L.W. de Laurence & the Mysterious Influence of One Human Mind

David Metcalfe
Jan 7, 2017 · 17 min read

The late 19th and early 20th Century was a vibrant time for the city of Chicago. No less for the fact that this period saw the flowering of an American occult renaissance with one of the most robust blooms growing from the heart of the Second City itself.

In a 2012 American Academy of Religions pre-conference event called Mapping the Occult City, hosted Phoenix Rising Digital Academy and DePaul University, the history of Chicago’s esoteric publishing houses provided an interesting focus for a number of areas related to the city’s occult history. Throughout the panel presentations, and in the featured presentation of occultist, artist and initiate Michael Bertiaux, themes continued to arise which flowed perfectly along the channels dug by tenacious turn of the century occult entrepreneurs.

The Occult Gospel — Theosophy, New Thought, Spiritualism

A prominent feature of Chicago’s esoteric involvement was its central role in publishing Theosophical, New Thought, Spiritualism and standard Western esoteric works through early 20th century publishers including Advanced Thought Publishing Co., Arcane Book Concern, and Yogi Publishing Society, Sydney Flowers’ Psychic Research and New Thought Publishing Company, Hack & Anderson, and de Laurence, Scott and Company . Even the great jazzman Herman Blount(Sun Ra) spent time passing out tracts of his poetry and utopian Afro-Futurist philosophy on the El (Chicago’s sub-way system.)

The city with broad shoulders supported a sphere of publishers that spread a diverse, cosmopolitan and amorphous occult gospel to the globe. De Laurence, Scott and Company, was one of the most successful. A mail order shop, and publishing house, run by Lauren de Laurence, their catalog directly influenced the development of religious sects as far away as Nigeria and Ghana.

De Laurence’s Catalog of Books for Mystics: Together with a Complete “cabinet” of Materials Accessory to the Pursuit of Mystic Study as it was known, provided books, incense, magical novelties and curios to eager customers around the world. It was especially popular in the Southern United States and Caribbean, where it developed a central role in supplying Hoodoo and Obeah practitioners with the material and textual components of their practice.

Caribbean Witch-craft and High Science

In Jamaica, the name De Laurence has become literally synomous with witchcraft and black magic:

People who practice “De Laurence” or “High Science,” are treated with suspicion, and even today the practice remains secretive. An article in the Jamaican Star highlights the kind of stories that circulate regarding De Laurence:

Another article from Go Local Jamaica helps to further flesh out de Laurence’s Caribbean facade:

All of this due to a mail order catalog from Chicago. If you read carefully you’ll notice that De Laurence has become deeply associated with what hints at extortion practices, assassination and small scale terrorism.

These associations were strong enough that the De Laurence Catalog, as well as De Laurence related products, were outlawed in Jamaica. The official Jamaican Customs Department prohibition declares a ban on: “All publications of de Laurence, Scott and Company of Chicago in the United States of America relating to divination, magic, cultism or supernatural arts.

Advertisement for one of L.W. de Laurence’s most influential books (Image courtesy of The West Tennessee Museum of Southern Hoodoo History)

In his work, Grimoires: A History of Magic Books, Owen Davies points out that the ban has long been seen as “a cynical attempt by the British to limit the influence of unionism and the American black empowerment movement.” Even after Jamaica declared independence in 1962, and in light of subsequent socialist governments, the ban remains in place.

Speculation on the political importance of “High Science” becomes solidified when we realize that one of Jamaica’s most powerful examples of radical politics, Marcus Garvey, was himself heavily influenced by the New Thought and Mind Science ideas that were promoted in some of the more popular publications in the De Laurence Catalog. Garvey’s Pan-Africanism was touched by a mystical strain and mythological importance garnered from tapping into the cultural movements initiated, supported and propagandized by publishing company’s such as the Yogi Publication Society and De Laurence, Scott and Company.

Politics and the Occult

A core moment in the political history of the country is openly rooted in the potential of applied occultism, and “ the general belief that it (is) possible for an individual to exert some weird uncanny power over the minds of other persons, which would influence the latter for good or evil,” and that “accompanying belief that certain individuals are possessed of some mental power which bends even “things” and circumstances to its might.” This is not some superstitious belief in magic, but a very astute understanding of political power and charismatic influence, heightened by the areas struggles with colonial powers and the fractured cultural identity left by the ravages of the slave trade.

Mind Science, New Thought and late 19th century practical occultism all lie at the base of the success literature that has become central to 20th century business culture. The same practical philosophy which influences entrepreneurial enthusiasm in the United States can have a drastically different effect if it finds itself in a new cultural setting, and under a alternate motivations.

