Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Esoteric Fraternity

Esoteric Fraternity founder Hiram E. Butler

(Note: a much shorter version of this piece was formerly published on

One of the strangest, yet least-known, 19th-century California-based sects was the Esoteric Fraternity. Ironically enough, for a sect that group that valued a meditative, peaceful communal life, the Fraternity’s nine-decade lifespan was bookended by two bloody incidents: a grisly industrial mishap, and a brutal unsolved murder. Along the way it helped invent popular astrology, weathered embarrassing sex scandals, and fascinated occult scholars who found sinister implications in its more obscure teachings and doings. 

The Esoteric Fraternity was the creation of Hiram Erastus Butler. A native of Oneida County, New York (home of the Noyes free-love commune), Butler was a Civil War veteran, and a survivor of a postwar sawmill accident that cost him several fingers. Maimed and unable to work, he retreated to the New England woods to live as a hermit, meditating and praying in the wilderness.

After fourteen years of isolation, Butler reappeared in Boston as a self-proclaimed prophet of occult wisdom. During his hermitage, he had studied the teachings of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, a secretive order that initiated its members into the “Western Mystery Tradition” that would later be identified with the hugely-influential Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The Brotherhood’s teachings were largely derived from the work of Pascal Beverly Randolph, the African-American doctor and scholar who headed the Fraternitas Rosae Crucis, America’s oldest Rosicrucian group, and whose writings on the ritual use of sexual energy inspired Aleister Crowley and the Ordo Templi Orientis.

American Rosicrucian leader and sex-magick pioneer
Dr. Paschal Beverly Randolph

Butler made sacred sexuality the core of his own doctrines, but in a very odd manner. Drawing on the karezza practices of the Oneida community, and the ascetic disciplines of historical mystics and yogis, he insisted that to truly achieve higher consciousness, not only orgasm but sexual contact itself in any form, had to be avoided completely. Total celibacy was the key to Enlightenment.

One of his followers explained the doctrine years later. To Butler’s thinking, there was a higher spiritual existence which “is interior to the life that makes the physical man live. A man can become more conscious of and love from that more interior life, which includes meeting and associating with the inhabitants of the Spirit-world….There resides in the substance of procreation, in the seed, a power which, if the seed is retained in the body, will in time cause the soul to awaken to a consciousness of and in the realm of Spirit, the realm where dwell those Intelligences who are the creators of man.”

Taking a page from Theosophy, Butler believed in reincarnation, and maintained that he and his followers were “old souls” who had been reborn into new lives hundreds of times, and were now the chosen “Order of Melchizedek” priesthood first mentioned in Genesis 14:18. Eventually, he said, they would number 144,000 members and bring about the Kingdom of God on earth, but only if they all remained celibate.

In 1887, Butler dubbed himself "Adhy-apaka, the Hellenic Ethnomedon, and founded the "Genii of Nations, Knowledge and Religions" or GNKR, to organize his modest following and promulgate his teachings on sacred celibacy and consciousness. For some reason, this aroused the ire of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the Grande Dame of Theosophy, who attacked Butler in the Theosophical Journal Lucifer, saying that he was no better than a cheap pseudo-spiritual hustler, and that his group’s initials actually stood for "Gulls Nabbed by Knaves and Rascals." Blavatsky, herself a Brotherhood of Luxor initiate who may have feared Butler was revealing sect secrets in his teachings, even went so far as to accuse him of siring “astral plane children” with female elementals – a sort of spiritualistic Deadbeat Dad. 

Notice for an 1889 Boston lecture by "Prof." Hiram E. Butler (at bottom of bill)

The great occultist may have been onto something. In 1889, the New York Sun and Boston Herald ran stories that claimed Butler and another male GNKR leader had “initiated” women into their inner circle by seducing them. In one instance, according to the Herald, a female initiate was told to wait in a room until “a man of extremely venerable appearance” entered it; after a time of conversation and prayer “she was to give herself up to the spirit.” Butler and his associate were threatened with both civil and criminal actions, but nothing seems to have come of them. Both men fled Boston.

When Butler landed three thousand miles West, in San Francisco, the scandal followed. In late September 1890, a San Francisco paper called him "a professional hypnotizer who was run out of Boston last year," and claimed he possessed "an occult influence over weak-minded young men and women… using his magic powers, under the guise of a species of theosophy, to secure funds with which he promises to build an esoteric college in the Santa Cruz mountains. How well he is succeeding no one knows, but Butler declares he has at least 500 converts in San Francisco."

