On January 8, 1903, just before his final remarks as attorney for the defense, Samuel Shortridge paused. He seemed to stare through the floor, as he struggled to find the crucial words. Then he rose from his chair. He held his reading glasses in his left hand like a pointer — or a pistol — and dread gloomed across his face. He addressed the jury.
“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.”
Shortridge stopped. The packed courtroom held its breath. He inspected the all-male jury, as if seeking an honest human being, and continued.“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 for your justice here — an American justice.”
Another dramatic pause, this one brief, then: “Society is involved in this matter. Christian society is at stake!”
On January 24, 1897, Edward R. Rambo and C.A. Griscom, Jr., purchased 120 acres of land on Point Loma three miles north of the lighthouse. Except for a view Charles Dudley Warner called “one of the three best in the world,” most San Diegans wondered why, since the property was worthless. The wind-swept hilltop, dotted with wild sage, cacti, and thickets of dark-green shrubs, was just coarse, crumbling sandstone. Pueblo Lots 144 and 145 sloped down to the surf and had no easy access.
So who were these men, and why such a bleak tract eight dusty miles from town? They didn’t say. Both stayed at the four-story Brewster Hotel. The ornate “stone palace” boasted the first elevator in San Diego. Until they signed the deed, they used assumed names, even at the Brewster.
According to the Union, for ten days the strangers “made a number of mysterious trips to the site,” they said, to inspect “orange orchards.” The man later identified as Griscom refused to talk about the project “to a suspicious degree.” That he didn’t know the difference between an “orchard” and a “grove” made him more so.
Three other well-dressed businessmen came to the hotel but never went outside. Then more arrived. By the time of the signing, 15 men conferred in conspiratorial tones at the Brewster.
When Rambo and Griscom bought the property, for $12,000, they signed their real names. Edward R. Rambo was a corporate lawyer from New York; Griscom, vice president of the American Navigation Company. His firm owned four Atlantic liners. So they wanted a base to start a Pacific fleet? Then why not at a safe anchorage?
Or, as some surmised, did they plan a harbor for “dissatisfied” Los Angelenos to replace San Pedro and Santa Monica? But wasn’t San Diego Bay too shallow? As the drafts of steel ships grew deeper, the bay lost value. At least $3,000,000 worth of dredging would solve the problem. Only the government could foot that bill.
Much more likely, sporting gents opined: a grand resort or gambling casino, with a series of clubhouses, to “outrival Monte Carlo”?
In an article entitled “What Does It Mean?” the Evening Tribune of January 27, 1897 dismissed all “wild cat yarns.” It added, however, that the purchase was “of national and world-wide interest” and that “citizens will stand amazed at the magnitude of the venture.”
Details emerged a few days later. The syndicate hired the local firm of Zimmer and Reamer to construct a large building on the property. The plans, by New York architects, called for a 120-foot-long, multi-leveled structure made of wood and “ornamental in design.” The cost was $4100, which rivaled some of the city’s finer edifices.
So the world-class casino after all? A Hotel del Coronado for games of chance?
No, Ernest Hargrove told reporters in early February. The site would become a school “for the revival of the lost mysteries of antiquity.” Six feet tall and a “splendid looking young Englishman” (San Francisco Chronicle), Hargrove was president of the International Theosophical Society, founded by Madame Helena P. Blavatsky, the famous Russian occultist.
Hargrove told reporters that Blavatsky (1831–1891) believed “there is no religion higher than truth.” She claimed that, in deep antiquity, truth thrived everywhere. Then came “centuries of darkness, ignorance, and bigotry.” Since the “pursuit of knowledge meant persecution and death,” science and philosophy “went into hiding.” The great mysteries, if known at all, were kept secret.
Theosophy is not a religion, Hargrove said. Theosophists believed that all religions held basic truths in common. The name combined the Greek words theos (god) and sophia (wisdom). The new school would study “divine wisdom” and be open to all. “Never before in the history of the world was such a school instituted!”
Hargrove concluded the interview with an announcement: he was only the president of the society. The real leader, the “Outer Head,” was Madame Katherine Tingley. She and several other Theosophists were on an around-the-world crusade. They would make a stop in San Diego. On February 23, she would lay the cornerstone “for the greatest temple of learning in modern times.”
But why Point Loma? Originally, some Theosophists wanted the school on the former site of Atlantis, alleged to be somewhere on the East Coast. Not true, Hargrove said, adding that he often had to correct misstatements. The highest land on the point was a “fit place for deep meditation” because, he mistakenly explained, “California is geologically the oldest part of the continent.”
Years later, Madame Tingley offered a different explanation. She had a childhood dream of building a “White City in a golden land by the sundown sea.” She had never been to California. When she was 26, at the second inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant she met Major General John C. Fremont. She told him her dream. “I know that place,” he replied. “I’ve been there! It is Point Loma. It forms the western shore of San Diego Bay.”
Part two of The many trials of Madame Tingley