The Ancient and Esoteric Order of the Jackalope

The Reverend May S. Pepper

A Good Thing to Die By

the Reverend May S. Pepper and Bright Eyes

Mary Ann Scannell was born on May 7, 1867 in Happy Hollow, a small community just outside of West Mansfield, Massachusetts, about halfway between Boston and Providence.

She was the oldest child of two poor Irish Catholic immigrants, Richard and Bridget Scannell. Unfortunately, Bridget Scannell was in poor health and died when little Mary Ann was only three years old… [record scratch]

Actually, Bridget didn’t die. She and Richard would eventually have four more children, none of whom are actually important to the rest of the story. I just wanted to let you know her parents were, you know, doing it.

Mary Ann was not particularly athletic, or pretty, or smart, or religious. She was unexceptional in every way, save one: she was attuned to the psychic plane. Once her father, who managed a cutlery factory, was all set to leave on business trip when young Mary Ann clung to his leg and refused to let him board the ship that would take him to New York. That frustrated her father’s business partner, who decided he would go on the trip instead. It was a fatal mistake. The ship sank to the bottom of the Atlantic, and all hands were lost… [record scratch]

None of that happened. Her father did not own a factory and did not have a business partner. He was an unskilled laborer who worked in a broom factory.

Eventually Mary Ann grew out up. She was no longer an out-of-shape, ugly, dumb child. No, she was an out-of-shape, ugly, dumb, teenager with a vivid imagination that manifested in strange ways. One of her hobbies was writing long letters to herself, which she told everyone were actually from lovestruck young men in far-off cities. (That’s right, she had boyfriend, a boyfriend who lived in Canada.)

In 1881 Bridget Scannell passed away, for realsies this time. Within a few months her father married again… this time to his wife’s sister, Mary Ann’s Aunt Margaret. The following year, her step-mother/aunt took her fifteen-year-old step-daughter/niece down to Narragansett to visit some family friends, Mr. & Mrs. Chase, recent converts to Spiritualism. While sleeping in their guest room she had her first encounter with a spirit. I’ll let Mary Ann tell the story in her own words:

I had retired, but was still wide awake. I became aware of a human form in the room, near the bed… There was something about it that differed from the person I knew… and I screamed. When I described the person I had seen, the family there said I had described one of their relatives, who had died — a person I had never seen, nor even heard of.

Mary E. Cadwallader, Mary S. Vanderbilt: A Twentieth Century Seer

The following night Mary Ann was visited by other spirits, who commanded her to stay with the Chases. The elderly couple spent three months training Mary Ann, who turned out to have great mediumistic powers… [record scratch]

How about this instead? One night Mary Ann went into a trance during dinner, spelled out her late mother’s name, and began describing deceased relatives of the Chases whom she had never met. (Though she may have seen their photos hanging on the wall.) Her hosts were impressed and asked the girl to stay with them so they could help develop her psychic powers.

It wasn’t long before Mary Ann was famed far and wide as a powerful medium. Alas, the community was still largely Christian. They considered Spiritualism to  be witchcraft, the devil’s work, and Mary Ann was ostracized. Richard Scannell even kicked his daughter out of the house, but offered to take her back if she renounced her new faith. She refused. There were some thing worth more than her father’s money… [record scratch]

Okay, her father didn’t actually have any money to offer, since, again, he was an unskilled laborer in a broom factory… [record scratch]

Apparently I need to back up further. After her father remarried, Mary Ann ran away from home and the spirit of her dead mother guided her to the Chases… [record scratch]

Here’s what actually happened. Bridget Scannell did die, not in 1881 when Mary Ann was 14, but in 1883 when Mary Ann was 16. Her father did marry her Aunt Margaret, and Mary Ann did run away from home. Not to the Chases, though, who didn’t actually exist. She just went down to Providence, where she made ends meet by working odd jobs.

The Shanghai Rooster

The Solomon Kenyons of Providence were a family of well-to-do farmers, socially prominent, and devout Spiritualists. In 1885 they went to the head of the local Spiritualist association, Mrs. Charles Whipple, and asked her to find them a “sturdy Irish girl” who could pitch in and do all of the “rough work” around the farm.

Mrs. Whipple brought them 18 year old Mary Ann Scannell, who was engaged as a “dairy maid” with the combined duties of a milkmaid and a domestic servant. Scannell, who at that point was nominally Catholic, took a great interest in her employers’ weird new religion. Mrs. Kenyon and her daughter Ellen were all to happy to explain it to her, in the hopes of snaring a new convert.

It wasn’t long before the Kenyons noticed what today we would call “poltergeist activity”: mysterious rapping and tapping noises, the disappearance and reappearance of small articles, the sudden and unexpected movement of furniture, that sort of thing. They soon discovered the source of these odd occurrences was their new servant girl, who had mediumistic powers and had been chosen to be the conduit of a great and terrible spirit… the spirit of the family’s Shanghai rooster. (That’s a type of fancy chicken.) From its vantage point in the chicken coop it could see everything that happened on the farm, and proved it by revealing secrets which only which only a rooster (or perhaps a snooping servant girl) would know.

The Kenyons were impressed, if a bit unsure why their servant girl was channeling the spirit of a prize-winning cock. They were relieved when the rooster left to go haunt someone else and was replaced by “the spirit of a dead Irishman who had wandered all the way from a graveyard in Dublin” just to bejabber at some Yankees. 

The Kenyons listened to Mary Ann with rapt fascination, breathlessly awaiting every new revelation from beyond the grave. Eventually they started inviting friends and neighbors over to listen. And then strangers. It wasn’t long before the young serving girl was invited to join the Spiritualist association, an offer which she gladly accepted. A disgusted Mrs. Whipple resigned in disgust. She couldn’t figure out why everyone she knew was falling for the obvious lies of a low-class Irish charlatan.

It wasn’t long before the scales started to fall from everyone else’s eyes. You see, Mary Ann was a charming little con artist… up to a point. Eventually her brazen greediness started to show. When she coveted a pretty white dress owned by a friend, she faked going into a trance and then told the friend that the spirits wanted her to have the dress. The friend refused to hand it over, and a third party who had witnessed the entire scene started yelling loudly that Mary Ann was a fraud.

