Johannes Kelpius and Occult Monks in Philadelphia

Johannes Kelpius and Occult Monks in Philadelphia

In the 1690s, a Transylvania-born mystic, occultist, musician, and writer named Johannes Kelpius led a group of 40 Rosicrucian monks to colonial Philadelphia to wait for the end of the world.

Though Kelpius and his group of highly-educated mystics were disappointed when the day of revelation didn’t come, they made the best of their new home, building an observatory, a botanical garden, and an orchard. They also wrote poetry, composed music, and studied alchemy, divination, and conjuring.

Records show that they experienced a number of paranormal events, including the sighting or a ghostly figure at the edge of the woods during a celebration around a bonfire, blue flames emerging from a fresh grave, and more. There are also stories of Kelpius’ followers performing astral projection, and Kelpius himself possessed a magical stone that he guarded fiercely, but which has since vanished.

Highlights include:
• A ghost who appeared at a bonfire-lit celebration
• Blue flames emerging from a fresh grave
• A cave full of serpents
• Astral projection into a London coffeehouse
• The philosopher’s stone?

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Pictures of Johannes Kelpius

Cave of Johannes Kelpius

Cave of Kelpius. Image credit: Steven L. Johnson – Flickr,

Johannes Kelpius

Painting of Johannes Kelpius by Christopher Witt – The Historical Society of Pennsylvania,


Episode Script for Johannes Kelpius and Occult Monks in Philadelphia

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

“Deep in the woods, where the small river slid

Snake-like in shade, the Helmstadt Mystic hid,

Weird as a wizard, over arts forbid,

. . .

Whereby he read what man ne’er read before,

And saw the visions man shall see no more,

Till the great angel, striding sea and shore,


Shall bid all flesh await, on land or ships,

The warning trump of the Apocalypse,

Shattering the heavens before the dread eclipse.”


