Los Angeles exploded into its present shape between the 1890s and the 1930s. Real estate speculators worked with newly minted industrialists to establish neighborhoods, train lines, and water distribution, and then—with the help of the Otis-Chandler newspaper empire—drew in millions of new residents to use them.
It was a peculiar moment in global Western culture: a side effect of colonialism included the introduction of Eastern religions and philosophy into Judeo-Christian culture. Explorers were feverishly “discovering” (read: pillaging) ancient civilizations from South America to Egypt, adding their plunder to the Western visual imagination. The Industrial Revolution produced a counter-reaction in Spiritualism—the urgent need to make the invisible and the ineffable present itself and perform.
These forces convened on the newly scraped and subdivided landscape of Southern California—as its cities grew, so did an unprecedented diversity of cults, denominations, and worship rituals. The newspapers reveal early Los Angeles as a seething mass of spiritual guides, mystics, fortune tellers, palm readers, and invented sects, classified ads promising answers for seekers of love, fortune, a salve to their pain, or the access to a higher truth.
Managing the charlatanry was a major civic concern of the day. Newspapers warned readers with stories of gypsies and mediums swindling unsuspecting suckers. City leaders attempted to control and tax this cottage industry. At one point, frustrated City Councilors seeking to end “the reign of the spiritualist fakers and soothsayers who have been waxing fat in this city,” asked fortune tellers to demonstrate their powers publicly at risk of losing their licenses. Police investigated various criminal rings of psychics who were variously extorting, blackmailing, or sexually assaulting their followers. Indeed, the intimate acts of mystic inquiry often only came into public record when they met the legal system—as with Laura Sample, described variously as “colored spiritualist” or “dusky reader,” who stood trial for forging the will of one of her clients, Susand, a well-regarded barber.
Los Angeles Times (1886-1922); Jan 11, 1920; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Sunday Times, Editorial Section, Vol.XXXIX
Undeniably in tension with concerns of fraudulence was the irresistible power of this new world of ideas and its concomitant new ways of living being offered in “flowery, sun-drenched California, where Nature exhibits herself in mystical opulence, where plenty of people have plenty of money, where there are many invalids contemplating eternity.” (1) This sometimes took the form of newspaper features gleefully detailing the scandalously strange lives of cults (as with the description of sun-worshipping Mazdaznan taking daily naked dew-baths).
But there was no avoiding its prominence. Town leaders consulted with spirits and psychics and often invited such visionary thinkers to speak at their clubs. A national convention of Spiritualists in 1917 opened with an official greeting by the Mayor’s secretary on behalf of Los Angeles.
Hand-colored postcard image shows front view of the Theosophical Institute (Raja Yoga Academy and Temple of Peace), also known as Lomaland, Point Loma, California; 1915.
Palos Verdes Library District Postcard Collection.
I grew up in San Diego—between the domes of the Theosophist Lomaland in Point Loma (established 1900) and the golden lotus blossoms of the Paramahansa Yogananda's Self Realization Fellowship in Encinitas (established 1920). I saw traces of this history everywhere, yet my lifelong fascination has continued to revolve around a lacuna: What was the nature of the lived experience of these worshippers? How did they worship? What did they actually do in these strange private rooms? What did it feel like? Where was the body?
Of course, this is the most difficult thing to document, or perhaps even communicate in language. While thousands of texts were published by spiritual leaders during this time, they tend towards overarching philosophies, justifications, and generalities—as opposed to the intimacy of ritual gesture. As such, I have taken to searching for clues for the intimate lived experience of alternative religious experience in Los Angeles during the early part of the 20th century.
I have come to be most interested in the women leaders. Spiritualist movements were always populated by female followers, but it was also a context in which a woman straining against the gendered expectations of the day could find their own space to live—and to lead.
Willimina Armstrong (who later changed her name to Zamin Ki Dost), Josephine De Croix Trust (known by her followers as “Mother Trust”), Katherine Tingley (the “Purple Mother”), demonstrate three attempts to manifest an ideal world into being through syncretic narrative and ritual engagement, revealing the birth of a new global awareness being born.
