Occult America: white house séances, Ouija circles, masons, and the secret mystic history of our nation by Mitch Horowitz (2009, Bantam)
The best praise I can give Occult America by Mitch Horowitz is that it’s a difficult book to put down. The author does such an excellent job of documenting the mystical side of America that he brings to life areas I never thought about until reading this book. He views the mystical currents, which bubbled through the early American republic, very conducive to all manner of non-conventional thinkers who paved the way for the spiritual cornucopia we enjoy today. But if you want a book about men in black robes trying to summon Beelzebub, you best look elsewhere.
At the dawn of this millennia, most people who identified as being new age identifies with these principles:
“1) Belief in the therapeutic value of spiritual or religious ideas.
2) Belief in a mind–body connection in health.
3) Belief that human consciousness is evolving to higher stages.
4) Belief that thoughts, in some greater or lesser measure, determine reality
5) Belief that spiritual understanding is available without allegiance to a specific religion or doctrine”
The book begins with Horowitz’s encounter as a kid with horoscope machines, which were ubiquitous in restaurants all across America. He dropped a coin in one and had a scroll delivered to him about the future. A little investigation reveals that these machines were built by a salesman in 1935 that went by the name of Zolar. His real name was Bruce King and he was able to become one of the most popular astrologers in the United States by 1959. Shoot, I even remember one of his books in the library where I grew up.
Occult America takes us to the ‘burnt-over” district in upstate New York. It’s hard to believe, but this area was home to the Second Great Awakening and featured more itinerant preachers than can be imagined. The same area gave birth to the polygamist Oneida Commune (now a tableware company); Joseph Smith’s golden tablets and was home to many Shaker communities. What linked many of these groups together was their desire to create positive social change through inner perfection.
After a discussion of the Freemasons, the books spends quite a bit of paper on Spiritualism. Before and after the civil war, this religious movement spread throughout the land and taught that ordinary people could communicate with dead loved ones by table rapping, word board’s, etc. There is even a rumor that Abe Lincoln held a séance in the white house, but wasn’t impressed by the results.
Horwitz discusses the role of the seer Andrew Jackson Davis in the rise and fall of this movement. As with everything else, these movements never go away. I was at a bar recently and overheard someone talking about a séance party where, for a small fee, you could bring a picture of a departed loved one and have the medium make contact (could be profitable if you had a relative who died and never let anyone know where their money was kept).
James Olcott was a civil war general who, with Madam Helena Blavatsky promoted her Theosophy movement through America. It was very popular around the turn of the last century and many cities still have large Theosophy halls. It even influenced the formation of the Liberal Catholic Church and Co-Masonry.
The Ouija talking board is another distinctly American invention. Patented by an attorney from Baltimore in 1890, it became one of the biggest game board sellers in history. Horowitz shows there is plenty of evidence the board was around in one form or another before it was patented.
He delves into New Thought Christianity next and shows it was influenced by Spiritualism, Mesmerism and Theosophy. This was a very powerful strain of social gospel Christianity that was popular among Liberal congregations into this century. Its most prominent screed was The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peel. One part of this school of thought was Psychaina, a course that people could purchase through the mail. It was designed by a salesman, Frank B Robinson, who sold it through advertisements in magazines and newspapers. However, it never survived its founder and is largely forgotten these days.
Horowitz even spends a few chapters to talk about Black American mystical practices. Although Hoodoo, or root working, is an honored tradition, I didn’t know that Frederick Douglas’s encounter with a Hoodoo man inspired him to stand up to a slave master. He discusses Black Herman, a famous stage magician with a townhouse in Harlem as well as Marcus Garvey.
Many chapters are spent on Manly Hall, who created his masterful The Secret Teachings of All Ages from endless visits to the public library. The book became an underground best seller and is still in print.
There is a section on politics and the occult, always a dangerous combination. Henry Wallace, one of FDR’s vice-presidents was very influenced by Theosophy, which came back to bite him when his political enemies leaked some of his “Dear Guru” letters to the press.
William Dudley Pelley, a Hollywood screenwriter, had a near-death experience and created his own mystical order. He turned it into the fascist Silver Shirts in the 1930’s and was rounded up at the start of World War 2. After the war, he went back to “soul crafting”.
The book rounds out toward the end with Barid T Spaulding’s Unity movement.
“Spalding was, in fact, a Western mining prospector with an uncanny knack for reciting dead-to-rights details about people and places that all reasonable deduction precluded his having ever encountered. He likewise possessed the ability to speak movingly on spiritual systems—Hinduism, Buddhism, and ancient forms of mysticism—with which he had little direct contact. Spalding spent most of his time laboring as a solitary claims prospector. And while his mining ventures left him broke, his first Far East narrative—which the miner initially called The Book of Gold—attracted and thrilled readers, as did the enigma of the man himself, from the time when his manuscripts began privately circulating in the early 1920s to the day of his lonely death on the morning of March 18, 1953, at a Tempe, Arizona, motor inn.”
The book is so well constructed that as soon as you are reeling from this section, the author hits you with the story of Paul Foster Case and his Builders of the Adytum. A stage magician by training, Case created the whole interest in Tarot cards in America.
“Every artist dreams of a magnum opus, and in 1947 Case completed his. Building on his lessons and pamphlets, he published a book with a Freemasonic press in Virginia, called simply The Tarot. The sum of his life’s work, The Tarot rendered public many of the Golden Dawn’s most closely held ideas, along with Case’s own psychological insights and mapping of correspondences among mythical symbols. The book explored Tarot’s theoretical connections to Hebrew letters, natural elements, musical tones, astrological aspects, Scriptural passages, ancient myths, numbers, colors, and even ethical philosophies. While its ideas are sometimes speculative and self-referencing, Case’s opus is notable for the concision with which it attempts a complete cross-collating of world religious concepts. It shows a consistent internal theology and probably stands as the single highest expression of the various philosophies that emerged from the European occult revival. The book has never fallen out of print, and in the early twenty-first century it appeared for the first time in paperback with a trade publisher.”
The book concludes with a discussion of Edgar Cayce, the sleeping prophet. The little seer of Kentucky would go into a trance and channel advice to people who sent him their problems by mail. He charged a modest fee, but waved it if a person couldn’t pay.
Occult America is a fun read and a book which makes The Hidden Masters as American as golden apple pie.