Some years ago a considerable sensation was created in the state of New York by the mad and grotesque pranks of Robert Matthews, who presumptuously laid claim to the divine character, and imposed himself as a superior being upon whom some of the most respectable members of society believed. As no account, as far as we are aware, has ever been published in Britain of this remarkable affair, notwithstanding the interest which it excited in America, we propose to introduce a notice of it to our readers.
Robert Matthews was a native of Washington County, in the state of New York, and of Scotch extraction. At an early age he was left an orphan, and was brought up in the family of a respectable farmer in the town of Cambridge, where in his boyhood he received the religious instruction of the clergyman belonging to the Anti-burgher branch of Seceders. At about twenty years of age he came to the city of New York, and worked at the business of a carpenter and house-joiner, which he had partially learned in the country. Possessing genius for mechanical pursuits, and being of active habits, he was an excellent workman, and was in constant and lucrative employment. In 1813 he married a respectable young woman, and removed to Cambridge for the purpose of pursuing the business of a storekeeper; but the undertaking, after a trial of three years, failed.
He became bankrupt, involving his father-in-law in his ruin; and in 1816 he returned once more to New York, where for a number of years he wrought at his old profession of a house-carpenter. Being at length dissatisfied with his condition, he removed in 1827 to what he thought a better field for his talent in Albany. While settled in this city, a remarkable change took place in his feelings.
Hitherto he had belonged to the Scotch Church; but now, disliking that communion, he attached himself to the Dutch Reformed congregation, and there gathering fresh ardor, at length surrendered his whole mind to spiritual affairs. While in this condition, he went to hear a young and fervent orator, the Rev. Mr. Kirk, from New York, preach, and returned home in such a frenzy of enthusiasm as to sit up a great part of the night repeating, expounding, and commending passages from the sermon. From this period his conduct was that of a half-crazy man. He joined the temperance society, but went far beyond the usual rules of such associations, contending that the use of meats should be excluded as well as of intoxicating liquors; proceeding on this notion, he enforced a rigid system of dietetics in his household, obliging his wife and children to subsist only on bread, fruits, and vegetables.
During the year 1829 his conduct became more and more wild and unregulated. His employment was still that of a journeyman house joiner; but instead of minding his work, he fell into the practice of exhorting the workmen during the hours of labor, and of expounding the Scriptures to them in a novel and enthusiastic manner, until at length he became so boisterous, that his employer, a very pious man, was obliged to discharge him from his service. He claimed at this time to have received by revelation some new light upon the subject of experimental religion, but did not as yet lay claim to any supernatural character. Discharged from regular employment, he had abundant leisure for street-preaching, which he commenced in a vociferous manner –exhorting everyone he met upon the subject of temperance and religion, and holding forth to crowds at the comers of the streets. Having made a convert of one of his late fellow-workmen, he procured a large white flag, on which was inscribed ‘Rally round the Standard of Truth;’ this they raised on a pole, and bore through the streets every morning, haranguing the multitudes whom their strange appearance and demeanor attracted around them. A young student of divinity, catching the infection, as it seemed, united himself with Matthews, and assisted in the preachings in the public thoroughfares. Matthews, however, was a remarkably bad preacher, and made little or no impression on his listeners. His addresses were incoherent, consisting of disjointed sentences, sometimes grand or bombastic, and at other times low and ridiculous, but always uttered at the highest pitch of the voice, and designed both in matter and manner to terrify and startle his hearers. The favorite doctrine which he attempted to enforce was, that Albany would be immediately destroyed, unless the people were converted; and he harped so wildly on this theme, that in a short time he became utterly distraught.
All the efforts of his poor wife to restrain him in his mania were unavailing. One night he aroused his family from their slumbers, declared that the city would be destroyed before morning, and fled from his home, taking with him three of his sons, the youngest an infant of only two years. With these he travelled maniacally on foot for twenty-four hours, till he reached the house of his sister in the town of Argyle, a distance of forty miles.
