MAN CAVE: Contrary to lore, Johannes Kelpius likely did not live in this cave in the Wissahickon; he may or may not have meditated there. But a stone monument erected by Rosicrucian followers marks the spot.
CHASING THE LEGEND: Alan Holm, a Center City architect, founded the Kelpius Society in 1986. He became fascinated with the story after a chance encounter with a group of Rosicrucians worshiping near the Kelpius cave in the Wissahickon.
Courtesy of the American Philosophical Society/Photo by Brent Wahl
BACK IN TIME: Adherents believe one of Kelpius' possessions survives to this day: a German-made refractive sundial that, when filled with water, appears to show time moving in reverse — a biblical reference with significance to the Rosicrucians.
Dost thou promise that when the appointed time arrives, thou wilt be found ready, sword in hand, to fight for thy Country and thy God?’
Solemnly came the answer, ‘I do!’
‘Then in His name who gave the New World to millions of the human race, as the last altar of their rights, I do consecrate thee its Deliverer!’
The Priest of the Wissahikon dipped his fingers in the anointing oil and described the outlines of a cross upon the stranger’s forehead and was about to place the laurel wreath upon his head after saying: ‘When the time comes, go forth to victory.’”
The location: the banks of the Wissahickon Creek. The year: 1774. The “stranger,” blessed to deliver the New World to its destiny: George Washington.
Or so an unattributable text, “discovered” in the Library of Congress by occult historian George Ballard, would have you believe. The fantastical account is one of dozens spawned by the legend of Johannes Kelpius, a 17th-century monk from Transylvania who led a mystical religious order to the woods of Northwest Philadelphia, where members lived and meditated from 1694 to some time after Kelpius’ death in 1708.
For the past three centuries, tales of Kelpius — oozing with Gothic romance and blending hard facts with fantastical lore — have intrigued historians and charged the imaginations of those who believe the mystic had magical powers and possessed the philosopher’s stone, an alchemical substance that could turn lead to gold.
Secret societies venerated him, and reams of historical (and not-so-historical) literature took his story as inspiration. Yet few facts are known about Kelpius. Even his burial place is lost to history.
Today, most have forgotten about the wizard of the Wissahickon — but not everyone. For a small number of devotees, the story of Kelpius remains both a spiritual inspiration and a tantalizing puzzle. These seekers are analyzing dusty texts for hidden secrets about the sect and digging for answers — literally — in Kelpius’ old stomping grounds.
One day 30 years ago, Alvin Holm was hiking through Wissahickon Valley Park near Hermits Lane in Roxborough when he heard ghostly singing in the distance. “I heard, ‘Rom mom, rom mom,’” he says, imitating the chant in his best baritone. “It was so glorious and creepy.”
Following the sounds through the woods, he came upon an equally creepy sight: A circle of figures huddled around a yawning stone portal into a hillside. They were Rosicrucians, members of a secret society similar to the Freemasons, and the portal was purported to be the cave Kelpius used for meditation purposes. The group gathered there because its members believed Kelpius was the first “master” of their order to reach North America, and that day, the summer solstice, was also purportedly the day he arrived in Philadelphia.
Holm was so struck by his chance meeting with these worshipers in the green glow of the forest, he decided to join them. He became a Rosicrucian (he was already a Freemason), and fell in love with an essay written by Kelpius, called “A Method of Prayer.”
“He admonishes us to pray without ceasing,” says Holm, a soft-spoken man with a shock of wavy white hair who’s an architect by profession. “Well, how do you do that and go on living? He calls it an attitude, a mental attitude, a spiritual attitude, a posture of the heart. He envisions the heart as a vessel full of love that can be tipped in order to send out love … and in this way it is also replenished.”
Enamored with “the romance and shady dealings” of Kelpius lore as well as the spiritual teachings Holm says are reminiscent of Zen Buddhism, Holm founded the Kelpius Society in 1986.