Techniques for personal empowerment, intermixing with strong, community-based traditions, and a social mythology that indicates an acceptable outlet for violence in cases of retribution and revenge via magic, spirit attack, etc., can be a menacing idea for unpopular governments. Timothy Knab’s work, A War Of Witches: A Journey Into The Underworld Of The Contemporary Aztecs, outlines a similar situation in Northern Mexico in which Aztec traditions of dream work and attack sorcery played a large part in local violence which arose due to political tension among local landowners and foreign businessmen.

De Laurence’s influence on traditional Obeah practices begins to become more visible in the 1930’s, a volatile time political period for the Caribbean. Garvey’s Pan-Africanism was bringing a wider geopolitical relevance to Afro-Carribean traditions, which formed a key component in bridging the gaps between the old and new world. In the 18th century, when similar pressures were being put on traditional practice through the British colonial presence, we see a similar importance, both positive and negative, placed on Obeah.

In 1910 Reverend Drew Ali would form the Moorish Science Temple around the publication of the Circle 7 Koran, which encapsulated teachings from Levi H. Dowling’s 1908 publication The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, the anonymous Rosicrucian book Unto Thee I Grant, and, as he was traveling between New York and Chicago at the time, we can only imagine what other occult influences may have crept in. Mitch Horowitz in his study of American mystical traditions, Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation, shows how effective the air of mystery and secrecy around the Circle 7 Koran was in allowing a largely derivative work to function as a powerful anchor for political and religious action. Just like in Jamaica with Obeah and the governing powers, the Moorish Science Temple drew the attention of the FBI during WWII.

Fears that the group were involved in collaborating with the Japanese government, though unfounded, were heightened by the strong self identification, unity and organization demonstrated by the Moorish Science Temple followers. They also had been issuing passports that identified their carrier as a Moor, and not a citizen of the United States, which caused some concern. Anyone familiar with the publications that de Laurence, Atkinson and other esoteric publishing outfits were putting out will recognize that the social responsibility, self determination and Will which form the focus of these works are perfectly mirrored in Ali and Garvey’s organization of the people. They also both draw on the Orientalist mythologies that allow these occult ideas to escape Orthodox criticisms by placing them outside of the authority of mainstream experts.

A Popular Catalog with Profound Results

The works associated with Chicago publishers of practical occultism find their way into many of the Afro-Latin traditions in one way or another, and reprints of many of their more popular titles (or at least the titles that were available in De Laurence editions) are still currently available in Botanica’s in Spanish language editions put out by different publishers. De Laurence’s Chicago occult publishing peer William Walker Atkinson’s work has even found a central place in the teachings of the Circulo de Estudos Ramacharaca (Ramachandran Study Circle.) The group, named after one of his pseudonyms, Swami Ramacharaka, study what they call the “True Superior, Consecrated Science, and Spiritualism.

It is amazing to see that these niche publishing companies were able to produce practical results in the kind of cultural exchange that would later be central to the social engineering pursued by US International Cooperation Administration. The Chile Project, pursued by the USICA in the 1950’s, sought to influence Chilean economic development through a graduate exchange program with the University of Chicago. It took 20 years for the effort, with established backing, to take effect. De Laurence was able to achieve an influence on the culture through a popular catalog of occult curios in approximately the same time span.

With such a powerful presence in the world, we might ask who was this mighty occultist, and what was this company, that wields so much sway through such subtle means. Michael Nowicki, who hosts the website Rosicrucian Salon, gives us some clues by describing his experience visiting the offices of the de Laurence Company in the 1960's:

De Laurence himself passed away in 1936, years before Nowicki visited the office of the De Laurence Company. The De Laurence Company catalog continued to have a profound effect on the development of popular traditions in the Americas after his death, despite being little more than a small office, with an obviously disinterested manager.

The mystique of the mail order catalog had been built on salesmanship, marketing and at times bold and disingenuous advertising copy. Once it was established the process of mystification was largely mechanical, and could be maintained by anyone who could keep up the facade.

The Grand Master

During his life time De Laurence faced difficulties with the authorities due to some of his more lax business and initiatory practices. In 1912 he was under investigation for, as one newspaper article from the time put it, “evidence now in the hands of the government tends to show that de Laurence sent improper literature and forbidden medicine through the mails.”

Two occult Orders under his leadership, the Order of the Black Rose, and the Order of the White Willow, were closed by the police during the investigation which began when one of his students/initiates went to the police complaining about his practices. She claimed that after going through the “weighing in” process, which involved stripping in a mirrored closet, de Laurence remarked something to the effect that she was “too fat to be an angel.” The address listed for the Order of the Black Rose (3340 South Michigan Avenue) in the article is now a nondescript building on the campus of IIT, the original building apparently having been torn down in the 1960’s or 70's.

de Laurence, booked for mail fraud (Chicago Daily News, 1912)

The photographer Rik Garrett, whose past projects include Occult Chicago and the Occult Guide websites, found articles detailing De Laurence’s troubles with the authorities in 1915 which continued the police investigation into his activities. This time two former employees, who had traveled from Nigeria to meet the “Great Master,” were disappointed to discover a savvy, and somewhat unscrupulous, businessman, who was making $.95 a curio on selling $.05 candles for $1.00 to their impoverished African communities. Although the newspaper articles paint him in a less than favorable light, Owen Davies points out that trial records show a more complex picture of the man, who seems to have truly believed in what he was selling, if not necessarily the terms or promises he made when he sold it.

