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Behold The Mechanical Messiah

Thirteen brothers and sisters made up the Hutchinson Family Singers. They toured the United States and Europe. And they drew crowds of thousands of people.

They were a white family that took up the cause of abolition. It was controversial—they got attacked for it. Like, physically, by angry mobs. They even wrote Abraham Lincoln’s campaign song, “For Lincoln and Liberty Too.”

One brother—Jesse Hutchinson—served as the group’s manager. And he’s the one who moved the family to a hilltop compound in the seaside town of Lynn, Massachusetts, north of Boston. Today that hilltop is a popular park with an amazing panorama of the area around Boston.“

Up here, this is a clear day,” local historian Tom Dalton says, gazing off toward the bay. “All you have to do is look and see the view. You can see Boston, the South Shore, all the way to the North Shore.”

The Hutchinsons were good friends with another Lynn resident—the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass. They traveled with him, and he even played violin sometimes at their shows. But Jesse made a lot more friends in Lynn than just Douglass.

“There were a lot of so-called radicals in Lynn,” Dalton says. “Quakers and abolitionists. Jesse was in the middle of it. He was quite an eccentric guy.”

Jesse built a series of stone cottages up and down the hill—and a huge wooden tower at the pinnacle.

“It’s amazing, at one point this was a compound with 14, 15 buildings. 40, 50 people. They turned it into a little community up here.”

Jesse needed water for his family’s land—so he turned to a new mystical technique called dowsing.

“To find water up here—you know, you’re on a big rock. And they brought a clairvoyant up here and they found a spring, and had a well. And that’s what supplied water to everyone up here.”

Whether or not a clairvoyant really found an unknown spring, the family took the supernatural seriously. Jesse took part in seances and said he communicated with dead family members. And he was generous.

“Jesse lent his house out to everybody,” Dalton says. “Any reformer, everybody could come stay.”

Jesse Hutchinson passed away in 1852. The following year, a guest showed up named John Murray Spear. He had been a prison reformer and a Universalist minister. But like Jesse, was drawn to the spiritualist movement.

John Buescher is the author of a book about Spear. He says many 19th century progressives saw a natural connection to spiritualism.“

What was driving that connection was some very strong convictions that those people were at the dawn of a new era,” Buescher says. “That something was happening at the time that was going to change the world. And that was some great infusion of spiritual guidance.”

Spear said the spirits of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and other historical figures came to him and gave him a mission. He was to build a mechanical messiah that would bring a new age of peace and love. His ethereal bosses told him it would be called the New Motive Power. They called it Heaven’s last, best gift to mankind.

Buescher compares Spear’s project to the Carl Sagan book and subsequent film “Contact,” in which an astronomer receives encrypted instructions from aliens on how to build a machine that allows humans to travel through space.

“He was getting daily instructions on what their intent would be and what to do at this point and what to build and how to construct something,” Buescher says. “John wasn’t sure in his own mind what the point of it all is, how it was going to work. But he was regarding himself as a mere instrument.”

Spear set up shop in one of the cottages on the hill. He worked day and night to build—something. Some kind of contraption made of metal, wood and gears. One account depicted it a little like a cross between a typewriter, a clock, and an automaton. He even worked a dining room table into the design.

The New Motive Power made its debut in the fall of 1853. Spear gathered a crowd of abolitionists, spiritualists and newspaper reporters on the hill. He and a few helpers performed a ritual designed to birth the machine into the world. And then—they waited.

“It wasn’t doing its thing,” Buescher says. “It wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t move, really. It just kind of sat there. I think for John Murray Spear and his followers, it became a matter of just waiting for something to happen. And nothing happened.”

The new era failed to dawn. Buescher says Spear was humiliated.

“It became the butt of local wags around Boston and Lynn,” he says. “It became infamous in a way. Either a joke or a blasphemy or whatever.”

Spear took the New Motive Power to a barn in upstate New York. He later claimed an angry mob destroyed it. Buescher says he’s not so sure. He thinks maybe Spear just said that so he could have an excuse to be done with it. Still, he suspects Spear was sincere in his belief, at the end.

“There were a lot of people who speculated about various kinds of utopias and various reforms and stuff,” he says. “Who imagined other worlds and so on. But he’s really unique, isn’t he, in the fact he was willing to push that belief…and lead it to the end? This is evidence that he really believed that something was about to happen.”

Tom Dalton—the historian—says Spear and the Hutchinsons’ ideas may seem a little out there to us today. But he says they came from the same open minds that led them to fight against slavery.

“These are the people who end up leading the way sometimes, you know?” he says. “They’re ridiculed, they were attacked, beaten. They’re really good people. They are so sensitive to people who are less fortunate. People who are in prison, people who are poor. They have a sensitivity that most other people didn’t possess.”

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.