Diamond Cut Diamond Or Yankee Superstitions
There is a story that on a great and solemn public occasion of the
Romish Church, a Pope and a Cardinal were, with long faces, performing
some of the gyrations of the occasion, when, instead of a pious
ejaculation and reply, which were down in the programme, one said to the
other gravely, in Latin "mundus vult decipi;" and the other replied,
with equal gravity and learning, "decipiatur ergo:" that is, "All the
oses to be fooled."--"Let it be fooled then."
This seems, perhaps, a reasonable way for priests to talk about ignorant
Italians. It may seem inapplicable to cool, sharp, school-trained
Protestant Yankees. It is not, however--at least, not entirely.
Intelligent Northerners have, sometimes, superstition enough in them to
make a first-class Popish saint. If it had not been so, I should not
have such an absurd religious humbug to tell of as Robert Matthews,
notorious in our goodly city some thirty years ago as "Matthias, the
In the summer of 1832, there was often seen riding in Broadway, in a
handsome barouche, or promenading on the Battery (usually attended by a
sort of friend or servant,) a tall man, of some forty years of age,
quite thin, with sunken, sharp gray eyes, with long, coarse, brown and
gray hair, parted in the middle and curling on his shoulders, and a long
and coarse but well-tended beard and mustache. These Esau-like
adornments attracted much attention in those close-shaving days. He was
commonly dressed in a fine green frock-coat, lined with white or pink
satin, black or green pantaloons, with polished Wellington boots drawn
on outside, fine cambric ruffles and frill, and a crimson silk sash
worked with gold and with twelve tassels, for the twelve tribes of
Israel. On his head was a steeple-crowned patent-leather shining black
cap with a shade.
Thus bedizened, this fantastic-looking personage marched gravely up and
down, or rode in pomp in the streets. Sometimes he lounged in a
bookstore or other place of semi-public resort; and in such places he
often preached or exhorted. His preachments were sufficiently horrible.
He claimed to be God the Father; and his doctrine was, in substance,
this:--"The true kingdom of God on earth began in Albany in June 1830,
and will be completed in twenty-one years, or by 1851. During this time,
wars are to stop, and I, Matthias, am to execute the divine judgments
and destroy the wicked. The day of grace is to close on December 1,
1836; and all who do not begin to reform by that time, I shall kill."
The discourses by which this blasphemous humbug supported his
pretensions were a hodge-podge of impiety and utter nonsense, with
rants, curses and cries, and frightful threats against all objectors.
Here is a passage from one;--"All who eat swine's flesh are of the
devil; and just as certain as he eats it he will tell a lie in less than
half an hour. If you eat a piece of pork, it will go crooked through
you, and the Holy Ghost will not stay in you; but one or the other must
leave the house pretty soon. The pork will be as crooked in you as rams'
horns." Again, he made these pleasant points about the ladies: "They who
teach women are of the wicked. All females who lecture their husbands
their sentence is: 'Depart, ye wicked, I know you not.' Everything that
has the smell of woman will be destroyed. Woman is the cap-sheaf of the
abomination of desolation, full of all deviltry." There, ladies! Is
anything further necessary to convince you what a peculiarly wicked and
horrible humbug this fellow was?
If we had followed this impostor home, we should have found him lodged,
during most of his stay in New-York city, with one or the other of his
three chief disciples. These were Pierson, who commonly attended him
abroad, Folger, and--for a time only--Mills. All three of these men were
wealthy merchants. In their handsome and luxuriously-furnished homes,
this noxious humbug occupied the best rooms, and controlled the whole
establishment, directing the marketing, meal times, and all other
household-matters. Master, mistress (in Mr. Folger's home,) and
domestics were disciples, and obeyed the scamp with an implicitness and
prostrate humility even more melancholy than absurd, both as to
housekeeping and as to the ceremonies, washing of feet, etc., which he
enjoined. When he was angry with his female disciples, he frequently
whipped them; but, being a monstrous coward, he never tried it on a man.
The least opposition or contradiction threw him into a great rage, and
set him screaming, and cursing, and gesticulating like any street drab.
When he wished more clothes, which was pretty often, one of his dupes
furnished the money. When he wanted cash for any purpose indeed, they
gave it him.
