The Case of the Prevaricating Prophet: Newo Newi New and the Diploma of Immortality Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Case of the Prevaricating Prophet: Newo Newi New and the Diploma of Immortality

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Charged with swindling many women here, in San Francisco and other cities, 'Dr.' Newo Newi New, head of a cult known as the 'New Life Center,' which formerly flourished in the Westlake residence district, was arrested today in San Francisco. Instead of being a pure and noble man, as he claimed, officers declare 'Dr. New'… lived royally, drank considerable and had many affairs of the heart. Credulous women, who were ensnared by New's teachings, are said to be numerous…
–  Los Angeles Herald, Volume XLI, Number 287, 1 October 1915

'Dr Newo Newi New' – we are not making this name up, although we suspect he did – made scandalous headlines on the US West Coast in 1915. Convicted of mail fraud, the allegedly immortal ladies' man appealed to the 9th Circuit Court. The appeal transcript makes fascinating reading, but leaves us with more puzzles to solve. Who the heck was 'Dr' New, aka JF New, aka John Fair? Was he jailed under his own name, or was this a case of theological identity theft? Could he really teach people how to live forever for $110, including the price of the diploma? And just how many books had he written, anyway?

We can't resolve all of the issues, but we can shed some light on the situation with the help of some old newspapers and books and a little detective work. Let's call this the Case of the Prevaricating Prophet.

Who Was Newo Newi New, and Why Was He Saying Such Things?

BLONDE HERCULES. The author belongs in a class by himself. Physically he is a blonde Hercules, with square, massive shoulders, huge arms and legs, smooth-shaven face, almost boyish in general aspect. His eyes are a keen gray, overtopped with blond, silken eyebrows.
–  Newology, the New Bible, 1913, p 10

The person who thus described himself in his book Newology, which is the only book we can guarantee he wrote, appeared out of nowhere in San Francisco around 1913, claiming to possess the secret of immortality. We say he wrote this book, although it largely consists of extravagant claims about himself interspersed with 'quotations' like this:

Newology is the fountain spring,
Newology the Newlife will bring;
Newology all tongues shall sing,
Newology in all lands shall ring.

–   Newology, p 6

Most of the quotations are from famous poets and philosophers, or the Bible, with the words 'new', 'Newology', 'Newtian', and 'Newtianity' thrown in. There's an 'alphabetical list of the books in the New Bible' in front of the introduction to this book. As we will see, there is no evidence NN New ever wrote, or published, any of them. He did claim to have written a book we can arguably demonstrate that he never wrote at all.

Meet Him at the Fair

The astute detective will note that San Francisco in 1915 was fertile ground for purveyors of dodgy ideas. There was a glittering World's Fair going on. You could get a booth, as New had, and sell books, pamphlets and magazines. People came to the Fair to see wonders and learn about new things. 'Newtianity', also called 'Newthot', was definitively new, according to the Doctor:

The Newological Fountain of human progress and the highest point in all civilization is based upon the sacred principle that Newtianity is a life, and therefore must begin with a new birth, ...and a Newbirth means a Newlife and hence the name, Newology, which inspires the Newlife...
–   Newology, p 9

The book goes on like that for 168 pages, including index, but we spare you. To help spread his gospel, Dr New, an engaging sort of megalomaniac, enlisted 'investors'. At least, they thought they were investing in a Newological publishing business when they gave Dr New their money. Mostly they seemed to be paying for his dinners and cab fare.

Some of these charmed lady investors worked voluntarily for the organisation, which otherwise consisted of Dr New and his secretary, who gave her name variously as Marie Tully or Marie Graham. A few of the volunteers moved into an apartment rented with their money, forming an autonomous collective with Dr New at their head. This lasted for a couple of months, until the money ran out. Dr New evicted them and found new investors. This caused some resentment.

How to Live Forever

What was Newthot, besides being misspelled 'New Thought'? According to Dr New, it was the key to immortality. New claimed to be 79, though he looked about 35 (and probably was). He claimed that interested parties could become immortal, too, if they followed his instructions. First – and pay attention, detectives, this, too, is evidence – it was necessary to give up drinking, cursing, and sex, and to adopt a vegetarian diet. Newtians should wear white as much as possible, and avoid black clothing, because 'it breeds evil, error, and retrogression in the mind.' Finally, the aspirant to eternal life should take immortality lessons from Dr New. That will be $110, please, cash or cheque.

A woman in Los Angeles who took this course described it thus, under oath. At first, she took the course by correspondence, but after she had attained a life expectancy of 94 and a half years, she became busy and was inclined to give the lessons up. Dr New generously came down to LA for a week to give her private lessons in living forever. He also brought her diploma. The lady described Dr New's method of instruction:

...the lessons consisted of asking me Bible questions and I would answer them, and I also had to lecture before him. When I was lecturing, he simply sat and listened. Once when I was lecturing, I remember that he went to sleep... As to my being prepared to take up the advanced work, he said that I was the best qualified, and one of the best Bible students he had ever met.
–   New v United States, from The Federal Reporter: Cases Argued and Determined in the Circuit Courts of Appeals and District Courts of the United States, vol 245, p 712

This was such a perfect religion: what could possibly have gone wrong?

A Prophet Without Honour

Eventually, the 'investors' got suspicious. Possibly, also, these ladies' relatives. At some point, federal agents became involved. It was a federal offence to use the US mails to knowingly defraud. Their dilemma? How to stop this menace to society without violating the US Constitution, which protected the free exercise of religion. According to constitutional principle, religious beliefs were protected if they were sincerely held. How could they prove that this man was a charlatan? By demonstrating that he didn't practise what he preached.

