Harrison Gray Otis
In his later years, Harrison Gray Otis rode in an armor-plated, 1910 Franklin Model H. The headlights protruded like cannons; a bronze horn stretching across the molded, deep-green hood resembled an elephant gun. General Otis — his official name — called the vehicle his “war machine.”
As editor-in-chief of the Times-Mirror Company, Otis drew lines in the sand. You were either with him or a sworn enemy. Democrats were “hags, harlots, and pollutants”; organized labor, “skunks, gas-pipe ruffians, and anarchists.” A large man with a walrus mustache and goatee, twice-wounded in the Civil War, Otis ran the Los Angeles Times and the weekly L.A. Mirror with two mottos: “People want their names in the paper” and “Everybody likes to see somebody else kicked, preferably below the belt.”
One of his enemies, California governor Hiram Johnson, said Otis “sits in senile dementia with gangrene heart and rotting brain, grimacing at every reform, going down to his grave in snarling infamy.”
Otis helped organize the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and was a major booster of Southern California.
Carey McWilliams: Otis believed “he owned Los Angeles, in fee simple, and that he alone was destined to lead it to greatness.”
On May 3, 1899, the Los Angeles Times had a circulation of almost 29,000. Otis ran an exposé about Madame Katherine Tingley’s Theosophical colony at Point Loma. Instead of relief for “destitute Cubans,” the story alleged that she put the funds “to her own use.” After many cables to Cuba and affidavits gathered, Tingley refuted the charge.
On September 16, 1900, the Los Angeles Herald ran a long feature, “Weird and Wondrous City of Esotero. Strange Things are Going on in the Home of Mystery.” The “doings” made “the honest country folk on the Point Loma hillside whisper ‘SPOOKY,’ while citizens across the bay in San Diego town echo ‘spooky.’ How spooks, in their phantom souls, must revel in their eerie power!”
“Intensely Jesuitical and unjust,” Madame Tingley is “She-who-must-be-obeyed.” Her “absolute will” makes her “the most powerful and dangerous hypnotist in the world.” Question her infallibility, or her divinity, and she’ll cast your soul to the “Black Lodge” with the “dark forces against which the loyal are ever battling.”
“Unlike the creature of [H. Ryder] Haggard’s fantasy, this She does not dwell in a cave, though Loma has great caves in which waves of the ocean might hide to whisper secrets too dark for sunlight.”
In September, 1901, when an Emma Goldman–inspired anarchist assassinated President McKinley, General Otis turned his sights on, to him, an equally dangerous woman. A series of L.A. Times articles — adopting the Los Angeles Herald’s rhetoric — alleged that, instead of practicing theo-sophia — “divine wisdom” — at Lomaland, “vile spookery” ran rampant at the “crank institution.”
In December, 1901, Tingley filed a lawsuit against the Times-Mirror Company: $50,000 in damages for libel. The trial began a year later. In the interim, it appeared that her claim of a “gigantic conspiracy” might be true. Outright attacks by rival Theosophists, by ex-members of her group, captains of industry, and General Otis testified to a many-pronged attempt to destroy the “City Beautiful” on a hill.
On March 25, 1902, the San Francisco Chronicle printed a letter by Dr. Jerome A. Anderson, a former member of Tingley’s cabinet and vice president of the Theosophical Society of America. While practicing medicine in San Francisco, Anderson made several visits to Lomaland. Tingley, he discovered, did things that would horrify “the founders of the order.”
“I have seen men and women of wealth, education, and high social position, humble themselves before her in a way that sensible people can hardly conceive of.” Having to wear “long gowns and ridiculous hats,” he tried to take part in “the foolish ceremonies, with some belief that they might have meaning. But I knew…that pretty soon we would have to crawl into Mrs. Tingley’s presence on all fours. It grew worse with every visit.”
Under Tingley’s management, “the organization has gone all to pieces” in America. Of the original 140 lodges, “not more than a dozen exist today.” She uses Theosophy “to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars” to equip and maintain “this freakish Oriental court of hers at Point Loma.”
