A Penny for the Old Druid

Dr. Nephi Cottam founded the science of Craniopathy. Edwin J Dingle established the Institute of Mental Physics in Joshua Tree (“You too can have mental pull!”). Princess Zoraida taught ‘the cult of Ptah’. Pneumanadros, “The Spirit Man”, offered $5000 to anyone who could prove him a fake. ‘Professor’ J. W. Parker lectured on the Great Pyramid, which he called ‘The Bible in stone”. Astrologer Count Louis Harmon, AKA “Cheiro”, claimed people like Edward VII and Mary Pickford came to him for advice. George Terry was ‘the pre-ordained, foreordained, predestinated Prince of Destiny, luminary mandate of imperial preeminence, Israel, seventh son of Melchizedek, hierophant of the universe.” What corpus of learning comprised ‘Psychiana’? Who were the Ek-Klesia Units of Service?

These are the saints and saviors of American Fruitcakery, the primates and piris of the United States of Hucksterdom. The greatest of them all may have been the modestly-named Manly Hall, the subject of Master of the Mysteries, a ripe document of his life and milieu in kaleidoscope.

Born in 1901, Manly Palmer Hall was a Canadian refugee with a rootless childhood. He was drawn to the Chakras of California from Wall Street in the years just before Black Friday and in a short time, he became the most in-demand guru in Los Angeles. He was unlettered, like the Prophet; nevertheless, he wrote more books than almost anyone. Few books are as beautiful to see as his early classic, The Secret Teachings of All Ages, still in print in various forms, a great folio of mandalas, woodcuts, occult lithographs and alchemical allegory. Truman had a copy. So did Bin Laden.

The Red Summer of 1919 saw some of the most vicious race-riots in American history and it was also the first time Hall ascended the pulpit of the Church of the People. He mastermysteriesguided politicians, millionaires, movie stars, oil men and masons toward Nirvana. Hall’s self-helpful, starry speeches might have calmed Woodrow Wilson, terrified by the fact that “the American Negro returning from abroad would be our greatest medium in conveying bolshevism to America.” Hall’s Rosy Cross rival H. Spencer Lewis called Wilson ‘a great mystic’.

Hall looked the part: searing eyes, quaff of unruly hair, pursed lips, Valentino and Svengali. With a mushy but ingenious synthesis of theosophy, crank psycho-dietary theory, and an autodidact’s flair for complex texts, Hall drew crowds throughout his life. He was able to weather the mystic storms well and settled into a Grand Old Man of Mu role until his death in 1990. Although he liked to be photographed with conservative mayors and killjoy aesthetes, he was no prude: he accepted anyone of any age or dress into his mystical college and into his home. Craven to universities and honors, he also remained true to a kind of moony street-corner solitude that was both impressive and chatty.

It is impossible to separate Hall from his surroundings. He saw himself as a spring in the dry gulch and California as Palmyra or Nineveh. Thoth was excavated in the Gold Rush and the shade of his beloved Blavatsky peered out from vertiginous redwoods, keeping and watching. His own mind was a soak-sponge simultaneously carny, canny, and carnal. He walked the tightrope between affluence and sainthood his whole life, between gaudiness and generosity, insight and sleepwalk, kookiness and vivid penetration. In old age, he fell in with a killer obsessed with water. Water is destiny in California, haven to mermaids and sailors on the seas of scamville.

In 1934, Hall founded the Philosophical Research Society as a non-profit. He used it to house his impressive mystical library, his stamp collection, and the Pythagorean shelf-busters he fervently cranked out. Among the ranters and Rosicrucians, Hall was the best connected to Hollywood and City Hall. His friends did him little good, though. He remained ever loyal to them, but most dismissed him when the fakir fad died down. The real kick in following these kinds of wild lives is coming across the weird intersecting lines of other disordered figures crossing, sleepwalking, and stumbling into odd points of contact with the cipher under discussion. In Hall’s case, they are legion and include Bela Lugosi and Charles Bukowski.

Hall’s wife deserves a book of her own. Knowing she’d never get one, she wrote several herself. The stunningly beautiful Marie Bauer tracked down Hall Of The All-Seeing Eye after a vision brought on by a tablecloth and a rambling economist who told her Shakespeare’s plays were done by Bacon. A great underground vault in Colonial Williamsburg contained not only irrefutable proof of this, but also documents that would bring about an unprecedented era of world peace. Marie devoted her life to unearthing this trove, lobbying Congress, drumming up support from the wealthy and even pestering J. Edgar Hoover until he begged her to leave him alone. Her way of dealing with the FBI shows blind genius: get rid of the snoops by showing up until they hemorrhage of you. She got an archeological dig authorized in Williamsburg using the same effective methods. That it came up a cropper never deterred her. Master of the Mysteries contains a section of her love letters to Hall, and his back. They are unbalanced, observant and touching.

Hall’s end, very late in the game, came in the form of a lunatic scamster named Fritz who convinced Hall to bankroll his crazy superman-breeding schemes involving pregnant women swimming with dolphins, very unhealthy dietary codes, and listening to hours of incomprehensible fake Buddhist fizz. Fritz conned Hall out of his money and took control of his mystical college. He finally murdered the now almost immobile prophet, after plying him with demented homespun health cures that physically weakened the old man and accelerated his senility. But the feisty Marie fought Fritz bitterly and convincingly at the inquest, took him to court, and got most of the estate back. Fritz escaped prison but died of cancer a few years later, exacerbated by his own mad doctoring, his venality and his corruption. Epitaph? The American Huckster is a fraud who has hypnotized himself into utter sincerity, his first and greatest spell. Fritz was a clammy reflection of Hall and Hall was part Fritz and part crumpled Agrippa.

Louis Sahagun’s diligent biography eschews cheap psychoanalysis and sentimentality. It is a model of the bullseye which does not crowd out the arrow and although it deals with a world of tricks, it doesn’t use any. The reader is allowed enough space to chew around the furtive material, play rodent in the Halls and turn over what strikes curious, depending on your yen. Master of the Mysteries employs an unfashionable affection and giddiness which hides a careful refusal to sum things up on the cheap. The illustrations are laid out like some mad scrapbook: PR stunts, California cityscapes, spiritual brochures, and some quite moving candid shots.

Before you laugh the whole tale off, remember that Ur astronauts, crypto-astrology and Great Pyramid crank run through every note which one of last century’s greatest composers ever wrote. For Sun Ra, space was the place and ancient sages channeled strange strings.

Consider as well the far darker inheritors of Manly P. Hall. The fascist technocrats of Silicon Valley are also obsessed with immortality, interplanetary travel, and the correct ordering of the earth. The floating slave states envisioned by racist autarch Peter Thiel, net worth 2.8 Billion USD, are the iron children of those world-savior communes and psychic retreats that infested California in Hall’s glory days. Now they are under the command of Sade’s Friends of Crime.

But say a namaste for Many Hall to whatever elemental you venerate: ‘We are not the first/ Who with best meaning have incurr’d the worst.’ And our meaning best, in a cactus land of coppery shamans? It was set out by California Governor Peter H. Burnett back in 1851: “A war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct.”

Pray for us sinners, Manly Palmer Hall, now and at the hour of our death.

Master of the Mysteries: New Revelations on The Life of Manly Palmer Hall
By Louis Saharan $22.95 Feral House

Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.