– John Greenleaf Whittier, “Pennsylvania Pilgrim” 1872


The Society of the Woman in the Wilderness

  • Now, let’s take a look at this doomsday cult.
  • It went by several names, including “the Hermits of the Wissahickon,” “The Society of the Woman in the Wilderness,” “the Hermits of the Ridge,” or the “Mystic Brotherhood.” The Woman in the Wilderness was a character from the Book of Revelation, and I just love the image that the name evokes–it’s very scary and mystic.
  • Today, one of the caves where this cult lived, called the Cave of Kelpius, stands in philly, on a hillside in Philly’s Fairmount Park, above the Wissahickon Creek near a Hermit Lane.
    • The cave isn’t technically a cave: it’s been described as “a manmade structure about the size of a springhouse”
      • A springhouse was a building that was constructed on top of a spring, to keep things from falling in and contaminating it. Some people believe that this wasn’t Kelpius’ cave at all, and that it was just a basic springhouse.
      • The structure once had a fireplace and chimney, which were removed in the 1940s because of vandalism.
    • There’s a marker that the Rosicrucians put there that says that this was the site where Philly’s first mystical guru came to meditate and wait for the second coming.
    • So, let’s go back to the 1600s and look at the story of Johannes Kelpius, the mystic who led his group to Philly to wait for the end of the world.
    • Philadelphia had recently been founded in 1682 by a Quaker named William Penn.
    • Pennsylvania Colony had a reputation for being very tolerant when it came to religion, so it was the perfect place for Kelpius to bring his doomsday cult.
    • Kelpius was born in Transylvania–yes, really, Transylvania–in 1667. His birth name was Johann Kelp, but back then, it was customary for academics to receive Latinized names, so after attending a university in Bavaria, he received his new name, Johannes Kelpius
      • When he was 22, he’d earned a masters degree in theology, and he’d published some stuff.
      • While at the university, he became interested in Pietism, which is a Lutheran movement that emphicizes biblical doctrine, as well as piety on an individual level.
      • I’d never heard of this, but I guess it was a big influence on Protestantism in North America and Europe. It sounds like it emphacized frugality, restraint, and order. I guess there’s also a sort of mysticism tied into it. Apparently esoteric and heretical Christian ideas were often lumped into Pietism.
      • When he was 20, Kelpius became a follower of Johann Jacob Zimmerman, a German noncomformist theologian, mathematician,  astronomer, and former cleric whose belief in the upcoming end of the world, and criticism of the state church, cost him his religious position. Zimmerman’s followers were all highly educated, and Zimmerman called them “the Society of Perfection” or “Chapter of Perfection”
        • Though nowadays we tend to view the occult and religion as separate, people used to view them as connected. So Zimmerman’s group was full of highly educated religious people who I’ve seen referred to as cabbalists, hermeticists, rosacrucians, and just generally students of the occult.
        • There’s a great article called German Cabbalists in Early Pennsylvania by Elizabeth W. Fisher that talks all about Kelpius and his comrades, and it has a good summary of what Rosicrucianism meant at the time. Apparently two 16th century authors wrote about Rosicrucianism and popularized it; one of those authors is Johann Valentin Andreae. To read a bit from the article:
        •  In the Fama, or Discovery of the Most Noble Order of the Rosy Cross,  Andreae created a fictitious character, Christian Rosencreutz, who  had lived for one hundred and six years, from 1378 to 1484. The  story held that Rosencreutz had been a great traveller, and in the  course of his travels is in the Arab countries and Spain, he learned the “Magia and Cabala”–a “treasure surpassing that of Kings and Emperors.” But Rosencreutz believed that the time was not yet right to reveal this knowledge, and so he “appointed loyal and faithful heirs of his arts and also of his name”–a Rosicrucian fraternity–to  guard this knowledge for posterity. These brothers were all evangelical Christians, and confessed “to have the knowledge of Jesus Christ.”
        • This secret knowledge was powerful; it gave the Rosicrucian brothers the ability to read “that great Book of Nature.” This book was open to all, “yet there are but few that can read and understand the same.” Borrowing the fundamental premise of the cabbala, the Rosicrucians argued that God imprinted the same characters and letters that he had incorporated into the Holy Scripture “into the Wonderful Creation of Heaven and Earth.” Like astronomers and mathematicians who could predict eclipses, the Rosicrucians could “fore-see the darkness or obscurations of the Church and how long they shall last. We have borrowed our Magick writing, and have found out, and made a new Language for our selves in the which withall is declared the Nature of all Things.”23
        •  Nature was the key to knowledge, for God had revealed divine meaning in the hieroglyphic characters he had written in the Universe. Since his whole creation was harmonious, and the microcosm corresponded to the macrocosm, then men could attain knowledge of divine things through mathematical-magical systems.
  • From his published works, it’s clear that Kelpius was familiar with Rosicrucianism, and it seems likely that Zimmerman and Kelpius met at a Rosicrucian or cabbalistic meeting
  • Zimmerman determined that Revelation, or, you know, the end of the world, was at hand, and that the place to be was Philadelphia. Philadelphia means the city of brotherly love in Greek I believe, but it also means something else.
  • I’d forgotten this, since it’s been a while since I last read Revelation, but if you take a look in your Bible at Revelation 3:7-13, there’s a section about the church in Philadelphia. I’ll read a few verses from the NIV:
    • “To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:
    • These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. 8 I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.”
    • [and skipping ahead a bit]
    • “Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth.
    • 11 I am coming soon. “
    • Or, from the NAB:
    • ““To the angel of the church in Philadelphia,[a] write this:
    • “‘The holy one, the true,
    •     who holds the key of David,
    •     who opens and no one shall close,
    •     who closes and no one shall open,
    • says this:
    • 8 “‘“I know your works (behold, I have left an open door[b] before you, which no one can close). You have limited strength, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.”
    • [skipping ahead a bit]
    • “10 Because you have kept my message of endurance,[c] I will keep you safe in the time of trial that is going to come to the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. 11 I am coming quickly.”
  • As the group that followed Zimmerman prepared to leave for the American colonies, Zimmerman suddenly died, leaving 27-year-old Kelpius as the leader of the group.
  • Around 1694, the group of about 40 people arrive in Maryland and went onto Philadelphia (which at the time was what we’d consider very small, with only about 500 houses in the whole city,) and it was on the edge of the wilderness.
    • The number of monks who came–40–is significant. During the Biblical flood, it rained for 40 days and 40 nights. Moses spent 40 days and night at Mount Sinai. Moses and co wandered the desert for 40 years. Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. And so on, there are a LOT of 40s in the bible.
  • In the Philly area, they built a large meeting house, which was 40 square feet, and which they may have lived in.
    • However, they may actually have been living separately in nearby caves or cabins.
    • Been said that they kept books and scientific equipment in the caves, though I’ve also read that the meeting house contained an observatory to be used for astronomy.
    • Some people said that they even had a telescope, but at any rate, it was the first observatory set up by colonizers in the New World.
  • They thought that the world would end–or, you know, the events of the book of revelation would happen, in 1694. To read a bit of the wikipedia page, which put it very poetically:

