Photo of the Day

Cult leader James Bernard Schafer with “immortal baby Jean” circa 1940. (Dowling College Library)

The Immortal Baby

There are some people who have so much need to believe in something that they are willing to believe in anything.?This maybe the only way to explain the enormous amount of bizarre and absurd sects that exist?in the world.

The Royal Fraternity of the Master Metaphysicians was founded by James B. Schafer and is largely forgotten today. According to James Schafer, head and founder of the Royal Fraternity of Master Metaphysicians, he knew the secret to raising an immortal baby. And he was going to do just that, with Baby Jean.

Baby Jean came to the organization from parents who saw themselves as having little choice in the matter, as they weren’t able to adequately care for her. Their saviour?and hers?seemed to come in the form of the charismatic Schafer.

Schafer took Jean home, and by ?home? its the former Vanderbilt mansion. Located on Long Island, New York and renamed ?Peace Haven? by the group, the mansion was to be not only her home, but the place where she would be raised to be the first immortal human.

As cults go, the Royal Fraternity of Master Metaphysicians was in the realm of being stranger than they were creepy. Attempts at forming an actual, tax-exempt organization were shot down by the State?s Supreme Court in a decision that was echoed by Time Magazine.

In 1939 the secretive cult made headlines when its leader, James Bernard Schafer, announced their intention to conduct an unusual experiment. They were going to raise an immortal baby.?The infant that was to live forever was blue-eyed, red-haired Jean Gauntt. Her mother, New York City waitress Catherine Gauntt, had indicated that she was too poor to afford to raise Jean, so she gave Schafer permission to take charge of her. Catherine Gauntt was not a member of Schafer’s organization.?The Master Metaphysicians didn’t officially adopt Baby Jean, but they brought her into their luxurious Long Island mansion (the former Vanderbilt mansion, which they had renamed “Peace Haven”) when she was three-months old, and they had complete control over every aspect of her life.

Very little known is the Royal Brotherhood of Metaphysical Teachers, founded by Schafer in 1920. According to Schafer the goal of this organization was simply to “help others to help themselves”.?A noble purpose that served, as on so many occasions, to set up a very lucrative business.?Ten years later the organization came to have several thousand followers, among whom there were well-off people, which made Schafer a small fortune.?Up to this point it would not be more of a sect of secrets, but Schafer came to boast that he could achieve certain miracles or turn a human being into an immortal.

Some of their basic beliefs included the idea that meat was inherently bad for you, and that coffee and tea are equally off the list of approved foods. Smoking and alcohol were also bad for you, and diet was something that should be carefully controlled?so controlled that the members of the fraternity were given new guidelines every week. Everything was vegetarian, and there were no spices, vinegars, or mustards.

In order to join, the faithful needed to pay dues that the society called ?love offerings.? The fee was $250 in 1940, which equates to a little bit over $4,000 in today?s economy. That wasn’t the only place that the money was coming from, either?invitations to see Baby Jean were also bringing in the cash. Children could also get in on the action, becoming a part of his ?Cosmic Network? through the donations of stamps.

James B. Schafer circa 1939.Jean is the daughter of a non-metaphysical couple whom Mr. Schafer, the founder of the Fraternity, has known for some years. Immortality, he said was nothing new to him. He has been preaching it for 25 years and wouldn’t be surprised if he himself achieved that state. He expects Jean to live forever because she will be taught to understand how the forces of evil work and will be on constant guard against them. “Ignorance is death. Education is Life.” he said. Jean will go to public school, and if any of her schoolmates begin to josh her about her peculiar status in life, she will josh them right back. She will be taught all about death, but will regard in an abstract way and add it to things to be avoided.

For Schafer disease and death were caused by destructive thinking, so he thought that if he could raise a baby from his first days following a specific discipline he would make it immortal.?In 1939 he turned to Catherine Gauntt, a New York waitress who did not have enough income to support her newborn baby and who initially had no problem with Schafer’s organization taking over her daughter.?Although neither Schafer nor the Metaphysical Masters adopted her legally, at three months of age they picked her up and moved her to a luxurious mansion they had on Long Island and there took care of her in every way.?Jean Gauntt entered a private daycare.?In addition, a nurse accompanied her constantly and was always watched by the followers of Schafer.

