THE WEIRD AND SAVAGE CULT OF BROTHER 12
“I am not a person but a Power,” said the scraggly-bearded little man in the yellow robe. And the gullible widows and businessmen who followed him to his B.C. island retreat paid dearly for their folly
Today the de Courcy Islands in the Strait of Georgia, between Vancouver Island and the mainland, have little outwardly to distinguish them from the dozens of others in those narrow waters. Their six hundred acres are timbered with maple, arbutus, oak, juniper and yew trees. Their pleasant, shingle beaches, are frequent stopping places for summer yachtsmen.
Yet these islands, now so serene in aspect, have a history unlike that of any other island group along the west coast from California to Alaska — a history of greed, torment and blind belief. Had yachtsmen appeared off their shores in the early 1930s, armed guards would have met them and refused them permission to land. The guards would have been members of the Aquarian Foundation, a band of a hundred-odd
men and women under the spell of “Brother 12,” a little scraggly-bearded man with pale and baleful eyes, wearing a yellow Buddhist’s cloak with black markings. Most of them were people of means — widows and retired businessmen. One was a former secret service agent of the U. S. treasury department. All were mesmerized by Brother 12’s theosophical and metaphysical outpourings and his promise that they were “chosen” to save mankind from impending calamity, and had given him their life savings and complete control over their lives. In April, 1933, six years after he founded the colony, Brother 12, at one time an express clerk in Victoria, B.C., absconded with an estimated half million dollars of their money, most of it in gold coins sealed in 143 pint preserving jars.
Of his domain there remain only a few frame houses on the south shore of the main de Courcy island and the “House of Mystery,” still standing alone in its forest clearing. It was the building in which Brother 12 told his followers he communed with his “eleven brothers in the outer world.” In September. 1956, the Canadian Press reported that a human skull, wrapped in sacking, had been found in the attic of the House of Mystery. The news agency said medical authorities believed that the cranium, roughly carved into the shape of a bowl, was that of a woman in her twenties “who had died about 1931.”
Brother 12, who may have been a murderer as well as an embezzler and a monumental mythomaniac, was once plain Edward Arthur
Wilson, who handled the Wells Fargo account in the Dominion Express office on Government Street. Victoria, fifty miles south of the de Courcys. Herbert Wilkinson, now retired and living in Victoria, joined the express company in 1912 to drive a delivery wagon. He remembers Wilson — as yet without his beard — as a man of thirty, a mere five foot six in height, slim, sallow and dapper, with a receding chin and large adam’s apple, who often wore a red rosebud in his dark lapel. Everyone noticed his eyes, their irises so pale they faded in the whites. Above all, Wilkinson adds. Wilson was a “smooth talker” who claimed he was the son of an Anglican missionary and an East Indian princess and that he had served his time as an apprentice in a British navy windjammer.
Even in those days it appears that he envisaged a greater destiny for himself than that of a future chief clerk. His landlady, Peggy Reynolds, found his room frequently littered with tracts of the Theosophical Society and with scribblings about the stars. Shortly before World War I, he quit his job. He told Mrs. Reynolds that he was going away to sea but that one day he would return to Victoria with a “new dispensation.”
From 1914 to 1918 Wilson served in the British merchant marine on the Atlantic. He gained his master’s CONTINUED ON PAGE 34
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“Eight thousand adherents all over North America were contributing to the Vancouver Island colony”
certificate. After the war he stayed several years in Italy, studying theosophy and other occult religions with a group of exiled cultists. There he became converted — or so he was to say — to the doctrine of reincarnation and to the belief that, within a measurable time, the planet Aquarius, the eleventh sign of the Zodiac, would collide with the earth and destroy all mankind, except for a chosen few.
Wilson then conceived the idea of passing himself off as the earthly representative of a supernatural group he called the “Chela.” This, like the Zodiac, had twelve members who, except for Wilson, floated about in space or the “Outer World.” As Brother 12, he explained that his mission was to found an earthly refuge for “a chosen few” against the oncoming doom. There, to make themselves worthy of their trust, the select few would follow “The Three Truths” as set forth in Wilson's privately printed book. These were: Work, Order and Obedience — obedience, of course, to Brother 12.
This, then, was the “new dispensation” and Brother 12, or Edward Arthur Wilson, in June, 1926, took it with him, not immediately back to Vancouver Island, but first to Southampton, England. There, putting up at a rooming house and hiring a small hall, he gathered the local theosophists about him. From the platform, attired in his yellow robe, a wispy black beard hiding his receding chin, speaking as the delegate of the Chela, he harangued them night after night about the fateful future of mankind. Members of the Theosophical Society in London and other cities, some of them having read The Three Truths, came to swell his audiences.
