The tip of Point Loma, entrance to San Diego Bay
Human lemmings trundling up the steep cliffs of Point Loma? A mass exodus? Never had so many San Diegans been on the move at the same time. Until February 23, 1897, occasional visitors went either to the lighthouse, to picnic, or to inspect their small orange or lemon groves on the lee side.
On the morning of the 23rd, a jangling caravan of wheeled vehicles braved the mud flats around the bay and up the winding, 300-foot grade to the ridgeline. At 2:00 p.m., the mysterious Madame Tingley, world leader of the Universal Brotherhood, would dedicate the cornerstone for a school devoted to the “Revival of the Lost Mysteries of Antiquity.”
By 10:00 a.m., some said, people had rented every available vehicle in town: liveries, carriages, omnibuses, even six-horse, open air Tally Ho’s. All, wrote the San Diegan-Sun, were “loaded to the brim.”
The brass horns of steam launches, shipping curious San Diegans to the landing at Roseville, rippled low across the bay. On the trail, cyclists and pedestrians kept alert for horse hooves spackling mud on Sunday-best outfits.
The caravan moved at two speeds. The Brotherhood sent out 250 invitations. Those were the vehicles taking their time. They had reserved seats. The ceremony was also open to the public. Somewhere between 400 and 600 made the trek knowing they’d have standing room only. Those moving fastest wanted to secure a good vantage point.
Reasons for the journey varied. In interviews, Madame Tingley promised not just to build a major educational center and enhance culture and the arts in San Diego. The School for the Revival of the Lost Mysteries of Antiquity would save humanity. A New Cycle was on the way. At the turn of the century, Point Loma would become the center of the earth.
The night before, a turn-away crowd heard speeches at Unity Hall about Theosophy and Brotherhood, karma and reincarnation, and that there was “no religion higher than truth.”
One of the speakers, E.T. Hargrove, raised eyebrows when he said the early Christians believed in reincarnation. The belief was “widespread in Palestine at the time of Christ.” Around 300 A.D., “the Church abandoned [the idea] and declared an anathema against ‘pre-existence,’ as it was then called.” Jesus, Hargrove claimed, was most likely the reincarnation of Elijah or Jeremiah.
Many of those at the meeting rented wagons to see if Hargrove’s blasphemies threatened dearly held beliefs. Others wanted to see the woman whose mystical skills included contact with souls, living and dead, and with the sacred Mahatmas, Himalayan masters of wisdom said to be very — maybe even centuries — old. Still others just wanted to be part of what the San Diego Union called “one of the most notable occasions of its kind ever witnessed on earth.”
At 2:00 p.m., invitees sat quietly. Hundreds more, by most accounts, stood in a half-circle behind them. Many more stood on carriages and peered over the crowd.
The ceremony took place inside a small circle enclosed with cypress limbs entwined like ropes. Invitees sat outside, each receiving a multi-colored souvenir program. An evergreen arch, donated by the chamber of commerce, loomed over the entrance. At the apex, a large silk banner resembled the American flag: seven gold and purple stripes, a field of purple with the Universal Brotherhood emblem in gold, upper left-hand quarter. Purple letters proclaimed: “Truth, Light, Liberation for Discouraged Humanity.”
A clanging triangle began the ceremony. As the 20-piece City Guard band played Mascagni’s serene, calming “Intermezzo Sinfonico,” the flaps of a nearby tent opened. Out came two rows of men and women, their purple robes recalling ancient Greece. They formed two lines at the arch. The tent flaps opened again. Madame Katherine Tingley appeared. Her long purple robe and purple and gold scarf were more ornate than her followers, her fingers more bejeweled. Flanked by young acolytes, she made a stately walk down the aisle, a rolled-up parchment in her left hand, a tin box in her right.
Those who described her appearance wrote that, though “not tall,” Madame Tingley was “a vigorous woman with a stout frame.” She had gray, “restless eyes.” Her “attractive features” and a “mass of dark hair” made her look younger than her 50 years.
