Francis Schlatter, an 1890s American Jesus

Paul Putz

With the semester coming to a close and paper deadlines looming, I'm going to punt this month and cross-post a piece that I originally wrote last summer for my personal blog. It is timely as an Easter post at least: Francis Schlatter was thought to be Christ resurrected, and he himself had numerous resurrections in the Progressive Era.

But before I get into that, a couples of quick notes. First, I originally came across Francis Schlatter through Ferenc Morton Szasz's Religion and the Modern American West. My post below is culled from Szasz's work and from browsing through the Chronicling America newspaper database for reactions to the Schlatter phenomenon. Second, please note that when I make a passing reference to curanderismo (Mexican American folk healing) in the text, I know next to nothing about the subject. Fortunately, Brett Hendrickson has a book forthcoming with NYU Press on curanderismo, which I am very excited to read later this year. (And as an aside, he told me Schlatter does get discussed briefly in the book).

Pacific Commercial Adviser (Honolulu), 1896
On a Friday night in early January, 1896, a Unitarian minister in Salem, Oregon lectured on the topic "Is Francis Schlatter the Lord Jesus Christ come for the second time?" The exact details of his answer to that question are unknown, but we can be sure that his final word on the subject was "no." More interesting than his sermon, though, is why he would even bring up the subject in the first place. Schlatter never set foot in Oregon, neither before nor after his rise to fame. Twelve months prior he was virtually unknown, wandering through the New Mexico desert. But by August 1895, newspapers from coast to coast were writing about the "New Mexico Messiah" and cracking jokes about a new sect of "Schlatter Day Saints."

Who was Francis Schlatter, why did he gain messianic status in the eyes of some, and what, ultimately, happened to him?

Schlatter was born in 1856 to German peasants in the French province of Alsace-Lorraine, eventually emigrating to the United States in the 1880s. Primarily working as a shoemaker, he settled in Long Island before moving to Denver in the early 1890s. He was a lifelong Roman Catholic, but according to newspaper reports he also took an interest in Congregationalism, Methodism, and Spiritualism.

Kansas City Journal, 1897
The exact timing of his calling is hazy, but we do know that around 1893 he came to believe that "the Father" (the term Schlatter always used to describe God) had given him a specific directive to heal the sick and bring comfort to the poor. He wandered throughout the Midwest and Southwest for two years, testing out his healing powers. Interestingly, this German immigrant who spoke broken English got his "big break" from the Spanish-speaking population of Pajarito, New Mexico. His healing work at the village (which would not have been unprecedented, given the curanderismo tradition present in the region) caught the attention of residents in nearby Albuquerque. Reporters soon descended into the village to test the veracity of Schlatter's supposed cures. Once there, the reporters were enamored and overwhelmed by the villagers' adamant claims that Schlatter's power was real.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Schlatter's persona was his physical appearance. People could not help but notice the similarity between Schlatter and the common depictions of Jesus. One Albuquerque reporter, eyeing a print of Christ that hung on the wall behind Schlatter, noted that "As one looked from the flesh to the presentment, the likeness was startling. Every line and touch to be found in the picture were found in the man." An Albuquerque woman reportedly exclaimed, "O! It's wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. Christ on earth in our day."

While in Albuquerque, Schlatter happened to meet and cure Ed Fox, a former Denver alderman, of a persistent hearing problem. Fox then convinced Schlatter to join him in Denver for a "healing crusade" of sorts. It was in Denver, beginning in September, 1895, that Schlatter achieved national fame. A San Francisco newspaper reported on his work in Denver, noting that Schlatter, "the remarkable man who claims to be Christ," stood in line every day from 9 AM until 5 PM, praying over and grasping the hands of the "throng of people" (estimated daily in the thousands) who sought to be healed. The article took an entirely positive view of Schlatter's work. "Taking no money, ignoring all taunts, modestly repeating that his power comes from the Father, this man has done work in the past two days hard enough to fatigue the most athletic," the newspaper reported.

