Elijah Pierson was the embodiment of early 19th century Christian masculinity. So how did he end up, just a few years later, shambling along the streets of New York City with a scruffy beard, long hair, and dirty fingernails, following a wild eyed prophet? And – perhaps more disturbing – how did he end up at the center of a sensational murder trial? (And we mean literally at the center: he was the dead guy.) If you’re a historian of the United States, you’ve probably already guessed what we’re talking about. And chances are, if you ever had to take an American religious history class, or even an early America or Jacksonian America class, you may have read it. Those of you who haven’t, gee whiz, you’re in for a wild ride. Today, we’re talking about a book that is a true classic in the field of American religious history: Sean Wilentz and Paul Johnson’s 1994 book, The Kingdom of Matthias.
Transcript for The Kingdom of Matthias
Written by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD
Recorded by Sarah Handley-Cousins and Marissa Rhodes, PhD
Sarah: In the 1820s, Elijah Pierson was the embodiment of the Christian masculinity that typified the Second Great Awakening. Elijah was descended from a long line of patriots and blue bloods, raised in Morristown, New Jersey in both in relative wealth and in the social order set by the Calvinist theology of the Morristown First Presbyterian. Sometime in the early 19th century, Elijah moved from the small town to New York City, where he, like so many young men like him, sought to find his own destiny in the marketplace, becoming a clerk and eventually an affluent business owner. Elijah was strong in his religious belief, which brought him to his faithful wife Sarah, with whom he prayed, worked missions, and had one child. He did everything right. He was respected in the community, became a deacon in his and Sarah’s church, and adhered to modern ideas about leading a household within the parameters of the gender construct that we call “separate spheres.” His wife, though not exactly his equal, was his partner, and he treated her with gentleness and respect. He was clean cut, restrained, and decidedly middle-class.
Averill: Yes, Elijah Pierson was the embodiment of early 19th century Christian masculinity. So how did he end up, just a few years later, shambling along the streets of New York City with a scruffy beard, long hair, and dirty fingernails, following a wild eyed prophet? And – perhaps more disturbing – how did he end up at the center of a sensational murder trial? (And we mean literally at the center: he was the dead guy.)
Sarah: If you’re a historian of the United States, you’ve probably already guessed what we’re talking about. And chances are, if you ever had to take an American religious history class, or even an early America or Jacksonian America class, you may have read it. Those of you who haven’t, gee whiz, you’re in for a wild ride. Today, we’re talking about a book that is a true classic in the field of American religious history: Sean Wilentz and Paul Johnson’s 1994 book, The Kingdom of Matthias.
And I’m Averill
And we are your historians for this episode of DIG
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Sarah: Let’s start by setting the stage, because the context of America (especially New York State) in the 1820s and 1830s is really important to understanding the saga of Elijah Pierson. The Erie Canal, which crossed New York State from Albany to Buffalo and connected the Hudson River with the Great Lakes, opened in 1825, making it possible for goods from the interior of America to make it to ports in New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia. The canal led to booming business in New York State’s upstate cities like Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, and Rome, but with canal traffic, booming businesses, and increased population came chaos (or, at least, the perception of chaos). Rumors spread that Central and Western New York were lawless and godless, with no churches in entire counties and rampant drinking.
Averill: Motivated by the idea that rural New York State was wallowing in sin, missionary societies like the American Missionary Society began to flood the region with church planters flush with cash, each eager to build a new church and convert the residents of backwoods towns. But the problem was that there wasn’t actually any shortage of preachers or churches in Western New York. One report published in Boston claimed that there were five townships in Niagara County that had no churches or clergy at all – but in reality, there were two full time pastors and dozens of weekly church services in the area. So when the missionary societies started funding new churches in the region, it resulted in almost an oversaturation of religion. So instead of having no churches, residents of rural New York actually had an overabundance. The result was that the population had the privilege of being very picky when it came to what church they gave their attentions and tithes – when a pastor was too boring, a message too stale, or a church too old fashioned, they quickly and easily switched to another. The people learned to listen and were ready to be won over by a particularly effective preacher.
Sarah: And the effective preacher that really set the region ablaze was Charles Grandison Finney, Finney was born in Connecticut, but like many other New Englanders after the American Revolution, the family moved to upstate New York for better access to farm land. They settled along the shores of Lake Ontario, in Jefferson County, New York. (It just so happens to be exactly where one of the producers of this podcast grew up … I wonder who! Me. It’s me.) Finney was “reading the law” to become a lawyer, and working as an assistant in a law office in the nearby smalltown of Adams. Finney’s family worshiped at a Baptist church, and Finney helped to direct the choir – but something about it was just not working for him and he started to become disaffected from his faith. Once, when his church prayer group asked if they could pray for him, he pointed out that they seemed to pray a lot, but nothing ever came of it. “You have prayed enough since I have attended these meetings,” he snapped, “to have prayed the devil out of Adams, if there is any virtue in your prayers.” Finney had a spiritual crisis in 1821, feeling disconnected from God and unsure about his faith. Trying to figure all this out, he spent a lot of time walking in the woods around Adams – and I assure you, there are plenty of woods around Adams to walk around in. One day while walking and praying, Finney had a vision of bright light streaming out around excerpts from scripture. He felt God’s presence. “I never can,” he wrote in his memoirs, “in words, make any human being understand how precious and true those promises appeared to me.”
