One of the things that makes the magical history of America so, well, magical is the number of astonishing individuals who have played a central role in it. Even among the extraordinary gallimaufry of figures who are part of our story, though, the subject of this week’s post stands out. His name was Paschal Beverly Randolph, and he was an American original: the first internationally famous African-American occultist, the creator of traditions of magic and occult wisdom that remain active today, and—well, we’ll get to the rest of it as we go.
Randolph was born in a down-at-heels New York City neighborhood in 1825 to Flora Beverly, an African-American woman, and a white man named William Randolph. Whatever the nature of the connection between his parents, it didn’t endure long; when Randolph was five years old, his mother died, and he spent some of the years that followed in an orphanage and others living with his half-sister Harriet and working as a shoeshine boy. While in the orphanage, he had a vision of his mother, who spoke one word to him: “Try!” That became his motto for the rest of his life.
At the age of 12, like many enterprising young men in his time, he ran away to sea, taking a job as cabin boy aboard the brig Phoebe and sailing the world around. He later described the eight years he spent at sea as “miserable,” but somewhere in those years he added to the minimal education he’d received at the orphanage, and became a voracious reader and an unusually good writer and speaker. When he left the sea in 1845, after an injury sustained chopping wood, he went to work as a barber and began to study medicine, with an eye toward working as a doctor in the African-American community.
Those plans changed suddenly in 1848 when, as described in an earlier post in this sequence, the Fox sisters started hearing tapping noises, and Spiritualism burst on the American scene. Like several of the other figures who play a central part in this stage of our story, Randolph turned out to have a natural gift for trance states, and he combined that gift with a quick mind, a magnetic personality, and a talent for oratory—a mix that made him an instant hot property on the American lecture circuit. In 1853, as interest in spiritualism was building in Europe, he booked a lecture tour in England, which was a rousing success; while overseas he also visited France and some parts of the Middle East—and thereby hangs a tale.
Randolph left the United States in 1853 as a gifted but otherwise ordinary Spiritualist. By the time he returned in 1857, he claimed to have received some form of Rosicrucian initiation and to have been given a set of esoteric teachings by the al-Nusairi, a heretical Muslim sect in Syria. (At the time the name of the sect was spelled “Ansaireh” in Western languages, which is more or less how it’s pronounced in the Syrian dialect of Arabic; Randolph thus called the teachings the Ansairetic Arcanum.) All this sounds very much like the sort of origin story many other figures in nineteenth-century American occultism liked to use to deck out their own inventions in borrowed finery, but in Randolph’s case he may have been telling the truth.
To begin with, there were Rosicrucians, or people who claimed to be Rosicrucians, to be found in the 1850s in London and Paris. While in England, his lectures attracted the attention of influential members of the British occult scene—Kenneth Mackenzie, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and especially Hargrave Jennings, whose 1870 book The Rosicrucians: Their Rites and Mysteries covered much of the same ground Randolph would explore in his own work. Randolph referred to Jennings in one of his books as “the chief Rosicrucian of all England,” though they later fell out with each other.
Paris in those same years was in the first years of an extraordinary revival of occultism—the first volume of Eliphas Lévi’s Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic, the book that kickstarted the modern magical revival, hit the bookstores the year after Randolph sailed to Europe, launching a furore that was still in full swing when he left to return home. In Paris Randolph met the American alchemist and general Ethan Allen Hitchcock, who brought him into Parisian high society and later introduced him to Abraham Lincoln.
According to Randolph’s later account, Hitchcock also put him in touch with a French Rosicrucian group. That group apparently issued him a charter of some kind—this was a standard procedure at the time; quite a few American occult groups of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries came into being because an experienced American occultist went to Europe, met the right people, and received a charter to found lodges of a European occult order in the United States. (That was, among other things, how so respectable a group as the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry got here.)
As for the al-Nusairi, the court of Emperor Napoleon III, the French head of state at the time Randolph visited Paris, had very close connections with the Ottoman Empire, and French commercial interests were heavily involved all over North Africa and the Middle East. If an aspiring American occultist wanted to make connections that would allow him to contact Muslim religious groups, Paris in the 1850s was one of the best places in the world to do it. It’s possible that this is exactly what Randolph did. It’s also possible that he learned the core of the Ansairetic Arcanum from someone in Paris who had learned it in Syria, and embroidered his later stories to provide the kind of romantic background to his teaching that was standard in those days.
