by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In March 1848, the sisters Kate and Maggie Fox, who were 11 and 14 years old, respectively, convinced a neighbor to come to their farmhouse near Hydesville, a town in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York to experience the phenomenon of spirits in their dwelling. While their parents soon abandoned the house and sent their daughters to live with their older sister, Leah, in Rochester, but their story was learned by others and public demonstrations, including by the elder sibling, of their purported spiritual powers were soon offered.
The three went on to great fame and notoriety and American Spiritualism, fostered in a place and time where the movement was particularly in fertile territory, dated its origins to that first demonstration—even though Maggie confessed to the intricate fakery they employed when she gave a newspaper interview in 1888. Though she soon recanted, the sisters all died within five years and, in 1893, when the last of them, Maggie passed away, the National Spiritualist Association was formed. Today, it is known as the National Spiritualist Association of Churches.
That last word, of course, is critical because broader acceptance, or bemused toleration, was tied directly to the use of the word “church” for spiritualism, even as skeptics and mainstream churches chafed at the notion. In any case, the featured artifact from the Homestead’s collection for this post is a large cabinet card photograph of the “Young People’s League” (identified as “Society” in the photo’s inscription) at a Dedication Day on 18 June 1911 for the newly built First Spiritual Temple, situated at Stanford and 23rd streets in Los Angeles.
The photo shows nearly forty persons, all but a dozen or so, young people, probably from three years old through high school age. Everyone is dressed in their Sunday best and there is nothing in the image to show that this is anything but another mainstream church youth group, except for the name of the church, which operated under the auspices of the Progressive Society of Spiritual Truth Seekers, headed by the Reverend Mary C. Vlasek. She is not identified, but may well be the woman at the bottom left.
Vlasek was born in 1870 as Mary Colletta Victory, daughter of John and Mary, who were both immigrants from Bohemia in what is now the Czech Republic (the surname was Anglicized, though from what original could not be located.) Vlasek was raised in northeastern Iowa not far from the Mississippi River and northwest of Dubuque. In 1891, she married Joseph Vlasek, another Czech who was from Bohemia and who was a watchmaker.
Sometime during the Nineties, the couple and their son Virgil migrated to Los Angeles, where Joseph had his own shop and his wife soon became a spiritualist pastor, beginning in the first years of the 20th century with what she first called Bible Christian Spiritualists, as early as March 1902, and then the Society of Spiritual Progression, located on Spring Street, just south of First Street. The organization moved frequently over the next several years and a “Children’s Lyceum” was introduced by June 1905.
In August 1907, Vlasek was in an area near Escondido providing spirit messages, one of her fortes was the so-called “flower psychometry,” in which readings purportedly delivered messages from the spirit world from flowers brought by those seeking a connection. Over the years, this developed into the Harmony Grove Spiritualist Association, of which Vlasek was a long-time president, spending parts of most summers there. The organization is still around today.
Vlasek also rose rapidly within the ranks of the California State Spiritualist Association, first as superintendent of its lyceum division, though she became, in the 1920s, its vice-president. She was a regular speaker and organizer of conferences for the organization, many of which were held in Los Angeles. Vlasek also attended several of the conferences of the national association, as well, and was a frequent figure at spiritualist camp meetings at Sycamore Grove, Ocean Park (Santa Monica) and Edendale (the Silver Lake community of Los Angeles), with the latter the home of the Semi-Tropic Spiritualists Association and their “park” where Vlasek was a featured presenter at a June 1909 camp meeting that included a raid by officials of the county district attorney’s office.
After her first trip to Harmony Grove, Vlasek, who was politically a Socialist and was accounted “one of the best inspirational speakers on the Coast,” returned to Los Angeles “filled with new inspiration from camp and mountain life” and, as her local renown grew, including a close relationship with spiritualists in Long Beach, she formed the First Spiritual Temple and oversaw the completion of the building, the cornerstone of which was laid in late March, that was dedicated on the day this photo was taken. The first services were actually held on 4 June 1911 with a roster of some fifteen persons, including Vlasek providing invocations, giving addresses and delivering “messages” from those in the great beyond.
Sunday services at the First Spiritual Temple were all-day affairs, including the “Children’s Lyceum” and the “Young People’s League,” the communication of messages, talks on and demonstrations of healing, message circles, lectures on a wide variety of spiritualist topics, and spirit communications. It appears that Vlasek was more involved in the many aspects of these services, but, as her stature grew among the state’s spiritualists, she spent less time at the Temple, while she retained the pastorate and attracted more of her colleagues from elsewhere to take part in services.
