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Chambers's miscellany of instructive & entertaining tracts (Volume 4) online

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to introduce a notice of it to our readers.

Robert Matthews was a native of Washington county, in the state
of New York, and of Scotch extraction. At an early age he was left
an orphan, and was brought up in the family of a respectable farmer
in the town of Cambridge, where in his boyhood he received the
religious instruction of the clergyman belonging to the Antiburgher
branch of Seceders. At about twenty years of age he came to the
city of New York, and worked at the business of a carpenter and
house-joiner, which he had partially learned in the country. Possess-
ing a genius for mechanical pursuits, and being of active habits,
he was an excellent workman, and was in constant and lucrative
employment. In 1813 he married a respectable young woman, and
removed to Cambridge for the purpose of pursuing the business of
a storekeeper; but the undertaking, after a trial of three years, failed.
He became bankrupt, involving his father-in-law in his ruin ; and
in 1816 he returned once more to New York, where for a number
of years he wrought at his old profession of a house-carpenter.
Being at length dissatisfied with his condition, he removed in 1827
to what he thought a better field for his talent in Albany. While
settled in this city, a remarkable change took place in his feelings.
Hitherto he had belonged to the Scotch Church ; but now, disliking
that communion, he attached himself to the Dutch Reformed con-
gregation, and there gathering fresh ardour, at length surrendered
his whole mind to spiritual affairs. While in this condition, he went
to hear a young and fervent orator, the Rev. Mr Kirk, from New
York, preach, and returned home in such a frenzy of enthusiasm as
to sit up a great part of the night repeating, expounding, and com-
mending passages from the sermon. From this period his conduct
was that of a half-crazy man. He joined the temperance society,
but went far beyond the usual rules of such associations, contending
that the use of meats should be excluded as well as of intoxicating
liquors ; proceeding on this notion, he enforced a rigid system of
dietetics in his household, obliging his wife and children to subsist
only on bread, fruits, and vegetables.

During the year 1829 his conduct became more and more wild and
unregulated. His employment was still that of a journeyman house-
joiner ; but instead of minding his work, he fell into the practice of


exhorting the workmen during the hours of labour, and of expound-
ing the Scriptures to them in a novel and enthusiastic manner, until
at length he became so boisterous, that his employer, a very pious
man, was obliged to discharge him from his service. He claimed
at this time to have received by revelation some new light upon the
subject of experimental religion, but did not as yet lay claim to
any supernatural character. Discharged from regular employment,
he had abundant leisure for street-preaching, which he commenced
in a vociferous manner exhorting every one he met upon the
subject of temperance and religion, and holding forth to crowds
at the corners of the streets. Having made a convert of one of
his late fellow-workmen, he procured a large white flag, on which
was inscribed ' Rally round the Standard of Truth;' this they raised
on a pole, and bore through the streets every morning, haranguing
the multitudes whom their strange appearance and demeanour
attracted around them. A young student of divinity, catching the
infection, as it seemed, united himself with Matthews, and assisted
in the preachings in the public thoroughfares. Matthews, however,
was a remarkably bad preacher, and made little or no impression
on his auditors. His addresses were incoherent, consisting of dis-
jointed sentences, sometimes grand or bombastic, and at other times
low and ridiculous, but always uttered at the highest pitch of the
voice, and designed both in matter and manner to terrify and startle
his hearers. The favourite doctrine which he attempted to enforce
was, that Albany would be immediately destroyed, unless the people
were converted ; and he harped so wildly on this theme, that in a
short time he became utterly distraught. All the efforts of his poor
wife to restrain him in his mania were unavailing. One night he
aroused his family from their slumbers, declared that the city would
be destroyed before morning, and fled from his home, taking with
him three of his sons, the youngest an infant of only two years.
With these he travelled maniacally on foot for twenty-four hours, till
he reached the house of his sister in the town of Argyle, a distance
of forty miles.

