Apostles and disciples in Gilded Age Kansas City

 The materialism and technophilia of Gilded Age Kansas City had their counterparts in spiritual and utopian fads and cults. Some, like the Deemites, enjoyed a momentary, fervent existence, disappearing without a trace; others, like Delsartism, Theosophy, and Keelyism left a legacy that survives, if almost invisibly, in the twenty-first century.

The Deemites were disciples of brothers John and David Deem. They made an appearance in Kansas City newspapers in February when David Deem faced a jury trial in Columbus, Kansas, on the charge that he was insane. From Columbus, the Times reported that the brothers’ “old faith cure doctrine” had followers in several southeast Kansas and adjacent Missouri counties. In a letter reprinted in William Redding’s Millennial Kingdom  (1894), Redding-Millenial Kingdom John Deem wrote that he had over 7000 “cases… scattered over some fifteen states…,” and that his healing mission was only “my Father’s plan for introducing me among the sick poor. My real mission at present is to hunt up the ‘Elect,’ sound an alarm, urge the necessity of immediate ‘preparation,’ and to declare, ‘The kingdom of heaven is AT HAND.”(Matt. 10:7).[1]  

The brothers’ doctrine, said the paper, “combines the old faith cure doctrine with a literal interpretation of the scripture. According to the Deems, who are men of fair education but from the lower walks of life, the present are the dark days which precede the millennium. Through them the Lord is communicating with the children of men and the power to cure has been given them by which to command attention.” 

The Deems prepared elaborate charts to show that the human life span had fallen after the Biblical flood but was gradually increasing “until there will be no death. John and David Deem do not claim to be Christs… but their teaching has separated husband and wife, children have been deserted by reason of it, two men have already been sent to the insane asylum, and as yet the teaching is only beginning to gain a foothold.” [2]

It was the citizens of Columbus who had called for a jury trial to declare David Deem insane, prompted by the breakup of the Walt family, after a Deemite brought his wife to David Deem for instruction and deposited their infant child with his father-in-law, Mr. Walt, announcing, according to the Times, “God said you must take care of it. I and my wife are no longer man and wife. She is dead…. I and my wife and my Father above are one.” [3]

No suspicion was expressed of any untoward relationship between Deem and the man’s wife; rather, the elder Walt resented the parents’ abandonment of his grandson and equally resented the “Lord will provide” doctrine of the cult, which resulted in his sons and son-in-law sitting around, doing no work.

The Deemites, naturally, called the trial religious persecution; “we thank the Father for it,” declared John Deem. The ‘Deems doctrine’ has become a ‘by-word’ and a ‘reproach.’ Only those with lots of backbone dare to openly befriend us.”[4] There was certainly evidence of religious persecution: the Times called it a “travesty on sanity inquisitions,”[5] the prosecuting attorney was the superintendent of the Methodist Episcopal Sunday school in town, and David Deem was defended pro bono by two attorneys who considered the case an assault on religious liberty.[6] Statements by the prosecutors that if Deem “could not be shut up in an asylum the citizens of the community would find another way of ridding themselves of him” were greeted by cheers from the crowd: “Everybody knew such remarks were out of place,” reported the Times, “but the court did not attempt to stop it.”[7]  Every inch of the courtroom was taken up by a crowd that extended into the corridors of the court house: “feeling ran high,” said the Times story, “and all kind of wild talk was indulged in.”[8]

No testimony was put forward that David Deem was in fact insane, nor was there any evidence of criminal behavior: “From none of the witnesses could it be shown that Deem had extorted money and his manner of living was proven to be simple and poor. It was shown that often as many as fifteen men and women staid over night in the two small rooms ‘studying the word,’ but nothing immoral could be shown and it could not even be inferred from the testimony.” This was a great disappointment to the crowd.

Charles Walt, who had been declared insane, came forward to interpret one of Deem’s charts for the court; he “may be insane,” said the Times, “but he is very intelligent.” Another Deemite testified that he believed he was one of the lost sheep of Israel; “He did not know how many sheep there were or the number of tribes,” reported the Times, “but he was one of them.” Apart from this belief, the paper said, “there is nothing odd about him.”[9] Nor was there anything notably odd about his belief in the lost tribes of Israel landing up in Kansas: it was not an uncommon belief at the time. Redding’s Millennial Kingdom, for example, purported to show that Americans are the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel destined to lead the world. Like the Deemites, Redding believed that with the coming of the millennial kingdom, death would cease. Comparable beliefs survived into the present in the form, for example, of “British Israelism” espoused by Herbert W. Armstrong and his Worldwide Church of God.

