Wednesday, June 19, 2013

American Jesus, 1895: Francis Schlatter, the New Mexico Messiah

On a Friday night in early January, 1896, a Unitarian minister in Salem, Oregon lectured on the topic "Is Francis Schlatter the Lord Jesus Christ come for the second time?" The exact details of his answer to that question are unknown, but we can be sure that his final word on the subject was "no." More interesting than his sermon, though, is why he would even bring up the subject in the first place. Schlatter never set foot in Oregon, neither before nor after his rise to fame. Twelve months prior he was virtually unknown, wandering through the New Mexico desert. But by August 1895, newspapers from coast to coast were writing about the "New Mexico Messiah" and cracking jokes about a new sect of "Schlatter Day Saints."

Who was Francis Schlatter, why did he gain messianic status in the eyes of some, and what, ultimately, happened to him?

Schlatter was born in 1856 to German peasants in the French province of Alsace-Lorraine, eventually emigrating to the United States in the 1880s. Primarily working as a shoemaker, he settled in Long Island in 1891. He was a lifelong Roman Catholic, but according to newspaper reports he also took an interest in Congregationalism, Methodism, and Spiritualism.

The exact timing of his calling is hazy, but we do know that after a year or two in Long Island, he came to believe that "the Father" (the term Schlatter always used to describe God) had given him a specific directive to heal the sick and bring comfort to the poor. He left Long Island and wandered throughout the Midwest and Southwest for two years, testing out his healing powers. Interestingly, this German immigrant who spoke broken English got his "big break" (if you could call it that) from the Spanish-speaking population of Pajarito, New Mexico. His healing work at the village (which would not have been unprecedented, given the curandeero tradition present in the region) caught the attention of residents in nearby Albuquerque. Reporters soon descended into the village to test the veracity of Schlatter's supposed cures. Once there, the reporters were enamored and overwhelmed with the adamant claims of the people that Schlatter's power was real.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Schlatter's persona was his physical appearance. People could not help but notice the similarity between Schlatter and the common depictions of Jesus present at the time. One Albuquerque reporter, eyeing a print of Christ that hung on the wall behind Schlatter, noted that "As one looked from the flesh to the presentment, the likeness was startling. Every line and touch to be found in the picture were found in the man."

While in Albuquerque, Schlatter happened to meet and cure Ed Fox, a former Denver alderman, of a persistent hearing problem. Fox then convinced Schlatter to join him in Denver for a "healing crusade" of sorts. It was in Denver, beginning in September, 1895, that Schlatter achieved national fame. A San Francisco newspaper reported on his work in Denver, noting that Schlatter, "the remarkable man who claims to be Christ," stood in line every day from 9 AM until 5 PM, praying over and grasping the hands of the "throng of people" (estimated daily in the thousands) who sought to be healed. The article took an entirely positive view of Schlatter's work. "Taking no money, ignoring all taunts, modestly repeating that his power comes from the Father, this man has done work in the past two days hard enough to fatigue the most athletic," the newspaper reported.

Schlatter carried on with his work for two months, standing day after day on a makeshift platform and greeting the masses. Meanwhile, rumors swirled about the source of his healing powers. Some confessed uncertainty. "Imagination it may be, but the positive declarations of deaf, blind, paralytic and rheumatic persons who profess to have been cured within these four days are difficult to account for," one journalist reported. A Nebraska newspaper devoted an entire two page spread to a "Schlatter Symposium," surveying professors and doctors in and around the Lincoln area. They mostly dismissed his healing work, attributing it to animal magnetism, hypnotism, and fraud. An Omaha pastor conceded that Schlatter seemed to be doing miraculous work, but was otherwise unmoved by Schlatter's work. "If Schlatter lived in Peru or Spain the holy church would make him a saint, and certainly he would have a better right to it than many in the canon," Methodist pastor Frank Crane wrote, "but the clear light of intelligence is most too strong in America."

Others were more receptive. A Methodist minister from Denver claimed that Schlatter "possesses as much power as the apostles of old had" while another Denver pastor linked Schlatter's efforts with social gospel themes: "He [Schlatter] is doing good here; he is calling our attention to the fact that the center and source of all life is God. Not a God who a long time ago filled a cistern and then went away, but God a free slowing spring, a 'present help in very time of need'-Immanuel! God with us."