Averill: The next morning, after an evening spent weeping, playing hymns, and praying, he felt called to preach – which meant he had to quit his job. This wasn’t ideal for his clients. When one stopped into his office that morning, he reminded Finney politely that his case was being heard in court at ten that morning. Finney responded, firmly, that he had “a retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead his cause, and I cannot plead yours.” This was understandably confusing for the poor man, who wandered into the street and stood looking about dumbfounded. Finney interpreted this as his client being “in a higher religious state than he had even been in before.” That same year, Finney began studying to enter the ministry in the Presbyterian Church, and by 1824, he was traveling Jefferson County spreading the message of conversion. Later in the 1820s, Finney became one of the preachers sponsored by a missionary society – this time a women’s missionary society located in Utica, NY – tasked with traveling around the North Country and Mohawk Valley preaching to some of the most rural and remote residents of the state. According to historian Whitney Cross, who wrote the foundational history of this era of religious revival back in 1950, he estimated that Finney helped to convert around 3000 people during this period of his ministry. In 1830, Finney moved to Rochester, joining the roiling revivalism that was starting to spread from that central city along the canal – the revivalism that would become known as the Second Great Awakening.
Sarah: Finney was not the only religious leader to spark something exciting or new in the 1820s in central or western New York. Before the Second Great Awakening really took off, new religious movements like the Shakers and the Society of Universal Friends had already established themselves in the region. And at around the same time that Finney was beginning to form his ministry, Joseph Smith received the first revelations from the angel Moroni in Palmyra, New York. Those revelations, contained on golden tablets buried in the Hill Cumorah, would eventually be published in 1830 as the Book of Mormon. And there were more: in the 1830s, William Miller, a farmer and military veteran living in rural eastern New York, began to find followers for his belief that the world was rapidly coming to an end, and Jesus would return, very specifically, on October 22, 1843. And of course, most relevant to our interests here at Dig, three girls in a farmhouse outside of Rochester began to communicate with the spirit of a dead peddler, leading to the birth of Spiritualism. But within all of this, Finney and his followers remain sort of the most influential to broader American culture. It’s not that the other movements or leaders weren’t important, but that Finney held the greatest cultural sway on more average Americans and therefore his teaching had a broader impact on other aspects of society.
Averill: This was also because Finney was a mainline Protestant preacher – he wasn’t trying to convince anyone that Jesus was returning in the next year, or that he could speak to the dead. Instead, he was largely speaking to middle and upper class white Americans who had lost the fire of religiosity, convincing them to reform their lives and the world around them. Finneyites believed that individuals could be saved through repentance and prayer – a far cry from old-fashioned Calvinist beliefs in predestination. Moreover, through right-living, hard work, and piety, they could create a better world. Being a “Finneyite,” or someone who was influenced by Finney’s preaching, meant adhering to a certain kind of gendered world view, too. (We’ve talked about 19th century gender roles, especially masculinity in previous episodes in more depth.) Men were hardworking – usually in a white collar or skilled trade – and resisted any urges toward anger or passion. They spent their money in ways that furthered the work of Christ instead of in barrooms. They prayed with their wives and, while they remained the head of household, happily allowed their wives to take charge of managing the house and raising the children. In other words, Finneyite men were restrained, careful, moral, and actively Christian – all things that would end up becoming synonymous with genteel American domesticity.
Sarah: But as influential and important as Finney and his ethos was, it doesn’t account for everyone caught up in revivalism of the 1820s and 1830s. Not everyone could fit into this vision of American perfection – and not everyone wanted to. Other, slightly smaller Christian sects were drawing crowds of Americans who didn’t fit into the Finneyite vision, or who simply rejected its middle class perfectionism. Some rejected Finney’s teaching specifically because of its gentler, less patriarchal vision of masculinity. According to historians Paul Johnson and Sean Wilentz, “these anti-Finneyites remained grimly committed to the Old Testament patriarchy of their fathers – a hallowed family form that had dominated rural American when they were children and that both market society and the Finneyite revivals seemed determined to destroy.” Johnson and Wilentz even point out the ways that Finney’s rivals used their religious teachings to shore up traditional forms of masculinity, including Joseph Smith, who asked his followers to call him “Father Smith” and who installed his own father as Patriarch of his new Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Averill: This brings us back to Elijah Pierson, who was a picture-perfect Finneyite Christian – that is, until something changed in the summer of 1830. Pierson was raised in Morristown, New Jersey, descendant from a family long established in Puritanism. His three-times great-grandfather, Abraham Pierson, had led a group of disaffected Puritans to New Jersey from Connecticut in 1666 when that colony relaxed the requirements for baptism and church membership. Elijah was raised in the town’s First Presbyterian Church, where his father and uncle were both trustees. He would have been completely immersed in the teachings of the church, which emphasized strict social hierarchies, a fear of the all-powerful God, and the sinful nature of all people. When Elijah was a young man, he left behind Morristown for Manhattan, where he pursued a career in the booming mercantile business. Unlike his forebears, he postponed marriage and family to build a career, and in 1820, when he was in his early thirties, he opened a successful mercantile firm with a partner. I want to quote here from Johnson and Wilentz again, because I really like the way they explain this difference. They explain that Pierson’s father and grandfather had married very young and had massive families, but that Pierson himself was still unmarried at 36: “But in New York City, such arrangements made no sense. Elijah’s fortunes were tied not to an inherited farm set within a network of kin, but to individual ambition, risk-taking, and the accumulation of money. Early marriage, a large family, and the assumption of fatherly pretensions would have doomed him to failure.” So what had helped make his forefathers patriarchs would have doomed Elijah to poverty in the new economy of the market revolution.
