#177 Edward Arthur Wilson
March 09th, 2016
LOCATION: Valdes Island.
The charismatic and notorious scam artist, religious leader and author The Brother XII established his cult settlements at Cedar-by-the-Sea, south of Nanaimo, and on nearby De Courcy and Valdes Islands. After Wilson took $25,000 from a rich widow in Asheville, North Carolina, he purchased 400 acres on Valdes Island for his elite Mandieh Settlement as ‘ashrama’ or school of the occult.
Brother XII, or Brother Twelve, was the colloquial name for Edward Arthur Wilson, aka Julian Churton Skottowe, who formed his Aquarian Foundation in 1927. Wilson is the subject of numerous books. The financial and sexual scandals that arose have led to comparisons with Rasputin, scientologist L. Ron Hubbard and Jamestown fanatic Jim Jones. The fact that Wilson first gained his prestige and power as an writer is generally overshadowed by his later reputation as a scoundrel.
There was never a more outrageous charlatan in B.C. history than Edward Arthur Wilson, the English sea captain and occultist who became The Brother XII (aka “Brother Twelve”).
The Brother XII succeeded in bilking his followers of a fortune before he fled court challenges and possible jail terms in the early 1930s, accompanied by his dictatorial and fraudulent paramour, Madame Zee, who intimidated colony members with her riding crop.
But his biographer John Oliphant has retained a more sympathetic view after many years of research. “He was the forerunner of today’s New Age,” Oliphant says. Easily the most in-depth study of The Brother XII is John Oliphant’s ten-years-in-the-making biography, Brother Twelve: The Incredible Story of Canada’s False Prophet (1991), republished in an expanded edition by Oliphant in 2006. Pearl Luke has written a fictionalized portrait of Wilson’s mistress, Madame Zee (2006). Jack Hodgins’ breakthrough novel, The Invention of the World (1977), has a character very loosely based on Wilson.
Wilson first came to Victoria, B.C., around 1910, working as the driver of a delivery wagon. In his book Foundations, Letters and Teachings (1927) he claims to have undergone a mystical Ceremony of Dedication in 1912 that appointed him as a seeker and bringer of truth. He was a member of the Theosophical Society from 1913 to 1918. In Victoria, Wilson also worked as a clerk in the Dominion Express office, handling the Wells Fargo account, until he requested an exorbitant pay increase to match the salary of the president of the Canadian Pacific Railway. He left Victoria in 1914.
Wilson supposedly apprenticed with the Royal Navy and earned his living as a merchant mariner until the 1920s. Abandoning his wife and children, he claimed to have heard the voice of an Egyptian deity while he was destitute in southern France. In Genoa, Italy, by the process of automatic writing, he received the text for his book The Three Truths from a mystical master he called the Twelfth Brother of the Great White Lodge. His Master instructed him to adopt the moniker The Brother XII. The Great White Lodge consisted of twelve groups around the globe who represented the twelve astrological houses.
Wilson gained followers in England in 1926 with his series of articles in The Occult Review in which he foretold Armageddon. Heeding The Brother XII’s prophecies, a contingent of about twelve mostly wealthy and well-educated followers arrived on Vancouver Island with Wilson, via Southampton, in the spring of 1927. They were encouraged to surrender all their earthly possessions to him.
One of the first dwellings built at Cedar-by-the-Sea, according to journalist B.A. McKelvie, who visited in 1928, was the House of Mystery into which only The Brother XII was allowed to enter. By establishing his Aquarian Foundation, Wilson believed he was carrying forward the work of Madame H.P. Blavatsky, a founder of the Theosophical Society, and welcoming the new age of Aquarius.
Approximately two thousand well-to-do and prominent American, British and Canadian seekers of truth enrolled in the movement for the privilege of sitting beneath the Tree of Wisdom, a moss-draped maple tree, where The Brother XII held court.
British Columbia’s most fantastic cult leader known to his followers as the Brother, XII, Edward Arthur Wilson was a theosophical leader who operated a spiritual community on southern Vancouver Island in the late 1920s and early 1930s. As a result, Wilson has been dubbed Canada’s False Messiah or False Prophet.
Initially Wilson was respected as “a little brown leaf of a man with mesmeric eyes, a large heart and a rare spirit” (according to Vancouver lawyer Edward Lucas), but he became increasingly paranoic and self-delusionary, fraudulently terrorizing his followers with a paramour named Madame Zee who notoriously intimidated his colony members with her riding crop.