The religious wanderings of Matthews the prophet, as he was
called, may now be said to have commenced. With a Bible in his
hand, and his face garnished with a long beard, which he had
for some time been suffering to grow, in obedience to a Scriptural
command, he wandered about, collecting crowds to listen to his
ravings, and frequently disturbed the peace of regular meetings in
the churches. Finding that he made no impression in the old
settled part of the country, he set out on a missionary tour through
the western states, penetrating the deepest forests, crossing the
prairies, and never stopping till he had proclaimed his mission amid
the wilds of the Arkansas. Thence he turned his steps to the south-
east, recrossed the Mississippi, traversed Tennessee, and arrived in
Georgia with the view of preaching to the Indians ; but here he was


seized by the authorities, and placed in confinement as a disturber
of the public peace. Ultimately he was dismissed, and permitted
to return towards his old haunts in New York and its neighbour-
hood, where he arrived in a somewhat new character. It would
appear that till about this period Matthews was simply in a state
of mental derangement, and, like all madmen in similar circum-
stances, was perfectly sincere in his belief. The small degree of
success on his journey, his imprisonment in Georgia, and his utter
poverty, may be advanced as a cause for an alteration in his con-
duct. He now lost a portion of his frenzy, and in proportion as
he cooled in this respect, the idea of imposture seems to have
assumed a place in his mind. There is at least no other rational
mode of explaining his very singular behaviour. In the capacity,
therefore, of half madman, half knave, Mr Matthews may be viewed
as entering on his career in New York in the month of May 1832.

In ordinary times and circumstances, the intrusion of such a mad-
man into a quiet mercantile city would lead to no other result than
the committal of the intruder to the house of correction or a lunatic
asylum ; but at the period of Matthews's appearance in New York, a
pretty large portion of the public mind was prepared for any kind of
extravagance in religion, and therefore the declaration of his mission
was looked upon only as another act in the drama which had for
some time been performing. About the year 1822 a few ladies
became dissatisfied with the existing means of religious instruction
in the city, and set on foot the bold project of converting the whole
population by a system of female visitation, in the execution of
which, every house and family was to be visited by committees of
two, who were to enter houses indiscriminately, and pray for the
conversion of the inmates whether they would hear or not. This
scheme created no little noise at the time, but, like all frenzies, it
only lasted its day, and was succeeded by other schemes perhaps
equally well meaning, but equally visionary. Among the class of
perfectionists, as they were termed, there were doubtless many
estimable persons, and none more so than Mr Elijah Pierson and
his wife. Mr Pierson was a merchant by profession, and, by a
course of industry and regularity in all his undertakings, was now in
opulent circumstances. Until the late religious frenzy agitated the
city, he had been noted for his intelligence and unaffected piety, and
not less so was his lady. In a short period his devotional feelings
underwent a remarkable change. In 1828, after passing through a
state of preliminary excitement, he became afflicted with monomania
on the subject of religion, while upon all matters of business, as far
as they could be disconnected from that on which he was decidedly
crazed, his intellectual powers and faculties were as active and acute
as ever. During his continuance in this state of hallucination, in
the year 1830 his wife died of a pulmonary affection, which had been
greatly aggravated by long fasting and other bodily severities. This


event only served to confirm Mr Pierson in his monomania. He
considered that it would afford an opportunity for the working of a
miracle through the efficacy of faith. By a gross misinterpretation
of Scripture (Epistle of James v. 14, 15), he believed that his wife
should be 'raised up' from death while lying in her coffin, and
accordingly collected a crowd of persons, some of whom were
equally deluded with himself, to see the wonder performed in their
presence. The account of this melancholy exhibition, which is
lying before us, is too long and too painful for extract ; and it will
suffice to state, that notwithstanding the most solemn appeals to the
Almighty from the bereaved husband, the corpse remained still and
lifeless ; and by the remonstrances of a medical attendant, who
declared that decomposition was making rapid and dangerous
progress, the body was finally consigned to the tomb.

