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Take Forbidden Drive to the Cave of the Monks of Wissahickon

Around the large green belt of Fairmount Park between Philadelphia and Germantown, not far from Wissahickon Creek, are a cluster places named after solitary folk. There’s Hermit Street, Hermit Terrace, and Hermit Lane. The story behind the street names dates back to June 1694, when a brotherhood of German mystics set up shop on the slopes of Wissahickon. Under the leadership of a twenty-one year old pietist named Johannes Kelpius, they practiced medicine, music, and good old-fashioned magic. Deep in the Wissahickon

woods even to this day stands the only artifact left by the order: The stone-gabled cave where the master of the order practiced his solitary ways.

This brotherhood of university-educated men studied, tended the sick, prayed, and used their musical skills to help the Anabaptists and Lutherans in Germantown and Philadelphia to assemble a liturgy for their services. They were an extreme and solitary religious sect. Nowadays, we’d probably call them a doomsday cult. They were absolutely convinced of the imminent return of Christ, as foretold through astrology by their founder, Johann Jacob Zimmerman, who died before they arrived in Pennsylvania. They certainly drew inspiration from the last book of the Bible, Revelation. One of the names they called themselves was the Woman of the Wilderness, after a character in the book of Revelation. No doubt the name of the neighboring city of Philadelphia appealed to them—although most people know it means the City of Brotherly Love, it actually got its name from Penn’s reading of the book of Revelation, which speaks of a faithful church in the Middle Eastern city of Philadelphia. But this group of mystics avoided cities, preferring life near Wissahickon Creek, awaiting the end of the world.

There, they studied the stars, cast horoscopes, and practiced alchemy. They used astrolabes and telescopes to watch for signs of the impending Rapture. They also practiced numerology: They lived in a monastery forty feet square, oriented to the cardinal points of the compass, and buried their dead in a plot forty feet square in Germantown.  Near the monastery was a tabernacle with a cross in within a heart, which many took to be a Rosicrucian symbol. They celebrated a festival on the eve of St. John the Baptist’s day, around the time of the summer solstice, during which some sources believe they witnessed visions of angels.

But Kelpius should have paid more attention to worldly concerns, because the freezing cold winters and his cave-dwelling ways eventually gave him pneumonia. In 1708, he was taken terminally ill. As he lay on his death-bed, the legend goes that he handed his assistant Daniel Giessler a locked box full of magical artifacts, with strict instructions to throw it immediately into the Schuylkill River. In a tale reminiscent of Arthurian legend, Giessler thought that the artifacts would be valuable for future generations and without any thought of personal gain, chose to keep them for posterity. He hid the box on the shore, and returned to his dying master. But Kelpius knew he had not done as he was told, and commanded him to go and do it. On his second trip, Giessler threw the box into the river. A mighty explosion blew out of the water, with flashes of lightning and a crash like thunder. Naturally, because of the group’s reputation for alchemy, some believe that the box contained the Philosopher’s Stone, which still rests beneath the Schuylkill near Wissahickon Creek.

After Kelpius’s death, the brotherhood changed drastically. Their numbers dwindled to a hard core of six monks led by Conrad Matthai. But worldly concerns eventually broke the group down further. One adherent, Christopher Witt, moved to Germantown and continued his monastic practices of botany, clock-making, instrument building, and tending to the sick. By 1718, this earned him enough to buy 125 acres in Germantown. But even in town, he lived out his life under suspicion of being a Hexenmeister, and members of his household were regarded with suspicion.

But the monks still provided services, some of which seem out of place for religious men. Conrad Matthai cast horoscopes, exorcised demons, and could travel outside his own body. According to Julius Sachse’s book, The Pietists of Provincial Pennsylvania, a captain’s wife asked him in 1740 when he could expect her husband’s ship to return. Matthai lay down in his chamber for an hour in a trance. Then he awoke and returned with the news that her husband was at a London coffeehouse, getting ready to set sail for Philadelphia. When the captain returned and met Matthai, he claimed to have seen the hermit in the London coffeehouse. He remembered the encounter because the old man had come up and berated him for not writing to his wife.

Today, little remains to remind people of the hermits on the ridge except for street names. There’s a Pennsylvania Historical Marker celebrating the brotherhood. And if you walk through the woods near Hermit Lane, you may stumble upon a stone hut that legend calls the Cave of Kelpius. They say that he used to live and meditate here, apart from the other monks, or that it may mark his burial place. Either way, the Rosicrucian Society erected a monolithic monument beside this stone room back in 1961.

On a side note: Some people claim that on night walks on the trail next to the Wissahickon Creek, you can sometimes see six men in brown hooded robes walking through the woods. Are these six figures the ghostly remnant of the brotherhood who stood faithful after Kelpius’s death? Or are they just perfectly normal Rosicrucians paying homage to the late magister? Who knows? But it’s no coincidence that the pedestrian trail beside the Wissahickon Creek is unofficially but universally known as Forbidden Drive.

For the more information on Pennsylvania’s many secret societies other Fabled People and Places see Weird Pennsylvania.

Weird Pennsylvania

 

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