Our journey through the hidden history of American occultism has focused so far entirely on traditions brought here from elsewhere—the German Rosicrucian and Pietist traditions studied by Johannes Kelpius, the classic tradition of English astrology practiced by Joseph Stafford, and the varying traditions of folk magic that crossed the Atlantic with captive Africans from the Congo basin on the one hand and English laborers and farmers on the other. That part of our exploration isn’t finished yet, for the early history of occultism in America, like the history of American colonization as a whole, was almost entirely a story of people and ideas arriving from distant places and adapting, or failing to adapt, to conditions here. The four traditions we’ve discussed so far were among those that succeeded in adapting. In this post, by contrast, we’re going to talk about one that failed to take root here: the living tradition of European alchemy.
Making sense of any kind of occultism from within the modern industrial worldview is a tough project, but alchemy is tougher than most. There are by and large two ways of thinking about alchemy that are acceptable in modern times, and both of them might best be described as brilliantly effective ways to misunderstand the subject. The first, far and away the most common, portrays alchemy as a failed science so heavily burdened with wrong ideas about the nature of matter that it wasted a thousand years in futile attempts to turn lead into gold by inadequate means. At most, according to this view, the alchemists contributed to the future triumphs of chemistry by figuring out how to make some useful bits of lab glassware and making a few remarkable discoveries on which the real scientists of later centuries could build.
In contrast to that view is the interpretation of alchemy associated with the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, and promulgated since his time by a bevy of industrious writers who drew on his insights, and often watered them down into harmlessness in the process. According to this view, alchemy is actually a process of transformation of the personality which the poor benighted alchemists, out of sheer psychological naiveté, mistakenly projected onto the contents of their crucibles. To gauge by some of the fluffier works in this literature, all the money the old alchemists spent on glassware and minerals was a tragic misdirection of funds—they could have spent it more wisely hiring Jungian therapists to listen to their dreams for a dollar a minute, if only Jung had gotten around to being born a few centuries earlier!
These misunderstandings aren’t accidental. They have two causes, one of which is the yawning chasm that separates the worldview of the alchemists from the worldview of modern industrial society. The alchemists of colonial America were the last heirs of the Renaissance worldview, inheritors of a cosmos in which every material substance was full of life and consciousness, in which metals branched and flowered in the veins of the rocks and planets sang to one another as they circled through the heavens. The proponents and propagandists of the scientific revolution that came after them discarded all this with furious zeal, proclaiming in its place a dead cosmos chained to unforgiving natural law, in which minds—if they exist at all—can only be oddities of behavior of certain lumps of meat called human brains.
That’s where we get the iron dogma that insists that matter and energy can only be influenced by matter and energy—never by minds. You disprove that odd claim, dear reader, every time you lift a finger, but the dogma remains welded into place, and the paired modern misunderstandings of alchemy are among the results. The scientific materialist dismissal of alchemy starts from the fact that matter and energy left to themselves do not produce the results described in alchemical literature, and hurries past the calm acknowledgment of that fact in alchemical texts—Nature unaided fails, the alchemists whispered—to insist that alchemy can only have been a delusion or a fraud. The Jungian not-quite-dismissal of alchemy starts from the same fact, notices that some alchemical processes seem to have a mental dimension, and leaps from there to the claim that alchemy had to have been entirely mental in nature. It’s as though people talking about the Brooklyn Bridge discovered that it wasn’t entirely on one side of the East River, nor entirely on the other, and ended up deciding that it couldn’t exist!
From within the alchemical worldview—which as already noted is also the worldview of the Renaissance, with its flowering metals and singing worlds—these confusions fall away in an eyeblink. To put an old insight into new words, alchemy is participatory science: a way of knowing and working with substances, not all of them material, in which the observer and the observed both join in a shared process that transforms them both. That participation is something we all know how to do, to one extent or another. Every good cook is an alchemist, which is why identical ingredients and identical recipes are no guarantee of identical results in the kitchen; every child who devotes time to imaginative play brushes against the borders of alchemy. Our art is women’s work and child’s play: the alchemists whispered that, too.
Note also: participatory science, not a participatory science. Alchemy is not a single field of study like chemistry or physics. It’s a universal method, like modern science. There is in fact an alchemical method, just as there is a scientific method; you can apply the alchemical method to different aspects of the universe of human experience and get different alchemies, just as you can apply the scientific method to different aspects of the universe of human experience and get different sciences. The old alchemists did exactly this, producing a dizzying array of different alchemies, and in many cases you have to know your way around alchemical literature to be able to figure out which of these alchemies a given text is discussing.
