The many trials of Madame Tingley, part one

What Theosophists found in San Diego.

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.


  • 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.”


  • 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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