientific advancements. But the science he incorporated was pseudo-science (alchemy, astrology, and cosmogony).
Teed believed that women and men should have equal standing in society, and this was probably the reason that there were a disproportionate number of women in the Koreshan community. At one time women outnumbered men in the community by as many as three to one. Teed’s detractors claimed that he exerted a hypnotic power over women, influencing them to leave their husbands. There’s evidence that many of the women felt a romantic connection to Teed.
Teed believed that marriage enslaved women, that it was an institutional form of bondage. Teed’s stance on equal rights went hand in hand with celibacy. By having sex, a woman surrendered her power to a man. Apparently, many women who joined him believed this, too, as several of them left their husbands to join. (Teed never reflected on how his own marriage figured in.)
Celibacy not only gave a woman control of her own body, it was also the secret of immortality for both women and men. Teed taught that as long as humans were divided into male and female, they would be incomplete, continually coming together in a fruitless attempt to bridge the divide. But by reproducing, they would only create more human beings who were divided. Having sex ensured mortality.
Instead, all Koreshans should redirect sexual desire toward a desire for closeness with God, specifically, toward Teed. By focusing their love on him, they would ensure their immortality on earth. Once enough followers did this, their energy would cause an electromagnetic explosion in his brain and consume the pineal gland, responsible for sexual potency. This would cause his “dissolution.” He would pass into his chosen woman (Victoria) and become divine, both male and female, a mother-father god. At this point, his believers would become immortal, biune beings, too, healing the division between male and female within themselves. A man would become a woman who enclosed a man; a woman would become a man who enclosed a woman, as the prophet Jeremiah foretold: “A woman shall encompass a man” (Teed 1909:25).
The Koreshans believed we live inside a hollow earth. To visualize Teed’s version of earth, imagine peeling the paper map off an old-fashioned school globe, slicing the globe open, then pasting the map inside the walls of the globe. [Image at right] At the center of the globe is the entire cosmos. Our earth (our universe) is encased by a crust one hundred miles thick with an outermost ring of gold. Outside of this is nothingness.
Teed wasn’t the first to believe the earth was hollow. Edmund Halley, Sir John Leslie, and Cotton Mather proposed hollow earth theories. But Teed seems to be the first to claim that we all live inside. John Cleves Symmes theorized that we could enter the earth through polar openings, but in Teed’s version, there were no openings. None were necessary, because the universe is contained within the earth.
Earth is stationary, according to Teed’s cosmogony. Our sun, half-dark and half-light, gyrates methodically to create day and night and seasons. We are held to the earth not by gravity but by “gravic rays” emitted by the sun.
“We Live Inside” was a slogan the Koreshans printed on lecture announcements, lapel pins, and on the sign in front of their settlement in Florida. This motto was accompanied by an illustration of the earth, hinged open to reveal the continents and cosmos inside. Sometimes, the Koreshans added a touch of humor to We Live Inside: “Drop in and See Us.”
In 1897, they proved to their satisfaction that the earth was, in fact, concave and that we lived inside. They did this via a “geodeticexperiment” on Naples beach, [Image at right] using a system of right angles and air lines and precise measurements that took months.
The hollow earth theory was the linchpin of Koreshan doctrine because it confirmed their entire faith. The reasoning was sweet: God wouldn’t create a universe that humans couldn’t understand. The Koreshans believed that they stood, quite literally, at the edge of the universe looking in at all of God’s creation. And for Teed and the Koreshans (and Swedenborg) the physical corresponded to the spiritual. So by proving this belief about the physical universe, they proved their faith that God, through Teed, would reveal to them all spiritual mysteries. Therefore, everything in their universe was contained and knowable. This allowed them to live in a like-minded community, united for a common purpose, and it gave them order and security in a chaotic world.
By any standard, the Koreshans were well educated; they read literature and kept up with news; they had a drama troupe, an orchestra and a band; many of them painted, studying the Dutch masters; they had their own school for children and a lecture series for adults. Once in Florida, they studied and experimented with horticulture, crucial knowledge for coaxing plants from the sandy soil.