Los Angeles Times (1886-1922); Sep 6, 1913; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times pg. II1
Willimina Armstrong, “The Avatar” / The Body, Transported
Willimina Armstrong’s biography always iterated her history as a prodigy medical student, then missionary in India. She claimed that while living there as a teenager she fell into becoming not the student, but the teacher of “a group of Indian sages…who represented countless generations of culture…cultivated the intellect to its highest degree and looked deep into the hidden things which are yet an unknown enigma to western peoples.” In Women As Travelers: American Women in Action from Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, she’s an example: “Miss Willimina Armstrong is familiar with six Indian languages and is probably the only Anglo-Saxon woman alive who can converse in classical Sanscrit.”
In 1903, with an injured spine, she moved to Los Angeles to share her great knowledge in a less physically demanding environment. By 1904, she had published “Incense of Sandalwood,” a collection of poems, engravings, stories, and the occasional statement of wisdom, a la: “The Physical is the Laboratory in which the Spiritual must work out its experiments.”
A year later, she was giving talks to society women. During one address, “In a Prince’s Household,” at the Ebell Club in Hancock Park, she wore what she claimed was the garb of an Indian princess, and kept her audience rapt for two hours. By 1911, the Los Angeles Times asked breathlessly in a feature: “Is She a Reincarnated Sage of India?” declaring that “Miss Armstrong sketched word pictures of the Far East that glowed with life, gave us glimpses of marvelous knowledge and understanding, and revealed something of the strong and lofty spirit that…controls her every act.” Her Orientalism combined with the desire to establish “Mother India” as the source of elevated knowledge—for which only she could be the conduit. An increasingly popular speaker, she attempted to provide more expansive international awareness: raising money for sufferers of the Armenian genocide, critically connecting what she saw as the problems of the Islamic religion with the evils of Mormonism.
Her status was challenged in a 1913 court case, in which she was accused of absconding with money from her pupils under false pretenses from her followers by the “power of hypnotism.” The court case revealed more than anything how she worked one on one.
“Clad in the rich robes of the Orient…amidst a perfectly set stage she poured out her marvelous stories…gradually, as the pupil could bear it, he was led more and more into ‘The Light’ until she finally stood revealed as the great Kalki Avatara, the prophesied one, the realization of Ram’s golden age, whose story is preserved and guarded for 28,000 years by the generations of a recluse brotherhood in caves miles deep in the Himalaya Mountains.” The Avatara would call spirits and appear to converse with them during these sessions. She would treat her followers for any ills in their “final body,” meaning, the body they would inhabit after they died.
Eventually, Armstrong fell out of favor as the Kalki Avatara ultimately lived and died as a writer under the nom de plume Zamin Ki Dost. Carey McWilliams, the Tom Wolfe of his day who wrote brilliantly and acerbically about many of the early LA spiritualists, notes running across her at the Krotona Theosophist colony and refers admiringly to Son of Power, a book she co-wrote about a white man who becomes a famous animal trainer in India.
Josephine De Croix Trust, “Mother Trust” / The Body, in Atoms
After years of holding prayer meetings in downtown Los Angeles hotels, Josephine de Croix Trust, known as Mother Trust, founded the Holy Light Superet Church on Third Street between Rampart and Alvarado. She claimed herself a Polish Countess although there is no hard evidence of her noble lineage.
Exterior view of Holy Superet Light Center, founded by Josephine DeCroix Trust (Mother Trust). She purchased this, an existing chapel on the site, in 1926 and added a series of other buildings to the complex over the years. This chapel was built in 1922 and designed by architects Truesdell and Newton. It is Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Monument No. 555 and is located in the Westlake district. Photo by Ralph Morris. Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.
Exterior view of Mother Trust Superet Center, designed by Josephine DeCroix Trust (Mother Trust), who founded the denomination. She purchased an existing chapel on this site in 1926 and added a series of other buildings to the complex over the years. This building was built in 1941. It is Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Monument No. 555. Photo by Ralph Morris. Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.
