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The many trials of Madame Tingley, part one

What Theosophists found in San Diego.

On January 8, 1903, just before his final remarks as attorney for the defense, Samuel Shortridge paused. He seemed to stare through the floor, as he struggled to find the crucial words. Then he rose from his chair. He held his reading glasses in his left hand like a pointer — or a pistol — and dread gloomed across his face. He addressed the jury.

“If, gentlemen, you believe in the Christian religion, your duty is clear. If you believe in the family circle and the hearth and the fireside, your duty is plain. If you believe in the institution of marriage, marriage of one man to one woman, your duty is clear.”

Shortridge stopped. The packed courtroom held its breath. He inspected the all-male jury, as if seeking an honest human being, and continued.“In the name of society and civilization, and in the name of the Savior of Nazareth who upon Calvary shed his blood that we might live, I ask for your justice here — an American justice.”

Another dramatic pause, this one brief, then: “Society is involved in this matter. Christian society is at stake!”


On January 24, 1897, Edward R. Rambo and C.A. Griscom, Jr., purchased 120 acres of land on Point Loma three miles north of the lighthouse. Except for a view Charles Dudley Warner called “one of the three best in the world,” most San Diegans wondered why, since the property was worthless. The wind-swept hilltop, dotted with wild sage, cacti, and thickets of dark-green shrubs, was just coarse, crumbling sandstone. Pueblo Lots 144 and 145 sloped down to the surf and had no easy access.

So who were these men, and why such a bleak tract eight dusty miles from town? They didn’t say. Both stayed at the four-story Brewster Hotel. The ornate “stone palace” boasted the first elevator in San Diego. Until they signed the deed, they used assumed names, even at the Brewster.

According to the Union, for ten days the strangers “made a number of mysterious trips to the site,” they said, to inspect “orange orchards.” The man later identified as Griscom refused to talk about the project “to a suspicious degree.” That he didn’t know the difference between an “orchard” and a “grove” made him more so.

Three other well-dressed businessmen came to the hotel but never went outside. Then more arrived. By the time of the signing, 15 men conferred in conspiratorial tones at the Brewster.

When Rambo and Griscom bought the property, for $12,000, they signed their real names. Edward R. Rambo was a corporate lawyer from New York; Griscom, vice president of the American Navigation Company. His firm owned four Atlantic liners. So they wanted a base to start a Pacific fleet? Then why not at a safe anchorage?

Or, as some surmised, did they plan a harbor for “dissatisfied” Los Angelenos to replace San Pedro and Santa Monica? But wasn’t San Diego Bay too shallow? As the drafts of steel ships grew deeper, the bay lost value. At least $3,000,000 worth of dredging would solve the problem. Only the government could foot that bill.

Much more likely, sporting gents opined: a grand resort or gambling casino, with a series of clubhouses, to “outrival Monte Carlo”?

In an article entitled “What Does It Mean?” the Evening Tribune of January 27, 1897 dismissed all “wild cat yarns.” It added, however, that the purchase was “of national and world-wide interest” and that “citizens will stand amazed at the magnitude of the venture.”

Details emerged a few days later. The syndicate hired the local firm of Zimmer and Reamer to construct a large building on the property. The plans, by New York architects, called for a 120-foot-long, multi-leveled structure made of wood and “ornamental in design.” The cost was $4100, which rivaled some of the city’s finer edifices.

So the world-class casino after all? A Hotel del Coronado for games of chance?

No, Ernest Hargrove told reporters in early February. The site would become a school “for the revival of the lost mysteries of antiquity.” Six feet tall and a “splendid looking young Englishman” (San Francisco Chronicle), Hargrove was president of the International Theosophical Society, founded by Madame Helena P. Blavatsky, the famous Russian occultist.

Hargrove told reporters that Blavatsky (1831–1891) believed “there is no religion higher than truth.” She claimed that, in deep antiquity, truth thrived everywhere. Then came “centuries of darkness, ignorance, and bigotry.” Since the “pursuit of knowledge meant persecution and death,” science and philosophy “went into hiding.” The great mysteries, if known at all, were kept secret.

Theosophy is not a religion, Hargrove said. Theosophists believed that all religions held basic truths in common. The name combined the Greek words theos (god) and sophia (wisdom). The new school would study “divine wisdom” and be open to all. “Never before in the history of the world was such a school instituted!”

Hargrove concluded the interview with an announcement: he was only the president of the society. The real leader, the “Outer Head,” was Madame Katherine Tingley. She and several other Theosophists were on an around-the-world crusade. They would make a stop in San Diego. On February 23, she would lay the cornerstone “for the greatest temple of learning in modern times.”

But why Point Loma? Originally, some Theosophists wanted the school on the former site of Atlantis, alleged to be somewhere on the East Coast. Not true, Hargrove said, adding that he often had to correct misstatements. The highest land on the point was a “fit place for deep meditation” because, he mistakenly explained, “California is geologically the oldest part of the continent.”

Years later, Madame Tingley offered a different explanation. She had a childhood dream of building a “White City in a golden land by the sundown sea.” She had never been to California. When she was 26, at the second inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant she met Major General John C. Fremont. She told him her dream. “I know that place,” he replied. “I’ve been there! It is Point Loma. It forms the western shore of San Diego Bay.”

Fremont said he fought a battle at Point Loma in 1846. He climbed the 300 foot ravine to the ridgeline, and “wondered at the expansive view” — 50 miles in all directions. When her detractors said the battle was in Los Angeles, not San Diego, Madame Tingley stared them down. Fremont may have been mistaken, the look implied, not her dream.