“I stood by Mrs. Tingley just so long as I could and retain my manhood and my belief in the real tenets of Theosophy.”
Anderson later sent a circular with more allegations to Tingley’s enemies. When Dr. Loren Wood, the head physician who built the colony’s first hotel/sanitarium, complained that newborns weren’t eating enough, Tingley said they could “more quickly kill out the animal nature…if starved at first.” Tingley also made boys at the onset of puberty wear a “special jacket” — their hands strapped to their sides — to prevent self-abuse.
According to Anderson, Tingley confessed that if she weren’t so occupied with “trifling details,” she could attend to “planetary things.”
Tingley’s response: she would refute all allegations in court.
Two weeks before the trial began, Tingley’s general secretary, F. M. Pierce, the former head of a New York engineering firm, sent an urgent note to the board of police commissioners. Lomaland needed “two or more mounted policemen” to patrol outside the grounds. “Suspicious characters” had been spotted peering over the six-foot walls at the homestead and the children’s school. Agents from the Los Angeles Times?
“This condition of affairs [might] increase until after Mrs. Tingley’s libel suit is terminated,” Pierce warned. “If a child should disappear from this institution or a dead body found upon our premises, it may be thought that such an occurrence would powerfully influence the case.”
Until the assaults cease, the San Diegan-Sun reported, Lomaland must suspend all construction. Madame Tingley regrets “she cannot ward the good and faithful workmen from the effects of the hostile attacks now being made upon her by the common enemies of humanity and progress.”
Whether true or just canny public relations, the board denied Pierce’s request. The city needed its four mounted police downtown, not “the sage brush at Point Loma.” The Theosophists “tend to exaggerate,” a board member told the Sun.
The Times always gave San Diego unfavorable coverage. Otis treated his southern rival, writes Herbert W. Lockwood, as a “municipal joke.” Twice before the trial began, Otis requested a change of venue. He could have a fair trial in “impartial” Los Angeles, or even Orange County. But San Diego had a severe “bias and prejudice” against the Times. In November 1902, Otis’s chief counsel, Samuel Shortridge — the “ornament of the San Francisco bar” — produced a survey: “Of the 314 San Diegans interviewed,” he said, “190 had nasty things to say about the Los Angeles Times and its owner.”
According to the San Diegan-Sun, the opinions included “good, life-sized, hearty ‘damns’ [and] other sundry cuss words not calculated to redound to the credit of the esteemed Harrison Gray Otis.”
Superior Court judge Elisha Swift Torrance denied the motion. “The ill feeling against the defendant [is] not on account of the allegedly libelous article written against Mrs. Tingley, but simply because the defendant has systematically run down the town.”
“A modest, mild-mannered, unassuming man” with a “clear-cut, rational mind” [Herald], Judge Torrance had no truck with the “perorations” of lawyers, though at times he let them “talk themselves out before making a ruling.” In the words of Sheriff F. S. Jennings, Torrance was “the most capable trial judge [the lawyers] had ever appeared before.” A persistent complaint: Judge Torrance enunciated poorly (“What he says is rarely heard over half the courtroom”), possibly because he chewed tobacco in court and fired an occasional “sly, unerring shot at a convenient cuspidor.” As a testament to his aim, his neatly trimmed beard had few brown stains.
Later to become a U.S. senator from California, Otis’s chief counsel, Samuel Shortridge, took pride in peroration. “Sam must be seen to be appreciated,” wrote the anti-Otis Los Angeles Herald. Whatever he wore updated the latest fashion. The “effervescent, mercurial, gesticulatory, plausible” orator is “royal good company in a gathering of two people or 20,000.” He “can tell the sorrows of a poor old man as well as anybody.”
Madame Tingley’s chief counsel, judge J.W. McKinley of Los Angeles, held the distinction of being number one on Otis’s hit list. When McKinley ran as a delegate to the state convention, Otis sent a bulletin to rank-and-file Republicans: “Do NOT elect this scoundrel.”
