2008-09-03 / Top News


Exactly 100 years after his death, the man called "Koresh" still leaves his mark
BY ARTIS HENDERSON news@floridaweekly.com

Exactly 100 years after his death, the man called "Koresh" still leaves his mark

The silted banks of the Estero River seem an unlikely spot for a utopian community.

With acres of scrub pine stretched across sandy soil and patches of roughbarked cabbage palms leading to the murky water, the hot, flat plains of southern Lee County speak more of purgatory than paradise. But in the late 1800s, a charismatic religious leader brought his band of followers to these backwaters of south Florida, setting up camp along the river and christening the spot New Jerusalem. In a move emulated by cult leaders into the 20th century, the group's leader, Cyrus Teed, adopted the Biblical translation of his name. He called himself Koresh.

As the southernmost state on the edges of the frontier, blanketed by swampland and frequented by pirates, Florida has long struggled with its unsavory image in the American psyche.

Even today, Sunshine State residents breathe easier when another of the wacko-triumvirate — Florida, California and Texas — commits a faux pas on the national scale. During the 2003 gubernatorial race in California, Floridians gave a statewide sigh of relief as Arnold Schwarzenegger waged a campaign against adult movie stars, sumo wrestlers, and Larry Flynt, hoping the debacle on the west coast would relieve the taint of humiliation still lingering from Florida's missteps in the 2000 presidential campaign.

It's true that Florida has committed its share of political screw-ups, but usually this state can bank on staying out of the crazy religion business. Texas has the handle on that front, with memories of David Koresh and his fiery showdown outside of Waco still burned into the national conscious. When the Feds busted another ultra-conservative polygamous sect dabbling in underage marriage this year, Floridians rolled their collective eyes, nodded knowingly, and thanked God it was Texas.

But 2008 marks the 100-year anniversary of the death of our own Koresh, and until his body washed away in the hurricane of 1921, believers still waited for the Florida-based messiah to rise from his tomb on Fort Myers Beach.

The leader

Like cult leaders from the current era, Cyrus Teed exuded a charisma that drew followers and raised funds. At one Midwest meeting, he brought in more than $60,000 in donations (about $1.2 million in today's dollars). When the early Koreshans were based in Chicago, Teed came to be called the "Chicago Christ," originally because he referred to himself as a shepherd tending his flock, but later because he claimed to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. His philosophies were Christian-based, though most deviated from the Biblical faith. The bulk of Teed's creed originated in an "illumination" he experienced in 1869 at the age of 30. Working in his laboratory late at night, Teed slipped into a trance. A beautiful woman appeared before him haloed in purple and gold. Teed believed her to be an angel, and she spoke of universal truths that became the foundation for Teed's Koreshan beliefs. These included reincarnation, socialism and alchemy. She also spoke of the universe being a hollow sphere, with earth on the inside.

Preaching across the Northeast and Midwest, Teed ran his first base of operations out of Chicago. There, his flock grew to nearly 1,000 followers, many of whom were women. Contrary to the norms of his times (this was before the great women's suffrage movement of the early 1900s), Teed infused his teachings with an element of feminism. He spoke of a God equal parts male and female and believed in the equity of men and women. His chief minister was a woman, the ruling court - the Seven Sisters - were all women, and, of course, a woman delivered his initial vision.

Against the backdrop of modern cults, it's hard not to take a cynical look at Teed's collection of female followers. After the Waco disaster, reports spoke of David Koresh's harem of young women, and cult leader Warren Jeffs is serving prison time for his abuse of power, including sanctioning polygamy. In Beth-Ophrah, the mansion in Estero, Teed placed the Seven Sisters in separate bedrooms on the ground floor and his own living quarters at an easily accessible point on the second. An 1896 article in the New York Times accused Teed of surrounding himself with "the most beautiful and adventurous" women of the colony.

Despite evidence suggesting otherwise, Teed advocated a strict doctrine of celibacy. Before moving his group to the wilds of south Florida, Teed spent time with the Shakers in New York. A progressive utopian community, the Shakers were best known for their strict adherence to celibacy. The community eventually faded out of existence, victim to the pitfalls of a sexless lifestyle (namely lack of new members). Teed adopted the belief that celibacy was essential for spiritual cleansing and leading a sinless life. He also pulled evidence from his alchemical studies, saying that intercourse drained a person's life force.

The community

Laws governing intercourse aside, the Koreshan community south of Fort Myers projected an image of assiduous wholesomeness.

"They were a very industrious, hardworking people," said Mike Heare, park services specialist at the Koreshan site (now a state park).

When the group first arrived in 1894, they faced the usual hardships of a pioneering lifestyle: toil, hunger, disease. Members, mostly from well-off families in the Midwest, worked to clear land and build shelter in the thick scrub of wild Florida. Their first houses were built around cypress logs and thatched with palm fronds. In 1895, a cold front swept through south Florida, dropping temperatures to 14 degrees and killing the community's citrus, mango, and avocado orchards. Literature promoting the Koreshan community promised "a pioneer life and sacrifice" as well as "some drudgery."

Despite hardships, the community thrived. New members joined. A sawmill, bakery and general store prospered. The sect acquired more land in the area.

In the tradition of shady Florida politics, though, the elections of 1906 ultimately wrought the group's decline. Cyrus Teed brought together Koreshans, Socialists, and Republicans to fight the entrenched power of the Lee Country Democratic party. In October, a brawl erupted between the Koreshan candidate for county commissioner, the town marshal, a Fort Myers politician, and Cyrus Teed. Teed received blows to the head and face that would wear on his health and lead to his death two years later.

As with recent cults, the power of the Koreshan faith resided not in the strength of its doctrine but in the charisma of its leader. Teed prepared for his death by promising imminent return. Before he passed away in 1908, he gave specific instructions for the construction of a tomb and left orders that his body be placed in a zinc coffin. At the time of Teed's death, his followers kept guard over the body, expecting the self-proclaimed messiah to rise again. Rigor mortis set in and, later, decomposition. The vigil lasted until the Lee County health inspector demanded the body be interred.

Sect members placed Teed's body in a mausoleum on Fort Myers Beach. They stationed believers at the site in preparation for his return and left a row boat in case Teed resurrected while no one stood on duty.

Without Teed at the helm, the Koreshan community slowly disappeared. The last believer, a Jewish convert from Nazi Germany, passed away in 1982. Before her death, Hedwig Michel — known as the last Koreshan — turned over Koreshan land and buildings to the Florida state parks system. Today, the site stands as a historical relic and a monument to Florida's notso distant cult past.

If you go

>>What: Koreshan State Historic Site

>>Where: 3800 Corkscrew Road, U.S. 41 South of Alico, in Estero

>>Hours: 8 a.m. until sundown, 365 days per year

>>Admission: $4 per car, up to 8 people; $3 for single occupant; Guided tours available for $2 per adult and $1 per child. Overnight camping runs $22 per night.

>>Don't miss: Some of the park's special events that run January through March. Dutch oven bread baking and cast iron cooking top the list.

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