She later used the exact same strategy to try and get laid. A local Catholic priest, Father Finnegan, had a handsome young nephew whom Mary Ann fancied. She went into a trance and told Finnegan that her spirit guide wanted his nephew to marry her. Needless to say the Catholic priest wasn’t exactly inclined to take advice from a heathen spirit… even if the heathen spirit was a fellow Irishman. 

Numerous incidents like these helped the Kenyons realize that Mary Ann was a fraud, and they fired her. It was probably for the best. Towards the end she had been too busy channeling spirits to do any of her chores.

She’s A Pepper

Mary Ann moved into a boarding house across town run by the Brow family. She became obsessed with their son, Edwin, and kept dropping hints from the spirits that the two of them should get together.

There were just three problems: Edwin did not believe in spirits, the attraction was not mutual, and he was already married. He had been trying to keep the marriage a secret, though, because he didn’t think his mother would approve of his wife. Working through Mary Ann, the spirits revealed Edwin’s secret marriage and then attempted to break it up. 

That didn’t work, and it wasn’t long before Mary Ann had to move into another boarding house run by two elderly Spiritualists, the Golding sisters.

While visiting New York, she met George William Pepper, a lawyer, professor, proud Republican and Christian activist… [record scratch]

Okay, he was an engraver she met while visiting friends in Taunton, happy now? Anyway, George was handsome and charming and also happily married with three children. That wasn’t a deterrent to Mary Ann. Once again the spirits started dropping hints that the Golding sisters should invite George over for dinner and a seance.

George was far more receptive to Mary Ann’s advances than Finnegan or Brow had been. After a few months of steamy illicit passion the pair… eloped? Whatever the proper term is for abandoning your wife and children and running off with a psychic dairy maid to New Bedford, or maybe Brooklyn. The lovers were married on November 3, 1889… [record scratch]

Turns out they were never actually married, though they presented themselves as husband and wife and Mary Ann started going by the name “May Scannell Pepper.” It’s not entirely clear why she changed her first name, too — it could be that her maiden name was already infamous, but it could also be because “Mary Ann Pepper” was the name of a ditzy character in a series of popular burlesques set in rural New England. (That might have hit too close to home.)

George and May took her spook show on the road; May was the main attraction and George was her manager. Everything was going fantastically except for one problem: George’s oldest daughter Maude, who was living with them. May did not like having Maude around and was deliberately cruel to her step-daughter in an attempt to drive her back into the arms of her biological mother.

May eventually came up with a solution to her problem: she shipped Maude off to a Shaker colony in Connecticut, without her step-daughter’s consent. She apparently told the cultists a real sob story, that couldn’t she afford to care for Maude and a sick infant simultaneously, and they didn’t ask any follow-up questions. (Or they would have realized there was no sick infant at home.) Maude was whisked away to their remote commune and not allowed to communicate with the outside world. It would be years before her biological mother found and rescued her.

George was none too happy when he found out what had happened, and that was the beginning of the end for the relationship. He didn’t go off to look for his daughter, mind you, he just dumped May. She kept on using her “married” name, which was perfectly normal on the time.

Eventually George married a third woman, Catherine J. Plested of Brockton. He never divorced May… though he didn’t have to, because they were never married. The problem was that he had never divorced his first wife, Ann, either. In 1894 the law finally caught up with George, and he was arrested and jailed for bigamy. His feeble excuse was that he had been acting, “with the firm belief that his first wife was dead,” which was a transparent lie. He spent less than a year in prison and was released on good behavior.

When the scandal became public, May filed for a divorce from George, which was granted without anyone bothering to check the paperwork. It remains one of the most curious legal proceedings in the annals of Rhode Island — a divorce for a marriage which never actually happened.

Little Bright Eyes

With her private life toast, May threw herself headlong into her career. She was already making a solid living as a medium, though table-tipping seances and ectoplasmic manifestations were beneath her. She was a “public medium” or “platform medium,” who used cold and hot reading techniques to work large crowds like she was the Amazing Kreskin. She was charming and disarming, seemingly guileless, which helped her win over audiences. Within a few years she was one of the most famous Spiritualists in the country.

Part of the reason for Pepper’s success was that she had stumbled into the greatest control of all time: the spirit of a twelve-year-old Kickapoo girl named Little Bright Eyes. Speaking through may, Bright Eyes playfully answered audience questions about the afterlife in a dialect that was “half African, half Indian, wholly ungrammatical, but spoke with great fluency.” She liked sparring with skeptics and unbelievers, and usually came out on top thanks to her quick wit and cutting insight.

Bright Eyes’ story is actually quite touching. You see, back when May and George were together, they took a trip through the “[Native American] reservations out west” and  witnessed the starvation and privation of their residents. Their plight touched May’s heart and she adopted one of them, Little Bright Eyes. The girl was beautiful and free, but like a wild animal she could not bear to be caged in a white man’s house. She passed away not long after but remained eternally grateful to May for rescuing her from the reservation, and returned from the Summerland to become her control… [record scratch]

Actually, it turns out that Bright Eyes was the first spirit who ever appeared to Pepper, back when she was just a young child in Narragansett, trying to fall asleep in the Chases’ guest bedroom… [record scratch]

Oh, right, the Chases didn’t actually exist. I guess their story of their first meeting will have to remain a mystery.

After the two became a team, Pepper attempted to trace Bright Eyes’ lineage and discovered that she was the child of a white woman and a descendant of King Philip of the Wampanoag. Alas, her mother died and her alcoholic father abandoned her in the saloons of New Bedford where…  [record scratch]

Maybe it was Bright Eyes herself who revealed her origins. In a platform show in New Bedford she addressed a skeptical photographer by name as “Mr. So-and-So” and claimed that he had taken her picture back when she was still alive. The man went home and rifled through a box of photographs he had taken years earlier in Arizona. Eventually he found a picture of Bright Eyes, which he gave to Pepper… [record scratch]

Okay, what actually seems to have happened is that May purchased a blurry photo of an exotic-looking little girl from a spirit photographer named Foster, and then made up an elaborate backstory to go with the picture. Which, like most of her stories, kept constantly shifting.