Los Angeles Herald, 1896
Schlatter carried on with his work for two months, standing day after day on a makeshift platform greeting the masses. Meanwhile, rumors swirled about the source of his healing powers. His background as a shoemaker led at least a few to claim he was the legendary "Wandering Jew." Others confessed uncertainty. "Imagination it may be, but the positive declarations of deaf, blind, paralytic and rheumatic persons who profess to have been cured within these four days are difficult to account for," one journalist reported. A Nebraska newspaper devoted an entire two page spread to a "Schlatter Symposium," surveying professors and doctors in and around the Lincoln area. They mostly dismissed his healing work, attributing it to animal magnetism, hypnotism, and fraud. An Omaha pastor conceded that Schlatter seemed to be doing miraculous work, but was otherwise unmoved by Schlatter's work. "If Schlatter lived in Peru or Spain the holy church would make him a saint, and certainly he would have a better right to it than many in the canon," Methodist pastor Frank Crane wrote, "but the clear light of intelligence is most too strong in America."

Others were more receptive. A Methodist minister from Denver claimed that Schlatter "possesses as much power as the apostles of old had" while another Denver pastor linked Schlatter's efforts with social gospel themes: "He [Schlatter] is doing good here; he is calling our attention to the fact that the center and source of all life is God. Not a God who a long time ago filled a cistern and then went away, but God a free slowing spring, a 'present help in very time of need'-Immanuel! God with us."

Wichita Daily Eagle, 1895
Schlatter's own understanding of his powers remained somewhat cryptic. Newspapers reported that he "often told of his visits with the prophets while out in the Arizona deserts" and some asserted that he had claimed to be the second coming of Christ. Schlatter, for his part, seemed only to say without elaboration that his healing power came from "the Father." Historian Ferenc Morton Szasz (one of the few trained historians to research Schlatter) has argued that Schlatter was also influenced by the New Thought movement, and may have had connections with Malinda Cramer, a founder of the Church of Divine Science.

As people discussed and debated the possibility that Schlatter could be a new messiah, Schlatter slipped suddenly away. He left in the middle of a November night, leaving behind only an abstruse handwritten note that read, "My mission is finished. Father takes me away. Goodbye."

Kansas City Journal, 1897
Schlatter's sudden disappearance sent shockwaves not only through Denver, but (thanks to front-page newspaper coverage in places as far away as New York and Washington D.C.), the entire nation. Journalists were dispatched to track down the would-be Messiah, while rumors, gossip, and supposed sightings were constantly reported. One of the most humorous "sightings" involved a vagrant who resembled Schlatter being jailed in Los Angeles. A local newspaper spent a week speculating on the possibility of Schlatter's presence in Los Angeles, only to find out that the man in custody was not the great Healer.

As the American public searched for the missing messiah, a New Mexico woman named Ada Morley supposedly met the fugitive and sheltered him for the winter. In 1897, Morley published a book titled The Life of the Harp in the Hand of the Harper, which she claimed was an account of Schlatter's words and teachings. Within the book, Morley described Schlatter's critiques of American capitalism, his belief that Jesus taught socialism, and his teaching that the end of time would come in 1899 with a terrible war between the gold powers and the working class. After the war, Schlatter claimed, a New Jerusalem would be established in New Mexico.

Schlatter would not live to the end. In 1897, Schatter was found dead in Mexico's Sierra Madres, his body laying near his horse. Some speculated that he died from a self-imposed fast, but the actual cause of death is unknown. However it happened, reports of Schlatter's death immediately began to circulate in American newspapers. Yet, just like Jesus, Schlatter came back from the dead. He reappeared later that year in Canton, Ohio. And also in Hastings (Neb.), Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, and a plethora of other places over the span of the next twenty years (if you want to see for yourself all the spurious sightings, just search for "Francis Schlatter" at the Chronicling America digital newspaper project).

There was a key difference between all of the resurrected Schlatters and the original, though. Schlatter in his resurrected form always seemed to want money for his work, which is something the original never demanded.  Even the unimpressed Omaha pastor in 1895 had begrudgingly admitted, "The greatest thing about him is that he has taken no money for his services."

