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Christopher Witt

Commonplace Book of William Bartram, opened to the page containing the Star Pills formula, at top left



Pushing the current thread a bit further, I want to mention another person who's been very supportive and helpful, and taken a genuine interest in the historical figure of Kelpius. Joel Fry is the archivist at Bartram's Garden in Philadelphia, where he has been working with the voluminous papers of John Bartram, and conducting his own research into that period of Philadelphia history. I should note that Joel was among those attending the McNeil Center meeting I wrote about in a previous post. I might also note that it was Joel who recommended I read Josephine Herbst's book on Bartram, wherein I discovered the brief reference to Kelpius, and which launched my ongoing interest in him. Witt is mentioned in the Herbst paragraph, and he's also mentioned by Bartram in several of his letters. For example, writing to Peter Collinson, the London-based naturalist, in 1743, Bartram recalls a recent visit with Christopher Witt:


I have lately been to visit our friend Doctor wit where I spent 4 or 5 hours very agreeable sometimes in his garden where I viewed every kind of plant I believe that grew therin which afforded me a Convenient opertunity of asking him whether he ever observed any kind of wild roses in this countrie that was double   he said he could not remember that he ever did  so being satisfied with this amusement we went into his study which was furnished with books containing different kinds of learning as Phylosophy natural Magic, Divinity, nay even Mystick divinity all of which was the subjects of our discourse within doors which alternately gave way to botany every time we walked in the garden…


What's striking about this paragraph is first, the description of Witt's library, with its books devoted to "different kinds of learning", but also Bartram's judgment that Witt seemed most at home in the environment of his garden.


John Watson, whose Annals provide an interesting perspective on Philadelphia history through the 19th century, provides a neat summary of Witt, taking note of the variety of his activity while also emphasizing the mystical pursuits of his subject:


DOCTOR CHRISTOPHER WITT  was born in England (in Wiltshire) in 1675; came to this country in 1704, and died in 1765, aged 90.  He was a skilful physician and a learned man; was reputed a `magus' or `diviner', or in grosser terms a `conjuror'; and was a student and a believer in all the learned absurdities and marvellous pretensions of the Rosicrucian philosophy.  The Germans of that day, and indeed many of the English, practised the casting of `nativities' -- and as this required mathematical and astronomical learning, it often followed that such a competent scholar was called "a fortune teller".  Doctor Witt "cast nativities", and was called a conjuror; while Christopher Lehman, who was a scholar and a friend of Witt, and could cast nativities, and did them for all of his own nine children, but never for hire, was called a notary public, a surveyor, and a gentleman.


The persistence of these sources in identifying Witt with natural magic is significant. And in fact, Witt was probably among that small but significant group of distinguished individuals known as "cunning folk". As English historian Owen Davies explains in his book Popular Magic, Cunning-folk in English History:


The cunning element of cunning-folk comes from the Anglo-Saxon cunnan, meaning to know. Wizard similarly derives from the Old English wis, meaning wise, so can be seen as a variant of wise-man. Both definitions tell us something fundamental about how these people were perceived. They were individuals who stood out in society for possessing more knowledge than those around them, knowledge that was acquired either from a supernatural source, from an innate, hereditary ability, or from being able to understand writing.


The reference to writing is interesting, but I'll not pursue it here, not just yet. However, and to continue, Witt is widely believed to have been a doctor specializing in herbal medicine -- which is why a recent discovery by Joel Fry is of such great interest. Working with a Commonplace Book kept by William Bartram (son of John Bartram), Joel came across a reference, in William Bartram's handwriting, to an herbal formula which Bartram attributed to Christopher Witt. He noted this down as the "star pill" formula, and then gave the recipe.*


The ingredients of Witt's Star Pill formula appear to be as follows: "colicynth" (probably colocynthus citrullus); "gamb" (possibly gamboge, or garcinia hanbury); and "ol mentha", (possibly oleum menthae, or essential oil of mint).  The fourth and final ingredient in this formula, written here as "Fenicis" is probably fennel, whose botanical name is foeniculum vulgare.  Fennel is a carminative herb, and possibly operating in conjunction with mint, might be present to ameliorate the potentially toxic effects of the main ingredients.


