Dr. Cyrus Teed’s cult-like religion attracted death threats and broke up marriages in late 19th century Chicago.
by Jeff Nichols July 23, 2021; Reprinted from chicagoreader.com
Image from Koreshan Unity Papers, State Archives of Florida, Tallahassee.
On May 18, 1892, a lawyer addressed a packed Englewood auditorium. The issue was whether to form a mob to remove their new neighbor, Dr. Cyrus R. Teed, or to let the law take its course. “Let us say that there is one spot in the State of Illinois where such a devil cannot exist,” E.S. Metcalf told the crowd. “Don’t talk about tar and feathers tonight; they will come later.” Speakers told stories of how wives had abandoned their families and turned over all their assets to Teed. Admitting his past desire to shoot Teed, another ex-husband told the approving crowd that “No jury would have held me accountable for his death.”
Teed had taken an unusual path in his journey of becoming one of the most gleefully reviled Chicagoans of the late 19th century. Perhaps if he had lived today, the Internet would have provided a more comfortable outlet for his unusual scientific and religious beliefs. Born in 1839 in Teedville, New York, a village founded by a well-off ancestor, Cyrus left school at eleven to work on the Erie Canal. After serving in the Union Army, he studied to become a doctor of eclectic medicine, a new medical field which emphasized botanical and other noninvasive remedies.
Teed, like many eclectic doctors, also believed in alchemy. He later claimed he discovered his life’s mission while tinkering in his laboratory in Utica. Discovering the secret of transforming base metals into gold, he fell into a rapturous trance. Teed was visited by “the Divine Mother.” “I have nurtured thee through countless embodiments,” the spirit explained. “Offspring of Osiris and Iris, behold the [revealing] of thy Mother.”
Preaching across New York, Teed made a futile attempt to build a religious movement based on his revelations and idiosyncratic medical theories. In 1886, one of his few admirers offered to pay his way to a convocation of “mental healers” in Chicago. Held in a deconsecrated church that also housed a candy factory, the convention of the Mental Science National Association was so enamored of the rumpled but supremely confident doctor that it elected Teed its new president. Abandoning his invalid wife back in New York, Teed founded his own school, the World’s College of Life, and his own religion.
Calling himself by the name of Koresh, Teed taught that the body could heal itself through a “scientific” reading of a hodgepodge of ancient texts. In February 1888, Teed’s reputation as a kooky doctor took a dark turn with the death of Fletcher Benedict, the husband of a devoted follower. Benedict, who had believed Teed’s ideas were “humbug,” didn’t respond to Teed’s treatment for pneumonia, which consisted solely of prayers. “What if he does die?” Teed told Benedict’s distraught landlord. “I have been dead a dozen times.” At the coroner’s inquest, Teed claimed “Koreshan science” could cure “cancer, consumption—anything.”
Teed’s prosecution for practicing medicine without an Illinois license didn’t deter his core disciples, most of whom were women. The former child laborer spoke out against capitalist exploitation and materialism. His message of communal life offered a radical break from the confines of traditional households. Teed consistently preached a message of gender equality. “Woman, the world over, is born disfranchised,” commented Teed’s paper, The Flaming Sword. Man “makes all her laws and she has no rights that he does not provide and control.”
Teed rejected not only patriarchy, but all forms of sexual desire. The Koreshans would achieve immortality through a prophesized “conflagration of males and females,” emerging as neuter superbeings. Teed hated established Christian churches because they sanctified heterosexual marriages, which only perpetuated the cycle of reproduction and death. Churches also had refused to accept Teed’s reading of the Bible and other sacred texts, which showed that a man exactly like Teed would become God’s final prophet.
Shortly before Teed’s sect moved to a mansion in Washington Heights and into a block of flats in Englewood, Teed predicted that he would be killed by the angry husbands of his female followers, but would become, in his words, “theocrasized,” which would allow him to lead his flock in astral form. A boy found a bomb near Teed’s mansion. While his new neighbors feared how the Koreshans would bring down property values, they ultimately chose not to risk jail time to remove Teed.
By 1893, there were about 160 believers in Koreshanity in Illinois. Teed crisscrossed the country, attempting to win new converts to bring back to Chicago, where they would be treated like deranged cult members. Despite an avalanche of negative national press, Teed remained candid in his ambition to build a worldwide theocracy. Koresh created a new calendar, the first year being his birth year. “The Universology of KORESH is the genuine science of all truth, the solution of all problems, the explanation of all phenomena,” the Flaming Sword exclaimed.
If Teed’s odd theology wasn’t enough, a key element of Teed’s evangelism was the goal to prove that humanity lived inside the Earth. According to Teed, the Earth was hollow, with the sun, powered by precious metals of the earth’s crust, sitting at its center. Nighttime could be explained by the fact that the rotating sun was black on one side. The moon was an “x-ray picture” of the earth’s surface projected on the atmosphere, while the stars were “focal points of light.” The appearance of ships disappearing on the horizon was only an optical illusion, gravity explained by the existence of “gravic rays.” The Koreshans dutifully ran their own experiments, including one involving telescopes mounted on rowboats floating in the Old Illinois Drainage Canal.
After 17 years of surviving Chicago, Teed was unsuccessful in convincing his adopted hometown to abandon a Copernican worldview, give up sex, and accept Koresh as their personal savior. The Koreshans left wicked Chicago for undeveloped Estero, Florida, where Teed envisioned building a holy city with a population of 10 million. When Teed died in 1908, his followers propped him up in a bathtub. Days into waiting for Koresh’s resurrection, the county health officer insisted the great prophet be interred. Even after a storm blew away Teed’s crypt in 1921, his church soldiered on. The last Koreshan passed away 11 years after men landed on the Moon, an event that some today believe is but a sinister hoax.
To learn more about Cyrus Teed, his New Jerusalem and the Koreshan Unity, take a guided tour of the Historic Settlement in Koreshan State Park or purchase a copy of The Allure of Immortality from our online store or at the ranger station.