Take certain alchemical texts literally, for example, and they appear to be talking about a chemical or, let’s say, parachemical process in three stages, which yields a fine, heavy, deep red powder. Melt a nonprecious metal and add a small quantity of the powder, and the powder acts in much the same way as a catalyst, setting off a physical (rather than chemical) reaction that turns the metal into gold. Certain details are always left out of the recipe, but most of the process of making the Red Powder is described in quite some detail. The great uncertainty for modern alchemists is whether the gold referenced here is the metal by that name, or one of the products of a different kind of alchemy altogether. Our gold is not the common gold, the alchemists liked to murmur, adding to the perplexities of the subject.
Thus the chasm between worldviews poses one serious barrier to any attempt to understand alchemy in modern times. There’s another barrier, though, which was just as difficult to cross in the days of the colonial alchemists as it is today, and that’s the simple fact that alchemical texts were deliberately designed to conceal the secrets of alchemy from the uninstructed. They are the opposite of user-friendly—some of them more so than others. One of the texts in my library, The Red Lion of Salomon Trismosin, looks like a straightforward recipe for the Stone of the Philosophers; you take a certain amount of gold, dissolve it in strong acids, add this, do that, let the result evaporate and form crystals, and then pound the crystals up good and hard in a mortar and pestle and add them to red hot metal, which will then turn to gold. I don’t recommend trying to follow these instructions, though. Followed exactly, the recipe makes several ounces of lethally explosive gold fulminate, and that first tap of the pestle will blow you to kingdom come.
Most alchemical texts are less vicious in their protective strategies. The more usual approach is to use ornate symbolism that has no obvious relation to the behavior of chemicals in a crucible, or to any of the other materia that were the basis of the different alchemies discussed above. If you happened to be lucky enough to study with an experienced alchemist and win his or her trust, the secret could be explained in a few minutes. Otherwise, the user’s manual amounted to these seemingly unhelpful words: Lege, lege, lege, relege, ora, labora, ut invenies (Read, read, read, reread, pray, work, so that you will find it). Plenty of people have followed that advice over the years, but the number of known adepts remains very small.
All this was well known in intellectual circles in the years when the first European colonies in America were being established. The spread of printing and the industrious labors of scholars such as Elias Ashmole had made the old alchemical literature much more accessible than ever before; where aspiring alchemists in 1400 might have to content themselves with a single handwritten book, their equivalents in 1650 could fairly easily purchase enough classic texts to fill a couple of bookshelves. As a result, a great many educated Europeans flung themselves into the study of alchemy with varying degrees of enthusiasm and competence. Isaac Newton was of course one of them—true believers in scientific rationalism have been trying every since his time to ignore the fact that he devoted more hours to alchemy than to physics, and wrote a million words on the subject in his private alchemical notebooks—but some influential figures in colonial America also devoted their time to the same quest.
As far as anyone knows, the first practicing alchemist to arrive in the American colonies was Jonathan Brewster, a member of the Brewster family so well represented aboard the Mayflower. Unlike his parents and brothers, Jonathan stayed in Holland for another year and sailed to the Plymouth colony on the Fortune, arriving in late 1621. He supported himself as a merchant while devoting his off hours to alchemy; by 1656 he believed he had worked out the method, and wrote out a copy of his discoveries for his fellow alchemist John Winthrop Jr., to be delivered to the latter on Brewster’s death.
Winthrop was an even more important figure in the history of American alchemy. The son of the first governor of Massachusetts Colony, and himself the first governor of colonial Connecticut, he had a first-rate education and took up alchemy while at Trinity College, Dublin. In 1631, a year after his father went to Massachusetts to take on the governorship, Winthrop sailed for the New World. His interests extended to the practical—he founded one of Massachusetts’ first ironworks in 1633, helped develop mines in New England, and became a physician, treating up to a dozen patients a day—but he also had the largest alchemical library in the colonies, having gathered books assiduously during trips back home, and a busy and well-equipped laboratory.
