My Turn: Mary Baker Eddy and a ‘Faith on Trial’

Last modified: 12/14/2014 8:11:33 AM
Note from the author: “Faith on Trial” is the product of my years as library director at the New Hampshire Historical Society where many materials about the case reside. I was impressed by the amount of national media attention garnered by the case of Eddy v. Frye, and the fact that no one had written a book about it. I wanted to know what all the attention focused on the case and on Concord said about the times, the Progressive Era, “yellow journalism” and freedom of religion. Besides the many materials located in Concord, I was also assisted by the staff at the Mary Baker Eddy Library in Boston. The result is the first book about the so-called Next Friends case.

Peter A. Wallner

The following is an excerpt from Peter A. Wallner’s new book “Faith on Trial: Mary Baker Eddy, Christian Science and the First Amendment.” The book is published by Plaidswede Publishing in Concord.

The headline in the Sunday, October 28, 1906, New York World read, “Mrs. Mary Baker G. Eddy Dying; Footman and ‘Dummy’ Control Her.” The lengthy exposé that followed went on to claim that the reclusive eighty-five-year-old founder and leader of the Church of Christ, Scientist, was dying of cancer and that another woman “impersonate(d) her in the Streets of Concord,” New Hampshire, where the most famous woman in America had lived since 1889. According to the article, Eddy was under the control of her “Secretary-Footman” Calvin A. Frye, who, along with her “coterie,” also controlled her fortune, estimated at $15 million, with an annual income of 
$1 million.

Two reporters from the World, Slaght and Lithchild, had interviewed Eddy on October 15 at her home, Pleasant View, in Concord. They claimed that Eddy braced herself, “her hands on the edge of a heavy table,” that she appeared “more dead than alive,” and that she “was a skeleton, her hollow cheeks, thick with red paint, and the fleshless, hairless bones above the sunken eyes penciled in jet black.” She appeared “pitifully emaciated,” and “her weakness was pathetic.” It was obvious to the reporters “that the unfortunate old woman had been doped and galvanized (with a battery) for the ordeal of identification.” The reporters noted, “But it was equally clear that the utmost stimulation could not keep the tortured woman upon her feet much longer.” The reporters brought a neighbor of Eddy’s with them to help identify her. The old woman greeted the neighbor, but he professed to be “astonished at her feebleness.” The reporters stated, “She is a living corpse.”

The intrepid reporters also determined to prove that it was not the feeble Eddy who appeared each day to the residents of Concord on an afternoon carriage ride through the capital city. The reporters posted themselves along the usual route, and as the carriage passed by, one stepped to the right to look through the window. Immediately, the passenger in the carriage pulled a parasol over to block the view. At that moment the other reporter drove by in a carriage and had a clear view of the rider’s face through the other window. The two men stated, “The woman in the Eddy carriage was younger than the aged founder of Christian Science by many years.” They determined that the impersonator was Pamelia J. Leonard of Brooklyn, New York, a Christian Science reader who had been called to Pleasant View by Eddy several years before.

More charges were made in the multipart article. Questions were raised about Eddy’s wealth. According to the reporters, she had an annual income of $1 million, but no one knew where the money was. Supposedly, it was dispensed to various charities, but no record of these charities could be found. Finally, it was claimed that Eddy was under the care of a Boston physician, a cancer specialist. This was possibly the most damning charge of all, in that everyone knew that Christian Scientists disdained medical treatment, believing solely in the power of mental healing. If it could be proved that the founder and leader of the religion was receiving medical treatment from a worldly physician, what would it mean to the faithful who ascribed to the tenets of the religion? In all of their investigations, the World’s reporters had faced obstruction from the citizens of Concord, “this most conservative of New Hampshire cities,” which was “absolutely dominated by the aged occupant of Pleasant View and her man Frye.” To every question about Eddy, Concord citizens responded, “She is alive and hearty. You can see her every day in her carriage.” According to the World, anyone who would tell the truth about Eddy was “sure to lose his job.” Even the police claimed they would arrest anyone who “tried to take a picture of Mrs. Eddy’s carriage.”