Aside from the DA raid at Edendale in 1909, there were occasionally other run-ins with local officials, including in June 1912 when the Los Angeles Municipal News reported on a proposed ordinance, never passed, that sought “to put clairvoyants, astrologers and other seers out of business.” When the city council met to discuss the topic, it was stated that “representatives of the different classes of fortune tellers, seers, trance mediums and others and others who pay a license appeared to combat the proposed ordinance.” Some of the speakers offered to help expose “fakirs” though also confessed that it was difficult to tell them from the legitimate practitioners of their profession. Vlasek was one of the speakers, though what she offered was not covered in the article.
Vlasek occasionally garnered press attention outside of the greater Los Angeles area and the Golden State, such as when, not long before midnight on the last day of 1914 she offered her prophecy for the following year at the Temple. She predicted ample harvests and peace for the United States, though there would be two major earthquakes.
With the outbreak of the First World War, she foretold, “there will be great dissatisfaction in all organizations, churches, political and fraternal . . . but out all will come peace, [and] a greater spiritual awakening.” Moreover, she added that “it will be three years before real peace is restored” but, when it did, “men will be freed from both religion and politics as they are today” and “there will not be the selfishness of today, and [men] will be more like brothers.”
México, recently engulfed in revolution and conflict that continued on for years, “will finally be under U.S. rule,” while Canada “will in time unite herself with us.” She claimed that France would extend its boundaries and that Turkey “will be changed both in government and religion,” while “Russia will sweep from the north like an eagle, it is through her that all shall be freed from intoxicants, the curse of the world today.” Its women wound also find equality with men in that country, she asserted. Italy would “spring like a tigress from her lair” and win victory, while “her form of government [will] change.”
Finally, returning to America and its future, Vlasek averred that “In 1920 there will be no more liquor sold in saloons . . . and its manufacture will cease.” Beyond this, “women will be enfranchised and on an equal footing with men.” As often the case with psychics, there was a mix of sound forecasting (albeit some, like the onset of Prohibition and women’s right to vote in national elections, based on existing movements and conditions) with predictions that were wildly off.
In September 1915, at the state spiritualists confab in San Francisco, Vlasek was paraphrased as stating “that but one of the millions of men killed in this war had come back in spirit form” and that this sole spirit “visited a woman in America . . . and stayed but a short time, having little to say of which would be of importance to the world at large.”
Two years later, Vlasek lashed out at fortune tellers during the state convention, complaining that they “are ruining our reputation” and intoning:
We desire so strongly to disassociate ourselves from the commercialized peddlers of psychic phenomena that we expect to propose an amendment at the convention compelling all psychics and mediums to be re-examined yearly by the committee . . .
Spiritualism has nothing to do with reading palms and other such foolishness. We merely try to so clear away all materialism from our being as to allow the guides and spirits to talk through us. Our finest mediums . . . devote their lives to listening to voices from the other world, and attain a high degree of spirituality. The lesser ones, who come in contact with the common people, of course, have to be more worldly.
Speaking of the “true” spiritualist, Vlasek again courted national attention when on 3/23/23, obviously an auspicious combination of numbers (don’t forget, the next one of these is only about nine months away!), she was among those who gathered for the return at 5:00 p.m. that day of Mary Fairfield McVicker, the recently deceased associate pastor of the Central Spiritualistic Church in Los Angeles.
As she lay dying, McVicker was said to have told a friend, “I will come back as the sun goes down with a flaming ray” and it was long planned “that she would pose for a spirit photograph—beside her own body.” The Los Angeles Express of that day recorded that “a photographer was engaged; he was told to be ready beside the bier in the First Spiritualistic [sic] Temple after the funeral” and Vlasek told the paper that “everything was in readiness for the great experiment” with the pastor presiding and assisted by the state association head. After cremation, the ashes of McVicker “will be sprinkled among the roses at the Spiritualist temple.”
The next day, Vlasek told the Los Angeles Times that the photos were developed in the presence of members of the Temple and that two plates contained “evidence of a spirit form,” while a third was ruined in the development process. Still, though, “proof . . . will not be determined until prints are made” though Vlasek “was confident Mrs. McVicker would be able to record her spirit form on the camera plate and prove to the world the existence of a life after death.”
Many papers around the country covered the “experiment” and the Baltimore Sun of the 25th reported that the prints developed from those plate negatives “showed three distinct ovals resembling human faces” according to photographer C.H. Monroe. He added that “in the lower part of the picture there are also several faint impressions that are said to resemble faces.”