Iverson Harris, a lifelong Theosophist, said “K.T. had a sense of humor and…a ripping good laugh, but she was also an executive. She had a strong hand. As the Cuban boys used to say, ‘She no go for foolly.’”
To most at the ceremony, aside from her costume, she was a bit of a letdown. Instead of a rabid-eyed, fire-breathing visionary, she seemed a modest, private woman who spoke in clear, controlled tones. If the image was calculated, as some later claimed, she played the part well.
Eight men and four women, the inner circle of the “Esoteric School,” formed a line behind a dais adorned by the American flag. A slight breeze flapped their robes. All faced a square, granite slab suspended from a tall derrick: the cornerstone. After a silence, Madame Tingley stepped forward. She placed the tin box, containing the movement’s key documents, in a hollow granite hole and sealed it with mortar. As the derrick lowered the cornerstone, she dedicated “this stone, a perfect square, a fitting emblem of the perfect work that will be done in the temple for the benefit of humanity and the glory of the ancient sages.”
The 12 followers behind her suddenly chanted “Ohm.”
To symbolize the four elements, Madame Tingley ladled corn, oil, wine, and dirt on the stone. Then she stepped back. To the shock of onlookers, President Hargrove poured burning alcohol over the cornerstone. A cackling bonfire blazed upward as if by magic. “May these fires be lighted,” Hargrove proclaimed, “and may they burn forever more.”
Several of the 12 “Esotericists” read excerpts from Sanskrit, the Beatitudes, the Orphic Mysteries, the Upanishads, Zuni prayers, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. A passage from the Bhagavad Gita spoke of reincarnation: “Those who are wise in spiritual things grieve neither for the dead nor for the living. I myself never was not, nor thou, nor all the princes of the earth, nor shall we ever hereafter cease to be.”
Two men raised a large American flag up a tall pole. The band played “Hail, Columbia” and “The Red, White, and Blue.”
Announced as “humanity’s friend,” Madame Tingley stepped forward and unrolled the parchment. “In ancient times,” she read, “the founding of a temple was looked upon as of world-wide importance….The future of this school will be closely associated with the future of the great American republic.” The school would be international in scope, but “American in center” — and a “temple of living light.” The school would cost $300,000, would have “splendid communal buildings,” and would be a “world center for the arts and sciences.”
“I appeal to all present,” Tingley concluded, “to remember this day as one of great promise: for this New Age must bring a blessing to all.”
Other speakers followed. A solemn Hargrove swore that the school’s chief aim was not to “develop psychic qualities and abnormal freaks.” Nor, he added, would the school “be conducted to make money. Tuition will be free [and] no trustee or officer will receive any salary.”
Claude Falls Wright, scheduled to speak about Madame Blavatsky, co-founder of the Theosophical movement, was “unavoidably absent.” Alice Leighton Cleather filled in on short notice. Instead of Blavatsky, Cleather improvised a speech about Madame Tingley.
For decades, Cleather said, “Madame Tingley saw the sorrows and the horrors of life, every day.” And, until she discovered Theosophy, she felt that no other existing belief or institution could surmount the plight of millions.
Rumors persisted that when the leader of the Theosophists, William Q. Judge, died, Madame Tingley stole the title. “She never sought the position,” Cleather said, “which is in truth an exceedingly hard one.” She “was entreated to take it.”
Cleather dispelled another rumor: Tingley’s detractors said she claimed to be the reincarnation of Madame Blavatsky. “It’s a spiteful slander absolutely without the slightest foundation.” It “arose from the treachery of those who professed to be her friends. It was this treachery that shortened the life of the great-hearted H.P. Blavatsky.”
Just before the ceremony ended, attendants lowered the American flag and raised the purple and gold flag of Universal Brotherhood. “As the people returned after the ceremonies,” wrote the San Diegan-Sun, “the handsome flag was large enough to be seen flying in the breeze all the way to the city.”
That evening, Madame Tingley reprimanded Cleather for breaking a key rule: no one talks about Tingley’s past. “Gossip,” Tingley wrote later, is “moral murder.”
