ODD TRUTHS: THE ADVENTURES OF CHARLES GODFREY LELAND
“You will remember that Albertus Magnus…adds emphatically, that the process will instruct and avail only to the few— that a man must be born a magician!”
-from The Haunters and the Haunted by Lord Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1859).
In 1870, Lord Edward Bulwer-Lytton hosted a quirky American man of letters named Charles Godfrey Leland at his manor house in Knebworth, Hertfordshire. The two thinkers were drawn to each other. They had a natural rapport, like long-lost brothers. Most importantly, they shared an ardent love for the occult. Bulwer-Lytton, the laconic parapsychological investigator and author of Zanoni, was so taken with Leland that he offered to loan him his dream divination device: the Stanhope crystal.
The gobsmacked American scholar bashfully refused the honour. As can be expected, he later regretted it. In his Memoirs, he writes that he continued to dream of his encounter long after the English baron had passed away. This event was certainly an important point in Leland’s life, but in some sense, it pales in comparison to Leland’s many adventures. Like Bulwer-Lytton (whose dreams inspired his literary works), Leland’s wizardly fate was prefigured by odd happenings.
Leland traced his strange destiny to a do-it-yourself ritual that was thrown together shortly after his birth in August 1824 by his Dutch nurse. The purpose of the early initiation was to make Leland an adept of “darksome lore”:
Later on, while attending Princeton University, Leland began to reap the fruits of this mystical nativity. He led a “double life”, passionately nurturing his passion for Gnosticism, Transcendentalism, and “occult philosophy” in private. He would also periodically withdraw into the woods and meditate on the nature of reality. Sometimes he thought that he was “but little short of talking with elfin beings or seeing fairies flitting over flowers”. These experiences thoroughly steeped his soul in the supernatural, setting the stage for his professional interests in magic and folklore.
Fortunately for his acquaintances, Leland’s penchant for mysticism did not mean that he could not be a jolly good fellow. He certainly knew how to have fun. After graduating from Princeton in 1845, the twenty-one-year-old studied at the universities of Heidelberg (the alma mater of Renaissance occultist Johannes Trithemius) and Munich. In Germany, he fully immersed himself in the drinking and fighting culture of university life. He later caricatured his bohemian exploits in his comedic masterpiece, the Hans Breitmann Ballads (first in published 1869).
When he returned to the United States, Leland worked a number of odd jobs to make ends meet. He did public relations work for P.T. Barnum and served as a Union soldier and journalist during the American Civil War. He also spent some time as an oil prospector and travelled to rural districts where “a Union man’s life was worth about a chinquapin” (“chinquapin” was Leland’s way of saying “jack-shit”). Despite the hazards, the oil gig was Leland’s chance to adopt the guise of a rough-and-tumble mountain man. Armed with a blanket, overall boots, and a revolver, Leland settled into frontier life and temporarily forgot about his literary ambitions:
A true nomad, he became “only prompt to the saddle, canoe-paddle, revolver, steamboat, and railroad”. As always, Leland maintained his mystical tendencies. At one point, his colleagues, amazed at his apparent precognition, suggested capturing a raven “familiar” for him. Leland’s Odinic personality during this period is also reiterated by his niece, Elizabeth Pennell, in her biography of him:
“Business took him in his dug-out [canoe], far up the Elk River, through storms, over rapids ; and there was one awful night when death stared him in the face, and all the time the danger threatened, he lay smoking, singing incantations to himself, his paddle at his side, his blanket round him, conscious only of his dull confidence in fate….”
After his run in the oil business, Leland found salaried work as an editor. His earnings made it possible for him and his wife, Isabel Fisher, to travel, and they departed for Europe in 1869. In England, Leland became a member of the Savile Club (a gentleman’s literary club) and co-founded the Rabelais Club (now the The Author’s Club). He also took an interest in Romani and Pavee culture and eventually published his ethnological findings in his books, English Gipsies and Their Language (1874), Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling (1891), and The Gypsies (1896). In 1879, the Lelands came back to the States and settled back into Philadelphia life.
Leland then funnelled his energy into pedagogy and began teaching the industrial arts (woodworking, embroidery, stencilling, and repoussé) to children. According to Leland, his minor arts and “practical education” model was highly praised. He delivered hundreds of lectures in the United States and England, and received thousands of letters of approval. During this period, Leland also corresponded with iconic figures such as Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and William Morris.
Leland devoted the final chapter of his life (1884-1903) to occultism. Once he and his wife had settled in Florence in 1884, Leland began collating information about Florentine folk history. His documentary research resulted in three books which have heavily influenced contemporary Neopaganism: Etruscan Roman Remains in Popular Tradition (1892), Legends of Florence (1896), and Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches (1899). These works also built on Leland’s earlier studies of African and Native American spirituality. He died on 20 March, 1903.
In a way, Leland heralded the kind of interdisciplinary and egalitarian spiritual research that was taken up in the 1950s by Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente. In her ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present (1973), Valiente writes:
“The credit for first lifting the study of witchcraft out of the category of fantasies about broomstick-flying and consorting with demons, and into that of comparative religion and anthropology, belongs to Charles Godfrey Leland.”
Blessed with a seemingly insatiable curiosity and love of the obscure, Leland easily fulfilled his natal prophecy. Not only did he attain the American dream, he also rose to become one of history’s most versatile gentleman-magicians.
The works of Charles Godfrey Leland have been especially influential on The Thinker’s Garden. Leland’s adventurous spirit of intellectual curiosity is evoked in our spin-off digest, Godfrey’s Almanack.