The Koreshans were fairly technologically advanced, too. Their newspaper, The American Eagle, for instance, was printed on book-quality paper rather than newspaper stock, and their typography was more advanced than that of any of Florida’s metro newspapers. All of the type was hand set, and the craftsmanship was masterful. The front page was in color.
The settlement was alive with work during the day and entertainment at night. In the evenings, the Koreshans gathered in the dining hall to listen to music on the phonograph. One of the women had brought a collection of 200 records into the Unity. They played cards and sometimes they danced. The women paired up for polka, two-step, and waltz, and the men joined in for the Virginia Reel or square dancing.
Every Sunday at eleven A.M., the Koreshans held a worship service. If Teed was not traveling, which he often was, he gave a sermon, which was never less than two hours long. He interpreted Bible verse and lectured on his divine science. The worship service was much like Protestant church services, with hymns, prayers, litany, solos, and the sermon. One member (a former Methodist) described a meeting as a Methodist prayer meeting except that “the Lord God Almighty’s name was left out and another one substituted” (Andrews, Virginia January 1, 1892 through March 31, 1893: January 15, 1893).
In Estero, the services were held in the dining hall until the Koreshans completed their Art Hall, where, in addition to worship services, they had theatrical performances and musical entertainment. At formal services at the Art Hall, the leaders of the Unity sat on the stage on platforms of varied elevations with Teed and Victoria on the highest level.
At meals, there were assigned tables, and before each meal, the Koreshans sang a hymn and prayed to the mother-father God.
There were two major festivals each year: the Solar Festival in October, to celebrate Teed’s birthday, and the Lunar Festival each April, to celebrate Victoria Gratia’s birthday. These events included formal ceremonies with speeches, readings, singing, music from the band or orchestra, and drama productions. Souvenir programs were printed in color on their own printing presses.
Teed was the leader of the community. He considered Victoria Gratia his divine counterpart, or “Pre-Eminent,” the woman that the angel in his illumination had promised would walk beside him.
Women and men were housed in separate quarters, as were the children, who were cared for by the entire community. Many followers brought their children with them when they joined. Teed discouraged the “family tie” (showing favor to biological families) and instructed his followers to show equal love to all members. The Koreshan men and women addressed each other as “brother” and “sister,” and they called Teed their Master.
Teed appointed three women as “The Triangle” (Victoria, Berthaldine Boomer, and Mary Mills) and they were to make decisions in Teed’s absence. He also created “The Planetary Group,” seven leading women in the community who were to serve as Victoria’s “cabinet. These sisters were said to manage the affairs of the community, though it’s possible that their positions were more ceremonial than anything. Evidence shows that Victoria, Teed’s sister Emma, and a man named George Hunt were the ones who made most of the practical decisions.
Sally Kitch, in her book Chaste Liberation, includes a discussion of the role of women in the Koreshan Unity, noting that the womendid do some nontraditional work (as store managers, engineers, printers, etc.), but that they were also responsible for the domestic work of the community (Kitch 1989:100). [Image at right] Children at the Koreshan school learned the usual subjects, along with trade skills, like beekeeping and surveying for the boys and sewing and baking for the girls. Many women gained what amounted to vocational training in such things as stenography and teaching. This was useful especially to those who later chose to leave the community. These skills allowed them to take care of themselves financially.
Teed invented many sub-organizations within the community whose functions are unclear. There was a “concilium,” which included him and Victoria; the Planetary Court women; the faculty of the Koreshan educational system; a Signet Chamber, made up of men and women; and an all-male Stellar Chamber. All of the people in these organizations were appointed by Teed, who cautioned his followers not to criticize the appointments, as they were made from the throne of Almighty God, with Teed as the Messenger.
