Behind the Scenes: Collecting Enigmas

This post is coauthored by Josh Levy, historian of science and technology, and Sara Ludewig, formerly an archives technician with the Manuscript Division and now an archivist with the American Folklife Center.

Circular diagram in watercolor and pen and ink in center of page with writing above an, below, and on the right side of the image.

An instructional poster found in the May Benzenberg Mayer Papers. Box OV1, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

When Sara Ludewig began processing the May Benzenberg Mayer Papers, she unfolded the flaps of her first box to reveal an inscrutable, delicately watercolored diagram. Handwritten above it in neat block letters was the phrase, “Dismemberment: The Outraying of the Essential Life Force in Three Fold Man.” A caption explained: “The soul growing thru experience in earth is first torn, or ‘dismembered’ between desires and thoughts, between physical, emotional and mental pulls and counterpulls.”

Sara shuffled through the box. More posters appeared, these emblazoned with titles such as “Iceberg as a Symbol of Consciousness” and “The Five Dragons and Their Treasures.”[1] Archivists (like Sara) may be puzzle solvers and historians (like coauthor Josh Levy) may be detectives, but this was esoteric knowledge and we were uninitiated. Here’s the story of how we unpacked a collection that guarded its secrets, and the secrets that are still left to uncover.

Inventing MBM

We did know some things about Mayer before accessioning her papers. We knew she was a teacher, a symbologist and esoteric philosopher whose writings promised to deconstruct and reconstitute all the world’s wisdom, a devotee of psychoanalysis who claimed Carl Jung’s mentorship, and the first person arrested in New York for practicing psychiatry without a license. In 1924, she founded the School of Applied Philosophy on New York’s Upper East Side.[2] Known alternately as the Source Teachings Society and the Pojodag House (for “Path of Joining of Devotion and Gnosis”), the group operated in the city for nearly three decades.

Mayer, known to her followers as MBM, was a semipublic figure who cultivated a deliberate air of mystery. In 2011, a historian attempted to untangle a youthful encounter with her six decades earlier, but found her personal story “a blank.” He could only recall a deliberate, authoritative, “short, stout” middle-aged woman with upswept hair who refused to be photographed, dressed in white and speaking in a German-accented contralto, often in “gnomic utterances” and never about herself.[3] Finding little in online searches, he assumed she was a German immigrant. But he had no proof.

Finding aids, which are guides to archival collections, are not meant to be mysterious things. Researchers need to know what they’re looking at, and whose papers they’re sifting through. So we began piecing together Mayer’s story. Sara looked through census, passport, and marriage records, and Josh continued the search in published and unpublished materials, and in other repositories. We found a Frieda Benzenberg, born in 1880, not in Germany but in Milwaukee, to Alwine (née Wolfrum) and George H. Benzenberg, the latter a city engineer widely celebrated for modernizing the city’s water supply.[4] At age 12, Frieda May Benzenberg was confirmed in the Lutheran Church.[5] At an Episcopal boarding school for girls, situated in an Italianate Kenosha mansion, a teenaged May Benzenberg took the role of Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet.[6]

Black and white photograph of MBM - head and shoulders, facing forward

A signed photo of May Benzenberg Mayer included with her 1921 passport application. National Archives and Records Administration, Ancestry.com.

In 1904, Benzenberg married the artist Louis Mayer, a childhood friend of poet Carl Sandburg who was later noted for his expressive busts of well-known figures. The Mayers traveled through Europe, Louis with brush in hand copying the works of the “old masters.” Back in Wisconsin, two sons were born in 1907 and 1910, respectively. Three years later, the family moved to New York City.[7] In 1921, listing her occupation as “housekeeper,” Mayer applied for a passport to spend four months in Switzerland studying psychology.[8]

And perhaps this is where she encountered Jung, if she ever did, when Jung was energized by the publication of his landmark book Psychological Types, but also preoccupied by the paranormal, the spiritual, and the occult. Perhaps it was there she underwent the “mystical experiences” to which she later alluded.[9] In any case Mayer returned, we presume, transformed. Three years later, the School of Applied Philosophy was founded. Before the decade was out, Mayer had secured a fast-track divorce in Mexico.[10] Mayer had become MBM.

Universal Wisdom and Bootlegging Psychologists

Here the May Benzenberg Mayer Papers pick up the story, but only in part. The collection documents the teachings and philosophy of MBM and some of the activities of Pojodag House, but a veil over MBM herself remains. Suitably, the collection was first curated not by MBM, but by two of her most devoted followers, sisters Alice Borchard Greene and Gertrude Borchard. Researchers will find their compilation of fragments from MBM’s “wisdom-lore” accumulated into a lengthy manuscript, as well as pamphlets of MBM’s published writings, hand-drawn posters presumably used in teaching, and copies of Pojodag’s newsletter, Living. It’s a small collection, at just six boxes, but rich and revealing nonetheless.

Cover page for Living magazine. The word LIVING in large capital letters is at the top of the page with a small calendar for December 1936 underneath.. At center a pencil sketch of a man with numerous large triangles drawn over it. is inside a rectangle.. "Devoted to man & his transcendental nature " is written at the bottom of the page.