Schafer’s plan to get the baby immortal was to keep him from being exposed to any bad or negative thoughts.?In his presence there would be no mention of death or sickness and everyone would have to show an especially friendly attitude.?The experiment was accompanied by a “diet of immortality,” of course vegetarian, which excluded alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, mustard, vinegar and spices.?The culmination of Schafer’s plan for when Jean was immortal was that he assumed control of the Metaphysical Masters.

However, the experience did not last long enough for Jean to achieve immortality.?After fifteen months her legitimate mother demanded Schafer to return the baby and since the deal had not been legal they could not refuse.?He sent the girl back to her rightful parents along with detailed instructions so that they could maintain the “immortality diet.”?At the height of cynicism, Schafer told the press: “That Jean remains immortal is something that her parents must now decide.”?And they decided fast.?The press reported that a few hours after his return Jean had eaten plums, one of the foods prohibited by the diet.

Baby Jean in her nursery at the Vanderbilt Mansion, attended to by a nurse.

For years, Idle Hour at Oakdale was one of the most luxurious of the many luxurious mansions on Long Island. Built in 1901 by the late multi-millionaire W. K. Vanderbilt at a cost of $2,500,000, it had 110 ornately furnished rooms.

In 1938 Idle-Hour had become rather run-down,Schafer, bought it for $350,000, money raised by “Love gifts” from his followers. Renamed Peace Haven, it was turned into an “auxiliary home” for those disciples, between 50 and 100 of whom always live there.

Outsiders have been able to learn little about the place. Its creed has been described as a mixture of Christian Science, faith healing, and Rosicrucianism, among other things. Its members — who greet each other with “Peace” (like the followers of the Negro mystic Father Divine) — were classified as Truth Students, Adepts, and Master Metaphysicians; after about a year and a half of study, beginners (Truth Students) become experts in the faith (Master Metaphysicians). The number of its’ members were not disclosed. Said Schafer in 1939: “Our organization is unorganized. You can’t define a thing like that” Then he added: “People think we’re a lot of nuts.”

Then Schafer revealed that a unique experiment was under way at Peace Haven. There, the cult was rearing a child for bodily immortality.

The baby came from an desperate couple who were allegedly starving themselves to feed it, Schafer obtained custody of a red-haired, blue-eyed baby girl, Jean Gauntt, then three months old. Immediately, Baby Jean — whom Schafer was planning to adopt legally — began attending classes in metaphysics “to get the atmosphere.” Schafer’s idea was that if “destructive thoughts” are never allowed to enter Baby Jean’s mind, she will never die.

Baby Jean’s education for immortality would be unique. She will be made a vegetarian. She will learn that there are such things as meat, cigarettes and liquor, but she will be taught to shun them as destructive. She will also learn that there is such a thing as death, but will be taught that it is not inevitable.

Quoting the Bible: “The last enemy to be overcome is death.” Schafer felt confident last week that Baby Jean would do so. “A baby has an empty brain.” he said. “We’ll keep impressing on it the beauty of life and the side of life that we are trying to live. If the child doesn’t think anything that’s bad or destructive it can’t be torn down.”

The idea was that in order to live an immortal life you would need to eliminate exposure to bad or destructive thoughts and items. Limiting the child?s diet would take care of the clean healthy eating for the physical immortality. The ultimate goal was for Jean Gauntt to assume control of the Royal Fraternity becoming the immortal leader.

Peace Haven via Dowling College Library.

Baby Jean was given a private nursery where, in addition to a nurse who attended her twenty-four hours a day, she was constantly watched over by Schafer’s followers. The plan was to make her immortal by never allowing her to hear mention of death or disease. Nor would she be exposed to any “bad or destructive” thoughts. No unkind words would ever be spoken in her presence. As she grew older, she would learn about alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, mustard, vinegar, and spices, but she would never consume any of them. She would receive constant instruction in the group’s philosophy, becoming the embodiment of Schafer’s belief that immortality “can be actually achieved, not as a ghost or spirit.” When she was old enough she would assume control of the Royal Fraternity as its immortal leader.?Schafer boasted, “I can think of no child outside of royalty who might have had a better start in life.”

