The stench of death hung heavy along South 11th Street in 1905. The smell had grown so bad that neighbors had gone to the local police district to complain. They claimed that a crazed man and woman were guarding a dead body inside a row house near Washington Avenue. They had been barring the door for weeks and, judging by the smell, the corpse had entered a state of advanced decay. There were flies covering the shutters of a rear bedroom of the building.
But they also recounted unbelievable details. Strange rituals went on inside and the residents of the home, which they had for years referred to as “House of Mystery,” worshipped a woman who they said could grant eternal life. …
On South 11th Street, they would find two gaunt and aged guardians barring the entrance to a row house that reeked of death. Even from the doorway it was clear the brick home had been transformed into a temple, replete with an alter and portraits of a woman called “Mirra Mitta” stationed astride Jesus Christ.
The elderly pair, Caroline Lang and John Rapp, said they were the last two followers of this woman, who they described as the manifestation of the biblical Holy Spirit made real on Earth. Although Mirra Mitta had died nearly two decades earlier, they had been here ever since, fasting, praying, and awaiting their goddess’ return, awaiting eternal life. For years, Lang, who called herself a high priestess, had barely left the house. …
Ryan Susurrus, an expert and lecturer on cults in Philadelphia, says that Meister was in many ways a product of her time. In the mid-19th century, interest in the occult, seances, and esoteric religion was sweeping across Europe and North America. The spread of Enlightenment ideas, the introduction of new belief systems through the spread of colonialism, and the prevalence of death in new, industrialized urban centers all contributed to this new interest in the unknown.
“A lot of people aren’t aware that spiritualism and seances were once commonplace here. This was a cottage industry. And there was a lot of focus on immortality and of one person being the conduit to mastering death and what’s beyond, very much like a medium,” Susurrus says. “People saw so much death in their lives, then. Someone who says, ‘I’m the mainline to immortality and conquering death and its only through me that you’ll access that,’ that was so appealing.” …
If Meister learned anything from these embarrassing public ordeals it was only the necessity of discretion. At this point, Anna Meister disappears from public record, never to be seen again.
Her birth name would not be mentioned in newsprint again until after her death nearly three decades later, the head of a powerful cult that had been operating in secret, known as the “Holy Ghost Society.”
By then she would only be known as “Jehovah Elimar Mirra Mitta”–“The Daughter of Jehovah, Mirra Mitta”–a name she had taken to her grave.
I’m in transit to Chicago and then South Bend today for Notre Dame’s “Higher Powers” fall conference, well-timed for the start of November and a month traditionally focused on remembrance of the dead and prayer for their souls. I think at least part of the problem with the occult, and a reason for prayer for Mirra Mitta and those like her, is the problem we have of confusing an awareness of the transcendent with being ourselves the cause of or pathway to transcendence.
(An endearing little moment in the airport, heard over the speaker at one of the gates: “As your unofficial sponsor of Halloween, JetBlue is now welcoming priority passengers including ghosts, goblins, ghouls, and zombies to board at this time.”)