From the outside, Mount Zion, near Sing Sing, New York, looked like any other well-ordered farmhouse in the summer of 1834. Inside, however, the residents of Mount Zion had little in common with their neighbors. They were a diverse group—from former slaves to prosperous businessmen—devotedly following The Prophet Mathias, self-proclaimed Spirit of Truth. Mathias ran the farm as an Old Testament patriarchy, controlling all aspects of his followers’ lives, from diet to sex partners. That fall, the state of New York would have to determine whether Mathias also controlled whether they live or die.
Date: July 28, 1834
Victim: Elija Pierson
Cause of Death: Poisoning
Accused: Robert Mathews (The Prophet Mathias)
The Kingdom at Mount Zion had its genesis in the 1832 meeting in Manhattan of two self-proclaimed prophets—The Prophet Matthias and Elijah the Tishbite. Each had been on a lifelong spiritual quest and, in 1832, each was considered insane by mainstream churchgoers. While both men had fled the hipocracy of conventional religion, they had taken profoundly different paths. Elijah had been searching for spiritual perfection through prayer and self-denial; Matthias had denied Christianity altogether and preached of a coming Old Testament style Kingdom of the Father.
Robert Mathews, who would later call himself the Prophet Matthias, grew up in a strict Presbyterian community. He was orphaned at age seven and raised by the elders of the church. Except for a brief period as a successful store owner with a young family, he spent most of his time on an ever-stranger quest for religious truth. His proselytizing and fits of rage made it impossible to hold a job and kept his family in poverty.
In Manhattan he railed against the sinfulness of his fellow workmen and briefly took comfort in an African Methodist church. Then, influenced by newspaper editor Mordecai Manuel Noah—who planned to set up a homeland for American Jews— Robert proclaimed that he was not Christian at all, that his ancestors had been Hebrews. At the same time he blamed his wife for his problems and would beat her with a rawhide strap to drive the evil spirits out. In Albany he tried to join an evangelical Christian church but was refused for his violence and shiftlessness. On June 20, 1830 Mathews was arrested for disrupting a church service in Argyle, New York.
Elijah the Tishbite
Elijah the Tishbite was born Elijah Pierson in Morristown, New Jersey. A descendant of Puritans, he was raised in a liberal Presbyterian church. As a young man he apprenticed to be a clerk in Manhattan and by age 34 had opened his own mercantile firm on Pearl Street. Around the same time he became active in evangelical religion, volunteering as the male elder of The Female Missionary Society for the Poor of New York and Its Vicinity.
While working in the mission, he met and married Sarah Stanford, whose father was a Baptist minister. Elijah left the Presbyterian Church and joined Sarah’s Baptist congregation. When Sarah began attending prayer meetings led by Francis Folger, who taught “retrenchement”—an ultra-evangelical movement prohibiting luxury in diet, clothing, and home furnishings—Elijah followed her there too. They became deeply involved in the Retrenchment Society, which met at the home of Francis Folger’s brother and sister-in-law, Benjamin and Ann Folger. Elijah and Sarah began living on bread and water and fasting for long periods. While Elijah’s business was still prosperous, their home was almost completely devoid of furnishings.
Elijah began preaching and applied for formal orders as a Baptist preacher. When he was denied, he left the Baptist church and formed an independent church on Bowery Hill. He and Sarah started a mission for the prostitutes of the Five Points neighborhood. Pierson had always been a man of prayer, asking God for help, when God began to answer him, in English, he kept a journal of His words.
On June 20, 1830, while Elijah was riding an omnibus, God told him:
“Thou art Elijah the Tishbite—gather unto me all the members of Israel at the foot of Mount Carmel.”
Sarah was diagnosed with consumption, that spring, brought on by exhaustion and malnutrition. She died shortly after God had spoken to Elijah. More than 200 people came to Ann’s funeral where Elijah preached and prayed, believing he could bring her back to life. He repeated over and over a passage from the book of James,
“The Lord shall raise him up.”
