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March 2014 – More from the Dark Side:

In the October 2012 Posting, we featured an article about what we termed, the “Dark Side”, that is, some of the sideshows that went on in or around the Koreshan Unity. We’ve also mentioned previously that there were any number of people, groups and beliefs that attempted to subvert, take over or change the Koreshan Unity, it’s leadership and beliefs. There was a core of Koreshan followers, mainly the Bubbetts, Rahns, Hunts, Andrews and others who hung on to most of the original beliefs making sure that these rivals would never get a foot hold.

That October 2012 article talked about one “Edgar Peissart”. More information about Edgar has come to light and we want to share that information along with information about other communal groups. I hope to show that although the Koreshans were one of the leading communal groups of the 19th and 20th century, there were many many others with beliefs similar to those of the Koreshans. One such group was the Panacea Society. They were similar to the Koreshans in that their leader claimed to be the Messiah. In this case, it was a woman, named Mabel Baltrop, also known as “Octavia”. They believed that she was the daughter of God, sent to build the New Jerusalem. In addition, they preached a celibacy. Sound familiar?

The point here is not to explore the Panaceans, or Octavia, but to discuss the escapades of Edgar Peissart, the one-time Koreshan and member of many other communal groups. In 2011, a book was published about Octavia, entitled Octavia, Daughter of God: The Story of a Female Messiah and Her Followers by Jane Shaw.

Here are some excerpts from the book with reagrd to Edgar Peissart.

… Edgar Peissart continued to write to several of the central women of the Society. In January 1921, he wrote to Ellen Oliver asking where his Royal Seal was and why he had had no reply from Octavia about his request to come and live in the community. repeating that he had indeed accepted her call. Never one to take a hint, or indeed accept a bald truth, he asked plaintively, ‘What is the matter?’ The answer, drafted by Octavia the following month (they did not rush to reply), stated, ‘the reason we have never sent you a seal is that it would be impossible to anyone who makes the claims that you make. He believed Octavia’s status as the daughter of God, but his own claim to be a messiah figure went alongside it. and the women could not accept this. They made it clear that they followed Jesus Christ, ‘the immortal man’ who ‘has a body’ that ‘can walk on water, pass through doors’ and is ‘Father, Husband, Brother, Friend’. They had no need of another divine man. ‘Therefore it would be no kindness to you to allow you to ally yourself with women who are pledged by an act of homage and a most solemn oath‘ to Jesus Christ. Edgar was told firmly to endeavor to overcome his deluded claims and ‘come face to face with yourself as a man’.‘ Edgar Peissart was a religious seeker, mixing ideas from many different belief systems. His life was a perpetual quest for the truth and thus a perpetual disappointment as his attempts to find it — or explain what he thought it was to others — were frustrated. His itinerant religiosity was remarkable. If any one person could find and attempt to join most of the marginalized Christian communities and heterodox religious groups of his time, then Edgar Peissart was that man. Over three decades, he lived all over America as he went about the religious quest that in 1922 brought him to the Panaceans in Bedford. External evidence of his movements shows him popping up in at least four different religious communities in the last decade of the nineteenth century and first decade of the twentieth, while notes that Octavia made indicate his membership of yet others. He was born in Pennsylvania. and his first recorded membership in a church is in that state in a Mennonite church in Milford Township, Lehigh County, in Pennsylvania, for a year: he joined in July 1893 and withdrew in 1894.’ Octavia’s notes suggest that he then became a Russellite — a follower of Charles Taze Russell, whose group was a precursor to the Jehovah’s Witnesses; in 1896, a member of the River Brethren in Pennsylvania, a Mennonite offshoot; and in 1898, one of ‘John Wroe’s people’, as Octavia put it: the Christian Israelites. He next appears in any external records as a part of the House of David, a Southcottian community in Benton Harbor. Michigan, that had developed out of the Christian Israelites in 1903-4, which also believed they had Shiloh incarnated in their leaders, Mary and Benjamin Purnell. He joined in March 1903, early in the community’s history, and stayed there for five years. While there, he was ‘man milliner’ to ‘hundreds of their females!!!!’ as he put it. The Benjamin and Mary community set up an extraordinary tourist resort in their grounds, to which thousands of visitors and holidaymakers thronged, arriving by boat across Lake Michigan or on the train from Chicago to the funfairs, cafés, concerts, baseball games (they had a famous team), jazz concerts and miniature railways. Early in the days of that resort’s development, Edgar worked as a cashier at the ice-cream parlors, restaurants and miniature railroads. and was head of their greenhouses where, he boasted. he grew thousands of different geraniums. He was one of the people sent to New York in 1905 to greet a group of Christian Israelites arriving from Australia, led by William Bulley, on behalf of the Benton Harbor House of David. In his typically self-aggrandizing style, Peissart claimed he was ‘the means used by Jesus. to cause William Bulley, an old man, and 83 souls, to leave Australia on a seven weeks sea voyage, via Palestine, for New York City, where Mr Peissart and the Manager of the Colony awaited them, with a special train, to go about three more days journey to Michigan.’ The Australians brought $100,000 with them, for the House of David, and Peissart implicitly claimed responsibility for that wind-fall, as well as attracting many others to the colony.’ His personal style was remarked on by others: Joseph Hannaford, an Englishman who went to be a member of the Benton Harbor House of David community in 1905, alluded to Edgar Peissart’s flamboyancy when he described someones dramatic gesture as ‘a la Peissart’. …Edgar’s next move was to the Koreshan Unity community on the banks of the River Estero near Fort Myers, Florida. When he arrived there he had the trademark long hair and beard of the Christian lsraelites, and was remembered by members of the Koreshan community as a bit of an ‘oddball’. This community had moved to Estero in Florida in the last decade of the nineteenth century, having formerly been in Chicago. lts leader, Dr Cyrus Teed. known as Koresh (the Hebrew title of the biblical King Cyrus), in a syncretistic style that was typical of the late nineteenth century, mixed Christian, quasi-Hindu and scientific beliefs, teaching that the world was hollow and the human race was living in it. At its height. between 1904 and 1908. the community had about 250 members. as well as homes for the members, a community dining hall. a sawmill, a printing house. concrete works, post office, general store and bakery. Edgar next appears attempting to join the Florida Shaker group, near Ashton in Osceola County. which had been established in the area in 1894. He declared that he was in sympathy with the Shakers, but they found him quite unsuitable. Shaker Ezra J. Stewart wrote in May I911, ‘As a result of an interview with the elders here . . . [it was thought best] that Edgar should depart [for Estero] next morning by train . . . as his views were found to be quite different from ours . . . He evidently hoped to set up a little kingdom here with himself as leader. [He] wears finger rings, and has much distaste for work, although fairly strong and in good health’.