“Though no sign or revelation accompanied the year 1694, the faithful, known as the Hermits or Mystics of the Wissahickon, continued to live in celibacy, searching the stars and hoping for the end.”

  • Meanwhile, they build a school for kids in the neighborhood, held worship services that were open to the public, and, since they were well educated, shared their medical knowledge. They also opened a botanical garden and orchard, studied astronomy, and wrote poetry and music. They also dabbled in alchemy, divination, and conjuring.
  • Every year, the celebrated the anniversary of their arrival on June 23, which is St. John’s Eve. I’ve never head of St. John’s Eve, but it’s the day before the feast of John the Baptist, and because it nearly coincides with the summer solstice, it can be a pretty big celebration in some places. Traditionally, people light bonfires and collect medicinal herbs.
    • The monks would light a bonfire in the woods and then scatter embers. The idea was that this symbolized how the sunlight wanes between summer and winter solstice.
    • In 1701, after the St. John’s Eve bonfire, the monks are reported to have seen  “a white, obscure moving body in the air, which, as it approached, assumed the form and mien of an angel…it receded into the shadows of the forest and appeared again immediately before them as the fairest of the lovely.”
  • Things seemed to be going pretty well, you know, aside from the end of the world thing not happening.
  • Kelpius apparently believed that he’d be transfigured like the prophet Elijah and brought into heaven in the flesh.
  • He spent 3 days praying for that, but when it became clear that wasn’t going to happen, he spoke to his friend Daniel Geissler, gave him a sealed box, and asked him to throw it into the Schuylkill River.
  • Geissler knew that Kelpius had been searching for immortality, and he thought that the box might contain something to help with that, so instead of throwing it into the river, he hid it on the riverbank.
  • When Geissler returned, Kelpius looked at him and said  ‘Daniel, thou hast not done as I bid thee, nor hast thou cast the casket into the river, but hast hidden it near the shore.’
  • Now convinced that Kelpius had mystical powers, Geissler went back and threw the box into the water. He claims that when he did it, the box exploded, followed by thunder and lightning.
  • We have no idea if this story is true, of course: there’s an article in the Philly Voice that points out similarities to the King Arthur myth, when Arthur tells a knight to throw Excalibur, his magic sword, into the enchanted late. Though the knight doesn’t want to at first, eventually he throws it in, and the lady of the lake emerges to take it. Folks have pointed out that since Kelpius and his followers were highly educated, they would have been familiar with the legends of King Arthur.
  • Then, Kelpius died of tuberculosis, or maybe pneumonia, in 1708, at the age of 35. His death was supposedly caused by exposure during the cold winter; as a mystic who probably worked to deny bodily pain, he probably didn’t always make healthy decisions. When they lowered his coffin into his grave, they released a white dove.
  • We don’t know where Kelpius was buried.
  • After his death, the community declined.
  • It’s said that 6 monks still followed the lifestyle after the others left. People in the area would occasionally see them walking single file, wearing hoods and sandals. It’s said that 6 ghostly figures are still seen on Forbidden Drive, which I guess is a nearby road.
  • I wanted to read a story about one of Kelpius’ remaining disciples from the Southern Cross Review:
    • Conrad Matthai possessed both healing powers and psychic ability. He cast horoscopes, exorcised demons, prophesied, and had the ability to project his “astral body.”  In 1740 the wife of a ship captain consulted him. She inquired about her absent husband who had left on a voyage to Africa more than 6 months previously.  Matthai excused himself, then repaired to his bedroom for over an hour.  The woman peeked in at one point and saw him lying on his bunk, “pale and motionless as if he were dead.” (Sachse 394)  When Matthai emerged from his bedchamber he told the lady that her husband sat in a London coffeehouse at that moment and would soon set sail for Philadelphia. 