Schlatter's own understanding of his powers remained somewhat cryptic. Newspaper reports claimed that he "often told of his visits with the prophets while out in the Arizona deserts" and others asserted that he had claimed to be the second coming of Christ. Schlatter, for his part, seemed only to say, without elaboration, that his healing power came from "the Father." Historian Ferenc Morton Szacz (one of the few trained historians to research Schlatter) has argued that Schlatter was also influenced by the New Thought movement, a loose collection of ideas, groups, and individuals who believed in the legitimacy of divine healing and the ability of humans to change their circumstances by altering how they approached problems mentally (Christian Scientists are perhaps the most famous New Thought institution, and many Spiritualists also dabbled in New Thought ideas).

Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to define with certainly the exact recipe that went into creating Francis Schlotter's worldview. And Schlatter probably would want it that way. After two months in Denver, he left in the middle of a November night, leaving behind only an abstruse handwritten note that read, "My mission is finished. Father takes me away. Goodbye."

Schlatter's sudden disappearance sent shockwaves not only through Denver, but (thanks to front-page newspaper coverage in places as far away as New York and Washington D.C.), the entire nation. Journalists were dispatched to track down the would-be Messiah, while rumors, gossip, and supposed sightings were constantly reported. One of the most humorous "sightings" involved a vagrant who resembled Schlatter being jailed in Los Angeles. A local newspaper spent a week speculating on the possibility of Schlatter's presence in Los Angeles, only to find out that the man in custody was not the great Healer.

Schlatter (centered) continues his healing work in Denver, despite the rain.
In late 1897, Schatter was found dead in Mexico's Sierra Madres, his body laying near his horse. Some speculated that he died from a self-imposed fast, but the actual cause of death is unknown. However it happened, reports of Schlatter's death immediately began to circulate in American newspapers. Yet, just like Jesus, Schlatter came back from the dead later that year, this time in Canton, Ohio. And also in Hastings, Nebraska, and Los Angeles, and Chicago, and Seattle, and a plethora of other places over the span of the next twenty years (if you want to see for yourself all the spurious sightings, just search for "Francis Schlatter" at the Chronicling America digital newspaper project, which is where I got most of the information I've presented here).

There was a key difference between all of the resurrected Schlatters and the original, though: Schlatter in his resurrected form always seemed to want money for his work, which is something the original never demanded.  Even the unimpressed Omaha pastor in 1895 had begrudgingly admitted, "The greatest thing about him is that he has taken no money for his services."

Although the humble shoemaker faded into historical obscurity within a couple decades of his death, Americans who lived through the 1890s would almost certainly have understood what someone meant if they heard a report of a "new Schlatter" in town. To some, Schlatter represented the very essence of a modern Christ. Not only did he live humbly and shroud himself in mystery, but he also looked like Jesus was supposed to look - at least if the completely false pictures of Jesus so popular at the time were to be believed. More importantly, he was also, in the eyes of his supporters, proof that God could still work miracles in the modern world.

To others, Schlatter was nothing more than a fake healer who somehow duped people into belief. As one newspaper put it, "Francis Schlatter, the tramp Christ, was an ignorant fraud."  Yet, that newspaper could not help but also note that Schlatter "was easily the sensation of the year."

In 1896, America's leading magazine of cartoon humor, Puck, saw fit to include the Schlatter sensation in a political cartoon. In a piece titled "Uncle Sam's Crazes, Past and Present," (click on the image below for an enlarged version), a number of presumably wacky American fads were depicted, including Prohibition, roller skating, the bicycle, and blue glass (this apparently involved passing electric light through blue glass to alleviate pain). In the bottom right corner Schlatter made an appearance, with the caption that Uncle Sam "was carried away by the Schlatter craze some months ago." The centerpiece of the cartoon was Uncle Sam sitting atop a rocking horse labeled "Free Silver," with the caption noting that Uncle Sam now "has the Free Silver craze."

Astute followers of American political history will of course know that 1896 was the year of William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech and a Democratic platform that "demanded the free and unlimited coinage of both silver and gold." Clearly, the artist who drew the cartoon thought that using Schlatter's image would be a great way to associate one political party with irrational craziness. Given the depiction that the Republican Party (thanks to its association with the Christian right) often gets in the press today, perhaps Schlatter, American Jesus of 1895, had one more thing in common with Jesus than was previously thought.