The Superet Church is a landmark of Los Angeles neon, topped with an 11-foot tall purple heart atop the steeple. Mother Trust synthesized remarkably distinct beliefs into a coherent system: color auras, light and vibrations, which she could read from her followers and around Jesus’ own words, a “Scientific Christianity” which reveled in the holy power of the “Spiritual” Atom Bomb; and a proto-feminist rewriting of Christian theology, in which it was revealed to her that the “Holy Ghost” of the Trinity is actually Mother God. She translated the Bible into a complex symbological chart and promoted a Superet Ancient Sign Language in which “Science of Past Centuries developed and send radio waves through the Hands.”
Her followers would take inventory of their sins and good deeds using a chakra-like “atom aura chart” tracked along twelve senses, each with an associated color: six physical senses (eyes, ears, nose, mouth, heart, and sex), two mental senses (mind and will), two spiritual senses (spirit and aura), and two soul senses (soul and soul heart consciousness). They would clear the bad atoms from themselves while tracking the good ones.
In 1934, police were called twice to the church one morning to break up a brawl between Mother Trust and her Assistant Pastor, a Mrs. Mabel Ferguson, both in their nighties. Ferguson, who took to the walls with brickbats said she felt it her duty to destroy the church “because Mrs. Trust had married a mere mortal instead of an angel.” The church was attracting followers into the 1950s, including one young man whose mother brought the church to trial, claiming that he had become unbalanced since joining, denying his family. Weeping, she testified that “he said I had become just a piece of flesh to him,” and stated that he was affecting a limp though “there is nothing the matter with his legs, but he has told his mother that he has a knee affliction which will not leave him until he repents.”
Mother Trust died in 1957, never having become a worldwide brand like Scientology. And yet, she prefigured it. And surprisingly, the Superet Church continues in Los Angeles—with its neon, nightly Prayer groups, and weekly informational meetings. Additional branches also continue to operate in Washington DC, Mexico, and Nigeria, where in the 1971s, a group of men somehow came upon the Superet literature and using it, founded their outpost in Calabar.
Katherine Tingley, “The Purple Mother” / The Body At Work
Katherine Tingley, “The Purple Mother,” remains a remarkable figure less for her writings and lectures, extensive though they were—and more for Lomaland, the Theosophist kibbutz she founded in 1900 on the San Diego coast. Open until the early 1940s, Lomaland remains one of the longest-lasting alternative communities in California, and Tingley appeared to have run it through sheer force of an indomitable will and rare leadership ability.
Photograph of Mrs. Katherine A. Tingley and several Counselors of the Theosophists Institute at Point Loma, California. Mrs. Tingley can be seen sitting on the right, wearing a long, black skirt, black jacket, and cream-color blouse. She is also pictured in the round inset on the upper left; photo circa 1896. The beautiful building partially pictured is the Academy Building of the International Theosophical Headquarters - also called the School for the Revival of the Los Mysteries of Antiquity (SRLMA). Photo by C.C. Pierce & Co. Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.
Tingley inherited the mantle of the Theosophist movement from William Quan Judge, whom she met at the age of 40 after an unremarkable early life on the East Coast. Theosophy, the most influential forgotten movement of the 20th Century, attempted to provide a meta-narrative understanding the world, “a sifting of the wisdom of the ages in search of basic truths relating to man and the universe,” (2) interchangeably using Eastern philosophy, advances in science, new understandings of psychology and mystic spiritualism to get to some higher understanding.
And yet whereas Annie Besant, Tingley’s greatest rival for the leadership of the Theosophical community, asserted her influence through ongoing worldwide lecture tours, Tingley poured her efforts into building a “City on a White Hill” providing an alternative way of living in productive community.
Buildings and grounds of the Theosophical Society headquarters in Point Loma (1897-1942); shows bulging and turreted domes of romanticized Islamic architecture of the Raja Yoga School, a department of the school of Antiquity (later Lomaland School), Greek stoa of fluted Doric columns supporting Greco-Roman pediment, exotic shrubs on cliffs above Pacific Ocean; ca. 1906. California State Library, California History Section Picture Catalog.
