There is nothing quite as captivating and terrifying as a cult, and the United States has had its fair share. From Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple’s mass suicide in 1955 to the fiery standoff of the Branch Davidians against the FBI and AFT in Waco, Texas, cults have and always will be a subject of intense interest for people.
One cult seems to have been largely forgotten about in the history of the United States, even though it made headlines due to its scifi-like social experiment on a child. Who was James Bernard Schafer and his Royal Fraternity of Master Metaphysicians, and what was the “immortal baby” experiment?
James Bernard Schafer
Much of James Bernard Schafer’s early life is unknown; we know that he was born sometime in 1896 in Fargo, North Dakota. He earned his medical degree at the University of Michigan and was interested in metaphysics.
Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy centered around abstract concepts like being, time, space, cause, identity, knowing, and substance. At its heart, metaphysics is an abstract theory with zero basis in practical reality.
There is one more thing that historians know about Schafer. He was a member of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and a supporter of the concept of eugenics. James Schafer was also the founder of a strange cult known as the Royal Fraternity of Master Metaphysicians, which by the 1930s had amassed thousands of followers.
The Royal Fraternity of Master Metaphysicians
The Royal Fraternity of Master Metaphysicians was described by Time Magazine as “a theological goulash of Rosicrucianism, Christian Science, Christianity, Supermind Science, faith healing, and How to Win Friends and Influence People.” The group itself had several core beliefs.
One such belief was that meat, coffee, smoking, alcohol, spices, and condiments were bad for you. Each week members would receive vegetarian dietary guidelines, from “The Messenger,” which Shafer took to calling himself. The Messenger said that he could read minds, cure any illness someone had, and could dematerialize any person or thing that he wanted.
Another core belief of the group was that all illnesses, mental and physical, and even death were caused by “destructive thinking.” The Royal Fraternity of Master Metaphysicians firmly supported the idea that positive thoughts can solve all problems in your life.
They thought Schafer could train members to cure illnesses and prevent death. Preventing death is of course impossible, and people in the cult would die, but that didn’t shake the beliefs of the membership. Successful cult leaders like Schafer can utilize cognitive bias and sunk cost fallacy to explain why the end of the world or someone’s death happened while keeping members in the group.
Cognitive bias is a thought process developed through the human brain’s tendency to simplify and process information through personal preference. Essentially, it is a coping mechanism that lets your brain quickly accept large amounts of information.
An example of cognitive bias is believing a political candidate who is confident is also smart and knows what they are doing. The increasingly popular “fake it till you make it” tactic has also grown out of this bias, as appearing to know what you are doing is often the key to winning trust.
The sunk cost fallacy describes how people will continue doing something or believing in something because they have invested significant time, effort, or money into it. Regardless of whether the current costs outweigh their benefits. Members had to put a substantial amount of money into the Royal Fraternity of Master Metaphysicians: they didn’t want to seem fools now, did they?.
Members were required to pay dues called “love offerings.” These dues totaled $250, which today would be over $4,000, and were paid monthly. Shafer was flat broke before he created his cult in the 1920s; the high cost of dues brought a lot of wealth directly into Schafer’s bank account.
Adding to the overall strangeness of the group and its leader, all donations were honored by a certificate or a check from the Inexhaustible Bank of the Infinite in the Universal Mind, payable in “ideas and everything desired with no limitations”. Schafer’s power and control over his cult were incredibly strong, and his organization grew to around 10,000 members by 1930.
The Immortal Baby
The Royal Fraternity of Master Metaphysicians filled the headlines in 1939 when Shafer announced that the group intended to raise an immortal baby. That is right, an immortal baby. The idea was bizarre and ridiculous to everyone but the members of the Royal Fraternity of Master Metaphysicians. They already had a child selected for the role of the future eternal leader of the cult, baby Jean Gauntt.