Various articles and newspaper reports have referred to “Brother Twelve” over the years, including Howard O’Hagan’s ‘The Weird and Savage Cult of Brother 12′ in Maclean’s magazine, and Jack Hodgins’ first novel The Invention of the World provides a comic spin-off loosely inspired by Wilson, but by far the most in-depth study of The Brother, XII was conducted by John Oliphant of Vancouver. As well, Pearl Luke of Salt Spring Island has written an almost entirely fictionalized portrait of his mistress entitled Madame Zee.
Early biographical details are sketchy. ‘Captain’ Edward Arthur Wilson could have been born in Birmingham, England in 1878. According to an unreliable biography by his purported brother Herbert Emmerson Wilson, he might have been born as early as 1871. There is no documentation. He claimed to be the son of an Indian princess, born in India. He was reared in England within the Catholic Apostolic Church whose congregration fervently awaited the Second Advent.
Wilson first came to Victoria, B.C. around 1910, first working as the driver of a delivery wagon. In his book called Foundations, Letters and Teachings, he claims to have undergone a mystical Ceremony of Dedication in 1912 that appointed him as a seeker and bringer of truth. He became interested in the occult and joined the Theosophical Society from January 6, 1913, remaining a member until June 30, 1918.
In Victoria, Wilson also worked as a clerk in the Dominion Express office on Government Street, handling the Wells Fargo account, until he requested an exhorbitant pay increase to match the salary of the President of the Canadian Pacific Railway. He left Victoria in 1914.
Wilson supposedly apprenticed as a Royal Navy windjammer and earned his living as a merchant mariner until the 1920s. Abandoning his wife and children, he claimed to have heard the voice of an Egyptian diety while he was destitute in southern France. There, in 1924, he underwent a second Ceremony of Dedication.
Almost one year later, in Genoa, Italy, by the process of ‘automatic writing’, he received the text for his book The Three Truths from a mystical master he called the Twelfth Brother of the Great White Lodge. His Master instructed him to adopt the moniker The Brother, XII. The Great White Lodge consisted of twelve groups around the globe who represented the twelve astrological houses.
Wilson gained followers in England in 1926 by publishing a series of articles in The Occult Review in which he foretold Armageddon. In The Occult Review he debated spiritual issues with the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. His movement gained momentum with his publication of a pamphlet in 1926 called ‘A Message from the Masters of The Wisdom’.
In a 2012 reprint of Wilson’s Foundation Letters and Teachings (1927), biographer Oliphant notes that Wilson’s prophetic essay on the downfall of western civilization, ‘The Tocsin,’ is the only article ever published twice in The Occult Review, first in July of 1926, then in June of 1933 with an accompanying editorial, ‘Brother XII Loses His Way.’
Heeding The Brother, XII’s prophecies, a contingent of about twelve mostly wealthy and well-educated followers arrived on Vancouver Island with Wilson, via Southampton, in the spring of 1927. They set about hiring local workers to construct mostly expensive houses on 200 acres located a few miles south of Nanaimo, on the coast, with a view towards the DeCourcey and Valdes Islands. In order to have the privilege of living near their leader, followers were encouraged to surrender all their earthly possessions to him. One of the first dwellings built at Cedar-by-the-Sea, according to journalist B.A. McKelvie who visited in 1928, was the ‘House of Mystery’ into which only Wilson, The Brother, XII, was allowed to enter. By establishing his Aquarian Foundation, Wilson believed he was carrying forward the work of Madame H.P. Blavatsky, a founder of the Theosophical Society, and also welcoming the new age of Aquarius.
Over the next several years approximately 2,000 well-to-do and prominent American, British and Canadian enrolled in the movement and were enveigled to give substantial funds for the privilege of sitting beneath the Tree of Wisdom, a moss-draped maple tree, where the Brother, XII held court. One of the Governors on the board of the Aquarian Foundation, J.S. Benner, secretary-general of the Foundation for the eastern U.S., was the publisher of The Sun in Akron, Ohio. Wilson’s elitist opinions were sometimes printed in various newspapers, including Vancouver dailies. Other supplicants included English occultist Sir Kenneth MacKenzie, millionaire organ manufacturer Maurice von Platten of Chicago, Toronto newsman George Hubbard and Saturday Evening Post writer Will Levengton Comfort. Wilson wrote to his other followers requesting funds to build a ‘City of Refuge’ at Cedar-at-the-Sea and many responded. One lawyer in Topeka, Kansas wired $10,000. But instead of building the City of Refuge at Cedar-by-the-Sea, Wilson took $25,000 from a rich widow in Asheville, North Carolina named Mary Connally and purchased 400 acres on nearby Valdes Island for his elite Mandieh Settlement. This would serve as an ‘ashrama’ or school of the occult.