These four ingredients are first prepared in some way not specified by the formula, or have already been so prepared, and are then combined with three parts (indicated in the formula by "xxx") "syr", (possibly indicating a syrup), "enough to make the whole into a Mass for Pills".  Witt's formula (as reported by William Bartram) continues: "Divid [divide] it into 24 gr. pcs. each of which divide into 4 pills.  Dose 3 Pills, lye 2 hours on the left side to prevent being sick.  This most excellent, to purge off Water.".


The formula can thus be divided into six parts: 1. the initiation of the process (indicated  by the opening word of the formula, "take"); 2. a list of ingredients and their proportions; 3. the mixing of ingredients and forming of the pills; 4. dosage ("dose 3 Pills");  5. special instructions for the patient ("lye 2 hours on the left side"); and finally, 6. a clear indication of the efficacy of the pills ("most excellent to purge off water").   


At some point I may want to revisit this subject, to describe the formula ingredients in greater detail. I present it here, however, as a tantalizing fragment pointing to Witt's activity as herbalist, and to the Bartram family's continuing relationship with him.


*In a personal communication dated 27 October 2011, Joel Fry suggested that if I were to publish the star pill formula, I use the following credit:


Private collection, John Bartram Association, Bartram's Garden digital copy


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More Kelpius

The "Kelpius Cave" of legend. The monument visible at right was erected by AMORC (Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis). The group dedicated the monument to Kelpius, in recognition of the deep historical relationship between Kelpius and the Rosicrucian community.



Okay, maybe the Kelpius thread on this blog has a little more life remaining than I'd thought. I've mentioned Jim Green at the Library Company in a previous post, but failed to mention that Jim has been very supportive of the Kelpius Society. He's hosted meetings and programs of TKS, gathered Kelpius-related materials in the collections of the Library Company and displayed them there, and has always been responsive to requests for information or guidance in doing research on Kelpius. My aforementioned meeting with Jim involved a project I was attempting to organize that would explore the multi-faceted Kelpius story in conjunction with scholars, museum professionals, librarians, archivists, and interested others, resulting in an evolving schedule of programming -- exhibits, symposia, special events -- that would tell that story in more detail, and with more authority than has been generally available to the public.


To that end, we organized a meeting which was hosted by Dan Richter, director of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies (MCEAS) at the University of Pennsylvania. Here's the major portion of the letter of invitation I sent out prior to that meeting, which provides an outline of the scope and the potential for an in-depth exploration of the Kelpius story. I should add that the project was initially conceived as a transatlantic exhibit project with counterparts in Germany, as I note in the first paragraph of the letter:


Dear Friends and Colleagues,


During the past few months I've met with a number of you, and reached out to others, to discuss a project that we at the Kelpius Society are planning with a group of scholars and art historians located in Bonn, Germany, that would be devoted to Johannes Kelpius and his community. Our ostensible, initial objective had been more narrowly focused on developing a trans-Atlantic exhibit (with related programming) that would address Kelpius's early years and education in Transylvania and his later activities in Germany before emigrating to North America, while we for our part would clarify the historical experience of the Kelpius community on this side of the Atlantic, touching on the significance of that group in the historical development of Philadelphia and on related matters.


As you know, Kelpius as historical figure suggests many and varied subjects, beginning with his establishment of a utopian community along Wissahickon Creek, but incorporating diverse interests such as early music, herbalism and herbal medicine (with possible implications for the Pennsylvania German powwow tradition), art history, astronomy and astrology, pietism and Rosicrucianism, early American millennial movements, alchemy and divination, and so forth. In addition, the Kelpius narrative may also touch the broader domains of Native American studies, German and German-American studies, and religious studies. Given the scholarly and varied

professional identities of Kelpius and his followers, and that they maintained ongoing communications with friends and colleagues in Europe, their history may also align with contemporary scholarly interest in the more encompassing area of Atlantic studies.