The religious wanderings of Matthews the prophet, as he was called, may now be said to have commenced. With a Bible in his hand, and his face garnished with a long beard, which he had for some time been suffering to grow, in obedience to a Scriptural command, he wandered about, collecting crowds to listen to his ravings, and frequently disturbed the peace of regular meetings in the churches. Finding that he made no impression in the old settled part of the country, he set out on a missionary tour through the western states, penetrating the deepest forests, crossing the prairies, and never stopping till he had proclaimed his mission amid the wilds of the Arkansas. Thence he turned his steps to the Southeast, re-crossed the Mississippi, traversed Tennessee, and arrived in Georgia with the view of preaching to the Indians; but here he was seized by the authorities, and placed in confinement as a disturber of the public peace. Ultimately he was dismissed, and permitted to return towards his old haunts in New York and its neighborhood where he arrived in a somewhat new character. It would appear that till about this period Matthews was simply in a state of mental derangement, and, like all madmen in similar circumstances, was perfectly sincere in his belief. The small degree of success on his journey, his imprisonment in Georgia, and his utter poverty, may be advanced as a cause for an alteration in his conduct. He now lost a portion of his frenzy, and in proportion as he cooled in this respect, the idea of imposture seems to have assumed a place in his mind. There is at least no other rational mode of explaining his very singular behavior. In the capacity, therefore, of half madman, half knave, Mr. Matthews may be viewed as entering on his career in New York in the month of May 1832.
In ordinary times and circumstances, the intrusion of such a madman into a quiet mercantile city would lead to no other result than the committal of the intruder to the house of correction or a lunatic asylum; but at the period of Matthews’s appearance in New York, a pretty large portion of the public mind was prepared for any kind of extravagance in religion, and therefore the declaration of his mission was looked upon only as another act in the drama which had for some time been performing. About the year 1822 a few ladies became dissatisfied with the existing means of religious instruction in the city, and set on foot the bold project of converting the whole population by a system of female visitation, in the execution of which, every house and family was to be visited by committees of two, who were to enter houses indiscriminately, and pray for the conversion of the inmates whether they would hear or not.
This scheme created no little noise at the time, but, like all frenzies, it only lasted its day, and was succeeded by other schemes perhaps equally well meaning, but equally visionary. Among the class of perfectionists as, they were termed, there were doubtless many estimable persons, and none more so than Mr. Elijah Pierson and his wife. Mr. Pierson was a merchant by profession, and, by a course of industry and regularity in all his undertakings, was now in opulent circumstances. Until the late religious frenzy agitated the city, he had been noted for his intelligence and unaffected piety, and not less so was his lady. In a short period his devotional feelings underwent a remarkable change. In 1828, after passing through a state of preliminary excitement, he became afflicted with monomania on the subject of religion, while upon all matters of business, as far as they could be disconnected from that on which he was decidedly crazed, his intellectual powers and faculties were as active and acute as ever. During his continuance in this state of hallucination, in the year 1830 his wife died of a pulmonary affection, which had been greatly aggravated by long fasting and other bodily severities. This event only served to confirm Mr. Pierson in his monomania. He considered that it would afford an opportunity for the working of a miracle through the efficacy of faith. By a gross misinterpretation of Scripture (Epistle of James 5:14, 15),he believed that his wife should be ‘raised up’ from death while lying in her coffin, and accordingly collected a crowd of persons, some of whom were equally deluded with himself, to see the wonder performed in their presence. The account of this melancholy exhibition, which is lying before us, is too long and too painful for extract; and it will suffice to state, that notwithstanding the most solemn appeals to the Almighty from the bereaved husband, the corpse remained still and lifeless; and by the remonstrances of a medical attendant, who declared that decomposition was making rapid and dangerous progress, the body was finally consigned to the tomb.
Such was the hallucination of Mr. Pierson, which many pitied, and some were found to approve. Among the latter was Mr. S, also a merchant in good circumstances, but who had latterly become a victim to the religious excitement which prevailed, and, like Mr.Pierson, often subjected himself to fasts for a week at a time, greatly to the injury of his health and the confirmation of his mania.
Both gentlemen being thus in a state of mind to look for extraordinary events, a stranger presented himself before them on the 5th of May 1832. He had the beard of a patriarch, a tall form, and his language was of a high-flown cast on religious topics, which at once engaged their attention and sympathy. This imposing stranger was no other than Robert Matthews. The pretensions which he made were of a nature which we can scarcely trust ourselves even to hint at. That the tale may be told with as little pain to our readers as possible, let it suffice to say, that the very highest imaginable character was assumed by this unhappy man, and that the pretense was supported merely by the perversion and misinterpretation of one or two passages of Scripture. The character which he assumed he pretended to be in the meantime incorporated with the resuscitated person of the Matthias mentioned in the New Testament; and he accordingly was not now any longer Matthews, but Matthias. He had the power, he said, to do all things, not excepting those which most peculiarly belong to the divine nature. Mr. Pierson and his friend believed all that he set forth of himself, then and subsequently, no matter how extravagant or blasphemous; and he in turn recognized them as the first members of the true church, whom, after two years’ search, he had been able certainly to identify.