The fact that none of the charges made by the World were remotely true was of little concern to Joseph Pulitzer and the editors of the paper. In the age of yellow journalism, their one goal was to sell newspapers. With a daily circulation of over seven hundred thousand, the World had brought wealth and power to the paper and its owner through the sensationalism that characterized its contents. But attacking a little old lady living quietly in a remote corner of New England proved to be an abuse that would come to mark the beginning of the end of what Stephen J. Diner has called “the frenzy for journalistic revelations” that characterized the age of muckraking and yellow journalism. As the truth about Mary Baker G. Eddy was revealed over the next year, the public’s tolerance for sensationalism “declined quickly after 1907,” according to Diner, and the “public’s interest in scandal seemed sated.”

Church leaders and the citizens of Concord came immediately to Eddy’s defense. On the day the World’s article appeared, Sunday, October 28, attempts were made to refute the “facts” contained in the story. Concord mayor and probate court judge Charles H. Corning recorded the day’s events in his diary as “a remarkable & red marked day” in his life, commenting, “Yet I wonder if I appreciate the full meaning of it all.” Bombarded all day with questions about Eddy from reporters investigating the “big scoop,” Corning received a visit around 3:30 p.m. from H. Cornell Wilson, a member of the Christian Science Publication Committee, “with a request to go out to Pleasant View & see with (Corning’s) own eyes the lady herself.” Corning had never met Eddy, and a short time later Wilson returned “in a public hack” with Eddy’s attorney Frank Streeter to escort Corning to Eddy’s home. At Pleasant View, Corning asked to see Pamelia Leonard, whom the World accused of impersonating Eddy on her daily carriage ride.

Corning noted,

She sat near me so I had a good look. Her age may be 55 to 60, her hair is grey, her eyes very dark & here her physical similitude to Mrs. E. stops. Mrs. Leonard is well nourished, her figure filled out & her face is as different from th. of the woman she is said to personate, as a circle is different from a square. Her face & facial features are round while Mrs. Eddy’s are long, peaked & lined.

Corning was invited then to meet Eddy in the upstairs reception room, which he described as “a S. E. exposure well lighted with a balcony (with) easy access through the low windows.” He wrote, “She rose and shook hands with us calling Streeter, General and addressing me as Judge Corning and incidentally remarking th. she & I had never met.” Corning continued, “Resuming her easy chair she said with emphasis, her eyes brightening & a slight color coming to her cheeks that the Lord was her refuge, that God wd. protect her & in Him she had always put her trust. If God is not our friend where is our friend, the finite God is our strength. While uttering these words she looked at S. & then at me.”

She went on to discuss the wedding gift she had sent to Streeter’s daughter and a request from the state fair association. She sent for Calvin Frye to retrieve the documents about the fair and commented, “I have so much to do th. Mr. Frye might steal $100,000 without my knowing it but I’m sure he never will.” After spending a half hour with Eddy, Corning recorded his final impressions.

She is 85 years old & she shows her years, face sharp, form slight, hands veined but warm in shaking hands, her wrinkles & age lines are prominent, she is naturally tremulous & I noticed a shaking of the head. She is slightly deaf & said so, her false teeth grate at times & her hands indicated age. But considering her years & her life’s work & the work to be done daily I saw a woman who surprised me. . . . That she rides out daily I have no doubt. . . . She had returned from her drive & wore a beautiful grey waist embroidered and attractive & hanging from her neck was a locket studded with diamonds or pearls. Her skirt was black & had evidently been changed on her return.

Streeter had Corning write “quickly what (he) had to say,” which was immediately sent off to the press. Corning then went to the Christian Science Church on State Street in Concord, where he addressed a packed house. He noted hostility to the World’s reporting: “The excitement is lively & non scientists (non–Christian Scientists) are worked up over this contemptible performance.” For the next twenty minutes, Corning addressed the crowd about his visit to Pleasant View “amid a hush such as [he had] never experienced.” Corning returned home with Streeter, who mentioned that he had “made Mrs. Eddy’s will and he had it in his safe.” Corning wrote, “(Streeter) slapped me on the knee as is his want now & then exclaiming ‘Charles, I thought of what she said about Fry’s taking $100,000, without her knowing it.’ ” Streeter went on to describe Frye’s complete loyalty to Eddy and to encourage Corning, as a probate court judge, to turn to Frye for help “if a post mortem question arises.” Corning was not as impressed with Frye, writing, “(He) has shifty eyes, one of those eyes that argue & suspect & supply what in others is known as speech. I guess he is shrewd, self organized.”