The Society Arch-Triumphant, run by Victoria, was a secular group open to anyone who was willing to practice sobriety, chastity, and brotherly love, and to pay a two-dollar membership fee. The society was the face of the organization, the group an outsider joined as the first step toward Koreshanity. To recruit members and introduce the society to the public, the Koreshans held a reception at Chicago’s Sherman House in 1887. Three-hundred people attended.
To attract followers, the Koreshans preached on the streets of Chicago and handed out pamphlets; [Image at right] Teed gaveregular lectures at Central Music Hall, Weber Hall, the Lanyon Opera House, and other Chicago venues. He travelled frequently, lecturing in Massachusetts, Oregon, Ohio, California, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and New York.
Once the Koreshans were in Estero, Teed continued to travel and lecture in order to recruit followers. The community also used the mails, sending their literature far and wide. In the 1900s, the Koreshans presented their doctrines at expositions, including the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, and the Florida Mid-Winter International Exposition in 1908. There is evidence that they hoped to be included in the World’s Parliament of Religions at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, but this didn’t come to pass.
Only the innermost order of Koreshans was celibate; these followers lived in the settlement and were promised immortality because they broke the family tie, lived separately from their spouses, redirected their sexual potency, and focused all of their love on their Master. People of all religions were welcome to join, but were expected to follow the tenets of Koreshanity. People of all races were also welcome, though there is no evidence of any non-Caucasian followers.
There was an outer, cooperative order, whose members were not required to be celibate. They could work for the Unity and share in resources if they surrendered their own possessions.
A prospectus published in 1907 detailed how the business side of the Koreshan cooperative worked: All income went into a common treasury that paid the expenses. A person who came into the Unity with money would buy shares in the corporation and be provided with what he needed to operate in his chosen industry. For example, someone who wished to set up a fishing operation would buy shares, and the Unity provided him with boats, nets, and tools (along with everything he needed to live, including food, clothing, a place to stay, and an education for his children). The proceeds from his fishing would go into the Unity, and the member would collect dividends based on the Unity’s overall success (“Koreshan Unity Co-operative. The Solution of Industrial Problems” 1907).
If someone without money wanted to join the cooperative, he would be given stock and then work to “earn” that stock until he was on an equal basis with someone who had come in with money. People could also purchase shares in the organization with land rather than cash; the Koreshans would take over the property and sell it on his behalf, or manage it, if the person wished to stay on the land.
The 1907 prospectus did not detail the Koreshans’ religious beliefs. Instead, it outlined the social, industrial, and commercial activities. They accepted Methodists, Baptists, Catholics, Presbyterians, or people who had no religious beliefs. Joining the cooperative was open to anyone seeking to better themselves, it said.
It’s telling that an 1895 publication did promote the religious beliefs and the fact that the Koreshans were developing a holy city in Estero. In the 1907 prospectus, the only indication of the religious component of Koreshanity was at the very back of the pamphlet, past photographs of shells, the pineapple shed, the hunters’ camp, mounted fish and birds, a map of Estero, and subscription information for the American Eagle. There were two pages that would have puzzled someone who had never heard of the Unity. These explained that Koreshanity had several orders, from the external cooperative order to the central order of the church. “The Door of entrance into our Homes and Orders is through the Society Arch-Triumphant.” (“Koreshan Unity Co-operative. The Solution of Industrial Problems” 1907).
The Koreshans’ most obvious challenge was that their prophet died. Teed was the only person who could reveal all of the mysteries of the universe and bring about their immortality. Upon his death, there was no successor. Victoria, the obvious one, deserted them soon after Teed’s death. There were no new members, save Michel, and it’s not clear whether she was a believer. Without Teed, Koreshanity couldn’t survive. As the years passed and he didn’t return, the number of followers dwindled, the remaining believers aged, and the community, in a spiritual crisis, dissolved.
But the group made enormous achievements while Teed was alive. They answered the question of whether it was still possible to create a physical utopia when the notion of utopia was waning. Could separateness be achieved from a practical standpoint? Was that separateness tenable? They answered these questions with a resounding “yes.” More than many societies, the Koreshans achieved their desired isolation through tenacious work against great odds. Part of the reason they were able to do it was that they believed in a leader who told them there was a divine reason for each of their challenges. Belief fueled their determination.
