The many trials of Madame Tingley, part five of five

“Afraid to Produce It.” This cartoon of General Otis appeared in the Los Angeles Herald on December 23, 1902.
  • “Afraid to Produce It.” This cartoon of General Otis appeared in the Los Angeles Herald on December 23, 1902.

“I saw very plainly that [Katherine Tingley] had impure intentions,” said Henry Reuthling from his seat in the witness box.

“What do you mean by impure?”

Reuthling: “I mean that her suggestions were of a sexual nature.”

“In plain language, please?”

Reuthling: “Well, no woman would directly ask a man to do a certain thing…I understood it very plainly to be a desire for sexual intercourse…I could not remember the language, it is too long ago. It happened in 1894 or 1895, I think.”

Rather than defend their client, Harrison Gray Otis, and an inflammatory article in his Los Angeles Times, Otis’s lawyers in Katherine Tingley vs. Times Mirror Company attempted to put Tingley on trial.

Did she think she was the Second Coming — greater than the Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed? Was Lomaland a “place of horror”? And was her brand of Theosophy, as defense lawyer Samuel Shortridge claimed in his four-and-a-half-hour closing argument, a threat to “Christian civilization”?

When Reuthling made his sexual allegations, on day three, judge E. S. Torrance had had enough.

Torrance: “A party has a right to appear without the courtroom converted into a place where people can slander others. If we allow that kind of evidence in, we will never get through this proceeding!”

The “trial of the century” began December 16, 1902. All major newspapers gave the 19-day affair front-page coverage, even during the Christmas break.

Philadelphia Ledger: “Mrs. Tingley starved children; her dog Spot a marvel of intelligence.”

Baltimore Sun: “Took food from babies. Mrs. Tingley subdued their animal natures.”

Washington Post: “Men and women attired in costumes of light muslin. Tots fed on bread and milk.”

The Los Angeles Times called these reports “fair, representative ways in which the matter is being handled in the press. In every instance the Tingley institution is on trial before the country. In no instance does it appear that the Los Angeles Times is on trial. M. Tingley is the defendant.”

The report doesn’t mention that, as vice president of the Associated Press, Otis wired the libelous allegations to every major newspaper.

The Times’ arch-rival, the Los Angeles Herald, summed up the defense’s strategy: “This theory has been based on the well-known legal saying, ‘When you haven’t a case, abuse the other fellow.’”

The actual question at hand: how much did the article “abuse” Katherine Tingley?

Counsel for the defense produced witness after witness. Each testified against “Tingleyism” and her “autocratic control” of the colony. John M. Pryse, a staff member of New York’s Theosophical Society, knew Tingley in 1894–1895.

Pryse: “Her teacher in hypnotism was a man named Rev. McCarty. He considers her now, to use his own terms, the greatest black magician on the American continent.”

Tingley’s lawyers asked Pryse, “Have you communicated with anyone involved in the case?”

Pryse: “I have not. Except with a gentleman, a Mr. Van Cott, last Friday, I think. He was representing the Times.”

Miriam R. Egbert, from Los Angeles, joined the colony with her husband. Though she praised the society’s artistic achievements — painting, music, and productions at the Greek amphitheater — after she and her husband decided to leave, members treated them as pariahs.

Egbert: “She wanted powerful, rich people with influence.”

“And they wanted rich people to receive the benefits?”

Egbert: “Well, that seemed a little inconsistent to us, but that was her orders. She was the great mogul.”

The next day, the defense presented the deposition of R. F. Hilliker, whom the colony rejected.

Hilliker: “Of course I consider Mrs. Tingley a humbug on general principles, and I am disgusted with the whole concern. But I have no personal feeling.”

After days of unsubstantiated allegations against Tingley, Judge Torrance tried to refocus testimony away from her character. “The law does not permit, under any circumstances, the production of evidence that searches through a man’s or a woman’s life in detail, in no case.”

On the question of damages: “When a wrongful act is done, the wrongdoer is liable to the full extent of the injury. It is no justification to show that some other newspaper has been libeling the individual and therefore the libeler is not responsible for the injury.

