Mystical 7: A History

by Benjamin Wyatt-Greene

 

The definitive "Cyclopaedia of Fraternities," first published by Albert C. Stevens in 1907 contains a short, two-line entry: "The Mystical 7, which is now thought to be dead, was in some respects one of the most remarkable and most ambitious college societies in the country."1 Confusion over whether the Mystical Seven Society is dead has continued for well over a century and controversy still exists as to what present-day organization represents its legitimate philosophical heir, with histories occasionally being re-interpreted and re-written to support competing claims. However the relevant fact that emerges from research is that the Mystical 7 played an active part in a number of the major philosophical and educational movements of the 19th century and spawned and influenced a number of organizations and societies, some of which continue to exist today. Records exist detailing the correspondences and inner workings of the society, but its larger historical and philosophical progression has never been objectively catalogued in any detail. It is this wider scope which I am trying to explore and I would therefore refer readers to my end notes, my bibliography, and the Wesleyan University Archives if they wish to research specific traditions and symbols within the normal functionings of the society.

The beginnings of the Mystical 7, and most American college fraternities, can be traced to the influence of Freemasonry in early American society. Freemasonic influence had peeked directly after the revolution, and a few Greek Letter societies, including Phi Beta Kappa at William and Mary in 1776, and Kappa Alpha at Union College in 1825, were formed in rough emulation of the Masonic structure.2 The pivotal Morgan incident of 1826, where a group of Freemasons were suspected of killing a member of their lodge who threatened to publish society secrets, lead to an outbreak of antimasonic propaganda and heralded in a decade of widespread suppression of masonic lodges. One of the results of this suppression was that many of the condemned masonic secrets, rituals, and structures were published for the first time in the mainstream press.3 The unintended consequence of this informational watershed was that a number of otherwise ignorant citizens became educated in and interested in exploring the traditions of Freemasonry. Chief among these interested parties were groups of students in the young and burgeoning American college system.4 The antimasonic suppression and exposition had been strongest in New York and New England, and it was accordingly in these areas that the first neo-masonic orders were founded once the ferocity of the antimasonic rhetoric began to cool in the mid 1830s.

The Mystical 7 was the first major college secret society to be formed after the Morgan Incident. It is nearly indisputable that the dearth of masonic information influenced the early formation of the Mystical 7. The writings of the early mystics make occasional reference to their "new form of masonry" and many of the early cauldron covers can be specifically matched to ritual etchings in published masonic texts.5 It is likely that the very idea of natural symbolism within the Mystic Star is derivative from masonic sources. Furthermore, it can be speculated that one major reason why Hebrew, as opposed to the more prevalent Greek, was used as the emblematic language of the society was the prevalence of Hebrew script in the higher rites of the masonic order. The masonic framework was undoubtedly a structure to which the mystics melded their philosophical and literary interests.

Wesleyan University was founded in 1831 as the first major Methodist College in the United States. Wilbur Fisk, a Methodist preacher who had successfully revived the Wesleyan Academy in Massachusetts during the late 1820’s was chosen as the first President.6 By 1833 there are indications of at least two literary societies on the Wesleyan Campus.7 It is likely that these societies fulfilled a literary function that has, in this century, been largely incorporated into the academic curriculum. College courses during the early 19th century were generally taught in the British lecture-examination model, and therefore creative students were given little opportunity to present their own ideas and writings.8 The early literary societies at Wesleyan provided a built-in audience for the literary presentations of students and due to their semi-exclusive nature functioned as basic social clubs as well.

In the beginning of June 1837 seven Wesleyan students drafted a proposal to found the first temple of a new secret literary society called the Mystical 7. The proposal was submitted to President Wilbur Fisk, along with a draft copy of the society’s constitution. Fisk waited for five months, but eventually gave his approval once he received assurances that the purpose of the society was to promote the "social, intellectual, and moral improvement of its members."9 He specified, in what was perhaps a satirical joke based on the proposed name or perhaps a religious reference, "I should prefer however that the meetings be held on the seventh day of every week." The Mystics promptly complied with his order by passing a resolution officially changing the beginning of the week to Saturday, so that Friday, the day on which they had generally gathered during the proceeding five months, became the seventh day. It was from this basis that the distinctive mystic manner of keeping time may have originated.

The oral tradition of the Mystical Seven holds that Hamilton Brewer, the oldest of the founding mystics, began the society when "a mystical thought" entered his head. It is known that Brewer held the honorary position of Chief Priest and Law-Giver of the society for his entire life and lived in Middletown until his death in 1855. He is buried in the old cemetery behind McConaughy Dining Hall, where his stone still stands. However, other than these facts, "the Brewer" as he came to be called, remains a mysterious and enigmatic figure. Little is known about his personal beliefs or influences in founding the society. Unlike most of the other Mystics, there are no writings signed by him in the records of the society, and only one short piece commonly attributed to his pen. Legends about the Brewer have been passed down through the history of the society, but as of yet few of these have been verified by historical research.

The origin of the reference to seven within the society is equally unclear. The sensibilities of the early mystics might well have been influenced by the prevalence of the number seven in the biblical Book of Revelations or in certain Masonic rites. Carl F. Price, a historian of the society who wrote in the 1930s and 1940s cites the fact that 1837 was the first year which contained a seven since the founding of Wesleyan. There are also references in the mystic records to the appearance in 1837 of the comet Bielas, which passed by the earth every seven years but broke up in a fireball in 1844, during the first septennial of the society. A letter from Samuel Bement ‘41 and numerous romantic references within the early records, indicate that Hamilton Brewer and Samuel Henry Ward, another early mystic, were engaged to two sisters in Middletown who were part of the seven children of the Starr family. This is likely the origin of the Pleides, or Seven sisters on the Mystic Star and may have influenced the use of seven in the Mystic name. Although their significance is unclear, the mystic constitution makes reference to "the seven heavens, seven stars, seven planets, seven days of the week, seven faculty [there were seven men on the faculty in 1837], seven wise men of Greece, and seven kings of the seven-hilled city."10 Chris Kylin, a scholar of mystic lore, believes from his research that the use of seven soon came to symbolize a deep philosophical understanding within the society:

"it [seven] is incommensurate with all the other first ten digits. It doesn't fit. It doesn't go into anything and nothing, with the exception of one, goes into it. That means a geometry based on the number seven is mathematically irrational compared to any other geometry. It means we are (at least pretending to) be in an alternate environment. A Mystic will walk through the same environs, but see it for it's incommensurability with everybody else's consensus world-view. Look, they wanted to say 'We say there is a deeper meaning to the world. We see an alternate understanding implicit in the world around us.' How do they describe and represent this? By adopting the concept, the idea, of the number that does not fit, and now they have a tool for measuring this alternate dimension, this incommensurate realm. That’s why we always work in sevens."