Many of their challenges were mundane and practical, as opposed to spiritual. For instance, in Chicago, [Image at right] they were sometimes without heat. On their second Thanksgiving at College Place, one follower remembered, they shivered in their coats inside unheated rooms (Andrews, Allen n.d.:10-11). On a few occasions, they were threatened with eviction for falling behind on the rent. Their printing press was nearly seized by a landlord trying to collect. Throughout the life of the community, the Koreshans were hassled by creditors.
The money troubles in Chicago were certainly made worse by a financial panic that swept the nation in 1893. The Koreshans were evicted from Sunlight Flats and moved to another suburb, where, again, neighbors kept close watch. The newspapers reported that there were as many as 20 Koreshan children in the new place, “bareheaded and barelegged. . . . Their brown legs and feet showed an unfamiliarity with shoes that was evidently permanent.” They survived on cornmeal mush and milk, the paper reported (“Provides an Annex” 1893).
In Florida, building a settlement was an enormous challenge. Many of the followers were city folk, and southwest Florida was an inhospitable place. The group fought mosquitoes and other insects, wild animals, fires, and freezes. At times, they went without adequate food. Their first attempt at digging water wells was a disaster. Because the wells were too shallow, the followers suffered a bout of typhoid and a couple of the children died. Dental and medical care was scarce.
When Teed had money, he spent it. When he didn’t, he thought nothing of running up credit. Teed’s spendthrift ways mystified and likely frustrated many followers. But there’s evidence that the followers trusted that even Teed’s spending had a divine purpose. They believed Teed kept the society in debt so that the followers would rise to the challenge of one day surmounting it.
Business and financial trouble seemed more of an inconvenience for Teed than a cause for alarm. “The Master betrayed no concern whatsoever over the needs of the morrow,” a follower wrote (Rahn, “Henry D. Silverfriend told me”).
The media insinuated that the Koreshans practiced free love, that Teed was a thief and a womanizer who had lured wives away from their husbands. In Chicago, citizens, led by angry husbands, wanted him out of the city. He was anything but holy and they didn’t want him in their midst. They threatened to lynch him. They sent hate letters and death threats. Koreshan men were once pelted with eggs when they preached on the street in Chicago. These threats were one of the reasons they had left Chicago for southwest Florida, hoping to live in peace.
Teed’s reacted to the stories by saying that ridicule was a positive sign and that the more the press “pressed” him, the more valid Koreshanity looked. He referred to the coverage as advertising, or, when it suited him, persecution. Both were good for the cause, he said repeatedly. Christ, after all, had been misunderstood and persecuted, as had many prophets throughout history.
Similarly, the attacks and threats from husbands and citizens had a role in the Koreshan story, according to Teed. He had predicted that he would be murdered and translated to heaven during the Chicago World’s Fair, ushering in the new age. His attack would come at the hands of a mob of Christians, he said.
There were defectors, members who became disenchanted and left the community and, in some cases, complained loudly in the media, accusing Teed of improprieties and claiming that there was not enough food to eat. Many people who had come into the community as children decided to leave and start new lives. Teed was often angry with defectors and the lies they told, but dismissed them as trouble-makers whom the community would be better off without.
Teed was unconcerned by practical matters, except for one: many followers did not respect Victoria. The women especially disliked and resented her, and they constantly squabbled. Two or three women in the community resented what they saw as favoritism. Teed had promised each of them, they claimed, that they would be his Minerva.
Teed felt that the women didn’t understand how important Victoria was. Throughout his life, Teed spent considerable energy enforcing Victoria’s importance. In the Koreshan archives are multiple copies of a tribute he issued on one of her birthdays, emphasizing that she should be followed. Some of the copies are studied and underlined; on one is an angry marginal note about someone who refused to follow Victoria. On one occasion, Teed was traveling in Denver when he sent a letter to the women of the Unity saying that Victoria was unhappy, and it was their duty to stop their fighting and honor her.