Tingley’s team also included Frederic R. Kellogg, a prominent New York attorney. Their cause: prove that the Times article of October 28, 1901, “wickedly and maliciously and with the intent to injure, disgrace, and defame this plaintiff, and to bring her into public discredit and obloquy.”
Tuesday, December 16, 1902. At 10:00 a.m., Judge Torrance looked around a packed courtroom. “Ready?” he asked. Then banged the gavel. The trial began under cloudy skies, snow on the mountains, and a light rain along the coast. When Otis had entered Department One of the Superior Court, his entourage included judge W. J. Hunsaker, Grant Jackson, and Daney. Shortridge had yet to appear. When her legal team entered, Madame Tingley was not among them.
“She’s at the Brewster Hotel,” McKinley announced. “She’ll come when needed.”
At 11:45, the double doors flared open. Madame Tingley entered, leaning on a crutch, trying to keep weight off her right foot. Her private secretary, J.H. Fussell, and Mrs. Richmond Green escorted her up the center aisle. Each step made Tingley wince.
During the previous week, she had been ill. The “nervous shock and strain” of Otis’s attacks, plus the long-awaited arrival of 11 Cuban children on Saturday, exacerbated a prior condition: in February, she had fallen down a flight of stairs at the homestead. She had “a severe congestion or meningitis of the spinal cord,” the Union reported, and needed time to “gather up such strength as she may” for the trial proper.
One effect of her infirmity: Tingley never gave the defense its much-needed deposition.
Anyone expecting the “Purple Mother” embossed in jewels and a flowing Grecian robe and declaiming like Themistocles was in for a shock. Tingley wore an unflattering black dress, a soft white “yoke” around the waist, and a blue jacket. Under a cream-colored hat, her thick brown, slightly graying hair — combed back and down into a bun — was a full generation out of fashion. She looked “regally plump,” wrote the Herald, “her expression kind and motherly.”
Otis’s Times said “the Point Loma goddess” looked “uncomfortably corpulent and out of breath from walking upstairs.” Mrs. Green, the reporter added, “also has a surplus of adipose tissue, but is much handsomer and of neater appearance than the ‘divine’ Tingley.”
Fussell and F.M. Pierce carefully ushered Tingley to a special, thickly padded chair behind her counsel’s table. As she slowly sat down, Pierce pulled up a matching footrest for her injured leg. When she thanked the gentlemen, her mouth had a slight tremble.
Otis slumped. A spectator overheard him whisper to Hunsaker, “My goose is cooked.”
The Trial Begins
Tuesday, December 16, 1902, Department One, Superior Court of San Diego. As she sat in her special chair, Madame Tingley watched jury selection for the “trial of the century.” She was suing the Los Angeles Times and publisher Harrison Gray Otis for libel. At stake, along with $50,000, was her reputation as a spiritual leader.
While followers lauded her “intensely practical, intensely serviceable” brand of Theosophy, on October 28, 1901, the Times called Tingley a “dangerous hypnotist” who bilked the rich, brainwashed disciples, and hosted all-night orgies in the name of religion.
For two days, Otis’s lawyer, Eugene Daney (“an energetic little customer”) and Tingley’s R.W. Andrews, screened potential jurors. Of the 12 chosen, none lived in San Diego. The portly, bewhiskered gents, wrote the Times, resembled hardscrabble settlers from the “mining counties.” They had “common sense, which is too infrequently uncommon among city dwellers.”
Both sides drew praise for not hiring “professional jurors,” who hung around the sheriff’s office hoping for a $2-a-day job plus mileage. But since all 12 were from out of town, the Times declared a victory for its publisher: “The expensive improvements made at Point Loma and the trade that accrues to San Diego are so vital to the prosperity of the city,” that “local sympathy favors Mrs. Tingley regardless of her peculiar methods. She is IT, with a capital I, and a large T in San Diego.”