Living magazine. The first issue of Living magazine, December 1936. Box 5, May Benzenberg Mayer Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Those boxes contain none of MBM’s correspondence or journals, none of the behind-the-scenes administrative paperwork Pojodag must have produced, but they’re full of clues. Researchers interested in the history of religion will find an intricate body of teachings clearly indebted to theosophy, a quasi-religious movement that sought to reunify a universal ancient wisdom, allegedly fragmented across the world’s civilizations, and blend it with modern science. The range of references in Pojodag publications suggests the diversity of the group’s influences: from Abrahamic and Ancient Egyptian scriptures, to the Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus and the early Christian Gnostics, to modern figures like the polymath philosopher William James, parapsychologist Joseph Banks Rhine, and feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman.[11] Issues of Living magazine announce one-off lectures and long-term study courses, and contain editorials from MBM and her inner circle on topics ranging from the teachings of Jesus to ESP.

Names dropped in Pojodag writings also hint at the group’s membership, seemingly drawn from New York’s eclectic intellectual and creative class. There was Alice Borchard Greene, an industrial psychologist with a PhD from Columbia University, who published a monograph on the “philosophy of silence” and dedicated it to MBM.[12] John R. Crowley, longtime professor of English at the College of Brockport, who evangelized for Pojodag while conducting “psychical research” and published an article detailing the reality of ectoplasm.[13] Art therapy pioneer Margaret Naumburg and composer Gertrude Price Wollner were involved, the former sending MBM a wistful missive in 1932 declaring that “time has been strangely non-existent these weeks you have been away.”[14] And there was helicopter inventor turned New Age cosmologist Arthur M. Young, whose website declares MBM and scientist Oscar Brunler “the two outstanding people I’ve known in my life.”[15] The membership’s composition must have had an impact: Pojodag acquired a Connecticut commune in 1937, and in 1948 relocated to an East Side New York mansion previously owned by an influential judge and close ally of Fiorello LaGuardia.[16]

But the MBM Papers also contain clues to a larger story, of the professionalization of psychotherapy, gender, and the nature of scientific authority. And this is where MBM’s arrest comes in. In 1934, Pojodag found itself caught up in a larger fracture between the nascent field of psychoanalysis, the medical profession, and the state. Similar disputes had already played out in Europe. There Sigmund Freud, a fierce defender of the practice of lay analysis, had seen his close mentee Theodor Reik prosecuted under Austrian antiquackery laws in 1925. But pressure from medical associations and governments in the United States to regulate the practice of psychology was even stronger. As historian James Schlett notes, up to that point New York’s Medical Practice Act had allowed anyone at all to practice psychoanalysis, “regardless of whether the individual was trained in psychology or in plumbing.”[17] Many took advantage.

Matters began to escalate in 1931 when the young model, Starr Faithfull, who had nothing whatsoever to do with Pojodag, was found dead and bruised on a Long Island beach. State Senator William L. Love assailed the “alienists” who, on learning of Faithfull’s childhood abuse – allegedly, by former Boston mayor Andrew James Peters – merely recommended exercise and travel. As tabloids splashed the story across their front pages, Love demanded an investigation into the state’s “pseudo psychiatrists and bootlegging psychologists.” His proposed legislation fizzled, but the battle was taken up by New York’s deputy attorney general. Seeking a test case with which to target a lay analyst, the deputy AG somehow found MBM. She was charged with violations of the state’s 1926 Medical Practice Act.[18]

The case involved Lilian Frey, a former student of Pojodag, who alleged that she had paid MBM to cure the lasting effects of her childhood illness through dream analysis. Frey also charged that MBM had promised she would learn to “project her conscious mind to other parts of the universe while her body remained static” and “commune with the dead.”[19] Newspapers quoted MBM saying she had used “telepathy” and massage treatments on Frey, and reported that she denied practicing medicine or psychoanalysis at all.[20] In spite of testimonials from individuals “high in social and political life” who testified to her integrity, MBM was found guilty, given a one-year suspended sentence, and made to pay a $500 fine. The money was collected on the spot, from followers in the courtroom gallery.[21]

A hand-drawn watercolor and pen and ink drawing of an iceberg mostly submerged in water, The submerged portion is visible and a face looking down is drawn on the part above water. Printed on the upper right side is " The iceberg ias a symbol of conscious (1/8) unconscious (7/8) 1/8 + 7/8 = self masks indicate the thin changing attitudes of the personal mask

An instructional poster found in Box OV1. May Benzenberg Mayer Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

If Pojodag operated on the boundaries of scientific legitimacy, much the same could be said for psychoanalysis at the time. New York did suffer from a rash of untrained charlatans claiming unearned expertise as psychologists, but critics targeted “legitimate” psychoanalysts as well, painting lurid pictures of sex-obsessed Freudians and Adlerians extracting ever juicier revelations from the helpless female patients who lay in their darkened offices.[22] Among the questions MBM had been asked in trial, though it was utterly unrelated to Lillian Frey’s complaints, was whether she had “ever encouraged anyone toward eroticism.”[23] She hadn’t, but perhaps the authority MBM had created for herself – building on a long tradition of female leadership in movements like spiritualism and theosophy – was itself threatening to the medical establishment. Even if Pojodag’s boundless confidence in its ability to read minds, commune with the dead, or find scientific proof for the existence of the soul would be out of place in a psychology practice today, MBM’s story nonetheless sheds light on an important moment in the professionalization of a now accepted field.

