The year was 1895. Alfred Dreyfus was shipped to Devil’s Island, Oscar Wilde was convicted of sodomy and the Lumière brothers awed Paris and an entire planet with their display of the first moving picture. A strange and confusing age was upon us. A world open to new ideas and almost daily technological breakthroughs.
It was a world Peekskill, New York resident Ernest Loomis had been waiting for all his life. A shadowy figure–not a single likeness of him is known to exist–Loomis, seemingly overnight, took to the publishing scene like a man possessed. His focus: The Occult.
As early as the 1860’s America and much of the western world found itself drawn in by mystics and charlatans alike. Ghosts, mediums, auras, ectoplasm, séances, and levitation all became the subject of great curiosity and debate. An emerging industrial world searched for greater meaning in the hum-drum existence found in the smoke clogged misery of the world’s chaotic great metropolises.
An instant sensation, the writings of Loomis were a strange cocktail of self help, spirituality, black magic and pure homespun salesmanship. Not yet a true player on the occult scene, Loomis teamed up with writer William A. Redding to get his first project, “Mysteries Unveiled: The Hoary Past Comes Forward with Astonishing Messages for the Prophetic Future,” off the ground. A former attorney, Redding made his first foray onto the occult scene in 1894 with the publication of “The Millennial Kingdom,” in which he attempted to reduce the Old and New Testaments into codes and symbols which could be used to predict the future.
Together Loomis and Redding would also publish “Our Near Future: A Message to all the Governments and People of Earth,” before Loomis dissolved the partnership and formed his own publishing house in Chicago around 1898. It was in the windy city that Loomis met Willis F. Whitehead, (right) who was to alter his life and world view.
Mentor, partner and occult guru, Whitehead immersed Loomis in the writings of the fourteenth century occult philosopher Henry Cornelius Argippa. Agrippa’s teachings introduced Loomis to a spirit world almost beyond comprehension.
Whitehead was an authority on Agrippa, whose radical mysticism was a heady mix of numerology, Zodiac symbols, the geometric man and most importantly, the Cross of Agrippa–a coded Christian styled cross which provided true believers the keys to the infinite.
Loomis couldn’t get enough of his new friend’s wisdom and soon made a financial investment as well, purchasing the rights to Whitehead’s files and writings on Agrippa.
According to Whitehead, “In January, 1899, the plates and copyright were purchased by Ernest Loomis of Chicago, and I joined in the transfer of the copyright with the express understanding (in view of its moral ownership by the Brotherhood of Magic, and further known as the Royal Adepts of Mysticism) that I should continue in my right to publish the original chapter entitled, “The Magic Mirror–A Message to Mysticism, by Direction of the Brotherhood of Magic”.
An ordinary man might haved sensed something hinkey about the deal, but Loomis wasted no time in making the most of his prize. While in Chicago, Loomis would publish a total of thirteen essays on the subjects of self help and practical occultism. At some point Loomis must have realized the Windy City had long ago tired of his treasure chest of Agrippa’s texts, so he relocated to Inwood, New York on the northern tip of Manhattan.
Just a sleepy little town on the periphery of a booming metropolis at the turn of the Century, Inwood wasn’t the type of place where a man like Loomis, and his new “Inwood School of Philosophy,” could go unnoticed for long, but if his strange beliefs offended the local citizenry, their complaints have been lost to the sands of time.
It was during his time in Inwood that Loomis published a final version of his opus to the spirit world, “Practical Occultism.” Chapters included: “Occultism in a Nutshell,” “Marriage,” “How to Create Opportunities,” “Your Talents,” “Health Recipes” and “Methods of Using Occult Powers;” a more flushed out volume of a work first released in Chicago. In an introductory chapter Loomis writes, “The following rules, being based on occult principles in nature, will, if fully applied, enable any person to invoke the assistance of occult forces in the accomplishment of every practical duty in life.”
By now an occult icon, Loomis was shrewd businessman when in came to making cash off a philosophy many a critic dismissed as just plain quackery. In addition to books, readers could also sign up for correspondence lessons in the occult, get a year-long subscription to “The Occult Science Magazine” for just a buck-fifty, purchase a “Concentration Booklet” for just fifteen cents, and even receive a personalized “Character Delineation” by filling out the below form and attaching a personal check for five dollars made out to the Inwood School of Philosophy.
Loomis also offered specialized degrees from his Inwood School, “The entire expense of the seven esoteric degrees, which may and should be taken at once, is $21.00.”
For the naysayers, Loomis included pages of testimonials:
While no record can be located as to the exact address for the Inwood School of Philosophy, this turn of the century note from a journal housed in the Harry Houdini Collection in the Library of Congress provides a tantalizing clue.
While it is easy to be critical of Loomis’ words more than a century after they were set to type, some of his works, given a grain of salt, are peppered with ideas that were progressive, if not years before their time. In a book titled “Should Woman Obey?,” Loomis writes: “This book upholds matrimony, but deals out some sledge-hammer blows, in its efforts to free woman and man from the shackles of tyranny and of ignorance, which have made marriage but little more than a lottery and in many instances a sad failure.”
Loomis would write a final book in Inwood in 1901, “Vibrology: The Scientific Key to All Mysteries and Powers” before dropping off the radar for nearly a decade.
When he resurfaces in Peekskill in 1914, it is in the form of a fearmonger. His only message is a postage stamp sized ad warning of Armageddon in the back of a popular magazine that practically exudes the American patriotism surrounding World War I. An automobile directory from the same year has Loomis residing on Washington Street and owning an E.M.F. automobile like the one in the accompanying photo.
By 1927, Loomis had reinvented himself as the skull measuring president of the American Institute of Phrenologists.
A sarcastic Time Magazine article dated January 30, 1928 laments the phenomenon of “gypsies” and “Swamies” who seemed to literally swarm around old Manhattan. For a man who seemed to desire public acceptance so greatly, Loomis must have devastated to see, in print, his way of life was reduced to a punchline.
“Naturally enough, people are curious to discover when they are going to die, how they can achieve riches, why they do not get along with blondes, where they should travel. Since centuries before Tut of the Egyptians, a canny minority has been answering these more-or-less cosmic riddles for the curious majority. The answers are not always correct, but they have some fine trappings—crimson draperies, crystal balls, ouija boards, wet towels, etc., etc.”
The article quickly turns to Ernest Loomis: “Handwriting experts and phrenologists (inspectors of the hills and gullies of the cranium) are more interested in character analysis than in predicting events. Last week, Ernest Loomis, president of the American Institute of Phrenologists, inspected the files of Manhattan hatters and read character into skulls shaped like bathtubs, pears, eggs. But, said he: “It is the contents and not the symmetry of a skull which counts in the long run.”
And that is where the paper trail on Ernest Loomis seems to go cold. So much ink and not so much as an obituary….
A special thanks to Don Rice for alerting me to existence of Ernest Loomis and to Melvyn Lloyd Draper with the History Department of the University of California, Davis for providing much needed historical context.
Finally, believe it or not, Ernest Loomis was not the only Inwood resident to dabble in the occult near the turn of the century. Grace Angela, though not in the same league as Loomis, offered a simple system for predicting the future and communicating with the spirit world. Take a look:
The 1903 Phrenological Journal and Science of Health provided this review of Grace Angela’s system: