In Episode 209, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger head to Ledyard, Connecticut, to investigate the death and alleged resurrection of Jemima Wilkinson. Going by the name Publick Universal Friend, this pronounless religious leader started a movement in the late 1700s, then traveled New England ready to perform miracles like walking on water and resurrecting the dead. To many, this person was a fraud and cult leader, to others, this person had the spiritual answers they were seeking.
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Produced and hosted by: Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger
Edited by: Ray Auger
Additional Voice Talent: Lorna Nogueira
Theme Music by: John Judd
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*A note on the text: Please forgive punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes. Like us, the transcripts ain’t perfect.
[DRIVING IN CAR]
JEFF: Ray, are you a fan of the band Dire Straits?
RAY: Sure! I’m a child of the 80s. Plus Mark Knopfler is an extremely talented songwriter and guitarist.
JEFF: As we make our way into Ledyard, Connecticut, I’ve been thinking about this week’s story, and I have a Dire Straits song lyric stuck in my head.
RAY: Which one?
JEFF: You know their 1982 song “Industrial Disease?”
RAY: Sure! That’s a good one. Kind of an overlooked hit for them.
JEFF: There’s the line that says: I go down to Speaker’s Corner, I’m thunderstruck / They got free speech tourists, police in trucks / Two men say they’re Jesus, one of them must be wrong!
RAY: Two men say they’re Jesus, one of them must be wrong… yeah, that would be true. I’m guessing maybe this week’s story has a religious bend to it?
JEFF: It does… we’re heading to Ledyard, Connecticut, to search for Jemima Wilkinson, a woman who claimed she died, and then resurrected in order to start a new religious movement.
JEFF: Hi, I’m Jeff Belanger.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger, and welcome to episode 209 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about 15 minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
JEFF: We’re on a mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. We’re a community of legend seekers. There’s an army of us out there sharing these odd tales that bring us together during these weird times.
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RAY: Okay, Jeff, so we’re just getting into Ledyard, Connecticut, now and we’re looking for the second coming of Jemima Wilkinson?
JEFF: We are. Not only did she claim she resurrected from the dead, but that she could walk on water and raise the dead.
RAY: That’s quite a lot.
JEFF: Here’s a little background on Jemima. She was born in 1752 in Cumberland, Rhode Island. She was the eighth child of Amy and Jeremiah Wilkinson. Her father was kind of a lower-middle-class farmer. But her Quaker family was large and devoutly religious. Although she lacked any formal education, she grew up learning to read and write, and she devoured the Bible and other Quaker religious texts. They say even as a youngster she could quote long passages from scripture all from memory.
RAY: It sounds like she really took to her faith.
JEFF: You could say she took to it with zeal. In fact, she was so engrossed with Quaker theology, history, and the Bible, that almost everything she spoke sounded something like Biblical verse.
RAY: And on the third day, brother ate the mashed potatoes and said that it was good.
JEFF: Something like that. But then something tragic happened when Jemima was a teenager. Something that would set wheels in motion. We pick up the story from the year 1764.
JEFF: It’s the summer of 1764, and Amy Wilkinson has just died following the birth of her twelfth child.
RAY: The family is heartbroken, of course. But their faith pulls them through. It’s about this time that 13-year-old Jemima become engrossed in her biblical studies. With her mother gone, she works to fill the void. She regularly attends the Quaker meetings, but the more she studies her Bible and other religious texts, the more she feels like maybe something is missing. By her late teens, she starts attending the religious services of the New Light Baptists in Cumberland. This group formed just a few decades ago during a period called The Great Awakening. The New Light Baptists preach an evangelical form of Christianity that encourages personal enlightenment within their Christian faith. Kind of a find-yourself-and-your-own-way and then tell everyone else about it.
JEFF: Once she joins the New Light Baptists, she’s disowned by the Quakers. And after a few years with the New Light Baptists, that faith doesn’t quite sit right either. Still, Jemima feels the call to preach. So in the spring of 1776, she takes her horse…
JEFF: Her books, and her few worldly belongings, and heads south to Ledyard, Connecticut.
RAY: In Ledyard, Jemima moves into a farm house owned by James Smith. Pretty quickly, her neighbors start to notice her.
JEFF: That’s good she’s making friends quickly….
RAY: I didn’t say she was making friends so much as getting noticed… She’s still quoting Bible verses at every opportunity. And still speaking in Bible-speak to everyone she encounters. Her neighbors are also Christian, but still… this is weird. Eccentric is a word used to describe her.
JEFF: Still, Jemima loves sharing her Biblical knowledge with those who will listen. She makes a few local connections in Ledyard. Then something happens in the early Fall of 1776.
JEFF: Jemima gets sick. It seems to be Typhus, which is going around. Typhus causes fever and chills in the early stages, then moves on to swelling on your brain and spinal column, it can cause internal bleeding, and organ failure. Typhus can kill you.
RAY: And that’s exactly what it does to Jemima Wilkinson. It kills her in October of 1776. (PAUSE) A grave is dug.
RAY: And Jemima is laid into her pine coffin and brought to the grave site where quite a few family, friends, and locals have gathered to pay their respects. After all, it’s the Christian thing to do.
JEFF: Folks are standing around the coffin waiting for it to be lowered into the ground, and that’s when a friend approaches to open the lid so those gathered can say their final goodbye.
[COFFIN LID CREAK]
JEFF: As the coffin lid opens, a few people lean forward expecting to see a peaceful Jemima in repose… but then something happens that shocks the crowd.
JEFF: Jemima stands up in her coffin and makes a speech.
JEMIMA: I have passed through the gates of a better world, and I have seen The Light. But they asked me to return to you, my brothers and sisters, a second Redeemer, to show you the way to salvation.
JEFF: Here’s the thing… many in the crowd aren’t buying this for a minute. They figure this crazy religious zealot is up to something. Others stand there with their mouths agape. Jemima continues her speech.
JEMIMA: The Jemima Wilkinson ye knew is truly dead and buried. My rebirth has endowed me with a new name. Henceforth, brothers and sisters, I shall be known as the Publick Universal Friend, for such will I be to all in this sinful world.
RAY: The Publick Universal Friend claims that after passing through the veil of death, God told her she was being sent back as a new person to regenerate the world. This new person was neither a man nor a woman. A person without gender.
JEFF: The Publick Universal Friend dresses in long, black robes and wore a white or purple scarf around their neck. When preaching indoors, Publick Universal Friend didn’t wear a hat like a woman would. And when preaching outdoors, they wore a low-brimmed hat similar to what Quaker men wore. And preach they did. And soon, there are some followers.
RAY: Most of the early followers are younger people made up mostly of disenfranchised Quakers. The group travels all over New England preaching the word according to the Publick Universal Friend. And as you can imagine, when you claim to be the second coming… some locals view it as heresy.
RAY: The Publick Universal Friend preaches outdoors, or in borrowed meeting houses, and sometimes crowds form to protest. Quaker preachers tell their meetings NOT to follow the Publick Universal Friend and the flock of Jemimakin – as they’re being called by others.
JEFF: Still others are curious, and come to see the spectacle. It turns out this preacher can preach. Say what you will, but the Publick Universal Friend is becoming a big attraction in southeastern Connecticut, and even beyond.
RAY: When one claims to have risen from the dead, one is going to be asked to perform miracles. That’s when the Publick Universal Friend announces they can walk on water.
JEFF: Walk on water? That’s quite the Jesus move.
RAY: The Jemimakin find themselves in New Milford, Connecticut. They spread the word that the Publick Universal Friend is going to walk on water, and those who want to bear witness, should meet along the banks of the Housatonic River tomorrow morning. By morning, a crowd has gathered. That’s when the Publick Universal Friend starts whipping the people into a frenzy with the good word.
JEMIMA: Do ye have faith? Do ye have faith that I can do this thing?
[CROWD: WE DO!]
JEMIMA: Ah, it is good. If ye have faith, ye need no other evidence.
RAY: And with that, the Publick Universal Friend walks away from the water having performed no miracles.
JEFF: Some in the crowd scoff and walk away laughing to themselves. But others are intrigued.
RAY: Years pass, and the legend of the Publick Universal Friend is growing. But so is the anger. Traveling is getting dangerous. People don’t like the claims this new movement is making. But it’s not just angry mobs. There are plenty of angry individuals. The Publick Universal Friend doesn’t seem to hold to any conventions or social norms.
JEFF: Like the time the group travels to Kingston, Rhode Island. The Publick Universal Friend visits the home of the ailing Judge William Potter. Potter is a prominent citizen in town. With his health failing, the preacher pays a visit, then lets themselves right up to the judge’s bed chamber to minister. Suddenly, Mrs. Potter arrives home, marches to the judge’s bedroom, and confronts the preacher, asking what is going on?