Vlasek proclaimed that she recognized the three main faces as that of McVicker, her father, and another spiritualist, Dr. James Martin Peebles, who died the prior year, while others who saw the prints thought the other two ovals were of McVicker’s husband, also deceased in 1922, and a friend, A.J. Davis, whose demise occurred several years before. She ordered that 100 prints be stored for several more days in a darkroom so that the spirits “will clarify themselves on these prints and assume unmistakable form and be clearly identified by all who see them.” Yet, there was no further news on these images.
In February 1926, Los Angeles Record columnist Jim Bolger dedicate most of a page to his encounter with Vlasek, albeit from a distance as the Temple pastor provided a reading for his wife. Bolger began by observing,
It would not be hard to embrace spiritualism if it would prove its claims.
It would be comparatively easy to accept the teachings of Mary C. Vlasek if she could prove they are based on something beyond a more or less elaborate construction of fiction resting on a slender foundation, if there be any foundation at all.
Bolger adjudged the spiritualist to be sincere but added “that she is a victim of her own imaginings and has become so absorbed in her ‘study’ of the supernatural that she honestly believes her wildest fancy is an undisputed truth. He went on to note that his wife had not prior experience with mediums and she provided an account that said she went to the Vlasek home a short distance from the Temple at the end of January and “Pastor Vlasek, an abnormally large woman . . . met me at the door of a modestly furnished home.
Vlasek told Mrs. Bolger that she didn’t need any personal information as she was a trance medium and nothing that could be said would “be transmitted to the spirit,” while adding that payment was not required until after the consultation. From there, “Pastor Vlasek went into her trance. Her body twitched, her hands shook, and the muscles on her neck pulsed and quivered,” though Mrs. Bolger felt “she is a very poor actor; her interpretation of a trance was certainly not like trances I have read or heard of.”
Vlasek then suddenly held out her right hand, said “Hello,” and the two shook hands. The medium then told her customer that she was impressionable, worried about money, and was troubled by worry, so that, if she “would be restful” there would be nothing to be concerned about. Mrs. Bolger didn’t feel anything particularly supernatural transpired, but, when asked if there were any questions, simply asked “Where is my husband?”
After wondering if he was in a hospital after an accident or in jail, Vlasek was told that Mrs. Bolger hadn’t seen her columnist husband since he left her a month previously, and the reply was that he wasn’t cheating on his wife and would be back within a week. Then she stated that two spirits, Frank and Ned, were present and Mrs. Bolger lied in saying they were an uncle and brother, so Vlasek told her a bit about these supposed relations.
Because of the aforementioned matter of money worries, Vlasek refused to accept any money, though, when pressed, accepted a dollar. Bolger concluded that “this refusal to take money when she brought out the imaginary belief of my wife’s poverty and need of money . . . makes me believe Mary C. Vlasek is sincere in her spiritual beliefs.” Still, the columnist and his wife saw nothing that indicated a connection the pastor had with a spirit world.
Little more than a year after her son died at just age 30, Vlasek, who was 59, passed away on 25 July 1929. The service was held at the Temple and she was cremated, with her ashes interred at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights. While it appears the Temple operated for a short while longer, it seems to have closed in 1931. Four years later, a “Church of Psychic Light” opened on Venice Boulevard, where a parking structure for the Convention Center is now, and this was dedicated to Vlasek. In 1936, the First Spiritualist Temple opened at a new location at Vermont and 47th Street and ads noted it was founded by Vlasek at its previous spot.
That original building, however, was taken over by Louella L. Beavers (1880-1979), a native of Arkansas, who came to Los Angeles with her husband and children during the 1920s. Beavers was a maid and her husband a brass foundry worker, but she took possession of the Temple and, by 1933, reinvented it as the “Louella L. Beavers Spiritual Temple” and opened a second temple in Monrovia soon after. In 1937, the building was razed and replaced with a new, presumably very different in terms of architecture, one.
By this time, the Black population of Los Angeles was shifting further south of downtown, earlier communities lived in what is now Little Tokyo and then in what became the Fashion District (more on that in Monday’s post). Beavers served as pastor of her spiritualist temple until at least the 1950s, though information about it past the late Forties is hard to come by. Notably, the structure, which still stands at the southeast corner of 23rd and Stanford, has been listed on a City of Los Angeles Survey LA inventory of historic buildings, albeit with a note that further research was needed on it and its use.
This photo is presumably a very rare artifact connected to something of an esoteric example of the Angel City’s diverse history of religious and spiritual organizations and it does relate to some very interesting history, including how women were, unlike in traditional or orthodox churches, quite commonly pastors and leaders of spiritualist entities from the Fox sisters onward.