Charles P. Peirce's bestseller IDIOT AMERICA: HOW STUPIDITY BECAME A VIRTUE IN THE LAND OF THE FREE includes a wonderful portrait of Ignatius L. Donnelly (1831-1901), the lawyer, US Congressman, founder of a failed Utopian city, and bestselling author of three influential books: ATLANTIS: THE ANTEDILUVIAN WORLD (1882), which sparked the Atlantis mania that continues to this day, RAGNAROK: THE AGE OF FIRE AND GRAVEL (1883), which anticipated Immanuel Velikovsky's WORLDS IN COLLISION (1950) by more than half a century by attributing a world-wide deluge that sank Atlantis and wiped out the world's Mammoths to a near-collision with a comet (TRIVIA QUIZ: Can you guess what other pseudo-scientific classic was published in 1950? ANSWER: L. Ron Hubbard's DIANETICS), and then in 1889, THE GREAT CRYPTOGRAM, which argued that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare's plays and scattered clues to his authorship throughout them. Pierce considers the wildly creative, fiercely productive, and swiftly-forgotten Donnelley to be one of America's great cranks. "Cranks are noble," Peirce says, "because cranks are independent. A charlatan is a crank who sells out." It's like the difference between kitsch and dreck--people who make kitsch are sincere. Cynical purveyors of political and cultural dreck like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh know better--they're in it for the money and the power and the fame.
Writing CULTS, CONSPIRACIES, AND SECRET SOCIETIES, I learned about a lot of truly terrible people with really disturbing ideas (Charles Manson, the white supremacist David Lane, Canada's Roch "Moses" Thériault spring to mind); I also encountered some monsters who preached only good things (Jim Jones, Bhagwan Rajneesh). But the people who made the deepest impressions on me and stayed with me the longest were the Cranks. Koreshanity, the religio-political-pseudoscientific cult founded by Dr. Cyrus Read Teed (1839-1908), who believed that we don't live on the exterior of our planet but within it, on its "inner habitable surface of land and water," led me to a whole nineteenth century literature on hollow earth theory. Because Google digitized books in the public domain first, I was able to find some really rare volumes without even leaving my desk, such as William E. Lyon's THE HOLLOW GLOBE, OR, THE WORLD'S AGITATOR AND RECONCILER (1873), a portmanteau of science, mediumship, and Manifest Destiny, which looks forward to our colonization of the planet's inner frontier. I spent some time with Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel VRIL: THE POWER OF THE COMING RACE (1871) too. Theosophists wrote about Vril--a mysterious form of energy--as though it were real, as did members of Thule, a German occult racialist society. In 1960 Louis Pawels and Jacques Bergier wrote a book called LE MATIN DES MAGICIENS that claimed that something called the Vril Society was Thule's inner circle; in the 1970s, a holocaust denier named Ernst Zundel, who sold an English translation of the book through his publishing house, announced an expedition to Antarctica to search for Nazi-built Vril-powered UFO bases (it never got off the ground). Zundel is currently serving a prison sentence in Germany for inciting racial hatred.
The oddest thing I encountered has no wider significance whatsoever. It's just really, really... strange. Not uncanny or eerie, it wouldn't belong in a book like IMPOSSIBLE: YET IT HAPPENED, it's more like running into an old friend in an utterly unexpected place. It happened when I was researching The Processeans.
I first came across the Processeans when I was writing about Charles Manson--they had sued the publisher of Ed Sanders' THE FAMILY, which claimed that their involvement with Manson went deeper than the interview they did with him for the "Death" issue of their magazine The Process. The publisher recalled the book and every reference to the "black-garbed, death-worshipping Processeans," as Sanders had called them, was removed from its pages. In 1987, a book called THE ULTIMATE EVIL accused the Processeans of involvement in the Son of Sam murders. Long after I turned in my manuscript to Vintage, in June, 2009, Feral House published Timothy Wyllie's LOVE SEX FEAR DEATH: THE INSIDE STORY OF THE PROCESS CHURCH OF THE FINAL JUDGMENT. I wish I had had access to it when I was writing my book, but I had to scrounge around for whatever I could find. Someone had scanned whole issues of the Process magazine onto his Web site, along with memoirs by ex members and a whole book by one of Process's founders. An obituary for another founder led me to an article in the Rocky Mountain News, which is now posted on Rick Ross's cult website. But more on that in a moment.
First, who were the Processeans? Some Boing Boing readers might remember them or have even had personal experiences with them; I'm too young and led too sheltered a life. Process began in London in the early 1960s as an Adlerian psychoanalytic practice. It was led by two ex-Scientologists, an ex-cavalry officer named Robert Moor (who changed his name to Robert de Grimston) and a former call girl named Mary Anne MacLean. By 1966, their practice had transmogrified into a religion (Alistair Cooke's daughter and stepdaughter were members). With a follower's inheritance, they purchased a mansion in Mayfair and began to publish their magazine (the press dubbed them "The Mind Benders of Mayfair"). Mick Jagger appeared on one of the magazine's early covers; De Grimston published a chapbook whose first and last lines gave the group its catchphrase: "As it is, so be it." In 1966 they decamped to the Yucatan, where they witnessed the destruction of Hurricane Inez. De Grimston's thinking took on an apocalyptic tinge: "The power of Jehovah, Lucifer, and Satan is the dominant power," he wrote. "Conflicted though they may be for the purpose of the Game, upon one matter They are in total agreement....and that matter is the fact of the End. The End of the world as we know it; the end of humankind as we know it." Processean Churches sprung up around the country; their services featured sitars and invocations of Christ, Lucifer, Jehovah, and Satan.
In the mid-1970s, De Grimston and MacLean (the Omega, they called themselves) divorced and the group collapsed. But it didn't die. Instead it changed. First into another religion, The Foundation Faith of the Millennium. And then into something else altogether. As that article in the February 28, 2004 Rocky Mountain News reported:
One of the world's most admired animal sanctuaries has a skeleton tucked deep in its closet - one with a history worthy of its own miniseries. The Best Friends Animal Society runs the nation's largest "no-kill" shelter in Utah and raised $19.9 million last year alone. But more than three decades ago, its key founders formed a movement that was accused - falsely, they say - of being a satanic cult.Michael Mountain, the president of Best Friends and an original Processean, played down the group's loucher aspects in the interview he granted, but there you have it. The Best Friends Animal Society of Angel Canyon, Utah, nationally known for its pet rescue efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, its Best Friends magazine, and the National Geographic TV show Dogtown, was originally incorporated as a doomsday cult. From sitars and death-trips to adorable puppies and kittens, in just twenty five years. As Mark Twain said, "Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't."