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.
A dead body was still a dead body. A patrolman summoned a doctor from the city coroner’s office to investigate. The two men had little way of knowing that they were about to bring an end to a saga that had begun nearly 50 years earlier. A story of a secret society that had once enticed the city’s wealthy and powerful. A story of miraculous visions, grave robbing, con artistry, and court battles. They had no sense of the shock and horror they would soon feel, nor that the same feeling would soon grip the entire city.
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 altar 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.
The investigators soon learned that the smell came from their third companion, Julia Rudman, who had succumbed to exhaustion, as the coroner would later determine, three weeks prior. But the pair told police, like neighbors before them, that Rudman was not dead at all. She had simply gone to sleep and would be restored by Mirra Mitta. Any who interfered would be punished.
As the pair relayed this information, the coroner slipped into the house and crept up a flight of stairs. The smell of rot grew even stronger, but later the doctor said he would recall most acutely the intense buzzing of flies–thousands and thousands of flies–audible even before he opened the door to Rudman’s former bedchamber. Inside, all the shutters had been drawn shut and the dead woman had been left in place on her deathbed to await a new life. Nearby were more empty beds, prepared decades earlier for the return of both Mirra Mitta and Jesus Christ. Next door was Lang’s own room.
The doctor turned. The elderly cultist, sensing the intrusion, had followed him up the stairs. She pleaded with him to leave. “An unbeliever can only perceive the flesh,” Lang explained, of the disintegrating body before them. “The spirit is visible only to the child of the Goddess, Mirra Mitta.”
The Daughter of God
The woman who would later be known as Mirra Mitta was a Swiss national named Anna Meister from the canton of Schaffhausen. She migrated to Philadelphia around 1855. Meister is described in some reports as being of medium height, with grey eyes and light brown hair, sometimes worn in ringlets.
Finding herself penniless and suddenly in a strange land, she first lodged with another German family in a slum district near Ridge Avenue and Wood Street, working as a seamstress. Some reports state that Meister suffered from a “nervous weakness” that prohibited strenuous labor and, conveniently, it was not long before she experienced a sudden spiritual transformation that would put an end to her toil.
One account, written decades after the fact, states that while sewing, she abruptly “dropped her work… and declared that she had had received a revelation.” Some accounts say the clothes she worked on flew away from her and that she collapsed trembling. God had spoken to her, Meister said, and told her that the apocalypse would soon begin. And it would start, appropriately enough, here in Philadelphia.
The family with whom she lodged bent their knees to Meister and word of the miraculous woman quickly spread in the tight quarters of the German immigrant neighborhoods. The Ridge Avenue home became an ad hoc shrine and Meister began to deliver sermons on downtown streets in German, targeting the a rapidly expanding immigrant community fleeing revolutionary strife that had gripped the German Confederation and nearby European states. Appearing in white garments she told any who would listen that she had seen beyond, that the world was coming to an end, and that all who ignored her would face the coming damnation of their very souls.
Soon, Meister began to deliver weekly sermons to followers, calling her flock the Society of the Daughters of God. By 1857, she had over 100 followers, many drawn in by tales of faith healing and miraculous visions other believers claimed to have witnessed.
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.”
It was also lucrative business. Followers from this time, in the 1850s, claimed the sessions started at no cost, but, eventually, a confident would produce written documents, purportedly handed down from God. These instructed congregants to donate money to Meister in order to better secure their soul’s place in heaven. “Those who did not do as she commanded would lose all hopes of salvation. But those who made sacrifices to her, she had the power to strengthen,” stated one followers. Soon the lists were instructing Meister’s followers to obtain more specific gifts, including, unusually silk and satin dresses, watches, and gold rings or chains.
Authorities would come to say she was no medium, but a con artist and Meister would wind up in court on fraud and conspiracy charges. One witness who had joined her congregation said in an ensuing court battle that Meister and her compatriots had also used far less spiritual means to shake down the poor. “I was told that anything I gave, I could get back when I left,” the witness recalled in court transcripts. “But I never got any of the money back.”
However, Meister had mobilized her many congregants, including a younger Rudman, to testify on her behalf. They said she had only ever claimed to be a daughter in Christ. Yes, some admitted, she had said she could commune with the Holy Spirit. But was that so different than the wave of other Spiritualist mediums who had lately swept the city, promising to communicate with the dead?
Meister and her two co-defendants were eventually found not guilty. But a frustrated judge required them to pay court costs totaling several hundred dollars nevertheless, a large sum at the time. She would reappear in court just a few years later after the husband of a follower accused the Society of the Daughters of God of kidnapping his wife and child. By this time, Meister had moved from a curbside grift to something resembling a modern cult with followers living in a compound following a regimen she prescribed. The accuser said Meister had enforced strange dictates: forcing he and his wife to separate in order to maintain religious purity, “living together only as brother and sister.” She required followers to follow a strict diet made exclusively of cabbage salads and forbidding the consumption of drinking water drawn from public pumps. But the husband also said children in the Society’s care were beaten as a means of absolution. This time a judge ordered the child be placed in the custody of the father.
