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Chapter X. — The Miracle Men

page 130

Chapter X.
The Miracle Men

When “The Miracle Man” was screened in Wellington, sometime in the Dark Ages, as a silent film, I can remember weeping about it. When they rehashed it and served it up as a talkie, a couple of years gone by, it was strangely and hideously wrong. This, for once, may not have been so much the fault of Hollywood, as that a slight malaise had been occasioned by a surfeit of Miracle Men. They find New Zealand an easy mark. As a nation, we seem to be too repressed, and consequently seize on almost any pretext for making communal fools of ourselves.

Worthington, of the Temple of Truth, one-time idol of Christchurch, was well before my time. Christchurch, though the most reserved of New Zealand cities, has something of a weakness for the cranky and spectacular in religion. The Temple, with Worthington as prophetic a figure to the outward eye as one of the old Mormon patriarchs, was for a brief while a sort of Mecca among those who can swallow the raw stuff of evangelism neat.

It was Worthington's latest wife, a strange and beautiful woman, who had been led by the prophet into the blackest misfortune, who brought about his downfall. The side of the prophet's character which was not made apparent at public meetings, but which was apparently responsible for an unexpected increase in the population of the city, ended up in a prison sentence for him in Australia. But his partner did not win much happiness out of the ruins. She died, by her own hand.

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The late J. M. Hickson, of much more respectable venue and imported hither under the unimpeachable aegis of the Church of England, was the first of a long line of healers. It is noteworthy that no other has been sponsored by the Church of England since the Hickson mission, which filled the Town Halls at every centre, but which somehow revealed much less of “the power and the glory” than had been hopefully anticipated. There were “cures”—there are after every such campaign. Hickson as a spiritual type was unimpressive. He stayed at good hotels, ate enormously and in something of a hurry. In fact, hurry might be said to be the keynote of the impression he made in New Zealand, especially upon one lady who was greatly amused to hear, at a public meeting, the poignant if not prophetic whisper, “Make those b—s in front hurry along.”

It is only fair to say that there are perfectly honest New Zealand people who received genuine benefit in health after the Hickson mission, and who, moreover, have sustained this improvement.

There were numerous other alleged cases of “healing” after another evangelist's visit. Recovery from blindness and deafness were among the minor claims. I was investigating them for a paper. There seemed to be a good deal more “touch” than healing about, when one got down to cold facts. And the tissue of lies and exaggerations hopefully put forward by the faithful was extraordinary. None of them had anything to gain by lying—except the momentary excitement of the limelight. That was sufficient incentive.

The coldest-blooded and most astonishing “clean up” I have ever seen worked in the name of “healing” was not brought to New Zealand by a man, but by a woman. Some six years ago Sister Phoebe Holmes, American in accent and technique, shone on the Wellington horizon. They fell for her like lead.

I have met fabricators, amateur and professional, and many of them were very good indeed, but to page 132 Sister Phoebe I would unhesitatingly hand over the laurel wreath. She told things that an infant in arms would have received with scepticism, without once batting an eyelash herself.

For instance: she was American, she talked American, she would have been singled out as an American had she been mixed up with a panorama representing the League of Nations. Yet from her headquarters, the Midland Hotel, was wafted a rumour that she was really an English lady of title.

Interviewing Sister Phoebe, I asked her point-blank if this were indeed the case. A shrewd glance. .… Sister Phoebe weighed the pros and cons of the soft impeachment, then decided that a newspaper confession of her titled estate was too good a thing to miss. She explained that the title was there all right, but was not used on her present campaign.

Sister Phoebe and a woman companion, who was invariably known as “Darling,” lived in some state, and the fresh-complexioned, sharp-eyed healer, whose masses of beautiful snow-white hair may or may not have been authentic, dressed like a femme du monde. Herplatform appearances were picturesque. .

She made the mistake of renting her hall in the same building which sheltered a certain rather sceptical political office. Some of her “psychology” classes were intended for the strictest privacy, only initiates being permitted to enter. But there was a tiny gallery, from which those connected with the afore-mentioned office could and did see everything that eventuated. Moreover, one young lady, who seemed to dislike the coining of easy money by a miracle woman from afar, and whom I met at the above-mentioned office, took some trouble to go through a waste-paper basket after Sister Phoebe's meetings, at which written questions were invariably handed up. Delicate question: “Dear Sister Phoebe, I have taken your herb mixture for two nights. No use. May I take a pill?”