Brewster and Winthrop were the leading edge of an era of active alchemical experimentation in New England. Christian Lodowick, the famous polymath of Newport, Rhode Island, included alchemy among his omnivorous intellectual interests. Other famous colonial alchemists were Samuel Danforth, who studied alchemy as part of his research into natural history (that’s spelled “science” today) at Harvard, and the Rev. Ezra Stiles, who was president of Yale from 1778 through 1795 and a friend of Benjamin Franklin. The most influential of all, however, was a young man by the name of George Starkey.
Starkey was born in Bermuda in 1628 and was sent to Boston in 1637, on the death of his father, to continue his education. He enrolled in Harvard at the age of 15 and devoted much of his time to alchemical studies. In 1650, at the ripe age of 22, he and his wife Susannah crossed the Atlantic the other way and settled in London, where Starkey had access to books and also raw materials for alchemical practice that were unavailable in New England. He immediately became an important figure in the English alchemical scene of the time, and began writing books on alchemy under the pen name Eirenaeus Philalethes (“peaceful lover of truth”).
Starkey had an immense impact. Many people who know a little about the history of science have heard of Robert Boyle, who is now considered one of the founders of scientific chemistry; Boyle learned the basics of laboratory technique from George Starkey. Isaac Newton, whose alchemical work has already been mentioned, copied Starkey’s recipes into his voluminous alchemical notebooks. George Newman, whose book Gehennical Fire first conclusively showed the identity of Starkey and Philalethes, notes that Starkey was the most widely cited American scientist in Europe until the time of Benjamin Franklin. According to public records, Starkey died in 1666 when an epidemic of bubonic plague swept through London, but several of his books are still considered among the classic texts of laboratory alchemy.
With so substantial a base of support among the wealthy and educated in New England, and a pool of talent sufficient to produce one of the great names of alchemy it may seem surprising that alchemy failed to become a permanent presence in the American occult scene. Nonetheless, that was what happened. While English folk magic, Bakongo spirituality in its American incarnation as hoodoo, and classic Western astrology spread readily throughout the colonies, and German Pietist occultism found an enduring home among the Pennsylvania Dutch, alchemy lingered as a fringe interest among a few graduates of Harvard and Yale, and finally died out completely in the third quarter of the nineteenth century. The reasons why that happened are worth considering here.
Among the most important reasons was the sheer expense of alchemical work. The varieties of occultism that put down deep and lasting roots in America were all relatively inexpensive to practice and relied on readily available resources; an aspiring astrologer could get to work with nothing more difficult to obtain than a copy of William Lilly’s Christian Astrology and a few books of tables, for example, while a hoodoo practitioner during the years of slavery could carry out all the operations of that system of magic with materials that anyone could gather: scraps of cloth and cord, roots dug up in the forest, dirt from the nearest graveyard, and so on. To practice alchemy, on the other hand, you need a well-equipped laboratory with plenty of glassware and specially designed furnaces that could maintain a constant steady heat for days on end—not an easy thing to do in the days before electricity—and you also needed various exotic reagents and raw materials. All of this cost a great deal of money.
There were alternatives, and many years later—when the American alchemical revival began, in the middle years of the twentieth century—those alternatives saw plenty of use. Perhaps the most common of those is spagyrics, known more casually as “plant alchemy” and more formally as the opus vegetabilis, which applies alchemical processes to make herbal medicines. Spagyrics works with much cheaper ingredients and much lower temperatures than mineral or metallic alchemy, and you can outfit yourself with the necessary gear and supplies to make the simpler spagyric magisteries for a tiny fraction of what it costs to tackle even the simplest forms of metallic alchemy. Spagyrics thus became the standard first step in alchemical training in the twentieth-century revival in America, and holds that status today.
Many of the alchemists of colonial America practiced spagyrics, too, and those who were doctors used spagyric preparations to treat patients; George Starkey certainly did so, for example. The alchemical imagination of the age was tautly focused on the metallic side of alchemy, however, when it wasn’t fixated on the spiritual aspects so richly developed by Jakob Böhme and the Rosicrucians. It’s common for people caught up in a fading movement of thought or practice to fling themselves at the grandest possible goals, to dream the most extravagant dreams, at a time when more modest goals and dreams might preserve more through the fallow period ahead. Certainly that’s what happened as the last golden autumn of Renaissance Hermeticism guttered out and the long bleak winter of scientific materialism closed in.
Fortunately the writings of the old alchemists were preserved, and helped inspire more than one burst of exploration in the years that followed. We’ll be discussing some of those as our story continues.