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.
The Temple of Mirra Mitta
There were years when the row house on South 11th Street was full of light and jewels and people. Meister would, at sacred rituals, descend the steps in a red velvet gown embroidered with images of the sun, moon, and stars and the many gold rings and chains she still adored. She wore a crown encrusted with diamonds and a gauntlet inscribed with her moniker. She offered her assembly bread, water, and a sweetened red wine from a raised platform no one else was allowed to set foot upon.
Gone were the white robes and the mortal name. This time, she was not merely communing with God. She told her worshipers that she was a god. And they regarded her as the “Daughter of God” and worshipped her in spontaneous outbursts of prayer that one witness described as being akin to “a revival meeting.”
Again, Meister claimed to have had a spiritual transformation. This time, she said she had suddenly been transported to the cosmos and had walked through Heaven and Hell. There she was given the knowledge that she was the third in the Trinity, the Holy Ghost.
When she returned, she said, her hair began to grow longer and longer. Then, just as suddenly, it all fell out forming on the floor into the words that would become her new identity–“Jehovah Elimar Mirra Mitta.”
An exchange from an 1880s court case over the fate of the Holy Ghost Society’s possessions after Meister’s death summarizes their essential belief system. An incredulous clerical lawyer asked one follower, “You mean God, the Father was the first person… Jesus Christ was the second person and that she, Anna Meister, was the third person?”
“Yes, sir,” they responded.
Again, she predicted that the apocalypse would come to Philadelphia, now at a specific time, in 1886, but that all who followed her would be restored to life. Again, she solicited donations in return for eternal salvation.
Men and women, still largely drawn from the city’s German community, heaped wealth and trinkets upon her. They devoted their lives to her. She would compel the owner of a profitable pretzel factory, Philip Becker, grocer Jacob Endress, and several other wealthy followers to purchase the double-wide house on 11th Street to become her temple. The name of the new place of worship, the “Temple of the Congregation of the House of the Lords,” dripped with grandiosity, but was deliberately chosen for its placement on an unassuming block of rowhouses to avoid scrutiny.
“One would pass by the big dismal-looking dwelling on the west side of the street, just below Washington Avenue, in which the [Mirra Mittas] now worship without ever dreaming it was a sacred shrine,” remarked one Inquirer reporter of the era.
On the deed was not Becker or Endress’ name, nor Anna Meister’s, but “J. Elimar Mirra Mitta.”
Perhaps it was the mere force of her charisma that drew these gifts, but some followers said Meister was miraculous in other ways. That she had healing hands, that they would see Meister surrounded by angels or enshrine by St. Elmo’s fire. Some, like Caroline Lang, were so taken to become devoted priestesses to Mirra Mitta, living a life locked in near endless prayer to this woman. They would abide by the strange dictates Meister had originated in the earlier Society of the Daughter of God. The denunciation of marriage, the insistence of a diet made mostly of coleslaw and dandelion tea, a ban on coffee and unboiled tap water, the practice of a kind of homespun herbalism Meister said would curb sexual arousal.
Little else is known of this time, as the cult apparently enforced a rigid code of secrecy. Meister died on January 18, 1884 at age 55 of acute tubular nephritis with dropsy without seeing her apocalypse. She would be buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery near the family plot of her longtime benefactor, Phillip Becker.
But a group of her surviving followers, so zealous and so distraught, could not let go. Filled with decades of belief in Meister’s immortal soul, they would appear nightly by her grave. Soon the idea formed: they would dig up their goddess. And dig they did. But before they struck her casket, one of the cultists said they had had a revelation. Mirra Mitta had been too “poisoned” by the embalming process to return to this body. But the vision also said that Philip Becker was still alive, just a few feet away.
Caroline Lang, who would stand guard over the rotting body in the 11th Street house years later, was there that night. “We took a pick and shovel and loosened the earth from his coffin, then we opened a place in the lid and left a little hole up to the top of the grave, so the body could breathe,” she told a reporter, in 1905. “We talked to him all the time and he told us he would be with us on the next meeting night at the temple.”
But Mirra Mitta’s call was strong. She would sing to Lang, who would return, alone, to her grave over the Schuylkill River. “I knelt upon the grave and then with my bare hands and a spade. I dug until the coffin lay before me,” Lang said. “It was sunrise before I pried open the lid of the casket and the goddess lay asleep. I spoke to her and she opened her eyes and reproached me for not having faith.” But this time, a night watchman was there and saw this horrific scene: Lang, the desecrated grave, the open casket, the corpse of Anna Meister staring blindly upwards.
Lang was arrested, but the wealthy stewards of the temple still held sway in City courts. The case was tossed out and someone–it is unclear who–had her earthen plot replaced with a reinforced stone vault that could withstand future defilement.
The Death of a Ghost
As the incarnation of the Holy Ghost, Meister naturally viewed herself as a logical extension of Christendom, despite her heretical beliefs. Suffice to say, other Christian churches and even her own family members never came to share these views. Nevertheless, after her death, Meister’s sister filed paperwork to incorporate the temple as the newest chapter of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, to be known as the “J. Elimar Mirra Mitta Congregation of the Lord.”
