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"He was the forerunner of today's New Age." -- John Oliphant, biographer
British Columbia's most fantastic cult leader, known to his followers as the Brother, XII, Edward Arthur Wilson was a theosophical leader who operated a spiritual community on southern Vancouver Island in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The financial and sexual scandals that arose from his Aquarian Foundation settlement have led to comparisons with Rasputin, scientologist L. Ron Hubbard and Jamestown fanatic Jim Jones. Wilson has been more fairly dubbed Canada's False Messiah or False Prophet.
Initially Wilson was respected as "a little brown leaf of a man with mesmeric eyes, a large heart and a rare spirit" (according to Vancouver lawyer Edward Lucas), but he became increasingly paranoic and self-delusionary, fraudulently terrorizing his followers with a paramour named Madame Zee who notoriously intimidated his colony members with her riding crop. Various articles and newspaper reports have referred to "Brother Twelve" over the years, including Howard O'Hagan's 'The Weird and Savage Cult of Brother 12' in Maclean's magazine, and Jack Hodgins' first novel The Invention of the World provides a comic spin-off loosely inspired by Wilson, but by far the most in-depth study of The Brother, XII was conducted by John Oliphant of Vancouver. As well, Pearl Luke of Salt Spring Island has written an almost entirely fictionalized portrait of his mistress entitled Madame Zee.
Early biographical details are sketchy. 'Captain' Edward Arthur Wilson could have been born in Birmingham, England in 1878. According to an unreliable biography by his purported brother Herbert Emmerson Wilson, he might have been born as early as 1871. There is no documentation. He claimed to be the son of an Indian princess, born in India. He was reared in England within the Catholic Apostolic Church whose congregration fervently awaited the Second Advent.
Wilson first came to Victoria, B.C. around 1910, first working as the driver of a delivery wagon. In his book called Foundations, Letters and Teachings, he claims to have undergone a mystical Ceremony of Dedication in 1912 that appointed him as a seeker and bringer of truth. He became interested in the occult and joined the Theosophical Society from January 6, 1913, remaining a member until June 30, 1918. In Victoria, Wilson also worked as a clerk in the Dominion Express office on Government Street, handling the Wells Fargo account, until he requested an exhorbitant pay increase to match the salary of the President of the Canadian Pacific Railway. He left Victoria in 1914.
Wilson supposedly apprenticed as a Royal Navy windjammer and earned his living as a merchant mariner until the 1920s. Abandoning his wife and children, he claimed to have heard the voice of an Egyptian diety while he was destitute in southern France. There, in 1924, he underwent a second Ceremony of Dedication. Almost one year later, in Genoa, Italy, by the process of 'automatic writing', he received the text for his book The Three Truths from a mystical master he called the Twelfth Brother of the Great White Lodge. His Master instructed him to adopt the moniker The Brother, XII. The Great White Lodge consisted of twelve groups around the globe who represented the twelve astrological houses. Wilson gained followers in England in 1926 by publishing a series of articles in The Occult Review in which he foretold Armageddon. In The Occult Review he debated spiritual issues with the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. His movement gained momentum with his publication of a pamphlet in 1926 called 'A Message from the Masters of The Wisdom'.
Heeding The Brother, XII's prophecies, a contingent of about twelve mostly wealthy and well-educated followers arrived on Vancouver Island with Wilson, via Southampton, in the spring of 1927. They set about hiring local workers to construct mostly expensive houses on 200 acres located a few miles south of Nanaimo, on the coast, with a view towards the DeCourcey and Valdes Islands. In order to have the privilege of living near their leader, followers were encouraged to surrender all their earthly possessions to him. One of the first dwellings built at Cedar-by-the-Sea, according to journalist B.A. McKelvie who visited in 1928, was the 'House of Mystery' into which only Wilson, The Brother, XII, was allowed to enter. By establishing his Aquarian Foundation, Wilson believed he was carrying forward the work of Madame H.P. Blavatsky, a founder of the Theosophical Society, and also welcoming the new age of Aquarius.