But for many heading down the ravine and back to town, Cleather’s off-the-cuff remarks answered some but raised other questions about the “Woman in Purple.”
Born Catherine Augusta Wescott, on July 6, 1847, she grew up in Newburyport, Massachusetts. During the Civil War, when her father James Wescott was a captain in the Northern Army, she became a self-appointed nurse at age 14. She cared for the wounded, the mauled, and the dying at Alexandria, Virginia. The sounds of booming cannons and the sight of so many battered soldiers instilled an abhorrence of war.
“War and preparation for war and thought towards war,” she later wrote, “these are a confession of weakness…. Our enemies are not outside, but within: in our own national mind and customs, our national aggressions and fallings short.
“To stand merely and narrowly for one’s own country is a suicidal substitute for patriotism.” Tingley advocated a “higher” patriotism: one “should be eager to give our lives — in the living, not in the dying” to one’s country.
Before New York had “settlements” to care for the poor, Tingley rented rooms on the first floor of an old tenement house. She founded the Do-Good Mission in the city’s worst East Side slum. Later, she created the Society of Mercy to visit hospitals and prisons, and the Women’s Emergency Relief Association to aid poor women and children.
Although Cleather’s improvised speech placed Tingley on New York’s meanest streets, it also questioned her right to rule the Theosophists.
In 1875, Madame Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcutt, and William Quan Judge co-founded the Theosophical Society. They defined it as a “research and publishing institute” dedicated to the archaic Wisdom-Religion” that preceded all the others. By the time she died, in 1891, Blavatsky had an international reputation.
William Q. Judge was one of her most ardent believers. An Irish immigrant and unsuccessful attorney, Judge had suffered from severe depression. Blavatsky diagnosed his condition and gave him a ring. The “talisman,” he said, changed his life. He became president of the American Theosophical “lodges” and built a flourishing organization almost from scratch.
After he took office, Judge read about a tireless social worker on the East Side. “He had gone down there to see for himself,” Tingley wrote in 1926. Judge watched the woman from across the street and saw her “hunger for something that could go much deeper” than social or even religious solutions. When he introduced himself, Judge told her how Theosophy would “remove the causes of misery and not merely relieve the effect.”
“It was then,” Tingley writes, “that I realized I had found my place.”
Shortly after Madame Blavatsky died, Judge received a letter. It came, he said, from an ancient Tibetan Mahatma who named him Blavatsky’s “spiritual successor.” Before he died in 1895, Judge gave Theosophy a practical, Western emphasis far from its occult roots. Henry Steele Olcott and Annie Besant, leaders of the original organization, grew so incensed at the changes they swore Judge couldn’t be Blavatsky’s successor. He forged the mystical letter.
At that point, according to the New York Herald, “the Battle of Fair Theosophists” began.
Judge split from the parent organization. He and 4000 followers established the Theosophical Society of America. Besant and Olcott fought to bring the apostates back.
When Judge died, Madame Tingley assumed leadership of the American society. Besant was just an elitist, she said; her ability to read minds and “thought forms” and see people’s auras was “all bosh.” Unlike Besant, who asked 50 cents per lecture, Tingley never charged admission and advocated compassion for all, not just those few on a higher “astral plane.” To stress this universality, in 1897, Tingley renamed the society the United Brotherhood of Theosophists.
Besant, in turn, challenged Tingley’s right to lead. Tingley was not the reincarnation of Madame Blavatsky, as many in the Brotherhood implied. And Tingley’s claim that a Mahatma validated her high calling? As phony as Judge’s letter. Tingley was a self-dramatizing impostor!
The Siege of Point Loma Begins
One of Tingley’s sayings: “a lie two hours ahead of the truth is hardly to be overtaken.” In April 1897, San Diegans saw the first of several assaults on the mysterious “Woman in Purple.”
Tingley’s predecessor, William Q. Judge, broke away from the original Theosophists and advocated a more down-to-earth practice. After his death in 1896, Tingley assumed leadership and continued his approach.