This broad array of topics — and there may well be others not mentioned here — I think suggests the potential richness of a more systematic exploration and presentation of Kelpius at this time. And of course, there is also the broadly folkloric dimension of Kelpius, who, popularly known in his legendary role as "Wizard of the Wissahickon", is a significant component of the more "fabulous" or legendary aspect of Philadelphia history and culture.


I'm providing this excerpt here to indicate the scope of a possible Kelpius studies project, and also to affirm that there has been wide interest and support for this idea among the professional community. As I mentioned, the meeting was well-attended, the discussion was productive, and a shared feeling of opportunity and expectation resulted from that exchange.


In the intervening period between that meeting and this writing, I relocated to Vermont and found it more difficult than I'd anticipated to continue with the project, what with packing, moving, and resettling. However, I'll make an effort to revive the project in coming months.






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The Kelpius Society

1871 Map of Fairmount Park showing approximate location of Kelpius Site


Once I'd learned a little more about Kelpius, I determined to find out whether anyone else was interested too. In retrospect, I'd say that I had vastly underestimated this interest. As I soon learned, given the widespread legendary status of Kelpius in the Philadelphia region (and beyond), some people there had in fact formed and organized a Kelpius Society. Indeed, one of their members had recently published a book about Kelpius and his community.That book is Woman in the Wilderness by Jonathan Scott, who as I say was then a member of the Kelpius Society (hereafter referred to as "TKS"). I right away got a copy of the book out of the Philadelphia Free Library, and read it. I also looked for and found contact information for TKS and got in touch with them. And then, of course, I joined the organization and later signed on to their site committee.


A word about "Woman of the Wilderness". I'd mentioned in my most recent post that Kelpius and his group were inclined toward mysticism, and believed that the Second Coming was imminent. A key text for them, apart from the work of Boehme and others, was the very last book of the Bible – the Book of Revelation. Chapter 12 of that book has a reference to the "Woman of the Wilderness", or sometimes, "Woman of the Apocalypse", who moreover is often understood to be Mary, the mother of God, but situated within the dramatic and apocalyptic setting of Revelations. In any case, the term "Woman of the Wilderness" was often used to refer to Kelpius and his followers, possibly due to their millennialism.  But they did not apply that name to themselves.


I should quickly add, with all possible emphasis, that TKS is not a religious organization, though individual members may indeed belong to one or another religions or churches. Nor is it a "secret society" of any kind, though some members do indeed belong to one or another of the contemporary Rosicrucian organizations. My view as president – and yes! I did assume that role several years after becoming a member – was to adhere very strictly to a more secular vision, and I was careful to represent and promote TKS as strictly an historical and cultural organization.


At that time, TKS maintained an active meeting schedule, presented various programs around the city and region, and had an active publications and research component. In addition, TKS had identified a site, located in what is now Fairmount Park, as the site of the original Kelpius settlement, and was actively seeking resources and other means to develop and interpret the site. In fact, TKS was successful, after several years of careful preparation and persistent advocacy, in having an historic marker placed at the entrance to the site by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museums Commission. By the way, the three founding members of the Kelpius Society were Dorothy Pinkett, a local activist; Lucy Carroll (no relation to me), a musicologist, and Alvin Holm, a noted architect.


TKS had other goals as well – to establish and maintain a botanical herb garden as much like the original as possible, establish effective  interpretive signage throughout the site, further develop the site for visitors by establishing and maintaining a system of trails, along with sitting or rest areas, and schedule regular programming at the site itself. TKS also provided tours of the site and surrounding area of Wissahickon Park, which is rich in history, and made the tours available to all interested parties at their request. Our goal was to promote the site, but also to educate the public about Kelpius and the other members of his community, who in our view had made significant contributions to the historical development of the city.