He announced to them that, although the kingdom of God on earth began with his public declaration in Albany in June 1830, it would not be completed until twenty-one years from that date, in 1 851; previous to which time wars would be done away, the judgments finished, and the wicked destroyed. As Mr. Pierson’s Christian name was Elijah, this afforded Matthews the opportunity of declaring that he was a revivification of Elijah the Tishbite, who should go before him in the spirit and power of Elias; and as Elias, as everybody knows, was only another name for John the Baptist, it was assumed that Elijah Pierson was the actual John the Baptist come once more on earth, and by this title he was henceforth called.
Mr. Pierson very soon relinquished preaching, as did Mr. S, and the work of the ministry devolved entirely on Matthews, who, jealous of his dignity, would bear no rivals near the throne. The prophet was now invited to take up his residence at the elegantly furnished house of Mr. S, and acceding to the invitation, he remained there three months. The best apartments were allotted to his use, and the whole establishment was submitted to his control.
It was not long before he arrogated to himself divine honors, and his entertainer washed his feet in token of his humility. The female relations of the family were sent away by the impostor, and he allowed no one to reside there but the black domestics who were of the true faith. From fasting he taught his disciples to change their system to feasting; and having their houses at his command, and their purses at his service loving the good things of this world, and taking all the direction in procuring supplies” he caused them to fare sumptuously every day. But this splendid style of living was not enough. The prophet was vain of his personal appearance, and proud of wearing rich clothes. It was now necessary that he should be arrayed in garments befitting his character and the dignity of his mission. His liberal entertainer, therefore, at his suggestion, furnished him with an ample wardrobe of the richest clothes and finest linens. His favorite costume consisted of a black cap of japanned leather, in shape like an inverted cone, with a shade; a frock-coat of fine green cloth, lined with white or pink satin; a vest, commonly of richly figured silk; frills of fine lace or cambric at the wrists; a sash around his waist of crimson silk, to which were suspended twelve gold tassels, emblematical of the twelve tribes of Israel; green or black pantaloons, over which were worn a pair of well-polished Wellington boots. Add to this, hair hanging over his shoulders, and a long beard flowing in ringlets on his breast, and we may have an idea of him in his public costume. In private he disused the black leather cap, and sometimes appeared in a nightcap of the finest linen, decorated with twelve points or turrets, and magnificently embroidered in gold by his female votaries. He usually preached in a suit of elegant canonicals.
Lodged, fed, and decorated in this sumptuous manner, Matthews spent his time so agreeably, that he became less anxious to make public appearances. His preaching was confined to select parties of fifty or sixty individuals, composing, as he styled it, ‘the kingdom,’ and by these he was held in the most reverential esteem. Occasionally, strangers were invited to attend his ministrations, but this was only as a great favor; and at all meetings he made it a rule to allow no one to speak but himself. He declared his rooted antipathy to arguing or discussion. If anyone attempted to question him on the subject of his mission or character, he broke into a towering passion, and said that he came not to be questioned, but to preach.
Among other of his vagaries, he declared that he had received in a vision an architectural plan for the New Jerusalem, which he was commissioned to build, and which for magnificence and beauty, extent and grandeur, would excel all that was known of Greece or Rome. The site of this great capital of the kingdom was to be in the western part of New York. The bed of the ocean was to yield up its long-concealed treasures for its use. All the vessels, tools, and implements of the New Jerusalem were to be of massive silver and pure gold. In the midst of the city was to stand an immense temple, to be surrounded with smaller ones: in the greater temple he was to be enthroned, and Mr. Pierson and Mr. S were each to occupy a lesser throne on his right hand and on his left. Before him was to be placed a massive candlestick with seven branches, all of pure gold.
Any man in his senses must have perceived that this was the vision of a madman, but by his humble votaries it was considered a sure prediction of what would speedily come to pass. As long as it was confined to mere harangues, the public were not called on to interfere; the case, however, was very different when Mr. S, in obedience to the injunctions of the prophet, commenced ordering expensive ornaments for the proposed temple from a goldsmith in the city. Matters were now going too far for S’s friends to remain any longer calm spectators of his folly, and both he and Matthews were taken up on a warrant of lunacy, and consigned to an asylum for the insane. Poor S was too confirmed in his madness to be speedily cured, and therefore remained long in confinement; but Matthews had the address to appear perfectly sane when judicially examined, and was relieved by a writ of habeas corpus, procured by one of his friends.