The business end of this mission was adroitly page 133 handled. Sister Phoebe offered two separate courses. One was “psychology”: one was the practical application thereof. For one course, she informed me, the charge was five guineas: for the second, seven guineas was considered adequate. She had at least three hundred “initiates” in Wellington. Later she carried her campaign to the other centres. A little simple multiplication should reveal whether or not healing pays.

It might be said that psychology advances no extravagant claims of physical healing. Sister Phoebe informed me that she was able to cure miners' pthisis and cancer.

At least one member of a most important Wellington municipal body was among the devoted little band who, at Sister Phoebe's mandate, removed their coats and walked shirt-sleeved, at a smart trot, round a public hall, repeating the following little slogan:

“To-day I will be happy,
To-day I will be glad,
In every way I'll make to-day
The best day I have had.”

Words were accompanied, not by music, but by a really weird process of arm-flapping. It made the shirt-sleeved devotees look, to an innocent bystander, very much like intoxicated roosters: but I suppose it brought them spiritual comfort.

Elsie May Benedict, another of the miracle-workers, advertised lectures for women only on “The Psychology of Love,” and packed the Town Halls at 6/- a seat. She then read extracts from the poems of Ella Wheeler Wilcox, to a grievously disappointed audience.

Stephen Jeffreys, also ticketed “evangelist,” and brought out to New Zealand more or less under Pentecostal auspices, was easier and less expensive. His public “healing” was accomplished by the “laying on of hands.” To get any further with him, you had to page 134 go into a little room behind his hall and acknowledge yourself saved. His meetings in New Zealand were not particularly successful. That most enterprising and-on some subjects—outspoken paper, Truth, took a rather especial dislike to him, and made no secret of it. Its reporters attempted to interview him on board ship on his arrival. Mr. Jeffreys found discretion the better part of valour. On this occasion he was wrong. A feud began. Whether he made much of a profit on the trip is doubtful. He rented the big, barn-like Winter Show buildings in Wellington to find room for an audience. It was unlucky that a row of reporters from the above-mentioned journal turned up, not quite in reverent mood.… .

Another woman evangelist—or “psychologist”— more things are done in psychology's name than ever that much-abused science dreams of—was a big, immaculately-tailored woman, and with her everywhere she toted a minute, well-behaved husband. I heard a rather lovely comment on these two. “She,” said a member of one audience, “was such a perfect gentleman—and he was such a little lady.”

The classic example of evangelism, plus healing powers, as far as this country is concerned, is Mr. A. H. Dallimore, otherwise “Brother” Dallimore. Curiously enough, it was publicity that raised Mr. Dallimore from the financially dead to the ranks attained only by the quick—not to say slick.

A rather good-looking man, in early middle age, and with fine blue eyes in a clean-shaven face, Dallimore has childhood associations with New Zealand. He lived in the Taranaki district, then went to America, far up in Alaska spent years connected with the timber industry, drifted down to an American city, fell on hard times, was converted, and forthwith roped in as a sort of spare part in a wellknown evangelist's crusade.

Dallimore claims to have raised the dead, both human and animal. His resurrected corpse— page 135 feminine—is, unfortunately, in San Francisco, and though he has stated on diverse occasions that a nurse will vouch for the thoroughly dead condition of the unhappy lady, no documentary evidence has as yet been forthcoming. It is quite understood, however, throughout the length and breadth of the Auckland province, that “Brother” Dallimore can, an he list, resurrect anything that goes on four feet or even on two and a pair of wings. Dallimore's resurrected chicken is a classic of healing, and no doubt there will be many able and willing to substantiate these extraordinary conquests of the usual laws of Nature.

An early Dallimore meeting was described, in fair and quite friendly fashion, in an Auckland weekly publication. Nobody could have foreseen that as a result a neap tide of curiosity was to set in, sweeping the evangelist into a central position in the Town Hall, where meetings eventually became such burlesque and tragedy combined that the City Council was obliged to refuse further use of the hall.

From a few weekly paper articles Dallimore was accepted as a fitting topic for columns in both the Auckland daily papers, neither of which can very well go so far as to claim originality for a strong point. The little hall in East Street was a thing of the past. St. James' Theatre, with its garish red and blue Neon lighting, alternated with the Town Hall as the setting for amazing scenes.

