The 1940s witnessed a boom in esoteric and occult movements, and we so often encounter evidence for such movements that we realize just how familiar a part they must have been in the social landscape.
We see this for instance in Wallace Stegner’s 1942 study of Utah, Mormon Country. Near Monticello, in one of the remotest corners of the state, Stegner discovered the “Home of Truth”, a communal Theosophical settlement first founded by Marie Ogden in 1933. She envisaged this commune as a nucleus of The Kingdom That is Being Built, on the principles laid down in the Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ. Like the many such occult colonies that then operated in America, the Home had grand aspirations, with its Middle and Inner Portals, its Community Houses and Dormitories. Mrs. Ogden “controls and directs the community with the aid of messages from the spirit world and from Jesus Christ.” On the spiritual plane, she would regularly converse with Tibetan lamas.
On the mundane level, though, her major influence was perhaps the best known American magus, William Dudley Pelley, who in 1928 had experienced a mystical vision while in the hills of California. From 1933, he channeled his energies into politics, founding his Silver Shirt Legion, which combined New Age mysticism with violent anti-Semitism. But many of his less political followers remained focused on their metaphysical quests, and Marie Ogden was one of these.
During the 1930s, she attracted her own kind of notoriety over a gruesome scandal in which she had tried to effect the faith-cure of a follower. Though most observers believed the patient to have died, Marie Ogden insisted that the subject was in a kind of suspended animation pending revival in a sanctified higher state. She therefore refused to release the mummified body until the state was forced to institute legal proceedings. By 1942, her commune was reduced to a few hard core supporters.
While we cannot say that such figures were in any sense typical, fictional and literary accounts strongly suggest that mystical ideas had penetrated far beyond the elite, or even the literate classes. Nelson Algren offers a nice portrait of a lower-class occult subculture in his 1949 novel The Man With the Golden Arm, which is largely set in the immediate post-war conditions of 1946. Algren offers a realistic account of ethnic (Slavic) working class Chicago.
One character desperate for healing visits “Old Doc Dominowski”, an “electric blood reverser”, a “spine manipulator and ray caster.” Old Doc’s diplomas proclaim him “a member of the American Association of Medical Hydrology… Furthermore he was a deacon of the Royal Aryan Society for Positive Christianity and as such was privileged to throw in divine healing without extra charge. That went right along with the three dollar treatment for a touch of the astral power and a short lecture in the latent powers possessed by all of us.” He induces a patient to attend “a meeting of the Royal Aryan Crusaders.” For all his pretensions, though, Old Doc is a simple con-man who had learned his racket in prison, and he uses the language of auras and astral powers as a charade to molest his female patients.As in the true-life cases noted earlier, we are struck by the heavily eclectic nature of this picture, in which chiropractic merges with ideas about mystic auras, astral planes, esoteric Christianity, and populist racial theory. Marie Ogden also practiced “spiritual therapeutics” and claimed to heal cancer.
I also cite another once-famous novel from this era, Nightmare Alley, by William Lindsay Gresham. Published in 1946 and filmed the following year, this concerns a fairground magician who became a bogus psychic and spiritualist, an upscale version of Doc Dominowski. Like Man With the Golden Arm, the book suggests the immense public market for plausible occult frauds, although Gresham took these matters seriously, and was an authority on the Tarot.
By the way, don’t worry if you haven’t heard of Gresham, but his wife is more famous. She was Joy Davidman, who subsequently married C. S. Lewis.
These fictional accounts of fraud are all the more credible because they mesh with so many of the exposés of fringe medicine and quackery in these years. Alternative medical ideas acquired amazing popular support, notably the controversial polio treatments pioneered by Australian nurse Elizabeth Kenny, who began offering her therapies in the US in 1940. The Kenny treatment had much to recommend it, but her movement rapidly acquired the character of a charismatic leader-cult focused on the Sister herself.
Kenny acquired a supernatural reputation as a savior of children, and her public appearances became almost messianic in tone. When she visited Washington in 1944, one newspaper recorded how, “Swept along on a tidal wave of faith, more than a thousand patients of crippled and cured children surged into the room, packed the mezzanine and overflowed into the corridors, even into the lobby while police vainly tried to hold them in check… ‘It’s like watching a miracle,’ a policeman whispered hoarsely.” All the condemnations by the medical profession could not prevent desperate people from believing that this woman channeled cures from on high. Her story was romanticized in the 1946 movie Sister Kenny.
Algren’s pseudo-technical language also closely parallels that found in one of the major news stories of the late 1940s. In 1948, it was revealed that third-party presidential candidate Henry Wallace had been associated in the mid-1930s with occultist Nicholas Roerich, whom Wallace had addressed as “guru.” The media paraded the now-familiar range of anti-occult stereotypes. One Chicago newspaper mockingly declared that “If only Wallace the Master Guru becomes president, we shall get in tune with the Infinite, vibrate in the correct plane, outstare the Evil Eye, reform the witches, overcome all malicious spells, and ascend the high road to health and happiness.”
The accounts of Wallace – and of the fictional Doc Dominowski – illustrate just how commonplace occult and esoteric terminology had become during the 1940s.