18 December 2015

The Sage of Sleepy Hollow: James McGregor Beatty

A half-century before the St. Joseph's Hill of Hope religious organization established its campus in Carbon Canyon, adjacent to Sleepy Hollow, the canyon welcomed what was almost certainly its first alternative religious figure:  James McGregor Beatty, known locally as the "Sage of Sleepy Hollow."

Beatty was one of the community's first residents, moving to what he called "Oak Lodge" in 1924, within a year of the creation of the neighborhood by Cleve Purington and his associates.  He was known to locals as a former vaudeville performer, songwriter, and author, though his accomplishments may have been slightly inflated by Beatty himself.

He was born near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in November 1881 as the only surviving child of Pennsylvania native Sherrard Beatty, who appears to have died young of the effects of yellow fever contracted while working on barges in the Gulf of Mexico, and British-born Elizabeth McGregor.

Sometime after 1900, Beatty and his mother migrated west and settled in Los Angeles, where the young man took up employment as a "card writer" or a "show-card writer," an occupation he had for about fifteen years.  An off-shoot of commercial writing, the show-card writer utilized concise writing and artistic technique in decorating cards that were placed in department store window displays.  Beatty worked for a time at the 5th Street department store in downtown Los Angeles, though later he utilized his skills for the American Photo-Slide Company, which manufactured magic lantern or glass slides that were used in early versions of slide projectors.  In 1918, he married Clara Victoria Henry in Los Angeles, but the marriage seems to have been short-lived.  Although he is listed as married in the 1920 census, the only other resident of his household was his mother.  The next census merely listed Beatty as single.

On the side, though, Beatty had bigger aspirations of two types.  The first was entertainment.  After all, Los Angeles and its environs, from about 1910 onward, became the motion picture capital of the world, but there were also live forms of entertainment that were highly popular, including vaudeville.

Beatty and his partner Joe F. Haberstock performed as "The Happy Hikers" and were described as "walking songwriters," whatever that meant.  In 1914, Beatty copyrighted two songs he composed for the act, including "Gee, But I Like to Hike" and "I Want a Ride on the Ocean of Love," both of which seemed to have looked to capitalize on two current crazes:  hiking and cruise ships.

In 1919, Beatty and Haberstock took their "Happy Hikers" act on the road, but not in the usual sense.  They decided to walk the 500-mile trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco, performing their routine along the way.  There isn't any known record of how successful their tour was, but a bee-keeping journal did publish a photo they took of a bee swarm outside of a San Jose theater, at which the duo was performing.  Funny what you can find in the way of obscurities on the Internet!

The other ambition, however, was philosophical.  By the late 1910s, Beatty, who was raised in the Methodist Episcopal Church, met an English-born spiritualist and psychic named George Francis, who had come to Los Angeles and worked as a department store detective, perhaps at one of the retail outlets where Beatty did his card writing.

A portrait of James McGregor Beatty, the "Sage of Sleepy Hollow," from his obituary in the Chino Champion, 4 August 1939.
Francis reinvented himself as the "Rev. George Francis" of the "Spiritualist Church of Truth" or "Francis Church of Truth," which had a space on the eighth flood of the Hamburger Building (Hamburger's was a major department store in those days and it may be that the two men were working there at some point) at 8th Street and Broadway.

Los Angeles was filled with all manner of alternative religions, spiritual organizations, cults and what have you during these early years of the 20th century.  This was so well-known so that, given the region's fame as an agricultural empire featuring oranges, lemons and walnuts, among other crops, the area became known as the "land of fruit and nuts," the latter referring, of course, to the wide range of religious entities that existed at the time.

For example, there were such organizations as the "Spiritualist Church of Revelation;" "Church of Ancient Mystery;" "Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society;" "Rosicrucian Church;" "Home of Truth;" "Universal New Thought Studio;" and the "Kingdom of Light New-Era Church," among many others.  It was also the era of some very popular preachers (and, in many cases, con artists), including Aimee Semple McPherson, "Fighting" Bob Shuler, and many more.

A devotee of the church, Beatty penned two books that attempted to provide legitimacy for spiritualism.  In 1919, he self-published Illustrious Madmen of the Ages about well-known persons who possessed spiritual and psychic powers.  Two years later, the Torch Press of New York issued the highly-alliterative Pesky Problems for Positive Preachers, which can actually be purchased in new digital editions.

This work sought to prove that "there is no death," in that the spirits of people live on and can be commnunicated with.  Beatty published letters sent and, in a few cases, even answered to and by pastors of mainstream churches concerning the legitimacy of spiritualism.   He peppered the text with references to ancient pagan religions, Buddhism, Christian scripture and the work of spiritualists and other alternate points of view.

The last chapter, Beatty claimed, was a late addition to the already completed work when he was at a "circle," a Tuesday night gathering conducted by George Francis, and "a message came through automatic writing . . . during two sittings, and is printed exactly as it was given, from spirit realms, word for word."

Notably, in his brief dedication, he claimed his father was a "positive preacher" and thanked his mother for being "my helper and co-worker in the cause of Truth."  Beatty also wrote that, years before, he had been in a "Psychical Research Society," though whether this was in Los Angeles or his native Pennsylvania was not stated.

Finally, Beatty penned a few poems touching upon his devotion to spiritualism, including this briefer example"

Give us Love and give us Laughter,
and a hand-clasp firm and true.
Give us Help and lend us Courage,
For the task 'tis ours to do.
Give us Facts instead of Fancy,
Show us Truth instead of Creed,
Give us Love and Light and Kindness;
SERVICE, is the world's great need.

In 1923, he published a long-form poem called 'Tis Dawn which he stated was also through "directed writing" and which was presented to famed magician Harry Houdini, an avowed anti-spiritualist.  A decade later, he copyrighted a musical version of the poem.  In 1928, while he was living in Sleepy Hollow, Beatty issued, through a printer in nearby Placentia his Stepping Stones, and Other Thoughts in Verse and Prose.

Beatty and his mother, who had been renting rooms in downtown Los Angeles since they arrived in the area, purchased their Sleepy Hollow property and built their home by 1924, because, it was said, "invalidism" caused by rheumatism in his legs led to his retirement "from the stage," or, at least, from card writing.

Beatty's way with words led him to be appointed secretary of the Sleepy Hollow Water and Improvement Company, which developed the subdivision, and then San Bernardino County Waterworks  District, No. 8, embracing Sleepy Hollow.

The Chino Champion of 21 August 1931 published this article about plans to broadcast songs of James M. Beatty on Los Angeles' KFWB radio station.
In 1931, the Chino Champion reported that Los Angeles radio station KFWB, then run by the Warner Brothers film studio, was planning to broadcast songs written by Beatty, some of which evidently were unpublished along with others that were.  Interestingly, the article stated that Beatty not only came from a family of musicians and "at an early age improvised music on an organ," but that he "toured the world" as part of his vaudeville career.

Also of note was that his residence "Oak Lodge" was described as being "beside the main highway through the canyon just a short distance north of Tidwell Oaks store."  The Tidwell store and home still stand and are part of the apartment complex at the east end of Sleepy Hollow, south of Carbon Canyon Road.  It may be that Beatty's home was across the highway closer to Canyon Hills Road, where the rusted remains of an incinerator stand below the new Hillcrest development.

In late July 1939, at the age of fifty-seven, Beatty died from complications of bronchial pneumonia at the San Bernardino County Hospital and was buried in Fullerton.

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