However, despite high hopes and grand promises, the experiment in immortality only lasted fifteen months. In December 1940, the Master Metaphysicians abruptly returned Baby Jean to her parents who were living in a New York rooming house.?Schafer attempted to put a positive spin on the experiment’s end. He explained, “Now the parents have adjusted themselves and they want her back.” In fact, Mrs. Gauntt had retained a lawyer who had sent an ultimatum to the Master Metaphysicians demanding the return of the child. This same lawyer was also representing clients who were suing the organization for fraud. Within days of Baby Jean’s return, Schafer was in court defending himself against charges of grand larceny.

Baby Jean was taken back to her parents’ home by one of Schafer’s followers. Schafer sent along detailed instructions so that the parents could maintain Jean on the “eternity diet.” Schafer told the press, “Whether Jean goes on being immortal is for her parents to decide.”
However, the Gauntts had no intention of raising an immortal child, and they immediately discarded the eternity diet. The press reported that within hours of her return Jean was happily consuming prunes — a food that wasn’t part of the diet.

Although Schafer was the leader of the organization, he called himself simply the “Messenger.” He described its purpose as being, “the joyous work of helping others to help themselves.” Time Magazine described it as “a theological goulash of Rosicrucianism, Christian Science, Christianity, Supermind Science, faith healing and How to Win Friends and Influence People.”
Schafer made numerous remarkable claims. For instance, he boasted that he could automatically dematerialize persons or things that stood in his way. He also preached that illness and death were caused by destructive thinking.?By the late 1930s his organization had attracted thousands of followers, the majority of whom, reportedly, were middle-aged women. However, there was also an inner circle of male metaphysicians who called themselves “The Storks.” They wore diaper pins as lapel emblems to identify each other.?There were rumours that Schafer enjoyed more than just the spiritual admiration of his followers. A witness later testified that it was common to see women members hugging and kissing Schafer. Schafer explained these actions by saying, “I can’t deprive them of that. It’s their aspirin.”

James B. Schafer grew quite wealthy. He raised money by selling “fellowship certificates” for a minimum price of $100 apiece. These certificates were accompanied by checks signed by Schafer and drawn on the “Inexhaustible Bank of the Infinite in Universal Mind.” They were dated “Eternal Now,” and were payable in the currency of “Ideas and Everything Desired With No Limitations.” His followers could also give “love offerings” of $5. Children could join his “Cosmic Network,” through which they could donate 1 cent stamps.
Schafer tried to shield his wealth by seeking tax-exempt status as a religious organization. However, the state Supreme Court ruled that there was nothing religious about his organization “except, possibly, the solicitation and receipt of funds.”

Nevertheless, by 1938 Schafer had grown wealthy enough to purchase the 800-acre Vanderbilt Estate in Long Island as a retreat for himself and his followers. He renamed the 110-room mansion “Peace Haven.” Then in 1939 he announced his intention to bring Jean Gauntt into the mansion and prepare her for everlasting life through metaphysics and a special diet.
These activities, as well as an increasing number of complaints from former members who claimed Schafer had conned them out of thousands of dollars, attracted the attention of the Attorney General. Criminal charges were brought against him in 1940. At the trial, the judge denounced him as “an admitted thief not unlike the horse thief of old.” In 1942 he was sent to Sing Sing Prison to serve a sentence of up to five years. Schafer also lost his estate because he was unable to keep up with the payments. The estate is now owned by Dowling College.

Upon release from prison, Schafer opened a correspondence school in metaphysics in upstate New York, and he published a magazine devoted to metaphysical issues. However, he never attained his former wealth or fame.?On April 26, 1955, Schafer and his wife Cecilia were found dead in their car on the grounds of his school. There was a suicide note on the seat beside them. They had killed themselves by running a vacuum cleaner hose from the engine through the floorboards, dying from carbon monoxide poisoning. Schafer was 59. His wife was 55. The suicide note left detailed instructions for their daughter on how to continue operating the school. It also stated that they had “no other way out.”

Circa 1939 assembly of James B. Schafers followers waiting for a lecture at Peace Haven. (Image of America, Oakdale)

Born around 1896, James B. Schafer came from Michigan to New York sometime around 1930 and by the mid-30s had amassed a following through his speeches on the spiritual potential hidden in the material world. He explained to crowds of hundreds at Carnegie Hall each Sunday morning that the human mind had the ability to change everything around it. If you could simply imagine it, those thoughts could become real. By some estimates Schafer counted nearly 10,000 people amongst his followers by the end of the decade.