This half-crazy knave and abominable humbug was Robert Matthews, who
called himself Matthias. He was of Scotch descent, and born about 1790,
in Washington county, New York; and his blood was tainted with insanity,
for a brother of his died a lunatic. He was a carpenter and joiner of
uncommon skill, and up to nearly his fortieth year lived, on the whole,
a useful and respectable life, being industrious, a professing Christian
of good standing, and (having married in 1813) a steady family-man. In
1828 and 1829, while living at Albany, he gradually became excited about
religious subjects; his first morbid symptoms appearing after hearing
some sermons by Rev. E. N. Kirk, and Mr. Finney the revivalist. He soon
began to exhort his fellow-journeymen instead of minding his work, so
uproariously that his employer turned him away.
He discovered a text in the Bible that forbid Christians to shave. He
let his hair and beard grow; began street-preaching in a noisy, brawling
style; announced that he was going to set about converting the whole
city of Albany--which needed it badly enough, if we may believe the
political gentlemen. Finding however, that the Lobby, or the Regency,
or something or other about the peculiar wickedness of Albany, was
altogether too much for him, he began, like Jonah at Nineveh, to
announce the destruction of the obstinate town; and at midnight, one
night in June, 1826, he waked up his household, and saying that Albany
was to be destroyed next day, took his three little boys--two, four, and
six years old--his wife and oldest child (a daughter refusing to go,)
and "fled to the mountains." He actually walked the poor little fellows
forty miles in twenty-four hours, to his sister's in Washington county.
Here he was reckoned raving crazy; was forcibly turned out of church for
one of his brawling interruptions of service, and sent back to Albany,
where he resumed his street-preaching more noisily than ever. He now
began to call himself Matthias, and claimed to be a Jew. Then he went on
a long journey to the Western and Southern States, preaching his
doctrines, getting into jail, and sometimes fairly cursing his way out;
and, returning to New York city, preached up and down the streets in his
crazy, bawling fashion, sometimes on foot and sometimes on an old bony
His New York city dupes, Elijah Pierson and Benjamin H. Folger and their
families, together with a Mr. Mills and a few more, figured prominently
in the chief chapter of Matthews' career, during two years and a half,
from May, 1832, to the fall of 1834.
Pierson and Folger were the leaders in the folly. These men, merchants
of wealth and successful in business, were of that sensitive and
impressible religious nature which is peculiarly credulous and liable to
enthusiasms and delusions. They had been, with a number of other
persons, eagerly engaged in some extravagant religious performances,
including excessive fasts and asceticisms, and a plan, formed by one of
their lady friends, to convert all New York by a system of female
visitations and preachings--a plan not so very foolish, I may just
remark, if the she apostles are only pretty enough!
Pierson, the craziest of the crew, besides other wretched delusions, had
already fancied himself Elijah the Tishbite; and when his wife fell ill
and died a little while before this time, had first tried to cure her,
and then to raise her from the dead, by anointing with oil and by the
prayer of faith, as mentioned in the Epistle of Saint James.
Curiously enough, a sort of lair or nest, very soft and comfortable, was
thus made ready for our religious humbug, just as he wanted it worst;
for in these days he was but seedy. He heard something of Pierson, I
don't know how; and on the 5th of May, 1832, he called on him. Very
quickly the poor fellow recognized the long-bearded prophetical humbug
as all that he claimed to be--a possessor and teacher of all truth, and
as God himself.
Mills and Folger easily fell into the same pitiable foolery, on
Pierson's introduction. And the lucky humbug was very soon living in
clover in Mills' house, which he chose first; had admitted the happy
fools, Pierson and Folger, as the first two members of his true church;
Pierson, believing that from Elijah the Tishbite he had become John the
Baptist, devoted himself as a kind of servant to his new Messiah; and
the deluded men began to supply all the temporal wants of the impostor,
believing their estates set apart as the beginning of the material
Kingdom of God!
After three months, some of Mills' friends, on charges of lunacy, caused
Mills to be sent to Bloomingdale Asylum, and Matthias to be thrust into
the insane poor's ward at Bellevue, where his beard was forcibly cut
off, to his extreme disgust. His brother, however, got him out by a
habeas corpus, and he went to live with Folger. Mills now disappears
from the story.