Throughout the long trial, Otis and his legal team fought to turn the case around. Instead of defending themselves, they tried to put Madame Tingley on trial. They attempted, writes Emmett A. Greenwalt, “to deepen the shadows of Katherine Tingley’s past.”
Thursday, December 18. Tingley’s lawyer, J.W. McKinley, whose iron-gray beard and overzealous manner recalled Ulysses s. Grant, filed 29 clippings from the Times as evidence. Each called Lomaland a “spookery” or the “spook roost,” and Tingley the “boss of spooks” or “spook goddess.” The stories went back to 1900.
One, entitled “Spooks Play Freeze Out,” covered an alleged attempt on Tingley’s life. When she gave a lecture at the Isis Theatre, Moore A. Fukan ran down the aisle screaming “the Catholic church is about to raid Point Loma!” and “the Pope wants to kill Mrs. Tingley!”
Fukan’s mind, wrote the Times, “appears to be unbalanced on the spook question.” He wanted to join the “Tingley circus,” but their “autocratic leader” refused. According to the Times, the police ordered the “harmless man” to steer clear of the “Point Loma Ghosts’ reservation.”
The Los Angeles Herald disagreed: Fukan was under observation in county hospital and might be mentally ill.
At 3:45 p.m., her attorney Frederic Kellogg escorted Tingley to the witness stand for direct examination. Her cane shook with every step. As he asked questions, Kellogg gave her the reverence due royalty. She had a “placid mien” and spoke with “pleasant, softly modulated speech.” But when he introduced the notorious article of October 28, she seemed to lose control.
Tingley: “I was very much shocked and suffered very much in consequence — and have ever since that time mentally.”
As he would do for most of her remarks, defense lawyer W. J. Hunsaker objected: “the answer is immaterial.” Judge Torrance overruled.
Tingley: “I experienced constant insomnia, and was incapacitated in my work, not being able to do one-half as much as I had before.”
During cross-examination, Hunsaker asked why. From the beginning, “numerous publications assaulted her supreme control” of the Brotherhood. Local ministers had lambasted her, along with the Gerry Society of New York, former members of the Brotherhood and an alleged stalker — “all without apparent strain. What made the Times article different?”
Tingley: “If the stories were sensational, I told my secretary not to bring them to me.” But the headline — “Outrages at Point Loma” — caught her eye. She read the article three times, and the “positive nervous shock” was so severe, “for a long time I could not recover myself — and couldn’t sleep for months.”
“The horror of children being starved in dungeons and all those horrible accusations were on my mind. I could not eliminate them. They were false. They were horrible. I was in constant apprehension about the institution and the children. It was a nightmare. If I think about the article now, it still shocks me.”
Hunsaker: “Hadn’t you read [other] articles accusing you of fraudulent conduct?”
Tingley: “I cannot recall anything fraudulent.”
Hunsaker: “No attacks accusing you of coming into possession of property and power by fraudulent means?”
Tingley (“her frame shaking and eyes flashing”): “Never! Never! NEVER!”
Hunsaker: “What had been your business prior to the time you became leader of the Universal Brotherhood?”
McKinley: “Object, your honor. Mrs. Tingley’s past is not on trial.”
Shortridge: “Your honor, when a plaintiff sues for alleged libel, she places her character as well as her reputation in issue.” To the jury, he added, “We have a right to inquire whether she is susceptible of being hurt in feeling by this kind of article. Who is she? What has been her checkered career?”
Judge Torrance: “I deny all questions about the history of the plaintiff, if she has one. As in all trials of this nature, the plaintiff’s character is presumed to be good.”
Friday, December 19. “Call General Otis!” shouted Los Angeles judge J.W. McKinley, who ranked number one on Otis’s “blacklist.” According to the Herald, “Otis jumped at the sound of his name.” On his way to the stand, he eyed Judge Torrance, “alternating with a baleful glare” at McKinley — in whom “the element of humor was apparently omitted.”