Such was the hallucination of Mr Pierson, which many pitied,

and some were found to approve. Among the latter was Mr S ,

also a merchant in good circumstances, but who had latterly become
a victim to the religious excitement which prevailed, and, like Mr
Pierson, often subjected himself to fasts for a week at a time,
greatly to the injury of his health and the confirmation of his mania.
Both gentlemen being thus in a state of mind to look for extra-
ordinary events, a stranger presented himself before them on the
5th of May 1832. He had the beard of a patriarch, a tall form, and
his language was of a high-flown cast on religious topics, which at
once engaged their attention and sympathy. This imposing stranger
was no other than Robert Matthews. The pretensions which he
made were of a nature which we can scarcely trust ourselves even to
hint at. That the tale may be told with as little pain to our readers
as possible, let it suffice to say, that the very highest imaginable
character was assumed by this unhappy man, and that the preten-
sion was supported merely by the perversion and misinterpretation
of one or two passages of Scripture. The character which he
assumed he pretended to be in the meantime incorporated with the
resuscitated person of the Matthias mentioned in the New Testa-
ment ; and he accordingly was not now any longer Matthews, but
Matthias. He had the power, he said, to do all things, not excepting
those which most peculiarly belong to the divine nature. Mr
Pierson and his friend believed all that he set forth of himself, then
and subsequently, no matter how extravagant or blasphemous ; and
he in turn recognised them as the first members of the true church,
whom, after two years' search, he had been able certainly to identify.
He announced to them that, although the kingdom of God on earth
began with his public declaration in Albany in June 1830, it would
not be completed until twenty-one years from that date, in 1851;
previous to which time wars would be done away, the judgments
finished, and the wicked destroyed. As Mr Pierson's Christian
name was Elijah, this afforded Matthews the opportunity of de-



Glaring that he was a revivification of Elijah the Tishbite, who should
go before him in the spirit and power of Elias ; and as Elias, as
everybody knows, was only another name for John the Baptist, it
was assumed that Elijah Pierson was the actual John the Baptist
come once more on earth, and by this title he was henceforth

Mr Pierson very soon relinquished preaching, as did Mr S ,

and the work of the ministry devolved entirely on Matthews, who,
jealous of his dignity, would bear no rivals near the throne. The
prophet was now invited to take up his residence at the elegantly

furnished house of Mr S , and acceding to the invitation, he

remained there three months. The best apartments were allotted to
his use, and the whole establishment was submitted to his control.
It was not long before he arrogated to himself divine honours, and
his entertainer washed his feet in token of his humility. The female
relations of the family were sent away by the impostor, and he
allowed no one to reside there but the black domestics who were of
the true faith. From fasting he taught his disciples to change their
system to feasting ; and having their houses at his command, and
their purses at his service loving the good things of this world, and
taking all the direction in procuring supplies he caused them to
fare sumptuously every day. But this splendid style of living was
not enough. The prophet was vain of his personal appearance, and
proud of wearing rich clothes. It was now necessary that he should
be arrayed in garments befitting his character and the dignity of his
mission. His liberal entertainer, therefore, at his suggestion, fur-
nished him with an ample wardrobe of the richest clothes and finest
linens. His favourite costume consisted of a black cap of japanned
leather, in shape like an inverted cone, with a shade ; a frock-coat
of fine green cloth, lined with white or pink satin ; a vest, commonly
of richly figured silk ; frills of fine lace or cambric at the wrists ; a
sash around his waist of crimson silk, to which were suspended
twelve gold tassels, emblematical of the twelve tribes of Israel ;
green or black pantaloons, over which were worn a pair of well-
polished Wellington boots. Add to this, hair hanging over his
shoulders, and a long beard flowing in ringlets on his breast, and
we may have an idea of him in his public costume. In private he
disused the black leather cap, and sometimes appeared in a night-
cap of the finest linen, decorated with twelve points or turrets, and
magnificently embroidered in gold by his female votaries. He
usually preached in a suit of elegant canonicals.

