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It all began with a vision. At least, that's what Edward Arthur Wilson told his followers.
Born in Birmingham, England in 1878, Wilson's early life seems to be a mystery. While he drifted from job to job, his chronic health problems made him unable to stay in any one place for long. Whatever Wilson was seeking during his travels, he apparently found it when he first visited British Columbia in 1905. The vision that he claimed to experience there would change his life. Returning to England, Wilson became a pupil of Helen Blavatsky and her fellow theosophists in the 1920s. Drawing on Theosophical teachings, Wilson founded the "Aquarian Society" in 1926 and announced that he had been "translated to the Higher Realms in order to meet the eleven Masters of Wisdom".
Under his new name of "Brother Twelve" (based on the twelve astrological signs of his birth), he made a series of announcements that were published in various English metaphysical journals.It's hard to do justice to Brother XII's philosophy in just a few sentences (the name was usually written in Roman numerals). Not only did he claim to be the reincarnation of the Egyptian god Osiris, but also differed from the other Theosophists of the time in proclaiming the need for a utopian community which would enable a "world teacher" to rise who would transform all human life.
In one essay, titled "A Message from the Masters of Wisdom", Brother XII announced that his new community would be formed in British Columbia and mobilized his followers to make his dream happen. More than a hundred Theosophists followed him to Canada in 1927 and money was no problem for them. Not only did these followers turn their life savings over to their leader, but numerous wealthy patrons made large donations. The self-sufficient farming commune that he established was named "Cedar By The Sea" on Vancouver Island near Nanaimo.
Whatever the followers expected, it was nothing like the reality of their life in this utopian community. Brother XII developed an elaborate set of prayers and rituals that had to be followed and his rule was absolute. He also introduced new "sexual teachings" to enable his followers to become "the sixth rootrace". Various females in the community were selected to serve as Brother XII's concubines (regardless of marital status) and the resulting children were to be trained to welcome the coming teacher. While this "free love" philosophy alienated many of his core followers, Brother XII's popular writings still attracted new recruits. At the community's peak, there were as many as four hundred inhabitants (though he would claim far more) .
One of Brother XII's special followers was a woman named Myrtle Baumgartner who had been recruited during one of his fundraising trips. He convinced her that she was the reincarnation of the goddess Isis and was destined to bear the expected world teacher (to be named "Horus"). A separate house was built for their "important work" in conceiving the teacher and Brother XII arranged for another settlement to be built on nearby Valdes and DeCourcy Islands as a refuge for the new "rootrace".
In reality, Brother XII's bizarre rule had antagonized most of his followers and he decided to establish the new settlement to rid himself of malcontents. It didn't help that the British Columbian government was starting to take a hard look at the group and whether any laws were being broken. The new settlement, known as the "City of Refuge" was established in 1929 so the faithful could wait out the coming Armageddon (Brother XII was big on apocalyptic prophecies). This colony became increasingly isolated with only rumours trickling out about what was happening there. Cedar By The Sea was abandoned completely.
Sadly, Myrtle had difficulty in bearing Brother XII's male heir and suffered a mental breakdown. By 1930, she was replaced by Mabel Skottowe (who was given the name of "Madame Zee"). Mabel and Brother XII ruled over the settlement jointly but revolt began to brew. The Aquarian Foundation finally had enough of Brother XII and a series of lawsuits were filed in 1933 accusing him of misusing funds and "harsh treatment".
In the courtroom, disgruntled followers gave lurid testimony about the abuse they had received from Brother XII and Madame Zee. One follower claimed to have been ordered to kill a Canadian government official using "black magic" while others testified about Madame Zee and her fondness for whips. The number of followers had long since dwindled to only a dozen stragglers (mostly female). In 1934, the court decided against Brother XII but, when the bailiffs went to Valdes Island to collect what was owed, there was a surprise waiting for them.
Most of the buildings had been destroyed and Brother XII's sailboat, the Lady Royal, had been sunk in the harbour (witnesses later said that he used dynamite to blow a hole in the hull). Almost nothing of value was left and Brother XII and Madame Zee were never seen again (neither was the money that they had taken with them). Despite various sightings around the world, their ultimate fate is a mystery. While one report had Brother XII (who was back to being Edward Wilson) dying in Switzerland of a heart attack in 1934, this was never confirmed.
The Theosophy movement is still around but the strange Aquarian cult founded by Brother XII faded into obscurity after his disappearance. Like other believers before them, a few followers went on to live quiet lives in the area (minus their life savings). One of the last Aquarians, Mary Connaly, lived on De Courcy Island until her death in 1947. Nowadays, Cedar by the Sea is a charming oceanfront community that thrives on tourism. Visitors to the area still hear colourful stories about Brother XII and Madame Zee (and rumours of a fortune in gold hidden in the former commune). That seems to the only surviving legacy of one of the strangest cult leaders of the 20th century.
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