O Brother Twelve, where art thou?

Self-styled prophet's City of Refuge illustrates the danger of hiding from evil

National Post/November 20, 2001
By Roy MacGregor

It is the middle of the day, yet barely bright enough to read a map, let alone receive the heavenly "Invocation of Light" Edward Arthur Wilson claimed he was struck with at this lovely spot on a spring morning 75 years ago.

Nor is it possible to locate Wilson's infamous Tree of Wisdom among the shedding broadleaf maples that line these back roads just south of Nanaimo along the Strait of Georgia.

But somewhere down this quiet road the City of Refuge was once planned, and somewhere out there through the fog and mist and spitting rain lies little DeCourcy Island, and in these two isolated locations there can be found a story that some may find instructive in the difficult fall of 2001.

There is, unfortunately, no such thing as Utopia.

For a while, though, back in the late 1920s and early 1930s, a great many people believed it possible to build an impenetrable "Fortress to the Future" that would keep out all the evils that had caused and followed the First World War; and many hundreds of thousands of dollars were given freely by well-educated, sophisticated people to support a cause that, today, seems both laughable and incredible in its telling.

It is the story of Brother Twelve, Canada's self-proclaimed Prophet to the World who claimed -- long before Shirley MacLaine was even born (or, as she may prefer, reborn) -- to represent "the first Trumpet-blast of the New Age."

It is a story that has attracted such writers as Pierre Berton, Howard O'Hagan and John Robert Colombo. It was the model for a sub-plot in Vancouver Island writer Jack Hodgins' brilliant 1977 novel The Invention of the World, and yet -- oddly enough -- it remains a tale never celebrated and rarely even spoken of in these parts.

Hodgins first came across the story of Brother Twelve when he was teaching in nearby Nanaimo and one of his students lived in a house in which the strange prophet was rumoured to have hidden his enormous gold reserves, in a vault. Hodgins initially began thinking of a non-fiction book, but quickly passed on the idea.

"Once I started doing research," says Hodgins, who now lives in Victoria, "I quickly discovered that people didn't want to talk about it -- not even now, after all these years."

There is, oddly, nothing at all about the City of Refuge on display at the rather charming Nanaimo museum, although they did mount a temporary exhibition a few years back with the relatively few artifacts -- a "No Trespassing" sign among them -- that survived from that time.

"'There are a lot of people from around here who will not talk about it," says Rick Slingerland, a display technician at the museum. "There are old grievances that persist to this day concerning Brother Twelve."

The bare bones of his story can be gathered from what appears to be the fullest account, Vancouver journalist John Oliphant's Brother Twelve: The Incredible Story of Canada's False Prophet.

There is little agreement about his origins. Some say Edward Arthur Wilson was born in England around 1878. Others claim he was born in Wyoming, Ont., to a strict church-going family, and that he was banished when he impregnated a local girl. One account even has him born Julian Churton Skottowe, son of a church missionary and an East Indian princess. But no matter where he really came from, there is no doubt he showed up on Vancouver Island in the mid-1920s calling himself Brother Twelve.

Short and sallow but quite dapper -- long before Pierre Trudeau, he liked a fresh rose for his lapel each day -- the self-styled prophet claimed he had been chosen to establish a refuge here in which great minds could think great thoughts in total harmony and complete safety.

He was, apparently, a spellbinding speaker and held an uncommon attraction for those dabbling in the hot new belief of the day, Theosophy, which roughly holds that the "universal soul" can be constantly improved through an amalgamation of the best of world religions and a belief in reincarnation. Some of the best minds in Canada -- Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris, Saturday Night magazine's literary editor William Arthur Deacon -- bought into this "gobbledygook" (Berton's term), though few Canadians joined Wilson's planned Utopia on Vancouver Island. Rich and well-educated Americans and Brits, however, signed on by the score, and money began flowing in, to the point where Wilson's chauffeur-driven car was taking him daily into the Nanaimo banks to make large deposits.

He built his first "refuge" in a maple grove at Cedar-by-the-Sea but soon expanded operations to nearby Valdes and DeCourcy islands. They came from all over the world to sit at his feet beneath the Tree of Wisdom and listen, or merely to stand at a distance and watch him go into trances in a cabin he called The House of Mystery.

His reputation and influence grew through the publication of The Three Truths -- in which he predicted "destruction cometh upon many" -- to the point where he and his followers sought to found a Third Party in American politics and he claimed that he would personally be selecting the next president of the United States.

When the political movement fell flat at its founding convention in Chicago in 1928, Brother Twelve and his followers returned to the island to begin preparations for "the Day of Redemption." He tossed out his wife and installed, instead, his new mistress, Myrtle Baumgartner, a doctor's wife he had met and seduced on the train that had taken him from Seattle to Chicago. He claimed that he and Myrtle were reincarnations, she of the Egyptian goddess Isis and he of the Egyptian god Osiris, and that the two of them would be producing the next saviour, Horus, who would rise up -- somewhere around 1975 -- and save all true believers.

Their child turned out to be a girl, Myrtle went mad, and soon she, too, was tossed out and replaced, this time, with a love from Florida, Mabel Skottowe, who soon changed her name to Madame Zee and took to walking about the compound with a bullwhip, which she delighted in using on people.

The insanity was becoming increasingly apparent.

Wilson still had money coming in from naive true believers, but life in the City of Refuge was more a hell than a Utopia. Residents were nearly starving while Brother Twelve and Madame Zee lived like royalty. Considering his first rule for discipleship was "The Surrender of Personal Possessions," even the most blindly loyal found it difficult to reconcile the fine linen and china of Brother Twelve's lodgings with their own spartan existence.

Some supporters took him to court on a charge of misappropriating funds, but the trial fell apart when Brother Twelve supposedly used his "black magic" to strike the opposing lawyer dumb, cause a key witness to vanish (never to be found) and have other potential witnesses throwing up in the washroom and unable to take the stand.

Brother Twelve, not surprisingly, became a bit paranoid. He became an early survivalist, packing in food supplies and stockpiling guns and ammunition. He set up night patrols and fired on wayward boats. He removed his money from the banks in $20 gold coins, stashed them in Mason jars, packed the jars in specially made wooden crates and began moving his fortune -- estimated at $430,000 -- to various places about the islands, where to this day fortune seekers think boxes may still be hidden.

Others, however, are convinced it left with him and Madame Zee in 1933, when courageous followers once again rose up and took him to court. He never appeared, however; the two of them took off for Europe after first blowing up and destroying most of the island compound.

Wilson died, apparently, in Switzerland on Nov. 7, 1934, but there are those, to no surprise, who believe that, too, was a hoax.

One thing is certain -- the money was not to be found on little DeCourcy Island, barely visible through the mists. Former residents did find the underground vault, but inside was only a roll of tarpaper with a single message chalked onto it: "FOR FOOLS AND TRAITORS -- NOTHING!"

The City of Refuge was in ruins.

"He may have had Utopia for himself," says Slingerland, of the Nanaimo museum. "He had his money pouring in and he had his wives and mistresses -- but I doubt it was Utopia for anyone else."

Slingerland sees the story of Brother Twelve as one that will never completely be known or understood.

"The trail has gone dead," he says with a shrug. "It's now more myth than fact. The story just keeps getting embellished."

And retold, coming back to life every now and then as a reminder of how impossible it is to create a refuge that has no connection whatsoever to the realities of a world supposedly left behind.

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