The Koreshan Unity Collection: An Inside Look into Processing a Large Archival Collection
What – or who – could convince over 200 individuals to exchange their comfortable lives for a celibate religious communal settlement in a remote corner of southwest Florida?
As we continue processing the papers of the Koreshan Unity, supported in part by grant funding from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), we learn more about the early members of this fascinating movement and its charismatic founder, Dr. Cyrus Teed.
A Utica, New York physician with interests in alchemy, physics and metaphysics, Teed conceived what would become known as Koreshanity in 1869 after experiencing a late-night religious vision in his laboratory. During what he called his “illumination,” he saw a beautiful woman who revealed to him a series of universal truths which formed the fundamental principles of Koreshan belief (more on this in future posts). We can never be certain whether Teed’s experience followed being knocked unconscious by an electrical shock, as some say, or a period of intense meditation, as others say.
Following his illumination, Teed began writing and speaking about his beliefs. He joined a Shaker community in 1878, then in 1880 founded a communal settlement in Moravia, New York. The community failed, as did a subsequent attempt in New York City. Teed’s persuasive oratory finally enabled him to assemble a firm core of followers in Chicago in the late 1880s, incorporating his organization there as the College of Life in 1886. Teed assumed the name Koresh in 1891 and, a few years later, began moving his followers to Estero, Florida, where he intended to establish the “New Jerusalem.”
As the Koreshan community grew and flourished in the early 1900s, tensions arose between the Unity and politicians and citizens of nearby Fort Myers, leading to a brawl on October 13, 1906, in which Teed was hit in the head and face several times. His health declined quickly following the fight, and he died on December 22, 1908.
Reincarnation was one of the truths revealed during Teed’s illumination nearly 40 years earlier, and he and his followers expected that his death (and theirs) would be followed by physical resurrection and immortality. Among the thousands of photographic images in the Koreshan Unity collection are several glass negatives of the deceased Teed in the bath tub into which his followers placed him as they awaited his resurrection until, a week later, the Lee County health officer finally ordered the dismayed followers to bury the body.
In a final sad twist, the mausoleum in which Teed was finally buried washed to sea during an October 1921 hurricane; the body was never found.
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