Besant, co-leader of the original organization, declared Judge and Tingley lied about their pseudo-mystical succession; their confused, dangerous teachings would have a “sinister effect.” When Tingley went on a worldwide crusade, Besant trailed her. Wherever Tingley spoke — in Ireland, Austria, India — Besant gave a counter-lecture the next day.
Besant came to San Diego, on April 29, to lecture on “Man”s Invisible Bodies,” — human auras — at the Fisher Opera House. The day before, Countess Wachtmeister of Sweden and her son, Count Alex, stayed at the posh Brewster Hotel and awaited their master’s arrival.
“We represent the original Theosophic Society,” Count Alex told the San Diegan-Sun. “We are, however, as American as [Tingley’s]. Please bear that in mind and don’t try to involve me in any controversy.”
The next morning, the Union headline called Point Loma a “NEST OF FREE LOVERS.” Behind its heavily guarded walls, the story alleged, “Lomaland” had become a den of steaming iniquity.
“The two branches of theosophy have been in a state of anything but universal brotherhood,” said the countess, unaware she spoke for publication, “at least among themselves.”
Schools like Point Loma “usually degenerate into free-lovism.” The countess added that Tingley’s penchant for “theatrical display” might “turn a great many thinking people from theosophy.”
Tingley was in Chicago. So, the Union quoted remarks attributed to her: Besant preaches “ghostology” and “talks of mummeries masquerading under the cloak of true belief”; she’s “a victim of her own self-serving. I laugh when I think how powerless she is.”
The Union cited both women without permission. That afternoon, the San Diegan-Sun retorted — “SHE IS ANGRY” — and printed a letter from the countess to the Union editor: “it was with much surprise that I read the very sensational report of a very prosy interview I had yesterday with your reporter.” She denied saying anything about “free loverism” and felt “deeply grieved” that a reporter would “put a slander in my mouth which I had never thought of uttering.”
That night, wearing a beige silk gown, Besant lectured to a small audience at the opera house. In graceful British tones she described waves of psychic ether visible only to the enlightened. Science was moving into the “mysterious realms of psychology,” she said, like the “astral body,” which whirls and changes “as the emotions of the soul change.” Using a stereopticon, she showed pictures of luminous blue clouds (pure thoughts), long red streaks (anger), and a dark brown, shapeless fog (“selfish animalism”). She never mentioned Tingley.
The next day, the Union noted Besant’s “remarkable powers as an orator.” If what she said were true, it would “completely overturn the accepted theories regarding man.”
Both the Union and the Sun regretted that Besant avoided controversy. Though she did say that “all the evil in the world might be diverted by the casting of a rose colored shaft of love by the astral body in return for flashes of anger which were sent by one’s enemies.”
Newspapers began to question Tingley’s dictatorial tactics. Unlike the soft-spoken, always cordial Besant, Tingley developed a reputation for being hard-nosed and domineering. “Her desire,” one paper wrote, “equals a czar’s edict.”
On February 15, 1898, the USS Maine exploded and sank in Havana harbor. The Spanish-American War broke out. American casualties were heavy. Stifling heat and yellow fever led to thousands more.
The War Department set up a hospital on Long Island for wounded soldiers. But the camp was unprepared for the 22,000 who came to Montauk Point. Ambulances clogged the three-mile road from the dock. Hospital tents were pitched near the shore to house the overflow.
Dr. Herbert Coryn, a Theosophist, asked Tingley for help. Within a month, the Bridgeport Union wrote: “Mrs. Katherine Tingley has been at Camp Wikoff in the midst of fever and death for many days…in the manner of the Good Samaritan.” The “Soldier’s Angel” (New York Journal) and her staff aided an estimated 9000 troops.
The following February, Tingley and Dr. Coryn went to Cuba. As they distributed supplies and tended to the ailing, Tingley had an inspiration: the Point Loma school, still more idea than actuality, could teach Theosophy to very young Cuban children. In a telegram she claimed to have “three hundred applications…for a school I will establish.”
She also boasted, “I could convert the whole island in five years.”