Lodged, fed, and decorated in this sumptuous manner, Matthews
spent his time so agreeably, that he became less anxious to make
public appearances. His preaching was confined to select parties of
fifty or sixty individuals, composing, as he styled it, ' the kingdom,'
and by these he was held in the most reverential esteem. Occasion-
ally, strangers were invited to attend his ministrations, but this was



only as a great favour ; and at all meetings he made it a rule to
allow no one to speak but himself. He declared his rooted anti-
pathy to arguing or discussion. If any one attempted to question
him on the subject of his mission or character, he broke into a
towering passion, and said that he came not to be questioned, but to
preach. Among other of his vagaries, he declared that he had
received in a vision an architectural plan for the New Jerusalem,
which he was commissioned to build, and which for magnificence
and beauty, extent and grandeur, would excel all that was known of
Greece or Rome. The site of this great capital of the kingdom
was to be in the western part of New York. The bed of the ocean
was to yield up its long-concealed treasures for its use. All the
vessels, tools, and implements of the New Jerusalem were to be of
massive silver and pure gold. In the midst of the city was to stand
an immense temple, to be surrounded with smaller ones : in the
greater temple he was to be enthroned, and Mr Pierson and Mr

S were each to occupy a lesser throne on his right hand and on

his left. Before him was to be placed a massive candlestick with
seven branches, all of pure gold.

Any man in his senses must have perceived that this was the
vision of a madman, but by his humble votaries it was considered
a sure prediction of what would speedily come to pass. As long as
it was confined to mere harangues, the public were not called on to
interfere ; the case, however, was very different when Mr S , in
obedience to the injunctions of the prophet, commenced ordering
expensive ornaments for the proposed temple from a goldsmith in

the city. Matters were now going too far for S 's friends to

remain any longer calm spectators of his folly, and both he and
Matthews were taken up on a warrant of lunacy, and consigned to

an asylum for the insane. Poor S was too confirmed in his

madness to be speedily cured, and therefore remained long in con-
finement ; but Matthews had the address to appear perfectly sane
when judicially examined, and was relieved by a writ of habeas
corpus, procured by one of his friends.

Upon his release from the asylum, he was invited to take up his
residence with Mr Pierson ; but that gentleman shortly afterwards
broke up his establishment, though he still rented a house for
Matthews and one or two attendants, supplying him at the same
time with the means of living. In the autumn of 1833 he was, on
the solicitations of Mr Pierson, invited to reside at Singsing, in
Westchester county, about thirty miles from town, with a Mr and
Mrs Folger, two respectable persons, whose minds had become a
little crazed with the prevailing mania, but who as yet were not fully
acquainted with the character of the prophet. Mr Pierson after-
wards became a resident in the family, and thus things went on
very much in the old comfortable way. Only one thing disturbed
the tranquillity of the establishment. Mrs Folger, who had a


number of children, and was of an orderly turn of mind respecting
household affairs, felt exceedingly uneasy in consequence of certain
irregular habits and tendencies in the prophet, who set himself above
all domestic discipline. The great evil which she complained of
was, that he always took the meal-time to preach, and generally
preached so long, that it was very difficult to find sufficient time to get
through the duties of the day. He often detained the breakfast-table
so long, that it was almost time for dinner before the meal was over ;
in the same manner he ran dinner almost into supper, and supper
was seldom over before midnight all which was very vexing to a
person like Mrs Folger, who was accustomed to regularity at meals,
and could not well see why the exercises of religion should supersede
the ordinary current of practical duties.

The infatuation of both Pierson and Folger in submitting to the
tyranny and pampering the vanity of Matthews was demonstrated
at this period in many acts of weakness which astonished the more
sober part of the community. The impostor was furnished with a
carriage and horses to convey him to and from New York, or any
other place in which he chose to exhibit himself. Money to a con-
siderable amount was given him on various pretences ; and to crown
the absurdity, an heritable property was conveyed to him for his
permanent support. An allowance of two dollars a day was further
made to his wife in Albany ; and several of his children, including a
married daughter, Mrs Laisdel, were brought to reside with him in
Mr Folger's establishment. After a short time, however, Mrs
Laisdel was under the necessity of returning home, in consequence
of her father's violent treatment.