The use of "mystical" is likely a reference to "the Mystery," which is often spoken of in the mystic writings. The Mystery is even less definable than the number seven and its interpretation seems to vary from mystic to mystic. If there is a common agreement, it seems to be that the Mystery symbolizes the wisdom of the totality and infiniteness of the universe. This wisdom which, according to Methodist beliefs, was bestowed on humans by God only through moments of enlightenment, is a common thread among many religions and philosophical theories. As Transcendentalism became integrated into the society during the 1840s it becomes clear that the mystics believed they were striving together to explore this Mystery in a personal and relevant way. Research has revealed that the seven Hebrew letters on the Mystic Star, He, Nun, Samekh, Taf, Vav, Resh, and Taf, form the phrase Han-nis-ta-roth meaning "the secrets" or "the Hidden Things."11 The phrase is contained in a passage in Deuteronomy 29:28: "The secret things belong unto the lord our God: those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children forever," or in an alternative translation "Both what is still hidden and what has already been revealed concern us and our descendants forever."12

(See the Early Mystic Star)

Records and the letters between the founding students of the Mystical 7 indicate that most of them began as members of one of the original Wesleyan literary societies, the Tub Philosophers.13 It is unclear why the original mystics decided to form a separate society. It could be that they were attracted to the secretive nature of a masonic type society, rather than the more conservative and higher profile forum of the Tub Philosophers. However this difference in publicity levels does not fully explain the outright animosity displayed in the writings of the early mystics concerning the Tub. A poem from the third cauldron of the society (Caldron 3 Volume 1) relates:

"A Tub and Cauldron once there stood

Together in a neighborhood . . .

At length the Tub drew near and spoke . . .

‘My friend . . . can you not boil and bubble

Without a nation’s deal of trouble?’

‘My friend’ the honest cauldron said

‘You’re ignorant, you’ve lost your head

But pardon me I had forgotten

You have no head you are all bottom.’

The Tub with angry fury ‘rose

And bade the Cauldron Weapons choose . . ."

An important clue may be contained in an epic poem written in the thirteenth Caldron of 1838. In the bombastic language typical of mystic writing at the time, the poem records "that a certain sedition arose among some of the tribe of Wesleys[presumably the Wesleyan University community though possibly the larger Methodist community] . . . [the sedition came] from men of the party of the abolitionists and King Wilbur [President Fisk] liked them not"(Caldron 13 Volume 1). The poem goes on to tell how an assembly was called and the anti-abolitionists gained the upper hand and suppressed an abolitionist "elder" named Heuber, who seems to have been a junior professor. Subsequently the "freshmen," mobilized to protest the action of the assembly, but the whole incident was kept quiet from the outside world.

Such an occurrence would not have been out of character in a Methodist university at the time. John Wesley had admonished against slavery in his preaching but his message was slowly obscured as the Methodist church grew. By the 1820’s many Methodist churches actively accepted slave holders among their practitioners. Even before Wesleyan’s founding this development had caused two major secessions by abolitionist Methodists from the greater Methodist church. The Reformed Methodists left in 1814 and the Methodist Protestants left in 1830. By the late 1830’s an abolitionist rebellion was again brewing against the Central Church hierarchy, which eventually culminated in the "Seceding Methodist Conventions" in upper New York in 1841.15 Wilbur Fisk was widely known as an opponent of abolitionism16 and it could be assumed that the major student literary and philosophical organizations on Wesleyan’s campus would have been expected to toe the party line. The secretive meetings of the Mystical Seven may have provided a forum for abolitionist dissent, while the Tub Philosophers continued to support Fisk.

It was years after the original founding of the society before the majority of the mystic rituals and traditions became fully formed. For the first few years it may be supposed that the Mystical 7 was little more than a secretive literary society which met late on Friday nights to read weekly writings which had been submitted days beforehand and were bound at the meeting into a compilation dubbed "the Caldron" (which was a shortening of the word "cauldron" so that it contained seven letters). After finishing the reading of the Caldron the Mystics would tramp off into the surrounding woods or to a local cemetery, according to the whim of the weekly head of the society who would brandish an old cavalry sword in front of him as he walked at the front of the procession17. It is likely that these early tramps influenced the mystic choice of Wuotan, the Germanic God of the hunt (related to Odin in Norse mythology), as the protector of the society. Early Caldrons contain poetry, jokes, papers, and fictional stories, with discussions of love, nature, and morality being the most common topics. "How sweet, how happy too," the mystic "Fridelitas" wrote, "would be his lot who could mingle the loveliness of the sun and the river at this hour with the unchanging confidence of a woman’s affection." (Caldron 19 Volume 2 1839).

In addition to possible abolitionist leanings, the early Mystics were definitely dissatisfied with the "higher powers" in their lives. Satirical editorials and jokes appear in the early Caldrons comically commenting on college life. "Extraordinary Event!!!" cries one short entry, "cheese on the table at the boarding hall this evening!!" (Caldron 19 Volume 2 1839). In another Caldron there is piece poking fun at a certain Mr. Bartlett through a long obituary for his eldest pig which had died of a hemorrhage (Caldron 24 Volume 2 1839). In 1838 an especially strong invective, that may have been directed at President Fisk in response to the Heuber controversy, was written by an "anonymous" Mystic in an editorial: (Caldron 16 Volume 2)

"Monotony seems to be the order of the day. Nothing has occurred to form a variety in the regular course of things. Our internal affairs are in fine trim. One thing above has transpired at the seat of governance. The right of petition has been abused by the "Execution." We are forbidden any comment. It would seem the Evil One, . . . our little devil (who is indeed a Yankee! very shrewdly guessed) . . . has made no reply to our protest. He has "gone visiting!" - good - to the moon probably-"

Initially, perhaps because of a fear of being identified, the early mystics had signed their pieces with invented literary names. These literary names were fluid and there are many cases in the early years of two mystics using the same name and a single mystic using up to three separate names. Eventually however, the practice of assuming Mystic names, often from Greek and Roman Mythology, became codified and by the middle 1840’s naming was an established part of the initiation ritual.