Over the next several years approximately 2,000 well-to-do and prominent American, British and Canadian enrolled in the movement and were enveigled to give substantial funds for the privilege of sitting beneath the Tree of Wisdom, a moss-draped maple tree, where the Brother, XII held court. One of the Governors on the board of the Aquarian Foundation, J.S. Benner, secretary-general of the Foundation for the eastern U.S., was the publisher of The Sun in Akron, Ohio. Wilson's elitist opinions were sometimes printed in various newspapers, including Vancouver dailies. Other supplicants included English occultist Sir Kenneth MacKenzie, millionaire organ manufacturer Maurice von Platten of Chicago, Toronto newsman George Hubbard and Saturday Evening Post writer Will Levengton Comfort. Wilson wrote to his other followers requesting funds to build a 'City of Refuge' at Cedar-at-the-Sea and many responded. One lawyer in Topeka, Kansas wired $10,000. But instead of building the City of Refuge at Cedar-by-the-Sea, Wilson took $25,000 from a rich widow in Asheville, North Carolina named Mary Connally and purchased 400 acres on nearby Valdes Island for his elite Mandieh Settlement. This would serve as an 'ashrama' or school of the occult.
Also in 1928, 'Brother Twelve' (as he's now commonly but incorrectly called) fielded his own candidate in the U.S. Presidential elections. That same year, six of the seven governors of the Foundation revolted against his rule, alleging theft of funds. They claimed that Wilson, president of the Foundation for life, had established Mandieh as a private venture. The cultists were also upset by Wilson's claim that he was destined to propagate the world's next great spiritual teacher with a young, beautiful wife of a wealthy physician, Myrtle Baumgartner, with whom he was conducting an affair. Wilson had met Mrs. Baumgartner on a train trip from Seattle to Chicago. When his followers failed to endorse his belief that he and Myrtle were reincarnations of the Egyptian gods Osiris and Isis, Wilson planned his alternate headquarters on Valdes Island partially to get away from the turmoil. On Valdes, he and Myrtle would raise the new World Teacher.
Wilson's followers commenced legal proceedings against Osiris, Judge of the Dead, Potentate of the Kingdom of Ghosts, etc., led by the Secretary of the Foundation, Robert England. In turn, Wilson counter-charged that England had embezzled $2,800. The case against Wilson was heard in Nanaimo by Magistrate Beevor-Potts for two months. Witnesses arrived to the high profile trial clutching magic stones to protect them from their leader's evil eye. Somehow Robert England disappeared within 24 hours of his scheduled testimony against Wilson. The case dissolved when the widow Connally arrived on the scene and declared her $25,000 or $30,000 (accounts vary) had been a personal gift to Wilson to "use as he thought fit". The jury was forced to return "no true bill", meaning Wilson was exonnerated. Most of the dissenters left Vancouver Island. Among the defectors was Comfort, the successful short story writer who had edited the Foundation newsletter, The Glass Hive, from April 1927 until he left in 1928. On November 15, 1929 the government took action against the Aquarian Foundation Company of Cedar and cancelled the charter of the company. A press release stated, "It is reported at the Attorney-General's office that some of the members of this strange sect are now establishing a new community on a nearby island. Their activities will be watched by the Government."
Wilson regrouped. Among his new followers was a wealthy poultry farmer from Florida, Roger Painter, who arrived with his wife, Mabel Skottowe, and contributed $90,000. Mrs. Connally lived on and off at the new settlement, contributing as much as $250,000 overall, according to one estimate. For $10,000, Wilson had purchased three small islands of the DeCourcey Group, planning to build his City of Refuge on two of them. Messianic as ever, Wilson planned a schoolhouse to foster a New Age elite. "We have a small school for the training of a few..." he wrote. "We have reason to believe that many advanced souls will be born into the world in the near future--some are already born and are now children of eight or nine or ten years of age. They are of the new type, spiritually and psychologically and our hope is to give them such training as is fitted to them. These children are (and will be) born to parents who are already serving the Cause." Unfortunately most of Wilson's monied servants of the Cause were past child-rearing age. When Myrtle, known disparagingly to some as the 'Magdalene from Chicago', suffered a second miscarriage, then a mental breakdown, Wilson blamed his followers for having insufficient sincerity. Myrtle fled back to New York state where her husband divorced her.
Unphased, Wilson coupled with Mabel Skottowe who also served as his secretary after her arrival in 1929. Born Mabel Rowbotham, a.k.a. Madame Zee, this new mistress proceeded to call down curses from heaven upon any Aquarians who displeased her. Wilson and the reputedly wrathful Madame Zee policed three settlements, each representing a different level of spiritual evolution. According to some reports, elderly followers worked 20-hour shifts in fields or were ordered to row alone across miles of dangerous waters. A 76-year-old former schoolteacher, Sarah Tuckett, attempted suicide after beatings and overwork. After the faithful Mrs. Connally attempted to retrieve some of her money in a 1929 lawsuit and failed, she was taken from her house and forced to live in an almost uninhabitable shack on Valdes Island, with Mrs. Painter appointed as her watchdog.