“Our collective zeal is to give this guy a larger profile,” says Holm. “I think a lot of us were sick of hearing about Ben Franklin all the time. I thought, ‘Move aside Ben, here’s another notable guy.’”
Nearly 30 years later, they’re still holding monthly meetings — but they’re not much closer to unraveling the mystery of Kelpius.
Here’s what is known: Kelpius was born in 1667 in what is now Sighisoara, Romania, as religious infighting, fueled by the Protestant Reformation, was devastating Europe. He was schooled in Bavaria (now part of Germany), and eventually earned a doctorate in liberal arts.
At university, he became infatuated with Pietism, a form of radical Lutheranism that rejected the church and religious hierarchy, advocating instead a direct relationship with God. He eventually came to lead a band of 40 like-minded followers, known as “Society of the Woman in the Wilderness.” Kelpius taught his devotees that the world would end in 1694 as heaven merged with Earth. They believed that this cataclysm would begin in the wilderness — and viewing Philly as the front lines of that wilderness, they chartered a ship across the Atlantic to attain front-row seats. They settled on land donated to them by other Germans living in a village outside the fledgling city of Philadelphia, a place that would come to be known as Germantown.
Many followers died in transit or left the group (perhaps disillusioned as 1694 passed apocalypse-free) to start families and live more secular lives on the new continent. The dozen who remained established a “monastery” — really a collection of huts and gardens around a large, log-built hall of worship — overlooking the Wissahickon Gorge. They became known as the hermits of the Wissahickon.
Beyond this, things start to get murky: Hermits tend not to keep the best records. But new nations need legends, and this opacity, coupled with a few generations of second- and third-hand accounts of hermits haunting the woods near Philadelphia, sparked the imagination of Romantic novelists and poets a century and a half later.
George Lippard, a friend of Edgar Allan Poe, wrote a string of books that drew on these stories, portraying the valley as a hotbed of eerie activity. Most notable among them was The Monks of the Wissahickon, which bears striking similarities to the previously quoted George Washington fan fiction.
But it’s easy to burnish legends with flowery prose. Tracking down the truth can be a lot more complicated.
I’m hiking through the woods with Nick Bucci, a Kelpius Society member and the only game in town when it comes to tours of the Kelpius sites. The Downingtown resident is wiry, with graying hair and a cheerful intensity in his eyes, like a missionary excited to spread the good word.
“I’m a stonemason by trade, a historian and treasure hunter,” says Bucci, with a nonchalant inflection that suggests he considers treasure-hunting to be a common pastime. “I seek the greatest treasure that the world has ever known, and that is the truth.”
This is a common Buccism, as I will come to learn over the next three hours we spend clambering around the woods, while he recounts different facets of Kelpius’ history, crediting him with astounding alchemical abilities and with being the first teacher in the New World to offer free education to all, regardless of race.
Bucci is enraptured as much by legend as history, and has researched both obsessively. But he can’t resist adding his own flourishes — tangentially connecting Kelpius to everything from the ancient Egyptians to the Holy Grail, which Bucci has concluded is buried on an island off the coast of Nova Scotia.
“I’m also not averse to the idea that Kelpius may have been murdered,” he tells me with a mischievous glance. He doesn’t elaborate.
Bucci believes that Kelpius and his followers brought some of “the greatest artifacts and treasures” of Europe with them. He thinks those objects are still scattered around what is, today, Philadelphia’s second-largest park. While showing me a rock outcropping he thinks the monks used for astrological observations, and the possible site of their worship hall (under the Henry Avenue Bridge), Bucci shows me a local history book relating the legend of Kelpius’ death.
While dying of tuberculosis, the book explains, Kelpius told a follower to hurl a mysterious “wooden casket” into the Wissahickon Creek. Sensing that there was something valuable or important in the box, the follower instead hid the casket. The dying Kelpius sensed (some say telepathically) his student’s deception and sternly reiterated the request. The follower, frightened by his master’s ability to see through his ruse, quickly tossed the box into the creek. The box promptly exploded, and inexplicable storm clouds and lightning appeared.
