Diamond cut diamond; or, yankee superstitions⁠—​Matthias the impostor⁠—​New York follies thirty years ago.

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 program, 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 chooses 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 Impostor.”

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 hodgepodge 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 horse.

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 barroom 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.