Diamond Cut Diamond Or Yankee Superstitions

There is a story that on a great and solemn public occasion of the

Romish Church, a Pope and a Cardinal were, with long faces, performing

some of the gyrations of the occasion, when, instead of a pious

ejaculation and reply, which were down in the programme, one said to the

other gravely, in Latin "mundus vult decipi;" and the other replied,

with equal gravity and learning, "decipiatur ergo:" that is, "All the

world ch
oses to be fooled."--"Let it be fooled then."

This seems, perhaps, a reasonable way for priests to talk about ignorant

Italians. It may seem inapplicable to cool, sharp, school-trained

Protestant Yankees. It is not, however--at least, not entirely.

Intelligent Northerners have, sometimes, superstition enough in them to

make a first-class Popish saint. If it had not been so, I should not

have such an absurd religious humbug to tell of as Robert Matthews,

notorious in our goodly city some thirty years ago as "Matthias, the


In the summer of 1832, there was often seen riding in Broadway, in a

handsome barouche, or promenading on the Battery (usually attended by a

sort of friend or servant,) a tall man, of some forty years of age,

quite thin, with sunken, sharp gray eyes, with long, coarse, brown and

gray hair, parted in the middle and curling on his shoulders, and a long

and coarse but well-tended beard and mustache. These Esau-like

adornments attracted much attention in those close-shaving days. He was

commonly dressed in a fine green frock-coat, lined with white or pink

satin, black or green pantaloons, with polished Wellington boots drawn

on outside, fine cambric ruffles and frill, and a crimson silk sash

worked with gold and with twelve tassels, for the twelve tribes of

Israel. On his head was a steeple-crowned patent-leather shining black

cap with a shade.

Thus bedizened, this fantastic-looking personage marched gravely up and

down, or rode in pomp in the streets. Sometimes he lounged in a

bookstore or other place of semi-public resort; and in such places he

often preached or exhorted. His preachments were sufficiently horrible.

He claimed to be God the Father; and his doctrine was, in substance,

this:--"The true kingdom of God on earth began in Albany in June 1830,

and will be completed in twenty-one years, or by 1851. During this time,

wars are to stop, and I, Matthias, am to execute the divine judgments

and destroy the wicked. The day of grace is to close on December 1,

1836; and all who do not begin to reform by that time, I shall kill."

The discourses by which this blasphemous humbug supported his

pretensions were a hodge-podge of impiety and utter nonsense, with

rants, curses and cries, and frightful threats against all objectors.

Here is a passage from one;--"All who eat swine's flesh are of the

devil; and just as certain as he eats it he will tell a lie in less than

half an hour. If you eat a piece of pork, it will go crooked through

you, and the Holy Ghost will not stay in you; but one or the other must

leave the house pretty soon. The pork will be as crooked in you as rams'

horns." Again, he made these pleasant points about the ladies: "They who

teach women are of the wicked. All females who lecture their husbands

their sentence is: 'Depart, ye wicked, I know you not.' Everything that

has the smell of woman will be destroyed. Woman is the cap-sheaf of the

abomination of desolation, full of all deviltry." There, ladies! Is

anything further necessary to convince you what a peculiarly wicked and

horrible humbug this fellow was?

If we had followed this impostor home, we should have found him lodged,

during most of his stay in New-York city, with one or the other of his

three chief disciples. These were Pierson, who commonly attended him

abroad, Folger, and--for a time only--Mills. All three of these men were

wealthy merchants. In their handsome and luxuriously-furnished homes,

this noxious humbug occupied the best rooms, and controlled the whole

establishment, directing the marketing, meal times, and all other

household-matters. Master, mistress (in Mr. Folger's home,) and

domestics were disciples, and obeyed the scamp with an implicitness and

prostrate humility even more melancholy than absurd, both as to

housekeeping and as to the ceremonies, washing of feet, etc., which he

enjoined. When he was angry with his female disciples, he frequently

whipped them; but, being a monstrous coward, he never tried it on a man.

The least opposition or contradiction threw him into a great rage, and

set him screaming, and cursing, and gesticulating like any street drab.

When he wished more clothes, which was pretty often, one of his dupes

furnished the money. When he wanted cash for any purpose indeed, they

gave it him.