According to "Jonathan Wampum," in a meeting held under a large oak tree on August 7th 1840, women were initiated into the society, making it the first coed organization at Wesleyan (Volume 8 p.1908). The first to join were the two Starr sisters, who were followed in the succeeding years by a small number of women from the town of Middletown. It is likely that most of these women initiates were in one way or another romantically involved with male Wesleyan mystics. Eventually this practice was codified into the automatic initiation of the bride of a mystic whenever he got married. Carl F. Price records that the male mystics decided against initiating women because among other things "women cannot keep a secret." However, Price’s contention is flatly contradicted by references in the early Caldrons and furthermore the meeting at which this exclusion was decided upon supposedly took place in 1854 and would therefore not have affected earlier incarnations of the society. It must be noted however that although women were considered full mystics they were still subject to the prevailing gender dynamics of the time. Women mystics seem to have only occasionally attended the mystic meetings and did not directly contribute writings to the Caldron, unless it can be supposed that they signed with their husband’s mystic names.

By the early 1840’s references to abolitionism became less frequent in the Caldrons. Wilbur Fisk was succeeded to the presidency in 1841 by the Connecticut native Nathan Bangs who was pushed aside in favor of the prestigious Stephen Olin in 1842.18 It could be speculated that with Fisk’s departure the controversy over slavery became less prominent on campus. However, a second factor in this change was the new mystics who joined the temple with each succeeding year. All the founding mystics had been juniors with the exception of Hamilton Brewer who was a senior, and this standard for initiation continued to be prevalent though it was not applied uniformly. Therefore on average every two years the make-up of the society changed almost totally. Records show that there were two Mystics from the south in the class of ‘41 and more in subsequent years. Furthermore the demise of both the original Literary Societies, including the Tub Philosophers, by 1839 meant that the Mystical 7 and Phi Nu Theta, the Eclectic Society, (which had been founded in 1837 by one of the seven original Mystics, J. Harrison Goodale, who had become estranged from the society) were vaulted into prominence. In response to this new attention the limit on mystic membership was expanded from 7 to 14 students by 1840 and even this upper limit was occasionally breached. In response to the increased popularity of the society the trustees of the university voted to give the Mystical 7 sole use of the attic of North College for their weekly meetings.

For a few years in the early 1840’s the Mystical 7 assumed the larger, directionless, and uncontroversial form of the hated Tub Philosophers from which it had originally seceded. In 1840 Mystics had started the first student publication at Wesleyan, titled The Classic, and the success and campus-wide nature of this journal did much to dilute the close-knit counterculture mentality of the original society.

By 1844, however, writings in the Caldrons indicate that the Mystical Seven, lead largely by two individuals, had taken a new and drastic philosophical turn. Between the septennial celebration in 1844, where the famous evangelist Orestes Brownsen gave a speech, and the end of the school year in 1846, two mystics, Robert Carter Pitman ‘45 and Daniel Martindale ‘46 who went by the mystic names "Jonathan Wampum" and "Cheops" respectively, reinvigorated and codified many of the traditions and rituals of the society. They researched the short history of the society, wrote down and reworked the initiation, established a set procedure for the weekly meetings with officers and duties, codified the name of the Wesleyan chapter as the Temple of the Wand(the reason for "the Wand" and other subsequent names is unclear), recorded much of the previously oral mystic lore, and greatly increased the size and subject matter of the Caldrons (Caldrons, which had been on average two double sided pages in the 1830’s, were increased to an average of 15 pages by the mid 1840’s). These developments seem purely procedural on the surface, but they gave the Mystical 7 the direction and inner coherence which again provided it the strength to cross horns with Wesleyan’s president by delving deeply into the philosophy of transcendentalism.

Despite President Olin’s frequent admonitions that "ethereal transcendentalism appeared like a confused heap of broken sunbeams" and lead toward the path of blasphemy,19 the writings of the mystics during the middle 1840’s show that they were deeply influenced by the emerging transcendentalist movement. There was an obvious renewed appreciation for nature and the answers that it held, which reflected a subtle questioning of some of the more overt tenets of the Methodist face. An un-named mystic articulated a common theme when he declared:

"I want a wider, a deeper, a more universal faith in man. This is so far from being opposed to a faith in God, that it rests upon it. It is our faith in the Benevolence of the Creator which teaches us faith in nature. We must have no more religion of distrust. We must nolonger think to honor the deity by degrading his creatures. We must nolonger teach that man is powerless for good."

Robert Carlyle, the transcendentalist writer, became the inspiration of many of the mystics and they referred to him frequently in their writings. "Jonathan Wampum", expressed what was soon to become a prevailing belief within the society when he wrote on October 10, 1842:

"Transcendentalism;-Its design is to spiritualize everything, to invest with new life the most common subjects, and to raise our thoughts from low and groveling objects and fix them on the most exalted and sublime themes. This tendency cannot but be good, and will prove a powerful influence in the accomplishment of that great reform in man’s nature which is so important and needful . . . We need something in this age of machines,-this busy, noisy, worldly age to arouse us to higher views."20

A great triumph for the transcendental beliefs of the mystics occurred in 1845 when, despite Olin’s loud objections, the protestations of the student body allowed Ralph Waldo Emerson to speak at the University. Olin made a point of laughing loudly at inopportune times during Emerson’s speech and wrote to him afterwards asking him to retract many of his statements so as to avoid embarrassing the university.21 The period of the 1840’s and early 1850’s can accurately be considered the golden age of the Mystical Seven Society as its philosophy greatly influenced the student body at Wesleyan while it successfully outmaneuvered attempts by the administration to restrict its activities and spread beyond the confines of the University itself.