If you’ve ever been in a Wicks & Sticks you know that there’s a chunk of the population that believes Native Americans are inherently more spiritual and in touch with the land than white folks. For that reason, many early Spiritualists had Native American controls… though that trend was starting to die out, partly because it was clear that these controls had nonsense names in made-up Native American languages, and were completely ignorant of their tribal cultures and religions. Bright Eyes bucked that trend, probably because Pepper didn’t spend a lot of time lingering on her past.

Over the years the control became almost as much of a celebrity as Pepper herself. Bright Eyes even appeared in advertisements, once endorsing eye drops (which presumably she would have no need for). She was so popular other mediums started channeling her too, or bitterly claiming that Pepper had somehow “stolen” Bright Eyes from them.

Pepper and Bright Eyes became the most famous medium/control team in the country. Their feats were legendary. They reunited people with dead relatives, distant relatives, birth parents they had never met. They helped recover lost property and brought hope to the despondent with messages from the other side. Once they were consulted to help open a locked safe whose combination had never been written down; not only did they get it open, they were able to diagnose what was wrong with the lock while the safe was still closed.

Spiritualist luminary Moses Hull declared that that Pepper had “few equals and no superior.” Elizabeth Kurth of the Woman’s Progressive Union wrote: “Ten years ago May Pepper was considered a very good platform test medium; five years ago she was considered remarkable; today she stands as the peer of all demonstrators of spiritual phenomena.”

Spiritualism was barely organized, but Pepper began climbing the ladder toward a leadership position. In 1893 she was made the “state agent” of the National Spiritualist Association of Churches. In 1895 she and Bright Eyes were invited to perform at a celebration of Spiritualism’s 47th anniversary; ten years later she was back doing the same. In 1897 she was elected president of the Rhode Island State Spiritualism Association. In 1905 she represented Spiritualism at the World Congress of Religions.

She was deeply involved with Spiritualist camps; if you’re not familiar with them, think of them as vacation bible school for Spiritualists. For decades the camps were the driving force behind the movement, where Spiritualists gathered to refine their theology and improve their mediumistic skills. She started out attending small camps in Onset Bay; Dover-Foxcroft, and Lake Pleasant; eventually she was invited to help run the largest and most famous most famous camp of all, Camp Etna in Maine.

Uptown Funk

By the mid-1890s Pepper had outgrown the New England circuit. She was ready to go national, so she packed up her bags and moved to Brooklyn, New York.

Relocating to the big city helped Pepper tap into a large audience through the power of mass media. It also gave her access to the city’s rich and powerful Spiritualist elite, who quickly became her patrons.

Retired Judge Abram H. Dailey took her under his wing like Eliza Doolittle, giving her elocution lessons and improving her public speaking skills. Dr. H.B. Storer refined her understanding of human psychology which helped improve her cold reading techniques.

Then there was Isaac Kaufmann Funk.

You know Funk, even if you don’t think you do; you’re just not used to seeing his name when it’s not attached to that of his business partner, Adam Willis Wagnalls. (If you’re so young that just went right over your head, they published dictionaries and encyclopedias.)

Funk was one of those Spiritualists who fancied himself a scientist; he was all about testing mediums to prove that their powers were legitimate. The problem was that he was the worst sort of pseudo-scientist, so convinced of his own intellectual superiority that he assumed that if he couldn’t how spot a trick was done, there was no trickery involved. It made him tremendously easy to fool.

In 1903 Funk was invited by Judge Dailey to attend a seance at his house conducted by May S. Pepper.

At the time Pepper’s act consisted largely of sealed envelope reading. If you remember Carnac the Magnificent, it’s that. If you’re too young to have watched The Carson Show, it’s an act where a magician or psychic is presented with a sealed envelope, and then provides answers to the questions inside without opening it. 

There are a number of ways a performer can pull off this trick. Most of them involve taking a peek at the envelope’s contents; that usually means surreptitiously opening the envelope, which was far easier in those days before the invention of self-adhesive envelopes. It might also mean reading the letter through the envelope or even before it went into the envelope. Social engineering is sometimes involved; if the performer knows their audience well and carefully listens to crowd chatter they may be able to make a solid guess about the envelope’s contents. They might also use confederates to gather that information like Peter Popoff, or even use pre-written envelopes containing questions they already know the answer to. If all else fails, they can use cold reading techniques to bluff their way through the process.

Funk knew all of this and was prepared. He had a small pile of sealed numbered envelopes which he kept locked in his study — bits and pieces of his personal correspondence, mostly — and a little ledger where he kept notes about their contents. He grabbed a handful of them and went off to Dailey’s for the seance.

Over the course of the evening Pepper picked up two of Funk’s envelopes, identified their authors and intended recipients, and answered the questions inside. The results were… mixed. She seemed to have identified the author of the first letter correctly, but after the seance Funk realized he didn’t actually know who had written it. She also claimed the second letter was addressed to a clergyman, which was correct according to Funk’s ledger. The problem was he had mixed up two entries and Pepper had described what the ledger said the envelope contained, and not what it actually contained.

You and I would be naturally suspicious of these results. Isaac Funk wasn’t naturally suspicious, though — he was a credulous doofus. He still believed that Pepper had supernatural powers, but now he thought she was a telepath mistakenly identified as a medium. After all, the only thing that could explain both mix-ups was that Pepper had been reading his mind. (Or maybe just his ledger.)

Whatever the case, Funk was hooked. He became a regular at Pepper’s seances and was amazed by the ease with which she was able to determine the contents of sealed envelopes. She was always on the mark, even when the contents were utter nonsense.