In truth, Butler probably had no more than a dozen hardcore California followers. About 1891, he changed the group’s name to The Esoteric Fraternity, and gathered about him several close disciples. All single men and women, they pooled their money and possessions, and moved to Applegate, in the heart of what had been Gold Rush country four decades earlier. They bought a 500-acre homestead overlooking the American River, and settled in to build a self-sufficient, coed monastic community.

1909 postcard of The Esoteric Fraternity property. The sect's printing-house is at left-center, next to the windmill.

The Fraternity soon erected an 18-room, four-story house from native timber, filling it with homemade furniture, and painting elaborate mystical pictures and designs on its inside walls. Fields were cleared for farming and grazing, and the sect planted and harvested crops, and tended a small herd of livestock. The group even maintained a kiln, fired with Manzanita bushes, which provided bricks for the settlement’s outbuildings and walls.

But the group’s time and energies were devoted mainly to prayer, meditation, writing and publishing. Butler eventually turned out over 30 books and booklets, with subjects ranging from the esoteric significance of color, to the proper function of the digestive system, to “The Cause of Inharmony in Marriage.”

Early edition of Solar Biology

Butler’s most famous work was Solar Biology. Published in 1887 and still in print today, it advertised itself as “a scientific method of delineating character; diagnosing disease; determining mental, physical and business qualifications, conjugal adaptability, etc., etc., from date of birth.” Solar Biology, according to contemporary scholars, may have been the first modern simplified astrology book. Its pat character delineations, based on the natal positions of the Sun, Moon and planets in the signs of the tropical zodiac were copied by Alan Leo and other better-known and more influential astrologers, and formed the basis for today’s newspaper horoscopes and computer-generated astrological charts.

Although the Esoteric Fraternity’s self-published books were popular on the early-20th Century American metaphysical scene, the group itself remained small. The enforced celibacy rule guaranteed that the community would birth no new generation of Butlerites. And their physical isolation prevented them from gaining the attention that urban occultists like the Theosophical Society and the I AM Movement enjoyed.  At its peak, the Esoteric Fraternity probably numbered twelve or so members living in the Applegate colony, and a few dozen more associates scattered around the world.

When Hiram Butler died in 1916, leadership fell to Enoch Penn. The editor of the Fraternity’s Esoteric magazine, Penn described the group’s teachings and quasi-Masonic initiatory rites in a 1926 book titled The Order of Melchisedek. The book stressed both the Fraternity’s occult-Christian doctrines, and the importance of total sexual repression to the Initiate, where not only sexual acts but even thoughts had to be sublimated for the Great Work:

In the Second Degree there is not only the effort to overcome the generative impulse and its results in the body, but to learn of and avoid all those sensations, impulses, emotions, thoughts, and relationships that lead up to and cause these impulses…The neophyte must so shut his sympathies from all who belong to generation as to not share in their life-currents and desires.

Occult researcher Marc Demarest, in his piece “Fruit and Seed in Applegate,” believes that the Esoteric Fraternity may have used “celibacy” as a cover-story for Tantric or even orgiastic sexual rites that were performed at higher levels of initiation – a common practice among sex magick-oriented groups. Uncovering the stories about Butler’s scandals in Boston and San Francisco, he also noted that the allegedly-chaste Butler was dodging charges about his group’s “sensational” doings as late as an 1899 lawsuit over the Applegate property.

French UFOlogit Dr. Jacques Vallee, during the time he studied the Esoteric Fraternity.

Another individual who investigated the Esoteric Fraternity’s history was French scientist and UFOlogist Jacques Vallee. Vallee, who studied the political machinations of New Age sects in his book Messengers of Deception, saw the sect’s writings early exemplars of a sort of occult authoritarianism that was tied in with the Melchizedek mythos, and that was spreading throughout the post-Sixties California metaphysical subculture. Vallee cited two passages from The Order of Melchisedek as echoing a particularly ominous concept, well-known to conspiracy theorists: an initiated Elite operating as a behind-the-scenes political power bloc:

The power to overthrow nations cannot be had in its fullness until the neophytes, as sons of God, have gathered together to work together as a unit….

A passage about powers available to such a unit is followed by this prescient remark from the mid-1920s, written in the wake of the Russian Bolshevik revolution and the Italian Fascist coup:

One of these powers operates through what is called “Mob Psychology.” The vast majority of the people are controlled wholly by their feelings, and he who can play on the feelings of the masses can control them.