Sarah: During his thirties, Elijah joined a new church and began volunteering for the church’s Female Missionary Society, which ran an outreach church in an impoverished, largely Black neighborhood. While Elijah and a male pastor were the “heads” of the mission, it was almost entirely run by women, who did the work of making home visits around the neighborhood. During this time, Elijah met Sarah Stanford, the daughter of a minister and widely understood to be a serious, intelligent, cultivated, and extremely pious woman of God. Elijah and Sarah married in 1822, which not only changed Elijah’s domestic life (he was absolutely devoted to Sarah) but also changed his social and religious life. Elijah left his old church and joined Sarah’s, which brought him more firmly into the world of evangelical reform. This is also when Elijah’s life became hugely influenced by women: Sarah began attending prayer meetings led by a woman named Frances Folger, who taught a kind of Christian perfectionism that rejected pretention, luxury, and – importantly – direct communication with the Holy Spirit. In 1828, Elijah began to receive direct messages from the Holy Spirit, and soon thereafter, he and Sarah, along with their friends Benjamin and Ann Folger, moved to a neighborhood of NYC called Bowery Hill, where Frances Folger was establishing a perfectionist society. Elijah – now a prophet – began to preach in Bowery Hill, teaching and praying and fasting with a kind of religious fervor. Sarah and Elijah established a “Female Asylum,” aimed at getting young women to leave the sex trade.
Averill: In 1830, however, everything changed, and for two reasons. One, Elijah had a powerful vision while on the bus (an omnibus, a big carriage pulled by horses) from God, telling him “Thou art Elijah the Tishbite – gather unto me all the memes of Israel at the foot of Mount Carmel.” Elijah took this to mean that he must prepare the world for the second coming of Jesus, and in particular, healing the sick to prepare for His return. The other was that Sarah died, despite all of Elijah’s prayers for healing. Something in Sarah’s death unmoored Elijah, whose visions and prophecies took on a more unhinged quality. Now, Elijah announced that Sarah’s funeral would be her moment of resurrection. He prayed fervently over Sarah’s open coffin for an hour, while Frances Folger watched Sarah’s body for signs of life. None appeared. Finally Elijah stopped praying, exhausted, and the rest of the followers gathered closed Sarah’s coffin and carried it to the graveyard.
Sarah: But Elijah was still convinced Sarah wasn’t totally gone. He began to tell others that she appeared to one of their servants, Katy. God spoke to Elijah regularly, with the messages almost always relating to Sarah. In December, six months after Sarah’s death, Elijah was still receiving revelations that “thy companion shall be raised up, and shall be with thee in thy work…” When Elijah prayed to God asking whether he was understanding correctly, and would be returned to him, God replied: “Did I ever give you a stone for bread, or a serpent for a fish?” But Sarah never returned. Elijah’s missions fell apart. The Female Asylum was momentarily taken over by a larger organization, but the other reformers didn’t want to continue to work with Elijah in this unhealthy state. By 1831, Elijah quit working at his mercantile firm, and devoted his entire life to his ministry. His community dwindled to a few of his most devoted followers, including his two Black house servants, Katy and Isabella, as well as the Folgers, one reformed sex worker from the Female Asylum, and a handful of others.
Averill: It was in this state that Prophet Elijah Pierson’s life collided with that of another prophet: Robert Matthews, or, as he became known, Matthias. Matthews was born in rural upstate New York along the Vermont border, in a strictly religious family of Scottish immigrants. The family adhered to a splinter sect of Presbyterianism that was extremely Calvinist: they believed fiercely in predestination and that God was judging and watching every moment. They were simple, serious, and devout. Their society, and their church, was patriarchal – while all were equal before god in terms of wealth and status, men were absolutely always in positions of authority. Roberts parents died when he was young, and he didn’t seem cut out for a life in agriculture, so he apprenticed to become a carpenter. But even with a trade, Robert Matthews was constantly in trouble – he proselytized to his coworkers and ripped into them for their sins, especially for drinking. In 1811, he assaulted and beat a woman named Hester Matthews (who may have been his sister in law?). Unfortunately, this turned out not to be an isolated incident. In 1813, he married a woman named Margaret and began having children, and while he enjoyed several years of stability as a shopkeeper in his small town, he also had a few incidents of what sound like seizures.