MBM passed away in 1952 and Pojodag disbanded shortly thereafter, leaving behind many questions. Researchers can now find May Benzenberg Mayer’s fascinating, often cryptic, writings and illustrations in the Manuscript Division.

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[1] “Dismemberment: The Outraying of the Life Force in Three Fold Man,” Box OV 1, May Benzenberg Mayer Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[2] Albert R. Vogeler, “The Source Teachings Society,” Theosophical History 15, no. 3 (July 2011): 14.

[3] Vogeler, “Source Teachings Society,” 11, 14.

[4] Milwaukee Vital Records, Registration of Births, “Frieda Benzenberg,” (born October 16, 1880), Milwaukee Public Library, Ancestry.com; “Benzenberg, George Henry,” American Biography: A New Cyclopedia, vol. XXVII, (New York: American Historical Society 1926), 123-126.

[5] Ascension Lutheran Evangelical Church confirmation register, “Frieda May Benzenberg,” Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Archives, Elk Grove Village, Illinois, Ancestry.com.

[6] “Romeo and Juliet: Kemper Hall Dramatic Club Gives a Pretty Production,” The Evening News (Kenosha, Wisconsin), February 15, 1898, 1.

[7] George A. Mayer, A Brief History of the Mayerei, (G.A. Mayer), 1990, 64-65; “Louis Mayer, 99, Dies; Famous Painter, Sculptor,” Poughkeepsie Journal, February 4, 1969, 15.

[8] U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925, “May Benzenberg Mayer,” April 26, 1921, Certificate 26650, Roll #1587, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., Ancestry.com.

[9] In a 1933 publication, Mayer wrote that she had studied with Jung “for a time,” and that Jung had once offered to write the introduction to a manuscript she had prepared “based on my own experiences.” Despite the warm reception of an “eminent publisher,” Mayer noted, Jung reconsidered. M. Benzenberg Mayer, Investing in the Powers of the Soul (New York: Pojodag Publications, 1933), 7, Box 5, May Benzenberg Mayer Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Croswell Bowen, “The Seabury Druids,” The New Yorker, December 3, 1949, 28.

[10] Mayer, Brief History of the Mayerei, 65.

[11] May Benzenberg Mayer, “Plotinus on Universal Principles,” Living 1, no. 2 (January 1937), 4; Gertrude Borchard, “Latent Extra-Sensory Faculties,” Living 1, no. 5 (April 1937), 10; Gertrude Borchard, “Latent Extra-Sensory Faculties,” Living 1, no. 1 (December 1936), 4; May Benzenberg Mayer, “The Cultivation of the Interior Life,” Living 1, no. 4 (March 1937), 3, Box 5, May Benzenberg Mayer Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[12] “Dr. Alice B. Greene Questers’ Speaker,” The Montclair Times, October 3, 1946, 23; Alice Borchard Greene, The Philosophy of Silence (New York: Richard R. Smith, 1940), v.

[13] “John R. Crowley ’37,” Princeton Alumni Weekly, October 7, 1998; Vogeler, “Source Teachings Society,” 12.

[14] Margaret Naumburg to May Benzenberg Mayer, n.d., and Margaret Naumburg to May Benzenberg Mayer, June 6, 1932, Box 6, Margaret Naumburg Papers, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania.

[15] “Arthur M. Young (1905-1995),” arthuryoung.com.

[16] Tom Miller, “The Frederick J. Sterner House – 154-156 East 63rd Street.” Daytonian in Manhattan (blog), January 29, 2020, Accessed September 28, 2022; Vogeler, “The Source Teachings Society,” 15-16.

[17] James Schlett. Frontier Struggles: Rollo May and the Little Band of Psychologists Who Saved Humanism. (Akron: The University of Akron Press, 2021), 2, 33.

[18] Schlett, Frontier Struggles, 34-35.

[19] “Ex-Patient Wins Move in Suit Against Healer,” New York Herald Tribune, July 3, 1935, 16.

[20] “‘Dream Doctor’ Found Guilty on Medical Count,” New York Herald Tribune, May 30, 1934, 16; “Dream Student Fined $500 as Psychoanalyst,” New York Herald Tribune, June 20, 1934, 3.

[21] “Woman ‘Healer’ Pays a $500 Fine,” New York Times, June 20, 1934, 3; “Dream Student Fined $500 as Psychoanalyst,” New York Herald Tribune, June 20, 1934, 3.

[22] See, for instance: Morris Fishbein, The New Medical Follies (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1927), 188.

[23] “‘Dream Doctor’ Found Guilty on Medical Count,” New York Herald Tribune, May 30, 1934, 16.

 

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