The expansion of the Mystical 7 beyond Wesleyan University has not yet been mentioned, but it was this occurrence that earns the society a prominent place in the early development of American Fraternities. In the Spring of 1841 Henry Branham, a native Georgian and member of the Mystical 7 at Wesleyan University transferred to the newly formed Methodist college of Emory at Oxford, Georgia. Branham wrote to the Wesleyan mystics in April of that year informing them that he wanted to start a second temple of the society. Carl F. Price, the first historian of the society who enjoyed access to records that were unfortunately denied this author, wrote in 1937 that the Emory temple and all subsequent Southern temples were never accepted by the Wesleyan Mystics. However, for reasons which will later be addressed, there is reason to believe that Price’s account was written to support the legitimacy of a specific incarnation of the society, and must not be taken as objective fact.

There is significant incidental evidence indicating that the Wesleyan founders endorsed the expansion to Emory. Records in the earliest Caldrons demonstrate that the early Mystics had always wanted and expected their society to expand to at least seven temples. Furthermore the correspondence between the two temples was amicable. In 1844 "Jonathan Wampum" wrote "scarcely anything of recent occurrence . . . affords us more pleasure than the increasing intimacy of feeling between ourselves and our southern branch. The letters we receive breath the genuine mystic spirit and leave us no doubt that they are indeed one with us in happiness as in name" (Volume 8 Caldron 180). In later years Emory Mystics were included as equals in the weekly Mystic meetings when they visited Wesleyan. This evidence seems to indicate that Price’s supposition was wrong, but it must be acknowledged that he may have had access to additional evidence which influenced his conclusions.

With or without the blessing of the Wesleyan Mystics, seven Emory undergraduates met on May 20th, 1841 and founded the Temple of the Sword, a chapter of the Mystical Seven at Emory College. The Emory Temple was the first chapter of a college secret society to be established in the Southern United States (excluding Virginia).22 A few references in early Caldrons (especially Volume 9 p.2724) speak of a Mystic Temple of the Owl which was established somewhere in the southern states around the same time as the Temple of the Sword. References to this temple in the Wesleyan writings soon cease however, and it is not known if this was resulting from a loss of contact or the death of the temple. In 1845, four years after their founding, the Emory mystics set up the Temple of the Wreath at Centenary College in Transylvania, Louisiana (the Temple died in 1846 but was refounded by Cheops in 1849 when he joined the faculty at Centenary). Subsequently the Southern Mystics established the Temple of the Skull at the University of Georgia in 1846, The Temple of the Serpent at Cumberland University Lebanon Tennessee in 1850(or alternatively in 1872 according to Karl Fischer), and the Temple of the Star in 1849 or 1859 (sources disagree) at "Ole Miss" in Oxford, Mississippi.

There are indications that the Temple of the Star influenced, or may even have spawned, The Rainbow or W.W.W. Fraternity, which was the first College Fraternity to originate in the Southern States. It was started at the University of Mississippi in 1849. One of the elements of Mystic Lore which Wampum and Cheops recorded in the middle 1840’s was that the mystic color was white, because it contained all the colors of the rainbow. Each Temple was subsequently given a specific color as well as an emblem.23 The name of the Rainbow Fraternity would seem to indicate that it was somehow derivative of the Mystical 7 and there is evidence that at least one of its founding members was a Mystic.24 The founding of the first Mystical Temple at Emory predated the founding of the first Southern non-college based society by 15 years, and there are indications that this society, the Seven Wise Men which originated in New Orleans was founded by Alumni of the Mystical Seven Society as well (in 1878 the Zeta lodge of the Seven Wise Men in Baltimore switched its name to the Improved Order of Heptasophs which is still prevalent throughout the South to this day).25

The philosophical evolution and precepts of the Southern temples are unknown. However the nature of the correspondence between specific temples seems to indicate that the further removed, in generational terms, Mystical Seven chapters were from the original Wesleyan temple, the more these chapters shed the initial philosophical underpinnings of the society and came to resemble fraternities and social organizations. Many Southern temples maintained their contact with Wesleyan up until the eve of Fort Sumter, although the correspondences became slightly stilted in the late 1850’s and the Southern letters took on an increasingly chivalric military tone.26 Although they suffered from a wave of anti-secret society sentiments which swept through American educational establishments during the mid 1850’s, most of the Southern temples of the Mystical Seven survived until the Civil War when the resulting four-year cessation of university life destroyed all but one of the Southern Temples and significantly altered the Wesleyan Temple as well.

Even in the Northern states the university system virtually ceased to function during the Civil War. The vast majority of the Wesleyan Student body, along with all of the traceable Mystics, enlisted and left the University during the period.27 Price asserts that a small but consistent population of mystics was maintained consistently throughout the war years, however the evidence that he states on page 35 of his book is inconsistent with the records in the appendix to his manuscript. Kylin, and other sources, indicate that the last Mystical 7 activity at Wesleyan was an unofficial initiation of two students in the 1861-62 academic year, after which no more initiations were held during the war.

The depletion of mystic numbers due to battlefield casualties was exacerbated by the tendency of many veterans to forgo finishing their college degrees after the war. Price indicates that three mystics returned to Wesleyan after the war, however none of them seem to have made any initial effort to revive the society. The horrifying social maturity brought about from war would be an obvious explanation for the lack of effort at reviving the Temple of the Wand. However there are indications that the Mystical 7 at Wesleyan was starting to degenerate even before the war. It is certain that the Mystical 7 continued to exist through the 1859-61 period; it held its fourth Septennial celebration in 1858 and continued to receive letters from the Southern temples until the outbreak of the war. However, Caldrons in the late 1850’s become increasingly thin and infrequent, and stop altogether in 1859. This may be an indication that the enthusiasm of the society and its philosophical relevance to its members was diminishing.

Twice between 1864 and 1866 a group of Wesleyan students petitioned Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) to be accepted as a new chapter and were rejected both times.28 One of the members of this group was a certain George Hapgood Stone who, there is reason to believe, was one of the two mystics initiated in the 1861-62 academic year(records of this time are sparse and confusing). Letters indicate that directly after the war there were attempts to revive the society by mystic alumni including John H. Rolston and Sidera Chase(a founding member who had assumed the honorary position of Chief Pontiff after the death of Hamilton Brewer in 1855). It is not known, however, whether these efforts were fruitful. Jonathan Carter Pitman, "Jonathan Wampum," who had become a Massachusetts state senator and was about to accede to the presidency of the Senate, spoke at Wesleyan for the fifth septennial in 1865, but letters indicate that this was mainly an alumni gathering.

