Frankenstein’s creation of a living being became a key image of modern
science’s quest to unlock the secrets of life itself.
But, in 1854, an
experiment far stranger than anything in Mary Shelley’s novel took place
when a New England clergyman married science and spiritualism in an attempt
to build nothing less than a god.
Robert DAMON SCHNECK set out to discover
why… and what happened to the metal deity.
October 1853, on a hilltop in Lynn, Massachusetts, a group assembled to
create the New Messiah. They had not come to pray or to praise God: they
were actually going to build him out of metal and wood under the supervision
When the body was complete, they believed it would be infused
with life to revolutionize the world and raise mankind to an exalted level
of spiritual development.
The spirits gave their instructions through John
Murray Spear, a former minister of
the Universalist church and recent
Born in Boston in 1804 and baptized by his namesake
John Murray (the founder of the American branch of the Universalist church),
Spear has been described as a “gentle, kindly, ingenuous” man who possessed
a beautiful simplicity and an idiosyncratic mind. 1
Spear became a minister of the Universalist church at the age of 24 and, by
1830, was married and had his own church in Barnstable, Massachusetts.
Universalism teaches that all souls will be saved, stresses the solidarity
of mankind and,
“sees the whole creation in one vast restless movement,
sweeping towards the grand finality of universal holiness and universal
When his father died, the family was left poor; he may have been
apprenticed to a cobbler and worked in a cotton mill, but these ideas
influenced the course of his life.
Spear held reformist views on slavery, women’s rights and temperance, on
which he was frequently outspoken, upsetting his congregation.
By the late
1840s, he had lost the Barnstable church and he went on to be driven from
churches in New Bedford and Weymouth. In 1844, after delivering an
anti-slavery speech in Portland, Maine, a mob beat him senseless, invaliding
him for months.
When he recovered, he operated a portion of the ‘Underground
Railroad’ in Boston, helping runaway slaves get to Canada, and acquired a
name as the ‘Prisoner’s Friend’ for his work in improving penitentiaries and
abolishing the death penalty.
While Spear crusaded in Boston, strange things were happening in rural New
York which would completely change his approach to reform. The Fox family - a father, mother and two young daughters
- moved into a farmhouse in Hydesville, New York, in December 1847. Immediately, they began hearing
inexplicable sounds; before long, the Foxes found themselves in the middle
of full-blown poltergeist phenomena.
Months of noise, especially knocking sounds, exhausted the family.
night of 31 March 1848, 12-year old Kate invited the ‘ghost’ to rap the same
number of times she snapped her fingers. It did, and this display of
intelligent control led to more detailed communication. The
claimed to be the spirit of a murdered peddler, and the two basic tenets of
spiritualism were established: the soul survives death; and the dead can
communicate with the living. 3
The same day that Kate began communicating
with the ghost, Andrew Jackson Davis - a visionary writer and healer known
as the ‘Seer of Poughkeepsie’ - had a revelation that “a living
demonstration is born”. The age of spiritualism began.
The Fox sisters gave public demonstrations of their mediumship, and within
five years spiritualism was everywhere.
Countless amateurs experimented with
spirit communication in home circles or attended séances by professional
mediums, and hostesses were advised to introduce the,
“fascinating subject of
spiritualism [at dinner parties] when conversation chances to flag over the
walnuts and wine.” 4
Reformers were especially attracted to the way it
challenged almost all accepted views, its lack of hierarchy and its promise
of unlimited possibilities.
In 1851, Spear left the church and became a spiritualist.
encouragement of his daughter Sophronia, he developed his powers as a trance
medium and accepted guidance from the spirits of,
Spirits led him on trips to faraway towns, where he was directed to cure the
sick by laying on hands or making inspired prescriptions.
That summer he received 12 messages from the late John Murray and published
them as Messages from the Superior State. He followed this with a series of
public demonstrations in which he entered a trance while spirits spoke
through him on a wide variety of topics - including health and politics - and delivered a 12-part lecture on geology, a subject about which Spear
claimed to be almost wholly ignorant.
