The Life and Times of Francis Schlatter
A Union Pacific train speeds west across the drab, khaki-colored plains, toward the distant smudge of a dark, smoky city nestled at the foot of a range of towering, snow-tipped mountains. Inside a chair car near the middle of the long, swaying train sits a quiet, reserved, solidly built man in his mid-thirties. He sports a bushy mustache and sleek brown hair closely trimmed along the contours of his finely molded skull. Although his background is humble, he looks prosperous and well-heeled. He wears a dark-blue suit, spangled across the vest with a shiny gold chain, a derby hat cradled in his lap. The year is 1892, and although a severe monetary crunch is about to wreak havoc on the U.S. economy, there’s little indication of it at this moment in the man’s dress and deportment.
The man’s name is Francis Schlatter. A native of Alsace-Lorraine, where he was born in 1856, he has resided in the United States for nearly a decade. His English isn’t fluent; he speaks the language with a definite accent. When flustered or agitated, he stumbles over certain words. In addition to English, he speaks German and French.
Alsace-Lorraine, sandwiched between Germany and France, has endured a long and fractious history; for hundreds of years it has been the target of contention by various kings, queens, duchies, and religious zealots. Under a cloud of chronic warfare it has been taken and retaken by conquerer after conquerer. The area is rich in natural resources, wooded, well-watered, rife with potash, coal, and iron ore, populated by sturdy, hardworking peasants.
In A.D. 843, King Charlemagne’s holdings, once part of the Holy Roman Empire, were divided between French and German nobles. Battle followed battle, war followed war, as the combatants—Catholic and Protestant—fought to secure the region for their side. The hilly landscape created a perfect arena for bloody combat at close quarters.
The Peace of Westphalia (1648), marking the close of the Thirty Years War, returned most of Alsace-Lorraine to France. The gallicization of the provinces accelerated on the heady philosophical swell of the French Revolution in 1789. By the mid-nineteenth century the region had become thoroughly frenchified. France’s shattering defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1871) returned control of the provinces to Germany.
Growing up in Alsace-Lorraine, Francis had been a dreamy boy, introverted and shy. He liked being off by himself, deep in the woods and grassy fields outside his native village of Ebersheim. His older sister said she often dreamed about him; in her dreams he was always alone, a solitary figure, an outcast.
He was born blind, a condition that lasted about a year. His sight was restored, so he later learned, by the purity of his mother’s faith, fueled by her fervent prayers.
Francis was a teenager when the Franco-Prussian War broke out; whether he was involved as a combatant or a witness we do not know. We do know that his family was divided between French and German loyalties. His formal education was spotty. Both parents were dead by the early 1870s. Trained as a shoemaker at his father’s behest, he immigrated first to London, England, then to America, arriving in New York most likely in 1884.
Virtually nothing is known of his émigré life in London, a period lasting nearly a decade, from the early 1870s to the early 1880s. Presumably, he supported himself during this time by working as a cobbler.
How long he spent in the port city of New York after immigrating to the United States and what he did to support himself remain obscure. Sometime in the mid-1880s he moved out to Long Island, first to the town of Greenport on the North Fork, where he became friends with William Ryan, the son of Irish immigrants. Ryan worked as a bayman on a fishing steamer that plied the waters of Long Island Sound and the inner bays of the North and South Forks. Eventually, Francis moved with Ryan to the village of Jamesport, where Ryan’s family lived. There, he established himself as a first-rate shoemaker. “Everybody agrees that Schlatter was the finest shoemaker they ever saw, and that he made good wages.” (The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 19, 1895).
Around this time, Francis became interested in spiritual matters. He began to hear a powerful voice inside his head, a voice he later identified simply as the “Father.” That voice was to determine his fate.
“Frank,” as he was known, “was an innocent sort of a fellow,” considered by those who knew him “to be a little off.” (The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 2, 1895). He boarded with the Ryan family in Jamesport for awhile, then with a Mrs. Bartlett and later with a Mrs. Corwin, widow of a local sea captain.
His life in Jamesport, a village of 500 people located on the north shore of Peconic Bay, appears to have been idyllic. The place was sleepy and genteel; the two main industries were fishing and small-crop farming. Clam, scallop, and oyster beds abounded on the bottoms of the nearby bays and sounds. The shady old-growth forests that once covered the island were mostly gone by the time Francis arrived, cut down to supply firewood to the growing influx of foreigners crowding into tenements in nearby New York City.
Shore whaling on Long Island was mostly a thing of the past when Francis arrived in the 1880s. An occasional dead leviathan still washed up on the beaches, attracting clouds of gulls and terns. Villagers flensed the blubber off the carcass with hooks and knives. The strips of oily fat were then boiled over a fire and rendered into a viscous fluid that had many practical uses.
With the native Indians muzzled early on, with few predacious animals stalking the woods, with little in the way of an outlaw or gun-toting frontier tradition, life on Long Island circa 1890 was peaceful and serene. The fragrant air, the flowering shrubs, the lush grass, the tidy villages with their shingled saltbox houses and graceful white churches laid out in balanced configurations, provided a comfortable habitat.
