Harris, Thomas Lake (DNB12)
HARRIS, THOMAS LAKE (1823–1906), mystic, was born of poor parents at Fenny Stratford, Buckinghamshire, on 15 May 1823. In 1828 his parents emigrated to Utica, New York state. He was an only child, and lost his mother in his ninth year. Before he was seventeen he began to write for the press, and his verses attracted notice. Brought up as a Calvinistic baptist, he joined the universalists about 1843, and became pastor of the 'fourth universalist church ' of New York. In 1845 he married Mary Van Arnum (d. 1850), by whom he had two sons. A visit in 1847 to Andrew Jackson Davis, the Poughkeepsie 'seer,' confirmed him in 'spiritualism'; becoming a 'medium,' he retired, along with James D. Scott, another 'medium,' to Mountain Cove, Auburn, New York state; they edited the 'Mountain Cove Journal,' and gathered a small community. Lake broke with Scott, and in 1848 organised on Swedenborgian principles an 'independent Christian congregation' in New York (called later 'the Church of the Good Shepherd'). He was what is called an 'inspirational' preacher; the effect of his sermon (1850) on behalf of children was the founding of the New York Juvenile Asylum. With 1850 began his claim to be the 'medium' of lengthy poems. 'An Epic of the Starry Heaven,' the first of these, was 'suggested' in March 1850, 'dictated' between 24 Nov. and 8 Dec. 1853, and taken down by amanuenses, Harris being in a trance condition ; other poems were alleged to be 'dictated' by Byron, Shelley, Keats, Coleridge, Pollok, or Poe; among the amanuenses were Charles Partridge and S. B. Brittan, his publishers. About 1855 he married Emily Isabella Waters (d. 1883). He wrote also in prose, and edited (May 1857-August 1861) the 'Herald of Light,' a spiritualist organ. He came to England in 1859, preaching in London, Manchester, Edinburgh, and Glasgow. Returning to America, with some English followers, in the autumn of 1861 he bought a small hill farm near the village of Wassaic, Duchess county. New York state, and here set up a community, styled 'the Use,' consisting of twelve persons in addition to his own family. By the end of 1863 he had acquired a mill, close to the village of Amenia. He further set up the 'first national bank ' of Amenia, with himself as president, and began to engage in grape culture. His community, now numbering about sixty, was known as the 'brotherhood of the new life' ; it included several persons of position, Japanese as well as American, some clergymen, and two Indian princes. Harris was in England in 1865-6, and in 1865 (March-September) Laurence Oliphant [q. v.] contributed anonymously to 'Blackwood' his 'Piccadilly,' in which there is a covert allusion (April, p. 504) to Harris as 'an apostle of a new church' ; but it is not till the republication in 1870 that Harris is extolled (p. 84) as 'the greatest poet of the age,' and (p. 283) 'the greatest man in Piccadilly.' Oliphant in 1867 joined the 'brotherhood,' which in October migrated to Brocton, Chautauqua county. New York state, on the shore of Lake Erie ; hence the settlement was known as Salem-on-Erie. Various farms here, purchased with the Oliphants' money and the proceeds of sale of previous holdings, were devoted to vine-growing and wine-making. Harris taught a new mode of breathing, 'open or divine respiration,' which was to secure immunity from death. In virtue of this mode of breathing Harris's wine had mystic qualities, freeing it from ill effects ; hence he commended its use (and that of tobacco) to his followers, and opened a tavern for their benefit. Over Oliphant he established an autocratic sway, sending him back to Europe in 1870, and regulating his marriage relations. Obedient to command, Oliphant with his wife and mother left Paris in 1873 for Brocton and was completely enslaved by Harris. The 'brotherhood' removed in 1875 to Fountain Grove, near Santa Rosa, California, where Harris had 1200 acres under vine culture. He broached a theory of celestial marriages in 1876 ; his own 'counterpart' being the 'Lily Queen,' Jane Lee Waring, who became his third wife in 1892 in consequence of certain alleged 'revelations' by Miss Chevalier. Tho spell which bound the Oliphants to him was broken in 1881; legal measures compelled tho restitution of Oliphant's property at Brocton ; Oliphant's final estimate of Harris is given in 'Masollam' (1886). Though he published nothing between 1876 and 1801, he privately circulated many effusions in morbid verse. There was always the cunning of the charlatan about Harris's mysticism; latterly he abounded in ideas on sexual matters, sugar-coated for the modern taste. In 1891 he proclaimed that he had attained the secret of immortality; a partial rejuvenation of his powers was pleaded in confirmation. He came to England, making a long stay in Wales. To America he returned owing to his wine premises having been set on fire by a mob. He did not go to Santa Rosa, but remained in New York. In 1903 he was in Scotland. He died at New York on 23 March 1906; the fact (concealed by his followers, who professed to believe that he was asleep) was not made public till the following July. His remains were cremated. His widow — his third wife — still (1912) survives, in her eighty-fourth year.