Sarah: In 1816, however, an economic downturn and overstretching his resources led to bankruptcy for Matthews, and a series of terrible illness killed two of his sons. When Matthews himself became seriously ill, he started having more fits and headaches, accompanied by periods of intense rage. He also started to preach and become obsessed with one new religious movement then another – first it was Methodism, then it was teachings of the Jewish utopian Mordecai Manuel Noah, who planned to build a Jewish ‘refuge’ on Grand Island, a large island in the Niagara River near Buffalo, NY. Matthews moved his family around, seeking work and religious truth, finally ending up in Albany. There, he was swept up into Finneyite-style revivals. Increasingly obsessed with evangelizing, Matthews stopped working. When his weird behavior and annoying tactics earned him scorn from other men, he took out his frustrations on his wife, who he had started beating regularly. While Matthews tried to join a Finneyite congregation, it became clear he just didn’t fit – wife-beating, failing to work and provide for the family, and acting erratically weren’t part of the masculine vision of Finney’s teaching. The breaking point came when the Finneyite church learned about Matthew’s wife-beating, and not only rejected his bid for membership but reached out to Margaret with support for her and her children, who started attending the church regularly. Matthews tried one more time to join the church, but when he showed up one day, the exasperated minister publicly shamed him for hitting Margaret and being a failed provider.
Averill: Robert Matthews now considered the Finneyites his enemies. He also sort of went off the deep end. He thought a Biblical flood was headed for their home and when Margaret told him to get it together, he abducted their sons and disappeared. (Because Margaret was now a protected part of the Finneyite church, Matthews’ erratic and violent behavior was getting police attention as well as making the local news.) He was discovered, arrested, and held for a while in an almshouse. He returned home, only to be arrested again for domestic disturbance. Soon, Matthews decided it would be better to just leave. It was then that he started calling himself Matthias, a prophet bringing the “Holy Word of the One True Lord, the Word of God the Father.” His message was obsessed with class and gender. He hated those who lived soft, comfortable lives and ignored the suffering of the poor. Women who “lectured” their husbands were damned; only real men would enter the kingdom of God – mock men would also be damned. Here’s a really great quote: “The sons of truth are to enjoy all the good things of this world, and must use their means to bring it about. Every thing that has the smell of woman will be destroyed – fill of all deviltry. In a short time, the world will take fire and dissolve – it is combustible already. All women, not obedient, had better become so as soon as possible, and let the wicked spirit depart, and become vessels of truth.”
Sarah: He sounds like a real peach. Ugh. Anyway, Matthias traveled around New York trying to find a receptive audience, and struck out – until, that is, he ended up in the parlor of the grieving Elijah Pierson on Bowery Hill in NYC. It was a weird scene: Matthias was a big, tall man with a bushy beard; Elijah Pierson, diminished in his wild grief; standing together in the perfectly appointed parlor, the symbol of the Finneyite middle class. Elijah Pierson was everything that Matthias had come to preach against: he was a broken, effeminate man, weeping all the time for a woman who “talked out of turn.” He had listened to women preach, and spent his time and energy on women in his ministries. He was never angry, never powerful, never commanding. Matthias told Elijah that he had come to right these wrongs, and that it was his mission to “establish [a] reign of Truth and redeem the world from evils, prophesying women, and betean men.” After their conversation, they went into another room and washed each others’ feet – and Elijah turned his church over to Matthias. It was his ministry now.
Averill: Matthias’s message to the followers of what had been Elijah’s church was based on patriarchy, obsessed with fathers and sons and inheritance. According to him, the “Spirit of Truth” passed down from father to son, with a father’s spirit literally entering the bodies of their male descendants. Thus, it was men (fathers) who were tasked with teaching – since they contained all this accumulated spiritual knowledge. He taught that in 1851, the world would be purified by fire, and Matthias’s followers would inherit the world, living in rural palaces and enjoying luxurious lives “surrounded by worshipful children and a happy and dutiful wife.” Matthias – using money provided by Elijah Pierson and other wealthy followers – lived in a rented home, wore extravagant clothing and rode in fine coaches. He appropriated Elijah’s faithful servant, Isabella. Friends and neighbors were stunned at the change in Elijah Pierson, who went from looking like the prototypical Finneyite middle class guy to looking like a wild prophet, with long black hair, scruffy beard, and dirty fingernails. Moreover, he told everyone who would listen that his previous visions about Sarah’s resurrection from the dead had actually been delusions sent from the Devil, and that “Sarah would come back from the dead, and that this time she would be a proper vessel of Truth.”