This very agreeable state of affairs was too pleasant to last. Mr
Folger's business concerns became embarrassed, and he was obliged
to spend the greater part of his time in New York. The entire
government of the household now devolved on Matthews ; and he,
along with Katy, a black female cook, who was a submissive tool in
all his projects, ruled the unfortunate Pierson, Mrs Folger, and the
children, with the rod of an oppressor. Certain meats were for-
bidden to appear at table ; the use of confectionary or pastry was
denounced as a heinous sin ; and the principal food allowed was
bread, vegetables, and coffee. What with mental excitement and
physical deprivations, Mr Pierson's health began to decline ; he
became liable to fainting and apoplectic fits ; but no medical man
was permitted to visit him, and he was placed altogether at the
mercy of the impostor. At this crisis Matthews shewed his utter
incapacity for supporting the character he had assumed. Instead of
alleviating the condition of his friend, he embraced every opportunity
of abusing him, so as to leave little doubt that he was anxious to
put him out of the way. One of his mad doctrines was, that all
bodily ailments were caused by a devil ; that there was a fever devil,
a toothache devil, a fainting-fit devil, and so on with every other


malady ; and that the operations of such a fiend were in each case
caused by unbelief, or a relaxation of faith in Matthews's divine
character. The illness of Pierson was therefore considered equiva-
lent to an act of unbelief, and worthy of the severest displeasure. On
pretence of expelling the sick spirit, he induced his friend to eat
plentifully of certain mysteriously prepared dishes of berries, which
caused vomiting to a serious extent, and had a similar though less
powerful effect on others who partook of them. The children also
complained that the coffee which was served for breakfast made
them sick. On none of these occasions did Matthews taste of the
food set before Mr Pierson or the family ; and from the account of
the circumstances, there can be no doubt of his having, either from
knavery or madness, endeavoured to poison the family, or at least to
destroy the life of his deluded patron. Besides causing Mr Pierson
to swallow such trash as he offered him, he compelled him to receive
the contents of a pitcher of water poured into his mouth from a
height of four or five feet. This horrid operation, in which Katy the
black servant assisted, brought on strong spasmodic fits, in which
the sufferer uttered such dismal groans and sighs as shocked Mrs
Folger, and might have induced her to discredit the pretensions of
the impostor, and to appeal to a magistrate for protection ; but
excellent as was this lady's general character, she possessed no
firmness to decide in so important a matter, and her sympathy was
dissolved in a flood of useless tears.

The water-torture, as it may be called, hastened the fate of the
unhappy gentleman, and he was shortly afterwards found dead in
his bed. The intelligence of Mr Pierson's death immediately
brought Mr Folger from New York, to inquire into the cause of the
event, and to superintend the arrangements for the funeral. The
representations of the case made by Mrs Folger did not suggest the
possibility of Matthews having used any unfair means towards Mr
Pierson, but that his death was in some way caused by him through
supernatural power. Matthews, indeed, boasted that he could kill
any one who doubted his divine character by a mere expression of
his "will. Singular as it may seem, this madness or villainy did not
yet release Folger from the impression that Matthews was a divine
being ; and fearing his assumed power, he had not the resolution to
order his departure. In a few days, however, all ceremony on the
subject was at an end. An action having been raised by Pierson's
heirs to recover the property which the impostor had obtained on
false pretences, Matthews refused to resign it, and attempted to
justify his conduct to Folger by reasons so completely opposed to the
principles of common honesty, that that gentleman's belief at once
gave way, and he ordered him to quit the house. This abrupt
announcement was received with anything but complacency. The
prophet preached, stormed, and threatened ; tears likewise were
tried ; but all was unavailing. Folger respectfully but firmly told


him that circumstances required a retrenchment of his expenditure,
and that he must seek for a new habitation. Matthews, in short,
was turned out of doors.

He was again thrown upon the world, though not in an utterly
penniless condition. The right which he held to Pierson's property
was in the course of being wrested from him, but he possessed a
considerable sum which he had gathered from Folger and a few
other disciples, and on this he commenced living until some new and
wealthy dupe, as he expected, should countenance his pretensions,
and afford him the means of a comfortable subsistence. This
expectation was not realised in time to save him from public exposure

Online LibraryWilliam ChambersChambers's miscellany of instructive & entertaining tracts (Volume 4) → online text (page 50 of 58)