On a memorable night in July, Brother 12, his palm against his forehead, said that he was about to be overcome by a sahmadi: the Brothers in the Outer World had a message for him and he must go into a trance to receive it. He retired behind a black curtain. When he reappeared half an hour later, his brow was sweating and his eyes lambent. He had been with the other Brothers “by projection.” They were sitting on the inner edge of a ring of clouds, staring down into “the Void.” At the bottom of the Void were all the stars and. lower than the stars, the earth and its puny solar system. A weird Aeolian music was all about. Rosy-cheeked cherubim flitted, now here, now there, and angels Hew by with a rush of wings and the twinkle of golden shoes.
The Sacred Brothers from their eminence had shown him where to build his “place of refuge” on earth against the collision with Aquarius. An assistant had unrolled an admiralty chart against the blackboard and Brother 12 leveled his pointer against a spot off the west coast of North America — a spot he said he had never been to. There, he added, without blinking an eye. on an inlet on the eastern shore of Vancouver Island he would erect his "fortress for the future.” Those who went with him would have to be “uncritical, silent and loyal.” As equals in a communal society, they "must renounce all their worldly goods” — re-
nounce them all, that is, to Brother 12.
By now he was preaching to the converted. Truth, for them, came down from the “Brotherhood of Adepts” with whom he was in touch. Among the faithful were Alfred Barley, businessman and scholar, and his wife, a London school teacher for almost thirty years. Incredibly, this gullible but well-intentioned couple decided to give up all they had and follow the unlikely figure of Brother 12. Within the next few weeks Barley wound up his importing business, booked passage for himself and his wife to Montreal and surrendered to his supposed benefactor the equivalent of $14,000 in cash.
With this and other donations raised during a lecture tour of eastern Canada, Brother 12 by. May, 1927, had established the Aquarian Foundation. The society was duly incorporated, its powers and funds in the hands of its founder. Its secretary was Robert England, for eight
years a secret service agent of the U. S. treasury department. The Foundation's original settlement was at Cedar-by-theSea, south of Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island.
Within a year eight thousand adherents all over North America were contributing to the upkeep of Cedar-by-the-Sea. A lawyer of Kansas city was in such a hurry that he wired ten thousand dollars. The Three Truths and a magazine, The Chalice (Aquarius is the “water bearer”), had a wide circulation among North American theosophists, the magazine informing them of the need for money. Brother 12 soon had as a member of his cult. Roger Painter, millionaire poultryman from Florida who. on his later sworn testimony, gave ninety thousand dollars. William Levington Comfort, short - story writer for the Saturday Evening Post, came and wrote an introduction to Brother I2’s second book. Foundation Letters and Teachings, printed (as was The Chalice) at Akron, Ohio. Coulson Turnbull, Ph.D., of Philadelphia, and James J. Lippincott, of the publishing family, were others who paid dearly for their fealty to a mountebank.
One of the most eager new adherents was Mrs. Mary Connolly, who was, ironically, to become Brother 12’s nemesis. Once the wealthy socialite daughter of the U. S. ambassador to Spain, she was now a gray-haired widow of sixty-two. She wrote to Brother 12 from her home in Asheville, N.C., saying she had read
his books and The Chalice and was quite interested in joining the foundation. Indicating that she had more than twenty thousand dollars to contribute, she asked if she could meet Brother 12 before finally making up her mind.
Brother 12 was deeply moved by the lucrative possibilities of such sentiments. After an exchange of letters and telegrams. they met in the lobby of a Toronto hotel. There Mrs. Connolly wrote a cheque for $25,850 and promised to join Brother 12 in B. C. after settling her affairs in North Carolina.
On his way back on the train, Brother 12 met Mrs. Myrtle Baumgartner, wife of a wealthy physician at Clifton Hills, N.Y. Young, dark, with the eyes of a stricken doc. she was on her way to California for a holiday. Brother 12 soon had other plans for her. Dressed in tweeds, beard jutting, giving off the heavy scent he favored, he convinced her that 26,000 years before he had been Osiris, Egyptian god of the underworld. She had been his wife and sister, Isis, goddess of motherhood and fertility. Their duty in their present reincarnation was to join together
in holy union to produce Horus, who would wear the sun on his brow and be the world’s redeemer. Faced with this dazzling prospect, the woman did not hesitate. Writing her husband of her decision, she went with her new-found deity to his paradise on Vancouver Island.
With Mrs.Connolly's money. Brother 12 bought the de Courcy Islands, off shore from Cedar-by-the-Sea, and four hundred acres of neighboring Valdes Island. Mrs. Connolly's $25,850 cheque was just a beginning. She was eventually to contribute an estimated $520,000.