To the surprise of the court and the mostly female audience, McKinley stuck to general questions about the Los Angeles Times — circulation (over 28,000), overall worth ($960,000) — and didn’t grill Otis for personal malice.
Louis B. Fitch Deposition
Fitch, age 30, had been at Lomaland for nine months and became Tingley’s bookkeeper and confidant. He left on March 15, 1901. He began his 54-page deposition saying he had “no conflict” with Tingley but had a citizen’s duty to “tell of these occurrences.”
Fitch: “Though a woman of very great executive ability and with a good deal of charisma,” Tingley is “very changeable. She said she had powers to remain in the spiritual world if she so wished.” But since she was “the only one capable of leading a perfect life,” she chose to be “reincarnated into this world to relieve the sufferings of mankind.”
Tingley believed infants should be separated from their parents and that marriage, “as usually known in the world, is wholly false and perverted.” Fitch was married at the time. Tingley said “she could see me in the future a very henpecked husband,” and that “I would be a pretty good fellow if not for my wife.”
One day, as she sat on the floor peeking through a crack in the window blinds, Tingley said, “Come here! That man came to assassinate me.”
It was Fukan. An officer of the Brotherhood, acting as a guide, kept the “desperate character” in the “closest surveillance.” When Fitch discussed the incident with Francis M. Pierce, general secretary of Lomaland, Pierce “took a revolver from his coat pocket and said ‘I wish [Tingley] would let me get one shot at that fellow!’”
According to Fitch, Tingley said “all religious denominations were perverted and used by men as a means to an end. Drawing fat salaries as ministers, etc. That the modern system of religion was wholly wrong.”
Under cross-examination, Fitch confessed that, after he left the Brotherhood, he wrote letters to Vernon Davis, the New York Gerry Society, and to Harrison Otis — major players in Tingley’s conspiracy theory — offering to reveal all. He also corresponded with Reverend Horton, First Congregational Church of San Diego, one of the three dozen local ministers protesting Tingley’s beliefs and tactics.
Asked if anyone compared Tingley to other religious figures, Fitch said yes: Cyrus Willard, a Theosophist, “called her greater than Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed, or Christ.”
(During the rebuttal, Willard said he “never made such a statement in my life!”
Shortridge: “Did you compare her to Zoroaster?”
Willard: “I did not!”
Judge Torrance (declaring the question irrelevant): “Let Zoroaster rest. I guess he’s dead anyway.”
Fitch left the colony because he “got sick of it” and never could balance the books. “Theosophy is a pretty good sort of life,” he concluded, “if you could live up to it. But Tingleyism is abominable.”
At the end of the deposition, Judge Torrance struck most of Fitch’s remarks from the record. On Sunday, December 21, the Times printed them: “Sacred Dog Spot Slips His Collar: Canine Possessed of Departed Man’s Soul: Fitch’s Deposition Hot Stuff.” The story also reported that Tingley’s eyes “flashed fire” at the damaging allegations. “She fidgeted about like an angry hen, and indulged in indignant exclamations.”
Monday, December 22. Did the jury read the article? Tingley’s lead attorney Andrews (a “lucid master of analysis who strikes like a hammer,” Union) argued that, in publishing matter “not read to the jury,” the defense went beyond the “bonds of propriety.”
Shortridge: “I object to the conduct of counsel as misconduct, which is prejudicial to the defendant.”
Judge Torrance: “That is not a remark you should make, Mr. Shortridge. You must not accuse opposing counsel of dishonorable conduct.”
Shortridge: “I did not intend to accuse anyone of anything dishonorable.”
Torrance: “You referred to the conduct of counsel as misconduct and stated that the opposing counsel was guilty. I want counsel to understand that they cannot bandy such charges in this court! It will not be permitted for one instant.”
Shortridge: “I take exception to the remarks of the court!”