Sarah: The small religious community that gathered around Matthias was immediately controversial. Elijah Pierson’s friend Sylvester Mills, a wealthy merchant, had almost immediately taken to Matthias’s preaching and had been bankrolling all the weird outfits and coaches. Sylvester’s brother Levi, worried about his suddenly terrible financial decisions, tried to have Matthias and Mills taken into care for being incompentents. Levi showed up with his friends, backed by a group of Finneyite business men AND the police, snatched Sylvester and hauled him away while the others literally wrestled a screaming Matthias to the floor. Matthias was quickly boosted by Elijah, but was briefly arrested again for blasphemy. Eventually, the whole group moved out to Sing Sing, which was considered countryside at the time, to live with Benjamin and Ann Folger, some of Elijah Pierson’s earliest comrades and followers. Matthias essentially took over their house, which he named Mount Zion, and turned it in to a compound for his band of believers. Matthias was the patriarch, determining the part that each “family member” would play at Mount Zion. Men and boys were mostly assigned farm work or other masculine tasks. Isabella, the Black servant, did almost all the hardest house work, while the white women were assigned to assist her. Ann Folger, who the prophet seemed particularly drawn to, was tasked with caring for the children, assisting the Prophet, and overseeing the domestic sphere of Zion.
Averill: Life at Mount Zion meant living under all of Matthias’s rules, which were sometimes based on his own likes and dislikes. Followers were to dress simply, while Matthias wore militaristic clothing and wizardy hats and carried items imbued with mystical significance, including an ancient plumb line, carpenter’s rule, and sword. Meals were extremely important, and based on what Matthias thought about food – he liked fruit, so they had tons of fruit, and plenty of meat but never pork. There were never any luxurious desserts and absolutely no pies (lol). Food was cooked in old fashioned ways, particularly ways that would have been common in Matthias’s Scots community growing up – typically boiled. They largely rejected foods associated with the new market economy, such as meats roasted in new-fangled ovens, milled white flour and imported Caribbean sugar. The emphasis was on “good plain food.” The way food was served was also vital. They rejected the style of dining that was becoming most common in the era, called the “Old English style,” in which women cooked the food, brought it to the table, then sat as all members of the family served themselves. At Mount Zion, Matthias (the patriarch) was served separately by the women, and no one was allowed to touch his serving dishes. The others were allowed to serve themselves from common dishes – but the women were not to sit or eat until Matthias had been served. As long as his rules were followed, Matthias was a proud patriarch. But when things went against his plan, he raged and his followers feared that they might be cursed by the powerful prophet.
Sarah: Things got weird at Mount Zion – or, maybe more accurately, weirder – in 1833, when the house servant Isabella began to notice something happening between Matthias and Ann Folger. Remember, Ann and her husband, Benjamin, had been a wealthy Christians who had first come into Elijah Pierson’s religious fold through the ministry of the wife of Benjamin’s cousins, Frances Folger. (Sigh. There are so many names and so many religious groups in this episode.) Well, suddenly, Isabella noticed that Ann Folger was often up late with Matthias … alone. (This took place, it should be noted, while Benjamin was living in Manhattan working.) Isabella shared a bedroom with Ann, and noticed more than once that Ann snuck in to go to bed well after the rest of the house had gone to sleep. Bathing was a big deal in the community, and nearly everyone was expected to bathe every evening, with the women bathing the other women and the men bathing the other men. But one evening, Ann accompanied Matthias to the bathtub to wash him. It didn’t come as a huge surprise, then, that not long after, Ann and Matthias traveled to Manhattan, where they confronted Benjamin with a new prophecy from God: they were matched spirits, and that Ann was prophesied to bear Matthias his holy son, who would someday inherit the ministry. Benjamin and Ann’s marriage was never real, since it was a Christian marriage, not an actual holy union. After some conflict – as you might imagine – Benjamin was convinced Matthias had to be taken seriously in all his holy visions, and he himself gave his wife in a spiritual wedding ceremony to Matthias.
Averill: Well, this left Benjamin – ostensibly – single. (His legal marriage still stood, since divorce was extremely difficult.) Some time later, Benjamin was sent by Matthias to gather two of his children from their mother, Margaret, his beleaguered legal wife. Margaret, who had raised the children almost entirely on her own, accepted the offer to send Johnny (11) and Isabella (20) (yes, there’s another Isabella) to live with their father for a while. This Isabella had actually just gotten married to an English immigrant named Charles Laisdell – but that was immaterial to Matthias. It didn’t take long for Matthias to start beating Isabella Laisdell for insubordination – she wouldn’t call Ann Folger her mother, for instance – but then Matthias got an idea. In very short order, Matthias declared that Benjamin Folger should have a new wife: his own daughter, Isabella Laisdell. Matthias married them himself in the parlor.