One can’t accuse the Esoteric Fraternity of thinking small. From reading The Order of Melchisedek, Vallee believed that the aim of the Fraternity was not only to assemble a 144,000-strong Priesthood to dominate the earth, but to merge it with God Himself, becoming the “Body of Elohim” and co-ruling the Universe with Yehova.

But such grandiose plans were far beyond the group’s grasp. By the time Vallee first began gathering notes on the occult-fascist phenomenon, The Esoteric Fraternity’s numbers had dwindled to four aged, isolated men still tending the Applegate property, growing vegetables and sending books and literature to their few customers and correspondents. To the handful of metaphysical researchers and religious scholars aware of their existence, the Fraternity seemed to be almost like living-history re-enactors of late-19th Century American communalism, and they were paid little notice, save for the occasional human-interest piece in local papers.

One of the last four Fraternity members was murdered in August 1973, in a strange incident that’s never been solved or explained. Matthew Alexander Bosek, a 79-year old Russian immigrant, had been tending the sect’s cucumber patch when someone came up behind him and shot him three times in the head with a .38 pistol. Bosek, a refugee of the Bolshevik revolution who’d lived on the land for over fifty years, was a well-liked man with no known enemies, and the incident both puzzled lawmen and terrified the surviving Fraternity, who posted guards on the property and offered a $10,000 reward for the murderer’s capture.

Despite a thorough investigation by the Placer County Sheriffs’ Department, nobody was ever charged for the killing. The case remains unsolved, although this author was told that the identity of the killer was known by some locals, who lacked evidence or eyewitnesses to present to the law. The pathway leading through the cucumber patch was later named The Assassin’s Trail, in commemoration of the grim event.

Memorial plaque erected by E Clampus Vitus

Today the Esoteric Fraternity exists mainly as a memory. In 2003, the E Clampus Vitus historical-society/men’s-club erected a plaque in Applegate commemorating the group, and took over management of the community grounds. More recently, English astrological scholar Kim Farnell reviewed Hiram Butler’s career in her book Flirting with the Zodiac, and identified him as perhaps the first “pop” astrologer in the modern West. And the Fraternity’s books remain in print through the Kessinger Publishing reprint house.

For a group committed to celibacy, they seem to nonetheless have created lasting, if modest, progeny in the form of books and cultural influence. Perhaps it is time that this unusual sect be given the same recognition for theological creativity as the Shakers or the Eastern ascetic groups – fellow communalists drawn to chastity, inner development and the simple life.

Demarest, Marc. "Fruit and Seed in Applegate: Some Notes on Hiram Erastus Butler."
Vallee, Jacques. Messengers of Deception. New York: Bantam Books, 1980.
Melton's Encyclopedia of American Religions -- Eighth Edition. Detroit: Gale, 2008.
Marinacci, Michael. "Gold Country Cult Prepared Followers for World Domination.", 9/2/2011.
Godwin, Joscelyn. The Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor. New York: Red Wheel/Weiser, 2005.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Growing up in this area, there is alot of strange things in the woods hidden around there. Thats all Ill say.

    1. Yeah strange trespassing teenagers looking for something to satisfy their highly speculative over active fantasies.


  4. As a current member and resident of the Esoteric there is a lot of speculation in this article."Tantric" practices? Some people will do anything to deny the possibility of the discipline of chastity. The Esoteric is a private non profit contemplative society. There is no doctrine or dogama aside from chastity and silent meditation along with a desire to bring more control and direction to the internal dialog How boring. The E Vitus Clampus rented land from the Esoteric for about 5 years for their get togethers. New woks from the Esoteric publishing Co are slated for release on Youtube in late 2017 or early 2018 under the name of performance artist NowKentApplegate.

  5. As an addendum to my previous post: Please understand the Esoteric Fraternity is not looking for new members. Please respect our privacy. We discourage visitors except by invitation. We are on the Sheriff's priority response list and trespassers will be prosecuted.

  6. I am not a member, but I have associated with the esoteric . The way my home and where I grew has been represented is gross, sick, and twisted. I find the lack of fact checking to be most insulting, I see a lot of sources for other peoples finding and obviously it was mentioned that there are living members, why was no effort made to contact them and use them as a resource? Interesting how fingers were pointed at the fraternity of being a cult and sexual deviance, one with out solid proof, and two without so much as a half assed defence.How would you feel if this was written about your home and beliefs? It hurt me very much to read this. I have and educated understanding on the history and spiritual practices of the esoteric and this is very misinforming. In my terms as someone in there young 20s, do your homework next time, there's no room for being sloppy and lazy in spreading knowledge and information. That's how lies and bullshit happens.