For sale: Canada’s Mecca of ‘downright evil,’ the abandoned home of an apocalyptic 1920s cult
The real estate ad cheerfully describes the De Courcy Island Farm as a virtual paradise of forest, beach, fertile soil and a “historic workshop and barn.”
“This is an exceedingly rare opportunity to acquire a property of this size and nature within the Gulf Islands,” reads a description for the $2.2 million parcel, which occupies a significant portion of De Courcy Island, a small Gulf Island exactly due west of Richmond, B.C.
Omitted, however, is that this charming 42 hectare property was once a heavily armed “Ark of Refuge” where the several dozen followers of a self-proclaimed prophet named Brother XII would survive the destruction of the world.
“The story and the history is part of what’s there, but also part of what’s there is the beauty of the property; the water frontage, the naturally carved sandstone, the farm fields, the forests, the sheep,” said realtor Mark Lester, who has his own De Courcy Island property nearby.
The grounds of the farm were also once peppered with buried treasure.
“California and B.C. are hotbeds of off-beat religions,” wrote the historian Pierre Berton in the late 1970s. “Of these, there are none so kooky, none so bizarre, none so preposterous — none so downright evil — as the Aquarian Foundation.”
Brother XII had brought his Aquarian Foundation to coastal B.C. in the mid-1920s to sow the seeds of what he dreamed would become a superior new race of humanity. Once civilization was in tatters, their commune would “serve as a training ground for those selected for work of ‘Restoration,’ that is, the coming New Age.”
Instead, as with so many other cult communes, it devolved into a shadowy enclave of greed, brutality and, by some accounts, attempted murder.
Brother XII, born Edward Wilson, was an English mariner from Birmingham. Very little is known of his early life, aside from a seafaring restlessless that brought him around the world. For instance, he married a New Zealand woman in 1902 and had two children with her, but abruptly abandoned the family 10 years later during a stay in Canada.
During a visit to France in 1925, Wilson had a vision of a glowing Egyptian ankh, the hieroglyphic symbol signifying life. He felt then that he was in contact with what occultists of the era called “the Great White Lodge,” a panel of 12 mystical masters who guided the human race.
“Since Wilson was the chela or disciple of this twelfth Master, he took the name Brother XII,” writes John Oliphant, author of the most definitive book on Brother XII.
Wilson returned to England to spread the news of his vision through speeches and a manifesto, A Message from the Masters of Wisdom. His subsequent creation, the Aquarian Foundation, referred to a coming “Age of Aquarius.” While to modern ears this is a song from the musical Hair, for occultists the term refers to the dawning of a new spiritual age. And for Brother XII, that new age was to rise from the hellish ashes of the previous one.
It was a perfect time to start a new religion. As Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard would learn a generation later, the uncertain aftermath of a world war was a fertile time to recruit followers to a new belief system.
Brother XII, similarly, inhabited an era shaken by both the First World War and the Spanish flu pandemic.
The Aquarians filled their ranks with wealthy, educated Americans and Brits, many recruited from existing groups practicing theosophy, an occult movement based on mystical insight.
At its height, there were 8,000 Aquarians across the English-speaking world, and their combined donations were soon swelling the foundation’s coffers.
“A small settlement is to be prepared in British Columbia,” wrote Brother XII to followers. “Remember that the existing order is to disappear. You and yours will almost certainly disappear with it.”
The commune started out small, with a series of sturdy, luxury homes built in Cedar-by-the-Sea, in what is now the outskirts of Nanaimo. The houses are still there, and their exquisite craftsmanship easily differentiates them from surrounding homes.
“They’re pretty sturdy, and beautifully built,” said Sylvia Hall Andrews, who lives in one of the original Brother XII homes.
Also built was a “House of Mystery” where Brother XII could commune privately with the Great White Lodge. Eventually, in one of the first signs to followers that their utopian settlement wasn’t all that utopian, he also started using the House of Mystery to have sex with his mistress, Myrtle Baumgartner.
Vancouver Island locals were initially bemused by this influx of theosophists. One even reportedly said that he thought the Aquarians had “something to do with fish.”
But outsiders first started to become suspicious when a group of disaffected Aquarians tried to take Brother XII to court for alleged misappropriation of funds.
The charges collapsed when wealthy benefactors came to Brother XII’s defense, but not before a bizarre incident in which trial participants were reported as fainting en masse. The whole scene was bemoaned by upstanding Nanaimoans as a troubling display of the “rustic emotions” of their remote corner of Vancouver Island.
The De Courcy Island Farm had been a farm before the arrival of the cult. But it was purchased as a late 1920s expansion of the original Cedar-by-the-Sea commune. The land was also witness to the worst excesses of an increasingly unstable Brother XII. Researchers such as John Oliphant have since speculated that he could have been in the grip of either drug addiction or syphilis.
Virulently anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic, Brother XII had travelled throughout the United States in 1928. He curried support with the Klu Klux Klan and backed the efforts of a white supremacist Alabama Senator to block the Democratic presidential nomination of Al Smith, a Catholic. When the effort failed, a bitter and more authoritarian Brother XII returned to British Columbia.