What is clear is that in the 1865-66 academic year Stone, who incidentally had gained great fame by solving the Confederate Cipher during the war, initiated his fellow applicants to DKE into the Mystical Seven Society. The group of them swiftly re-applied for a third time to DKE, this time as the Mystical Seven. Their application was swiftly accepted and the newly initiated mystics became the charter members of the Wesleyan chapter of Delta Kappa Epsilon. In a strict sense, the new DKE brothers automatically ceased to be part of the Mystical Seven as the society’s constitution made clear that joining another four-year society would result in automatic expulsion from the Mystical Seven.

In 1865 the Skull and Serpent, a senior society in the model of the Skull and Bones and the Scroll and Pen which had existed for many years at Yale University29, was founded at Wesleyan. As originally conceived, the Skull and Serpent’s membership was confined to the officers of the three prestigious fraternities on Wesleyan’s campus, The Eclectic Society, Alpha Delta Phi, and Psi Upsilon. According to Kylin, the Skull and Serpent refused to accept officers from the newly formed DKE fraternity as members, and accordingly Stone and the other DKE brothers determined to set up a senior society of their own. In 1867 the constitution of the Mystical Seven was dusted off and "amended," to make the society exclusive to the senior class, and there is evidence that officers from Chi Psi (after its refounding in 1872) and other new fraternities at Wesleyan were soon included in its ranks.

Price asserts that the mystic alumni, including Sidera Chase, met in 1868 and confirmed the change in the Mystical Seven constitution by the DKE members. This action, however, seems highly doubtful based on the previous inviobility of the constitution during the 1840’s and 50’s and the high respect held for the traditions of the society, as evidenced by earlier letters of alumni to the society. Price and another historian Karl Fischer do drop two clues which may help decipher the events of 1867-68. First, although they give no explanation, they record that Stone’s new senior society officially changed its name to the Owl & Wand (two emblems of the Mystical Seven) in 1868, and continued to use this name for 14 years (although supposedly the society "unofficially" continued to call itself the Mystical Seven during this time). Only in 1882, after much "agitation and . . . discussion," was it decided to change the name back to the Mystical Seven Society.

The original reason for the founding of Stone’s senior society was to gain greater prestige and legitimacy for his new fraternity. In the service of these purposes, the name and venerable history of the Mystical 7 would have been much more effective than the new and traditionless Owl & Wand. The hasty change of the name of the senior society would seem to indicate that serious objections were raised among the alumni to the use of the Mystic name and tradition by the newly formed senior society.

Price also mentions a mysterious burglary of the Mystic attic in North College in the late 1860’s. Price attributes the "nocturnal raid" to "thugs employed by" a mystic who for an unnamed reason had been expelled from the society.30 It is possible that Price is making a tongue in cheek reference to Stone and his DKE brothers. In the absence of regular Mystic meetings after the Civil War, the Mystic room in North College would have likely functioned as a storage area for the mystic records and secret texts and Caldrons. In the absence of a functioning undergraduate Mystical Seven Society this room would have been controlled by the alumni of the society. Although he has no definitive proof, Kylin claims to have come across indications that the thieves were in fact DKE brothers, and if this is true it would support the supposition that there was a struggle for control over the name and traditions of the Mystical Seven in the late 1860’s. At any rate, the main losses from the raid were the bound volumes of Caldrons dating from before the War, which would come back to play a role in a much later chapter of the society.

Whether the Owl & Wand was formed with the blessing of the old Wesleyan Mystics or not, by the early 1880’s the senior society had re-established itself as the Mystical Seven Society, taken over administration of the North College attic, and had smoothed over alumni relations to such a degree as to allow mystic gatherings at University reunions. However, in 1889 a new disagreement, whose roots lay back before the Civil War, erupted at Wesleyan over the Mystic name.

In 1853 the only expansion undisputedly legitimized by the full Wesleyan Temple occurred when the Temple of the Scroll and Pen was established at Genessee College in Lima, New York. The Genessee temple survived the Civil War and continued until Genessee College itself was closed and absorbed by Syracuse University in 1871.31 In 1868 a Mississippian named Charles Carroll Miller, assuming the silence from Middletown to mean that the Wesleyan Temple was dead, wrote to the Scroll and Pen requesting a charter to start a new chapter at the University of Virginia. Miller had been made a mystic by the Temple of the Star at the University of Mississippi in 1867 which was the only pre-bellum southern temple to survive the war (the Temple of the Star closed in 1878 from "lack of material")32. The Genessee mystics issued a charter to Miller and a Temple of the Mystic Seven was established at the University of Virginia on September 24th, 1868 and christened the Hands and Torch.

The Hands and Torch was an active Temple and its membership soon expanded well past the traditional limit of 14 members. Records indicate it consistently organized weekly meetings and dinner parties. Soon after its founding the Hands and Torch started publishing a literary journal called the Mystic Messenger which contained news, essays and short stories. Sporadic copies of this journal were published into the early 20th century. In the years after their founding, the Virginia Mystics attempted to set up Temples at Randolph-Macon, Roanoke, and Franklin & Marshall, but their are no indications that their attempts were successful.

George Stone, the founder of the Senior Society at Wesleyan, became a teacher at Genessee Seminary after his graduation in 1868 and slowly gained influence over the Scroll and Pen during the final years of the ill-fated college. When Genessee closed in 1871 Stone gained control over the records of the Genessee temple and began a long correspondence with its offspring in Virginia in the hopes of negotiating a union between the two remaining Mystic Temples at Wesleyan and Virginia.33 The negotiations were not successful, but Stone’s vision of the Mystical Seven as a senior society within an existing Greek Fraternity Structure and his emphasis on the social aspects of the society over its philosophical precepts had a measurable influence on the Virginia Mystics.

