Visionary or villain, savior or two-bit charlatan?
Explore the makings of a Florida-bred cult in our new book: The Allure of Immortality: An American Cult, a Florida Swamp, and a Renegade Prophet.
“Brilliantly written and strangely moving. Millner has resurrected the lost history of a cult devoted to a utopian vision as pure as it was outlandish.”—Steve Almond, author of God Bless America: Stories
“A fascinating look at the American search for meaning and ultimate answers. Millner writes with grace and makes history an adventure.”—Dan Wakefield, author of New York in the Fifties
“Teed may have wanted a shiny new world, but what Millner provides is a guide to an old lost one, a picture of a vanished century when science, religion, journalism, and social movements collided in an unending, and totally fascinating, brawl.”—Madeleine Blais, author of In These Girls, Hope is a Muscle
“Those seeking an understanding of what makes otherwise sensible individuals willing to give up everything in service of the apparently outlandish notions of a charismatic true believer like Teed will find this carefully researched volume satisfying and memorable.”—Les Standiford, author of Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad that Crossed an Ocean
Cyrus Teed was a charismatic and controversial guru who at the age of 30 had been “illuminated” by an angel in his electro-alchemical laboratory. At the turn of the twentieth century, surrounded by the marvels of the Second Industrial Revolution, he proclaimed himself a prophet and led 200 people out of Chicago and into a new age. Or so he promised.
The Koreshans settled in a mosquito-infested scrubland and set to building a communal utopia inside what they believed was a hollow earth—with humans living on the inside crust and the entire universe contained within. According to Teed’s socialist and millennialist teachings, if his people practiced celibacy and focused their love on him, he would return after death and they would all become immortal.
Was Teed a visionary or villain, savior or two-bit charlatan? Why did his promises and his theory of “cellular cosmogony” persuade so many? In The Allure of Immortality, Lyn Millner weaves the many bizarre strands of Teed’s life and those of his followers into a riveting story of angels, conmen, angry husbands, yellow journalism, and ultimately, hope.
Lyn Millner discussed the Koreshans, her background as a journalist, and Cyrus Teed’s Twitter account (yes, really) in an exclusive interview:
“It’s funny how something is in the background for a long time and then, one day, it’s a huge part of your life. You pass a sign on the interstate. Years later, you’re talking to dead people.”—Lyn Millner
Where and when did you first hear about Cyrus Teed and the Koreshans?
When you’re looking for story ideas, you don’t see the obvious ones. Before I lived in Fort Myers, I was driving on I-75 with a friend who’s a poet. Coming up on Exit 123, he pointed to a sign for the historic site and said, “Those are the people who thought we lived inside the earth.” At the time, my only thought was, “Huh?” We tried to work out how exactly people could think that. What about the stars and the planets and the sun? It was one of those conversations where you’re trying to figure something out without any information whatsoever. This was before you could pull up Google on your phone.
It certainly is a fascinating story. Did you think right away that you wanted to write something about it?
Not at all. At the time, I was working on a memoir about my life as an accountant. I didn’t come back to the Koreshans for years, after my husband and I moved to Fort Myers and lived just down the street from the settlement. It’s funny how something is in the background for a long time and then, one day, it’s a huge part of your life. You pass a sign on the interstate. Years later, you’re talking to dead people.
Florida is famous (or infamous) for its wacky residents, so much so that #FloridaMan is a running Twitter joke. What separates the story of Cyrus Teed and the Koreshans from your average, run-of-the-mill “weird” story?
They wanted what we all want. To live somewhere beautiful away from pollution and crime, to eat healthy food, to have more time to play, to raise our children the way we see fit, to have answers. To transcend.
How did your training as a journalist prepare you for historical research and writing?
In a word, verification. I was obsessive about getting this story right, and at the same time, I knew I never would. Memories are faulty, so you know going in that notes, journals, and letters have incorrect dates and names, and that’s the least of it. Ask ten people about an event, and you’ll get ten answers, with some overlap if you’re lucky. On top of that, the Koreshans’ writings were distorted by this bizarre view of reality. Teed’s work was nearly impenetrable. If I find myself in hell, my job will be to edit his writing.
The journalism of the time, as you mention in your preface, was not very reliable. Did you, as a modern journalist, want to make up for their failings?
Absolutely. As a journalist, I felt accountable. And the whole time I was writing and revising, I was hyper-aware that this would be the first full-out book about the Koreshans. The apocryphal accounts about them in the 1800s and 1900s were entertaining, but the truth was more complicated and interesting than people assume, and it certainly has more impact. The journalism of the time showed that readers, ostensibly “normal” people, believed ridiculous stories, and that’s one of the book’s themes.
Do you think Teed would have been as successful in converting followers today?
I don’t. But that wouldn’t keep him from trying. He would be a prolific blogger. He would stream his sermons over the internet. He wouldn’t have many followers, but he would have a host of trolls.
Do you think he would see the value in social media?
Actually, he does have a Twitter account. You can follow him @CyrusTeed.
With the scientific knowledge we now have, it can be easy to dismiss some of Koreshanity’s beliefs, such as the hollow earth theory. Was there any part of Teed’s belief system that you think would resonate with people today?
Resonate isn’t quite the word, but there are lasting parallels when it comes to how strong beliefs are. When faced with facts that contradict our beliefs, it’s very tempting to ignore them and instead to listen to news we agree with and to surround ourselves with like-minded people. We’d rather be comfortable. For a long time, we were able to ignore evidence that smoking was deadly. Where did that get us? We drained big swaths of the Everglades, yet in a matter of decades, Miami will be under water. I’m positive that some of the things we now believe will seem silly and/or dangerous down the road.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
I hope they enjoy it. Perhaps a few people will write me and tell me what they think. I’d like that.
Lyn Millner is associate professor of journalism at Florida Gulf Coast University. She has written and produced stories for NPR’s Morning Edition, the New York Times, USA Today, the Miami Herald, Oxford American, and others.