What makes it clear that some connection with non-Western spiritual traditions had to exist is that the core of Randolph’s teaching was something that nobody in Spiritualism or the Western occultism of his day had yet dared to discuss: the spiritual dimensions of sex. We’ve already discussed the frankly deranged notions about sexuality that were pushed on Victorian women by the physicians and pundits of their day. It was a standard belief among physicians in the English-speaking world in the 1850s that women were incapable of sexual desire and that the female orgasm did not exist. Later in the nineteenth century, that view would finally face serious opposition; in the twentieth century, it would be tossed into history’s dumpster; but in the 1850s it still ruled unchallenged.
Yet here was P.B. Randolph, passing on a body of teaching that insisted, first, that women as well as men have sexual desires and are capable of orgasm; second, that sexual release is essential to most people’s physical and emotional health; third, that the male partner was responsibile for helping the female partner achieve orgasm; and fourth, that the supreme magical act is a working in which the two partners in the sex act concentrate on the same intention at the moment of simultaneous orgasm, thus directing the raw creative power of the cosmos into the intention.
That was the Ansairetic Arcanum, the innermost secret of Randolph’s system of magic. It became the secret teaching of the first documented Rosicrucian lodge in America, which Randolph founded in Boston in 1858, and the first documented American Rosicrucian order, the Third Temple of the Rosie Cross, which he founded in San Francisco in 1861. It also became the basic stock in trade of a network of “Rosicrucian Rooms” in large American cities, which may or may not have had any direct connection to Randolph but certainly used his ideas. As far as anyone knows, these were the first version of that durable Victorian institution, the sex cult, which offered sexual freedom under the veil of occult initiation to several generations of otherwise prim and proper men and women in Victorian Britain and America, in between the inevitable police raids.
There was more to his system than sex, to be sure. Randolph taught students exercises in clairvoyance using a specially prepared mirror, and he distinguished between two kinds of clairvoyance—zorvoyance, which brought visions of what he called the “Middle Spaces,” the realm of dreamlike images that later occultists called the astral plane, and aethaevoyance, which brought perceptions of what he called the “Ineffable Beyond,” the realms beyond thought that later occultists called the spiritual planes. He divided every magical act into the three phases of Volantia, or calm focus; Decretism, the fixation of the whole will on a desired object; and Posism, or entering the silence. His students also took in a cosmology in which ours is one of forty-nine universes and were taught what at the time was called the Pre-Adamite Theory—that is, the idea that human beings and the Earth itself had existed for more than the 6,000 years allotted them by literalist interpretations of the Book of Genesis.
The full impact of all this on American culture had to wait a little while, though. Not long after the founding of the Third Order, cannon blazed at Fort Sumter, and the Civil War began. Like many other African-American intellectuals in that era, Randolph went to work recruiting young African-American men for the Union Army, and when the Confederacy was finally crushed in 1865 he went to New Orleans as part of a project to teach literacy to newly freed slaves, and became the principal of a school there.
He did make time to publish two books during the war: Pre-Adamite Man!, which argued that civilized human beings existed on Earth 100,000 years ago, and Ravalette, or the Rosicrucian Story, an occult novel. (That wasn’t his first novel; his first novel, published in 1854, had the intriguing title Waa-Gu-Mah. As far as I know, no copies have survived, so what exactly that utterance meant is among the mysteries surrounding Randolph.)
Not until 1870 did he return to full-time involvement in occultism. That year he settled in Toledo, Ohio, founded a publishing house to carry his books, and began systematic efforts to attract students to his organization, which he renamed the Brotherhood of Eulis. This was officially founded in Nashville, Tennessee in 1874, and shortly thereafter changed its name to the more resplendent moniker of the Triplicate Order of Rosicruciae, Pythianae, and Eulis. Meanwhile he finished his medical studies, practiced as a doctor specializing in sexual issues, was an advocate for birth control at a time when even mentioning that topic in print was against the law, married an Irish-American woman, and had a son named Osiris.
The organizational history of the Triplicate Order was made more complex than it had to be by Randolph’s own personality. He described himself as “cross-grained”—in the jargon of the time, this meant “difficult to get along with”—and that quality became more deeply entrenched as he reached middle age. He had good reason for at least some of his irritability; as an African-American man in nineteenth-century America, he had to deal constantly with racial prejudice, and was particularly irate at the very large number of American occultists who were perfectly willing to borrow his ideas but wanted nothing to do with him because of his race. There’s some reason to believe that he may have suffered from bipolar disorder. Even so, the Triplicate Order was beginning to spread rapidly at the time of Randolph’s sudden death.
The one detail about which every account agrees is that he died of a gunshot wound. The media at the time declared that he had committed suicide. The local court ruled the death accidental, while another of the colorful figures in our story, the Rosicrucian teacher R. Swinburne Clymer, stated many years later than one of Randolph’s associates had confessed on his deathbed to having shot Randolph in a fit of jealous rage. Randolph was 49 years old.
