Jaded survivors of the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake might have thought they’d seen everything, but five weeks after the disaster came astonishing news: The man who promised he would live forever hadn’t.
Thomas Lake Harris, Santa Rosa’s most famous adopted son prior to that guy named Burbank, had died at age 86 in New York. He’d actually died two months earlier, but his remaining followers hadn’t mentioned it just in case he was, you know, testing them or something. They announced his death in May, just as the weather began to warm up and presumably assured them that this was not a drill.
Harris is mostly forgotten now outside of his Fountaingrove connection, and in truth, he wasn’t well known in his own day except by the most avid fans of spiritualism. See Encyclopedia.com and the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica for good overviews of his life, but there’s much more to his story.
Some brief background: His utopian ideals built upon what he called “theo-socialism,” which was really a blend of two belief systems that were well-known in the mid-19th century: Fourierism, with its goal of social equality in a classless, gender-blind society, and the mystical christianity of Swedenborgianism, which viewed heaven as a kind of enhanced reality, and that anyone who was spiritually advanced could communicate with the angels who lived there. Harris also borrowed from Swedenborg the belief that certain breathing techniques could create a supernatural hotline.
But Harris did far more than serve from a buffet of warmed-over philosophies; he invented a cosmology that sounds like a great-great grandfather to Scientology. All planets in the solar system were peopled with highly spiritual beings, and the moon, which had Lunarians living on the far side, originally circled the destroyed planet Oriana, which was where evil originated. Harris also wrote (very, very bad) poetry about the spiritual “interspace” of the fairies called “Lilistan,” where he had a “counterpartal marriage” with the Lily Queen, who gave birth to their two celestial children. Seriously.
The year of crisis came in 1891, sixteen years after he began his utopian colony at Fountaingrove, when Harris suddenly fell into the media’s hot spotlight. Famed British writer Margaret Oliphant published a memoir of her late cousin Laurence, who in 1867 had walked away from a promising political career as a reformer M.P. in order to live in an American hayloft in service of Harris, joined by his mother, Lady Oliphant, who “washed the pocket-handkerchiefs of the settlement,” and later his newlywed wife. Harris was painted as an didactic cult leader who endlessly poked into every cranny of his followers’ lives. The Oliphants also donated something over $90,000, no small change in Victorian America.
Trouble also arrived in 1891 in the form of Alzire Chevaillier, a young woman who apparently imagined herself as among the new breed of muckrakers with a specialty in spiritualism, but was really a gadfly seeking celebrity for herself. Ms. Chevaillier – “suffragist, sociologist, spiritual scientist, philanthropist, nationalist, magazine writer, and reformer” – and her mother were guests at Fountaingrove for six months before she left in a huff, “thoroughly disillusionized.” She told reporters that she was going to present damning evidence of immorality and fraud to the President of the United States. (For a full account of the Alzire Chevaillier episode, read Gaye Lebaron’s rollicking good essay, “Serpent in Eden.”)
By coincidence or no, 1891 was also the year Harris declared that he had achieved immortality…sort of. He published no fewer than three pamphlets that year, two of them (Brotherhood of the New Life, The New Republic) proclaiming that his frail body now had been restored to youthful vigor, thanks to his “finding the touch of the last rhythmic chord that leads the harmonic vibrations into bodily renewal.” In “Brotherhood of the New Life,” he vowed “never to publish another word respecting my discoveries unless I should pass safely through this final ordeal.” There he also denounced the Oliphant memoir and “nasal purveyors of the Sensational Press, who prowl about the kitchen middens.”
Troubles peaked after the new year, as Chevaillier gave lectures in San Francisco and Santa Rosa where she melodramatically demanded that either she or Harris should be sent to state prison. Harris was a “vampire,” a lecherous fiend,” and a “horrible sensualist,” she charged. He was the “greatest black magician today” who had boasted to her that he had psychically murdered Laurence Oliphant.