Witnesses were called to prove that Newo Newi New ate meat twice a day. That he had been heard to say 'damn'. That on at least one occasion, a volunteer had smelled liquor on his breath. The pièce de résistance, of course, was evidence of his sexual activity as detailed by a city reporter.

I was out at the apartment of Dr New the morning that he was arrested, about half past 6 in the morning, October 1st, last year... Mr Bohn knocked on the door... and a lady's voice answered, and he asked if Dr New was in there, and the woman replied, 'No.'... in the course of a few minutes the lady opened the door. I saw Dr New in there; he was in bed... he was in his underwear. The bed... was mussed up; I could not say as to whether it had been occupied by more than one person. Mrs Graham had on a kimono... There was false hair lying on the dresser...'
–   New v United States, from The Federal Reporter: Cases Argued and Determined in the Circuit Courts of Appeals and District Courts of the United States, vol 245, p 712

That nailed the indictment. Kimono-wearing was evidence that the woman was a floozy. And in 1915, if a woman laid her false hair on a man's dresser, there was definitely hanky-panky going on. Newo Newi New was convicted of several counts of mail fraud and sentenced to two years' imprisonment at the federal penitentiary at McNeil Island on Puget Sound. He appealed to the 9th Circuit Court, but the appeal was denied.

What happened to New afterwards? We don't know. He probably changed his name again. Like others born of the Spirit, he was like the wind: 'thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth.' (John 3:8, Authorised Version). But Newo Newi New has left us another puzzle. This one involves a book.

The Roots of Newo Newi New

When 'NN New' came West, he brought with him a published book, which he claimed (fraudulently) to have written. In fact, he'd registered the copyright of this book in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1910, as 'John Fair New'. But the book had already been copyrighted in Philadelphia in 1908, by John Fair. John Fair was a leader in the New Life Society, a group of people who advocated ecumenicalism (the unification of Protestant churches) and espoused teachings about prayer and faith healing that were much like those of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. John Fair had edited The New Life Hymnal along with a Philadelphia publisher named HK Moyer. The Society had offices on Broad Street and advertised lecturers for Chautauquas1. The New Life Society, though marginal, was very respectable.

John Fair's book, The New Life Theology, was peer-reviewed, in a sense. The introduction – lengthy and effusive – was written by someone called The Reverend George Edward Faber, MA. The book was advertised in such worthy publications as The Phrenological Journal and Science of Health, London, not reassuring by any means, but still within the boundaries of the middlebrow for its time. The work seems to have been received favourably by phrenologists and the like, with scorn and outrage by theologians, and with weary amusement by the editor of Watson's Jeffersonian Magazine, who in 1908 called it 'over-long', and opined:

It voices the writer's belief in Immortality and the beneficent purposes of the Creator with a vehemence – almost a desperation – that leads one to suspect he has his moments of wrestling with the darkest doubts...
- Watson's Jeffersonian Magazine2, vol. 2, pp 811-812

Not only is the style of The New Life Theology vastly different from that of Newology   – it doesn't mention 'Newtianity' once – but John W Preston, US Attorney, and Casper A Ornbaum, Assistant US Attorney, knew for certain that Newi New hadn't written it. In their appeal brief, they point out: will be sufficient to make but a few references to the voluminous record, from which it appears that the plaintiff in error [NN New] commenced his operations in the East and in New York, undertook the sale of a book called "New Life Theology, the New Life Science," written by his father, but from the front of which he removed a page and inserted in the place of it a photograph of himself...
–   New v United States, from The Federal Reporter: Cases Argued and Determined in the Circuit Courts of Appeals and District Courts of the United States, vol 245, p 716

Evidence of this tampering is visible today. The Edited Guide has obtained a rare copy of The New Life Theology. It is one of the ones that has been tampered with. Please examine this exhibit:

New Life Theology coverNew Life Theology title pageNewo Newi New in his white suit of immortality

The title page is on the obverse of a studio portrait of 'Dr' Newo Newi New, resplendent in his white suit of Newness and immortality. If you look closely, you will see where the original page has been razored out and the single sheet replaced. He's also stamped his Los Angeles credentials over the New York address. So it's true: that's how Newo Newi New, alias John Fair New, alias John Fair, got started. With a borrowed (stolen?) book.

Was John Fair his father? The authorities seemed to think so, and indicted him under the name John Fair New. In Newology, in addition to describing himself as a 'brilliant bachelor', Newo Newi New claims:

Newology is the outgrowth of The Newlife Science written by the author's father, the Rev JF New, and later given to the world by the son, Dr NN New, in his father's name at his personal request.
–   Newology, p 12

He also claims that he was raised in New York State by wealthy, pious parents, had only the best of care, and that they left him a fortune. His volunteers never saw evidence of the fortune, but then, he could have spent it. There was a New Life Society in the north-eastern United States before 1915. Afterwards, it disappeared – perhaps destroyed by the adverse publicity of this rogue messiah. Was Newo Newi an emotionally unbalanced preacher's son who had sat through one too many Chautauquas, or merely a particularly inept scam artist? Hard to tell. Newo Newi New is gone without trace, but his type lives on: on your drugstore bookshelf, over your car radio, smiling from your television screen. What is he promising now? And does it come with a diploma?

1Chautauqua was an adult education movement. Chautauquas were the TED Talks of their day.2Thomas E Watson was at various times a US Senator, Member of the House of Representatives, vice-presidential hopeful, and populist newspaper editor. Widely admired for pushing through the legislation that created the Rural Free Delivery system, the largest and most expensive innovation in US postal history, Watson later developed unfortunate racial views, attacking both African Americans and Jews. His journal opposed US entry into World War I, which led the US Postal Service he had championed to refuse to deliver it. This censorship effectively ended his publishing career.

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