The two defense attorneys tried to show that the Deemite faith is “no more peculiar than many others,[10]” and introduced parts of other creeds, including Presbyterian, to prove their point, an argument which provoked “open rebellion” on the part of local preachers. The pastor of the Methodist Episcopal church, who was expected to support the defense view that Methodists believed the sick could be cured by prayer, and therefore that Deem’s beliefs were not out of the ordinary, was clearly unhappy with the attorneys’ argument about the peculiarity of religious beliefs.  He said that his dignity had been insulted and was “tired of all this foolishness… and if it was attempted while he was on the stand he would take his hat and go home…..He did not believe that the sick could be cured by prayer and the Methodist church did not teach it.”  

A Mormon testified that Mormons, like the Deemites, believed in healing through prayer and “a continuance of miracles,” and a Doctor Duncan testified that John Deem had cured a woman of what had appeared to him to be an incurable disease.

When David Deem himself took the stand he explained at length his theories of the seven ages of man with the aid of a large map drawn by him: “From 4 until 6 o’clock he talked, incessantly quoting scripture to demonstrate the teaching in regard to faith healing and deserting all to follow Christ,”[11] reported the Times.

The jury declared David Deem sane, to the indignation of the citizenry, who made “savage threats about what would be done” to compel the Deemites to leave town. The Deemites, on the other hand, reported the Times, “feel encouraged and the impression prevails that they will build a church from which the word can be expounded.”[12] The publicity from the trial became “our opportunity for sounding the alarm more extensively,” wrote John Deem, “and proclaiming the approach of the great day of wrath (Rev. 6:17), when the nations shall be ruled with a ‘rod of iron.’ (Rev 19:15.)  The Lord has set His hand again the second time to recover the remnant (Isa. 11: 11), and to plead face to face, like as He pleaded with our fathers in Egypt (Ezek 20:36.).”[13]

Despite the dire threats of townsfolk, John and David Deem continued to live in Columbus, both dying there of old age, John’s occupation listed as “Teacher of Religion,” David’s as “Divine healer.” Two of David Deem’s five children died in infancy; “There is considerable talk as to the children dying for want of medical aid,” it was reported at the time.[14] John Deem and his son Fred are both listed in an ancestral chronology as being members of Unity Church, founded in Kansas City in 1889. The Deems’ views of spiritual healing are similar to those of Unity Church and other outgrowths of the “New Thought” movement of the period.

Delsartism was a social fad of the 1890s aimed not at the rural poor but at the prosperous new urban middle class, although, like the Deemites, some of its disciples sought spiritual knowledge outside the bounds of orthodox religion, through practices like pantomime, and dance. “Gesture,” wrote François Delsarte, the movement’s namesake if not its founder, ‘corresponds to the soul, to the heart; language to the life, to the thought, to the mind. The life and the mind being subordinate to the heart, to the soul, gesture is the chief organic agent.”[15]

For Delsarte, spiritual states of being could be expressed through artful movement, although in the hands of its American disciples, Delsarte’s theories about emotional expression through voice and gesture tended to devolve into superficial formulae like those retailed to Kansas city women by Henrietta Russell during  her January visit to Kansas City.

Referred to in the Times as “the American apostle of Delsarteism,” Mrs. Russell gave two lectures. Mr. and Mrs. Edmund Russell In the first, on “The Art of Speech,” she disparaged “the American harshness of utterance,” arguing that “as the harsh masculine qualities of our barbarous ancestors have become largely dwarfed in us, so we have no need of the harsh sounds which really expressed something in the past, but which go out of the language as civilization advances.”

Specifically, she singled out the letter “R,” suggesting that it carried different emotional expressions at different points in a word: at the beginning “it expressed emotion when sounded in a rolling way. In the middle of a word mental effect could be portrayed by the same letter. At the end of a word the passionate utterance could be given. She held that people should drop the R at the end of words, not because they did so in Massachusetts – although, of course, all originally came from there – but because one really told a lie when he or she sounded the final ‘er’ of a word, expressing thereby a passion which was not meant.”

