Seriously ill? In late 19th century Sonoma County there were faith-healers, physicians and quacks. And then there was Mrs. Preston, who was something of all three combined.

From 1876 until her death in 1909, Emily Preston practiced medicine by mail and from her home on the Russian River, two miles outside Cloverdale. Or rather, she didn’t “practice medicine,” as claiming to do so could have got her into a world of trouble, seeing as she had no medical training whatsoever. Instead, she saw patients and diagnosed their sickness, then sold them homemade medicines. Completely different thing, right?

(RIGHT: Mrs. Emily Preston. Undated photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

Madam Preston was not a huckster or a complete spiritualist nutcase like Fountaingrove’s Thomas Lake Harris, but she did believe God communicated with her via otherworldly “photographs” and messages written on “walls of light.” Probably thousands of people believed she had cured them via her hotline to God, some devoting their lives in her service. On the large ranch owned by Emily and husband Hartwell, followers built the community of Preston. At its peak c. 1895-1900, there were up to 200 residents with a school, post office, general store, train station, lumber yard, a water system, bottling works and a church where she preached the “Religion of Inspiration.” There was also Emily and Hartwell’s 18-room Italianate home and a 20-room convalescent hospital (both completely destroyed in a 1988 fire, along with most other buildings). In summer the community adjourned for two months to a camp near Preston Lake, where people from Cloverdale joined them for their Fourth of July festivities. Everyone was likewise welcome at Madam Preston’s sermons at the camp’s Church of the Wildwood, where she read to them what she saw mystically written in the air.

Also called the “Preston Colony,” the village (Emily Preston, mayor) and its Prestonites existed to serve the little industry founded by Madam Preston. They filled mail orders for medicine and accommodated a steady parade of pilgrims seeking a consultation from Madam during her Monday office hours, where she offered patients a glass of cordial as she stared at them for several unspoken minutes to diagnose their sickness. Some of the afflicted would stay on for treatment at the Preston hospital/sanitarium or seek boarding at nearby resorts, maybe in a Cloverdale hotel when all Preston beds were filled. Mrs. Preston also kept an office in San Francisco where she saw patients. But most who sought her help did so through writing, and she believed her divine powers allowed her to “diagnosticate [sic] cases at a distance.”

We know nothing about Mrs. Preston’s true diagnostic skills, but we do know a fair amount about her treatment methods, which were spelled out in her pamphlet, “Price List of Medicines and How to Use Them.” Before discussing that topic, it must be said that apparently many who sought her help were considered hopeless cases by the doctors of that time, and many believed they were better for her treatment. Some of that improvement may be due to bed rest at her country sanitarium with lots of exercise, fresh air and clean water, or convictions that her spiritual powers included miracle cures. But if their health actually improved, it certainly wasn’t due to her remedies.

By the time began she treating patients in the 1870s, her school of allopathic medicine was mostly considered backward and downright dangerous, not far from the distain held for the Middle Ages view that bloodletting was a cure for what-ails-you. People became ill, she believed, because some of their blood circulation had stopped (!) or there was inflammation deep within the body. The cure-all was to create a running sore over the affected area and keep it oozing for 2-4 weeks “according as your strength and nerves will allow.” It was also good to do this when you were healthy, just in case, you know.

This technique was called “blistering,” and Mrs. Preston’s main therapeutic tool was her homemade iodine-based liniment. The patient was instructed to rub this stuff on a spot twice a day until blisters form and rupture, then cover it with a “pad” (an oil silk bandage that the Prestons also sold). “The Liniment penetrates the skin and draws the impurities of the body to the surface in the form of a running sore,” the pamphlet explained. “By applying the Liniment on the parts affected, you draw the disease from the inside to the surface. And when you have made sores enough to cleanse and purify the system, you will feel the benefit derived from the treatment…in chronic cases where the disease is located, it takes many sores before you get much relief.”

Preston’s catalog included other items, including cough medicine, “vagina balls,” “gin and garlic,” “fasting paste,” and some sort of lotion available by the gallon. But the remedies usually centered on that liniment; she even recommended that it be mixed with “sweet oil” (olive oil) and swallowed to cure stomach aches. Rub it all over the body once or twice a week as a preventative (which must have given the Prestonites a unique coppery complexion). The Price List also recognized it wasn’t very comfortable having a seeping wound for weeks: “While using the Liniment, if you feel the need of a tonic, take the Wine Cordial, or Blood Medicine, according to the directions on the bottles.” The Prestons would sell you a jug of their fortified wine at $3.50 per gallon. Honest, reverend, I’m a faithful teetotaler but this is medicine.

The liniment treatment was no harmless placebo, despite Mrs. Preston’s promise that “You can make sores on your arms, legs, feet, or anywhere on the body, and they won’t hurt you.” It was a strong formula that could leave scars; Nathan Bowers, the son of Preston colonists, wrote in 1966 “My body, more than sixty years later, still carries the marks where blisters caused by her liniment went so deep as to leave permanent scar tissue.” Mrs. Preston also promised, “While using the Liniment, the privates and eyes are liable to become sore. Poultice them with scraped potato, or onion poultice, and then wash them with hot water. It is only the disease coming out, and need cause no alarm.” Nathan’s father followed directions and went blind – the green onion poultice drew the lens from his right eye.