Sarah: But things soon started to fall apart at Mount Zion. Isabella van Wagenen, the Black servant, started to get a little disillusioned. Ann Folger, now set up as a kind of queen as the prophet’s wife, stopped helping with work, and instead complained about Isabella’s work. The couple became sort of lazy, and their laziness often made Isabella’s work even harder – when Matthias tried to explain that when they slept in, their spirits actually were entering into Isabella and making it easier for her to do her chores. She was not buying that argument. But more problematic was the arrival of Charles Laisdell, Isabella Laisdell’s husband, a little confused about the sudden disappearance of his new wife. Elijah Pierson paid him off, but Laisdell still started telling everyone he met about the weird situation at Mount Zion. Then, Laisdell got a court order for his wife – this does sound weird, but remember, effectively, Isabella legally belonged to Charles. The crew at Mount Zion had little choice but to present Isabella at court, where Charles produced a legal marriage certificate to the judge, who declared that Isabella legally had to return to her husband. The court case made neighbors gossip, and crowds started to gather around the house, yelling and trampling the yard.
Averill: In the meantime, a new family had chosen a terrible time to join the religious community at Mount Zion. The Thompson family joined Mount Zion largely because Mr. Thompson (no first name was ever recorded) was hoping to live in a communal sect where men were respected. While he was at first satisfied, but it wasn’t long before his wife Elizabeth started to notice that there seemed to be a lot of bed hopping going on. Thompson thought his wife probably just misinterpreted something, and let it go. But then the community learned that when Benjamin and Ann left Mount Zion and went back to Manhattan to take care of the business, they continued to sleep together. Usually, this was just because they were well-known publicly as a legally married couple, and they just kept up appearances – until on a recent trip, when Matthias had caught them in bed, it looked an awful lot like they had been up to some late-night activities. Mr. Thompson considered that the final straw, and remarked to Isabella van Wagenen: “There is too much changing of wives here. I have a nice little woman, and I should not much like to lose her.”
Sarah: Things were not well between Benjamin Folger and Matthias. Benjamin was starting to think Matthias was a fraud. A business plan to manufacture and sell stoves (yes, the kind that Matthias thought were symbolic of the evils of modernity) had fallen through, and Benjamin was worrying about how his personal finances had been wrecked by supporting the community. He got drunk on night in the village near Mount Zion, all the time worrying out loud about the community and Matthias. His worries got the villagers even more interested in the goings-on of Mount Zion. Some guys in a tavern made a bet that one of them couldn’t cut off Matthias’s beard and bring it back as a trophy – one of them, known locally as Elephant Taylor, dressed as a constable and managed to convince Matthias that he was under arrest and had to go with him down to the village – and he should shave his beard off so that the rowdy mobs outside the house wouldn’t recognize him on his way out. Matthias fell for it hook, line, and sinker, much to the delight of the mobs in Sing Sing. When he was finally returned to Mount Zion, Matthias packed a bag and took off for the relative safety of the city.
Averill: As this is all happening, Elijah Pierson was becoming more and more out of touch with reality. He was having frequent fits, his eye sight was failing, his teeth were rotting, all his business schemes (like the fancy stoves) to fund the Kingdom had failed, and he still had not been reunited with his dead wife. Sometimes, he would mistake Ann for his own wife, and once tried to grab her while touching himself. Then, one afternoon the family ate dinner back at Mount Zion and shared some blackberries. Elijah ate two bowls, but the rest of the family only picked at them. That night, Elijah died. (Dun dun dun!)
Sarah: Elijah’s death created immediate problems for the Kingdom of Matthias. First was the coroner’s curiosity about Elijah’s sudden illness and death. Matthias wanted him buried immediately there in Sing Sing, but Elijah’s remaining New Jersey family insisted that his body be returned to Morristown. Matthias and his followers headed back into Manhattan to wait for things to blow over – but this created the perfect opportunity for the county treasurer to seize Mount Zion, which Benjamin Folger had recently placed legally in Elijah Pierson’s name. It therefore was part of Pierson’s estate. Matthias, however, refused to hand over the deed papers to the county lawyers, saying that Mount Zion belonged to his spiritual Kingdom and he would “test the strength of gentil laws in order to keep it that way.” But when it came down to it – in other words, when the lawyers filed suit against him to get the papers – Matthias folded and handed them over.
Averill: Benjamin Folger, already losing his trust in the prophet, started to worry about Elijah’s sudden death. When he shared his surprise with Matthias, the prophet snarled that “all his enemies would get the same treatment.” This statement suggested that Matthias had some kind of power over life and death, and had maybe used those powers against Elijah. Although the coroner had initially ruled the death natural, the larger community in Sing Sing refused to believe that Elijah had simply died. Soon the coroner ordered that Elijah’s body be disinterred and inspected by coroners in Morristown, New Jersey, where it had been buried. They reported that the body was badly decomposed (it had been two weeks since his death) but that his stomach was well preserved. In it, discovered some concerning findings and reported that they had no question that Elijah Pierson had been killed with poison. (Dun dun dun!)