There was a certain logic at work here: Many of the congregants and even Meister herself had been raised as German Lutherans and followers read from a Lutheran bible. But denominational leadership were predictably livid. They discovered the application and went to court to dissolve the petition, accusing the Meister of blasphemy and idolatry.
A clerical lawyer put it simply: “There is nothing Lutheran about these peoples’ worship.” A judge denied the petition.
But Meister’s own followers were equally upset, viewing the whole affair as an attempt by an unbeliever to assert legal control over the temple’s remaining assets. But Meister’s sister may have simply seen what was coming next.
Although her few followers kept control of their temple, most cults of personality seldom outlast the death of their founders and, with no golden woman to follow and no connection to a legitimate church, that is precisely what would happen to the Holy Ghost Society. Many younger members had already drifted away due to the draconian ban on romantic marriages, then, the dread year of 1886 came and went without incident. By the late 1890s, nearly all of the membership, once numbering in the hundreds, had drifted away.
Since Meister left no will and her temple was deeded in the name of a dead godhead, these few followers fought for effective control of what remained, even going to court to separate out the inheritance issue. At some point, a disgruntled believer broke into the temple and stole most of the gold, silver, and other finery that had been stored awaiting Mirra Mitta’s inevitable return.
By 1905, just the three vigilant worshipers, Lang, Rapp and Rudman, remained. For decades the women prayed, endlessly, and both claimed to have frequently observed and even conversed with Meister’s apparition. Rapp brought them their meager supplies — Towards the end of her life, Rudman ate only seedless oranges, saying Mira Mitta had commanded it.
Then she died. Then came the police. Then came the hordes and hordes of reporters as the story of this hidden cult and its gruesome uncovery became front page news. The coroner hauled the surviving members into a courtroom to investigate charges of negligence contributing to Rudman’s death, but neighbors and relatives all affirmed that Mirra Mitta’s followers genuinely believed they could cure themselves through prayer. The matter was dropped.
With no legal owner, control of the Temple reverted to Becker’s surviving son, who sold the property for $5,000 to a small chemical firm called Wyeth and Brothers, the long ago precursor to today’s pharmaceutical giant Wyeth. Lang, one of Meister’s first followers and now a shriveled 82-year-old, initially refused to leave, but was eventually persuaded by a relative to abandon the home before she was forcibly evicted. As journalists and crowds of onlookers still massed outside the so-called House of Mystery, she eventually had to secreted out through a back entrance.
The fascination with the outlandish cult appears to have been short lived. The last references, perhaps ever, in newsprint appear from just a few months later. A Philadelphia Inquirer classified ad offered up for sale “the furniture, etc, of the house occupied as the ‘Temple of Mirra Mitta.’” A mahogany treasure cabinet is the only specific piece mentioned, almost as an afterthought.
Julia Rudman, whose death finally dissolved the Temple’s shroud of mystery, would be buried next to the woman she worshiped in West Laurel Hill. Other close followers, like Lang in 1909, would join them, one by one, in burial ground beside the Becker plot. The land was purchased under a pseudonym, “The Congregation of God,” and records show at least seven other Holy Ghost Society members have been interred there. Nearly all their headstones have crumbled away, along with a stone chair that was built for visitors. But Mirra Mitta remains, her slab almost supernaturally untouched 134 years after her internment.
The mystery of the group’s appeal also remains, today. Unlike superficially similar Protestant sects that emerged in Pennsylvania, like the Shakers or the Schwarzenau Brethren, this group hinged uniquely on Meister’s singular appeal, with an eye towards self-enrichment.
Rachel Wolgemuth, a historian at West Laurel Hill who has cataloged the Mirra Mitta cult for tours of the burial ground, said the group was remarkable in another way. “I definitely haven’t seen anything else like this,” Wolgemuth said. “It’s unusual that its a cult, of course, but it’s also very unusual that it was a woman who led a cult in the 19th century.”
Perhaps it was something about Meister’s magnetic charm or some cultural inclination of Alpine Germans, one of few Christian peoples that have occasionally depicted the Holy Spirit as a female figure. Susurrus says he views Meister, like many successful cult leaders, as merely the right person in the right place at the right time.
“So many cult leaders are opportunists, and they have a very keen eye for finding the right opening in the social fabric to slip in. And that charm, that charisma,” Susurrus says.
A 19th century writer drew a comparison between the Mirra Mitta cult in Philadelphia and the emergence of Russian Khlysts–secretive pseudo-Christian religions that emerged as Tsarist regimes forced serfs eastward to settle that country’s vast interior. They had searched for something familiar in a strange, new world. Lost among strangers from backgrounds in equal measure similar and disparate, they rebuilt a belief system without an established clergy to gird their beliefs.
The writer saw something similar in booming American immigrant metropolises of the time: “These heterogeneous people are pervaded by… new ideas imperfectly assimilated with the burden of folk faiths inherited from many sources in the past.”