Matthias remained in the full enjoyment of his luxurious establishment,
until September, 1834, it is true, with a few uncomfortable
interruptions. He was always both insolent and cowardly, and thus often
irritated some strong-minded auditor, and got himself into some pickle
where he had to sneak out, which he did with much ease. In his seedy
days the landlord of a hotel in whose bar-room he used to preach and
curse, put him down when he grew too abusive, by coolly and sternly
telling him to go to bed. Mr. Folger himself had one or two brief
intervals of sense, in one of which, angered at some insolence of
Matthias, he seized him by the throat, shook him well, and flung him
down upon a sofa. The humbug knowing that his living was in danger, took
this very mildly, and readily accepted the renewed assurances of belief
which poor Folger soon gave him. In the village of Sing Sing where
Folger had a country-seat which he called Mount Zion, Matthias was
exceedingly obnoxious. His daughter had married a Mr. Laisdell; and the
humbug, who claimed that all Christian marriages were void and wicked,
by some means induced the young wife to come to Sing Sing, where he
whipped her more than once quite cruelly. Her husband came and took her
away after encountering all the difficulty which Matthias dared make;
and, at a hearing in the matter before a magistrate, he was very near
getting tarred and feathered, if not something worse, and the danger
frightened him very much.
He barely escaped being shaved by violence, and being thrown overboard
to test his asserted miraculous powers, at the hands of a stout and
incredulous farmer on the steamboat between Sing Sing and New York.
While imprisoned at Bellevue before his trial, he was tossed in a
blanket by the prisoners, to make him give them some money. The unlucky
prophet dealt out damnation to them in great quantities; but they told
him it wouldn't work, and the poor humbug finally, instead of casting
them into hell, paid them a quarter of a dollar apiece to let him off.
When he was about to leave Folger's house, some roguish young men of
Sing Sing forged a warrant, and with a counterfeit officer seized the
humbug, and a second time shaved him by force. He was one day terribly
"set back" as the phrase is, by a sharpish answer. He gravely asserted
to a certain man that he had been on the earth eighteen hundred years.
His hearer, startled and irreverent, exclaimed:
"The devil you have! Do you tell me so?"
"I do," said the prophet.
"Then," rejoined the other, "all I have to say is, you are a remarkably
good-looking fellow for one of your age."
The confounded prophet grinned, scowled, and exclaimed indignantly:
"You are a devil, Sir!" and marched off.
In the beginning of August, 1834, the unhappy Pierson died in Folger's
house, under circumstances amounting to strong circumstantial evidence
that Matthias, with the help of the colored cook, an enthusiastic
disciple, had poisoned him with arsenic. The rascal pretended that his
own curse had slain Pierson. There was a post mortem, an indictment, and
a trial, but the evidence was not strong enough for conviction. Being
acquitted, he was at once tried again for an assault and battery on his
daughter by the aforesaid whippings; and on this charge he was found
guilty and sent to the county jail for three months, in April, 1835. The
trial for murder was just before--the prophet having lain in prison
since his apprehension for murder in the preceding autumn. Mr. Folger's
delusion had pretty much disappeared by the end of the summer of 1834.
He had now become ruined, partly in consequence of foolish speculations
jointly with Pierson, believed to be conducted under Divine guidance,
and partly because his strange conduct destroyed his business reputation
and standing. The death of Pierson, and some very queer matters about
another apparent poisoning-trick, awakened the suspicions of the
Folgers; and after a good deal of scolding and trouble with the
impostor, who hung on to his comfortable home like a good fellow, Folger
finally turned him out, and then had him taken up for swindling. He had
been too foolish himself, however, to maintain this charge; but, shortly
after, the others, for murder and assault, followed, with a little
This imprisonment seems to have put a sudden and final period to the
prophetical and religious operations of Master Matthias, and to the
follies of his victims, too. I know of no subsequent developments of
either kind. Matthias disappears from public life, and died, it is said,
in Arkansas; but when, or after what further career, I don't know. He
was a shallow knave, and undoubtedly also partly crazy and partly the
dupe of his own nonsense. If he had not so opportunely found victims of
good standing, he would not have been remembered at all, except as
George Munday, the "hatless prophet," and "Angel Gabriel Orr," are
remembered--as one more obscure, crazy street-preacher. And as soon as
his accidental supports of other people's money and enthusiasm failed
him, he disappeared at once. Many of my readers will remember
distinctly, as I do, the remarkable career of this man, and the
humiliating position in which his victims were placed. In the face of
such an exposition as this of the weakness and credulity of poor human
nature in this enlightened country of common schools and colleges, in
the boasted wide-awake nineteenth century, who shall deny that we can
study with interest and profit the history of impositions which have
been practiced upon mankind in every possible phase throughout every age
of the world, including the age in which we live? There is literally no
end to these humbugs; and the reader of these pages, weak as may be my
attempts to do the subject justice, will learn that there is no country,
no period, and no sphere in life which has not been impiously invaded
by the genius of humbug, under more disguises and in more shapes than it
has entered into the heart of man to conceive.