Upon his release from the asylum, he was invited to take up his residence with Mr. Pierson; but that gentleman shortly afterwards broke up his establishment, though he still rented a house for Matthews and one or two attendants, supplying him at the same time with the means of living. In the autumn of 1833 he was, on the solicitations of Mr. Pierson, invited to reside at Singsing, in Westchester county, about thirty miles from town, with a Mr. and Mrs. Folger, two respectable persons, whose minds had become a little crazed with the prevailing mania, but who as yet were not fully acquainted with the character of the prophet. Mr. Pierson afterwards became a resident in the family, and thus things went on very much in the old comfortable way. Only one thing disturbed the tranquility of the establishment. Mrs. Folger, who had a number of children, and was of an orderly turn of mind respecting household affairs, felt exceedingly uneasy in consequence of certain irregular habits and tendencies in the prophet, who set himself above all domestic discipline. The great evil which she complained of was, that he always took the meal-time to preach, and generally preached so long, that it was very difficult to find sufficient time to get through the duties of the day. He often detained the breakfast-table so long, that it was almost time for dinner before the meal was over; in the same manner he ran dinner almost into supper, and supper was seldom over before midnight” all which was very vexing to a person like Mrs. Folger, who was accustomed to regularity at meals, and could not well see why the exercises of religion should supersede the ordinary current of practical duties.
The infatuation of both Pierson and Folger in submitting to the tyranny and pampering the vanity of Matthews was demonstrated at this period in many acts of weakness which astonished the more sober part of the community. The impostor was furnished with a carriage and horses to convey him to and from New York, or any other place in which he chose to exhibit himself Money to a considerable amount was given him on various pretenses; and to crown the absurdity, an inheritable property was conveyed to him for his permanent support. An allowance of two dollars a day was further made to his wife in Albany; and several of his children, including a married daughter, Mrs. Laisdel, were brought to reside with him in Mr. Folger’s establishment. After a short time, however, Mrs. Laisdel was under the necessity of returning home, in consequence of her father’s violent treatment.
This very agreeable state of affairs was too pleasant to last. Mr. Folger’s business concerns became embarrassed, and he was obliged to spend the greater part of his time in New York. The entire government of the household now devolved on Matthews; and he, along with Katy, a black female cook, (Sojourner Truth) who was a submissive tool in all his projects, ruled the unfortunate Pierson, Mrs. Folger, and the children, with the rod of an oppressor. Certain meats were forbidden to appear at table; the use of confectionary or pastry was denounced as a heinous sin; and the principal food allowed was bread, vegetables, and coffee. What with mental excitement and physical deprivations, Mr. Pierson’s health began to decline; he became liable to fainting and apoplectic fits; but no medical man was permitted to visit him, and he was placed altogether at the mercy of the impostor. At this crisis Matthews’s shewed his utter incapacity for supporting the character he had assumed. Instead of alleviating the condition of his friend, he embraced every opportunity of abusing him, so as to leave little doubt that he was anxious to put him out of the way. One of his mad doctrines was, that all bodily ailments were caused by a devil; that there was a fever devil, a toothache devil, a fainting-fit devil, and so on with every other malady; and that the operations of such a fiend were in each case caused by unbelief, or a relaxation of faith in Matthews’s divine character. The illness of Pierson was therefore considered equivalent to an act of unbelief, and worthy of the severest displeasure. On pretense of expelling the sick spirit, he induced his friend to eat plentifully of certain mysteriously prepared dishes of berries, which caused vomiting to a serious extent, and had a similar though less powerful effect on others who partook of them. The children also complained that the coffee which was served for breakfast made them sick. On none of these occasions did Matthews taste of the food set before Mr. Pierson or the family; and from the account of the circumstances, there can be no doubt of his having, either from knavery or madness, endeavored to poison the family, or at least to destroy the life of his deluded patron. Besides causing Mr. Pierson to swallow such trash as he offered him, he compelled him to receive the contents of a pitcher of water poured into his mouth from a height of four or five feet. This horrid operation, in which Katy the black servant assisted, brought on strong spasmodic fits, in which the sufferer uttered such dismal groans and sighs as shocked Mrs. Folger, and might have induced her to discredit the pretensions of the impostor, and to appeal to a magistrate for protection; but excellent as was this lady’s general character, she possessed no firmness to decide in so important a matter, and her sympathy was dissolved in a flood of useless tears.