Schlatter's legacy lives on among believers in divine healing and among local Colorado and New Mexico historians, but otherwise the humble shoemaker has faded into historical obscurity. Yet Americans who lived through the 1890s would almost certainly have understood what someone meant if they reported that a "new Schlatter" was in town. To some, Schlatter represented the very essence of a modern Christ. Not only did he live humbly, but he also looked like Jesus was supposed to look -- at least if the pictures of Jesus so popular at the time were to be believed. He also connected with working-class folks. Although he eschewed politics -- "I was a Populist, red hot," he reportedly had told a reporter in 1895, "I know now that the evils of the world cannot be cured by politics" -- he became a "democrat's Jesus" of sorts for the poor and the lowly.  To his supporters, he was proof that God could still work miracles in the modern world.

To others, Schlatter was nothing more than a fake healer who somehow duped people into belief. As one newspaper put it, "Francis Schlatter, the tramp Christ, was an ignorant fraud."  Yet, that newspaper could not help but note that Schlatter "was easily the sensation of the year." Those sentiments were echoed in 1896 by America's leading magazine of cartoon humor, Puck, which saw fit to include the Schlatter sensation in a political cartoon. In a piece titled "Uncle Sam's Crazes, Past and Present," (click on the image below for an enlarged version), a number of presumably wacky American fads were depicted, including Prohibition, roller skating, the bicycle, and blue glass (this apparently involved passing electric light through blue glass to alleviate pain). In the bottom right corner Schlatter made an appearance, with a caption that read that Uncle Sam "was carried away by the Schlatter craze some months ago." The centerpiece of the cartoon featured Uncle Sam sitting atop a rocking horse labeled "Free Silver."

So what can we learn from Francis Schlatter? There are many intriguing avenues to explore: the blending of German, American, and Mexican identities; the mixing of Catholicism, Protestantism, New Thought, Spiritualism, and Curanderismo; the mass media that propelled him to the front page; the public divide between cynicism, curiosity, and belief; the mysterious death and numerous "resurrections"; his cult following today among believers in divine healing; the physical resemblance to Jesus.  

Fortunately for me, this is just a blog post (blogging as scholarship? not on my watch) so I don't have to make some Really Important Claim about what it all means. But I can leave you with this, which is perhaps my favorite bit of information I uncovered about Schlatter: In the midst of Schlatter's disappearance, a company in Omaha did something entirely sensible. They used his notoriety to sell pretty suits.  

Omaha Daily Bee, 1895

(For more pictures of Schlatter, check out this page at the Library of Congress)


David said…
About the time Paul posted this excellent overview of Francis Schlatter on his blog a few months ago, I told him I had submitted my manuscript on the healer, "The Forgotten Messiah," to a university press. It's now going through a second review after I reduced its size and added some contextual commentary. At any rate, Schlatter and his imposters (who flourished from the time of his reported death in 1897 to about 1922) reflected the Populist and Progressive eras. Schlatter believed that the year 1899 would bring about a biblical apocalypse on the order of Ignatius Donnelly’s “Caesar’s Column”; his impersonators, on the other hand, suffered from the Progressive effort to criminalize psychic healing (one of them was sentenced to eighteen months in federal prison). I would be happy to provide a literature survey on Schlatter for anyone who is interested.
Paul Putz said…
David, thanks for the comment and please keep me updated on the progress of your Schlatter manuscript. I would love to read it when it is published. No one that I'm aware of has published a scholarly monograph on Schlatter...I've seen only a few articles and journalistic biographies.
David said…
The only scholarly monograph to date on Schlatter is François Schlatter: l’homme aux 100 000 guérisons (Paris: Arqa, 2006) by Gil Alonso-Mier. It's a two-volume work--and impressive for someone so far removed from the primary sources. In 2008 Conger Beasley Jr. published Messiah: The Life and Times of Francis Schlatter (Santa Fe: Sunstone Press), a look at the healer's known life and career but rendered useless for serious study by the addition of novelistic elements like interior thoughts and dramatic exaggerations.

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