As I mentioned in my first post on this subject, people think of Ben Franklin when they think of Philadelphia. That's fine. Franklin was a major historical figure. But what about Kelpius? His utopian vision was hardly realized – he died young, and his community gradually dispersed following his death. :One of those followers, Conrad Beissel, had emigrated from Germany and sailed to Philadelphia in order to join Kelpius, but arrived after Kelpius had already died. Beissel moved on, settling here and there until finally he established a sectarian community on the banks of the Cocalico Creek, in what is now Ephrata, Pennsylvania. He, like Kelpius and his followers, adopted the life of a hermit, and he too devoted himself to devout preparation for the Second Coming. However, unlike that of Kelpius, Beisell's community grew, and survived. Ephrata Cloister is now an historic site operated and maintained by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museums Commission.


The website address for the Kelpius Society is kelpius.org.

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Kelpius Background

Kelpius Legend, lithograph by C.H. DeWitt



What follows is a truncated, generalized account of the background to the Kelpius story (see my previous post).


In 17th century Germany, Kelpius was part of a growing movement of dissent from orthodox Lutheranism, whose members were persecuted as a result of their nonconformity. Self-identifying as "pietists", they were intensely devout, striving to develop a personal relationship to God independent of intermediaries such as the clergy, or the establishment church. Though initially a marginalized movement within Lutheranism, pietism spread rapidly throughout Europe, and would ultimately gain considerable influence in North America, among the various German-speaking immigrant groups who settled there.


I might add that Kelpius and company were inclined towards mysticism, and especially the work of the great German mystic, Jakob Boehme. Their plan was to emigrate from Germany and settle in the New World, where they would establish a utopian community. Johann Jakob Zimmerman, their leader, was a noted astronomer who had observed a rise in the frequency of comet activity in the skies over Europe through the 1680s. He concluded that this must portend the imminent Second Coming of Christ, and predicted that the long-awaited event would occur in 1694. On that basis, the group decided to leave Europe post haste, to greet the millenium in America.  


They traveled to London to finalize plans for the voyage. Unexpectedly, however, Zimmerman died on the eve of their scheduled departure, and Kelpius assumed leadership of the group. The remaining members – some believe that the first Rosicrucians to arrive in North America were among them – boarded the Sarah Maria of Good Hope, and set sail. The ship docked at Philadelphia in June 1694, and the group set about establishing their settlement on the banks of Wissahickon Creek, near Germantown, which at that time was an outskirt of Philadelphia. At that location they established a medicinal herb garden, composed original music, and built an observatory, all the while watching the skies for signs of the Second Coming. This was the community that Josephine Herbst has described so effectively, in her book on John Bartram.


Kelpius died in 1708, but has since become a legendary figure, possibly due to miracles he is supposed to have performed, and partly based on his reputation as a wizard and mystic, meditating in a solitary cave located somewhere above the Wissahickon Creek. It's believed, for example, that Kelpius performed miracles at sea, in one instance saving the Sarah Maria from certain destruction during an especially violent storm. He is also looked upon as a master healer among the braucherei* of the nearby Pennsylvania German community. Indeed, over the years Kelpius has acquired a reputation as the "Wizard of the Wissahickon", or "Hermit of the Wissahickon". Undergirding this legendary status, Kelpius was said to have possessed the Philosopher's Stone, or some part of it  -- that elusive, magical object coveted by alchemists, who believed that, possessing it, they could transform base metals into gold.


Also according to legend, as Kelpius lay on his death bed within his hermit's cave among the rocks above the Wissahickon, he asked a follower to throw a small casket into the waters of that creek, or perhaps the Schuylkill River. The follower hastened away, then returned to report completion of the mission. Of course, he hadn't actually thrown the casket into the water, believing that its contents were sacred, or otherwise valuable. Kelpius was not fooled, however, and repeated the command. This time the follower obeyed, and as the casket hit the water there was a powerful explosion and a blinding flash of light. That box is believed to have contained the Philosopher's Stone.