Yet despite the scarred child and partially blinded father, the Bowers family did not leave Preston. The community and the place were dear to them, as was hearing Madam Preston’s sermons. Some of her followers would have been happier if she dropped the pose of Physician and/or Mystic Seer to simply become Madam Reverend Mayor, and Mrs. Preston likewise knew she was undermining her religious message and endangering the colony’s future by being branded as a fake twice over. She wrote in frustration about her critics in 1902:

If everybody would look at what we are trying to do, and how we are trying to live, and what our object in life is, they would not want to ridicule or make fun of us. They would say, “I would like to know how that is. I would like to feel that on me.”

So why didn’t she do everyone a favor and dial down the crazy talk, particularly the bit about seeing the words of God written in light? She didn’t really believe that, did she?

Emily Preston was born in upstate New York in 1819. This was at the peak of the Second Great Awakening, a period in American history marked by intense religion passion, much of it spurred by the belief that Christ was about to return. New evangelical cults formed overnight; even common folk were primed to debate merits of the latest -ism and weigh the meaning of new epiphanies and visions. And nowhere in the country was this movement more supercharged than the “burned-over district” of Western New York, which spawned Mormonism, Millerism (an apocalyptic cult that led to the Seventh-day Adventist Church), Spiritualism (as in seance communication with the dead) and others. Growing up in a world where the supernatural happenings were commonplace, it seems less odd that she believed Jehovah was texting her.

(RIGHT: “The covered bridge spanned the Russian River at Preston from 1872-1931. Preston’s commercial district was located west of the river, next to the Northwestern Pacific railroad tracks. The Preston residences, school and church were located across the bridge on the east side of the river.” Description and photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

Mrs. Preston was confident that her “Free Pilgrims Covenant Church” would survive her death, and left $125,000 to sustain it. Alas, when she died in 1909 her will was undated and unwitnessed; relatives easily had it thrown out. The property went for auction and sold for $19,000, the buyer being Emily’s grand-niece who kept everything as it was, aside from later selling off some land around the edges.

The colony of Preston endured. There were still weekly meetings at the church to sing and pray. There were still jobs at the bottling works. But over the years people drifted away. People died. The train station closed. The post office closed. The bottle works closed. Meetings at the church ended in 1935. Three years later, a reporter from the Press Democrat visited Preston and described the old mansion:

We pushed open the gate and walked through the ruined garden. The house is white and colonial-looking, with a porch clear around it, and dark green trimmings. It looks as if it died long ago everywhere leaves and debris and loneliness. Beyond it tumble-down outbuildings that must have been servants’ quarters. Not a soul, not a sound. We were startled to find three bright silk cushions piled on the step, as if just set there – we went closer and saw they were oriental pottery work. We walked up to the front door and knocked. No answer. We peered through a hole in the shutter and saw a stuffy Victorian parlor, completely furnished, with a paisley shawl on the table and an old-fashioned phonograph with a brass loudspeaker. We knocked and called, but still no answer…now, all quiet, all fallen away. Nothing left but the ghostly, shuttered house, the century plants, the wind in the eucalyptus.

In 1943 a couple bought the property to open a camp and summer school for boys. They unlocked the doors and found her clothes still in the closets, books on the shelf, pill roller on the table. Also gathering dust were 85 boxes of letters addressed to Mrs. E. Preston, Preston, Sonoma Co., California. Madam just stepped out for a spell, and surely would be back soon.

SOURCES AND NOTES: Almost everything in this article specific to Mrs. Preston is drawn from Holly Hoods’ extraordinary thesis, “Preston: History of a Late-Nineteenth Century Religious Community in Sonoma County, California,” which is available at SSU, at the Healdsburg, Cloverdale and central county libraries and at the Healdsburg Museum. It contains much interesting material not covered here, such as how Mrs. Preston answered critics who pointed out that she was functionally illiterate, despite spending decades reading the words of God writ large before her eyes. An appendix includes a reproduction of the 1903 edition of “Price List of Medicines and How to Use Them.”

Hoods’ research is also summarized at the web site for the Preston Historical Research and Restoration Fund, which is welcoming donations to restore the church and other buildings not destroyed in the 1988 fire. There is a 2005 Press Democrat article about the restoration project.

Most information about the Preston Colony comes from “Recollections of 19th- and 20th-Century Communal Life at Preston Ranch,” a project edited by W.M. Sefton. Particularly valuable are transcriptions from local Healdsburg and Cloverdale newspapers. The recollections include descriptions of what happened to Preston after Madam died, including the formation of an artist’s colony in 1969. Warning: Details concerning desecrations of the cemetery are not for the squeamish.

