By Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian, David L. Rice Library, University of Southern Indiana. Reprinted here with permission. To learn more about the Koreshans, take a guided historic tour of the Historic Settlement at Koreshan State Park.
You probably recognize that tagline from the many Ripley’s Believe It or Not! attractions, and the phrase has come into common parlance. I’m going to introduce you to the former Koreshan Unity society, and you’ll soon see why I chose this title.
First, let’s clarify that name—it has absolutely no relationship to David Koresh and the Branch Davidians of Waco, TX fame/infamy. Koresh is Hebrew for the name Cyrus and was taken by Cyrus Reed Teed, a very interesting man born in New York state in 1839. He studied medicine with his uncle, and after serving in the Civil War, completed his studies at the Eclectic Medical College in New York. There were numerous such medical colleges currently. “In nineteenth century America, a number of what today are called “alternative” medical practices—“magnetic healing” (hypnosis), homeopathy, and eclecticism, among others—vied with each other and with regular or “old school” medicine—i.e., allopathy, today’s science-based medicine.” Teed seems to have taken eclectic medicine to new heights by studying alchemy (an ancient belief/study of turning base metals into gold) and conducting electromagnetic experiments. Some sources claim his divine revelation was the result of a severe shock incurred during these experiments.
“One night in 1869, working late in his laboratory, Teed had a mystical “illumination” that set the course for the rest of his life. A beautiful woman appeared to him and filled him with a profound spiritual understanding, through which he came to realize that he was the new messiah. Teed renamed himself Koresh, the Hebrew translation of his name, and began to gather around him a group of converts to his way of thinking (Carmer 1949; Mackle 89 1971; Michel ; Landing 1997). After failing to win large numbers of converts in New York state, he moved to Chicago in 1886 and there continued his ministry, eventually establishing the Koreshan Unity, a community of Koreshans devoted to putting Teed’s social and religious philosophy into practice.” The newly named Koresh developed a bizarre theory he called “cellular cosmogony.” It seems that “the Earth is a hollow spinning sphere and that we inhabit the inside held to the inner walls by centrifugal force. Actually, Teed went beyond just a run-of-the-mill Hollow Earth theory, he hypothesized that the entire universe was contained inside a super-size womb, called Earth, with the planets and sun suspended in the center, except the moon, which Teed said was just an illusion. Teed’s theory was appealing to many religious fundamentalists because no longer was the Earth just another tiny speck in the Universe, it was important because it contained the whole works inside and absolutely nothing on the outside.”Tarlow, in her more scholarly resource, says that “the earth could be understood as being like a giant tennis ball, with the inhabited surface on the inside. The sun, moon, and astral bodies hung suspended in the center (Koresh 1905). For him, it was more than a differently shaped world; it was the foundation for a whole new and better society, which was inseparable from a new theology and a new social order. If humans live on the inside, that meant to Koresh that the human universe is knowable, finite, and ordered. Gone were the uncertainties of infinite space (Koresh 1905:97-101; Hume 1928:170; Gardner 1992:19). Moreover, the universe was now focused on a center, rather than expanding outward.”The Koreshan Unity was ready to move on from Chicago, and settled in 1894 in Estero, Florida, just south of Ft. Myers. An old German immigrant by the name of Gustave Damkohler who had long homesteaded in this area encountered some of Teed’s writings and was impressed. “Damkohler liked what the pamphlets said and thought it to be a good idea to sell or even give his property to Cyrus Teed and join the Koreshan Unity commune, so he and his son would be taken care of for the rest of their lives. After Damkohler wrote to Dr. Teed, Teed and an entourage of his closest followers came to Estero to look at the property. Damkohler and Teed came to an agreement where Teed would purchase 300 acres from Damkohler for $200. Damkohler’s son, Elwin, did not trust the Koreshans or Teed, and refused to join the Unity with his father. Elwin believed Teed tricked his father into disinheriting him and was angry with him for selling the family property to Teed. After Damkohler grew disenchanted with the deal, Elwin convinced him to sue the Koreshans to get their property back and eventually settled with Teed out of court the return of 160 acres. The big winner, however, was Louis A. Hendry, Gustave’s lawyer, who kept 80 acres as his fee. Damkohler sold his 80 acres for $1,000 and moved to Alaska with his son to mine for gold. Damkohler died in Alaska at age 90, and Elwin returned to Florida and became a charter fishing boat captain.”
Here’s the thing—yes, Teed’s beliefs were outré. It boggles the mind that he could convince as many as 200 followers that they were living “inside” the earth. But, to give credit where it is due, the Koreshan Unity had some laudable goals and achievements. “Women at the Unity Settlement enjoyed a level of equality, leadership and self-empowerment long before women had even earned the right to vote.” Alcohol, tobacco, and profanity were forbidden, and excavations show that the settlers largely followed this dictum.
“Their community was one of the first in western Florida to have electric lighting, supplied on-site by their own generator, for the Koreshans, unlike some other members of Utopian communities, embraced recent technological developments (Koresh b; Herbert and Reeves 1977:73). …[Teed had specified that the community] would have underground tunnels (wide enough to carry all the wires, cables, and pipes necessary to an efficient, hygienic, and modern world, as well as carrying a garbage disposal system that would remove all waste.” (The tunnel system was unfortunately never established.) Community members lived well—some 20 buildings, most still standing, were built and the land cleared for habitation. The community supported itself by operating a printing press along with a store and gas station for travelers to the area, produced enough food to sell the excess, and operated manufacturing plants. Among the first buildings built in Estero was the Arts Hall where members enjoyed a wide variety of musical and theatrical performances.
The remains of a tennis court have been found, so evidently Koreshans also enjoyed recreation.
The beginning of the end came on December 22, 1908 with Teed’s death. He and his followers believed he was immortal, so this came as somewhat of a shock. Loyal Koreshans waited by his body for five days for his resurrection, desisting only when state officials insisted that the body be buried. In a particularly ironic twist of fate, his grave no longer exists—in 1921 a hurricane swept his tomb out to sea. Not surprisingly membership dwindled, although the community continued for some years until in 1961 the four remaining members deeded their land to the state of Florida as a park and memorial. The last Koreshan died in 1982. In 2016, the Southwest Florida Television channel posted at aerial video of Koreshan State Historic Site in Estero, Florida.
Information for this post initially came from Rice Library’s Communal Studies Collection. The Center for Communal Studies promotes the study of contemporary and historic communal groups, intentional communities and utopias. Established in 1976 at the University of Southern Indiana, the Center encourages and facilitates meetings, classes, scholarship, publications, networking and public interest in communal groups past and present, here and abroad. The rich research resources of the Center are housed in the University Archives and Special Collections in the David L. Rice Library. The Center archives hold primary and secondary materials on more than one hundred historic communes and several hundred collective, cooperative and co-housing communities founded since 1965. Noted communal scholars have donated their private collections and their extensive research notes and papers to the Center archives. In many ways, intentional communities are natural laboratories for understanding and addressing some of the contemporary challenges facing humanity: conflict resolution, sustainable living, land reform, and relations between individuals and society. The Center For Communal Studies offers unmatched resources for sociologists, anthropologists, economists and others, including active communitarians, interested in the lessons — both successes and failures — that intentional communities can offer to the larger world. These collections highlight documents and photographs of intentional communities in the United States and around the world. New material is continuously being added to these collections, so come back and check often.