Once she dazzled Funk by channeling his own deceased mother, some forty years gone. She laughed, “Isaac, do you remember that needle?” and then recounted how she had stepped on a sewing needle which had to be extracted with pliers borrowed from the neighborhood cobbler, then morbidly noted it had caused the infection which claimed her life. Funk was flabbergasted, because he was the only one who knew that story. (Or maybe not. His immediate family and household servants all knew it, as did all the neighborhood gossips.) He was so flabbergasted he glossed over the other revelation from the same seance, that he had a dead nephew named Chester who had never heard of… [record scratch]

…who actually never existed.

Pepper made sure to keep Funk happy by flattering him whenever possible. Once she channeled the spirit of the late Dr. Richard Hodgson, who had been one of Funk’s harshest critics in life but had apparently mellowed a bit in the Summerland:

I believe that you have done an enormous amount of valuable work, especially in the open stand that you have taken for investigation, and for arousing the interest of a wider public, and it would be disastrous if you should commit yourself to the acceptance as supernormal, of manifestations which eventually prove to be due to fraud. I congratulate you most heartily on your help and I beg you to go cautiously as regards accepting any particular person’s manifestations as genuine.

Isaac K. Funk, The Psychic Riddle

Funk liked that. He liked that a lot. He went on to use Pepper’s seances as a case study in his best-selling books about Spiritualism, The Widow’s Mite and The Psychic Riddle, which only increased her fame.

Ghost Church

In March 1904 Funk, Dailey, and several other wealthy Spiritualists pooled their money and rented the Aurora Grata Cathedral at 1160 Bedford Street in Brooklyn, where they founded the First Spiritualist Church. The name is somewhat misleading; it was hardly the first organized Spiritualist church. Heck, it wasn’t even the first Spiritualist church at that particular location — they were displacing a smaller congregation, the Church of the Fraternity of Soul Communion.

May S. Pepper had already been conducting occasional drop-in services for the Fraternity, and the new tenants asked her to be the pastor of their church. They signed her to a two year contract and she became the Reverend May S. Pepper.

A curious Brooklynite who walked into Sunday evening services at the First Spiritualist Church would be hard pressed to notice anything out of the ordinary. The building was virtually indistinguishable from a regular old Protestant church. The only thing out of place was a small end table next to the pulpit, where parishioners placed sealed envelopes as they filtered in.

It was a little strange that the pastor was a woman, but they would have to admit that her deep baritone voice carried well across the cavernous hall, even if her thick New England accent made it hard to understand her at times. 

The service itself was unremarkable, if maybe a bit rushed. There were readings from the Bible, prayers, hymns, and a sermon.

It was only at the very end where things started to get weird: the last part of each service was a full-blown platform show complete with a seance and sealed envelope reading.

The congregation loved it, and the pews were routinely packed with people looking to contact their loved ones on the other side. Rev. Pepper happy to give them exactly what they were asking for.

In some ways, she seemed to treat her pastorage like an extended Las Vegas residency. The problem is that in Vegas the artist stays in place and the crowds come and go. With a pastorage it’s the same artist and the same crowd every week. After a few months attendance started to drop off.

The Rev. Pepper may have resorted to a few cheap publicity stunts in an attempt to build it back up.

On January 8, 1905 a skeptic attended the service and placed a letter to a fictional friend with the other sealed envelopes. As she conducted the final seance the Rev. Pepper suddenly frowned, singled out the young man in the audience, and upbraided him for trying to trick her. A heated argument ensued. Suddenly, Pepper she turned to Judge Dailey and whispered:

I smell gas. This gas is affecting me, and I want to tell you it does not come from any pipe in this church. It is spirit gas. The influence seeking to control me must be the spirit of some person who died of gas asphyxiation.

Brooklyn Citizen, 10 Jan 1905

Then she fainted, overcome by ghost farts.

Her congregants forgot all about the skeptic and rushed their pastor to the doctor. News of the argument and her subsequent collapse made all the papers. She made a miraculous recovery and returned to the pulpit the following week, and this time the pews were packed.

Some unbelievers darkly muttered that the whole thing was a set-up, that the skeptic was a plant and the fainting spell had been faked. If that was the case it was a fatal miscalculation on the Rev. Pepper’s part, because her fake skeptic finally attracted the attention of real skeptics.

New York attracts more than it’s fair share of koo-koo crazypants, but it also is home to the angriest and most aggressive skeptics in the world. Now they were targeting the First Spiritualist Church.

Magician Andrew Davis announced he could match the Rev. Pepper trick for trick, and proposed a competition between them with rigorous controls. The scientific-minded Funk was all for it, but the Rev. Pepper refused. David Goldberger tried to sweeten the pot by wagering $250 on the outcome, to no avail. That led Joseph Rinn to up the wager to $100,000 — he didn’t have the money, but he was also certain that neither side would ever be able to collect.

On Sunday afternoons skeptics from the “Anti-Fraud Society” stood outside the First Spiritualist Church handing out flyers attacking its pastor. They repeated embarrassing incidents from the reverend’s past, revealed that one of her deacons was the former assistant of the recently exposed fake medium Minnie Williams, and suggested that the trick to her sealed envelope readings was that she only picked fake letters insinuated into the pile by confederates.

“Spirit Smasher” Winfield Scott Davis started sneaking into each service and sitting in the back row, scrutinizing the Rev. Pepper’s every move through field glasses. Funk’s feeble reaction was to start sitting next to the pulpit and rubber-stamping each envelope as it was placed on the table. (Because you can’t possibly fake a rubber stamp.)

Other Spiritualists began criticizing the Rev. Pepper, too. Medium F.H. Roscoe, late of the Fraternity of the Soul Communion, bitterly complained that his former flock had fallen for a common charlatan:

She has not a single mediumistic quality. Her apparently remarkable demonstrations are nothing but the simplest tricks of the Spiritualistic trade. She has told me many time how she used medicine on her audience.

“Medicine” is the technical term used by Spiritualists to describe typewritten or other data giving information of persons who are to be in the audience. Nearly all the amazing tests given by Spiritualists are based on ‘medicine.’ I’m a Spiritualistic medium myself but must say there are few honest mediums among those who do the sensational turns.

Mary Ann and I were fellow delegates from Rhode Island to the national convention in Washington several years ago, and she did such work there that I refused to have anything more to do with her. She gave tests that were obvious frauds because they were based on erroneous information.