“I have left in your charge a very tender plant to be cherished and nourished for the kingdom of heaven’s sake; are you causing her to feel . . . that she is the apple of your eye, the hope of your empire? If not, then at once amend your purposes” (Teed 1896). He indicated that disaster would befall the Unity if the women didn’t come together to make Victoria happy.
The ongoing controversy surrounding Victoria’s leadership and her decision to leave the community soon after Teed’s death created a leadership vacuum from which the group was unable to recover. As is the case for many new groups through history, one of the most common factors in their demise has been the passing of the prophetic founder and the absence of a plan for leadership continuity. This is evident in Koreshan history. The Koreshans remind us of the power of charismatic leadership and the faith of followers in both creating and preserving alternative communities.
Image #1: Cyrus Teed, the founder of Koreshanity, had built a following in Chicago by the time this picture was taken, between 1888 and 1890. Isaac Uriah Doust, State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, 255240.|
Image #2: Cyrus Teed’s breakout speech in 1886 was about the brain’s power to heal. This lecture ticket from 1903 shows that the topic had staying power, perhaps due to Mary Baker Eddy’s successful Christian Science movement. Note that Teed limited his critics to five minutes. Koreshan Unity Papers (record group 900000, collection N2009-3, box 319, folder 17), State Archives of Florida, Tallahassee.
Image #3: Victoria Gratia (Annie Ordway) was the female head of the Unity. Teed believed that when he became divine he would flow into her body, and they would become a mother-father god. He commanded that the followers give her a happy life. Pictured between 1903 and 1909. Photograph by Alfred Edward Rinehart, reproduced by State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, 256286.
Image #4: This rare panorama of the community, taken in the early 1900s, shows the general store (far right), Damkohler’s cottage behind the store, the three-story dining hall (tallest), and the Founder’s House in front of the hall. Courtesy of the Koreshan Collection at FGCU Library Archives, Special Collections, & Digital Initiatives.
Image #5: The Koreshans believed the earth is hollow and that we live inside, with the continents along the inner, concave shell. The large ball represents three concentric atmospheres. The sun, not directly visible, has a light half and a dark half. It gyrates in the center of the universe, causing day and night.
Credit: MATTYMOO101 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Image #6: A team of Koreshans poses beside their “geodetic rectilineator,” which they used on Naples Beach in 1897 to prove to their satisfaction that the earth is concave. Koreshan Unity Papers (record group 900000, collection N2009-3, box 16, folder 1), State Archives of Florida, Tallahassee.
Image #7: Koreshan students and teachers pose outside the schoolhouse in Estero between 1909 and 1924. Girls and boys were separated. Both studied reading, writing, and arithmetic. In addition, the girls learned sewing, baking, printing, and dressmaking, while the boys learned agriculture, beekeeping, and boatbuilding. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, 256836.
Image #8: Chicago’s Forgotten Prophet : This interactive map of Chicago shows where Cyrus Teed and the Koreshans lived and worked. This map is copyrighted by Lyn Millner and used by WRSP with her permission. All rights reserved. https://uploads.knightlab.com/storymapjs/80ec7ff3e6d65a45894fdbc5201bdfd3/cyrus-teed-and-koreshans-chicago/index.html
Image #9: Cyrus Teed stands in front of the Koreshans’ Chicago mansion in 1898. Only eighteen Koreshans were allowed to move in at first, while the rest, including most of the children, lived in a cramped building with periodic water and heating outages. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, 257677.
Andrews, Allen H. n.d. Untitled memoir. Unpublished manuscript. Adobe portable document file. Koreshan Collection. Florida Gulf Coast University Library Archives, Special Collections, and Digital Initiatives, Fort Myers, Florida.