The water-torture, as it may be called, hastened the fate of the unhappy gentleman, and he was shortly afterwards found dead in his bed. The intelligence of Mr. Pierson’s death immediately brought Mr. Folger from New York, to inquire into the cause of the event, and to superintend the arrangements for the funeral. The representations of the case made by Mrs. Folger did not suggest the possibility of Matthews having used any unfair means towards Mr. Pierson, but that his death was in some way caused by him through supernatural power. Matthews, indeed, boasted that he could kill anyone who doubted his divine character by a mere expression of his will. Singular as it may seem, this madness or villainy did not yet release Folger from the impression that Matthews was a divine being; and fearing his assumed power, he had not the resolution to order his departure. In a few days, however, all ceremony on the subject was at an end. An action having been raised by Pierson’s heirs to recover the property which the impostor had obtained on false pretenses, Matthews refused to resign it, and attempted to justify his conduct to Folger by reasons so completely opposed to the principles of common honesty, that that gentleman’s belief at once gave way, and he ordered him to quit the house. This abrupt announcement was received with anything but complacency. The prophet preached, stormed, and threatened; tears likewise were tried; but all was unavailing. Folger respectfully but firmly told him that circumstances required a retrenchment of his expenditure, and that he must seek for a new habitation. Matthews, in short, was turned out of doors.
He was again thrown upon the world, though not in an utterly penniless condition. The right which he held to Pierson’s property was in the course of being wrested from him, but he possessed a considerable sum which he had gathered from Folger and a few other disciples, and on this he commenced living until some new and wealthy dupe, as he expected, should countenance his pretensions, and afford him the means of a comfortable subsistence. This Expectation was not realized in time to save him from public exposure and shame. Folger, having pondered on a variety of circumstances, felt convinced that he had been the victim of a designing impostor, that Pierson’s death had been caused by foul means, and that the lives of his own family had been exposed to a similar danger. On these suspicions he caused Matthews to be apprehended, for the purpose, in the first place, of being tried on a charge of swindling. On the 16th of October 1834, this remarkable case came on for trial before the Court of Sessions in New York, on an indictment setting forth that Matthews was guilty of ‘devising by unlawful means to obtain possession of money, goods, chattels, and effects of divers good people of the state of New York; and that the said B. H. Folger, believing his representations, gave the said Matthias one hundred pieces of gold coin, of the value of five hundred and thirty dollars, and one hundred dollars in bank-notes, which the said Matthias feloniously received by means of the false pretenses aforesaid.’ Matthews pled not guilty to the charge, but upon the solicitation of Folger, who seems to have been ashamed to appear publicly as prosecutor, the district attorney dropped the case, and the prisoner was handed over to the authorities of the county of Westchester, on the still more serious accusation of having murdered Mr. Pierson.
To bring to a conclusion this melancholy tale of delusion, imposture, and crime, Matthews was arraigned for murder before the court of Oyer and Terminer at Westchester, on the 16th of April 1835.
The trial excited uncommon interest, and many persons attended from a great distance, to get a view of the man whose vagaries had made so much noise in the country. The evidence produced for the prosecution was principally that of medical men, who had been commissioned to disinter the body of the deceased, and examine the condition of the stomach, it being a general belief that death had been caused by poison. Unfortunately for the ends of justice, the medical examiners could not agree that the stomach shewed conditions of a poisonous substance, some alleging that it did, and others affirming the reverse. On this doubtful state of the question, the jury had no other course than to offer a verdict of acquittal. On the announcement of the verdict, the prisoner was evidently elated; but his countenance fell when he found that he was to be tried on another indictment for having assaulted his daughter, Mrs. Laisdel, with a whip, on the occasion of her visit to him at Singsing; her husband was the prosecutor. Of this misdemeanor he was immediately found guilty, and condemned to three months’ imprisonment in the county jail. In passing sentence, the judge took occasion to reprimand him for his gross impostures and impious pretensions, and advised him, when he came out of confinement, to shave his beard, lay aside his peculiar dress, and go to work like an honest man.
Of the ultimate fate of Matthews we have heard no account, and therefore are unable to say whether he renewed his schemes of imposture.
I conclude now some of the more remarkable early-modern prophets, and I will next look at some of the more dangerous ones of the latter 1800’s, and how their delusions have left their mark upon society, today.
Taken and adapted from, “Chambers’s Miscellany” (sp) Vol. IV.
Written by William Chambers
“The New York History Blog,”
Written by Miguel Hernandez