In the body of the Town Hall I have watched whilst men and women, old and young, smeared on the forehead with “sacred oil,” in which the evangelist had dipped his fingers, crashed backwards, apparently unconscious, to the floor. Some lay still for hours. Others jerked and twitched hysterically. A young girl, whose head had hit the uncarpeted wooden platform, sobbed so bitterly as she lay there that, much to the annoyance of a bodyguard of ushers, I insisted on making sure that she was page 136 physically undamaged. That nobody was carried away from one of the “Revival Fire” meetings with a cracked skull was more good luck than good management. Anticipating the collapse of the devotee at his “touch,” Dallimore had a stalwart usher in the rear, to catch the “body” as it fell. But sometimes the fall came sooner than was anticipated, and full many an ugly bruise must have been a trophy of those meetings. Sometimes the postures of abandon in which the fallen lay were a little humorous. “Brother” Dallimore's wife and assistant, a plump little ever-smiling body, who ran about holding “sacred oil” (olive) in a convenient receptacle, used at first to be obviously bothered by this, and made discreet rounds pulling down skirts.

Dallimore was the first New Zealand “healer” to institute long-distance “cures” by means of blessed handkerchiefs. The process was simple. Tackling any complaint, from a cold in the head to rigor mortis, he blessed a handkerchief sent in, returned it, instructing the bearer to see that it was laid on the seat of the trouble. The vogue for blessed handkerchiefs is still quite popular.… The real glory of the Revival Fire crusade, train-loads of white-robed pilgrims coming to Auckland for baptism, Mr. Dallimore in white “ducks” immersing large ladies in the Tepid Baths, Auckland's senior magistrate, Mr. Cutten, S.M., an acknowledged defender of the Dallimore faith, seems to have died down a little. And more than a little interest was taken in Dallimore's three cars, his new and impressive residence, his obvious distaste for the base degrees and small collections by which he did ascend. Somehow, a little too much gold was laid on the once excellent gingerbread. To-day Revival Fire is advertised in appropriately scarlet letters on gigantic street hoardings… . . but things are not quite what they were, nor is the old glory likely to return.

Religion didn't always enter into the ken of the miracle men-though, unfortunately for God, it is page 137 regarded as the correct finishing touch by most of them. Hypnotism, however, has its devotees in New Zealand, and for a while Auckland boasted a College of Hypnotism. The idea of this institution was that almost anyone could be trained in Svengali's specialty, and thereupon set forth to turn natural laws into interesting if unnatural phenomena. The moving spirit of this bright scheme was a foreigner, Kimbel yclept. With three colleagues, he rented rooms in Vulcan Buildings, advertised for subjects: whereof, at the first assembly, I was one.

Very tall, very dark, very black of eye and excitable of manner is Mr. Kimbel. His hypnotism was without tears. A little row of subjects, mixed as to age and sex, were one by one led into another room, put under the 'fluence. The hypnotic process consisted mainly in looking Mr. Kimbel straight in one eye: then in gently closing one's own orbs, and standing in an attitude of patience whilst Svengali breathed stealthily in one's ear, “You can't open your eyes… . You can't open your eyes.” Seeing that the opening of eyes was obviously not what was wanted at this juncture, I was obliging, and passed on as a good subject: but an unsophisticated girl friend, who had come along too, had far less self-control, and, on being told that she couldn't open her bonny brown eyes, instantly winked at Svengali. She was turned down for flippancy. I, on the other hand, was engaged on promise of remuneration 5/- a night, increasing to quite imposing sums in the event of a platform appearance. The hypnotic tests, selecting articles blindfold, telling cards out of a pack, were of the simplest: anyone who has bothered to try out the most elementary experiments in telepathy would get through with flying colours… . but none the less, I won special commendation. The dream of Mr. Kimbel's life, so he wistfully remarked, was a platform display of hypnotic rites, with a woman subject as the pièce de resistance. He claimed that astonishing feats of surgery could be page 138 performed whilst a subject was in hypnotic trance, and that cataleptic rigour would allow experiments many and strange to be carried out on the vile body in public halls. I never got that far, but public performances there duly were, and for a time Mr. Kimbel's name figured in obscure corners of the newspapers, both in his Svengali capacity and with reference to his later association with an economic society. He was trained, by the way, at a German institute of hypnotism.