Schools should teach “vocal gymnastics,” Mrs. Russell said: “if children in the public schools were taught the gymnastics of their own tongue while they were learning the names of the rivers in Africa, untold good would result to the race from the conservation of energy thus acquired as well as the agreeable tones with which future generations would air their views.” The ladies present were urged to take the matter up with their local school board.[16]

The next day Mrs. Russell lectured on “How to be graceful,” giving a demonstration of the correct form for bowing by comparing “bows which people almost universally make with music that has only one note… Mrs. Russell’s imitation of the bow frequently made by people who think themselves to be something when they are nothing was exceedingly droll,” reported the TimesThe  American Citizen, an African-American weekly, commented that Mrs. Russell was "teaching ladies how to fall down," when "what we want most is some one to teach the people how to stand up."  Delsarte-exercises

She also demonstrated the “proper art” of sitting and rising:  “The easy way of doing this was to put one foot under the chair, let the weight rest on it, and the serpentine result would please every observer. These things should not be practiced before people…,” she warned; “the privacy of the chamber, with locked doors was the only suitable place for manipulations of the character advised.”[17]

Mrs. Russell distinguished between her “bodily “manipulations” and the gymnastics of Diocletian Lewis practiced in schools of her youth on the east coast. Lewis is often credited for pioneering the introduction of physical culture into American education, but for Mrs. Russell, his “savage kind of gymnastics known as the dumb bell movements” had nothing to do with grace: “Now,” she said in the Times’ report, “we no longer harped on shoulders but drew in the waist and attended to the poise of the body.” [18]

In her lecture, Mrs. Russell was equally firm on the subject of women’s proper dress: in the home, women should “wear something soft, dainty, feminine…. Upon coming from the street a woman should always change her dress.” She also made a point of criticizing the corsets designed to compress women’s waists into an hourglass figure: “they will have to go in time, and the time is fast coming. A great many cultured women are bringing up their daughters without ever allowing them to know how a corset feels. The fact that corsets are going out does not mean that women are to have great, fat, ugly waists. They will not have waists which show that they are compressed in a way contrary to nature, but at the same time a cultured woman who does not wear a corset will not have an ungainly figure like that of a washerwoman who never wore a corset.”[19] The Times report did not explain Mrs. Russell’s reasoning on this point.

Delsarte’s theories, at least as advocated by Mrs. Russell, were a regular subject of meetings of women’s groups in the city, such as the Kindergartners and Mothers’ Union meeting Our Home Departmentin February when Miss Katherine Carter Jones gave a talk on Delsarte: “Miss Jones sets forth the hygienic basis as much as the beauties of the Delsartean system.”[20] As a guide to female deportment, Delsartism had a short life, but its influence on the acting style of the time extended into the early twentieth century, and on American modern dance can still be felt.[21]

The theosophy fad was also at its height in 1893 when Annie Besant, its foremost American exponent, came to Kansas City on what the Times described as “a business tour purely. she seems to take no interest in the individuality of the cities which she has visited in America, but says that all she feels required to do is go to the hall and say her say.”  Besant had become well-known as a socialist and women’s rights activist in Britain, but by 1893, under the influence of Madame Blavatsky, had turned to Theosophy. To the Times reporter, Besant explained some of the theoriesAnnie Besant 1897 underlying Theosophy, including its incorporation of Hindu belief in reincarnation and karma:

The maturity so frequently noticed in the look of a child is recognized as a proof of former existence if we are not materialists and believe that the human being has a soul. We can only account for the differences in children by the esoteric doctrine. The faculties of the body come by inheritance, but those of the soul cannot be accounted for excepting as being the result of its own life and effort. This independence of the soul from matter is the great stumbling block in our religious teachings of orthodoxy.

Besant’s lecture at the Music Hall, said the Times, was attended by the “progressive element of Kansas City,” with a “sprinkling” of those who “expected to hear some loose views on life and morals” from the famed advocate of women’s rights; the latter left “with ungratified curiosity.” [22] Like Delsartism, Theosophy was a frequent subject for lectures at women’s clubs in 1893 Kansas City; it survives in several theosophical organizations in the U.S., including the Theosophical Society in America, which has a Kansas City branch.