For information on the brauche or Pennsylvania German powwow tradition (not related to the Native American pow wow), see materials relating to an exhibit put on recently at the Glen Cairn Museum in Bryn Athyn, near Philadelphia by visiting:




I'd add that Glen Cairn museum and associated buildings comprise an important Swedenborgian site.



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Johannes Kelpius

Portrait of Johannes Kelpius, attributed to Christopher Witt



It's not yet clear where to go next with this blog, meaning, which if any thread to develop and follow through with. That may not be necessary, in any case.  But as I noted in my initial post, the term "fourthriver" denotes (and connotes) something important about fieldwork practice, something I know relatively well. I'll certainly take that thread up again soon. But meanwhile, I want to respond to a comment from a reader who, noting my long association with Philadelphia, and more broadly with the state of Pennsylvania, asked whether I'd ever worked with Quaker or Mennonite communities. In fact, I've done fieldwork in Quaker communities over the years – I'd worked with Quaker farmers in Bucks County some time ago; I've also worked with Mennonites in the southern tier of New York, and elsewhere.


Generally speaking, the Quakers were of English origin, while the Mennonites were of German origin. In fact, a Quaker community was located at a very early date in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, settling there sometime in the 1680s. They occupied the area in and around Germantown, along with a German community that had settled there around 1690, under the leadership of Daniel Pastorius. Pastorius was an educated man, and a polyglot, who adapted to what were virtually frontier conditions in Philadelphia at that time, learning artisan trades and working with his hands to demonstrate and promote self-sufficiency within his community. Pastorius was the author of an interesting book, written in several languages, which he titled Bee-Hive, and of which he writes, "In these seven Languages I this my book do own", though the books seems to be written mainly in three languages – English, German, and Latin. Pastorius also wrote the first legal treatise in North America, among his many other contributions to the development of American culture and society.


When I moved back to Philadelphia after an eleven year sojourn in Pittsburgh, I was determined to become more involved, and to learn more about the city and its history. My guess is that almost everyone thinks of Ben Franklin when they think of Philadelphia. Probably fewer think of John Bartram, the great naturalist (and a Quaker, by the way). But how many people have heard of Johannes Kelpius? (That name Latinized from his birth name, Johann Kelp.)


I first learned of Kelpius in a roundabout way – while reading a book, a sort of biography, of John Bartram!  The book, written by an American writer named Josephine Herbst, was New Green World. And in it, she devotes a paragraph to Kelpius which piqued my interest. Here's what she wrote, in a discussion of Bartram's garden:


Though his [Bartam's] garden became famous for the variety of its native species, rivaling all other American gardens in that respect, it was not the first botanical garden nor the only one. Probably the first botanical garden belonged to the brotherhood of German mystics, led by Kelpius, who in 1694 built their steep-roofed cloister, Das Weib in der Wüste, on the banks of the Wissahickon. There they studied mathematics, experimented in alchemy, and, while they read the sky with telescopes, awaited the second coming of Christ. In their forest refuge, gardens ran down the glen, with a mainstay of herbs for medicinal purposes. Dr. Christopher Witt, who lived in Germantown, must have taken fire from Kelpius's garden as well as imbibing strong drafts of alchemy. A painter of sorts, he even made an oil portrait of Kelpius shortly after their acquaintance in 1704, the first year of his residence in America. Kelpius died that same year but some of his plants must have found their way to Dr. Witt's garden, and were passed on to Bartram. Dr. Witt's neighbor, Pastorius, cultivated herbs and plants, also, and in his Medicus Dilectus wrote of herbal remedies.


Kelpius died in 1708, not in 1704, though Herbst’s description is otherwise correct. That aside, there were a number of features of this passage that stimulated interest – the reference to alchemy, the group's observatory, the botanical herbs, and so on – and I decided to investigate in order to learn more. I'll report on some of what I learned in my next post.


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