This half-crazy knave and abominable humbug was Robert Matthews, who

called himself Matthias. He was of Scotch descent, and born about 1790,

in Washington county, New York; and his blood was tainted with insanity,

for a brother of his died a lunatic. He was a carpenter and joiner of

uncommon skill, and up to nearly his fortieth year lived, on the whole,

a useful and respectable life, being industrious, a professing Christian

of good standing, and (having married in 1813) a steady family-man. In

1828 and 1829, while living at Albany, he gradually became excited about

religious subjects; his first morbid symptoms appearing after hearing

some sermons by Rev. E. N. Kirk, and Mr. Finney the revivalist. He soon

began to exhort his fellow-journeymen instead of minding his work, so

uproariously that his employer turned him away.

He discovered a text in the Bible that forbid Christians to shave. He

let his hair and beard grow; began street-preaching in a noisy, brawling

style; announced that he was going to set about converting the whole

city of Albany--which needed it badly enough, if we may believe the

political gentlemen. Finding however, that the Lobby, or the Regency,

or something or other about the peculiar wickedness of Albany, was

altogether too much for him, he began, like Jonah at Nineveh, to

announce the destruction of the obstinate town; and at midnight, one

night in June, 1826, he waked up his household, and saying that Albany

was to be destroyed next day, took his three little boys--two, four, and

six years old--his wife and oldest child (a daughter refusing to go,)

and "fled to the mountains." He actually walked the poor little fellows

forty miles in twenty-four hours, to his sister's in Washington county.

Here he was reckoned raving crazy; was forcibly turned out of church for

one of his brawling interruptions of service, and sent back to Albany,

where he resumed his street-preaching more noisily than ever. He now

began to call himself Matthias, and claimed to be a Jew. Then he went on

a long journey to the Western and Southern States, preaching his

doctrines, getting into jail, and sometimes fairly cursing his way out;

and, returning to New York city, preached up and down the streets in his

crazy, bawling fashion, sometimes on foot and sometimes on an old bony


His New York city dupes, Elijah Pierson and Benjamin H. Folger and their

families, together with a Mr. Mills and a few more, figured prominently

in the chief chapter of Matthews' career, during two years and a half,

from May, 1832, to the fall of 1834.

Pierson and Folger were the leaders in the folly. These men, merchants

of wealth and successful in business, were of that sensitive and

impressible religious nature which is peculiarly credulous and liable to

enthusiasms and delusions. They had been, with a number of other

persons, eagerly engaged in some extravagant religious performances,

including excessive fasts and asceticisms, and a plan, formed by one of

their lady friends, to convert all New York by a system of female

visitations and preachings--a plan not so very foolish, I may just

remark, if the she apostles are only pretty enough!

Pierson, the craziest of the crew, besides other wretched delusions, had

already fancied himself Elijah the Tishbite; and when his wife fell ill

and died a little while before this time, had first tried to cure her,

and then to raise her from the dead, by anointing with oil and by the

prayer of faith, as mentioned in the Epistle of Saint James.

Curiously enough, a sort of lair or nest, very soft and comfortable, was

thus made ready for our religious humbug, just as he wanted it worst;

for in these days he was but seedy. He heard something of Pierson, I

don't know how; and on the 5th of May, 1832, he called on him. Very

quickly the poor fellow recognized the long-bearded prophetical humbug

as all that he claimed to be--a possessor and teacher of all truth, and

as God himself.

Mills and Folger easily fell into the same pitiable foolery, on

Pierson's introduction. And the lucky humbug was very soon living in

clover in Mills' house, which he chose first; had admitted the happy

fools, Pierson and Folger, as the first two members of his true church;

Pierson, believing that from Elijah the Tishbite he had become John the

Baptist, devoted himself as a kind of servant to his new Messiah; and

the deluded men began to supply all the temporal wants of the impostor,

believing their estates set apart as the beginning of the material

Kingdom of God!

After three months, some of Mills' friends, on charges of lunacy, caused

Mills to be sent to Bloomingdale Asylum, and Matthias to be thrust into

the insane poor's ward at Bellevue, where his beard was forcibly cut

off, to his extreme disgust. His brother, however, got him out by a

habeas corpus, and he went to live with Folger. Mills now disappears

from the story.