Although the constitution of the Keeley League proclaimed its adherence to “moral and Christian methods,” Keeleyism had a less esoteric purpose than Theosophy: it aimed to “discourage and annihilate the use of liquor as a beverage,[23]” alcoholism having risen to epidemic levels in the Gay Nineties. Dr. Leslie Keeley of Dwight, Illinois, maintained that alcoholism was a disease rather than moral failure and that his “Double chloride of gold” injections, combined with a stern regimen at Keeley’s Dwight headquarters prohibiting gambling, drinking, and car riding, achieved a success rate of 95 percent. By 1893 the Keeley company had 118 “Keeley Institutes” around the country augmented by a national organization formed in 1891 consisting of reformed drunkards,[24] with auxiliaries for their wives, daughters, mothers, and sisters.[25]  The Kansas City women’s auxiliary made the news when they debated the question “Shall men be permitted to smoke on street cars” after a member objected to cigar and cigarette smoke on streetcars. The matter was quietly dropped after discussion.[26]

It was a Missouri state convention of local Bichloride of Gold Clubs, recently renamed the Keeley League, that met in Kansas City in January. Delegates spoke of their experiences at Dwight and played cards; there was, reported the Times, “a liberal supply of tobacco, which was drawn on quite freely.” Though tobacco addiction was one of the “diseases” Keeleyism addressed, the reporter concluded that the Keeley cure had “not eliminated a desire for the weed, but had increased it – if that were possible – in a good many cases. Nearly every man present used tobacco in some form, and the crack of the parlor match was incessant.” There was confusion because of the change of name from “National Bichloride of Gold Club” to “National Keeley League,” resulting in two hours of “useless discussion” and out of order motions before a committee could be appointed to draw up a constitution for the state League.Keeley Institute, Kansas City

An indication of the popularity of the League was the crowd of almost 1,000 who came to the Auditorium on a cold evening to hear a program of addresses and music staged by members.[27] The success of the Keeley cure made Keeley a rich man and little Dwight, Illinois, a prosperous town. It also attracted a host of imitators with their own cures, “cheap imitations,” a Keeley representative quoted in the Times called them: “They imitate the Keeley methods of doing business as closely as they can and give the people to understand that they practice the Keeley treatment…. This city has one or two of the most audacious fakes in the country….The Keeley treatment is the only reliable one and the people know it.” [28]

Keeley clubs had contracts with the U.S. government to operate at Soldiers’ Homes for civil war veterans throughout the country, alcoholism having been rampant during the war. The Times reported on a meeting of the Keeley League club at the Leavenworth Soldiers’ Home, featuring a dress parade “composed of Keely graduates,” and a gathering of more than 600 for a celebration of the club’s first anniversary. “Five hundred and thirty-one men have been reclaimed within one year,” said the paper.[29] 

1893 marked the peak of the Keeley cure’s influence. Within a couple of years  the “gold” cure was exposed as containing high dosages of morphine, cocaine, alcohol, and cannabis – but no gold – which helps explain the air of benevolent joviality at Keeley league meetings. Further, the rate of “cure” was found to be much lower than Keeley and his disciples claimed. By the turn of the century, many Keeley institutes had been closed, although the institute at Dwight remained open until 1966, when the “Keeley Cure” was officially abandoned. The Dwight institute became a site for meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous.[30]

Two utopian schemes made a brief showing in Kansas City newspapers. One was the Topolobampo settlement near Los Mochis in Sinaloa, Mexico, which had been founded by a group of American colonists in 1886 led by Albert Kinsey Owen; it was to be operated on utopian socialist principles. By 1893 the colony had already run afoul of factionalism within the colonists. Christian Hoffman, a Kansas businessman, and Michael Flürscheim, a German tax and land reformer, called a meeting of stockholders of the Kansas Sinaloa Investment Company, in Enterprise, Kansas, aimed at reviving the colony’s fortunes. Owen himself was said to be delayed in Chicago while the constitution of a new company was being written. “Flurscheim is the man who will take an interest in the colony,” reported the Times, “and is advice and money is what has been so sought after by the colony. He just came from Germany and it lays great stress on him as he is the all important new man.” In short, Flürscheim’s money was needed to complete an irrigation project important to the colony’s survival.[31]

Albert Owen never arrived at the meeting; in fact, he abandoned the whole endeavor in 1893, never to return. The irrigation ditch would be completed with Flürscheim’s money, but the utopian colony was by that time defunct. The land would be cultivated by the Sinaloa Sugar Company.[32]

The Star also reported on the organization of a colony in southern Kansas “for the purpose of establishing in the Cherokee Strip a cooperative town company on the BELLAMY idea.” alluding to the utopian science fiction writer Edward Bellamy, whose Looking Backward, 2000-1887, published in 1888, inspired Nationalist Clubs across the country.