Andrews, Virginia Harmon. January 1, 1892 through March 31, 1893. “3rd Volume of Annals of the Koreshan Home, Chicago, Ill., commencing January 1, 1892.” Unpublished journal. Adobe portable document file. Koreshan Unity Papers. State Archives of Florida, Florida Department of State, Tallahassee.
Carlyle, Thomas, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. 2004. The Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1834 to 1872 . Volume 1. Edited by Charles Eliot Norton. Project Gutenberg. Accessed from http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/13583/pg13583.txt on 1 January 2017.
Carmer, Carl. 1965. “The Great Alchemist at Utica.” Pp. 260-90 in Dark Trees to the Wind: A Cycle of York State Years, 1949. Reprint New York: David McCay.
The Flaming Sword. 1889 to 1948. Chicago and Estero, FL: Guiding Star Publishing House. Digital Collections, Hamilton College Library, Clinton, NY. Accessed from http://elib.hamilton.edu/koreshan-unity on 3 January 2017.
The Guiding Star. 1886 to 1889. Chicago: Guiding Star Publishing House. Digital Collections, Hamilton College Library, Clinton, NY. Accessed from http://elib.hamilton.edu/koreshan-unity on 3 January 2017.
Kitch, Sally L. 1989. Chaste Liberation: Celibacy and Female Cultural Status. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
“Koreshan Unity: Communistic and Co-operative Gathering of the People.” 1895. Chicago: Guiding Star. Accessed from http://koreshan.mwweb.org/virtual_exhibit/vex3/503AE382-43C3-4255-BF33-232630554942.htm on 1 January 2017.
“Koreshan Unity Co-operative. The Solution of Industrial Problems.” 1907. Estero, FL: Guiding Star. Accessed from http://koreshan.mwweb.org/virtual_exhibit/vex3/525E80CA-5BF8-4112-957A-756120193210.htm on 1 January 2017.
Jones, Ernest, MD. 1923. “The God Complex.” Pp. 204-26 in Essays in Applied Psycho-Analysis. London: International Psycho-Analytical Press. Accessed from https://archive.org/details/EssaysOnAppliedPsycho-analysis on 1 January 2017.
Landing, James E. 1997. “Cyrus Reed Teed and the Koreshan Unity.” Pp. 375-95 in America’s Communal Utopias, edited by Donald E. Pitzer. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Millner, Lyn. 2015. The Allure of Immortality: An American Cult, a Florida Swamp, and a Renegade Prophet. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
“Provides an Annex: Dr. Teed Conducts a Children’s Branch to His ‘Heaven’.” 1893. Chicago Tribune, July 17.
Rahn, Claude. 1963. “A Brief Outline of the Life of Dr. Cyrus Teed (Koresh) and of the Koreshan Unity.” Unpublished manuscript. Adobe portable document file. Accessed from http://koreshan.mwweb.org/virtual_exhibit/vex3/a%20brief%20outline%20of%20cyrus%20teed_by%20claude%20rahn.pdf on 1 January 2017.
Rahn, Claude. July 1933. “Henry D. Silverfriend told me.” Unpublished page. Box 2, folder: “Cyrus Teed.” Koreshan Collection. Florida Gulf Coast University Library Archives, Special Collections, and Digital Initiatives, Fort Myers, FL.
Sinclair, Upton. 1946. The Jungle. Reprint. Cambridge, MA: R. Bentley.
Teed, Cyrus. [Koresh, pseud.]. 1909. The Immortal Manhood. Second Edition. Estero, FL: Guiding Star.
Teed, Cyrus. 1896. “My Dear Daughters of Zion in Jerusalem.” Letter, June 27. Koreshan Unity Papers. State Archives of Florida, Florida Department of State, Tallahassee.
Teed, Cyrus. n.d. The Illumination of Koresh: Marvelous Experience of the Great Alchemist Thirty Years Ago, at Utica, N.Y. Chicago: Guiding Star. Accessed from http://koreshan.mwweb.org/virtual_exhibit/vex3/illumination%20of%20koresh%20(2).pdf on 1 January 2017.
7 July 2016