“We are only inquiring as to whether these alleged defamatory charges made against Mrs. Tingley are true or not. We are not here to determine whether Theosophy is a correct philosophy. I do not care what it is, so far as I’m concerned, and the jurors have no interest, or ought to have none, on that question.”

January 5, 1903. Outside the courtroom, the temperature hit the high 70s. Inside, with all windows wide open, the largest crowd thus far fanned themselves with whatever was handy. A majority were women. Some brought their daughters to see the long-awaited showdown between Madame Tingley and Samuel Shortridge, the Times’ “star cross-examiner.”

According to the Herald, Harrison Gray Otis slumped so low “only the top of his head was visible above the chair back.” As the testimony wore on, and the fetid air grew thicker, he chewed his walrus mustache. When Tingley limped to the stand, her right elbow supported by attorney J.W. McKinley, the flapping fans ceased.

Shortridge rose and (Herald) “made his best jury wave” with his reading glasses. He began with testimony that Tingley’s dog Spot contained the spirit of the late Theosophist William Q. Judge.

Tingley: “I never considered that Spot was a remarkable dog any more than any other dog. He was an especial pet, and I am fond of dogs. I never told Mr. Fitch that Mr. Judge’s spirit entered into Spot.”

Shortridge: “Fitch stated that the members exhibited reverence towards this dog.”

Tingley: “I never saw any evidence of it. So absurd!”

“With the dexterity of a juggler” (Herald), Shortridge changed the subject. One of the key allegations of the October 28 article was that Tingley wanted to starve the infants at Lomaland.

Shortridge: “Did you make out a diet list for babies?”

Tingley: “No. But I made suggestions to physicians.”

Shortridge: “What did you advise them to do?”

Tingley: “To put cream into what they were feeding the child, making the food more nutritious, and feeding every half hour, instead of every two and a half.”

Shortridge: “When did you discover this theory?”

Tingley: “In my work among the children of the poor on the East Side of New York City.

“I believe we have five hundred criminals in the reformatories. We probably would not have any if the system I introduced was followed. [Those children] grew up with an unnatural appetite. I expect to write a book on it someday.”

Shortridge: “Did you on any occasion withhold food from a child for twenty-four hours or any other substantial length of time?”

Tingley: “Never!”

McKinley [Tingley’s lawyer]. “Your honor, we suggest that unless counsel thinks of changing his diet, we are wasting a good deal of time here.”

Laughter rippled around the courtroom. Alert to a point for the other side, Shortridge changed tactics. “Were you ever compared to Confucius, Buddha, and Mohammed?”

Tingley: “No, sir.”

Shortridge paused. He gave the jury a raised-eyebrow look and continued.

Shortridge: “Are not your people sun-worshippers? Do they not rise in the morning and go out upon the hill to worship the sun after the fashion of idolaters? Answer me, madame. Answer my question!”

Tingley: “No. They are not! All the people at the Point get up in the morning, and some of them get up very early. I have no doubt they see the sun. It’s there, and they can see it, but do not worship the sun. They are intelligent people. Theosophists are intelligent people.”

More laughter, enough to prompt Judge Torrance to thump his gavel and ask for order. Otis-watchers noticed that he unclasped his hands from across his stomach and, said one, “his fingers began playing a nervous little rub-a-dub on the arm of his chair.”

After questions about the colony’s “Greek” garments, “pagan” rituals, and armed guards on the grounds, and receiving terse disclaimers for each, Shortridge raised one of the trial’s most controversial subjects: the separation of parents from their children at Lomaland. In his deposition, Jerome A. Anderson said Tingley ordered them kept apart because parents doted too much on their children, which stunted their spiritual growth. Shortridge quoted Anderson: “I have no hatred for the woman. I hate the destruction she is bringing to the world. A woman with no feeling at all.”

Tingley: “Raja Yoga is based on a home-and-school system. Parents are permitted to see their children once in two weeks, and once a week quite often, when it is best for the children and best for them. But whenever they wish to see them, all they have to do is ask.”