The speeches, however, were not well
received, as it seemed to be the medium, rather than spirits, speaking. 5
Spear trusted his spirit advisors without reservation. Among their
‘projects’ was an experiment in which Spear,
“subjected himself to the most
scathing ridicule from his contemporaries by seeking to promote the
influence and control of spirits through the aid of copper and zinc
batteries so arranged about the person as to form an armor from which he
expected extraordinary results.” 6
Despite all his efforts, Spear’s reputation remained small, while the Fox
sisters triumphed as famous mediums and Andrew Jackson Davis as a well-known
visionary and prophet.
This promised to change after a spirit-inspired
journey to Rochester, New York, in 1853 revealed to Spear his special
Spear began producing automatic writing which proclaimed him to be the
earthly representative for the ‘Band of Electricizers’. This was a
fraternity of philanthropic spirits directed by Benjamin Franklin and
dedicated to elevating the human race through advanced technology.
groups that made up the ‘Association of Beneficence’ were the ‘Healthfulizers’,
‘Educationalizers’, ‘Agriculturalizers’, ‘Elementizers’ and ‘Governmentizers’,
each of which would choose their own spokesmen to receive plans for
“Man-culture and integral reform with a view to the ultimate
establishment of a divine social state on earth.”
The Electricizers began
speaking through Spear, transmitting “revealments” that ranged from a
warning against curling the hair on the back of the head (bad for the
memory) to plans for electrical ships, thinking machines and
The first, most important task, however, would be construction of the New
Messiah (“Heaven’s last, best gift to man”), a universal benefit that would
infuse “new life and vitality into all things animate and inanimate”. Spear
- or the Electricizers - chose
High Rock as the place to build it. High Rock
is a hill rising 170ft (52m) above Lynn, a town north of Boston.
Lynn is now
poor and unemployment is high, but it was once well known for shoe
manufacturing and has a history that is pure Lovecraft, full of witchcraft,
sea serpents, spontaneous human combustion and rioting Quakers. 8
received an enthusiastic reception in Lynn, and some of its most devoted
followers owned a cottage and observation tower on the site Spear needed.
High Rock Cottage (shown in 19th-century stereoscopic photographs) belonged
to the Hutchinsons, who were both spiritualists and reformers.
was a favorite destination for visitors, especially after 1852, when Andrew
Jackson Davis witnessed a meeting of the Spiritual Congress from the tower
and was introduced to the disembodied representatives of 24 nations. Spear
the Hutchinsons when he was minister in Boston and allowed them to
rehearse in his church when they began singing professionally. 9
given the use of a woodshed and work on the Physical Savior began in
Assisting Spear and the Electricizers was a group that included Rev SC
Hewitt, editor of the Spiritualist newspaper New Era; Alonzo E Newton,
editor of the New England Spiritualist; and a woman called “the Mary of the
The identity of the New Mary has never been clear.
Vivifying the Messiah was a four-step process that began with Brother Spear
entering a “superior state” and transmitting plans from the Electricizers.
Building it required nine months for construction (gestation) and in that
time he received 200 ‘revealments’ providing detailed instructions on the
materials to be used, how the different parts should be shaped and the
pieces put together.
The group was not given an overall plan but built it
bit by bit, adding new parts,
“to the invention, in much the same way [..]
that one decorates a Christmas tree.” 11
Spear’s total lack of scientific and technical knowledge was considered an
advantage, as he would be less inclined to alter the Electricizers’
blueprints with personal interpretations or logic (what
remote viewers might
call “analytical overlay”).
The parts were carefully machined from copper
and zinc, with the total cost reaching $2,000. (A prosperous minister then
earned around $60 a week.) 12
No images of the New Motive Power exist, but apparently it was impressive,
sitting on a big dining room table.