This went on for over an hour, before another minister in the crowd, possibly Sarah’s father, stepped up and put a stop to it.
Over the next year, most of Elijah's followers deserted him, leaving just a small group, which included the Folgers. He gave up his business and let his hair and beard grow. Elijah was living in an apartment on Fourth Street with his servant, a mystic ex-slave named Isabella Van Wagenen. On the first Saturday in May, 1932 he received a visit from the Prophet Mathias. Mathias told him it was a mistake to pray for the Son’s Kingdom; it was the Father’s Kingdom that was at hand. Referring to his arrest, Mathias said the Kingdom had already begun, with the Declaration of Judgment at Argyle on June 20, 1830. This got Elijah’s attention; it was the same day Jesus spoke to him on the omnibus.
Elijah believed that he was Mathias’s “John the Baptist.” That Sunday, after preaching to his followers in his parlor, he turned the pulpit over to the Prophet Mathias and never preached again. All that summer Mathias preached loudly against devils, women, and 1800 years of Christian misrule.
Many of those in the congregation, including Elijah Pierson and Benjamin Folger, were wealthy men and they furnished Mathias with the luxuries that they had denied themselves. When he appeared in public Mathias wore:
“… a black cap of japanned leather shaped like an inverted cone; a military frock coat of the best green cloth, lined with pink or white silk and decorated with gold braid, frogs, and fancy buttons; ruffles at his wrists and a black cravat; a fine silk vest and a crimson sash that he also wore around the house; green or black pantaloons; and (depending on the weather) sandals or Wellington boots, highly polished and worn outside the pants. He wore the fine two-edged sword that came from Him who was first and last, and he carried the iron rod with which he would rule the world.”
Benjamin and Ann Folger had moved to a country home in Sing Sing, 30 miles north of Manhattan; a mansion and 29 acres of land facing the Hudson River. They named it Heartt Place. Mathias visited and decided it was the perfect place to start the Kingdom. He renamed it Mount Zion and brought all of his followers to the house. He assigned each member of the household jobs based on what he perceived in their spirits.
The trouble began when he started assigning sexual partners the same way. With Mathias the undisputed Father of the house, Ann Folger was determined to become the Mother. She successfully seduced Mathias who declared that her Christian marriage to Benjamin was invalid. She was his “match spirit;” he would find someone else for Benjamin.
Benjamin Folger was sent to Albany to bring back the Prophet’s children. When he returned he announced that he had slept with the Mathias’s daughter, Isabella. The Prophet’s response was to severely beat his daughter. Then, after some thought, he declared that Benjamin and Isabella were “match spirits” and should be married. They were both agreeable to this, though Isabella was already married to a man named Charles Laisdell. Laisdell appealed to authorities and the Kingdom was forced to submit to secular law.
The Death of Elijah
While this was taking place Elijah Pierson was slowly fading away. He had begun having nervous fits before leaving New York, at Mount Zion they became more frequent and severe. For his own safety he could not be left alone. The Prophet would not agree to seeking medical care, claiming that Pierson was inhabited by “fitty devils” that had to be fought.
On July 28, 1834, after eating two plates of blackberries at dinner, Elijah became violently ill. Matthias forbade any doctors or medical aid for Elijah. Elijah agreed, saying only prayer would save him. He was left alone, lying in his own vomit and excrement. The following morning Elijah Pierson was dead. Two doctors who performed an autopsy declared Pierson had been poisoned.
The Kingdom was in disarray. Benjamin Folger had deeded his Mount Zion to Pierson and on his death, the Westchester County treasurer seized the property. What was left of Mathias's following fled to Manhattan. Benjamin Folger, now totally disillusioned gave Matthias $630 to go west and set up a new Kingdom. When Mathias left, Folger reported to the police that Matthias had stolen the money. Matthias was arrested and sent to the prison ward at Belevue Hospital.