Wilson's increasingly tyrannical regime was designed to create a 'Centre of Safety' to protect an international conspiracy led by Jews, Roman Catholics and communists. By June, 1932, the Aquarians collectively rebelled and decided to continue without the Brother, XII, or Madame Zee, who was also called Auriel or Zura de Valdes. When Wilson and his consort returned from a trip to England in 1933, they banished 12 of 56 malcontents, including Mrs. Connally and the Painters. In the spring of 1993, Mrs. Connally and others sued. The courts quickly awarded Mrs. Connally $37,000 less $10,000 for her ownership of the DeCourcy Group of islands and Valdes Island. She remained on Valdes Island with a caretaker. Alfred Barley gained $14,000 and legal title to the property at Cedar.
Before they left, the Brother, XII and Madame Zee destroyed much of the furniture, equipment and a Foundation yacht called The Lady Royal. They sailed away on their own yacht, the Kunathen, allegedly carrying 40 quart jars full of gold coins and other funds worth approximately $400,000. They apparently reached Switzerland where Wilson, using the alias Julian Churton Skottowe, reputedly died in Neuchatel in 1934; or else his death certificate was faked. The fate of Madame Zee has remained a mystery. Possibly the couple lived happily ever after.
When Mrs. Connally left Valdes Island to live in a North Carolina nursing home in 1941, her caretaker, Sam Grunall, searched the property and found an old concrete vault. It contained some tarpaper and a scribbled message from Edward Arthur Wilson: "For fools and traitors, nothing!"
By Pearl Luke
Historians tend to remember Madame Zee as the whip-whacking mistress who cruelly enforced the whims of the Brother, XII. He founded the Aquarian Foundation, a failed utopian community which existed from 1926 to 1933 at Cedar by the Sea (located between Ladysmith and Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, and on the nearby islands of Valdes and DeCourcey. The failure of this colony inarguably had as much to do with the Brother as with Madame Zee, and yet his harmful and frequently ludicrous acts of violence and anger have been downplayed, and even forgiven, in a way hers have not been. Does this mean that historical accounts of Madame Zee have been coloured by the usual prejudices against strong and unconventional women?
I wondered. After all, Zee left her husband, shacked up with a tycoon from Florida, and became second in command to a notorious cult leader, all at a time when the general populace still argued over whether or not women should count as “qualified persons” under the British North America Act. My guess, when I wrote Madame Zee, was that Zee balanced the anger and frustration she so readily expressed with a great deal of genuine and annoying confidence, or worse, outright moxy. And while this may not have made her more appealing to historians, for a novelist accustomed to asking “why?” and “what if?” Madame Zee is a fascinating enigma.
Born Mabel Rowbotham, the facts of her life are scarce, yet she is impossible to dismiss. Her name alone raises questions. Add to that the usual sinister description: a tall, scrawny redhead with lips so thin they hardly made more than a gash across her face, and her alleged behaviour: how she lashed out like an angry dominatrix with her ever-present whip, or silenced men by out-cursing them. Given all that, perhaps it is understandable that most historical accounts approach Madame Zee with barely veiled derision rather than fondness. And yet, somehow, others remember her as a seductress, as a woman who knew how to get what she wanted from men, and occasionally from women as well. So who was she? What compelled me to write about her? And most importantly, how exactly is the fictional character I created different from the actual woman?
First, the facts as I know them. Biographer John Oliphant, author of Brother Twelve: The Incredible Story of Canada’s False Prophet and His Doomed Cult of Gold, Sex, and Black Magic, (McLelland & Stewart, 1991), informs us that “Madame Zee” is the name taken by Edith Mabel Rowbotham, originally from Lancashire, England. Born in 1890, she immigrated to Canada with her parents, after her father bought farmland near Lemsford, Saskatchewan. Oliphant doesn’t pinpoint the year or Mabel’s age, but he tells us that she taught school in more than eight rural towns and villages after her arrival in Canada, and that she married John Skottowe, manager of the Lancer Union Bank, on New Year’s Day in 1918 (238).
Ron MacIsaac, in his book The Devil of DeCourcey Island: The Brother XII, (Press Porcépic, 1989) coauthored with Don Clark and Charles Lillard, provides further information in the form of a letter that suggests Mabel came to Canada in 1912, when she was twenty-two. This version has her teaching only until 1915, when she marries Skottowe (103). Either way, Mabel Rowbotham came to Canada with her parents, taught for a few years, and married. Three or four years later, when Skottowe lost his job at the bank because of fraudulent loans, the couple moved to Seattle.