In January of 1938 the Master Metaphysicians cult purchased a 110-room mansion on Long Island, formerly the home of William K. Vanderbilt. Schafer was a charismatic figure drew his spiritual and material identity from the New Thought movement. If you simply thought about something hard enough — simply believed in and stubbornly visualized whatever you wanted — all that would be delivered to you. It didn’t matter if it was spiritual enlightenment or a million bucks. All one had to do was think.

The Master Metaphysicians gained local attention after buying the Vanderbilt mansion, and were deemed a strange but harmless addition to the community in Long Island. The cult had renamed the estate Peace Haven, and despite their unorthodox views on life, they didn’t seem to be hurting anyone. They even seemed to be making improvements, as they added an outdoor swimming pool. It wasn’t until November of 1939 that the Master Metaphysicians would gain national attention through some rather strange views on mortality.

The cult announced to the world that they had intentions to raise an immortal person. They informally adopted a 5-month old baby girl, Jean Gauntt, and the plan quickly became a national sensation. The Master Metaphysicians promised that by raising the child with a strict vegetarian diet, and only positive thoughts, she would become immortal. They believed that anyone could be immortal if they thought hard enough about it. But starting with a baby, “from scratch” as it were, was in their minds a bold and noble experiment.

After all the national attention, writer E.J. Kahn Jr. paid a visit to the cult’s estate in 1940 and his account of the 24-hours he spent with the Master Metaphysicians was published in the March 16, 1940 issue of?The New Yorker. Kahn mistakenly refers to the book “Think and?Get?Rich” as one of the cult’s most revered texts, “which was written by a member named Napoleon Hill and which many Metaphysicians regard as a sort of Gospel.” But he gives readers an amazing snapshot into the life of the cult. Kahn even describes a scene where Schafer brings him into the nursery of the “immortal” baby Jean.

Kahn explains that the girl has big blue eyes, reddish hair, and is constantly under the care of a loyal nurse named Louise. Kahn goes on to mention that Schafer had brought a movie camera into the room. Apparently Schafer was hoping to document every phase of Jean’s development and even suggested that documents should be put into a time capsule to somehow prove Jean’s immortality after several generations had past.

At one point, Schafer reportedly approached officials at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair and demand that they dig up the newly laid Westinghouse time capsule so that a paper of Baby Jean’s footprints be added. Schafer claimed that it was necessary since the immortal baby Jean would be the only one still alive when the capsule was finally opened in the year 6940.

As Kahn looked on, Schafer continued to film and had the nurse stand baby Jean up so that Schafer could capture the child in a variety of poses. Kahn notes that Schafer even had the baby pose holding a copy of?Think and Grow Rich, (again, misidentified in the article as Think and?Get?Rich).

Baby Jean reunited with her mother.

The cult clearly adored Napoleon Hill and his work, but what’s not mentioned in the?New Yorker?article is perhaps one of the most interesting details to the immortal baby story: Napoleon Hill was named as the godfather to Jean. Napoleon and Rosa Lee even paid a visit to the cult’s estate on the occasion of Baby Jean’s first birthday.

Schafer’s intentions with the cult were unclear. He seemed to believe every word he breathed, but he also saw that his status afforded him access to a great deal of money and women. There’s a strange psycho-sexual component to the Master Metaphysicians that’s always hinted at in news articles of the day, but never said outright. It didn’t help that within Schafer’s cult there was a secret society of men known as The Storks.

The archivist and special collections specialist at Dowling College in Long Island is Diane Holliday, she’s an expert on Long Island history and has been studying James B. Schafer’s relatively brief stint as a cult leader. She said Schafer’s semi-secret sub-cult, The Storks, ?involved men taking care of young unmarried woman and their babies.

“He does seem to have an obsession with babies,” Holliday said about Schafer’s secret offshoot of the Metaphysicians cult. “For an extra $US500 ($671), and you had to be male and you had to wear a diaper pin on your lapel, you could make layettes and fold diapers for unwed mothers.”

What was the thinking behind this bizarre baby-obsessed subcult? That seems to be lost to history.