Followers continued to trickle in, however. As per the prophet’s instructions, they all showed up with offerings of gold purchased with all their worldly possessions. As documented by biographers, the paranoid leader began burying caches of gold around the commune, regularly shifting their location to elude would-be thieves.
He also stockpiled weapons, and had the farm surrounded with stone gun emplacements staffed by female sentries.
Most troubling to Aquarians was the 1929 arrival of Mabel Skottowe. She had arrived from Florida in the company of her husband, but was soon taken as Brother XII’s new mistress, where she adopted the name Madame Z and quickly morphed into the overbearing dictator of the settlement.
“The first impression was a very cold, calculating person … steely gray eyes that tried to look right through you,” commune member Mervyn Wilkinson told a 2001 documentary.
Under her gaze, the De Courcy Island Farm became the site of cowed followers living on tight rations and toiling constantly. To rob members of any sense of security, they were regularly shifted from home to home without warning. In one case, Madam Zee commanded a follower to drown herself in order to investigate the afterlife. Despite several tries, however, the follower was unable to follow through.
To this day, the property still has trees that were planted by men and women who had known wealth, but were now reduced to harsh indentured servitude. The “historic workshop and barn” advertised by Colliers, meanwhile, was their dormitory.
Followers put up with the treatment due to fear. “They actually believed that Brother XII had the power to disintegrate their soul,” John Oliphant said in 2001.
But rebellious followers managed to break away and initiate a lawsuit in 1933 to recover lost funds. The subsequent trial was breathlessly reported on by world media. “Cult holds members as slaves on B.C. island,” read one 1933 headline. Interest only intensified when court proceedings included accusations by Aquarians that Brother XII had attempted to murder his enemies with “black magic.”
The court action was successful, but before a settlement could be paid out, Brother XII angrily smashed the commune’s furniture, equipment and boats. When cult members arrived to survey the destruction, Brother XII had already fled the area by yacht; its hold stocked with Aquarius Foundation gold.
Brother XII died in Switzerland in 1934. Although Oliphant, for one, believes the death certificate was faked.
Amazingly, cult members left behind still expressed their devotion to the prophet. “If the Brother would only come back and be his old self again, we would all join right in,” one longtime follower, Mary Connally, was reported as saying in a 2006 history of Nanaimo.
The cult has cast a spooky pall on the region ever since, and is a favourite subject for Halloween lantern tours.
“(We’ve) encountered people that say ‘oh, you don’t talk about that,’” David Hill-Turner, curator for the Nanaimo Museum, told the Nanaimo News Bulletin in 2012.
Accounts of forgotten buried treasure were reportedly played up by Frank Ney, a local real estate developer and the eccentric longtime mayor of Nanaimo. (Ney, who died in 1992, is now immortalized along the Nanaimo waterfront in a bronze statue depicting him in a pirate costume).
The De Courcy Island property continued life as a farm. But in the 1960s, a secret vault was indeed discovered on the De Courcy Island property. Instead of a gold bounty, however, it merely contained a cryptic note, “for fools and traitors – nothing!”
“He was right in choosing the place he chose if the shit was to hit the fan globally,” said Nanaimo blues musician David Gogo, who grew up in the area and owns a 3-metre fir dining table found in a former Aquarian Foundation building. Its size and grandeur has led him to believe that it was likely in the personal use of Brother XII.
Gogo described one eerie episode with the table. After a night of describing its origins to his future wife, he woke up the next morning to find that a slow leak has completely filled a bowl-shaped light fixture above the table, and completely covered the table’s surface with water — but none could be found on the floor.
“It really creeped me out,” he said.
The former lands of the Aquarian Foundation are indeed large and bountiful enough to become self-sufficient. They are away from major centres and — at least on De Courcy Island — they have the freezing waters of the Georgia Strait as a protective moat.
Said Gogo, “I think he just got greedy.”
The De Courcy Island farm is indeed one of several utopian religious communities that sprang up in coastal B.C. around the same era.
Sointula, near the northern tip of Vancouver Island, was founded by utopian Finnish socialists in 1901. Parts of Bella Coola were settled by Norwegian Lutherans fleeing a rift from their home community in Minnesota. Metlakatla, east of Haida Gwaii, was a utopian Christian community built by the Tsimshian followers of a rogue Anglican minister.
Colliers realtor Mark Lester specializes in unusual properties like the Aquarian Foundation farm. Based in Vancouver, Lester often travels to remote showings on his own boat and throughout his career has even sold several complete Gulf Islands.
Among the smattering of islands in the Salish Sea can be found former leper colonies, bootlegging lairs, luxury retreats for billionaires, secretive wartime bases, stopovers for early Spanish explorers and the grown-over sites of legendary battles between Coast Salish and Haida invaders.
“Some, you can tell the story publicly,” said Lester. “And sometimes owners like to maintain their privacy.”