She founded the Point Loma’s School for the Revival of the Lost Mysteries of Antiquity, which ultimately grew into a self-sustaining commune of 500 residents, with orchards, vegetable gardens, a publishing house, bakery, stables, and carpenters. The Raja Yoga school (whose precepts of education prefigure current progressive educational movements) at one point taught 300 children and included adopted children from Cuba who had been orphaned in the Spanish-American war. No one was paid a wage for their work, and they all lived in peaceable community until her death in 1927, after which a combination of the financial fallout of the Depression and the lack of Tingley’s executive abilities led to its closing in 1942.
"The Little Philosophers," A group of Raja-Yoga tots on their way to the Greek Theater, International Theosophical Headquarters, Point Loma, California; ca. 1907-1914. California State University, Dominguez Hills, Archives and Special Collections, James H. Osborne Photograph Collection.
Tingley appeared to be a Clintonian figure—defined less by inspiring rhetoric and more by her interest in organizing a community with thought-out policies on education, sex, employment, and productivity. Similarly, as a woman in such a position of leadership and stringent authority, this led to a never-ending stream of bad press. Newspapers gleefully and thoroughly reported on her multiple court cases—from estranged husbands trying to get their children removed from the Raja Yoga school to wives blaming Tingley for alienating their husband’s affections or by disappointed heirs who saw their inheritances being diverted towards the greater good of Lomaland. They jeered that she believed her dog was the reincarnated spirit of a friend, or her more complex beliefs on the validity of marriage, and tried to accuse her of raising Raja Yoga students under offensively harsh conditions—“child doesn’t know what beefsteak is!” one headline proclaims.
And yet Tingley was a rare leader who managed to bring culture into a “jumping off” community of 17,000, which San Diego then was. Tingley believed in the spiritual guidance of the arts, that music, dance, and theater would “depict man’s nobler side before the general public.” The children of Raja Yoga played music as part of their daily education. Tingley purchased San Diego’s Fischer Opera House, renamed it the Isis House and filled it with programming for the City. On the Lomaland grounds she built the first Greek open-air amphitheater in the United States, staging Shakespeare plays and productions of the Eumenides that would include the entrance of Athena on actual white horses. (3)
View of Greek Theater at the Point Loma Theosophical Society Headquarters; shows Doric columns supporting Greco-Roman style pediment in amphitheater overlooking the Pacific Ocean; ca. 1925. California State Library, California History Section Picture Catalog.
Tingley’s power—and Armstrong’s—and Trust’s—allowed them to shape the landscape of emergent California so they could live far outside the era’s expectations of domestic womanhood. To work as leaders, to promote ideas that in turn shifted the perspectives of hundreds, if not thousands of people who came into intimate contact with them: around communal living and responsibility; the values of the arts in education; notions of participation in an international community; the idealizing of science in a spiritual context; even a Mother God.
The combination of spiritual health and magic, color and culture, art and science—remains in the DNA, embedded in the landscape. Scientology in the ‘50s—hippies in the ‘60s—cults in the ‘70s—even more recently yoga culture, Burning Man, Landmark Forum—couldn’t exist without these Mothers of Magic.
(1) “Religion: California Cults.” Time Magazine, Monday, March 31, 1930.
(2) Berge, Dr. Dennis E., Introduction to Reminiscences of Lomaland: Madame Tingley and the Theosophical Institute in San Diego, The Journal of San Diego History, San Diego Historical Society Quarterly, Summer 1974, Volume 20, No. 3.
(3) Bednarowski, Mary Farrell. ‘Outside the Mainstream: Women’s Religion and Women Religious Leaders in Nineteenth Century America.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 48, No. 2 (June. 1980), p. 221-231.
Maya Gurantz is an artist in video, performance, installation, and site specific social practice. Her work has been shown by the MCA Denver, the Oakland Museum, High Desert Test Sites 2013, and Autonomie Gallery,