Shortridge: “Didn’t you tell Mr. Anderson that ‘parental favoritism and parental love interfered with the development of the child and [should] be avoided as much as possible’?”

Tingley: “I never made such a statement! But I remember saying that parents were delighted with the success of our work when the children returned.”

Shortridge: “Were all orders issued by you?”

Tingley: “I am not in the habit of issuing very many orders.”

Shortridge: “Are any orders valid unless they are issued or approved by you?”

Tingley: “You are referring to a very large field, Mr. Shortridge. If you will just make your question a little clearer.”

Shortridge: “Now I… Your honor, please!”

Later that afternoon, frustrated by Tingley’s replies and her lawyer’s constant objections, Shortridge returned to his “hocus pocus” interrogation. Did Madame Tingley beam “thought waves” to her followers and the world at large?

Tingley: “I have no recollection of sending out thought waves, only kind thoughts possibly. I have not reached that point where I could control the human mind, except by deed and good examples and so forth. A pure thought can make for a better world. If I had a pure thought, it might even affect you.”

Shortridge: “That is, madame, if you ever had a pure thought.”

At the end of an afternoon interrupted with “exceptions” (“objections” — the trial had over 700), Shortridge concluded with the “heathen dangers” of Theosophy. “Answer my question, madame. Did you not teach in these readings of yours the esoteric philosophy of Pythagoras?”

Tingley: “I do not think I can unroll my mind to please you at every point, Mr. Shortridge. We look into all teachings and all philosophies and take the pure and the beautiful from all we find…. The questions [you have] propounded are so foreign to anything that I believe in. They are so absurd.”

“I never was a magnetic leader. I never purported to be and never claimed to be. [I tried to show] that there was something more than the mind…those are the only readings of any such nature that I ever gave.”

Testimony ceased January 7, 1903, at 4:00 p.m. Judge Torrance excused the jury and the spectators. He wanted to discuss points of law with both legal teams.

When the courtroom had cleared, he asked, “Who is to say whether this article is libelous or not?” Since the Constitution doesn’t mention the subject, Torrance said the judge must make that determination. “And I have no doubt, as a matter of law, that Mrs. Tingley has been libeled and deserves compensatory damages.”

The question for the jury: how much compensation — the full $50,000 or a lesser amount?

January 8 and January 9, 1903. Closing arguments took two days. On January 9, Eugene Daney spoke for two-and-a-half hours on behalf of Otis.

Daney: “She asks you to assess this defendant $50,000. Would you, gentlemen of the jury, like to make $50,000 the same way?

“This case involves more important considerations than have been depicted. It goes to the foundation of government: whether the liberty of the press shall be smothered by such conditions as we see here.

“This article, I think can be argued, is giving Mrs. Tingley exactly what she likes — notoriety! Think of it, gentlemen, what blasphemy for this woman to liken herself to Jesus Christ! Are we not justified in calling her a fake and a fraud?”

Fredric R. Kellogg, a New York attorney, spoke over an hour for the plaintiff. He began with an assault. When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Otis was appointed brigadier general of some volunteers. He went to the Philippines but saw little or no action. Many, Kellogg among them, called his pet name — General Otis — and his reputation as a “warrior” into question.

Kellogg: “If words were bullets and the Filipinos had been women when the gallant General crossed the Rubicon, how the Philippines would have flooded with gore and the streets piled high with dead!”

“Exception!” Otis’s five attorneys leaped to their feet and shouted as one. After Judge Torrance cautioned Kellogg, the lawyer continued, “General Otis does not deem it consistent with his dignity to admit he is wrong, nor does he yield any portion of the profits which his sensational instincts have garnered for him. He engages astute attorneys to take the jury’s attention away from the essential points of the case.

“It is not enough that a merely nominal recovery may vindicate the plaintiff’s good name. Great issues are here involved. Katherine Tingley’s individuality is in the eyes of the law the one who appeals to you, but it is Katherine Tingley as the worker for humanity who is really demanding justice at your hands.”

