The many trials of Madame Tingley, part two

The siege of Point Loma begins.

The tip of Point Loma, entrance to San Diego Bay
  • The tip of Point Loma, entrance to San Diego Bay

Human lemmings trundling up the steep cliffs of Point Loma? A mass exodus? Never had so many San Diegans been on the move at the same time. Until February 23, 1897, occasional visitors went either to the lighthouse, to picnic, or to inspect their small orange or lemon groves on the lee side.

On the morning of the 23rd, a jangling caravan of wheeled vehicles braved the mud flats around the bay and up the winding, 300-foot grade to the ridgeline. At 2:00 p.m., the mysterious Madame Tingley, world leader of the Universal Brotherhood, would dedicate the cornerstone for a school devoted to the “Revival of the Lost Mysteries of Antiquity.”

By 10:00 a.m., some said, people had rented every available vehicle in town: liveries, carriages, omnibuses, even six-horse, open air Tally Ho’s. All, wrote the San Diegan-Sun, were “loaded to the brim.”

The brass horns of steam launches, shipping curious San Diegans to the landing at Roseville, rippled low across the bay. On the trail, cyclists and pedestrians kept alert for horse hooves spackling mud on Sunday-best outfits.

The caravan moved at two speeds. The Brotherhood sent out 250 invitations. Those were the vehicles taking their time. They had reserved seats. The ceremony was also open to the public. Somewhere between 400 and 600 made the trek knowing they’d have standing room only. Those moving fastest wanted to secure a good vantage point.

Reasons for the journey varied. In interviews, Madame Tingley promised not just to build a major educational center and enhance culture and the arts in San Diego. The School for the Revival of the Lost Mysteries of Antiquity would save humanity. A New Cycle was on the way. At the turn of the century, Point Loma would become the center of the earth.

The night before, a turn-away crowd heard speeches at Unity Hall about Theosophy and Brotherhood, karma and reincarnation, and that there was “no religion higher than truth.”

One of the speakers, E.T. Hargrove, raised eyebrows when he said the early Christians believed in reincarnation. The belief was “widespread in Palestine at the time of Christ.” Around 300 A.D., “the Church abandoned [the idea] and declared an anathema against ‘pre-existence,’ as it was then called.” Jesus, Hargrove claimed, was most likely the reincarnation of Elijah or Jeremiah.

Many of those at the meeting rented wagons to see if Hargrove’s blasphemies threatened dearly held beliefs. Others wanted to see the woman whose mystical skills included contact with souls, living and dead, and with the sacred Mahatmas, Himalayan masters of wisdom said to be very — maybe even centuries — old. Still others just wanted to be part of what the San Diego Union called “one of the most notable occasions of its kind ever witnessed on earth.”

At 2:00 p.m., invitees sat quietly. Hundreds more, by most accounts, stood in a half-circle behind them. Many more stood on carriages and peered over the crowd.

The ceremony took place inside a small circle enclosed with cypress limbs entwined like ropes. Invitees sat outside, each receiving a multi-colored souvenir program. An evergreen arch, donated by the chamber of commerce, loomed over the entrance. At the apex, a large silk banner resembled the American flag: seven gold and purple stripes, a field of purple with the Universal Brotherhood emblem in gold, upper left-hand quarter. Purple letters proclaimed: “Truth, Light, Liberation for Discouraged Humanity.”

A clanging triangle began the ceremony. As the 20-piece City Guard band played Mascagni’s serene, calming “Intermezzo Sinfonico,” the flaps of a nearby tent opened. Out came two rows of men and women, their purple robes recalling ancient Greece. They formed two lines at the arch. The tent flaps opened again. Madame Katherine Tingley appeared. Her long purple robe and purple and gold scarf were more ornate than her followers, her fingers more bejeweled. Flanked by young acolytes, she made a stately walk down the aisle, a rolled-up parchment in her left hand, a tin box in her right.

Those who described her appearance wrote that, though “not tall,” Madame Tingley was “a vigorous woman with a stout frame.” She had gray, “restless eyes.” Her “attractive features” and a “mass of dark hair” made her look younger than her 50 years.

Iverson Harris, a lifelong Theosophist, said “K.T. had a sense of humor and…a ripping good laugh, but she was also an executive. She had a strong hand. As the Cuban boys used to say, ‘She no go for foolly.’”

To most at the ceremony, aside from her costume, she was a bit of a letdown. Instead of a rabid-eyed, fire-breathing visionary, she seemed a modest, private woman who spoke in clear, controlled tones. If the image was calculated, as some later claimed, she played the part well.

Eight men and four women, the inner circle of the “Esoteric School,” formed a line behind a dais adorned by the American flag. A slight breeze flapped their robes. All faced a square, granite slab suspended from a tall derrick: the cornerstone. After a silence, Madame Tingley stepped forward. She placed the tin box, containing the movement’s key documents, in a hollow granite hole and sealed it with mortar. As the derrick lowered the cornerstone, she dedicated “this stone, a perfect square, a fitting emblem of the perfect work that will be done in the temple for the benefit of humanity and the glory of the ancient sages.”

The 12 followers behind her suddenly chanted “Ohm.”

To symbolize the four elements, Madame Tingley ladled corn, oil, wine, and dirt on the stone. Then she stepped back. To the shock of onlookers, President Hargrove poured burning alcohol over the cornerstone. A cackling bonfire blazed upward as if by magic. “May these fires be lighted,” Hargrove proclaimed, “and may they burn forever more.”

Several of the 12 “Esotericists” read excerpts from Sanskrit, the Beatitudes, the Orphic Mysteries, the Upanishads, Zuni prayers, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. A passage from the Bhagavad Gita spoke of reincarnation: “Those who are wise in spiritual things grieve neither for the dead nor for the living. I myself never was not, nor thou, nor all the princes of the earth, nor shall we ever hereafter cease to be.”

Madame Tingley part one | Madame Tingley part three

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