Another story, confirmed by many sources: when the crusaders were touring Ireland, Madame Tingley cabled E. August Neresheimer, a New York diamond broker and one of her largest donors. She ordered him to raise the money and buy property, sight unseen, on Point Loma. She gave him a general location — “the outer arm of land enclosing San Diego Bay” — and said she wanted the deal transacted by the time the Crusaders reached California.

Neresheimer studied the real estate holdings and discovered to his surprise that Madame Tingley — how to put it tactfully? — was in error. The government owned the property. When he cabled her back, he feared the news would tarnish her reputation as a visionary, and the power, “the occult credibility,” it gave her.

When Madame Tingley read the cable in Austria, traveling companions said she was “thunderstruck.”

One of the Crusaders was Gottfried de Purucker. Raised to become a minister by his Anglican father, de Purucker translated the entire New Testament from Greek at age 14, and the Old Testament by 17. In 1893, he renounced Christianity and became a Theosophist. One of Madame Tingley’s most loyal followers — and the only one who had actually been to San Diego — de Purucker became leader of the colony after her death in 1929.

Told his leader’s vision was wrong, Purucker took out paper and pencil and sketched Point Loma. The only government land, he said, was for the lighthouse at the southern tip. Her dream was accurate.

Madame Tingley cabled Rambo and Griscom: “The site of the school is exactly where I said. U.S. govt. land south of it. Make inquiries and buy quickly!”

The men caught the next train to the West Coast.

On February 22, 1897, the night before the cornerstone ceremony, the Crusaders held an open, two-hour meeting at the brand new Unity Hall, on Sixth between C and D [now Broadway]. Eight hundred curious San Diegans “packed the place to the doors” (Union). An estimated 200 others had to be turned away. Several distinguished gentlemen, dressed in suits and vests, their faces covered by well-trimmed whiskers and mutton-chops, sat in a row across the stage. In the center, the American flag draped from the pulpit. In the rear, a large purple banner proclaimed, in gold letters: “Truth, Light, & Liberation for Discouraged Humanity.”

Colonel E.T. Blackmer, president of the local branch, introduced the panel of “high Theosophists”: H.T. Patterson, chairman of the crusade party and prosperous hardware merchant from New York; Claude Falls Wright, one of the best known civil engineers on the East Coast; Reverend Walter Williams, of London; and E.T. Hargrove.

Wright spoke about the society’s motto: “There is no higher religion than truth.” Point Loma would become the “world center of the Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society, which has as its supreme object the elevation of the race.

“The religions of the day are warring and antagonistic,” said Wright. They are no longer “a beacon light to guide children to the Path.” They offer just enough glitter to “seduce the intelligence and blind the eyes” to the truth.

“Wright is an entertaining speaker and was listened to with the closest attention,” wrote the Union, though he raised eyebrows when he distinguished between “Christianity and churchianity” — the latter sounding like a cult — and when he suggested that, to attain true brotherhood, infants must be separated from their parents and their “selfishness” at birth.

“The world has not yet realized how much of truth children already know,” Wright quoted Madame Tingley, “and how much of that truth we destroy by our mistakes.”

Hargrove spoke of the basic truths behind all religions. One was reincarnation. “All souls are on a journey to unite with the Over Soul. Madame Blavatsky taught that most human beings require a succession of re-births” before the soul can escape from the “Wheel of Life” and merge with “the One - the Divine Essence.”

Journeying souls, said Hargrove, are drawn to growth. Since America was still a young country, “in the rapidly increasing light of liberal thought and freedom,” the souls of great leaders would surely be reincarnating here. They always go “where the force is a rising force” and “the people are ready to listen.

“Who knows the stored up and mysterious power that may exist in another?”

Reverend Williams spoke about brotherly love, “the chief aim of the society.” Point Loma would become the “Athens of the West” and create “the hope for a better life through exemplary living, and a search for the great truth from past ages.”

Reminding everyone that the turn of the century was just three years away, and that a “New Cycle” would begin at that time, Williams announced that “the key note of the coming ages is being sounded at Point Loma!”

The meeting ended. Madame Tingley had not spoken. She may have been in the room, but she was not on the stage. She would make her inaugural appearance the following afternoon.

QUOTATIONS

  • 1. Carey McWilliams: “Madame Tingley was the first major prophetess of the region.”
  • 2. E.T. Hargrove: “There is no desire to affect their religion, but only to show them the basis of all religion.”
  • 3. Katherine Tingley: “You must learn to build your own atmosphere.”

SOURCES

  • Ashcraft, W. Michael, The Dawn of the New Cycle: Point Loma Theosophists and American Culture (Knoxville, 2002).
  • Blavatsky, Helena Petrova, The Secret Doctrine (London, 1888).
  • Greenwalt, Emmett A., The Point Loma Community in California, 1897-1942 (Berkeley, 1955).
  • Harris, Iverson, “An Interview with Iverson Harris,” San Diego Historical Society, Oral History Program, October 23, 1971.
  • Hine, Robert V., California’s Utopian Colonies (New Haven, 1953).
  • Sinclair, Upton, The Profits of Religion (Pasadena, 1918).
  • Smythe, William, History of San Diego, 1542-1908, vol. 2 (San Diego, 1908)
  • Tingley, Katherine, The Life at Point Loma (Point Loma, 1908); Theosophy: The Path of the Mystic (Pasadena, 1922).
  • Waterstone, Penny B., “Domesticating Universal Brotherhood: Feminine Values and the Construction of Utopia, Point Loma homestead,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Arizona, 1995.
  • Articles in San Diego Union, San Diego Evening Tribune, San Diego Sun, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Herald, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, and others.

Part two of The many trials of Madame Tingley

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