How a 1920’s Socialite
Fell Under a False Prophet’s Spell
By Kristin D’Agostino
Many A-B Tech employees have heard that we have a resident ghost at Fernihurst, but do you know who she was? This is the first of three installments in a series about one of our campus’ most fascinating buildings and the intriguing, if misguided, woman who lived there.
Locked in a glass cabinet in a second-floor room in Fernihurst are two treasures left from the mansion’s most elegant Jazz Age inhabitant: a pair of silk slippers and a small beaded purse. A portrait of her stares at onlookers from above the fireplace. With her blonde hair and blue eyes, the owner of the elegant slippers no doubt once had her pick of dance partners. Mary Connally, known as Lady Mary to friends and family, was well respected in upper-class circles of the early 19th century. Her home was one of the finest in the city with 50 rooms, 30 of which were bedrooms. (The History of A-B Tech 1996).
The oldest of three girls, Connally, and her sisters had personal maids to help them dress. Her father, Colonial John Kerr Connally, was a lawyer and prominent preacher. Her socialite mother, Alice Coleman Thomas, often entertained Asheville’s most distinguished families, including the Vanderbilts who had built the Biltmore estate two decades before. A skilled equestrian as a young woman, Connally won many trophies. She married twice, both times to prominent men. (Her husband Otis Mills Coxe, of Coxe Avenue fame, built the Battery Park Hotel). But later in life, Connally would go on to experience great hardship, enduring two divorces, and losing her only son at age 29 to pneumonia. And in her later years, when other women her age were devoted to church and home life, Connally became preoccupied with a strange spiritual organization started by an English mystic with occult ties.
Edward Wilson was born in 1878 in Birmingham England. Wilson traveled the world extensively as a young man, sailing around the world and visiting temples, shrines, and sacred sites throughout Egypt, China, India, and Mexico. He married in 1902 and had two children with Margery Clark from New Zealand, settling in Victoria, British Columbia in 1907. Five years after his marriage he left his family to become a sea captain and spent nearly a decade at sea traveling and studying theology.
While in France, he had a series of visions in which he believed a Master of Wisdom, the twelfth brother of a group of deities, spoke to him and dictated an entire book of spiritual truths. Feeling called to be a disciple of this master, Wilson changed his name to Brother XII and set sail for North America to fulfill his innermost desires. He created the Aquarian Foundation, a membership that centered on the ideas of karma, the soul’s immortality, and the need for members to separate themselves from the outside world. According to author John Oliphant, Wilson established the headquarters in 1927 of his foundation at Cedar-by-the-Sea, seven miles south of the small town of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. By the end of the summer, the foundation had 1,250 members in Canada and the United States who were drawn in by Brother XII's charisma and persuasive writings. Many prominent individuals joined the foundation and several built costly homes at Aquarian Headquarters at Cedar-by-the-Sea.
Mary Connally first came across Wilson’s books at age 60. The daughter of a preacher, she perhaps had a natural curiosity about world religions. “I was interested in world conditions,” she later recalled according to Oliphant’s book. “I had studied religions, philosophies, and systems of economy and financial conditions everywhere, and nothing seemed to be very satisfactory. Quite by accident … I was given a book called “Foundation Letters and Teachings,” and I was absolutely amazed by what it contained.”
Wilson’s teachings coincided with Connally’s own ideals about society. Brother XII believed that traditional education interfered with children’s creativity and smothered their spiritual perceptions. Connally joined the Aquarian Foundation and fervently began studying the monthly pamphlets she received. Wanting to become involved in his work, she sent Wilson a check for two thousand dollars in June 1928. Two months later, after meeting him personally in D.C. and hearing more about his plans, she wrote another check for $23,000 dollars. This amount, adjusted for inflation, would be about $400,000 today.
With this money, Wilson told her he would build a new settlement on Valdes Island off the coast of Vancouver, British Colombia, a working farm where Aquarian Foundation members could go to find respite from the outside world. On the island, there would be a school for the members’ children that would encourage their spiritual natures to blossom. Connally, who had her own grandchildren and was grappling with the challenges of instilling good during the wild Jazz Age, loved this idea. “I was convinced that this was the Work which I was going to do in the world,” she later recalled. “He had it in a nutshell so to speak.”
The trouble started just three months after Connally wrote her check to the Aquarian Society. A group of the Society’s elected officials became disillusioned with Wilson’s behavior. They made legal charges against him, claiming he’d used the funds Connally donated for personal gain. He had also taken a mistress among the new members of the colony, the wife of a doctor who he called his “soulmate”, who caused him to retract many of his former beliefs about marriage. Wilson was taken to court, but he called Connally to his rescue. As Oliphant recounts in his book, a local newspaper headlined the courtroom story “Dramatic Surprise at Aquarian Hearing”. In it, a reporter compared the trial to the “admirable setting of an old-time play where at the crucial moment of the trial, the heroine, blonde and blue-eyed, burst into the group of serious-faced officials… to proclaim the innocence of the accused.”
In court, Connally testified that she’d given her money as a personal gift to Wilson to be used however he saw fit. “I told him he had absolute control and he could do with it what he wished,” she said. “I approved of his principles and do so still…His proposal was to have a new settlement which was to be a place of refuge in times of trouble.”
Thanks to Connally, the charges against Wilson were momentarily dismissed. But the woman in the elegant dress sitting on the witness stand could never imagine the horrific turn her life would take months later. In 1929, she left the comforts of Fernihurst forever, trading her aristocratic life for the working farm at Cedar where she would push body and soul past the breaking point to prove her worthiness to a sadistic new master.
Stay tuned for Part II of this series in the next issue of Tech Talk, coming in May.
To take a short video tour of Fernihurst and see Mary Connally's slippers and purse, visit Pearls and Lace - Searching for Mary Connally.
Note: Many facts from this story were drawn from the book Brother XII: The Strange Odyssey of a 20th Century Prophet by John Oliphant.