A striking and not unkindly picture of Harris, drawn by Oliphant under the designation of David Masollam, portrays his 'leonine aspect,' his Semitic cast of features, his waving hair, overhanging and bushy brow, his eyes 'like revolving lights in two dark caverns,' his 'alternation of vivacity and deliberation,' with changes of voice and expression making him by turns 'much blacker and brighter than most people,' and 'looking very much older one hour than he did the next.' Oliphant holds that Harris was honest at the start, but gave way to greed, unrestraint, and love of power. His personal fascination was much akin to that exercised by John Wroe [q. v.]. His gift of language and power of dramatic utterance were remarkable ; but he had nothing new to say, nor had his theology any distinctive mark, unless his doctrine of the fatherhood and motherhood of the divine being be so counted. To an unbeliever most of his verse appears to consist of echoes and high-pitched twaddle; he reminds the poet-laureate of Shelley (Austin, The Poetry of the Period, 1870, p. 227, 'supernatural poetry'). He attracted a few like Oliphant, of more wit than wits, but most of his worshippers were of the class that mistakes conceit for culture, and is agape for novelty. Apart from numerous sermons, Harris's publications in verso and prose include: 1. 'Juvenile Depravity and Crime in our City. A sermon,' &c. [Mark x. 14], New York, 1850. 2. 'An Epic of the Starry Heaven,' New York, 1853; 4th edit. 1864. 3. 'A Lyric of the Morning Land,' New York, 1855; Glasgow, 1869. 4. 'A Lyric of the Golden Age,' New York, 1856 (dictated December-January 1854-5) ; Glasgow, 1870. 5. 'The Wisdom of Angels,' part i., New York, 1857. 6. 'Hymns of Spiritual Devotion,' New York, 1858, 12mo. 7. 'Arcana of Christianity,' part i.. New York, 1858 ; Appendix, 1858; part iii., 1867. 8. 'Regina : a Song of Many Days,' New York, 1860. 9. 'The Breath of God with Man : an Essay. . . of Universal Religion,' 1867. 10. 'The Great Republic : a Poem of the Sun,' New York, 1867; 2nd edit. 1891. 11. 'A Celestial Utopia,' Frome, 1869 (account of the Brocton community, from the 'New York Sun'; authorised but apparently not written by Harris). 12. 'The Lord: the Two-in-One,' Salem-on-Erie, 1876 (by Harris and Lily C. Harris). 13. ' Hymns of the Two-in-One ; for Bridal Worship in the Kingdom of the New Life,' Salem-on-Erie, 1876 (by the foregoing, under the pseudonyms of Chrysantheus and Chrysanthea). 14. ’A Wedding Guest,' 1877-8, 5 parts (privately printed at Fountain Grove), which was succeeded by many similar works from the same private press until 1887. 15. 'The Brotherhood of the New Life: its Fact, Law, Method,' Santa Rosa, 1891. 16. 'The New Republic,' Santa Rosa, 1891; London, 1891. 17. 'Lyra Triumphalis,' 1891 (dedicated to Swinburne). 18. 'God's Breath in Man and in Humane Society,' 1892 (photographic likeness prefixed). 19. ' Conversation in Heaven,' 1894. 20. 'The Dawnrise,' 1894. 21. 'The Marriage of Heaven and Earth,' 1903 (written 1866). 22. 'The Triumph of Life,' Glasgow, 1903. 23. 'The Song of Theos,' 1903. Posthumous was: 24. 'Veritas: a Word-Song,' Glasgow, 1910 (written 1898-9).
[Appleton's Cyclop. Amer. Biog., 1887 ; Oliphant, Life of L. Oliphant, 2nd edit. 1892 ; R. McCully on Harris, 1893, 1897; W. P. Swainson, T. L. Harris, Mad or Inspired, 1895; J. Cuming Walters, Athenæum, 28 July 1906; Annual Register, 1906 ; A. A. Cuthbert, Life and World-work of T. L. Harris, 1908; private information.]