Jerome A. Anderson Deposition
Much of the defendant’s case relied on the depositions of Fitch and Anderson, a former member of the Brotherhood who wrote a letter damning Tingley in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Anderson had known Tingley since 1895. Asked to describe her for the deposition, Anderson said, “physically, a woman I should take to be sixty years old; quite large, quite fat, dark-complexioned, untidy, very erratic in all ways — a megalomaniac.”
Questioner: “We want your descriptions from what you observed, not the conclusions you drew.”
Anderson: “An unbounded belief in her own greatness, ability to rule…she has, in the very highest form, self-conceit. Her influence seems to be…hypnotic. [Her followers] are willing, abject slaves.” Theosophy teaches “ethical good morals, love to others.” Tingley teaches “hatred, suspicion, calumny, deceit, lies, and everything that is bad.”
When someone left the organization, Anderson said Tingley tried “her utmost to slander them.” When he left, “She published that I was insane, that I was a liar incapable of attending to my business.”
Before he adjourned the court, Judge Torrance reminded the jury that the issue at stake was not the teachings of the school or Theosophy, but is the Plaintiff “a fake and a fraud” who uses the Brotherhood “for the purpose of defrauding” her followers?
Torrance (referring to the Sunday Times article): “I am certain that neither of the parties of this suit nor their counsel would attempt to influence any member of this jury. I believe they are honorable persons.”
To the jury: “I believe you are men of sufficient moral stamina to decide the case on the evidence alone” and not permit “anything on the outside to influence your minds.”
Then he paused for at least 30 seconds. The silence, after days of accusations and objections, was disconcerting. Everyone assumed the judge would adjourn for the day. Instead he raised a crumpled envelope. “This is from an unknown party, who was too cowardly to sign his name to it.”
In deliberately scrawled handwriting, and marked “Very Important,” Torrance said the letter was from a person “or persons destitute of character, destitute of any proper appreciation of their civil obligations, who would not hesitate for a moment to influence either the jury or the judge if it were possible.
“I am only sorry that I haven’t the evidence of who they are.”
Although Torrance did not divulge the contents of an obvious threat, Hunsaker rose and shouted, “The defendant excepts to all remarks of the court pertaining to the letter or its receipt!”
Torrance (banging the gavel): “Court is adjourned.”
- Los Angeles Herald: “The opposing attorneys admit that this will become a noted case in the history of California jurisprudence.”
- Emmett A. Greenwalt: “The case could have been settled out of court “except for [Otis’s] known stubbornness and confidence in his legal talent.”
- San Francisco Call: “Altogether the case is proving the best planned and most stoutly
- Ashcraft, W. Michael, The Dawn of a New Cycle: Point Loma Theosophists and American Culture (Knoxville, 2002).
- Greenwalt, Emmett A., The Point Loma Community of California: 1897–1942, A Theosophical Experiment (Berkeley, 1955).
- Hine, Robert V., California’s Utopian Colonies (New Haven, 1953).
- Kirkley, Evelyn A., “Starved and Treated Like Convicts: Images of Women in Point Loma Theosophy,” California Historical Quarterly (Spring, 1973).
- Little, Dwayne L., “Katherine Tingley: Theosophist as Progressive Reformer, 1890–1929,” faculty paper and lecture, Point Loma Nazarene College, January, 1987.
- Lockwood, Herbert W., “Madame Tingley and the General,” San Diego Magazine (December, 1976), vol. 29, no. 2.
- Tingley, Katherine Augusta Wescott, Katherine Tingley, plaintiff, vs. Times Mirror Company, defendant (San Diego, 2004).
- Sinclair, Upton, The Profits of Religion (Pasadena, 1918).
- Waterstone, Penny B., “Domesticating Universal Brotherhood: Feminine Values and the Construction of Utopia, Point Loma Homestead,” master’s thesis, University of Arizona, 1995.
- Articles in the San Diego Union, San Diegan-Sun, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Herald, San Francisco Call, San Francisco Chronicle, and others.