“From the center of the table rose two
metallic uprights connected at the top by a revolving steel shaft.
supported a transverse steel arm from whose extremities were suspended two
large steel spheres enclosing magnets. Beneath the spheres there appeared
[..] a very curiously constructed fixture, a sort of oval platform, formed
of a peculiar combination of magnets and metals.
Directly above this were
suspended a number of zinc and copper plates, alternately arranged, and said
to correspond with the brain as an electric reservoir. These were supplied
with lofty metallic conductors, or attractors, reaching upward to an
elevated stratum of atmosphere said to draw power directly from the
atmosphere. In combination with these principal parts were adjusted various
metallic bars, plates, wires, magnets, insulating substances, peculiar
chemical compounds, etc…
At certain points around the circumference of these
structures, and connected with the center, small steel balls enclosing
magnets were suspended. A metallic connection with the earth, both positive
and negative, corresponding with the two lower limbs, right and left, of the
body, was also provided.”
In addition to the “lower limbs”, the motor was equipped with an arrangement
for “inhalation and respiration.” A large flywheel gave the motor a
professional appearance. 13
This, however, was only a working model; the
final version would be much bigger and cost 10 times as much.
The metal body was then lightly charged with an electrical machine resulting
“slight pulsatory and vibratory motion [..] observed in the pendants
around the periphery of the table”. 14
Following this treatment, the Engine
was exposed to carefully-selected individuals of both sexes, who were
brought into its presence one at a time in order to raise the level of its
Then Spear encased himself in an elaborate construction of metal plates,
strips and gemstones and was brought into gradual contact with the machine.
For one hour he went into a deep trance which left him exhausted and,
according to a clairvoyant who was present, created “a stream of light, a
sort of umbilicum” that linked him and the machine. 15
It was at this time that the New Mary began exhibiting symptoms of
The spirits instructed her to appear at High Rock on 29 June 1854
for the final stage of the experiment. On the appointed day, she arrived and
lay on the floor in front of the engine for two hours, experiencing labour
pains. When they ended she rose from the floor, touched the machine and it
showed signs of… something.
Precisely what happened is not clear; Spear
claimed that for a few seconds the machine was animate.
The New Era was unrestrained:
“THE THING MOVES”, it shouted to its readers.
“The time of deliverance has come at last, and henceforward the career of
humanity is upward and onward - a mighty noble and a Godlike career.” 16
Spear proclaimed the arrival of,
“the New Motive Power, the Physical Savior,
Heaven’s Last Gift to Man, New Creation, Great Spiritual Revelation of the
Age, Philosopher’s Stone, Art of all Arts, Science of all Sciences, the New
The machine’s movements remained feeble, but this was attributed to the
“electrical infant” being a newborn.
The New Mary began providing it with
maternal attention while it gained strength. It’s hard to imagine what this
involved. Despite the headlines, visitors to High Rock were unimpressed. JH
Robinson - in a letter to the Spiritual Telegraph - pointed out that the New
Messiah could not even turn a coffee-mill 18; despite claims of success, AE
Newton admitted there was never more than a slight movement detected in some
of the hanging metal balls.
Andrew Jackson Davis wrote a long, careful critique of the whole project.
Although he praised Spear as a man “doing good with all his guileless heart”
and as a fearless defender of unpopular causes, he suggested that Spear had
mistaken his own impulses for spirit directives or been duped by
irresponsible entities into carrying out the experiment.
Davis also felt
that the precision and intricacy of the machine’s construction was proof
that higher intelligences were involved because Spear was “intellectually
disqualified for the development of absolute science.”
He also praised the
Messiah’s excellent workmanship and construction; it didn’t move, but it was
beautifully put together. 19
The Electricizers suggested that a change of air would provide the machine
with a more nourishing environment - so the Messiah was dismantled and moved
to Randolph, New York, where,
“it might have the advantage of that lofty
In Randolph, it was put into a temporary shed, but a
mob broke in, trampled the machine, tore it apart, and scattered the pieces.