While that was the end of his story, it was not the end of the Ansairetic Arcanum or the rest of his teaching—not by a long shot. To begin with, the Triplicate Order survived Randolph’s death, and passed into the hands of his longtime student Freeman B. Dowd. Though it’s been through further reorganizations since that time, it still exists. Its current name is the Fraternitas Rosae Crucis (Latin for Fraternity of the Rosy Cross) or F.R.C., and it continues to teach Randolph’s system, with additional material brought in by Dowd and Dowd’s successor, the already-mentioned R. Swinburne Clymer. You can find its website here.
At one remove from this direct line is the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor or H.B. of L., which was founded in England by students of Randolph’s teachings and includes much of his system along with a great deal else. The original H.B. of L. went out of existence in 1886 but reorganized in the United States as the Brotherhood of Light; in 1900 it recruited an enthusiastic young astrologer named Benjamin Williams—another figure we’ll be discussing at some length later on—who became its head, took the nom de occultisme Elbert Benjamine, veiled that identity further behind the pen name C.C. Zain, and transformed the already extensive teachings of the Brotherhood into an immense correspondence course and a successful occult school. It still exists, too; its current name is the Church of Light, and it continues to teach a system clearly descended from the H. B. of L. work, with ample elements of Randolph’s lore present and accounted for. You can find its website here.
At a second remove from this direct line is the Ordo Templi Orientis (Latin for Order of the Templars of the East) or O.T.O., which was founded by Karl Kellner and Theodor Reuss, two former members of the H.B. of L. who had been left in the lurch by the collapse of that order and decided to create a new organization to pass on the H.B. of L. teachings in a modified form. In 1912 the order went public and began looking for someone to help spread the organization in the English-speaking world. It was the O.T.O.’s decidedly mixed fortune that the occultist they chose was none other than Aleister Crowley, who proceeded to rework the organization from top to bottom to make it comform with his new religion of Thelema.
Crowley’s erratic management ran the Order into the ground all over the English-speaking world, and at the time of his death in 1947, the O.T.O under his jurisdiction consisted of one lodge in Pasadena, California, which broke up a few years later. In 1969, though, Grady McMurtry—a genial hippie with a solid grasp of occultism who had studied with Crowley while stationed in Britain with the US Air Force during the Second World War—announced that Crowley had made him his successor as head of the O.T.O. McMurtry proceeded to make good on the claim by transforming the inchoate mass of material left behind by Crowley into a coherent system of magical training and building a durable international organization. The O.T.O. as refounded by McMurtry still exists; there isn’t all that much of Randolph’s teaching left in it, but by all accounts the Ansairetic Arcanum remains as the heart of the system. You can find its website here.
At a third remove, finally, is the creation of another occultist who studied with Aleister Crowley in the Beast’s last years, an Englishman who spent his working life in the Far East and took up occultism of a distinctly sexualized variety on his return to Britain. Yes, that would be Gerald Gardner, the founder of modern Wicca. Plenty of material from other sources flowed into the system Gardner pieced together, but the Great Rite—the ritual sex act at the center of Gardnerian Wicca and quite a few of its first- and second-generation offshoots—still shows traces of the original Ansairetic Arcanum that Randolph taught to his students in the 1870s. As far as I know, there’s no central website for Gardnerian Wicca, but if you ask around you can probably find someone to talk to about it.
This is the way that real occult lineages work, by the way. Whenever you see a claim that some occult tradition descended unchanged through the centuries, passed on by an endless sequence of interchangeable third-degree grandmothers turned out by some granny factory in the New Forest or what have you, you’re looking at what people in Randolph’s time used to describe in such colorful terms as “bullfeathers!” and “buncombe!” When you hear somebody saying, “Well, we got this from here, and that from there, and nobody quite knows where this other thing came from but it really works well, and that thing over there was invented in 1972 by so-and-so and everybody else tried it and decided to keep it”—in that case, you know you’re getting the real story or some close approximation to it.
There are good reasons for this. Occultists are magpies—they assemble as much lore as they can from as many sources as they can access, and then spend years trying to figure out how to make it all work as something like a coherent system. Many occultists are also tinkerers—they like to fiddle with things to see if they can get something to work a little better or do something other than what it was originally designed to do. Some occultists, finally—and Paschal Beverly Randolph is a great example here—are also highly creative, and come up with completely new ideas and practices which then get borrowed and adapted in various ways. “Try!”—Randolph’s lifelong motto—has been the keynote of occultists since long before his time, and doubtless will continue to be so into the far future.