Gauntt’s mother, Catherine Gauntt, said that she was too poor to afford to raise the little girl and allowed Schafer to raise her. In the early 20th century, having a family member or friend raise a child rather than their parents was common, but Catherine Gauntt was not a member of Schafer’s cult and appeared to give her baby away to a random man.
The Royal Fraternity of Master Metaphysicians did not legally adopt Baby Jean, but they took her to their mansion on Long Island. All those pricey dues lining Schafer’s pockets allowed him to buy a former Vanderbilt mansion with 110 rooms they christened “Peace Haven.” The group had complete control over the three-month-old infant’s life.
The Royal Fraternity of Master Metaphysicians and Shafer intended to raise Baby Jean in a particular way in order, they said, to make her immortal. The infant was given a nanny who watched over her alongside the cult members.
They say it takes a village to raise a child, and if this were all it took to make Jean immortal, that would have been fine. She wouldn’t be immortal but would have many adults that cared for her as if she was their own child. However, this was just the tip of the iceberg for creating an immortal baby.
The group planned that her immortality would be activated by never mentioning death or disease in the child’s presence. She would not be exposed to a single “bad or destructive” thought, and only kind words would be spoken in her presence.
Those didn’t sound like terrible things to be mindful of while Baby Jean was growing up, but “positive vibes only“ formed only part of the immortal formula. Jean would only consume an all-vegetarian “Eternity Diet” that followed similar guidelines as those dietary recommendations members received weekly from Schafer. As she grew older, she was to be taught about alcohol, tobacco, coffee, spices, tea, mustards, and vinegar, but she would never consume them.
Along with the “Eternity Diet,” members were instructed to teach the child the beliefs and philosophy of the Royal Fraternity of Master Metaphysicians. She was to become the living embodiment of one of Schafer’s strongest beliefs about immortality.
He believed that immortality “can actually be achieved, not as a ghost or spirit.” As she matured, the immortal Jean would be the next in line to become the leader of the Royal Fraternity. All of this immortal baby raising sounded like science fiction and, strangely, was done for Baby Jean only, and not Shafer’s own young daughter.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jean?
The immortal baby experiment lasted only 15 months before Baby Jean was handed back to her parents. The truth behind Jean’s return to her parent’s custody was that Jean’s mother demanded her baby be returned to her.
She began to worry about what the group was doing to her child and was justifiably creeped out at how much like a cult the group seemed. Schafer never legally adopted Jean, so he was forced to return her. Vengefully, Schafer then dragged Catherine Gauntt’s name through the mud and told reporters that she was a terrible mother who gave up her child and was too poor to care for Jean.
An article by Time Magazine in 1940 mentioned how the child was returned to “her waitress mother’s un-Vanderbilitan quarters in a Manhattan rooming house”. To add a final insult to injury, Schafer sent a list of ways to raise Gauntt’s child to her to ensure her immortality would be preserved, telling the press that the child’s immortality was in the hands of her parents.
It was reported that promptly after being reunited with her parents, Jean was happily enjoying a snack of prunes which were among the foods Shafer did not permit in the “Eternity Diet.”
Schafer was then sued for grand larceny, spent five years in Sing Sing prison on the charges, and the cult fell apart. He then opened an education center where he taught students his metaphysical ideas.
The Schafers were never able to obtain the success and wealth they had before The Messenger’s imprisonment, and in 1955 Schafer and his wife were discovered dead inside their car by their only daughter. They had committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. Their suicide letter laid out explicit instructions for how their daughter should continue her father’s work. Chillingly, the letter said that the Schafers had “no other way out.”
In 2002, it was reported that Jean Gauntt was alive and doing well with a family of her own but refused to publicly speak about her past as the Immortal Baby of the Royal Fraternity of Master Metaphysicians. Today, Jean appears to have gone into obscurity, and we may never know if Baby Jean achieved immortality.
Top Image: What did the cult want with baby Jean, and how was she to become immortal? Source: Jakub Krechowicz / Adobe Stock.
By Lauren Dillon