Brother XII image C-05791 courtesy of Royal British Columbia Museum
Late one night a retired sea captain had a vision. Edward Arthur Wilson, a 46-year old Englishman, had retired to the south of France in 1924. In the course of his life he had travelled the world widely and had studied many traditions. He had long been attracted to the mystical and occult. And now, as he lay in bed, he saw a Tau, the Egyptian Cross, hanging in mid-air.
Over the next few weeks Wilson had other visions. He felt he was receiving direction from an ancient Egyptian spiritual master. This master was a member of the “Great White Lodge”, a body of advanced spiritual beings who directed the world. Wilson, who was a disciple of Theosophy, believed in such masters. Along with other Theosophists he believed certain people can be selected as spiritual leaders. They receive secret knowledge from the masters, and impart it to others. Wilson was now such an adept. He felt his master was directing him to a special role in the world. He must follow his master’s commands.
Who was this man who was now being given these commands? Little is known of his early life. Born in England in 1878, he left home at an early age. He spent his life at sea, eventually becoming a sea captain. He married a New Zealand woman in 1902, and had two children. They lived briefly in British Columbia, before he abandoned them in 1912. After that we hear nothing of him until 1924.
Such a bare résumé does not suggest a spiritual leader. But his visions changed him. He knew he had to act on his beliefs, and was being directed to do so. His first task was to change his name. The Egyptian master was the twelfth brother of the Great White Lodge. In honour of this, and to show that he was his disciple, Wilson assumed the name “Brother XII”.
His next task was much more complex. He was told to write two books, dictated to him by his master. The first was “The Three Truths”, a commentary on three truths basic to Theosophy. These are: the unity of all life, the immortality of the soul, and the law of karma. The world’s ignoring of these truths was leading to a period of chaos and destruction. The consequence would be a long and painful period of rebuilding.
The second book was an urgent manifesto, “A Message From The Masters Of The Wisdom”. In this Wilson reiterated that chaos and destruction were imminent, and that a special “Work” was being prepared by the Masters, to be conducted in a special “Ark Of Refuge”. Individuals would be trained in this “Ark” to provide spiritual enlightenment, and prepare the world for the coming Age of Aquarius.
Wilson arrived in England in 1926. As well as publishing two books he had written articles for the leading occult magazine, “The Occult Review”. He discovered he had become very well known in theosophical and occult circles. He now began to prepare for his life’s work. He decided that the “Ark Of Refuge” was to be established far from England, on the west coast of Canada. He now began to recruit followers. An ad in “The Occult Review” brought him just a handful of people willing to go. Among them though were Alfred and Anne Barley, who were to remain his most loyal disciples till the bitter end. So he set off for Canada.
Wilson, or Brother XII as he became known as, began lecturing to Theosophy chapters across Canada. He was very successful, and began attracting many followers. He set up an organization called “The Aquarian Foundation” and invited people to join. He also attracted the attention of Joseph Benner, a publisher of astrology and occult books. With Benner’s help he started to become well known south of the border.
When Brother XII arrived on the West Coast, he began looking for a place to set up the “Ark” or colony. He purchased land on the sea at Cedar, a community just south of Nanaimo. Already substantial contributions were coming in, making such a purchase possible. Next, he began a recruitment drive in California. He had successful speaking engagements in San Francisco and elsewhere. He attracted many new members and chapters of the Foundation were set up in California. Some of the new members were very high profile. Will Levington Comfort was a well-known writer, and Coulson Turnbull was one of America’s leading astrologers. These two, plus Joseph Benner and several others, became founding members of the Aquarian Foundation’s first board. Several moved to Canada and lived in the colony.
Brother XII’s movement continued to steam ahead. By July, 1927, the Aquarian Foundation was able to have its first board meeting. Brother XII’s success had been extraordinary. Three years previously he had been isolated, penniless and unknown. Now he headed a successful organization, and had become a prominent personality. But all was not well. Certain aspects of Brother XII’s conduct were causing concern. For a number of years he had a “companion” named Elma Wilson, who was regarded as his wife although they were not legally married. But now Brother XII began an affair with a beautiful young follower, Myrtle Baumgartner. What particularly bothered some was that he was having sex with her in the “House Of Mystery”, a building that had been built for spiritual contemplation. When the issue was raised, Brother XII claimed that spiritual leaders were governed by different rules. This union was a spiritual union, ordained by the masters of the Great White Lodge. Some were willing to accept this, but others were not.