In 1926, when their marriage disintegrated, Mabel traveled to Pensacola, Florida, to stay with her unconventional father-in-law, an Episcopalian minister who not only taught reincarnation but also had a reputation as a mystic. Through her father-in-law, Mabel met wealthy Roger Painter, the “Poultry King of Florida,” a man who made his fortune in chicken processing just as city slickers began to say no to watching their protein get its neck wrung, and a resounding yes to packaged chicken parts. It is unclear how Mabel and Roger (a Theosophist and former magician), first encountered the Brother, XII, but they soon became joint secretaries of the Florida chapter of the Aquarian Foundation.
In 1929, after receiving several thousand dollars in donations from Roger, the Brother invited the couple to his colony on the lush eastern shore of Vancouver Island. Roger Painter left his business in his brother’s hands, and he and Mabel went to Canada. When they arrived, they found themselves in a magical seaside landscape even Emily Carr could not do justice—rugged humps of black volcanic rock; towering fir and cedar, feathery branch tips dipping and swaying; denuded arbutus trunks; shiny salal, strung with delicately scented flowers; lady ferns the size of children. Beneath it all, lay thick carpets of the plushest, greenest moss imaginable.
Again, this trip makes use of Oliphant’s version of the story. The MacIsaac book suggests that Mabel did not travel to Canada with Painter, but first met him at the colony in 1930, accompanied by wife number five or six—Leona Painter. As I forged a narrative from these conflicting views, I had to make choices about which version would better suit my story, and in this case, I chose the Oliphant version, which has Roger Painter enter Mabel’s tent shortly after their arrival and badly beat her, as a result of his jealous rage over the Brother’s sudden and keen interest in her.
A banker, a millionaire, and a self-proclaimed messiah. Not bad for someone with hardly a redeeming feature, and it seemed to me that Mabel, who had by now inexplicably changed her name to Madame Zee, had done all right in the man department. So the story hooked me. After all, if the descriptions of her were accurate, what made her attractive to these men? She had to have some redeeming characteristics. I wanted to know more about this woman, to fill in the gaps history necessarily left blank. What sort of childhood had Mabel experienced? How did she adjust to the transition from England to Saskatchewan? Why did she have so many teaching jobs? And what caused her to leave her husband, crooked or not, at a time when most women stayed married, regardless of the cost?
So I began writing, and the two books mentioned above, while rarely in complete agreement on names, dates, or events, nevertheless provided the most fascinating, comprehensive, and plausible accounts of the story. Along with primary materials—letters, newspapers, court documents, etc.—they were my main sources of historical reference.
I expect that the “real” Madame Zee was in some ways much different from the character I have imagined. In other ways, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that she was very similar. One peculiarity of an author’s life is how it is possible to write something fictitious, only to learn later that the details are mostly correct. However, as I researched and worked, I aimed to expand the history, not disregard it. I made Zee lusty and comfortable with her sexuality because in more than a few instances she is described her as having “a way with men.” Andrew Scott, in his book The Promise of Paradise: Utopian Communities in BC (Whitecap Books, 1997), calls her a “manipulative siren” (152). Oliphant tells us that she was “adept at manipulating men and using her feminine charms to get what she wanted” (238). And while the way to a man’s heart might well be through exquisite food, experience tells me that the sort of obsession, jealousy, and rage Madame Zee fueled almost always originates lower in the anatomy.
I provided her with siblings because it would have been rare to be an only child in the late 1800s. Her close female friend is a complete fabrication, but everyone deserves at least one intimate, trusted friend. I made her capable of kindness because one of Oliphant’s sources admits that she was “more fanatical than evil—she was both good and evil, both clever and mixed-up” (352). As for her psychic ability—historically, all we know is that Madame Zee had a passion for the occult. But what sparked that interest? It makes sense to me that some sort of personal psychic experience may have preceded her fascination with black magic and witchcraft.
If not for that belief, I might have had to concede that Zee’s main interest was in power—in gaining the upper hand over others—and that would have been a wholly different book. As it is, I’ve opted for self-preservation. I’m still sleeping at night, and I’ve heard no strange rappings on the wall or ceiling. No curses. No bed rattling. And should Madame Zee have the ability to make a midnight visitation, I suspect she won’t be entirely unhappy with the way I’ve portrayed her. Perhaps, at least, she’ll leave the infamous whip on the other side
SpiritualismLink :: Other Religions, New Age Concepts and Related Areas of Belief - Beyond Spiritualism- The Good The Bad and The Quirky :: Other Elements, Ascended Masters, New Age Channelling and Ideas