Historians have said the box could have contained chemicals that reacted to the exposure to water. Bucci believes it might have held the philosopher’s stone. He says he’s talked to a professional diver about recovering the artifact, but hasn’t gotten around to actually searching for it. (A dour 1979 historical survey by the Parks Department says a common chemical like phosphate was a more likely culprit and calls Kelpius “about as magical as a poinsettia bush.”)
When we reach the cave itself, there is a moment of anticlimax: Bucci, despite his many grandiose claims, makes it clear the “cave” was probably a springhouse or root cellar of unclear origins and that Kelpius, given his illness, would probably not have chosen to meditate in this damp pit. Pointing to a slope in the hillside, near a spring that was actually used by the monks, he speculates that Kelpius’ secret library and alchemical lab are buried somewhere underneath that ground.
As I’m standing in the little stone grotto, he explains that a pair of well-to-do women from Chestnut Hill who loved the Kelpius myths paid for the construction of the current stone entryway into the Kelpius cave in 1913. A marker to honor the monks, installed by Rosicrucians (complete with cartouches and other obscure glyphs), sits nearby.
As I approach the portal, Bucci yells from somewhere behind me: “Step carefully because sometimes people use that cave as a toilet.”
Today, the Kelpius Society has a new president, Thomas Carroll, a folklorist trained at the University of Pennsylvania. And it has a new goal: to salvage the reputation of Kelpius research and finally uncover some new information about this lost community.
Carroll admits it’s an uphill battle. While the wild legends surrounding the monk have attracted centuries of zealous interest, they have also repelled serious researchers. Even Kelpius’ most prolific biographer, Julius Sachse, is known to have sometimes lifted “historical” details straight from Lippard’s novels.
“We want to be taken seriously as an organization. We’re not a bunch of people walking around in robes chanting through the woods,” says Carroll. “Maybe some of our members do that sort of thing, and that’s fine … but both sides have a place here.”
Three years ago, the society approached Temple University archaeology professor David Orr in the hopes of locating remnants of the community. After examining evidence the group had collected indicating that the ruins of a 19th-century cottage in the Wissahickon may have been built on the foundation of Kelpius’ 17th-century home, Orr was impressed enough to petition the city for an excavation permit.
The site in question is what was formerly Lauriston Cottage, a historic park structure that fell into disrepair and was demolished by the city in the 1980s. Ancient records describing Kelpius’ hermit complex mention a lodge house known as the Laurea in the same area as the cottage, and a Parks Department report said the coincidence warranted a basic archaeological survey.
The permit was approved. With little funding, Orr and a grad student worked alone, on and off for the past few years, digging out a pile of fill and rubble in hopes of finding a 17th-century foundation buried somewhere deep below.
But along the way, they hit a wall.
“We were surprised when we got down there to find that [the city] had put in a cement pour,” says Orr. “When they did that, they eradicated any memory of the earlier buildings.”
Orr believes there may be older remnants deeper under the concrete, and scattered around the area. He says it’s worth investing the money for a serious archaeological survey, which has never been conducted in the area.
“[Kelpius] was a very gifted individual. He wrote some of the first works of music of Europeans in North America … and he was a leader in terms of religious freedoms,” says Orr.
As to the mythical properties assigned to Kelpius, Orr says they’re not surprising.
“You look at George Washington and his whole life is mythical. The cherry tree and skipping a silver dollar across the river,” says Orr. “These mythical values are very important for a young nation like ours. We grab on to these things. All of our great figures in history are semi-legendary.”
Holm, now vice president of the Kelpius Society, encouraged Carroll to assume the presidency. But when Carroll talks about the goal of solidifying what is fact and separating it from the fiction, Holm is clearly uncomfortable.
Holm’s fear, he explains, is this: Dispelling the mythos surrounding Kelpius could also destroy the very mystique that has helped his memory persist for hundreds of years. “The stories,” says Holm, “are the most important part.”
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