As a publisher De Laurence worked within the margins of copyright law. In the same way that he saw opportunity in $.05 candles, he found that scouting for out of copyright books on esoteric subjects was another profitable venture. This was especially true if they had been originally issued in a foreign country such as England, which further complicated questions of copyright, yet provided no barriers in terms of translation.

Catherine Yronwode, of the Lucky Mojo Curio Company, points out that De Laurence, and it should also be noted William Walker Atkinson who also published many of the same books in U.S. editions, played a large part in popularizing the Golden Dawn system of magic and the various systems that emerged from it:

Whatever his motivations, De Laurence was putting the initiatory traditions of England’s social elite into the hands of society’s dispossessed. In addition to this the Orders that he initiated and which were under investigation in 1912, were open to all regardless of race. In the article from 1912 detailing the fraud investigation, this is one of the key points drawn out to shock the reader:

Beyond the racist concerns apparent in the report it also seems that the authorities and media were less than impressed with De Laurence innovative use of a stock statue in his house of worship. However, De Laurence isn’t alone in courting mystery with mundane materials. As Mariano Tomatis relates, another mysterious 20th century locale has made effective use of dull decoration, and Tomatis should know, since he helped design the museum dedicated to the location, Rennes le Chateau:

Many of the clues left a Rennes Le Chateau itself are in the form of statuary and other decorative effects that came from a catalog put out by a sculptural firm that was popular at the time, called Giscard in Toulouse, which provided similar services to a number of other churches. During the finishing stages of Sauniere’s restoration of the Church of St. Mary-Magdalene in Rennes-le-Chateau, he used them almost exclusively to outfit the building.

Despite their common origin, when assembled at that specific place, and attended by the devotion of those active in accentuating the mythology, these everyday objects become resonant with mystery. Tomatis relates this effect to an ‘infinite game,’ in which cultural phenomena such as Rennes le Chateau become focal points for alternate histories which subvert dominant cultural narratives. As we can see, such a process is not isolated to rural naivete, but happens with equal strength in atmospheres of urbanity.

This is heightened by the aesthetics of the phenomena, and the De Laurence Company mastered the use of well crafted imagery, as can be seen from a 1941 edition of The Master Key:

Good design work can go a long way in lending credibility. Since he was republishing the work of some of the best popular occultists, the material in the books themselves was only heightened through de Laurence’s brilliant marketing. One can imagine, however, that presented in a contemporary paperback the De Laurence publications might not have had the same effect in fomenting the development of Pan-African mysticism, Black Nationalism, Afro-Carribean traditions and changing the way traditional practices were performed in Nigeria and Ghana.

Yet in the end figures such as de Laurence have achieve an invisibility in the historic memory that obfuscates any strange influences that they still exert on culture. In our digital age, all we find are ghostly traces of the vast occult publishing system that developed around the turn of the 19th century. In some ways the well crafted veneer that helped de Laurence and his peers achieve their mystique has put them today into the category of curiosity, even if under the surface their direct influence still ebbs and flows in the veins of our collective cultural experience.

For those who would scoff at contemporary, diluted versions of the practical occultism or “New Psychology,” popularized by the prolific output of figures like William Walker Atkinson and Lauren W. de Laurence, it would be good to remember that their ideas have had a widespread, and often unnoticed effect on our contemporary culture. Although the allegedly ancient truths of The Secret may seem dubious, their lineage lies in mail order mysteries that changed the face of global society, and deeply affected the racially charged geo-political climate of the 20th century. If one wants proof of the curio catalog’s promise to teach powerful secrets of “the mysterious influence of one human mind over that of others,” it seems that affecting the fate of nations from a small office in Chicago isn’t a bad start.

Special thanks to Tony Kail and the West Tennessee Museum of Southern Hoodoo for the image of the advertisement for de Laurence’s Great Book of Magical Art. Visit the museum’s website for more information on the cultural history of hoodoo and folk practices in the Memphis and Mississippi Delta region. https://memphishoodoo.wixsite.com/museum

This article was originally published on The Daily Grail website in 2012

David Metcalfe

Written by

Editor-in-Chief, Threshold: Journal of Interdisciplinary Consciousness Studies | Essays from the margins of a shifting world

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