Collection Number: N2009-3
Creator: Koreshan Unity.
Title: Papers, ca. 1887-1990.
Quantity: ca. 300 cubic feet
Description: The Koreshan Unity Papers collection consists of original writings, letters, photographs, and other organizational and personal records of founders and members of the Koreshan Unity. The Koreshans developed an extensive and rich collection of photographic prints and glass plate negatives documenting the early development of Koreshan life and beliefs and the lives and activities of Koreshan members spanning the life of the organization. In addition to portraits of Cyrus Teed and his family prior to the Koreshan years, images in the collection depict Koreshan members and headquarters in Chicago; development of the Koreshan Unity settlement in Estero, including gardens, the Bamboo Landing, residence buildings, the Art Hall, the Dining Hall, and other facilities; Koreshan activities such as plays, concerts, and festivals; and notable visitors including Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Of particular note are images of Cyrus Teed and other early founder and leaders; Koreshans with the Rectilineator used to demonstrate the concave nature of the earth’s surface; Teed’s body after his death as his followers awaited his resurrection; and the aftermath of the hurricanes of 1921 and 1926.
These photographs are an integral component of the full Koreshan Unity Papers collection which documents the economic and cultural development of southwest Florida; the integration of scientific method into religious cosmology and cosmogony; the relationship between religion and community; the Koreshans’ sometimes tumultuous relations with surrounding communities; and major leadership roles of women in a community whose belief system included equality of the sexes. The collection also provides valuable documentation of the overall history and development of millennial communities and communal utopias in the United States in the middle- to late-19th century into the early 20th century.
Other key components of the Koreshan Unity collection are correspondence among Koreshans and between them, outside relatives, and others, including Koreshan Unity founder Cyrus Teed (“Koresh”) and his son Douglas Arthur Teed; papers of key early members who formed the nucleus of Koreshan organization, community, and culture; member writings and tracts on cosmogony, cellular cosmogony, science, religion, philosophy, horticulture, and other topics reflecting the beliefs and ideas of the community and their integration of scientific method into religious cosmology and cosmogony; histories of member families and the organization; and administrative and operational records of the organization, from early constitutions and other foundation documents to minutes, correspondence, and business and financial records. Organizational and administrative records provide evidence of the organization, growth and development of the Koreshan Unity as a religious, scientific, business and social community. A great deal of material relates to the Koreshans’ cultural life, including personal correspondence about daily life, recipes, scripts for shows written and performed by members, and both original and commercial sheet music dating back to 1898.
The Koreshan Unity was a late-19th/early-20th century religious utopian community originally founded in upstate New York by Dr. Cyrus Teed. Koreshanity was born in the wake of two related movements: the millennial fervor that swept early- to mid-19th century central and western New York State, a region that became known as the “Burned-Over District” due to the zealous fire-and-brimstone evangelism of the period; and the utopian communalism that started to gain large numbers of adherents during the same period and into the later 19th century. Among the Unity's unique beliefs was their guiding principal that the Earth existed as a concave sphere. As a result, Earth's populace lived inside the Earth, with the planets existing in the center of the sphere where the Earth's core would otherwise have been.
A Utica, New York physician with interests in alchemy, physics and metaphysics, Cyrus 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 members moved to the Estero settlement, the growing community constructed a number of buildings including residences; a publishing house; a machine shop; a bakery; a general store; a “Planetary Court” housing the seven women who managed the Unity; an Art Hall used for plays, concerts, lectures, religious activities, and other events; and a power plant which provided electricity not only to the Koreshan community but also to surrounding areas well before the rest of southwest Florida had access to electrical power.
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. They place the deceased Teed in a bath tub to await his resurrection until, a week later, the Lee County health officer finally ordered the dismayed followers to bury the body. The mausoleum in which Teed was finally buried washed to sea during an October 1921 hurricane, and the body was never found.
Despite infighting and decreasing membership following the death of their charismatic founder, the Koreshan Unity continued for many years under the leadership of loyal followers and members. By 1940, only 35 mostly elderly members remained among deteriorating buildings and untended grounds. That year, Hedwig Michel, a German Jewish immigrant, moved to the community and turned her energies to improving conditions throughout the community. In addition to nursing the elderly members, she refurbished the Planetary Court, reorganized and remodeled the store, and restored the gardens. In 1960, Michel, known as “The Last Koreshan,” became president of the Koreshan Unity and worked with state officials to ensure that the site of their original settlement was preserved as a state historic site. She died in 1982, the last person officially admitted to Koreshan membership and the last to live at the site they had settled almost a century earlier.
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