Matthias remained in the full enjoyment of his luxurious establishment,

until September, 1834, it is true, with a few uncomfortable

interruptions. He was always both insolent and cowardly, and thus often

irritated some strong-minded auditor, and got himself into some pickle

where he had to sneak out, which he did with much ease. In his seedy

days the landlord of a hotel in whose bar-room he used to preach and

curse, put him down when he grew too abusive, by coolly and sternly

telling him to go to bed. Mr. Folger himself had one or two brief

intervals of sense, in one of which, angered at some insolence of

Matthias, he seized him by the throat, shook him well, and flung him

down upon a sofa. The humbug knowing that his living was in danger, took

this very mildly, and readily accepted the renewed assurances of belief

which poor Folger soon gave him. In the village of Sing Sing where

Folger had a country-seat which he called Mount Zion, Matthias was

exceedingly obnoxious. His daughter had married a Mr. Laisdell; and the

humbug, who claimed that all Christian marriages were void and wicked,

by some means induced the young wife to come to Sing Sing, where he

whipped her more than once quite cruelly. Her husband came and took her

away after encountering all the difficulty which Matthias dared make;

and, at a hearing in the matter before a magistrate, he was very near

getting tarred and feathered, if not something worse, and the danger

frightened him very much.

He barely escaped being shaved by violence, and being thrown overboard

to test his asserted miraculous powers, at the hands of a stout and

incredulous farmer on the steamboat between Sing Sing and New York.

While imprisoned at Bellevue before his trial, he was tossed in a

blanket by the prisoners, to make him give them some money. The unlucky

prophet dealt out damnation to them in great quantities; but they told

him it wouldn't work, and the poor humbug finally, instead of casting

them into hell, paid them a quarter of a dollar apiece to let him off.

When he was about to leave Folger's house, some roguish young men of

Sing Sing forged a warrant, and with a counterfeit officer seized the

humbug, and a second time shaved him by force. He was one day terribly

"set back" as the phrase is, by a sharpish answer. He gravely asserted

to a certain man that he had been on the earth eighteen hundred years.

His hearer, startled and irreverent, exclaimed:

"The devil you have! Do you tell me so?"

"I do," said the prophet.

"Then," rejoined the other, "all I have to say is, you are a remarkably

good-looking fellow for one of your age."

The confounded prophet grinned, scowled, and exclaimed indignantly:

"You are a devil, Sir!" and marched off.

In the beginning of August, 1834, the unhappy Pierson died in Folger's

house, under circumstances amounting to strong circumstantial evidence

that Matthias, with the help of the colored cook, an enthusiastic

disciple, had poisoned him with arsenic. The rascal pretended that his

own curse had slain Pierson. There was a post mortem, an indictment, and

a trial, but the evidence was not strong enough for conviction. Being

acquitted, he was at once tried again for an assault and battery on his

daughter by the aforesaid whippings; and on this charge he was found

guilty and sent to the county jail for three months, in April, 1835. The

trial for murder was just before--the prophet having lain in prison

since his apprehension for murder in the preceding autumn. Mr. Folger's

delusion had pretty much disappeared by the end of the summer of 1834.

He had now become ruined, partly in consequence of foolish speculations

jointly with Pierson, believed to be conducted under Divine guidance,

and partly because his strange conduct destroyed his business reputation

and standing. The death of Pierson, and some very queer matters about

another apparent poisoning-trick, awakened the suspicions of the

Folgers; and after a good deal of scolding and trouble with the

impostor, who hung on to his comfortable home like a good fellow, Folger

finally turned him out, and then had him taken up for swindling. He had

been too foolish himself, however, to maintain this charge; but, shortly

after, the others, for murder and assault, followed, with a little

better success.

This imprisonment seems to have put a sudden and final period to the

prophetical and religious operations of Master Matthias, and to the

follies of his victims, too. I know of no subsequent developments of

either kind. Matthias disappears from public life, and died, it is said,

in Arkansas; but when, or after what further career, I don't know. He

was a shallow knave, and undoubtedly also partly crazy and partly the

dupe of his own nonsense. If he had not so opportunely found victims of

good standing, he would not have been remembered at all, except as

George Munday, the "hatless prophet," and "Angel Gabriel Orr," are

remembered--as one more obscure, crazy street-preacher. And as soon as

his accidental supports of other people's money and enthusiasm failed

him, he disappeared at once. Many of my readers will remember

distinctly, as I do, the remarkable career of this man, and the

humiliating position in which his victims were placed. In the face of

such an exposition as this of the weakness and credulity of poor human

nature in this enlightened country of common schools and colleges, in

the boasted wide-awake nineteenth century, who shall deny that we can

study with interest and profit the history of impositions which have

been practiced upon mankind in every possible phase throughout every age

of the world, including the age in which we live? There is literally no

end to these humbugs; and the reader of these pages, weak as may be my

attempts to do the subject justice, will learn that there is no country,

no period, and no sphere in life which has not been impiously invaded

by the genius of humbug, under more disguises and in more shapes than it

has entered into the heart of man to conceive.