Nothing of it survived.
Spear’s High Rock experiment may have been eccentric but it was also
characteristic of the period. New technologies profoundly changed 19th
century society, producing industrialization, urbanization, the rise of
capital and a middle class whose values became dominant. A conservative
reaction to this might have been neo-Ludditism, but Spear was no
conservative; he was on a Christ-like mission to transform humanity and
believed technology was the most powerful force of the era, one that could
be transformed to serve spiritual ends.
He spent the rest of his life working for reform and acting as spokesman for
the Spiritual Congress.
When the spirits began preaching free love, he
fathered a child by Caroline Hinckley (1859) and, four years later,
divorced his wife to marry the mother. They went on a six-year tour of
England, lecturing and holding séances, but were disappointed by the lack of
interest in radical politics among British spiritualists 20.
Several years were spent in California working for women’s rights and
socialism before the couple settled in Philadelphia, where they lived
contentedly until Spear’s death in October 1887. He is buried in Mt Moriah
Did an angry mob really destroy the New Messiah?
This would have been an
exciting conclusion to a story that seemed headed for an anticlimax.
According to Spear, the Machine was dismantled and transported hundreds of
miles to the small town of Randolph. There it was housed in a temporary
structure until a mob - in a scene reminiscent of the peasants storming
Frankenstein’s castle - destroyed it.
Some sources blame Baptist ministers
for inflaming local opinion and one guidebook - An Eccentric Guide to the
United States - claims the episode took place in a barn belonging to the
Spear’s account was reported in the Lynn News, 27 October 1854, but is he
reliable? Many questioned his sanity, but no one ever seems to have doubted
his integrity or suggested he was a charlatan. The Randolph story, however,
is troubling because there is no corroboration. Randolph historian Marlynn
Olson has searched through contemporary sources and found nothing.
Cattaraugus County, New York, had two newspapers - one Whig, the other
Republican - and neither mentions Spear, a riot, a Mechanical Messiah or
anyone delivering anti-Mechanical Messiah sermons.
No known letters or
diaries mention the event.
“I think,” writes Ms Olson, “the whole thing was
a pipe-dream of the Rev JM Spear.”
Perhaps, like so many other failed
experiments, the machine was discreetly sunk into a pond or buried in the
If the New Messiah had not vanished, the passage of 147 years would have
improved the reputation of both the object and its creator. As a medium,
Spear was a failure, but the object he built was a unique, if unintentional,
example of 19th-century folk art. If it had actually moved, it would be as
surprising as a cargo cult making an airplane that could fly.
Spear was not
using the language as vocabulary, to build a statue that expressed the human
urge for transcendence.
Slater Brown: The Heyday of Spiritualism
2 Maurice A Canney: An Encyclopedia of Religions
3 The Foxes were
Methodists, a denomination founded by John Wesley whose
family also experienced poltergeist phenomena when he was a child.
4 Alan Delgado: Victorian Entertainment
5 Andrew V Rapoza: ‘Touched by the ‘Invisibles’’ in No Race of Imitators:
Lynn and her People - an Anthology
Emma Hardinge: Modern American Spiritualism
7 Slater Brown: ibid
8 Bostonians say: “Lynn, Lynn, City of Sin, you never come out the way you
The Hutchinson Family Singers went on to become very popular and their
descendants still perform programs of 19th-century music.
10 It was probably Mrs Newton; though Spear’s wife, Betsey and Semantha
Mettler have also been mentioned. Nandor Fodor: ‘John Murray Spear’ in
Encyclopedia of Psychic Science (University Books, 1966).
11 Slater Brown: ibid
Article linked here
13 Slater Brown: ibid
14 Slater Brown: ibid
15 Slater Brown: ibid
16 Emma Hardinge: ibid
17 Andrew V Rapoza: ibid
18 Emma Hardinge: ibid
19 Emma Hardinge: ibid
Article linked here