Late one night, a retired sea captain had a vision. Edward Arthur Wilson, a 46-year-old Englishman, had retired to the south of France in 1924. In the course of his life, he had travelled the world widely and had studied many traditions. He had long been attracted to the mystical and occult. And now, as he lay in bed, he saw a Tau, the Egyptian Cross, hanging in mid-air.
Over the next few weeks, Wilson had other visions. He felt he was receiving direction from an ancient Egyptian spiritual master. This master was a member of the "Great White Lodge," a body of advanced spiritual beings who directed the world. Wilson, who was a disciple of Theosophy, believed in such masters. Along with other Theosophists, he believed certain people can be selected as spiritual leaders. They receive secret knowledge from the masters, and impart it to others. Wilson was now such an adept. He felt his master was directing him to a special role in the world. He must follow his master's commands.
Little is known of Wilson's early life. Born in England in 1878, he left home at an early age. He spent his life at sea, eventually becoming a captain. He married a New Zealand woman in 1902, and had two children. They lived briefly in British Columbia, before he abandoned them in 1912. After that, we hear nothing of him until 1924.
Such a bare resumÃ© does not suggest a spiritual leader. But his visions changed him. He knew he had to act on his beliefs, and was being directed to do so. His first task was to change his name. The Egyptian master was the 12th brother of the Great White Lodge. In honour of this, and to show that he was his disciple, Wilson assumed the name Brother XII.
His next task was much more complex. He was told to write two books, dictated to him by his master. The first was The Three Truths, a commentary on three truths basic to Theosophy: the unity of all life, the immortality of the soul and the law of karma. The second book was an urgent manifesto, A Message from the Masters of the Wisdom. In this, Wilson reiterated that chaos and destruction were imminent, and that a special "Work" was being prepared by the masters, to be conducted in a special "Ark of Refuge." Individuals would be trained in this "Ark" to provide spiritual enlightenment, and prepare the world for the coming Age of Aquarius.
Wilson arrived in England in 1926. As well as publishing two books, he had written articles for the leading occult magazine, The Occult Review. He discovered he had become well-known in Theosophical and occult circles, and now began to prepare for his life's work. He decided that the "Ark of Refuge" was to be established far from England, on the west coast of Canada. He began to recruit followers. An ad in The Occult Review brought him just a handful of people willing to go. Among them, though, were Alfred and Anne Barley, who were to remain his most loyal disciples until the bitter end. So he set off for Canada.
Wilson, or Brother XII as he became known, began lecturing to Theosophy chapters across Canada. He was very successful, and began attracting many followers. He set up an organization called The Aquarian Foundation and invited people to join.
When Brother XII arrived on the West Coast, he began looking for a place to set up the "Ark." He purchased land on the sea at Cedar, just south of Nanaimo. Already, substantial contributions were coming in, making such a purchase possible. Next, he began a recruitment drive in California. He attracted many new members, and chapters of the foundation were set up in California. Some of the new members were high-profile.
Will Levington Comfort was a well-known writer, and Coulson Turnbull was one of America's leading astrologers. These two, plus occult publisher Joseph Benner and several others, became members of the Aquarian Foundation's first board. Several moved to Canada and lived in the colony.
Brother XII's movement continued to steam ahead. By July 1927, the Aquarian Foundation was able to have its first board meeting. But all was not well.
Certain aspects of Brother XII's conduct were causing concern. For a number of years, he had a "companion" named Elma Wilson, who was regarded as his wife, although they were not legally married. But now Brother XII began an affair with a beautiful young follower, Myrtle Baumgartner.
What particularly bothered some was that he was having sex with her in the "House of Mystery," a building that had been built for spiritual contemplation. When the issue was raised, Brother XII claimed that spiritual leaders were governed by different rules.
The biggest problem was Brother XII's growing authoritarianism, particularly in regard to the foundation's money. He had purchased land at the north end of Valdes Island for the expansion of the colony. Now he was having buildings built on the land, without any discussion with the board.
He seemed to think that his will was law. Some, such as Lev-ington Comfort, saw the drift of things and quit. Others, though, decided to force the issue. Dissident governors took Brother XII to court, charging him with misappropriating thousands of dollars from the foundation.
Brother XII was saved by a new American benefactor, Mary Connolly. She insisted to the court that her large gift was to Brother XII personally, and not to the foundation. The court let him off. Meanwhile, the dissolution of the foundation became a political issue for the provincial government to deal with.
The provincial government came into the picture because of sensational stories in the media. Only the provincial cabinet had the authority to dissolve an incorporated body. They now began to investigate the Aquarian Foundation with this in mind.
Finally, in November 1929, they dissolved the foundation. But no assets were attached to the foundation, so Brother XII was free to use any money that had accumulated. And a great deal of money had been coming in, principally from Connolly and other wealthy disciples.
He converted much of this into gold coins, and packed it away in jars. No one knows how much he stored. But some say it must have been a small fortune. He also acquired a new mistress. In 1929, Mabel Skottowe, a 39-year-old redhead, arrived at the colony with her husband. Brother XII immediately took up with her, and her husband acquiesced.
Brother XII had been in the process of getting rid of Myrtle Baumgartner. He had wanted her to produce an heir, a supposed reincarnation of the Egyptian god Horus. But after two miscarriages that was no longer possible. Eventually, she went back east, and was not heard from again.
At the same time, Wilson was getting rid of his "wife" Elma. She still loved him, despite everything she had had to put up with. But Brother XII shipped her off to Switzerland to organize a foundation chapter. When she came back, he made it plain she was not wanted. She then moved to North Vancouver, and disappeared from the record.
Brother XII was riding high again. As well as salting a fortune away, he was ruling an expanded empire. Connolly bought De Courcy and Ruxton Islands, and gave them to the colony. He built a fine house for himself on De Courcy.
But Skottowe was a sinister force. She renamed herself "Madame Z," and became the "enforcer" for the colony. Brother XII made himself more remote. Life for the colonists became much harsher. Madame Z would move people around from property to property, often for no obvious reason.
Finally, the colonists began to rebel. Brother XII was wily enough to know the game was up. Sometime during June 1932, Brother XII and Madame Z disappeared, and the colonists never saw them again.
The colonists began a court case against Brother XII, to retrieve their money. But when the case got under way, he never showed up. Also gone were the jars of gold coins. He had escaped to eastern Canada, and then made his way to England.
Eventually, in 1935, he went to Switzerland, supposedly for medical treatment. There it was announced that he had died. But few people believed it, then or now. Most saw it as a convenient escape, back to the obscurity he had come from. Certainly, no one found his money.
Brother XII has remained a riddle. Was he originally sincere in his beliefs, but then corrupted by power? Or was he always simply a scoundrel? Too little is known of his background to be sure.
Brother XII wanted to leave his mark on the world. And this, whether he would have liked it or not, may well be it.
Stephen Ruttan is the history librarian with the Greater Victoria Public Library. More Tales from the Vault are available at the library's website, gvpl.ca.
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