She knew my wife always accompanied me to the meetings, so she arranged with a medium to have my wife’s father’s spirit appear at a meeting that night. My wife went to the theater, but Mary Ann thought she was in the audience, so she had the medium get up and bring down the spirit of William Wing, my father-in-law.

“I see some feathers floating up there,” began the entranced medium. “Now they are forming into a wing. Now I see two wings, and they are joined together by the word William. The spirit says he has come to see his daughter here in the audience. He passed over at New Bedford.”

I felt like denouncing Mary Ann right there, but waited until the meeting was over, when I told her she had given the wrong medicine to the medium.

“Oh, Roscoe, what if I did,” was all she had to say.

At the same convention she brought a spirit who said I had been very kind go her before death and she wanted to thank me for my kindness to her family. I received the spirit message because I know I had preached the funeral of a child named Cooper. When I got home I looked back and found that the Cooper was not a girl, but a boy that died when four weeks old.

I could tell you of dozens of fake tests I have known her to use. She has often laughed to us about putting out tests based on conversations she happened to overhear before the meeting.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 15 Jan 1905

Eventually the Rev. Pepper could take it no more. At the end of the service on February 26 she announced she would no longer submit to any tests.

A quiet murmur spread through the church, then a skeptic in the audience stood up and demanded to know what she was hiding. Judge Dailey recognized David Goldberger, and started waving a roll of bills in the young man’s face while shouting, “You’re the $250 man! You’re the $250 man! Produce your money! Produce your money!”

As the two men engaged in a shouting match, another parishioner stood up and yelled that he’d been robbed. Then another, and another. Pepper spotted someone sneaking towards the doors and ordered him to stop. Chaos ensued. After a few minutes the police arrived on the scene to calm everyone down and arrest the pickpocket.

Over the next several weeks the Anti-Fraud Society redoubled its efforts. Their pamphleteers were joined by ones from the Christian Endeavour Society of Greater New York, attacking Spiritualism as witchcraft and heresy.

The Rev. Pepper was clearly frustrated. From the pulpit she attacked the hypocrisy of the press…

We are having a great commotion over $100,000 that has been given by Rockefeller for foreign missions. They are calling this man a thief and saying that his money should not be given to the heathen. How many churches in Brooklyn or New York would have had a spire attached if only honest dollars had been used to build them?… And then they talk of ‘fakes’ in Spiritualism. Well, fake or no fake, if it is something that does you good or makes you better, it is worthy of your time…

New York Tribune, 10 Apr 1905

Judge Dailey gave interview after interview defending his pastor, calling her the new Hypatia and the greatest thinker since Voltaire. Funk also agreed to interviews, though he was clearly starting to sour on Pepper:

She undoubtedly has psychic power to a great degree. Just what her power is I do not know. I do not believe that a person’s moral character has anything to do with these supernatural powers.

New York Tribune, 16 Jan 1905

At the end of April things went from bad to worse when the Brooklyn Daily Eagle revealed exactly how the Rev. Pepper pulled off her sealed envelope readings. 

About two hours before the start of each service, after several rows of pews had filled in and envelopes were starting to pile up on the table, the Rev. Pepper would emerge from of her study to get things ready for her sermon. As she adjusted a gas lamp with her left hand, she snatched envelopes with her right hand and hid them between the pages of a large Oxford Bible. She would take the Bible back into her study, where she could open the envelopes inspect their contents at her leisure. Shortly before the start of service she would return the Bible and put the envelopes on top of the pile. During the seance she would pick the envelopes she had tampered with, tear off a corner of each envelope, and taste it — ostensibly to establish a connection with the contents, but actually just to cover her tampering.

A Mrs. Novena Teeter had her sealed envelope read at the end of a service, but noticed that it was stuffed differently from when she had first put it on the table. She began to suspect that something was up, and watched the pastor intently for several weeks. She eventually noticed the sleight-of-hand and put two and two together. As a final test, she and several friends loaded up the table with envelopes containing fake letters to fictional friends. Rev. Pepper chose several of them and proceeded to channel the spirits of people who had never existed.

That should have been the end of it, right?

It was definitely the breaking point for Funk, who began distancing himself from Pepper and the First Spiritualist Church. Attendance once again started to drop, but Dailey and the other parishioners remained steadfast.

The Rev. May S. Pepper wasn’t going anywhere.

Rah Rah Rasputin

Well, at least not for a little while.

In February 1906 she stunned the congregation by announcing that after her contract expired on June 1, she would be going to Russia.

Several months earlier the Rev. Pepper had received a package from the Imperial Court of Russia, containing a sealed envelope and a letter ordering her to pen a reply to the questions inside without opening it. Apparently she had done so to the tsar’s satisfaction, and now she had been summoned to the royal court to demonstrate her powers to the imperial family in person.

Oh, were you expecting a record scratch for that one? As far as I can tell this appears to be legit, or at the very least I’ve found no direct evidence suggesting otherwise. It certainly seems into character for the Tsaritsa Alexandra, who was into all things magical and mystical. 

Then again, it would not surprise me if this was all just a negotiating tactic to make Dailey and the other church leaders fork over more cash. If so, it worked. They signed Pepper to a one year contract extension, which also gave her the summer months off so she could travel and visit Spiritualist camps.

At the start of summer she went up to the camp at Lake Pleasant for a few weeks, but then it was off to St. Petersburg, where she provided her psychic counsel to the tsar and tsaritsa for several weeks. At the end of her stay a servant brought forth a huge tray of gold and jewelry and told her to pick a memento. She selected a large golden cross, encrusted with diamonds and rubies, which she proudly displayed in her office… [record scratch]

Ah, there’s the record scratch. This is certainly the version of events the Rev. Pepper preferred, but contemporary reports make it very clear that Russia’s unstable political situation made any sort of visit impossible — the country was still in the throes of the First Russian Revolution. Instead she seems to have gone to France, where she met with some Russian noblewomen living in exile; and then it was off to Germany, where she gave counsel to Kaiser Wilhelm and Helmuth Johannes Ludwig Graf von Moltke… [record scratch]

Okay, she didn’t go to Germany either.