On February 13, 1900, Tingley moved the Theosophical Society’s international headquarters from New York to Point Loma. That summer, she became a permanent resident and “Lomaland” the center of the earth.
That fall, the Evening-Tribune printed an eight-page supplement, illustrated with photos. It hailed Tingley’s new Raja Yoga School, the first Greek amphitheater in America (still under construction), and a growing population of followers, including very wealthy males.
One, Albert Spalding, was the former commissioner of Major League Baseball and founder of Spalding Sporting Goods. He built a palatial home, near the Roman-styled entrance to Lomaland, with an outdoor spiral staircase. Across the way, Spalding created his pride and joy: a nine-hole golf course in the canyon.
Within a year, as more and more buildings sprouted on the site, with bulging green and amethyst domes, sleek spires, and foreign sounding names, Lomaland became San Diego’s number-one tourist attraction. On average, 100 people a day gazed at the strange, mystical structures and subtropical vegetation blooming from unpromising soil. Since some came to trample the flowerbeds and straight rows of vegetables or razz young women in boxy, Puritanical outfits, Lomaland charged a ten-cent admission to ferret out the “indiscriminate.” Three miles of low, white fences discouraged most, but not all, so members of the Brotherhood patrolled the grounds day and night. Some were armed.
“It became customary for travelers stopping at Hotel del Coronado to visit Point Loma, curious as to its meaning,” writes historian Emmett A. Greenwalt. “Merchants and hotel keepers found plenty of meaning…San Diego had yet been unable to attract more than 20,000 inhabitants. The drawing power of Point Loma, therefore, was not unappreciated.”
In March, Col. Henry Steel Olcott, president of the original movement, booked the lecture hall at the Hotel Del. He promised to “set the record straight about the true Theosophical society.”
Like Besant, Olcott abhorred Tingley’s rise. Unlike Besant, who kept above the fray, Olcott loved to charge in. White-haired, with a beard as long as Moses’, the 69-year-old Civil War veteran was known as the “White Buddhist of Ceylon,” since he was the first American of some renown to convert to Buddhism. The New York Times called him an “unmitigated rascal” and a “firebrand.” His followers swore he was the Buddha incarnate. When he became a Theosophist, Olcott continued this belief. He and Madame Blavatsky believed, writes a biographer, “that Buddhism best embodied elements of what they found significant in all religions.”
The instant she heard of Olcott’s plan, Madame Tingley phoned the Hotel del’s manager. Either “cancel the lecture” or she would “forbid hotel guests entrance to Lomaland!”
The manager struck Olcott from the books at once. So, Olcott’s agent hired the Fisher Opera house. He gave “his version of the theosophical squabble” on March 29.
A five-story, all-brick structure, the opera house took up the entire block between Fourth and Fifth Streets, and B and C. It seated 1400. Fewer than 400 heard Olcott. Though his ancient voice resonated off the ivory and gold, fresco walls, the colonel gave a dull history of Theosophy, punctuated by frequent pats on the back. His organization “revived the Hindu religion and Sanskrit literature in India” and “Buddhism in Ceylon…and Japan,” and united the Northern and Southern schools. “Buddhism is 2500 years old and never before had seen the slightest union.”
In an allusion to Tingley’s separation, Olcott said his organization recognized “no sect, fad, dogma or partisanship.... The constitution, like that of the United States, is strong as bands of steel to resist attempts to overthrow it. It stands like a rock, immovable.”
Tingley booked the opera house for the next night. She swiped at Olcott and Besant’s “table-rapping” spiritualism and countered a new charge: that she hypnotized captains of industry to do her bidding. Everyone works, she said. The “man at the gate might be the richest” of Lomaland’s 95 members.
(A year later, Tingley solved the problem of rival lecturers. She bought the Fisher Opera House for $70,000, renamed it the Isis Theatre, and held free talks every Sunday about Theosophy. The change brought culture to San Diego in unprecedented ways. Tingley gave young Maurice Braun a studio/home at the Isis Theatre and supported the work of the man who became one of San Diego’s most famous artists).