Napoleon Hill reading his own book, Think and Grow Rich, in 1937. Hill wrote one of the most successful self-help books of the 20th century: Think and Grow Rich. In fact, he helped invent the genre. (Library of Congress)

Kahn’s?New Yorker?piece writes from a sort of safe distance, characterising the followers of the Master Metaphysicians as quirky but harmless, despite their get-rich-quick schemes. Their strange beliefs and vegetarianism may be naive but could be tolerated (he mentions quickly sneaking away for a burger down the street after being fed some “vegetable soup, sauerkraut and mashed potatoes, a salad of lettuce, raw-onion rings and Jell-O.”)

But naivety about the ways of the world would soon lead to more serious charges. One former cult member named Anna Weber won a $US2,500 ?judgement against Schafer in late 1940 for a loan he never repaid. Schafer made the payment, likely with some other follower’s money. This seemed to be a pattern for the short life of Schafer’s religion. The cult was modelled after countless schemes that would come before it, as Schafer sold stock in his utopian community, charging between $US100 and $US400 ?per share. Wealthy visitors looking for the meaning of life also seemed to have a habit of finding their valuables missing during their stay. One woman reportedly lost two rings worth somewhere around $US $7,000. When the woman told Schafer he supposedly replied, “Nothing is lost in the infinite. You can think them back in your experience.”

The mother of baby Jean, a young waitress who seemed to have some kind of loose connection to the cult, implied that she was coerced to give up her child. She wanted her baby back and made it clear through the press. By December of 1941, just two years after the “immortal baby” experiment began, baby Jean was safely returned to her biological mother. The cult hadn’t even legally adopted her at that point, so it was merely a matter of simply handing her over, though it must have been traumatic for the young Jean to leave the nurse she had known for her as yet short life.

Bringing Baby Jean into the picture of the cult is really the beginning of the end of the cult, because even his most ardent followers, their beliefs are stretched at this point,” Holliday said. “The money starts drying up, and that’s really what brings about all of the problems.”

Low on funds and haemorrhaging followers, the final blow to the Royal Fraternity of the Master Metaphysicians was just over the horizon. Thanks to the outlandishness of the Baby Jean stunt and the advice of Napoleon Hill, it would be a magazine venture that would be the cult’s ultimate kick in the teeth.

In 1942, one of the cult’s wealthy members felt she had been swindled. Minna Schmidt charged Schafer with grand larceny after she gave him money to invest in a magazine. In the early 1940s, the cult already had a magazine called?The Truth Digest, but they wanted more. Or at least that was Schafer’s story.

Apparently Schafer didn’t deliver on his promises, as was so often the case, and had allegedly pocketed the money for himself. Schafer pleaded guilty and was sentenced in May of 1942 to five years in Sing Sing prison. The judge called Schafer “a thief, an ex-Klansman who swindled his own organisation, a spiritual faker, and a religious hypocrite who’s been loose, preying on misguided women, too long.”

In his appeal later that year, he explained that he didn’t understand that his lawyer had pleaded guilty on his behalf and that he was innocent of all charges. Schafer’s deposition on appeal explained precisely how he’d gotten into this mess. As it turns out, the whole thing was Napoleon Hill’s idea.

One, Napoleon Hill came to me on or about the 1st day of December, 1939 and told me that he had an opportunity to purchase a magazine called ?Psychology? for about $5,000 and that we each could put up $2,500, and become partners. He told me that although the magazine was then in very bad condition, it had once made $25,000 a year and he thought that it could be built up again. I was interested, but told him that I?hadn’t?the money. I decided, however, to try to borrow $2,500 to go into the venture and with that in view,?approached Minna Schmidt for the loan. I clearly stated to her the purpose for which I wanted the money, what I had been told by Mr. Hill concerning the history of the magazine and what he thought of the future prospects notwithstanding its poor financial condition at the time.

Schafer’s appeal to the Superior Court was denied and he spent the next five years in prison. He emerged trying to reclaim his followers with new publications and lectures, but his later efforts never gained traction like his experiment at Peace Haven had. There’s no evidence that Hill was ever charged with any of the underhanded tactics employed by the cult to raise money. But he was clearly a great inspiration.

Jean prefers not to publicly discuss her past history as the Immortal Baby. She maintains a completely normal life, in the most absolute anonymity.?She is alive and well, married, and has children of her own. But she prefers to remain a private person and does not seek attention about her early years as Baby Jean.