(The jewel-encrusted cross did exist, though it was just a gaudy souvenir with paste jewels and not some long-lost imperial treasure.)

In early September the Rev. Pepper returned to the United States and was ready to resume services. The Anti-Fraud League was ready for her, and started distributing mocking flyers. 

Now, you can’t hear it, but just imagine that every S in the following is actually a dollar sign…

The Greatest $pook $how On Earth! Will Open Its Third $eason $unday, $eptember 15th, 1906.

Come and Conver$e with the $pirit$ of the Dead! 25¢ to Get In. Nothing to Get Out! $2 for Private $ittings. “Aint it Cheap?”

Can $he Call Up $pirits from the Vasty Deep? Why $ure! Come and $ee the $pook Charmer Pray Without the Roof Falling in On Her.

The Champion $piritualistic $ealed Letter $econd-$ight Necromancer. This grand and glorious demonstrator of immortality, this noble, self-sacrificing woman, who threw up a lovely lucrative position as pot-walloper in a private family living in the outskirts of Providence, R.I. in order that she might lead the race out of darkness into the beauteous $unlight of $pookletism, for 25¢, to $2 each, is to-day the Greatest Heavy-weight $oothsayer and Three-Card Monte Artist in the World, Bar None! Remember, Gents & Ladies, $he Eats ’em Alive! and it Costs only 25¢, to see the entire Exhibition.

Little Bright Eyes, Big Chief Boo-Boo, White Wings and Other $ainted $pirit Guides from Heaven Will A$$i$t the Medium in Transmitting Me$$age$ from Your Loved Ones Who Have Gone Beyond.

Hilarious. It didn’t affect church attendance at all, though.

The House that Vanderbilt

Well, what the Anti-Fraud League couldn’t do, the realities of the real estate market did. The First Spiritualist Church’s lease expired on April 30 and their landlord declined to offer a renewal. At their last service the Rev. Pepper gave a tearful farewell address where she briefly thanked them for everything they had done and then spent five minutes denying recent rumors that she was going to marry a Vanderbilt… [record scratch]

She was totally marrying a Vanderbilt.

In the mid-Nineteenth Century “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt Sr. was the richest man in America. As his health began to decline he turned to Spiritualism, hoping that someone on the other side would share the secret of life everlasting… and if the spirits also happened to have any hot stock tips, even better.

The Commodore once shushed a medium who claimed to have a message from his late wife, and then demanded to speak with the spirit of Jim Fisk just in case his late business rival had any inside information from beyond the grave. His patronage allowed Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin to earn a small fortune on Wall Street and re-imagine themselves the country’s most prominent feminists and free love activists.

By the time he died in 1877 the Commodore had amassed a fortune so large that his children, grandchildren, and various and sundry descendants would never have to work a day in their lives. His will even set aside $100,000 for the promotion of Spiritualism and Spiritualist causes.

Now that you’re all excited, let me ruin everything. 

May S. Pepper was not marrying a descendant of the Commodore but a distant cousin, 65-year-old Edward Ward Vanderbilt. He was well off — he ran a business that made railroad ties — but he wasn’t exactly a multi-zillion zillionaire.

Edward’s late wife Keziah — there’s a name you don’t see much outside of H.P. Lovecraft — Keziah had been a regular at the First Spiritualist Church, and dragged her husband to a few services. After Keziah’s untimely death, Edward continued to attend services out of habit and eventually caught the Rev. Pepper’s eye.

She started putting the moves on the grieving widower the only way she knew how: by having the spirits act as matchmaker. It was the same strategy she’d tried earlier with young master Finnigan and Edwin Brow and George Pepper… but this time there was a twist: the late Keziah Vanderbilt was one of the spirits trying to get the two of them together. After all, if Edward married a medium he could always be in contact with his beloved “Mama.”

May I just say: ick.

It worked, though. After a whirlwind romance Edward and May were married on June 1, 1907 and started planning a honeymoon in Europe. They never got a chance to take that trip because Edward’s daughter Minerva filed a lawsuit on June 11 seeking to annul the marriage and have her “feeble-minded” father put into a conservatorship.

Minerva Vanderbilt was twenty-one years old, living at home, and completely dependent on Edward for financial support. She had been a helpless witness as her sad lonely father fell victim to a gold digger who knew just how to pluck at his heartstrings. Shortly before the wedding she discovered that months earlier her father had changed his will to leave his entire fortune to his new wife, bought her a brand new house on St. Mark’s Avenue, and signed over the deed to the family’s summer home to her.

Well if Minerva wanted a fight, May was happy to give her one. She and Edward lawyered up and prepared for their day in court. She also conducted a seance where Bright Eyes and Mama told Edward to completely cut off his daughter, who had to become a stenographer to make ends meet. (Oh, the indignity of it all.)

The competency hearing was a farce worthy of Molière.

On the stand the new Mrs. Vanderbilt denied that she had ever channeled the spirit of the old Mrs. Vanderbilt, which was immediately contradicted by her husband’s testimony. Neighbors testified that the couple had been living together in sin before marriage. Some former Spiritualists testified that they had overheard May wishing she could marry a rich old man and take him for everything he had, and others recalled hearing her describe Edward as “an old fool with a lot of money.”

After a brief deliberation Edward was judged to be incompetent and control of his estate was handed over to a state-appointed trustee.

One problem: shortly after the hearing it was discovered that Minerva’s attorneys had slipped a bribe to the jurors — 25¢ per day each, or a whopping $8.11 in 2023 money. The decision was voided, and after a second hearing in September, Edward was judged to be competent (if somewhat eccentric) and allowed to manage his own affairs.

(It helped that in the meantime the two lovebirds had been living apart, and May had relinquished any claims to the properties Edward had deeded over to her. It made her seem less like a gold digger and made him seem like less of a dupe.)

Minerva wasn’t about to give up, though. She appealed, of course. Then she accused her step-mother of arson, because the house on St. Mark’s had burned to the ground just after May moved out and Minerva moved in. She even tried to have her charged for with grand larceny, for taking her father’s money under false pretenses.