Also in 1928, ‘Brother Twelve’ (as he’s now commonly but incorrectly called) fielded his own candidate in the U.S. Presidential elections. That same year, six of the seven governors of the Foundation revolted against his rule, alleging theft of funds. They claimed that Wilson, president of the Foundation for life, had established Mandieh as a private venture. The cultists were also upset by Wilson’s claim that he was destined to propagate the world’s next great spiritual teacher with a young, beautiful wife of a wealthy physician, Myrtle Baumgartner, with whom he was conducting an affair. Wilson had met Mrs. Baumgartner on a train trip from Seattle to Chicago. When his followers failed to endorse his belief that he and Myrtle were reincarnations of the Egyptian gods Osiris and Isis, Wilson planned his alternate headquarters on Valdes Island partially to get away from the turmoil. On Valdes, he and Myrtle would raise the new World Teacher.
Wilson’s followers commenced legal proceedings against Osiris, Judge of the Dead, Potentate of the Kingdom of Ghosts, etc., led by the Secretary of the Foundation, Robert England. In turn, Wilson counter-charged that England had embezzled $2,800. The case against Wilson was heard in Nanaimo by Magistrate Beevor-Potts for two months. Witnesses arrived to the high profile trial clutching magic stones to protect them from their leader’s evil eye. Somehow Robert England disappeared within 24 hours of his scheduled testimony against Wilson. The case dissolved when the widow Connally arrived on the scene and declared her $25,000 or $30,000 (accounts vary) had been a personal gift to Wilson to “use as he thought fit”. The jury was forced to return “no true bill”, meaning Wilson was exonnerated. Most of the dissenters left Vancouver Island. Among the defectors was Comfort, the successful short story writer who had edited the Foundation newsletter, The Glass Hive, from April 1927 until he left in 1928. On November 15, 1929 the government took action against the Aquarian Foundation Company of Cedar and cancelled the charter of the company. A press release stated, “It is reported at the Attorney-General’s office that some of the members of this strange sect are now establishing a new community on a nearby island. Their activities will be watched by the Government.”
Wilson regrouped. Among his new followers was a wealthy poultry farmer from Florida, Roger Painter, who arrived with his wife, Mabel Skottowe, and contributed $90,000. Mrs. Connally lived on and off at the new settlement, contributing as much as $250,000 overall, according to one estimate. For $10,000, Wilson had purchased three small islands of the DeCourcey Group, planning to build his City of Refuge on two of them. Messianic as ever, Wilson planned a schoolhouse to foster a New Age elite. “We have a small school for the training of a few…” he wrote. “We have reason to believe that many advanced souls will be born into the world in the near future–some are already born and are now children of eight or nine or ten years of age. They are of the new type, spiritually and psychologically and our hope is to give them such training as is fitted to them. These children are (and will be) born to parents who are already serving the Cause.” Unfortunately most of Wilson’s monied servants of the Cause were past child-rearing age. When Myrtle, known disparagingly to some as the ‘Magdalene from Chicago’, suffered a second miscarriage, then a mental breakdown, Wilson blamed his followers for having insufficient sincerity. Myrtle fled back to New York state where her husband divorced her.
Unphased, Wilson coupled with Mabel Skottowe who also served as his secretary after her arrival in 1929. Born Mabel Rowbotham, a.k.a. Madame Zee, this new mistress proceeded to call down curses from heaven upon any Aquarians who displeased her. Wilson and the reputedly wrathful Madame Zee policed three settlements, each representing a different level of spiritual evolution. According to some reports, elderly followers worked 20-hour shifts in fields or were ordered to row alone across miles of dangerous waters. A 76-year-old former schoolteacher, Sarah Tuckett, attempted suicide after beatings and overwork. After the faithful Mrs. Connally attempted to retrieve some of her money in a 1929 lawsuit and failed, she was taken from her house and forced to live in an almost uninhabitable shack on Valdes Island, with Mrs. Painter appointed as her watchdog.