A descendant of Daniel Boone, Clara Shortridge Foltz is one of San Diego history’s most prominent figures. The first woman to practice law in California (1878), she was such an important legal figure in San Diego, she earned the sobriquet “the Portia of the West.” She also published the San Diego Bee. In 1910, she moved to Los Angeles and became the first female deputy district attorney in the United States. A trailblazer for women’s suffrage and progressive issues, she died in 1934. Her eulogy included these words: “Thou hast proved that woman can — who has the nerve and strength and will — work in the wider field of man, and be a woman still.”

Samuel Shortridge was her younger brother. When he ran for the Senate as a Republican, she helped his campaign, even though they were continents apart politically.

During his four-and-a-half-hour-long closing argument, Shortridge argued vehemently against “Mother Tingley” and, by inference, powerful women in general. After initial remarks, he smiled at the jury.

Shortridge: “This whole thing is amusing.”

McKinley: “There is nothing as amusing as you, Mr. Shortridge.”

Shortridge: “Thank you. I am glad someone can add some merriment to this case and to the gaiety of nations.

“And what is the cause, gentlemen, that we are here to determine? This plaintiff. Of uncertain past…”

McKinley: “Exception, your honor! Testimony as to the past was ruled out as incompetent and immaterial. I submit that counsel has no right to talk about it.”

Shortridge: “Your honor, I choose to say unknown because this record does not disclose what the past is. And what is the purpose of this action? Disguise it as learned counsel may, gloss it over by fine phrases of speech…the object of this action is money. Vindication? vindication?

“Why, if this plaintiff were possessed of those supreme qualities she has assumed, she would not have come into this court, or she would rise up now and say, ‘Gentlemen I do not seek money. I seek but the restoration of my broken reputation. I seek but vindication. I ask no more than one dollar.’”

Feet shuffled. Chairs squeaked. Always attuned to the temper of the moment, Shortridge sensed he’d hit a nerve.

Shortridge: “I think I speak for every honorable and high-minded man in California, and every pure-hearted and pure-minded woman of California: if the plaintiff were honest, the main object would be vindication, not money — and particularly where there is no proof adduced that any misfortune has overcome the plaintiff. Damage to what? How has she been damaged?

“I state and repeat, let all the newspapers of Christendom turn loose their vials of wrath or sarcasm upon me. Let them do it!

“A man whose life may be traced from the cradle to the grave without a blush does not fear the opposition of newspapers, or the censure of men. I do not set myself up to be better or greater, but on the contrary am of the least of those at the bottom.”

With a silk handkerchief, Shortridge gently erased beads of sweat from his forehead.

“The fact of the matter is: this plaintiff occupies a position which is extraordinary and which is contrary to the spirit of democracy, hostile to the spirit of republicanism.

“Think of this power! Supreme, autocratic, un-American, un-Christian power. No duke of the Middle Ages, no king of the worst of English times, no Egyptian monarch that held his subjects’ lives as sands of the desert ever exercised such power over men and women. And what is this power? I know not.”

Shortridge eyed each member of the jury, one by one, and commenced his final appeal.

Shortridge: “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.

“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 you for justice here, an American justice. Society is involved in this matter. Christian civilization is at stake.”

Another pause. Head down, deep in final thoughts, Shortridge approached the jury box. As he stood before the 12 men, he said, “The time will come when this case will be regarded, perhaps, as a blessing, if for no other reason than that it caused the abandonment [of Tingley’s doctrines], which are destructive to the code of Christian morals” and are “not in keeping with this country.

“Madame Tingley is an enemy of all that is good and pure and noble in our lives.”

Shortridge concluded around 4:00 p.m. At ten minutes past, deputy sheriff George Magly entered the courtroom holding a piece of paper. He walked straight to Otis and announced he was serving a summons: Otis and four others conspired to blackmail Katherine A. Tingley. The proof: a letter by E.W. Schmidt, “special agent,” dated March 29, 1901, reads: “I wish to inform you that all your black past is in hand (from the time as Kitty Wescott you lived in Newburyport, Mass., till now) ready to publish to the public. How much is it worth to you to stop same? Let me know your views thereon at once, ere too late.”

