“Afraid to Produce It.” This cartoon of General Otis appeared in the Los Angeles Herald on December 23, 1902.
  • “Afraid to Produce It.” This cartoon of General Otis appeared in the Los Angeles Herald on December 23, 1902.
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“I saw very plainly that [Katherine Tingley] had impure intentions,” said Henry Reuthling from his seat in the witness box.

“What do you mean by impure?”

Reuthling: “I mean that her suggestions were of a sexual nature.”

“In plain language, please?”

Reuthling: “Well, no woman would directly ask a man to do a certain thing…I understood it very plainly to be a desire for sexual intercourse…I could not remember the language, it is too long ago. It happened in 1894 or 1895, I think.”

Rather than defend their client, Harrison Gray Otis, and an inflammatory article in his Los Angeles Times, Otis’s lawyers in Katherine Tingley vs. Times Mirror Company attempted to put Tingley on trial.

Did she think she was the Second Coming — greater than the Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed? Was Lomaland a “place of horror”? And was her brand of Theosophy, as defense lawyer Samuel Shortridge claimed in his four-and-a-half-hour closing argument, a threat to “Christian civilization”?

When Reuthling made his sexual allegations, on day three, judge E. S. Torrance had had enough.

Torrance: “A party has a right to appear without the courtroom converted into a place where people can slander others. If we allow that kind of evidence in, we will never get through this proceeding!”

The “trial of the century” began December 16, 1902. All major newspapers gave the 19-day affair front-page coverage, even during the Christmas break.

Philadelphia Ledger: “Mrs. Tingley starved children; her dog Spot a marvel of intelligence.”

Baltimore Sun: “Took food from babies. Mrs. Tingley subdued their animal natures.”

Washington Post: “Men and women attired in costumes of light muslin. Tots fed on bread and milk.”

The Los Angeles Times called these reports “fair, representative ways in which the matter is being handled in the press. In every instance the Tingley institution is on trial before the country. In no instance does it appear that the Los Angeles Times is on trial. M. Tingley is the defendant.”

The report doesn’t mention that, as vice president of the Associated Press, Otis wired the libelous allegations to every major newspaper.

The Times’ arch-rival, the Los Angeles Herald, summed up the defense’s strategy: “This theory has been based on the well-known legal saying, ‘When you haven’t a case, abuse the other fellow.’”

The actual question at hand: how much did the article “abuse” Katherine Tingley?

Counsel for the defense produced witness after witness. Each testified against “Tingleyism” and her “autocratic control” of the colony. John M. Pryse, a staff member of New York’s Theosophical Society, knew Tingley in 1894–1895.

Pryse: “Her teacher in hypnotism was a man named Rev. McCarty. He considers her now, to use his own terms, the greatest black magician on the American continent.”

Tingley’s lawyers asked Pryse, “Have you communicated with anyone involved in the case?”

Pryse: “I have not. Except with a gentleman, a Mr. Van Cott, last Friday, I think. He was representing the Times.”

Miriam R. Egbert, from Los Angeles, joined the colony with her husband. Though she praised the society’s artistic achievements — painting, music, and productions at the Greek amphitheater — after she and her husband decided to leave, members treated them as pariahs.

Egbert: “She wanted powerful, rich people with influence.”

“And they wanted rich people to receive the benefits?”

Egbert: “Well, that seemed a little inconsistent to us, but that was her orders. She was the great mogul.”

The next day, the defense presented the deposition of R. F. Hilliker, whom the colony rejected.

Hilliker: “Of course I consider Mrs. Tingley a humbug on general principles, and I am disgusted with the whole concern. But I have no personal feeling.”

After days of unsubstantiated allegations against Tingley, Judge Torrance tried to refocus testimony away from her character. “The law does not permit, under any circumstances, the production of evidence that searches through a man’s or a woman’s life in detail, in no case.”

On the question of damages: “When a wrongful act is done, the wrongdoer is liable to the full extent of the injury. It is no justification to show that some other newspaper has been libeling the individual and therefore the libeler is not responsible for the injury.

“We are only inquiring as to whether these alleged defamatory charges made against Mrs. Tingley are true or not. We are not here to determine whether Theosophy is a correct philosophy. I do not care what it is, so far as I’m concerned, and the jurors have no interest, or ought to have none, on that question.”

January 5, 1903. Outside the courtroom, the temperature hit the high 70s. Inside, with all windows wide open, the largest crowd thus far fanned themselves with whatever was handy. A majority were women. Some brought their daughters to see the long-awaited showdown between Madame Tingley and Samuel Shortridge, the Times’ “star cross-examiner.”

According to the Herald, Harrison Gray Otis slumped so low “only the top of his head was visible above the chair back.” As the testimony wore on, and the fetid air grew thicker, he chewed his walrus mustache. When Tingley limped to the stand, her right elbow supported by attorney J.W. McKinley, the flapping fans ceased.

Shortridge rose and (Herald) “made his best jury wave” with his reading glasses. He began with testimony that Tingley’s dog Spot contained the spirit of the late Theosophist William Q. Judge.

Tingley: “I never considered that Spot was a remarkable dog any more than any other dog. He was an especial pet, and I am fond of dogs. I never told Mr. Fitch that Mr. Judge’s spirit entered into Spot.”

Shortridge: “Fitch stated that the members exhibited reverence towards this dog.”

Tingley: “I never saw any evidence of it. So absurd!”

“With the dexterity of a juggler” (Herald), Shortridge changed the subject. One of the key allegations of the October 28 article was that Tingley wanted to starve the infants at Lomaland.

Shortridge: “Did you make out a diet list for babies?”

Tingley: “No. But I made suggestions to physicians.”

Part one | Part four

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