Wilson’s increasingly tyrannical regime was designed to create a ‘Centre of Safety’ to protect an international conspiracy led by Jews, Roman Catholics and communists. By June, 1932, the Aquarians collectively rebelled and decided to continue without the Brother, XII, or Madame Zee, who was also called Auriel or Zura de Valdes. When Wilson and his consort returned from a trip to England in 1933, they banished 12 of 56 malcontents, including Mrs. Connally and the Painters. In the spring of 1993, Mrs. Connally and others sued. The courts quickly awarded Mrs. Connally $37,000 less $10,000 for her ownership of the DeCourcy Group of islands and Valdes Island. She remained on Valdes Island with a caretaker. Alfred Barley gained $14,000 and legal title to the property at Cedar.
Before they left, the Brother, XII and Madame Zee destroyed much of the furniture, equipment and a Foundation yacht called The Lady Royal. They sailed away on their own yacht, the Kunathen, allegedly carrying 40 quart jars full of gold coins and other funds worth approximately $400,000. They apparently reached Switzerland where Wilson, using the alias Julian Churton Skottowe, reputedly died in Neuchatel in 1934; or else his death certificate was faked. The fate of Madame Zee has remained a mystery. Possibly the couple lived happily ever after.
When Mrs. Connally left Valdes Island to live in a North Carolina nursing home in 1941, her caretaker, Sam Grunall, searched the property and found an old concrete vault. It contained some tarpaper and a scribbled message from Edward Arthur Wilson: “For fools and traitors, nothing!”
John Oliphant regained the rights to his biography and republished it under his own imprint, with 40 more illustrations and some revisions, in 2006.
The Three Truths (The Camelot Press, 1927?)
The Aquarian Foundation (Ohio: 1927)
Foundation Letters and Teachings (Ohio: 1927; York Beach, ME: The Teitan Press 2012)
The End of the Days (Nanaimo: 1928)
Unsigned Letters from an Elder Brother (London: 1930)
Primer of Astrology for Children (Kessinger Publishing, 1930; 2003)
BOOKS ABOUT BROTHER TWELVE
Canada’s False Prophet: The Notorious Brother Twelve (Simon & Schuster, 1967) by Herbert Emmerson Wilson
The Devil of Decourcey Island: The Brother XII (Victoria: Porcepic Books, 1989) by Charles Lillard, Ron MacIsaac and Don Clark. See Lillard entry.
Brother Twelve: The Incredible Story of Canada’s False Prophet and His Doomed Cult of Gold, Sex, and Black Magic (M&S 1992) by John Oliphant. Republished Halifax: Twelfth House Press, 2006 [See Oliphant entry]
Brother XII’s Letter (Victoria: Ruddy Duck Press, 2004) by Philip Symons.
from BCBW, Autumn 1991
Brother Twelve: Master of the Universe
British Columbia is scattered with collective ghosts, the memories of groups of people who have come together to fulfill some political or dubiously spiritual aim and have tragically failed.
There was the great Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood in which 6,000 Doukhobors lived for decades in the Kootenays until a combination of bad leadership and the Depression defeated them.
There was also the more secular community of Finnish socialists called Sointula (meaning ‘Harmony’) on Malcolm Island and through which at least two thousand people passed before it finally sank into bankruptcy, mainly through the inability of intellectuals to take advantage of the boundless natural resources.
And there were many smaller groups, particularly of religious cultists. I remember being shown, when I first reached Sooke on Vancouver Island in 1949, an area of tangled alder wood within which a few tumbling wooden buildings were still visible, and being told the tale of how solid Ohio farmers had sold their buildings and everything else to follow some Pied Piper with a message, who in the end absconded with what was left of the funds and left them bare to the winds.
I also heard of the notorious Brother Twelve whose activities at Cedar-on-Sea and on the Gulf Islands of Valdes and de Courcy had provided sensational copy for the transcontinental press and sensational scenes in the Nanaimo courtroom of Magistrate Beevor-Potts (who made up with military sternness for the humanity displayed a little farther north by Magistrate HaigBrown at Campbell River).
Vancouver Island’s Brother Twelve legend has been picked up by writers such as Jack Hodgins, whose fanciful depiction of Brother Twelve appears in the novel The Invention of the World.
JOHN OLIPHANT’S BROTHER TWELVE: the Incredible Story of Canada’s False Prophet (M&S $29.95) is an ambitious book which arouses the collective ghost of a company of credulous and unfortunate people who were defrauded and maltreated in the name of higher things. At the heart of it is a malign core, shining as darkly as a poison-filled Borgia jewel. That core, that unassailably armoured individuality, was Edward Arthur Wilson.