The coming of Mrs. Baumgartner, or Isis, to Cedar-by-the-Sea brought dissension. Brother 12 took her with him into his House of Mystery. This was the first such house. The second was to be on de Courcy. The first, standing back in the cedar trees, was little more than a shack. It was out of bounds for all the rest of Brother 12’s followers. They muttered complaints when Isis passed its forbidden portal.
The mutterings became more vocal when Robert England, the one - time secret-service man and secretary of the foundation, learned that two thirds of Mrs. Connolly’s money, instead of going into the corporate funds, had gone to Brother 12. He had changed cheques and cash into gold coins, which he put into pint preserving jars, each sealed with wax and enclosed in a wooden frame. Bruce Crawford, a retired businessman of Lakeland, Florida, made the frames and buried the treasure in cement vaults. By 1933 he had made by his own count, given in court, one hundred and fortythree of these frames. What Brother 12 did not convert into coin, he put into small bills.
One spring morning in 1929, while Brother 12 was aboard the Princess Elaine, bound for Vancouver on private business — in this instance a teenaged girl waiting for him on a street corner — Robert England went to Nanaimo and laid a charge of embezzlement against his employer.
Brother 12 was seized by the police as he stepped ashore and was taken back to Nanaimo. There, being informed by one of the faithful that England had set off for Vancouver, Brother 12 laid a counter-charge accusing England of absconding with $2,800 of the colony's funds. England, too. was arrested at the dock.
“Black Magic” in court
At the trial, Frank Cunliffe, acting for Brother 12, produced only one defense witness: Mary Connolly, whose money was in question. She testified that she had given it to the defendant as "a personal gift.”
“Do you mean to say,” asked magistrate C. H. Beevor-Potts, “that you gave this man $25,000 with no conditions whatever attached?”
Mrs. Connolly corrected the magistrate. “It was $25,850,” she said.
Toward the end of the trial, strange things began to happen. During his summing up, the crown counsel, Tom Morton, forgot his words, several witnesses keeled over and proceedings were adjourned while windows were opened to clear the air. In this some saw evidence of black magic.
Beevor-Potts passed the case up to a higher court, where no "true bill” was found against either of the defendants. England left British Columbia and later won distinction in the British Intelligence in World War IL .
At the colony Brother 12 developed his new island properties, helped by further donations from Mrs. Connolly. The colonists built the second and more imposing House of Mystery on de Courcy. They built houses for themselves, a sawmill and a school. Brother 12 bought an oceangoing tug, which he named Khcunaten after an Egyptian god, and a tractor, to clear land for himself.
His people had to clear their own land by hand, carrying the stones off in baskets, which they emptied on the seashore. For implements they had picks, shovels, hoes, and mattocks. Their work began at dawn and ended after sunset. Those who Continued on page 39
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“As his new ‘companion/ Madame Zee drove the colonists relentlessly”
thought of escape realized that they were elderly and penniless, and they feared the curse Brother 12 would put on them.
In the cool of the day they gathered to hear him speak from under the branches of a moss-hung maple tree. He said, "The world will say, 'This man’ — myself—‘is mad,’ but it has always said so of all who departed from its miserable conventionalities. Moses, Gideon, the Baptist. all were mad. Jesus was mad. Of him they said, ‘He hath a devil.’ Savonarola, Galileo, Madame Blavatsky (founder of theosophy) — all were mad, in the opinion of the mediocre — mad or inspired. I also am mad — or inspired, but I am not mediocre. I am not a person filled with power, but a Power using a personality.
"The hour has struck for this earth to be plowed and harrowed. I have been called to drive the plow. You must choose whether you will be the plowshare or the clod which is broken, for the ground must be prepared that the seed may be sown.”
The "clods” with blistered hands, wishing to become "plowshares,” listened with open mouths.
One shadow fell across this idyll of sweat and tears: Isis did not bear a boy, a reincarnated Horns. She had a miscarriage and went insane. Mrs. Connolly cared for her for a time in Victoria. Later she was sent to an eastern mental hospital.
The man who had brought about her downfall blamed it on his followers. They had not been sincere in their hearts, he said, and for their wrong thinking they must submit to further penance.
The instrument for their chastisement was at hand. She was Mrs. Mabel Skottowe, nee Rowbotham, who arrived in mid-1929. In her thirties, she was tall, red-headed, so thin-lipped that her mouth was no more than a horizontal scar. She received the title "Zura de Valdes” or "Madame Zee.”