Sex was not the only issue. Brother XII had started publishing a magazine, called “The Chalice”, and was using it to push an American political agenda. A prominent Catholic, Alfred Smith, was running as the Democratic candidate in the 1928 presidential race. Brother XII was using his magazine to promote an anti-Catholic, anti-capitalist, and anti-Jewish agenda. He thought a powerful third party could be formed, which would be the champion of Protestant America. He also thought that a strong anti-capitalist and anti-Jewish message (the two were one in his mind) could be used to defeat Hoover, the Republican candidate. He even thought he had a potential candidate, Senator James Heflin of Alabama. But when he went to the third party conventions he failed completely in his attempts. He came back to Cedar, and tried to sweep it under the rug. But there were those who thought such a message and such activity were not appropriate for a spiritual leader.
But the biggest problem of all was Brother XII’s growing authoritarianism, particularly in regard to the Foundation’s money. He had purchased land at the north end of Valdes Island for the expansion of the colony. Now he was having buildings built on the land, without any discussion with the board. He seemed to think that his will was law. Some, such as Will Levington Comfort, saw the drift of things and quit. Others, though, decided to force the issue. They insisted that Brother XII should dissolve the Foundation. Brother XII seemed to acquiesce, then stacked the board meeting in his favour. In response the dissident governors took Brother XII to court, charging him with misappropriating thousands of dollars from the Foundation. In turn Brother XII charged the Foundation’s secretary of stealing 2,800 dollars. The secretary disappeared before his case was finished. And Brother XII was saved by a new American benefactor, Mary Connolly. She insisted to the Court that her very large gift was to Brother XII personally, and not to the Foundation. The Court let him off. Meanwhile the dissolution of the Foundation became a political issue for the provincial government to deal with.
The provincial government came into the picture because of a journalist, Bruce McKelvie. McKelvie started to investigate Brother XII and the Aquarian Foundation when the court cases began. He thought he smelt a rat. His interviews and investigations convinced him that this was a cult devoted to free love and the swindling of rich, gullible Americans. He made it his mission to expose Brother XII. As well as publishing articles in his newspaper, he wrote to his friend Harry Pooley, the Attorney General of British Columbia. He told Pooley of the weird occultism going on at the colony, and of sexual behaviour that was unfit to publish in his newspaper. He urged Pooley to investigate. His message to Pooley was: “We don’t want [this] in British Columbia”.
Sensational stories from McKelvie and others had the desired effect. Only the provincial cabinet had the authority to dissolve an incorporated body. They now began to investigate the Aquarian Foundation with this in mind. They were spurred on by a further court case. Former employees of the Foundation were suing for back wages. The issue was not a major one. But during the trial some odd behaviour occurred. The main witness was the former board member Coulson Turnbull. This was a man Brother XII particularly hated for becoming a dissident. He was strong and healthy. But when sworn in to testify, he began to tremble like a leaf. He then collapsed. Several members of the audience also fainted. The judge tried to adjourn the Court, but he found he could not speak. He could only growl like a dog. Finally he eked out “This Court is adjourned”. After a while the case resumed. Turnbull recovered, but was not strong enough to testify. Then the lawyer for the plaintiffs, T.P. Morton, stood up to summarize their case. But he stood there in blinking confusion. Finally he stammered, “This is ridiculous, but I’ve forgotten what I was [going to say]”. The judge tried to prompt him, but he just stood there confused. With Morton incapacitated, and with insufficient evidence against the defendant, the judge was forced to dismiss the case. Brother XII was around, shaking hands. Many people were convinced he had been practicing black magic.
The press covered the case intensively. But even with the negative publicity the cabinet took a year to decide the issue. Finally, in November 1929, they dissolved the Foundation. Former board members could get title to the properties they had invested in at Cedar. But no assets were attached to the Foundation, so Brother XII was free to use any money that had accumulated. And a great deal of money had been coming in, principally from Mary Connolly and other wealthy disciples. He converted much of this into gold coins, and packed it away in jars. No one knows how much he stored. But some say it must have been a small fortune. He also acquired a new mistress. In 1929 Mabel Skottowe, a thirty-nine year old redhead, arrived at the colony with her husband. Brother XII immediately took up with her, and her husband acquiesced. Brother XII had been in the process of getting rid of Myrtle Baumgartner. He had wanted her to produce an heir, a supposed reincarnation of the Egyptian god Horus. But after two miscarriages that was no longer possible. She was also, not surprisingly, suffering from emotional problems. Some of the women in the colony helped her. But eventually she went back east, and was not heard from again.
At the same time Wilson was getting rid of his “wife” Elma. She still loved him, despite everything she had had to put up with. But Brother XII shipped her off to Switzerland to organize a Foundation chapter. When she came back, he made it plain she was not wanted. She then moved to North Vancouver, and disappeared from the record.
Brother XII was riding high again. As well as salting a fortune away he was ruling an expanded empire. Mary Connolly bought De Courcy and Ruxton Islands, and gave them to the colony. He built a fine house for himself on De Courcy. But Mabel Skottowe was a sinister force. She renamed herself “Madame Z”, and became the “enforcer” for the colony. Brother XII made himself more remote. Life for the colonists became much harsher. Madame Z would move people around from property to property, often for no obvious reason. People unused to physical labour were forced into back-breaking work. There was a break from this in 1930, when Brother XII and Madame Z went to England for a few months. But it started up again when they returned. Some of the behaviour was outright abusive.