During the late 1870’s and early 1880’s the Hands and Torch increasingly followed Stone’s example by seeking to streamline itself and emulate the fast spreading Greek Society structures. Loosing much of their early reverence for the traditions of the society, the Virginia Mystics initiated a number of structural changes to their Temple. Articles in the Mystic Messenger began to refer to the society as a "club" and "social fraternity" and to emphasis its weekly social dinners above all other events. The Mystic emblem was altered so that a cross was the central figure and the shrunken Mystic star merely scenery in the background(See Illustration). The position of Chief Pontiff (held throughout this period by Sidera Chase ‘39) was sidelined at UV by the invention of the position of "Regent," which was filled with a Virginia mystic (although it can be speculated that the title "Regent" was used because the Hands and Torch continued to symbolically acknowledge the primacy of the Wesleyan Temple). Furthermore, in 1880 the Virginia Temple selected the Greek letters Mu and Epsilon (possibly symbolizing Mystika Hepta) to replace the Hebrew phrase which had always represented the society.

In 1884 the Virginia Mystics started two new temples, the Temple of the Sword and Shield at Davidson College, North Carolina and the Star of the South at the University of North Carolina. It is obvious that the name of the southern branch of the society had further evolved as the two new temples were commissioned as the Mystic Seven Fraternity and the Davidson Mystics took on the Greek name Alethia, meaning truth.

In 1887 the Virginia Temple called a "semi-centennial" convention of the society and invited the three other remaining mystic temples, including Wesleyan, to attend. The Hands and Torch had originally been given a charter by the Scroll and Pen at Genessee and thus had never kept particularly close relations with the Wesleyan Mystics. However, letters from Virginia indicate that in 1887 the Mystic Seven Fraternity was eagerly seeking a union with Wesleyan. Carl Price reports that the Regent of the Mystic Seven, Cooper D. Schmitt of UV, offered to designate Wesleyan as the "Alpha Chapter" of the Fraternity and to give the Wesleyan Mystics the sole power to choose future regents and to approve charters for expansion.34 However, the Wesleyan Mystics quickly voted against this proposal and declined to send a delegation to the semi-centennial at the University of Virginia. It is likely that Schmitt did not fully understand the nature of the incarnation of the Wesleyan society during the 1880’s when he made his offer. Since Stone’s time the Mystical Seven had continued its tradition of functioning as a senior society for the major fraternities on campus. Thus in 1887 nearly all of the members of the Wesleyan Mystical Seven were also members of one of the four year fraternities at Wesleyan. It was in all likelihood for this reason that the members of the Wesleyan Senior society felt it impossible to merge with a Southern Fraternity which still functioned as a four year society and, at least on paper, continued to follow the mystic tradition of banning membership in other four-year societies.

The period from the 1860’s through the 1880’s was a time of incredible upheaval in the American college fraternity system. Most of the oldest college fraternities were on a slow downward trajectory while many new fraternities, which were constantly being formed and disbanded, were experiencing exponential growth. Faced with stiff competition from an unsustainable 15 other fraternities at the University of Virginia35, the Virginia Mystics evidently decided that they must either streamline and expand or inevitably perish. At the 1887 convention the Virginia Mystics, newly rebuffed by Wesleyan, proposed that the name of the society be changed to "Phi Theta Alpha" and that committees be formed to examine potential opportunities for expansion. After much debate a vote on the name change was taken by temple. The Hands and Torch of Virginia predictably voted aye, the Sword and Shield of Davidson narrowly voted nay, and the delegation from the Star of the South at UNC split exactly down the middle and was unable to cast a vote for or against. Accordingly the vote was considered a tie and the resolution was defeated.36 It can be assumed that this defeat took the wind out of Virginia’s drive to reform the society because no further resolutions were passed at the convention.

Despite continued success by all three temples in recruiting new members, a rapid drop off in correspondences indicates that the Virginia Mystics were greatly disheartened by the failure of their proposals at the "semi-centennial" convention. Over the next two years the Hands and Torch drew successively closer to one of the Greek Fraternities on the Virginia campus, the Omicron chapter of Beta Theta Pi. Beta records indicate that the Omicron chapter was nearly defunct from lack of membership in the late 1880s37 and the interest of the Hands and Torch, the oldest continuous society at the University of Virginia must indeed have come as a welcome surprise. By the 1888-89 academic year there was considerable overlap between the membership of the two organizations.

It can be assumed that the Beta Fraternity held two main attractions to the Virginia Mystics. The first of these factors was a well run and well financed national headquarters and organization and a geographic range of chapters that covered the mid-west, south, and was fast expanding to the west coast. The second, and perhaps decisive, attraction of Beta Theta Pi was its chief historian William Raimond Baird. Wesleyan records indicate that throughout the 1870’s the Virginia Mystics had continued to search for information concerning the early southern temples that had been wiped out by the Civil War. Baird had published the first edition of "American College Fraternities" in 1879 and by the 1880’s was considered to be the premier expert on college fraternities and societies within the United States. During the 1880’s research for the second edition of his book took him to the University of Virginia multiple times. It is nearly certain that at one point or another Baird, whose wife was the daughter of a Wesleyan Mystic, John Henry Mansfield ‘55, made contact with the Virginia Mystics. From their influence, the second edition of "American College Fraternities" contained an expanded entry on the Mystical Seven.38

In 1888 Baird and Herbert Barry, the new regent of the Mystic Seven Fraternity, began exchanging letters about a possible merger of the Mystic Temples with Beta Theta Pi. During this year letters were sent out to Virginia alumni concerning the idea of a merger, but it is unknown what response was received. In early 1889 formal negotiations were initiated between the Mystics and Beta Theta Pi. Between July 23-27, 1889, delegations from both societies drafted a formal merger contract and copies were sent to Davidson and Chapel Hill as well as Virginia.

The merger memorandum specified "that the chapters of the Mystic Seven . . . shall be received in full standing as chapters of Beta Theta Pi" but they would be allowed to "retain their privileges . . . ritual and administration [as] they please[d]"39. There are no records of the debate of this resolution within the chapters of the Mystic Seven. The official Beta account simply states that the memberships of all three chapters voted unanimously to join Beta Theta Pi and were officially given the Beta oath during the summer of 1890. The indications are that the Mystic traditions were quickly lost once the merger was completed. The only possible vestige remaining today of the three southern temples is the "Secret Seven" at the University of Virginia. Nothing is known about this society beyond its name, the identities of its members are revealed only after death.