"Zura de Valdes,” Brother 12 told his disciples, "is my eyes, my mouth, my ears and what she says comes from me.” Madame Zee moved into the House of Mystery and, with a tongue that could have put a Rocky Mountain packer to shame, drove the colonists to exhaustion and distraction.
Late in 1929, Mrs. Connolly lost a lawsuit in Washington. D.C. It left her penniless. Madame Zee roused her at midnight in her house at Cedar-by-theSea and had the old woman and her few effects loaded into a rowboat and dumped onto the beach of Valdes Island. From there, in darkness, she had to carry her possessions on her back to a hill - top shack three quarters of a mile away.
In fear of losing her own soul, she began the next day to hoe. disc and harrow three acres by hand. Leola Painter, wife of the pouitryman from Florida, was her immediate overseer. Mrs. Painter undertook her duty at the threat of being separated from her husband. Husbands and wives were frequently put on separate islands. Another woman, Georgina Crawford, had to herd goats from two in the morning until ten at night.
About this time. Brother 12 invited Carlin Ruddie, of Seattle, and his young bride to visit him on de Courcy. Taking the girl aside, he persuaded her to return to Seattle, quarrel with her husband, leave him and rejoin the colony. When she dutifully carried out the plan, her husband followed, rowing ten miles from the town of Chemainus. When he reached de Courcy Island late at night, armed
guards prevented him from landing. He came back the next day with a provincial policeman but failed to find his bride. Brother 12 had hidden hcr in a garret, and she made no outcry. Days later a Japanese fisherman found her wandering on a beach near Ladysmith. Presumably she returned to her groom.
In January 1930, Madame Zee and Brother 12 departed for England, leaving Alfred Barley and Roger Painter in charge of the colony. In November they returned on the twenty-five ton Brixton trawler Lady Royal, having made a daring crossing of the Atlantic and up the west coast under sail, with no auxiliary power. The trawler was a gift of some of the faithful in England.
Brother 12 had with him an illicit cargo of rifles and two cases of grenades. He now set about fortifying his islands, building three blockhouses with intersecting lines of fire. By now he was showing strong symptoms of paranoia.
The rebels go to court
From England he had written commanding Roger Painter to "sever the etheric and physical bodies” of three of his "enemies.” These were: Harry Pooley, then attorney-general of B. C., Joshua Hinchcliffe. education minister, and E. A. Lucas, Vancouver lawyer. "I want at least one scalp by the time I reach Panama,” he wrote.
With Brother 12 back, conditions in the colony grew worse. He demanded more and more work from such penniless members as Mrs. Connolly, in an effort to force them to leave. In the spring of 1933, when they could no longer endure the hardship, she and Alfred Barley filed suit for recovery of their money in the supreme court at Nanaimo, alleging misrepresentation and misappropriation of funds against Brother 12, alias Wilson, who had now changed his legal name to Amiel de Valdes, and against the Aquarian Foundation.
Tn the two days of proceedings, no witnesses for the defense appeared. Chief Justice Eulay Morrison awarded Mrs. Connolly $26,500 for money she had advanced. $10,000 damages and the four hundred acres on Valdes Island. Barley won his case for the return of $14,232.
However, except for the land, the plaintiffs’ victory was a hollow one. Even as their case was before the court, Brother 12 de-camped on the tug Kheunaten with his consort, Madame Zee. and his 143 jars of gold coins. Before leaving, he scuttled the Lady Royal and razed most of the buildings on the islands. He spared the House of Mystery.
Ten days later, the Kheunaten was identified in northern waters by a provincial policeman who knew nothing of the court action or of the gold below her deck. The tug vanished into the mists.
On November 7, 1934, a man who went by the name of Julian Churton Skottowe died in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Named as executrix of his estate, which the Swiss authorities were to trace back to Nanaimo, B.C., was Mrs. Mabel Skottowe — Madame Zee — whose married name he had taken. The estate was barely sufficient to pay the costs of its settlement. Possibly tight-lipped Madame Zee knew more than she professed of the whereabouts of the golden fortune.
After the Aquarian Foundation, following the court’s order, disbanded, Mrs. Connolly remained for a few years on Valdes with a caretaker, Sam Grunall. Leaving for a nursing home in North Carolina in 1941, she said to him, "For the old Brother, I'd give that much money again, if I had it to give.”
Brother 12 was to have a final word. After Mrs. Connolly had gone, Grunall uncovered a cement vault sunk in the ground beneath an outbuilding on Valdes. Here at one time treasure had been buried. Lifting the lid by its iron ring. Grunall found a message scrawled in white on a bundle of tar paper. It said: "For fools and traitors, nothing!” ★