May did herself no favors. First she started dodging court dates by touring extensively, and when the court was deferential to her schedule she started faking illness whenever she was in town. When she was eventually dragged up to the witness stand she couldn’t stop making anti-Semitic remarks about Minerva’s lawyers.

All the legal drama even bought George W. Pepper out of hiding. He sued his one-time paramour for his fair share of her new fortune… though he couldn’t present a coherent legal theory as to why he deserved anything. The case was quickly thrown out of court.

The Vanderbilts constantly sued and countersued each other for years. It only came to an end in 1911, when Minerva married Charles Robinson. Once she was no longer dependent on her father for financial support, the two of them were able to reconcile their differences and everyone was happy again.

Well, as long as May S. Vanderbilt wasn’t in the room.

Emerging From Earth Conditions

While the lawsuits were going on May continued to tour. She tried to switch up her act a bit, retiring Bright Eyes and trying out new controls like Trixie, Thunderbolt, Fidelis, Morris, and Frizzie. They weren’t nearly as popular, and eventually she brought Bright Eyes back. After Edward and Minerva reconciled, she stopped touring entirely though she still gave the occasional private seance.

Every once in a while she would make some grand public pronouncement — once she claimed that Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth were BFFs in Heaven; on another occasion she proclaimed that Jesus was a medium; in 1912 she opined that the navigator of the Titanic should have drawn up a horoscope while plotting their course. The press dutifully reported each of these pronouncements, and the public just ignored them.

She gave the occasional lecture and remained active in the camp scene. Eventually became the president of Camp Etna. She seemed much happier there. It was comfortable and easy and no one there challenged her authority or spiritual powers.

She had always been a large woman, and she just kept getting larger. Her health also began to deteriorate. In 1909 she collapsed after a seance, and in 1910 she was bedridden for a few months due to kidney problems.

In 1918 she came down with the Spanish flu at the end of Camp Etna’s summer season. She battled the disease for months, and while her condition seemed to improve over the winter it got worse as things warmed up. On April 27, 1919 she had to “carry her unfoldment to a point”, “passed to spirit” and “emerged from Earth conditions.”

Mary Ann Scannell Pepper Vanderbilt was 51 years old at the time of her transition. Edward outlived her by another seven years.

Her ashes were spread at Camp Etna, which later erected a monument in her memory. Spiritualists to this day still remember by her last public address at the camp, which ended with the following:

I have found Spiritualism a good thing to live by, and I have come pretty close to finding it a good thing to die by.

I would say that she remains a divisive figure to this day, but it’s just not true. The general public wrote her off as an obvious fraud and proceeded to forget all about her. Spiritualists, though, continue to hold her memory dear, as a generous and selfless benefactor who helped forge their loose-knit community into an enduring institution.

At this point you may recall the moral of our previous episode — people can talk themselves into believing almost anything.

Maybe you should remember this too: it’s possible for one person to be two things at the same time.


George Pepper served his time in Boston’s Charlestown State Prison. It’s not there anymore, but when it was, it was just down the street from the ruins of an Ursuline convent which was burned down by an angry anti-Catholic mob in 1834 (“Six Months in a Convent”).

Spirit photography (“What Joy to the Troubled Heart”) was used to produce an image of Bright Eyes.

The very same Christian Endeavour Society that passed out pamphlets in front of the First Spiritualist Church once counted con artist William F. Miller (“520%”) among its members.

May S. Pepper wasn’t the fake Spiritualist to get her hooks into a Vanderbilt — the greatest Spiritualist scam artist of all time, Ann O’Delia Diss Debar, is rumored to have sunk her hooks into “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt’s son and heir, William H. (“Spirit Princess”).

For that matter, this isn’t our first Vanderbilt — Mrs. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney helped Marcel Duchamp appeal the U.S. Customs Service’s definition of “art” (“The Brouhaha”).

Though Pepper is most closely associated with Camp Etna, over her career she helped found and manage numerous Spiritualist camps. One of her favorites was located in Dover-Foxcroft, ME — which is also the home of pseudo-scientist and murderer Bayard Pfundtner Peakes (“I’m the Naughty Boy”).