… Cyrus Teed, the Koreshan leader. like the Shakers. taught the inner circle of followers that their celibacy would lead them to immortality and certainly claimed immortal life for himself, and Octavia likewise advocated singleness and celibacy as the best way forward on the road to immortality. All three groups taught that God was both male and female, and that both male and female elements of the divine needed to be manifested on earth. Teed differed from Ann Lee of the Shakers and Octavia in that he also taught regeneration (or reincarnation) and he believed that God had sent six messengers to earth (Adam, Enoch, Noah, Moses, Elijah and Jesus); he – Koresh — was the seventh. Cyrus Teed died on 22 December 1908. and was not raised on the third day (Christmas Day) as he had told his followers would happen. The community kept Cyrus propped up in a bathtub, with high hopes that he would be resurrected or regenerated. but finally on 27 December the county health officer ordered the body to be taken away and buried. Edgar, who had arrived at Estero just in time to know Teed for a month before he died, believed that Teed’s spirit had passed into him on Teed’s deathbed. He wrote that Teed ‘consciously passed over to me, all the Spirits of the new Jerusalem’ whom he had gathered into his bosom. Edgar believed that these spirits were now the inspiration of his teaching. ‘full of wisdom because they possessed the kingdom of God within’.“ He took to calling himself Cyrus or Koresh and had a flyer made up in which his own picture was superimposed on Cyrus Teed’s, as Teed’s receded into the background. He also made similar claims about the Shakers’ leader Ann Lee, suggesting that he was the true heir to her leadership, and made up posters to the effect, titled ‘Projection of the Mother Lord Ann Lee’. Mother Ann Lee had been long dead; the Shakers were having none of it; and they saw through him. But the period just after the charismatic leader of a group dies is a vulnerable one: it often fractures, with individuals claiming to take on the dead leader’s authority. This is exactly what happened with the Koreshans.“ Edgar Peissart was leader of one of the splinter groups. and spent his time corresponding with various members — he had long, annotated typed lists of people he thought sympathetic to his cause — who might support his claims to have inherited the spirit and leadership of Dr Teed. He wrote theological tracts in which he presented his claim to be the ‘Son of Man’ or the ‘second cherub’, and published a newsletter called the Messenger in which he detailed the treacherous antics of other Koreshans. It is no surprise that once he had established himself in the Panacea Society. he made a bid for power there too. A picture emerges of a man who went from community to community, seeking not only truth but also power, disgruntled and dissatisfied when people did not recognize him and his gifts, but not above returning to a community he had rejected if he saw a further opportunity to get into the leadership. ((1))

It is no surprise that people like Edgar Peissart tried to claim Teed’s mantle, as many did, but it is a surprise to read of this kind of account of one of those claimants. Reading Koreshan literature after Teed’s death, one would have never known about these kind of people. The Harry Manleys, Edgar Peissarts, and others like them ended up making little impact upon the Unity, although they did draw away some of the wayward.

Edgar was eventually drummed out of the Panacea Society as well. His eventual fate is unknown.

  1. Excerpts from: Octavia, Daughter of God: The Story of a Female Messiah and Her Followers Yale University Press, 2011 []

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