The San Francisco papers ate it up (the Santa Rosa press, not so much) because her charges squared with assumptions that Fountain Grove was a “free love” commune – although the main complaint in the Oliphant memoir was that men and women were kept separated even if they were married. Harris said he personally had been celibate since 1855. But at the same time, most of his writings circled around different aspects of sexuality. Besides the clumsy odes he penned to his mystical fairy wife, Queen Lily, a core part of Harris’ belief system was that God was bisexual, not asexual, an “All Holy Two-in-One,” and Christ was the “second Eve-Adam” that he named “Divine Yessa-Jesus.”
But a week after Chevaillier denounced him at the Athenaeum theatre on Fourth Street, enough was enough for the immortal man. Harris fled Sonoma County, but not before marrying his long-time disciple and secretary, Jane Lee Waring. Predictably, the San Francisco Call headline sneered that Harris was “No More a Celibate,” slyly adding hypocrisy to their list of accusations against him.
Harris and earthly wife Jane moved to Manhattan, where he mostly retired. Nothing came of ideas to launch new communities in Florida, Canada, and one in Mexico that would be entirely Japanese. Gaye Lebaron uncovered architectural drawings that show he had fantasies about building a palatial complex on the Upper West Side that would also be called Fountaingrove and which would include a “hundred bowers of love’s repose.”
Even though he was no longer a local, Harris was still catnip to Bay Area newspaper editors, particularly at The San Francisco Call. That paper was dismayed that a Grand Jury wasn’t held to investigate the (apparently accidental) suicide of his teenage granddaughter at Fountaingrove in 1896, four years after Harris had left. The Call also produced a special Sunday section on Harris in 1901 seen at right (CLICK to enlarge) that portrayed him as a wild-eyed Svengali, and in 1908 – two years after Harris died – the Call reported that his old house at Fountaingrove had been lost to a fire with the headline, “‘Free Love’ Home Burned to Ground.”
There are two epilogues worth telling about the story of Thomas Lake Harris:
|At the end of 1906, 77 year-old widow Jane Lee Waring Harris – always affectionately called “Lady Dovie” by him – showed up at Fountaingrove for the first time in 14 years and announced her intention of living there for the rest of her life. Whether or not she stayed awhile is unknown, but she died in San Diego ten years later (cause of death: “Changes”).|
|The notion that old Harris had unusual powers has found new life in the Internet age. Some write that his breathing techniques to reach a transcendental sexual state were a form of Tantric Yoga; others see his breathing to reach an intimate connection with the spirit world as part of ritual magic. Googling for “Thomas Lake Harris” and “sex magic” or “tantric” returns hundreds of hits.|
Thomas Lake Harris Dead
A month ago Thomas Lake Harris died at his home in New York at the age of eight-six years. Our older readers will remember his coming to this county and the founding of Fountaingrove by him. He was a man of fine ability and culture and an author of excellent repute. Many years ago he received the orders of knighthood in Santa Rosa Commandery No. 1, Knights Templars, and continued a member thereof as long as he lived. Several years ago he removed to New York, which was the home of his later years. He had many warm personal friends in Santa Rosa.– Santa Rosa Republican, May 23, 1906
BACK HOME AT FOUNTAINGROVE
Mrs. Thomas Lake Harris Returns to Santa Rosa After an Absence of Many Years
Mrs. Thomas Lake Harris, widow of the late Thomas Lake Harris of Fountaingrove, has arrived here from New York, after an absence of many years. Mrs. Harris made a very pleasant trip across the continent to Santa Rosa in four days, and is enjoying the best of health.
Mr. and Mrs. Harris left Fountaingrove for New York in 1892. Mr. Harris died on March 20 last. This is Mrs. Harris’ first visit since her departure in 1892.
Mrs. Harris, who is probably best known here as Miss Jane Waring, is a sister of Colonel Waring, the noted sanitary engineer. He was at one time a commissioner of New York and did much to reform sanitary measures there and in other great centers of this country and abroad.
Mrs. Harris’ friends here will be interested to know that it is her intention to make her permanent home in Fountaingrove. Her deceased husband was a member of Santa Rosa Commandery, Knights Templar.– Press Democrat, December 6, 1906