Before they were officially absorbed however, the Southern Mystics had one last chapter to play in Wesleyan’s history. Beta Theta Pi had started as a mid-western farm state fraternity based in Ohio. Although it spread exponentially throughout the United States between the end of the Civil War and the 1890’s, Beta’s lower class reputation presented a nearly insurmountable challenge in trying to form chapters at many of the prestigious New England institutions. A chapter was established at Amherst College in the early 1880’s, but this success did not open up the doors to New England as the Beta’s had hoped.

In the Spring of 1889 a group of Wesleyan Students were recruited by the Amherst Chapter and applied to the Wesleyan Administration for permission to form a Chapter of Beta Theta Pi on campus. The application of these students was swiftly rejected. However the matter came to the attention of chief Beta Historian William Baird. In the Fall of 1889, after the Mystic Merger Contract had been ratified but before the Mystical Seven had been officially absorbed, Baird, who had unofficially been initiated by the Virginia temple a year before, was able to convince his friend Herbert Barry, the Mystic Regent, to issue a charter to the Wesleyan Beta applicants for a refounding of the Temple of the Wand at Wesleyan University. Baird reasoned that the Wesleyan administration would have no choice but to accept an attempt to refound one of its oldest societies. It is testimony to the skepticism with which the administration must have viewed the claims of the already existing senior society that his gamble proved successful and the administration approved the undercover Beta’s as the legitimate Mystical Seven. Baird also organized a refounding of the Mystical Seven at Syracuse University (the successor to Genessee college) which met with limited success.

Having successfully convinced the administration, over the next few months Baird used his knowledge of Mystic traditions to organize a propaganda blitz in which he attempted to convince both the senior society and the Mystic Alumni from before the war that the new society at Wesleyan was the legitimate heir to the mystic legacy and should have their loyalty. Although the undergraduate senior society largely resisted this appeal, Historian Karl Fischer asserts that "many of the older members of the Mystical Seven who were [still] living . . . did actually become members [of the new society] . . . these included some of the earliest members of the Wand and some from classes down to the sixties"40. If any of these older Mystics visited Wesleyan they undoubtedly would have detected the ruse, for the new Wesleyan Mystics knew nothing of the ancient traditions and had initiated themselves with only Baird’s written instructions to guide them. The elderly Mystic alumni had the unpleasant truth revealed to them in January 1890 when, for an unknown reason, the merger between the Mystics and Beta was announced to the public four months early. However Baird, who had copied many of the records of the Southern temples into a "Bibliography of the Mystical Seven" which he gave to the undergraduates of the new Wesleyan society, was still able to convince a small number of alumni, including Alonzo Edgerton ‘50 and William Thomas Elmer ‘57 (the mayor of Middletown), to continue to support the new Wesleyan society and follow it into Beta. In May 1890, less than a year after its initial charter, the Wesleyan Mystical Seven Society officially announced itself as the Mu Epsilon chapter of Beta Theta Pi (The Hands and Torch had joined the pre-existing Omicron Beta chapter at Virginia and therefore gave the new Wesleyan chapter their former name, Mu Epsilon). Thus the Mystic name was used to start two chapters of national Greek Fraternities on Wesleyan’s campus, Delta Kappa Epsilon and Beta Theta Pi.

By the summer of 1890, after 53 years of philosophical ferment and physical expansion, only the Senior Society at Wesleyan University remained as a last vestige of the original Mystic vision. The history of these later cycles is sparse and what is known can be recounted quickly. Throughout the 1890’s and early 1900’s the Mystical Seven continued to function in a mainly social capacity, holding occasional meetings and parties in the attic of North College, which remained the site of the mystic "templum" and the depository of the Mystic records and "treasures." During this time the society was slowly expanding from a fraternity based senior society to a campus wide senior honors society. In 1906, a fire, assumedly caused by Mystic carelessness, was started in the attic templum and burned North College to the ground. Many of the Mystic Records were destroyed in the fire as well as the possessions of many students who were living in the North College Dorms, although fortunately nobody was killed. Within a few years of the fire enough money was raised by the newly formed Mystic Alumni association to begin construction of a new Mystic Templum. This building, which took the form of a heptagon, with seven sided windows and a seven sided door, was dedicated in 1912, and its burned out hulk continues to stand today on Wyllys Avenue (A fire gutted the building in 1995).

In 1937 a centennial celebration of the society was held at Wesleyan. For this occasion Carl F. Price, the historian of the society, prepared the first detailed history ever to be written of the Mystical Seven. It is relevant to note that Price did not look at the Caldrons of the early society during the course of his research (these had presumably been lost in a burglary in the late 1860’s) and relied mainly on the letters from Mystic alumni and other Temples that the Wesleyan Chapter possessed in its archives. However, not all of Price’s inaccuracies can be explained by his lack of evidence.

It seems obvious that the underlying purpose of Price’s work was to cement the position of his Mystical Seven as the rightful heir to the mystic tradition. In the 1930’s Beta Theta Pi continued to actively promote its claim to be the true Mystical Seven and, due to Baird’s lasting influence among Historians, Beta had effectively blocked most references to the remaining Wesleyan society in national fraternal directories. Price’s account, which was soon published at the expense of the Wesleyan society, was designed to minimize Beta’s claim to the legacy of Hamilton Brewer, and maximize the claim of the Wesleyan Senior Society. This is likely the reason why Price insisted on calling the southern temples illegitimate when this was obviously not the case and why he smoothed over the Owl & Wand controversy of the 1860’s.

Upon publication of Price’s book, "The Mystical Seven 1837-1937," Beta commissioned one of its historians, Karl Fischer, to write a detailed account responding to Price. Fischer’s research took him all over the South, and by the time he finished his book in 1940, he had amassed quite a bit of information about the development of the Southern temples. Fischer’s main goal was reinforcing Beta’s claim to the Southern Temples and he was more than happy to allow the Wesleyan Society to retain its connection to the original Wesleyan Mystics. Thus, either by conscious decision or because of a lack of cooperation from the Wesleyan society, Fischer was able to add very little to the History of the Wesleyan Chapter and relied mainly on Price’s account, which was obviously lacking in a number of respects.