Wilson was an expert mariner turned into a navigator of souls, and claiming to act, under his cult name of Brother Twelve, as emissary of the Hidden Master of the White Lodge, whose figures, created in the Theosophical imagination, were said to have been consulted long ago by the famous occultist Madame Blavatsky. Brother Twelve purported to have the wisdom that can save humanity.
Wilson, a middle-class English North Countryman, had in fact spent a great deal of his early manhood in British Columbia, working as a jack-of-all-trades—sometimes stablehand, sometimes express company agent, sometimes bookkeeper—and this may have been why he picked the southern part of the province as the centre for what he would regard as his life’s work.
In later years Wilson was not eager to admit his B.C. connections when he was establishing himself in England as a knowledgeable occultist, knotting together contacts in astrological circles and among those who felt the need for the instructions of Hidden Masters and their like to compensate for their own spiritual and intellectual insecurity.
BY 1927 BROTHER TWELVE WAS READY TO establish his Aquarian Foundation, dedicated to the occult work of creating a new world order and developing a new type of humanity fit to carry out the tasks ordained by the Masters. At its height, the Foundation claimed to have about 2,000 members, selected largely for the money they could devote to the Foundation coffers.
Later in 1927 Brother Twelve and some English disciples set off for British Columbia which the Masters had decreed must be the physical centre of the Work. Land at Cedar-on-Sea was selected and bought with borrowed money. New members began to arrive from California, where Brother Twelve always had his strongest support among the occultists and the astrological fraternity.
By no means were all Brother Twelve followers the kind of weak, dependent people who often enter communities of this kind. They included capable business men, tough-minded lawyers, and somewhat ruthless adventurers attracted by the charisma of the slimbearded Englishman who showed an almost naval efficiency in the way he built up his little occult papacy on Vancouver Island. Some of them went to great sacrifice and changed their lives completely, like the North Carolinian heiress Mary Connally, who gave large sums to Brother Twelve to spend as he saw fit, and who came to live in the colony and endured atrocious treatment when it seemed her funds were running out.
It became a true Potemkin Village, a facade of noble ideals and high hopes, with behind it the greed and sadism of the leaders (for Brother Twelve was later joined by a sinister woman who called herself Madame Zed). The followers were overworked and starved as they were “tested” for spiritual worthiness.
The Aquarian experiment spread to Valdes and the de Courcy Islands, as Brother Twelve resolutely turned every penny he could scrape together into gold coins which he sealed into Mason jars with paraffin wax and squirreled away on his islands.
Brother Twelve’s sexual extravagances complicated the situation. One unfortunate woman was talked of as the Isis to Wilson s Osiris, but her successive miscarriages as she tried valiantly to reincarnate the god Horus led to mental breakdown and virtual expulsion.
All this troubled the followers as well as the authorities (Premier Tolmie debated in cabinet what might be done with this embarrassing community) and in the end the discontented hired a lawyer. They did so with fear and trepidation because most believed Brother Twelve was capable of black magic. Eventually they won a judgement that returned most of their money.
It was a Pyrrhic victory; Brother Twelve vandalized the buildings and fled in his tugboat, presumably with his pots of gold. He reached Europe and his death was registered in Switzerland in 1934. But was it, like so much in his life, faked?
There is interesting evidence that Brother Twelve may have lived on, his death falsely certified by a friendly (or blackmailed) physician.
JOHN OLIPHANT HAS RESEARCHED WELL AND deeply, probably turning up all the documentation that is available on Brother Twelve, though we are still faced with the central enigma of Edward Arthur Wilson. In his own occult field he was clearly adept, and he wrote a persuasive prose to go with his charismatic personality. He had the kind of shipshape organizing mind one might expect of an old navigator. But how far was he a fraud and how far was he a sincere maniac?
Even followers Brother Twelve most mistrusted sometimes talked of him with affection. Oliphant, to his credit, offers us the situation; he does not set out to explain it, to pass judgements. This open nature of the book is its great virtue.
Oliphant is neither a latter-day apologist nor a scoffer; he treats even the apparently irrational fears of the followers with respect. And he makes plausible two extraordinary characters, right out of melodrama, in Brother Twelve and Madame Zed.
It strikes me that in these pages there will be material for a good deal of local fiction. We are all tempted by the enigmatic, by that voice whispering from another text about human evil, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”