Sarah: Oh, did we mention that by this point, Ann is pregnant? She is. Woo hoo, holy baby boy on its way! Buuuuut, despite this holy pregnancy, Ann was also showing signs that her spiritual marriage to Matthias wasn’t going well. When Matthias fled back to New York, Benjamin and Ann took back up their sleeping arrangements and acted like they were married again – which technically they still were? Amid the confusion surrounding Elijah’s death, Ann was spending more time with Benjamin, and the Prophet was getting increasingly jealous and angry. Another member of the community, Catherine, discovered Benjamin and Ann alone together, and remarked bitterly “What a devilish shame it is! That woman wants two or three men!”) When Matthias found them another time, all hell broke loose. The three argued constantly. At some point in this chaos, Isabella van Wangenen served Benjamin and Ann some undrinkably bitter coffee – an event that stuck in Benjamin’s mind. Matthias claimed Ann was destroying the whole community, and Benjamin tried to reclaim his own patriarchal role by telling Matthias to stop trying to control his family. Ann declared Benjamin her true husband. Matthias and Benjamin bickered over who was the better man, and Ann declared that it was Benjamin.
Averill: Finally, Benjamin offered to essentially pay Matthias to leave. Matthias, who had already been contemplating his next steps as Sing Sing became increasingly hostile, took $630 from his rival, and planned, vaguely, to head west to begin a new home for the Kingdom. He would take Isabella, the Black servant, with him, as well a couple of other members of the community. But almost the minute Matthias left, Benjamin went to the police and filed a report claiming that Matthias had stolen exactly $630, and issued a $100 reward for anyone who could catch him and bring him back. Matthias learned about the police report and prepared to flee, but before he could get far, was arrested.When they went through his things, they found suitcases full of expensive clothing and a gold watch. Matthias also carried his ancient sword, or “the sword of Gideon, miraculously preserved for thousands of years,” and a carpenter’s rule, which he claimed would be used to “measure lots in the New Jerusalem.” When the police seized those precious items, they found the sword was clearly made for a US Army officer, and the carpenter’s rule had a maker’s mark to “164 Waterstreet, New York.”
Sarah: Matthias was hit with charges of fraud and embezzlement. He was held at Bellevue Hospital because of his rantings and erratic behavior. In court, he behaved no better, completely confusing the court reporter, who frantically tried to get down everything he yelled about being the Spirit of Truth and a Priest Most High. The New York City press seized on the story – it had everything: sex, religion, financial crimes! Pamphlets were churned out to tell the story in greater detail. As Paul Johnson and Sean Wilentz (two of THE historians of Jacksonian America) wrote in their book, “historians of Jacksonian America normally focus on great political and social issues when interpreting the events of 1834 and 1835: the rise of the Whig party, the growing rifts over slavery and abolitionism. But to judge from the New York newspapers, the Kingdom of Matthias was among the lead stories.”
Averill: At the urging of Isabella van Wagenen, Matthias’s wife Margaret came into the city for the trial and hired Matthias an attorney. Benjamin Folger, recognizing that the case could publicly humiliate him as a foolish cuckold, went on the offensive, taking out space in newspapers to publish his own version of the story. He also started spreading rumors that Isabella van Wagenen had tried to poison him (remember that bitter coffee???) just like Matthias had poisoned Elijah Pierson. Isabella then sued Benjamin for slander, and provided testimonials from several previous employers that could prove her good – and ostensibly not murderous – character. But when Matthias’s fraud trial opened, the district attorney began the proceedings by saying that the trial really couldn’t go forward. First, he said that the case would end up getting mired in whether or not Matthias truly was a holy prophet – which was not something the state was interested in attempting to prove. Second – and more importantly – the case seemed trivial compared to a case being brought against Matthias in a different county: this one for the death of Elijah Pierson. Even though Matthias’s attorneys tried to argue that the case needed to be fully tried so they could prove, definitively, the prophet’s innocence, the court dismissed the case and sent Matthias to Westchester County to be tried for murder.
Sarah: While the attorneys are trying to decide how to handle Isabella’s slander case and Matthias’s impending murder trial, something else happened: Ann Folger gave birth to a baby – and it was not Matthias’s prophesied holy son, but a baby girl.
The press was having a field day with the entire mess. The partisan press took entirely different approaches to making sense of Matthias, his cult, and the present trials. Many of them used Matthias as an example of the religious disorder of “fanaticism,” or a mental illness that many in the burgeoning discipline of psychiatry considered a result of too much religious excitement. One newspaper tried to analyze Matthias using the new science of phrenology, determining that while his head indicated large “amativeness,” he had small “reflective and perceptive faculties,” concluding that he had a “committed and ignorant mind invested with unusual powers of imagination, self-esteem, and ‘marvellousness.’” Other newspapers saw the whole story as one of masculine moral failings, saying that no one was safe if genteel businessmen like Elijah Pierson and Benjamin Folger could fall under the sway of a zealot. The editor of the Commercial Advertiser, William Leete Stone – who had once been close to the radical woman Frances Folger – blamed not the followers, but the evils of people who didn’t know their place. Women like Frances Folger, who talked out of turn and preached like men; poor, unemployed men who think they could be leaders; and Black former slaves, like Isabella van Wagenen, who acted as a minion carrying out Matthias’s murderous commands.