Tingley was not in court for Shortridge’s closing argument. Around 3:45 p.m. her carriage arrived at the county clerk’s office. She signed the affidavit, and Magly walked it to the courtroom. She asked $50,000 for the L.A. Times article. For the pending blackmail suit, $75,000.

When he received the complaint, Otis tucked it into his pocket and smiled.

The timing was obviously fortuitous — trump Shortridge’s remarks with further evidence of a conspiracy. As was the writ of habeas corpus served on the Raja Yoga School earlier in the day. Calixto Diaz was one of the Cuban children at Point Loma. When his mother read about “immoralities” and “insane ceremonies,” she wanted him removed from Lomaland. Word of the writ spread through the courtroom all morning.

After closing arguments, Judge Torrance gave instructions to the jury. The 25 single-spaced pages took over an hour to read. The Times article was libelous, he said, then went point by point through each accusation. He added that though “it is not the opinion of the court that the progress of Christian civilization is involved in this case,” the jury should “attempt to follow Mr. Shortridge’s argument. He was most concerned about the power Tingley’s position of autocrat gave her, especially over men.

“It is a question for the jury on all the evidence to say whether or not…damages should be rewarded. Nine of your number may return a verdict.”

After thanking jurors for “exemplary deportment” during the long trial, Torrance said: “Believing that I have discharged my duty, my whole duty, and nothing but my duty, the case is now submitted to you.”

January 12, 1903. At 9:28 p.m., the jury announced its verdict. Katherine Tingley would receive $7500.

The deliberation required four ballots. For the final one, 10 voted for $7500, one for $50,000, and one for a dollar. Los Angeles Herald: “Attorneys for the plaintiff looked disappointed that the amount was no larger, and attorneys for the defense seemed sorry it was so large.”

Neither Tingley nor Otis was in the courtroom. At the nearby Brewster Hotel, on hearing the amount, Otis asked, “Is that all?” He vowed to appeal to the California Supreme Court. (He did, and lost.)

The Los Angeles Herald took one final pot-shot: “At last, the self-styled hero of the Rubicon, the newspaper dictator, the pen-and-ink-assassin, who, compelled for once against his will to fight fair, has been worsted — by a woman, a mere woman.”

After the trial Rosa Diaz changed her mind: young Calixto could stay in school at Lomaland.

The true authorship of E.W. “Handshake” Schmidt’s letter proved suspicious in court during the blackmail case. Both sides dropped the complaint early in 1905.

Katherine Tingley had many other trials before she died in 1929. But as Emmett Greenwalt wrote in the mid ’50s, after the Times verdict, “Newspapers ever since have taken no position, editorial or otherwise, critical of any religious group."


  • 1) Jeanette Branin: “The majority of the resident Theosophists were about as bizarre as a country store cracker barrel.”
  • 2) Iverson Harris: “She was a Puritan. Her standards as regards promiscuity and any association between the sexes would be considered very square today.”
  • 3) William Smythe (who was building a utopia, the Little Landers, in San Ysidro in 1908): “In San Diego there are many Theosophists, and the activities of the Homestead are regarded with kindly and sympathetic interest by the mass of the population.”


  • Ashcraft, W. Michael, The Dawn of a New Cycle: Point Loma Theosophists and American Culture (Knoxville, 2002).
  • Branin, Jeanette, “The Great Purple Mother: Saint…or Pure Promoter?” San Diego Magazine (Oct. 1950).
  • Greenwalt, Emmett A., The Point Loma Community in California, 1897–1942 (Berkeley, 1955).
  • Harris, Iverson L., “Reminiscences of Lomaland: Madame Tingley and the Theosophical Institute in San Diego,” Journal of San Diego History (Summer, 1974).
  • Katherine Tingley, plaintiff, vs. Times Mirror Company, defendant (San Diego, 1904); Theosophy: The Path of the Mystic (San Diego, 1922); The Gods Await (San Diego, 1926).
  • 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 (San Diego, 1908).
  • Waterstone, Penny B., “Domesticating Universal Brotherhood: Feminine Values and the Construction of Utopia, Point Loma Homestead,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Arizona, 1955.

Part one | Part four

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