The next day, October 29, 1906, newspapers all over the country carried the statements of Corning, Streeter, Wilson, and others attesting to Eddy’s mental and physical wellbeing. In Concord, the Evening Monitor headline read “Cruel Falsehoods Promptly Refuted.” The Monitor’s editorial lambasted “a certain section of the American press” for publishing “grossly fantastic and entirely false statements concerning the personality of the Rev. Mary Baker Eddy, the Discoverer and Founder of Christian Science.” The World claimed its story was the result of long investigation in Concord. The Monitor denied this possibility: “No honest investigator could have stayed here even so short a time as a single day without learning from indisputable sources that Mrs. Eddy is alive – and very keenly alive – to all that takes place in the world, and that she is constantly alert and thoughtful to do good to everybody, especially to the city of Concord.” The editor of the Monitor, George Higgins Moses, added his personal testimony by writing that he had known Mrs. Eddy for ten years and had seen her “within a very short time.”

The World published all of the denials but emphasized that the many representatives of the press in Concord, including the Associated Press and reporters from New York, Boston, and New England, had been denied access to Eddy. It was clear to those around Mary Baker Eddy that more needed to be done to completely refute the World’s story. Calvin Frye issued a statement to the Monitor, asserting that he was simply a paid employee of Eddy and noting, “(She) conducts her own affairs, financial and otherwise, to-day as she always has.” Frye denied that she was “dominated or controlled by any sort of ‘cabinet’ or combination.” He also claimed Eddy was in “her usual good health” and denied that Pamelia Leonard or anybody else had ever impersonated her on her daily drive. Leonard also issued a statement duly notarized, stating that she had never impersonated Eddy: “I have never stepped inside of her carriage and have never even looked inside of it.” Leonard also stated “most emphatically” that Eddy was not suffering from any disease and that there was “not . . . any sort of galvanic battery” in the house.

To Eddy’s staff, it was apparent that the only way to counteract the story in the World was to make Eddy available to the press, at least in a limited way. The problem with this strategy was that she had met with the World reporters, Slaght and Lithchild, but they had entirely disregarded what they had learned about her from that interview. The interview had taken place on October 15 after, Slaght and Lithchild insisted, Joseph Pulitzer had sent them to Concord to determine if Eddy was alive or dead. After long interviews with Frye and others in Concord, the reporters still insisted that all they wanted to do was prove that Eddy was alive and well. They claimed it was not Pulitzer’s purpose to use any material against Eddy other than to satisfy themselves that she was alive. With these assurances, Frye and Eddy’s secretary, Lewis Strang, arranged for the reporters to meet Eddy at Pleasant View at 3:00 p.m. that day, accompanied by one of Eddy’s neighbors, John Kent, for purposes of identification. Eddy met the three men, standing the entire visit. Strang wrote that day, “The little affair went through very nicely, and the men seemed thoroughly satisfied and quite impressed with our Leader’s appearance.” After the visit, on the way down the stairs, Lithchild told Strang, “She is certainly a well-preserved woman for her years,” and Slaght also expressed that “he was thoroughly satisfied” as to the soundness of Eddy’s physical and mental condition. The article that appeared in the World less than two weeks later must have thoroughly shaken whatever confidence in the press remained at Pleasant View.

Eddy’s making herself more available to the press was not the only effort to head off the negative article from the World. The editor of the Concord Patriot, Michael Meehan, a Roman Catholic, wrote directly to Joseph Pulitzer, pleading with him “in a spirit of justice, truth, square dealing” to squelch the “unqualifiedly false” statements or insinuations that the reporters seemed determined to write. Meehan knew Eddy, had “been in her home, in her study with her within a few months” of the news story, and denied what the reporters seemed determined to write. Meehan stated, “(They say) Mrs. Eddy is dead, and that a mummy or a substitute, and not she, is in the carriage each day . . . or (they) will say Mrs. Eddy is enfeebled and decrepid, and that those brilliant faculties which in the past made her wonderful accomplishments possible have departed.” Meehan went on to say that his letter was in no way occasioned by any “zeal” on his part for Christian Science but by his respect for Eddy and because the efforts of the reporters were “unworthy of the World.” Pulitzer never responded to Meehan’s letter.

Having failed to prevent publication of the exposé, those surrounding Eddy decided to attempt to discredit the World’s story. They arranged for the large number of reporters in Concord to see Eddy at Pleasant View, on October 30, as she left for her daily carriage ride. The brief, carefully orchestrated, interview would be conducted by Sybil Wilbur of the Boston Herald, who had previously written a laudatory piece on Eddy, based on personal interviews. Wilbur would ask Eddy four prearranged questions as Eddy descended the stairs on her way out the front door to her carriage.