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  • “Ep. 57: May S. Pepper and a Tiny Cat Heartbeat.” This Is What We Found. Accessed 2023/01/16.
  • “Ep. 58: May S. Pepper and a Mouth That Works.” This Is What We Found. Accessed 2023/01/17.
  • “Pepper, May S.” The Free Dictionary. Accessed 2023/01/15.
  • Fitchburg Sentinel, 30 Sep 1893.
  • “Transferred to reformatory.” Boston Globe, 15 Feb 1895.
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  • “Spiritualism.” Boston Post, 1 Apr 1895.
  • “Spiritualists meet.” Brooklyn Citizen, 4 Feb 1897.
  • “Mrs. Pepper’s Seance.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 4 Feb 1897.
  • “Mrs. May S. Pepper.” Light of Truth, Volume 21, Number 23 (December 4, 1897).
  • “She summons spirits from the great beyond.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 18 Jan 1904.
  • “Spiritualists meet to perfect a church.” Brooklyn Times Union, 10 Mar 1904.
  • “Mrs. Pepper’s power has some testimonials.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 13 Nov 1904.
  • “How the Medium Mrs. Pepper Operates.” The Annals of Psychical Science, Volume 2 (1905).
  • “Heart failure at end of seance with spirits.” Brooklyn Citizen, 9 Jan 1905.
  • “Mul’s letter.” Brooklyn Citizen, 10 Jan 1905.
  • “Strange record of Mary S. Pepper, ‘medium’; broken homes and bitter enemies in her former haunts.” Brooklyn Daily
  • Eagle, 15 Jan 1905.
  • “Foolish, says Mrs. Pepper.” Brooklyn Times Union, 16 Jan 1905.
  • “Mrs. Pepper’s career.” New York Tribune, 16 Jan 1905.
  • “Mrs. Pepper here before.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 16 Jan 1905.
  • “Past of Mrs. Pepper causes her to weep.” Brooklyn Citizen, 16 Jan 1905.
  • “To sustain Mrs. Pepper is resolve of trustees.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 17 Jan 1905.
  • “No truth in charges against Mrs. Pepper.” Brooklyn Times Union, 26 Jan 1905.
  • “Providence spiritualists.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 27 Jan 1905.
  • “Mrs. Pepper officiates at christening service.” Brooklyn Citizen, 30 Jan 1905.
  • “Spook union may combat the ‘Bright-Eyes’ trust.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 30 Jan 1905.
  • “Makes study of ‘spirit pictures.'” San Francisco Examiner, 25 Feb 1905.
  • “Pepper church rumpus!” New York Tribune, 27 Feb 1905.
  • “Pickpocket is arrested at Mrs. Pepper’s seance.” Brooklyn Citizen, 27 Feb 1905.
  • “Spirit of Lincoln forgave assassin.” Washington (DC) Evening Star, 27 Mar 1905.
  • “Ghosts of Fox Sisters failed to materialize.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 3 Apr 1905.
  • “Medium raps churches.” New York Tribune, 10 Apr 1905.
  • “How Mrs. Pepper reads the letters.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 30 Apr 1905.
  • “Davis’s field glasses fixed on Mrs. Pepper.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 29 May 1905.
  • “Mrs. Pepper will keep on.” New York Times, 30 Oct 1905.
  • “Medico-Legal Society to probe Pepper feats.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 26 Jan 1906.
  • “May S. Pepper for Russia.” Brooklyn Citizen, 26 Feb 1906.
  • “Russia wants Mrs. Pepper and perhaps she will go.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 26 Feb 1906.
  • “Some Notable Personal Experiences.” Light, Volume 26, Number 1312 (Saturday, March 3, 1906).
  • “Hand bills poke fun at Pepper $pook $how.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 13 Sep 1906.
  • “Mrs. Pepper back again after a trip to Europe.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 14 Sep 1906.
  • “May S. Pepper defies skeptics and jesters.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 24 Sep 1906.
  • “Robbers pay a visit to Mrs. Pepper’s home.”Brooklyn Citizen, 29 Oct 1906.
  • “Mrs. Pepper’s farewell sermon.” New York Tribune, 28 Apr 1907.
  • “Brooklyn not to lose ‘Bishop’ May Pepper.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 29 Apr 1907.
  • “Mrs. Pepper sails.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 30 Apr 1907.
  • “The ‘Rev.’ May Pepper bride of Mr. Vanderbilt.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 4 Jun 1907.
  • “Medium weds and gives up church.” Boston Globe, 5 Jun 1907.
  • “Daughter questions Vanderbilt’s sanity.” Brooklyn Standard Union, 10 Jun 1907.
  • “‘Rev.’ May Pepper accused of fraud.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 10 Jun 1907.
  • “A second Dis Debar, lawyer calls medium.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 11 Jun 1907.
  • Shirley, Ralph. “Notes of the Month.” Occult Review Volume 5, Number 6 (June 1907).
  • “Mrs. Pepper’s husband gives views on marriage.” Brooklyn Times Union, 26 Aug 1807.
  • “Miss Vanderbilt takes the stand.” Brooklyn Citizen, 28 Aug 1907.
  • “Dead wife’s spirit sent felicitations.” New York Times, 29 Aug 1907.
  • “Defense begins in Pepper case.” Brooklyn Citizen, 30 Aug 1907.
  • “Witnesses asserting Vanderbilt’s sanity.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 30 Aug 1907.
  • “May get ‘Mrs. Pepper’ to aid Mr. Vanderbilt.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 31 Aug 1907.
  • “May S. Pepper evades letter reading test.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 6 Sep 1907.
  • “Vanderbilt insane is jury’s verdict.” New York Times, 13 Sep 1907.
  • “Pepper larceny charge upheld?” Brooklyn Citizen, 19 Oct 1907.
  • “May Pepper must face grand jury.” Brooklyn Citizen, 29 Oct 1907.
  • “Dailey dies; ill only four days.” Brooklyn Citizen, 3 Nov 1907.
  • “Pepper-Vanderbilt case may cost estate dearly.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 12 Nov 1907.
  • “May S. Pepper indicted, not ‘mugged’ by police.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 6 Dec 1907.
  • “To set aside marriage.” Brooklyn Citizen, 25 May 1908.
  • “Reverse Vanderbilt verdict.” New York Times, 1 Jul 1908.
  • “Mrs. Pepper Vanderbilt attacks Christians.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 21 Sep 1908.
  • “Bishop May Pepper missing.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 7 Nov 1908.
  • “Vanderbilt not found; spook priestess lost.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 10 Nov 1908.
  • “Vanderbilt says he is now in want.” Brooklyn Standard Union, 25 Nov 1908.
  • “Complete victory for ‘Bright Eyes.'” Boston Globe, 1 Dec 1908.
  • “Spirit world affairs before a county judge.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 19 Mar 1909.
  • “May Pepper indictment is thrown out of court.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 18 May 1909.
  • “Medium May Pepper faints.” Brooklyn Times Union, 10 Aug 1909.
  • “May Pepper back, ‘Bright-Eyes’ gone.” Brooklyn Times Union, 18 Apr 1910.
  • “Friends anxious over the absence of Rev. Mary S. Pepper.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 29 Nov 1910.
  • “Mrs. Pepper-Vanderbilt had a hot message on the Maine election.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 2 Dec 1910.
  • “Vanderbilt case in court again.” Brooklyn Citizen, 18 Apr 1911.
  • “May Pepper Vanderbilt will sue ex-husband.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 25 Jun 1911.
  • “Minerva and husband seek father’s blessing.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 6 Jun 1911.
  • “Got spirit message, fell and broke jaw.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 10 Jan 1915.





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Artist. Lover. Social Media Unfluencer. Acknowledged authority on lucrative bogs. Dave "The Knave" White is all this and more. But most days he's a web developer, graphic designer, and cartoonist. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife, his two cats, and his crippling obsession with strange trivia.

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