Hoods commented in 2000 that therapeutic blistering “has fallen out of favor in the United States within the last 100 years,” citing an entry in the 1903 edition of Chambers’s Encyclopedia. This was the same printing plate as first used in the 1888 edition (and which continued to be reprinted at least through 1912), so it reveals nothing about 20th century opinions on blistering. Evidence instead shows that the medical community had largely rejected the method even before Mrs. Preston began her medical practice. In an 1869 rebuttal to allopathy, “blood-letting, blistering, cauterizing, physicking, poisoning, freezing, and starving” were denounced as quackery.

Iodine was used medically in the late 19th century as a counter-irritant (1870 reference) and in liniment. A lengthy review of iodine uses in an 1876 handbook of therapeutics specifically warns against iodine solutions strong enough to cause scarring. No references, even Chambers, could be found that describe Preston’s method of using liniment to keep an open sore running for weeks.

Sudden Passing of Famous Woman Yesterday

Dr. Emily Preston, familiarly known as the founder of the Preston Colony near Cloverdale, is dead.

This noted woman was called from life very suddenly yesterday morning shortly after eight o’clock. Death found her as she was gazing out from the little lattice window of the kitchen of her stately residence, upon the delightful landscape dotted here and there by its beautiful homes and its trees and flowers. At the time she was going about her simple household duties. A sudden attack of heart failure and she was gone.

Four-score years was her life span and when the silver cord was snapped the life went out without a murmur and without a struggle. She was prepared for the rest that came to her. Hers had been a busy life, one devoted to the work of making those about her happy and well.

While no arrangements have been made for the funeral she will be laid to rest in the picturesque cemetery at Preston near by the little church in which on every Sunday morning, rain or shine, winter or summer, she was wont to meet and preach to her followers. She will rest beside the loved ones who have gone before.

Madam Preston ministered to the ailments of the body and of the soul. She taught that a pure mind and pure living are essential to the cure of bodily ailments and the administration of her remedies is said to have produced in many people wonderful cures. While not parading as a healer in the way in which most people accept the term, it was acknowledged by her followers that she was possessed of spiritual gifts of healing. Some ranked her as prophetess, and the use of her herb medicines for bodily ills was accompanied by faith. Her religion found many followers. They came from many sections of the state, and from other states, and in addition she had a large correspondence. There are thousands of people in the cities of this country and throughout the state who knew Madam Preston, either personally or by reputation. She was said to be a woman of some eccentricities, but be that as it may she was a good woman with one of the kindest of hearts. Those who knew her well testify to this.

Madam Preston had lived at the Preston health resort for many years. She was a native of New York state. The little, plain old lady was often seen about the Colony grounds and in Cloverdale, where she had many old friends. She took an active interest in the advance of the country about her and was the inspiration for many years of the fine Preston Colony exhibits at the Coverdale Citrus Fairs. On a number of occasions the writer met her and chatted with her in the pavilion during the arrangement of the Colony exhibit.

From friends at Cloverdale yesterday it was learned that she had not been feeling well and had complained of pains in the region of her heart. As if realizing that the shadows were soon to lengthen over the landscape of her life, she predicted that she would pass away in the manner in which she did. Coroner Frank Blackburn went up to Preston and held an inquest over the remains and the verdict was in accordance with facts related.

– Press Democrat, January 23, 1909

Died Suddenly on Friday at Colony She Founded

Dr. Emily Preston, founder of the Preston colony above Cloverdale, and familiarly known to thousands of people as Madam Preston, died there quite suddenly on Friday. She was stricken with heart failure and death came to her in the kitchen of her residence as she was going about her usual household duties. For some days the deceased had not been feeling well, and complained of pains about the heart. This was the only suggestion of illness which she suffered, and she had not been confined to her apartments.

Coroner Frank L. Blackburn went up to Preston Friday evening and held an inquest. A verdict of death from heart failure was returned. It is stated that Madam Preston had predicted to her friends that her death would occur just as it did, and she seemed to realize that the end was approaching for her.

The deceased woman led a splendid life, and while ministering to the physical ailments of the people, she never neglected their spiritual welfare for an instant. She conducted services regularly each Sabbath day, preaching the gospel to her followers in the pretty little church edifice at Preston, where many were wont to gather and listen to her exposition of the Scriptures. Her religious cult drew many persons to Preston, and the devoted followers of the woman claimed almost supernatural powers for her in the curing of human ailments. Her medicines were compounded by herself, and were principally made from herbs, and the good woman is credited with many splendid cures.

All over the State, and even beyond the confines of the State, she was known as a healer. While many hundreds have visited her place above Cloverdale, many thousands have heard of the remarkable woman, and have corresponded with her.

The deceased was eighty years of age, and a native of New York. She had resided at Preston, which she founded as a colony, for many years past. She was actively interested in everything pertaining to the welfare of the vicinity of her home, and each year she and the other ladies of Preston made an exhibit at the Cloverdale Citrus Fair. She took more than a passive interest in this annual festival, and always attended to view the exhibits. There are many who will mourn her demise.

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 23, 1909

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