The reporters in Concord – minus those from the World, who were not invited to attend – would be standing in the downstairs drawing room to observe the interview with Wilbur. The pressure of the moment and long years of abuse from the press seemed to strike the eighty-five-year-old, and her hands shook as she confronted the reporters. Wilbur dutifully asked the first question: “Are you in perfect bodily health?” Eddy responded, “Indeed I am.” Wilbur asked, “Have you any other physician than God?” Eddy made a sweeping gesture: “No physician but God. His everlasting arms are around me, and that is enough.” Wilbur then asked “Do you take a daily drive?” Eddy replied, “Yes,” and with that Eddy turned away toward the carriage without waiting for the fourth prearranged question: “Does anyone besides yourself administer your property or attend to your business affairs?” The interview failed in its intended purpose, as it was too short and too carefully orchestrated and as Eddy did, in fact, appear very frail and unsteady under intense scrutiny. The result was that reporters fell back on their preconceived ideas about Eddy and the World story in writing about the interview. The variety of responses that appeared in newspapers around country was delightfully summarized by Fleta Campbell Springer, who quoted from the different reports in her biography of Eddy.

(Eddy) “bowed low and with ceremonial precision, reminding one of the entrance of a great diva before an audience made up of fashion and wealth”; “shaking and trembling, she tottered forward, clutching the curtains with palsied hands and paused swaying in the door”; “her eyes, large, dark and lustrous, sought out Mrs. O’Brien (Wilbur), whom she greeted with a smile”; “her faded lustrous eyes roamed vacantly in space above the heads of the crowd”; “her feebleness seemed only consistent with her great age”; “she stood before them shaking with palsy, a physical wreck, tottering, pallid like a vision from beyond the grave”; “she stood before them erect and upright, nerved for the ordeal”; “she wore a black cloak”; “she wore a cape of white ermin.”

George H. Moses, editor of the Concord Monitor, was present for the interview. His impression was that Eddy had changed little since he last met with her, that “the passing years had left wonderfully slight traces upon her,” and that she “smiled and bowed graciously to those before her.” To Moses, her replies to Wilbur’s questions were “clear and lucid.” Edward N. Pearson, business manager of the Rumford Printing Company of Concord, who was also present, stated that he was not a Christian Scientist and was “without bias or prejudice in this matter.” He reported that Eddy’s “voice was clear and strong and her appearance was that of a woman in full possession of her faculties.” Moses identified all of the people present for the interview, including six officials of the Christian Science Church; reporters from Hearst’s Boston American and New York American; the New York Times; the Boston Globe; the Boston Herald; the Boston Post; the Boston Journal; the Boston Traveller; representatives of the Associated Press and the Publishers’ Press; a stenographer, Mr. Pearson; and Moses of the Monitor.

Those closest to Mary Baker Eddy realized that the interview had not gone as well as they had hoped. Confronted by at least eighteen people, the eighty-five-year-old woman was understandably taken aback upon entering the parlor on the east side of the ground floor at Pleasant View. Her secretary, Lewis Strang wrote, “The position was a very difficult one for our Leader, and although I told her to step right into the room and face the newspaper people there squarely, the mental blast seemed to beat her back momentarily when she reached the door, and so the effect was not quite so positive as we could have wished.” At the last minute, Eddy had ordered that the door to the parlor be shut so that she was not seen descending the stairs. Strang, “as a newspaper man,” believed this was a mistake, since she climbed the same stairs every day without assistance. Nevertheless, Strang wrote, “The matter is finished as far as we at Pleasant View are concerned.”

The public’s appetite for news about Eddy had been whetted, however, and those who tried to protect her from the press were no longer in control of the situation. Mayor Corning recorded in his diary, “Reporters still cluster about the Eagle Hotel, interviewing, supposing & suspecting. It is a big spring of revenue for newspapers.” To him, the interview at Pleasant View that was witnessed by the reporters was nothing less than “persecution.” But, he thought, the World was correct about one thing: “Legal action to ascertain the truth is practically assured.” Corning, a probate court judge, speculated about his good friend and Eddy’s lawyer, Frank Streeter: “I can’t help estimating the revenue Streeter will receive for his part in the excitement. $20,000 at least from first to last & the last scene will perhaps be played in the Supreme Court.”

Corning was right about the coming legal action, but he grossly underestimated how much his friend Streeter would earn from Eddy before the “last scene” had been played.

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