June 13, 2016

The Mechanical Messiah of Lynn, Massachusetts

When John Murray Spear became a Universalist minister, I am sure he never dreamed he'd help create a mechanical messiah destined to save the world.

Spear was born in 1804 in Boston, and in the early years of his ministry he worked towards the abolition of slavery and in support of the Underground Railroad. The Universalist Church was extremely liberal for its time - and remains so today as part of the Unitarian Universalist Church.

In the early 1850s Spear became influenced by another religious movement that was sweeping across America: Spiritualism. Started in upstate New York in 1848 by sisters Kate and Margaret Fox, Spiritualism claims that the spirits of the dead communicate with the living to give advice and inspiration. Certain people, called mediums, are more attuned to the spirit world and can communicate easily with the departed. For those of us not so gifted, the spirits are more likely to manifest as rapping sounds, movements on a Ouija board, and suddenly extinguished candles.

John Murray Spear was gifted and could communicate easily with the spirit world. The dead supposedly granted him healing powers, and also gave him knowledge that he otherwise could not know. For example, thanks to the spirits Spear once delivered a brilliant and factually correct lecture on geology, a subject he had never studied.

In 1853 a group of elite spirits called the Association of Beneficents contacted Spear. The Association, which was made up of important dead people like Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and Socrates, told Spear that had plans to reform the world. They wanted to shake up government, the educational system and marriage. But before they could do that, they needed Spear to do one thing.

He had to create a mechanical messiah.

While the previous messiah had been a man of flesh and blood, the new technological age demanded a messiah made of metal and powered by magnetism. Makes sense, right?

The Association of Beneficents told Spear this awesome being would be born in Lynn, Massachusetts. A group of Spiritualists had already been communicating with angels ion Lynn's High Rock, a rocky promontory that rises up in the middle of the city. Those angels had been a sign of the mechanical messiah's coming.

High Rock as it appears today. The tower has great views!

Spear traveled to High Rock, and with the help of the Lynn Spiritualists constructed the messiah out of metal rods, gears and magnets. They spent more than $2,000 on materials, which was a significant amount of money for that time. Spirits guided Spear's hand as he constructed the mechanical being, which was known variously as the New Motive Power, the New Motor, and the Mechanical Infant.

Unfortunately, once it was constructed the New Motive Power didn't move. It just lay there inertly on a  table in the cottage at High Rock. A body had been created, but was not inhabited by a spirit. Spear and his colleagues were filled with despair.

Meanwhile a Spiritualist woman in Boston was experiencing birth pangs. The woman was puzzled, because she had not shown any signs of pregnancy. Her puzzlement vanished when the spirits came to her and explained that she was giving birth to a purely spiritual being - the soul of the mechanical messiah. As her contractions increased she was rushed to High Rock, where she successfully birthed the soul of the New Motive Power into it's mechanical body.

Both John Murray Spear and the unnamed woman reported that they could feel pulsations traveling through the messiah's mechanical body, but it still didn't move. The Association of Beneficents instructed the woman to nurse the little robot, which she did. (Don't ask how, since I don't know.) The pulsations increased. Spear declared the creature was definitely alive!

It still didn't move, however.

The spirits finally told Spear that he would need to take the infant messiah to Harmonia, a Spiritualist community in Kiantone, New York. Harmonia was even more spiritually charged than Lynn, and the New Motive Power would thrive there.

The Spiritualists of Harmonia happily welcomed Spear and the New Motive Power, but the other citizens of Kiantone were less than thrilled to hear that a mechanical messiah had arrived in town. Okay, that's an understatement. They were outraged. They stormed Harmonia and smashed the New Motive Power into tiny pieces. Spear's dream ended under the feet and fists of an angry mob.

I have a lot of mixed reactions to this story. Spiritualism was a really powerful cultural force in the 19th century, and inspired people to do some unusual things, like dig tunnels to find treasure or try to create a mechanical messiah. From my privileged position in the early 21st century, it's easy to look back and wonder how Spear could be so dumb. Did he really think a robot was going to save our society?

Obviously he did, but he also believed that slavery should be abolished. The New Motive Power didn't work out, but Spear didn't give up hope that American society could improve. He continued to fight for abolition and saw slavery ended within his lifetime. Spear also founded several Utopian communities before he died in 1887. His body is buried in Philadelphia, but I am sure his spirit is still actively working for social justice in the after life.


The main source for this week's incredible but true story is my book Legends and Lore of the North Shore, which also contains many other weird stories from Lynn. 


Wade Tarzia said...

What a wonderful history -- I had not heard of it. Other people played well with the mechanical image -- Melville wrote his "Bell Tower" story, and a wonderful early science fiction story by Hoffmann "The Sandman" (1816!) is worth a look.

Peter Muise said...

Hi Wade! Thanks for the comment. Thanks also for pointing out those other 19th century automaton stories. There was something floating around in the cultural ethos at that time, I guess. We're still fascinated with robots today...