The experiment, commented the Star, “will be all the more interesting because it is made by Kansas people. The cooperative theory is not, strictly speaking, in harmony with the traditions of that state. Competition has always been more active there than a plan of action looking to a community of interests. Every fellow for himself has been the rule in Kansas ever since the ‘Red Legs’ and the Bushwhackers contended for the soil in the days of the ‘troubles.’”[33]

The Star’s skepticism was probably justified; no additional stories appeared on the proposed cooperative town, which goes unnamed in the Star story.[34] Nor is 2012 Kansas any more susceptible to “a plan of action looking to a community of interests” than it was in 1893.



[1] John Deem, letter to William A. Redding, April 14, 1894. Printed in William Redding, The Milennial Kingdom: a book of surprises containing unusual statements supported by positive testimony.” Loomis, 1894, p. 198. Google books. http://books.google.com/books?id=j_QvAAAAYAAJ&dq.

[2] “No work their creed.” Kansas City Times, February 2, 1893, p. 1.

[3] “No work their creed.” Kansas City Times, February 2, 1893, p. 1.

[4] John Deem, letter to William A. Redding, p. 198.

[5] “Has made many insane.” Kansas City Times, February 10, 1893, p. 1.

[6] John Deem, letter to William A. Redding, p. 198.

[7] “Has made many insane.” Kansas City Times, February 10, 1893, p. 1.

[8] “David Deem is a sane man.” Kansas City Times, February 12, 1893, p. 7.

[9] “Deem on the stand.” Kansas City Times, February 11, 1893, p. 1..

[10] Has made many insane.” Kansas City Times, February 10, 1893, p. 1.

[11] “Deem on the stand.” Kansas City Times, February 11, 1893, p. 1.

[12] “David Deem is a sane man.” Kansas City Times, February 12, 1893, p. 7.

[13] John Deem, letter to William A. Redding, p. 200.

[14] “Descendants of George/Georg Diehm.” Davis Krill Genealogy.  http://davis-krillgenealogy.com/reports/Davis/Descendants%20of%20George%20Diehm.pdf.

[15] Christopher Diller, review of The Cultivation of Body and Mind in Nineteenth-Century American Delsartism,  by Nancy Lee Chalfa Ruyter. Rhetoric Review, 19 (Autumn, 2000): p. 106.

[16] “Delsarte’s great apostle.” Kansas City Times, January 21, 1893, p.8.

[17] “Must practice in the dark.” Kansas City Times, January 22, 1893, p. 8.

[18] “Must practice in the dark.” Kansas City Times, January 22, 1893, p. 8.

[19] “Mrs. Russell on dresses.” Kansas City Sunday Journal, January 22, 1893, p. 6.

[20] “Our home department.” Daily Journal, February 26, 1893, p. 12.

[21] http://www3.northern.edu/wild/th100/_Chapt4.htm.

[22] “Believes in mahatmas.” Kansas City Times, January 18, 1893, p. 8.

[23] George Barclay, “The Keeley League.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 57 (Winter, 1964), p. 354.

[24] Bottlebooks.com. http://www.bottlebooks.com/Keeley/keeley_cure.htm

[25] George Barclay, “The Keeley League.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 57 (Winter, 1964), pp. 341-365.

[26] “Smoking on cable cars.” Kansas City Star, August 10, 1893, p. 6.

[27] “Rid of the drink habit.” Kansas City Times, January 18, 1893, p. 5.

[28] “The Fakir no longer fakes.” Kansas City Times, February 12, 1893, p. 8.

[29] “The News at Leavenworth.” Kansas City Times, April 15, 1893, p. 6.

[30] http://www.blairhistory.com/archive/keeley_cure/OWH_story.htm

[31] “To boom Topolobampo.” Kansas City Times, May 3, 1893, p. 1.

[32] http://ecollections.lib.csufresno.edu/specialcollections/collections/ topolobampo_collection.php

[33] [Colony in southern Kansas] Kansas City Star, September 2, 1893, p. 4.

[34] The town may have been Medford in Grant County,  Oklahoma Territory, where a group of socialists met to form a local of the Socialist Labor Party in 1895. According to James R. Green, the editor of Grant County’s Populist paper was  interested in Bellamy’s theories ( Grass Roots Socialislm: Radical Movements in the Southwest, 1895-1943 (LSU Press, 1978), p. 14.

November 10, 2012