JEMIMA: I have come to minister to any of my lambs in distress.
JEFF: That’s when Mrs. Potter tells the preacher they can minister to their lambs all they want, but in the future, please leave my old ram alone.
RAY: Wanting to step up the miracle game, the Publick Universal Friend announces a new miracle will be performed at the cemetery. Namely: resurrecting the dead. The followers pass the word around so a good-sized crowd forms at the bone yard. That’s when an open coffin is carried in with a body lying beneath a white shroud. The casket is set down on the ground as the Publick Universal Friend approaches to start preaching. The crowd pushes closer to get a good look.
JEFF: Some folks are curious, others are incredulous… oh man… like that guy.
RAY: I see a soldier pushing his way to the front of the crowd.
JEFF: The soldier just drew his sword and asked to stab the corpse to make sure it’s good and dead.
RAY: Ha! The quote “corpse” just leaped out of the casket and is making a run for it toward the woods.
JEFF: Hmmm maybe there was more resurrecting power in the soldier’s sword than the hands of the Publick Universal Friend?
RAY: With so much animosity toward the group, the Publick Universal Friend and congregation head westward to Pennsylvania where they set up a commune. That town lasts only a few years before they head north about one hundred miles into New York State. The travel is difficult, but eventually they arrive at the north shore of Lake Keuka (Que-Kah) in Yates County, New York. That’s when the preacher declares…
JEMIMA: We will set down our roots here, and we shall call this place The City of Jerusalem.
RAY: And that brings us back to today.
JEFF: The Publick Universal Friend died… again… July 1st, 1819. There was no formal funeral service, but the body was placed in a coffin with a glass window, and the coffin was placed in a vault within the basement of the meeting house. That’s where the body stayed for several years until it was removed and buried in an unmarked grave.
RAY: After the death of the Publick Universal Friend, the religion dwindled. With no dynamic leader preaching, the congregation began to shrink until it disappeared. The preacher’s home still stands in Jerusalem, New York, and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
JEFF: This story has played out before and since. I mean, Jemima Wilkinson was not the first nor the last to claim to be a resurrected savior. The critics… and there were many in the papers and the local pulpits of various churches and meeting houses… were quick to point out this is a false prophet and the Jemimakin, as they were called, were fools who joined a cult.
RAY: Which has been said about everyone who doesn’t neatly fall into some established and accepted religious belief system.
JEFF: True. You know the difference between a cult and a religion?
RAY: What’s that?
JEFF: Numbers. 20 of you out in the woods dancing around an altar is a cult. 200,000 of you organized and owning real estate, and you get tax-exempt status.
RAY: Good point.
JEFF: But I think about what the preacher said on the banks of the Housatonic. If you have faith, no proof is necessary. Of course I can walk on water. To the faithful, this rings true. Then there are those of us who actually need to see the miracle in order to believe. Jesus had his disciple, Thomas who claimed he had to see the wounds with his eyes and touch them with his hands before he would believe Jesus had resurrected.
RAY: That’s right! That’s where we get the phrase: a doubting Thomas.
JEFF: Right. I can identify with Thomas. Maybe that means my faith isn’t as strong as others. Or maybe it means I have a healthy dose of skepticism until something is proven to me beyond all doubt.
RAY: It really sounds like in the case of Jemima Wilkinson, that this was mostly fraud, delusion, or both. But still… there’s this nagging part of me that wonders if maybe the Jemimakin knew something we don’t.
JEFF: Maybe. That’s why the legend endures and we’re still talking about a person who was using a different pronoun centuries before people started arguing whether that’s right or wrong.
RAY: One thing we never argue about is how much we appreciate it when you spread the word about our show. Or when you post a review for us on Apple Podcasts. Post your favorite episode to your social media, and join our growing community of legend seekers in our super secret Facebook group. We do love it when you get involved, because so many story leads come from you. We appreciate the help!
JEFF: Also, we’ve been meaning to get back to a new weekly feature we call Podcasts We’re Listening to. You guys should check out Haunted Road with Amy Bruni. Each week the star of the Kindred Spirits show on Discovery Plus takes you to a different haunt with a local expert as her guide. Some of them are in New England too. Check it out.
RAY: We’d like to thank Lorna Nougeria for lending her voice acting talent this week, and our theme music is by John Judd.
JEFF: Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.