On Sunday, August 4, 1901, attacks began from outside. The Theosophists wanted to organize local children for “unsectarian and non-contentious Lotus Groups.” Tingley said she’d already signed up 50 “Lotus Buds.” They met each Sunday at 1125 Sixth Street — boys in one group, girls in another — to “learn about nature, music, and rhythmic motion.”
Offended by Tingley’s blasphemy that Jesus merely “republished” universal truths, and most likely that Lomaland had come down from the point to recruit local children, on August 4, Reverend Clarence True Wilson gave a sermon at the First Methodist Church: “Theosophy as a Modern Substitute for the Religion of Christ.”
Reverend Wilson: “Reincarnation is a fad that reads interestingly in novels…[but] Theosophists are teaching that each upward step is a dissolving of the personality. The god of Theosophy is deaf to the cry of the sin-convicted for pardon and uplift.”
The sermon incited a battle, fought on the pages of the San Diego Union.
F.M. Pierce, Theosophist, Union, August 6: “False fear of the Supreme has so weakened man’s spirituality that he has lost the courage to attack and subdue his brutal and subtle selfishness.”
Reverend Wilson, Union, August 8: “This reincarnation is very funny. The ego is sexless; therefore a man may be his own grandmother; any woman her own uncle. The absolute fatalism of this system makes it repugnant to free men.”
Katherine Tingley, lecture, Fisher Opera House, August 19: “An eastern prince goes to the gates of heaven. He looks down and sees all earth’s sufferings and the need of help. So he goes back. I think one would not wish to be redeemed if one had to sit in heaven with persons whose bliss was fed with that peculiar food.”
On August 21, the Union printed a document signed by 12 Catholic and Protestant ministers from San Diego, five from other towns, and a YMCA secretary. Ministers have been silent too long, the document began. “Theosophy’s denial of the Fatherhood of God leaves no real basis for human brotherhood…” Under such a system, “men are not deterred from sin.”
“Theosophy is the hypothesis of a swoon…begins nowhere, leads nowhere, ends nowhere. [It is] subversive of truth and righteousness. We are not heathens, stretching out our hands to Point Loma for help. San Diegans ought to protest this bold effrontery.”
Next time: The Siege of Point Loma goes global.
- Greenwalt, Emmett A.: “Tingley’s reform activity was no isolated phenomenon in the late 19th century, which was rent with political and social movements.”
- Penny B. Waterstone (on the ceremony): “The rituals of manhood were co-opted by a woman and some of the Masonic brotherhood’s most sacred symbols were in the hands of children.”
- Madame Blavatsky: “Yes, woman did lead man to the Tree of Knowledge, and if she had been let alone and allowed to do what she wanted to, she would have led him to the Tree of Life.”
- Maurice Braun: Theosophy provides “a clear, bright light, by which, with true vision [the artist’s] best efforts may come to their proper maturity.”
- Robert V. Hine: “Madame Tingley was no democrat.”
- Madame Tingley: “The word ‘charity’ should be eliminated. In the name of charity men and women have been treated like so much baggage and labeled accordingly.”
- Ashcraft, W. Michael, The Dawn of a New Cycle: Point Loma Theosophists and American Culture (Knoxville, 2002).
- Geeenwalt, Emmett A., The Point Loma Community in California, 1897–1942: A Theosophical Experiment (Berkeley, 1955).
- Harris, Iverson L., “An Interview with Iverson Harris,” San Diego Historical Society, Oral History Program, October 23, 1971.
- Clark, Thomas D., “Annie Besant’s Lecture Tour of San Diego,” Journal of San Diego History (Spring, 1977, vol. 23, number 2).
- Hine, Robert V., California’s Utopian Colonies (New Haven, 1953).
- Little, Dwayne L., “Katherine Tingley: The Theosophist as Progressive Reformer, 1890–1929,” faculty paper and lecture series, Point Loma Nazarene College, January 1987.
- Tingley, Katherine, Theosophy: The Path of the Mystic (Pasadena, 1922); The Gods Await (Pasadena, 1926).
- 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, Evening Tribune, San Diegan-Sun, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, and others.