In the 1940’s and 1950’s the Mystical Seven Senior Society refined its criteria for membership so that it began to recruit all seniors who showed "leadership qualities." Throughout this time period "the Mystical Seven and the Skull & Serpent were a breeding ground for administrators and trustees"41. Nearly all the top officials at the school had been initiated into one of the two senior societies when they had been a Wesleyan undergraduate. There are some accounts of Mystical Seven members receiving special favors because of their close connection with the administration, such as being able to entertain women at the parties at the Wyllys avenue templum far after the customary 10 p.m. curfew.42 Also, during this period the Mystics started to become more secretive. Posing for yearbook pictures, a common practice in earlier years, was ceased and knowledge of Mystic Membership was strictly guarded.

In the 1960’s, as Wesleyan and academia in general was wracked by controversy and protests, the Mystical Seven became the focus of Wesleyan student ire, as it was considered to constitute an old boy’s network. There is evidence that the Mystical Seven became inactive from a lack of recruits during the late 1960’s. It is ironic indeed that a society whose roots were a radical rebellion against authority had become so identified with administrative authority that it suffered from the same student impulses which had spawned it in the first place. In 1970-71 a group of Mystic alumni restarted the society at Wesleyan and, thanks in part to its willingness to become coed (the Skull & Serpent retained its single sex status for many years), the Mystical Seven survived the tumultuous seventies and continues to exist to this day. The current number, make up of its membership, and the form of its philosophy is not revealed to the public, since it remains, after all, a secret society.

One more chapter in the Mystic history must be quickly mentioned so as to bring the story fully up to the present. In the early 1980’s Christopher Kylin ‘84 did extensive research into the histories of many of the fraternities and societies at Wesleyan. Kylin took a particular interest in the Mystical Seven and, along with a few of his friends, decided to refound the society, despite the fact that the senior society, which was rarely seen or heard from on campus, continued to exist. In 1986 Kylin’s group was able to track the nineteen stolen volumes of the early Mystic Caldrons to a rare book dealer in Texas. The Father of one of the members, Mark Mullen, bought the volumes in their entirety for $6,000 and donated them to the archives at Wesleyan University. Kylin stayed in Middletown for fifteen years after he graduated, combing through the old mystic volumes and helping to strengthen the new Mystical Seven that he had founded. In 1990 a dispute erupted between the Senior society and Kylin’s group over which was the legitimate Mystical Seven. In a series of Argus editorials the Senior society based its legitimacy on its long history and ancient traditions while Kylin argued that the Spirit of the Mystical Seven had been lost after the Civil War and that his group was an attempt to recapture this original Mystic Soul. The new Mystical Seven did indeed resurrect many of the traditions of the early society, including ritualized gatherings, weekly submissions to the Caldrons, and a number of other secret practices. In 1992 the new society nearly died from a lack of new members, but Kylin and a few other Mystic alumni organized an information session and initiation and were able to save the Mystic tradition.

Today the two Mystical Sevens at Wesleyan continue to co-exist side by side with very little contact between them. There seems to be an unspoken agreement that debates over legitimacy are irrelevant. However the continued importance that both of these groups attribute to the Mystic name, and the emotional attachment they demonstrate to the ancient traditions, show that the spirit of what the original Mystics were trying to achieve still holds relevance for students at Wesleyan over a century and a half later.


Works Cited

1) Stevens Albert The Cyclopaedia of Fraternities, p.341, also note p.356

2) Schneider, Dan The Creation of the College Fraternity System

3) Bullock, Steven Revolutionary Brotherhood p.281

4) Bullock, Steven Revolutionary Brotherhood p.318

5) Kylin, Chris Mystical Seven Historian, Head of Middletown Masonic Lodge, Interviewed 11/99

6) Potts, David Wesleyan University 1831-1910 p.7

7) Price, Carl F. The Mystical Seven p.33

8) Churchill, Chris Former President and Historian of the Mystical Seven Society, Interviewed 10/99

9) Price, Carl F. The Mystical Seven p.13

10) Price, Carl F. The Mystical Seven p.17

11) Fischer, Karl The Mystics and Beta Theta Pi p.5

12) Hiesberger, Jean Marie, Editor The Catholic Bible, from New American Bible

13) Price, Carl F. The Mystical Seven p.33

14) Kylin, Chris Mystical Seven Historian Interviewed 11/99

15) Strong, Douglas Perfectionist Politics

16) Potts, David Wesleyan University 1831-1910 p.6

17) Price, Carl F. The Mystical Seven p.20

18) Potts, David Wesleyan University 1831-1910 p. 27

19) Potts, David Wesleyan University 1831-1910 p. 60

20) Kylin, Chris The Mystical Seven, a pamphlet p.2

21) Potts, David Wesleyan University 1831-1910 p. 60

22) Encyclopedia of Southern Culture U. of North Carolina Press p.250

23) Baird, William American College Fraternities p.60

24) Stevens, Albert The Cyclopaedia of Fraternities, p.178

25) Stevens, Albert The Cyclopaedia of Fraternities, p.179

26) Price, Carl F. The Mystical Seven p.31

27) Potts, David Wesleyan University 1831-1910 p. 81

28) Kylin, Chris The Mystical Seven, a pamphlet p.3, Interviewed 11/99

29) Potts, David Wesleyan University 1831-1910 p. 42

also Price, Carl F. The Mystical Seven p.36

30) Price, Carl F. The Mystical Seven p.38

31) Fischer, Karl The Mystics and Beta Theta Pi p.62

32) Fischer, Karl The Mystics and Beta Theta Pi p.68

33) Fischer, Karl The Mystics and Beta Theta Pi p.72

34) Price, Carl F. The Mystical Seven p.40

35) Fischer, Karl The Mystics and Beta Theta Pi p.28

36) Fischer, Karl The Mystics and Beta Theta Pi p.74

37) Fischer, Karl The Mystics and Beta Theta Pi p.28

38) Fischer, Karl The Mystics and Beta Theta Pi p.30

39) Fischer, Karl The Mystics and Beta Theta Pi p.31-32

40) Fischer, Karl The Mystics and Beta Theta Pi p.41

41) Argus

42) Argus

Back to Mystical 7 index.