Averill: The murder trial lasted four days. Once Matthias had a captive audience, he tried to rule the courtroom, screaming about the injustices of the process over the calls of the judge for order until the sheriff physically restrained him and removed him from the courtroom. Popular opinion was that Matthias was obviously guilty and should be immediately hanged. But the court had to rely on the evidence – and there wasn’t much. The doctors who examined Pierson’s corpse had to admit they hadn’t chemically analyzed the contents of the dead man’s stomach, so they couldn’t testify that it contained poison. The maintenance man of the graveyard from which Pierson’s body had been dug up couldn’t even swear that the body that had been exhumed was Pierson’s. And even when Ann Folger testified that she was certain Matthias had poisoned Pierson, the prophet’s attorneys turned it back against her in cross-examination. She was the “mother” of Mount Zion. Wasn’t she actually tasked with the care of the residents? If Elijah was sick, shouldn’t she have nursed him back to health? Who prepared the food – Matthias, or the women? Wasn’t it reasonable to conclude, then, that if anyone did it, it was Ann that poisoned Elijah? The next morning, the case in tatters, the judge instructed the jury to find Matthias not guilty. They did, and the case was dropped.
Sarah: But! The court wasn’t quite done with Matthias. During the final phase of the trial, another case had been brought against Matthias, this one brought by Charles Laisdell, the husband of Matthias’s daughter Isabella, who Matthias had so cruelly beaten before trying to get her to marry Benjamin Folger. That case didn’t go smoothly for the district attorney either. Isabella Laisdell swore she had forgiven her father for the assault. But ultimately Charles Laisdell was convincing to the judge in his complaint: by beating Isabella Laisdell, Matthias had violated Charles’s rights as a husband. As a married woman, Isabella belonged to Charles to correct, and it was no longer her father’s right to “correct her” with corporal punishment. Matthias was found guilty and carted off to jail for three months. The judge advised him to serve his time, shave his face, and get a job.
Averill: The story of the Kingdom of Matthias continued to rattle around in American culture. William Leete Stone (the one who called Isabella and Matthias equally evil) wrote a book about the entire saga with the cooperation of the Folgers. Margaret Matthews, still Matthias’s legal wife, published a ghostwritten pamphlet about her husband’s early life – and though she admitted Matthias must be deranged, she managed to actually blame all of the real trouble on Benjamin Folger. (After all, it was Benjamin who had tried to seduce her daughter!) Isabella van Wagenen set out to tell her own story, determined not to let Stone slander her as Benjamin Folger had tried. Isabella, who was open about her own Christian mysticism and deep belief that she had had communications with God, continued to profess her belief in Matthias’s message. She was very happy, however, to spill ALL the tea about the inner workings of the Kingdom at Mount Zion. Together with a radical free-thinker and religious critic named Gilbert Vale, Isabella wrote and published her account of the whole affair in 1835. But after the initial buzz, the whole thing faded from the region’s and nation’s attentions. Herman Melville, who had lived close to where Matthias had first preached in Manhattan for a period, made a few veiled references to the prophet in his writing, and other 19th century writers – including Edgar Allen Poe , Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman – borrowed little bits and pieces of the wild tale for their works of fiction, but none were specific enough to actually reference Matthias or his Kingdom. For the most part, the Kingdom of Matthias fell out of American history – understood as a strange aberration rather than an example of a long tradition of Americans seeking to find alternatives to the dominant religions and cultural expectations.
Sarah: Matthias’s disciples scattered. The Folgers resumed a pretty normal life in Sing Sing; Sylvester Mills spent some time in the Bloomingdale Lunatic Asylum, but recovered to marry and life a happy conventional life. Matthias served his term in jail, and when he was released, he tried to return home to his poor beleaguered wife, Margaret. She refused to let him come home (which I think is pretty damned understandable). He instead wandered about, slowly drifting west. He was kicked out of more than one community – apparently the citizens of Little Rock, Arkansas actually held him down, shaved his beard, and then threatened to kill him if he ever came back. What happened to him ultimately isn’t known, but it’s generally sort of accepted that he died in 1841. As for Isabella van Wagenen, she had the most interesting transformation after the end of the Kingdom of Matthias. And this is where I’ll say: this book has an unexpected twist ending. If you’d rather save that twist, and read it for yourself, I would go ahead and skip the end of this episode. You can come back after you’ve read!
Isabella van Wagenen went back to work for a former employer in New York after Matthias left. She had stuck by Matthias, but she was also disturbed by the sexual mess that the prophet had plunged the society into. Eventually, she moved on from Matthias’s beliefs and began to search again. She decided she needed a fresh start outside of her home state of New York, where she had been born enslaved. But before she left Manhattan to embark on her own religious wanderings, she another religious experience. This time, God spoke to her and told her name was not Isabella van Wagenen anymore: she was to call herself Sojourner Truth.
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 Johnson & Wilentz, The Kingdom of Matthias, 132
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 Johnson & Wilentz, The Kingdom of Matthias, 144.
 Johnson & Wilentz, The Kingdom of Matthias, 146