At Bill Ryan’s insistence, Francis flirted briefly with being a bayman, but his heart wasn’t in it. He was a landlubber, eager to get back to shoe making. He had a knack for the craft, a feel for the leather and stitching, an eye for details. He worked long hours, earning a decent wage—about fifteen dollars a week. He dressed respectably, befitting his station. He wore his hair short and parted in a whitish line on the left side of his skull. His upper lip was smudged with a curly black mustache. His chin and jaw were pink and hairless. When he smiled, he displayed a full set of teeth.
Maybe not so much in his own mind, because he was shy about such things, but to others it was obvious that he was one of the most eligible bachelors in the Jamesport region. Unfortunately, he wasn’t very outgoing; something reclusive at the core of his personality seemed to hold him apart. According to the few who really knew him, he rarely went out in the evening, preferring to remain indoors, reading a book or practicing his English. Despite all the things there were to do—brass band concerts in the town gazebo, recitals, picknicking on Long Island Sound, moonlight sails on Peconic Bay, baseball, bicycling, tennis, croquet—his only social outlet seemed to be the Ryan family. The family consisted of Bill, to whom he was very close; Bill’s parents, Thomas and Eliza Ryan; Bill’s five sisters—Louisa, Hattie, Eliza, Lelia, and Effa; and Bill’s three brothers—John, Thomas, and Albert.
Francis’s principal amusement was playing croquet with Bill and his sisters. At times he would get so excited he would shout out in three languages, much to the delight of his companions. His marital potential seemed fulfilled when he became engaged to a girl named Kate from nearby Staten Island. Kate eventually threw him over for another man; no one knew exactly why.
In the early 1890s Jamesport was abuzz with religious activities. Since 1835, the town had played host to an annual Pentecostal summer camp meeting, held inside a grove of ancient oaks near the track bed of the Long Island Railroad, which came through Jamesport in 1844 on its way out to Greenport. The camp meetings were a special draw for Francis and the Ryan family; they enjoyed listening to the flamboyant preachers and singing the old-time hymns. Something in the fervor of the Pentacostal faith—God-fevered, spirit-fraught—struck a sympathetic chord in Francis.
The only distressing note in all this happy activity was Bill Ryan’s failing health, which seemed to slip away from the vital parts of his big, strong seaman’s body. As the months passed his expression became vacant, he had trouble walking, his voice dwindled to a husky rasp.
In addition to worrying about Bill, Francis was disturbed by the voice inside his head, which repeatedly indicated to him that his time on Long Island might be drawing to a close. Francis was confused. Each day the voice grew clearer and more insistent.
When Bill was diagnosed with cancer, Francis became even more confused. He had a notion that, if he only knew how, he could help his friend recover. Further, he believed he could help other people he didn’t even know recover from their afflictions.
He did what he could to comfort his friend. He even purchased a magnetic belt for Bill, in hopes that the belt would replenish the cosmic force known as “fluidum,” the proper balance of which could ensure good health and longevity.
In the meantime, life on Long Island rippled along at a delectable pace. The people were congenial, there was plenty of work, the climate was temperate, in the spring the wetlands bordering the narrow beaches were alive with singing birds.
The town of Riverhead (population 1,000), a few miles east of Jamesport, straddled the mouth of the Peconic River at the point where the current slipped into Flanders Bay. On Sunday mornings Francis, frequently accompanied by Bill Ryan before he took sick, walked the six miles from Jamesport to attend different churches in Riverhead—Methodist, Catholic, Congregationalist, Presbyterian.
As Bill’s condition worsened, Francis prayed even harder for him to recover. Although raised a Roman Catholic, he seemed to be searching for a more reliable faith, one that would really work, a deeply personal belief in the tangible proximity of God—God as a viable presence with Francis as his humble avatar, the instrument through which He might reveal Himself in a more helpful way to those who needed Him most.
Bill Ryan died on June 29, 1889. Francis was devastated. Friends said he became interested in spiritualism after Bill’s death. Dreams haunted his sleep, visions of ethereal young women in white robes and gowns who floated in and out of gothic-style windows, accompanied by clouds of butterflies.
He continued to mend shoes and socialize with the Ryan family, but his heart wasn’t in it. The voice inside his head told him it was time to leave. Where would he go?
He finally decided on Denver, Colorado. Bearing a letter of introduction from New York entrepreneur M. M. “Brick” Pomeroy to his western manager, A. S. Whitaker, asking that Whitaker help Francis find work as a shoemaker, Francis rode the train from New York to Denver sometime in the late summer or early autumn of 1892. It is not clear why he journeyed two-thirds of the way across the American continent to a part of the world so different from the leafy folds of his native Alsace-Lorraine or the rolling farmlands of eastern Long Island. There are two possible explanations: (1) Francis had invested his savings in a tunnel-building operation somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, and the investment was languishing as a result of the shaky U.S. economy, and he came to Denver to see what he could do to salvage it; or (2) the city of Denver in 1892—a booming metropolis of more than 100,000 people—was one of the capitals of the alternative spiritual world, and with the intensification of the voice inside his head, Francis rode out West to learn more about what that voice might mean to him personally.
Whatever the reason, his life was about to change in ways he couldn’t possibly imagine.