It might be asked, why did people put up with such abuse? But these were people who had come to the colony because they trusted Brother XII. They sincerely believed he was working for their spiritual good. Undoubtedly there was a strong element of denial in all this. Privately some were willing to admit that things had deteriorated. But people were also fearful. Brother XII and Madame Z had their spies in the colonists’ midst, and became aware of everything. Moreover Brother XII had a reputation for practicing black magic. People could not break the psychological grip he had on them.
The police were suspicious of this colony. They would occasionally land on the islands, under one pretext or another. In response Brother XII set up armed encampments. Camouflaged forts were constructed, where shots could be fired at approaching boats. He had all the colonists trained in firearm use. Finally the colonists began to rebel. They had a meeting, and had Alfred Barley draw up a letter that was a “declaration of independence”. When it was sent to Brother XII he was outraged. He tried to make separate deals with certain colonists. But he was wily enough to know the game was up. Some time during June of 1932 Brother XII and Madame Z disappeared. The colonists never saw them again.
The colonists began a court case against Brother XII, to retrieve their money. They were initially fearful of doing so, because of his reputation for black magic. But when the case got under way, he never showed up. Also gone were the jars of gold coins. He had escaped to eastern Canada, and then made his way to England. Eventually, in 1935, he went to Switzerland, supposedly for medical treatment. There it was announced that he had died. But few people believed it, then or now. Most saw it as a convenient escape, back to the obscurity he had come from. Certainly no one found his money. Years later a caretaker discovered a secret compartment in a building on De Courcy. Thinking he might have found the money, he reached in and pulled out a piece of paper. But no treasure was there. Instead Brother XII had scrawled an angry message: “For fools and traitors - nothing!”
Brother XII has remained a riddle. Was he originally sincere in his beliefs, but then corrupted by power? Or was he always simply a scoundrel? Too little is known of his background to really be sure. And many of the newspaper accounts of the colony were wildly inaccurate. But the visions and early writings seem authentic. He was, after all, an unknown middle-aged man at the time. He couldn’t have guessed at later developments.
Once in power, though, he was able to make the most of it. He had a gift for organizing and manipulating people. But the ends he put them to soon lost any spiritual reality. He was more than susceptible to the blandishments of money, sex and power. Once on the descent, he was vulnerable to a woman like Madame Z. So the enterprise collapsed and he was on the run. Many had originally seen him as a prophet or seer. For them it was a sad and bitter end.
For us today, is the story still relevant? One thing it does do is shine a light on alternative communities in this province. There have been many, and are an important strand in our history. Studying Brother XII may help us to understand that past. It’s not an insight that Brother XII would have cared for. He had a spiritual message, and was little concerned with region or country. But few of us understand our legacy. His spiritual dreams from eighty years ago are gone. Instead there is the history of a province, of which he is part. Hopefully he can help us understand that past. It’s not an irony he would have appreciated. But he did, though, want to leave his mark on the world. And this, whether he would have liked it or not, may well be it.
For further reading:
Brother XII: The Strange Odyssey Of A 20th Century Prophet And His Quest For A New World by John Oliphant. (299.934 OLI).
This is easily the best book on Brother XII. The author spent over ten years researching it, and interviewed many of the people involved. The only drawback is he does not have footnotes or a bibliography detailing his sources.
Brother XII: The Devil Of DeCourcy Island by Ronald MacIsaac et al. (922.99 BRO)
This is a short and not very well researched book. It was written to defend Brother XII from the sensational stories in the newspapers, but becomes an apology for him. The writing style is dry, and reads like a lawyer’s brief.
Canada’s False Prophet: The Notorious Brother Twelve by Herbert Emmerson Wilson (923.41 WIL).
This book purports to be a biography of Brother XII by his brother Herbert Emmerson Wilson. In fact, according to John Robert Colombo, the real author is a hack writer named Thomas P. Kelley. There was also a Herbert Emerson (single “m”) Wilson who, according to the U.B.C. Library’s Special Collections website was a convicted safe-cracker and murderer as well as being the purported author of this book. Since this Wilson was born in Canada and Edward Arthur Wilson was born in England, there is hardly any likelihood there was a real connection between them. One possibility is that this was cooked up between Kelley and Herbert Emerson Wilson to cash in on Brother XII’s notoriety. In any case treat it with caution.
As well as these books the library has an extensive clipping file on Brother XII. The stories are, for the most part, very sensational and predate the researches of MacIsaac (et al.) and Oliphant, so regard them with caution as well.
Stephen Ruttan, Local History Librarian