John Murray Spear has an unfair reputation as a crackpot (for the most part).
He was certainly on the right side of history with virtually every 19th century social movement he joined. Born in Massachusetts in 1804, he was baptized in the Universalist faith and named for John Murray (the founder the Universalist denomination). Spear later became a Universalist minister and also went on to crusade for a wide range of causes including the abolition of slavery, woman's rights, temperance, labour reform, and the abolition of the death penalty.
Unfortunately for Spear, his extreme political views alienated most congregations, especially due to his various political activities. He gave speeches with Frederick Douglass, helped run the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves, and was forcibly expelled from Bedford, Massachusetts for helping to free a slave from the family that owned her. Despite having a growing family that needed his financial support, Spear was outspoken in his beliefs and became a full-time crusader for justice. He faced beatings, threats of arrest, and condemnation from the more conservative factions. One speech he gave in Portland, Maine in 1844 led to his being beaten so badly that he was laid up for months.
Unfortunately, Spear is best known for his spectacular conversion to Spiritualism in 1851. After discovering the writings of Andrew Jackson Davis (aka the Poughkeepsie Seer) as well as the spectacular revelations of the Fox sisters, Spear broke off from the Universalist church and devoted himself to writing and giving lectures on Spiritualism. He also became a professional medium. His business card was plain enough in stating:
Guided and assisted by beneficent Spirit-Intelligences, Mr. S. will examine and prescribe for disease of body and mind, will delineate the character of persons when present, or by letter, and indicate their future as impressions are given him; will sketch the special capacities of young persons... Applications to lecture, or hold conversations on Spiritualism, will be welcomed.
Strongly influenced by his daughter, Sophronia, Spear added "magnetic healing" to his repertoire of skills and also practiced "laying on of the hands" in healing patients. Suffice it to say, he was a busy man.
By 1853, John Murray Spear's spiritualism crusade began in earnest. He made an enthusiastic announcement to the Boston weekly newspaper New Era that the spirits with whom he was communicating were planning to transform the world of the living through seven new organizations which included "Healthfulizers, Educationizers, Agriculturalizers, Elementizers, Governmentizers, and Beneficents." The organization that Spear was most excited about was "the Association of Electrizers" headed up by the ghost of Benjamin Franklin. Other prominent deceased scientists and politicians in this elect group included Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, and Benjamin Rush. Appointed as their chief spokesman among the living, Spear announced that the group would bring new technology to mankind to make life easier for the living.
As part of this ambitious project, Spear and a small group of supporters set up their headquarters in a small shed outside Lynn, Massachusetts. There they would build what Spear called "the New Motive Power" which was nothing less than an electrical Messiah to lead Mankind to a brighter future. The actual description of what Spear and his followers attempted to construct is largely based on his own descriptions provided to the local press and reorts by fellow Spiritualists.
One of these Spiritualists, Emma Hardinge Britten, wrote about Spear's strange project in her 1871 book, Modern American Spiritualism. As she described the enthusiasm relayed by other spiritualists, "The ‘great discovery’… left little room to doubt that a modern Frankenstein had arisen, who, like Mrs. Shelley’s famous student, was prepared to show a living organism, created at the hand of its fellow-man, only that the new ‘monster’ was a being of metal and wood, instead of flesh and blood like its German prototype."
And it was...quite an project. Spear meant nothing less than the creation of a new form of life. A still unnamed female supporter was chosen to be the "Mary of a New Dispensation" and the machine they built was completed over nine months. According to one description, Spear constructed his machine out of copper, zinc, and various magnets arranged on a dining room table. In the shed where Spear and his followers kept their project, they carefully gave life to their machine by touching it in different areas to "impart their magnetic energies to it." The description goes on to say that the "individuals invited to perform this service were selected with care. They came in groups, the first group composed of ‘ordinary or comparatively coarser organizations,’ followed by groups progressively ‘finer and yet finer mould.’ In this simple way the machine was supplied with the intermediate links connecting the gross aspects of the mechanism with the refined." The strange nature of the New Motive Force's "pregnancy" led to all sorts of lurid speculations over how Spear had handled the "conception" of his creation but newspapers shied away from putting these speculations in writing.
And then things got really strange.
When the day arrrived for the New Motive Power to be "born", the "mother" of the new machine was obliged to "give birth" to signify that their creation had come alive. As New Era described the birth process:
She [the unnamed woman] began to experience the peculiar and agonizing sensations of parturition, differing somewhat from the ordinary experience, inasmuch as the throes were internal, and of thespirit, rather than the physical nature, but nevertheless quite uncontrollable, and not less severe than those pertaining to the latter. Its purpose and results were wholly incomprehensible to all but herself; but her own perceptions were clear and distinct that in these agonizing throes the most interior and refined elements of her spiritual being were imparted to, and absorbed by, the appropriate portions of the mechanism: its minerals having been made particularly receptive by previous chemical processes.
A clairvoyant claimed to see "a stream of light, a sort of umbilicum, emanating to and enveloping the mechanism" while Spear reported seeing "the action of a heart, beating, possibly, in sympathy or connection with "the Grand Central Magnetic Heart of the Universes.' Though New Era was fairly sympathetic, Spear's followers were somewhat less enthused when nothing actually happened despite the big buildup. Though Spear would later claim that an angry mob destroyed his Messiah, there are conflicting accounts of this. In talking about the "death" of his New Motive Force, Spear still insisted that the spirits would transform the world and that his electric Messiah was simply before its time. He even went so far as to compare the machines's destruction with the martydom of the early Christians. An analogy which likely didn't go over too well with his former Universalist colleagues.
Spear managed to bounce back from his failure with the New Motive Force and continued to lecture about spiritualism while embarking on new projects suggested by his spiritual guides. These included an attempt to establish a utopian community and a hunt for buried treasure though neither of them got very far. In 1872, Spear reported getting a message from the Association of Electrizers informing him that he could retire from his ministry. A year later, he published his memoirs titled Twenty Years on the Wing describing his long and colourful career. In the book, while admitting the numerous hardships he experienced along the way, he expressed a sense of satisfaction at what he had achieved.
"Dearly have I loved the work in which I was engaged," he wrote. "I have been helped to see that beyond the clouds that were round about me, there was a living, guiding, intelligent, beneficent purpose—the elevation, regeneration and redemption of the inhabitants of this earth."
While he was officially retired from his spiritualist crusade, he continued working for radical causes all his life. Among other things, he was an ardent supporter of women's rights, health reform, and socialism.
John Murray Spear died in Philadelphia in October, 1887 and is buried in the Mount Moriah cemetery. His strange dream of creating an electric Messiah apparently died with him. Even many of his fellow spiritualists were somewhat embarassed by what Spear had tried to accomplish and suggested that Spear had been "duped by irresponsible entities into carrying out the experiment." It's hard to decide what to make of Spear's New Motive Force today except perhaps as a strange attempt at creating a cargo cult that failed to attract much attention.
If nothing else, the New Motive Force would have made a dandy conversation piece if it still existed today.