    • As predicted, the captain returned three months later.  After hearing his wife’s account, he decided to visit the fortune-telling hermit.  Upon seeing Matthai the captain declared that he had met him before in a London coffeehouse just prior to leaving for Philadelphia.  The old man had given him a start by walking up to his table and saying:  “you haven’t written your wife; she’s worried sick about you.”
  •  The monks’ story seems to haves mostly been forgotten, aside from the cave in the park in Philly, and an oil painting by Christopher Dewitt, or maybe Christopher Witt (he’s been called both names), an English doctor who painted Kelpius in 1705.
    • That painting is apparently the oldest oil portrait in the US.
    • Dewitt had also built a pipe organ for the group, who heavily featured music in their religious practice. That was the first pipe organ in what would become the US.
    • And in 1738, Dewitt apparently bestowed the first medical degree in Pennsylvania, to one of his interns.
    • Dewitt was the last surviving member of Kelpius’ group. To read a bit more from the Southern Cross Review:
      • “Witt’s healing powers were so remarkable that some superstitious folk in Germantown called the doctor a “hexenmeister,” and crossed themselves after passing him on the street.  Most of us know that Amish farmers put hex signs on barns to repel evil spirits.  A “hexenmeister” is a kind of warlock who can impose and lift curses.”
    • I assume this tradition and superstition is tied to the practice of folk medicine in Pennsylvania, also called powwow. Practicioners of powwow in the past were often seen as witches or warlocks.
    • A botanist named John Bartram once wrote a nice little account of visiting Dewitt:
      • “I have lately been to visit our friend Dr. Witt (in Germantown  near Washington Lane & Gtn. Ave.), where I spent four or five hours very agreeably—sometimes in his garden, where I viewed every kind of plant, I believe that grew therein…We went into his study, which was furnished with books containing different kinds of learning; as Philosophy, Natural Magic, Divinity, nay even Mystic Divinity; all of which were the subjects of our discourse within doors, which alternately gave way to Botany, every time we walked in the garden.  I could have wished thee the enjoyment of so much diversion, as to have heard our (conversation.)…”
    • Though one bad thing we know about Dewitt is that when he was 70 years old, Dewitt purchased an enslaved man named Robert Claymoore to help him with household chores.
      • Claymoore was very mechanically minded, so Dewitt taught him clock making, which was another of Dewitt’s random skills.
      • People in the area who believed that Dewitt was a “hexenmeister” often claimed that Claymoore was his familiar.
      • After Dewitt died, to quote the Southern Cross review: “Robert Claymoore received his freedom, a dwelling, small plot of land, furniture, clock-making tools, and other household contents.”
      • So that’s something at least, I guess. Dewitt left most of his land to a tailor who had apparently showed kindness to the monks, and he also left 60 pounds to the hospital to treat indigent people.
    • And I want to read one more bit about Dewitt’s burial:
      • “Mourners wrapped Dr. Witt’s body in a linen sheet and put it in an unvarnished pine box.  As the early February sun set, they interred him beside Daniel Giessler, Christian Warmer, and a few anonymous Hermits of the Ridge in the community’s graveyard on High St. between Baynton & Morton Sts., which measured 40 feet by 40 feet. “Spectral blue flames were seen dancing around his grave…for weeks.”  (Sachse 422)   In 1859 the Episcopal Diocese of Philadelphia built St. Michael’s Church on top of the burial plot, which locals then called “Spook Hill.””
  • But there is one lingering mystery. There’s a legendary stone that Kelpius was said to have, which may have been inside the box that Kelpius had thrown into the river. To read a bit of a headline from the DC Evening Star from 1909:

Philadelphia Girl Owns Stone of Wisdom

Mystics and believers in the occult often have occasion to refer to the teachings of Father Kelpius–prayed and taught and underwent visions which have puzzled the students of latter days–inspiration of visions was a mysterious stone brought from India–mystic Kelpius had found it on the floor of a cave inhabited by vicious serprents–broke the stone in two pieces and brought only half to the new world–before his death he ordered his half thrown into the Wissahickon, and the half left in the old world has now come to Miss Yetta Norworthe of Philadelphia

  • The article goes on to talk more about the stone:
    • Through its powers, real or imaginary, he could read the future, he could conjure up wonderful dreams, visions much like those of Swedenborg.
      The stone enabled him to wield over his mystic followers an influence such as can hardly be understood today, and a cult grew up around him.
      Along the stream in caves and in an abbey which has now been turned to the highly modern uses of a gold club the followers of Kelpius read and studied, dreamed and prayed.
      And ever their inspiration and guiding star was the sacred stone which the great leader had brought with him from India.
  • The stone apparently had “curious carvings, bearing the message of the serpent, symbol of all wisdom”
  • I wonder if that’s the ouroboros? This feels linked in with alchemy to me, with the snake (recalling the ouroboros) and the stone (recalling the alchemical philosopher’s stone) and the whole sense of mystic hermeticism.
  • Apparently, a handful of Kelpius’ followers wanted to inherit the stone on his death, but to prevent that from happening, apparently because he feared people would use the stone for ill, he threw the stone into the Wissahickon river.
  • However, Kelpius had left half of the stone in Europe, so in 1909, that half was brought the America by one of Kelpius’ distant descendant (the article says she was a collatoral descendant, which I assume means a descendant of a sibling or cousin or something)
  • So this descendant, Yetta Norworthe, became interested in the occult. Supposedly some of her other relatives owned the stone at one time or another, but she’s the only one who understands its message: she said that she can tell the future using it.
  • Her studies brought her repeatedly to the shores of the Wissahickon, where she meditated and reflected like someone on a pilgrimage, and she said:
    • “I have now progressed to the point where I, too, can conjure up visions, and I am convinced that these are genuine and not merely the imagination of a sensitive and impressionable woman.
      “I can shut my eyes and produce a most wonderful picture of Kelpius, in his cowl, teaching the lessons of gentleness and humility to the hermit monks that lived with him. There are religious ceremonies the like of which I have never known in this modern world of ours, queer rituals, chanting hyms, odd prayers.
  • She goes on to talk about Kelpius, who was very young when he took the stone from the cave of serpents in India, and apparently by the time he was 21, he started experiencing dreams and visions, which impressed occultists at the time, who began to follow him. He took his followers to the new world, and in fact, one of William Penn’s friends paid for their passage.
  • She said that some followers lived in the meeting house, of abbey, as she called it, but Kelpius chose to live in the cave that remains today. He studied the stone there.
  • He gave specific instructions about the stone that he left in Europe, saying that it should pass down from the male head of the family, and not to be given to a woman in the family until there was a woman who understood what the markings meant
  • So as a child, Norworthe began studying the stone, and soon enough she knew more about it than anyone else, and was given the stone.
  • She said something that sounds very tied to hermeticism and alchemy:
    • People of the west are apt to be unjustly prejudiced against the wisdom religion of the east, owing to the unpleasant things they are told about serpent-worship in India and Greece. And while I may not speak fully, I may explain how the fate of the world is linked with that of the serpent in wisdom religion. The Term serpent means wisdom, and nothing else, to the occult student.
      To the mystic the serpent represents the perpetually renovated world, typified by the casting of his skin and the return to a second youth every year. To me the symbol is perfect. The mathematical figure of life is likewise complete in the symbol, where the serpent coils himself into a perfect circle with his tail in his mouth, having neither beginning nor end. This depicts eternity, or more properly speaking, immortality, of which all mystics are assured.”
  • She also says something interesting about how Kelpius knew that a “woman’s era” would be dawning, which is why he left the stone to her

Sources consulted RE: Johannes Kelpius



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