Mr. Kimbel may have been in grim earnest: not so the excellent “Raymond,” who appeared as a star hypnotic turn in the Plaza Theatre, Auckland. Raymond put on a fairly good show. The main items were the wandering of a blindfolded damsel through the darkened theatre, where she selected apparently unknown members of the audience on demand, then made her way with amazing surety down difficult flights of stairs, and the marathon “hypnotic trance” of two youths, whose comatose forms were on view, steeped in slumbers sweet, in the window of a Queen's Arcade shop.

It was these two youths who finally removed Raymond from Auckland's ken. They dropped into our office and explained.… . Raymond, doing quite well as a hypnotist, had spoiled his ship for a ha'porth of tar. Apparently a rather covetous little man—fat, urbane, oily in appearance, and a barber by profession—he had recruited two unemployed lads as his accomplices in the “trance” ramp. But, once the show had been given, he forgot to pay them. He continued to forget; made threats of police action when their demands became insistent. Even a hypnotist's labourer is worthy of his hire, especially when he has gone without food in the said hypnotist's interests for a period not likely to meet with approval in a civilized country. Feeling much that way about it, Raymond's two dupes made their statement. Both were little more than boys, and both out of a job. They had been offered com- page 139 fortable remuneration—-£10 for the older, £5 for his companion—if they would take part, heart and soul, in the “hypnotic” demonstrations.

The marathon trance in Queen's Arcade was to have been broken by refreshments at opportune moments. As it turned out, a youth lay there for 48 hours, sustained by one smuggled saveloy and a hastily-swallowed cup of tea. Either curiosity was a little more on the watch than Raymond had anticipated, and so the hypnotist had shunned the unnecessary risk of feeding his apparently dormant lambs; or else the omission was an early sample of Raymond's economic habits. The “subject” was given sedative tablets before being taken into the window, simply commanded thereafter to lie still. The resurrection of the seemingly dead was due to take place on the Plaza stage. It went off without a hitch—but in the very wings of the theatre, the ravenous subject had threatened Raymond with exposure unless food of some kind should be promptly forthcoming.

Raymond's later suggestion of a five-days trance was received with the thermometer 'way down at zero. Demands for the wages promised became more insistent. Raymond used the convenient word “Blackmail.” The two youths told their tale of woe. It was quite convincing, and when asked for an explanation the alleged “hypnotist” made no serious attempt to disprove it. Nor would he give any demonstration of genuine hypnotic power. The position was complicated by the fact that he himself was no derelict, but a man in a perfectly good and well-paid profession, and attached to a large store which—as its owners were old friends and advertisers—our paper hardly wished to bring into any difficulty.

Raymond's parsimony cost him dear. He was given an opportunity to pay out what he owed to his unfortunate “subjects.” Failing that, a plain statement of the case was to be put before his employers. He chose the latter alternative, without so much as page 140 a word of regret. “Ah, well,” said he airily, “it's my wife and children, not I, who will suffer.” Which makes one wonder more and more as to what women will marry, and why.

But still, and for ever more, healers, hypnotists and “haves” can count on a first-rate audience in little New Zealand. I have only seen the crowd thoroughly annoyed on one occasion, and then healing didn't enter into the question, though hypnotism and a contravention of the laws of Nature did. The unfortunate victim was a Chinese, usefully named Ah Sin. (This was, however, a stage alias. His real name was Smith.) Ah Sin claimed to be an expert in “levitation.” His demonstration was at the old Wellington theatre then used for Fuller's vaudeville shows. He “levitated” his lady, a fair young European maiden, all right. But the invisible wires stuck, leaving the maiden in mid-air. Frantic gesticulations from the Chinese sorcerer.… It was no use. She wouldn't go up, and she wouldn't come down. The curtain fell, and the crowd demanded their money back.

Personally, I'd have paid double on request: for none of the others, beginning with Sister Phoebe, concluding with Brother Dallimore, has ever provided sheer, unadulterated mirth for the mere price of a theatre ticket.

Of course, Ah Sin was stupid. He should have done it all in the name of the Lord. Then, when his damsel got stuck in mid-air, he could quite easily have explained that her faith had failed her at an awkward moment.