John Uri Lloyd: To Infinity And Beyond

It sounds crazy, but over a century ago John Uri Lloyd, the visionary pharmacist of Plum Street, wrote one of the most ambitious, avant-garde—and, ahem, impenetrable—novels of all time: Etidorhpa, Or the End of the Earth. Or maybe it just is crazy…
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A vision of the goddess Etidorhpa

Illustration by Olle Hjortzberg; Courtesy of Lloyd Library and Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio

A summer day in Los Angeles, 1902, and the wispy guy in glasses stood before a sizeable crowd. John Uri Lloyd was speaking in the Westminster Hotel, a Victorian brick structure with a castle-like facade that would have looked right in place parked at the foot of Mt. Auburn. Weighing 116 pounds, Lloyd was so diminutive folks worried about him, but he had an abundance of energy, and in a deceptively low-key manner, knew how to work a crowd like Louis CK. He surprised people. The Westminster was booked with a convention of the Southern California Eclectic Medical Association—Lloyd’s people, the perfect audience for a self-taught botanist and successful pharmacist from Cincinnati. On that June day over a century ago, he coolly told them about the future and his place in it, and he did so by claiming he had no place at all.

“I have no imagination. I only remember,” he claimed. “I write of things in the distance, from the standpoint of time. It is only the events that linger and grow clearer year after year.”

Lloyd was speaking about his amazing, brain-colonizing novel, Etidorhpa, Or the End of the Earth, a book popular enough to draw a West Coast crowd years after it first appeared. That day, like any day Etidorhpa was discussed, people wanted to know the same thing: What did the book mean? “All I will say is that last year, seven years after its publication, it had a larger sale than ever before,” he responded. “It will perhaps be clearer in its general intent 25 years hence.” In other words, all will be revealed, in the sweet by and by.

Except that a hundred years on, people remain befuddled by Etidorhpa. It still attracts off-road thinkers, artists, cultists. Blogs that claim to be written by “The Illuminati” give it a thorough reading. Science fiction fans who want to impress their peers drop Lloyd’s name. A follower of Lloyd in Cincinnati, the artist Ken Henson, is even preparing a deluxe new edition of the text. Etidorhpa is probably the only book of its kind: a science fiction story that starts in Cincinnati and ends in the hereafter. It is weighty, at 376 pages, and even the full subtitle takes its time:

 

THE STRANGE HISTORY OF A MYSTERIOUS BEING

and

The Account of a Remarkable Journey

as communicated in manuscript to

LLEWELLYN DRURY

who promised to print the same, but finally evaded
the responsibility which was assumed by

JOHN URI LLOYD

The artwork is precise and unwavering in its evocation of things unseen. The science is laid on with a trowel; there are mechanical drawings and mini-lectures on hydraulics and how gravity works. As for the writing, well, it’s extreme in ways good and bad. H.P. Lovecraft, the master of American horror, is said to have been a fan, but many others have fairly called it unreadable. In the end what makes it worth picking up is its extremity, and how much of himself Lloyd puts in. He pulls you way into his head, and then playfully refuses to be clear about where the exit is. He is both tour guide and kidnapper. Etidorhpa manages to incorporate the diverse interests Lloyd shared with the world, as well as the ones he hid from his neighbors. It’s a little-known epic, a book worth wrestling with because it purports to explain, well, everything.

When Etidorhpa was first published, in 1895, it shocked those who knew him best. “Indeed, the sudden introduction of this side of his study has astonished his most intimate friends,” a medical journal noted. How could it not? The story begins in the then-present, with Lloyd waxing portentous in his private library, breathing deeply of the dust and books around him. His mood is melancholy. “I sit in such a weird library and meditate,” he writes. “The shades of grim authors whisper in my ear, skeleton forms oppose my own, and phantoms possess the gloomy alcoves of the library I am building.”

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The guide (left) and I-Am-The-Man-Who-Did-It, staking out their positions.

Illustrations by John Augustus Knapp; Courtesy of Lloyd Library and Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio

Seven years ago, he writes, a manuscript came into his possession, composed by a man named Llewellyn Drury. The story that follows is the Drury manuscript that Lloyd keeps on a shelf. (With those double L’s and the Drury/Uri rhyme, it’s easy to interpret this fellow as a surrogate for the author.) Drury introduces himself as having come to Cincinnati in the 1850s to work “with a manufacturing firm engaged in a large and complicated business.” In his apartment near St. Peter in Chains Cathedral, he built a large library of occult books, covering various mystical and abstruse subjects.

Thirty years before, this…thing happened on a messy November day. “To those familiar with November weather in the Ohio Valley, it is hardly necessary to state that the month is one of possibilities,” says Drury. The weather that day was gloomy and wet, and with it came a gloomy messenger, a beardo with the name of I-Am-The-Man-Who-Did-It. Over subsequent years this fellow reads a manuscript aloud to Drury, and that book, dear reader, is the one you hold in your hands.

So, to recap: this is a book introduced by a real-life author, containing a story told to and written down by an ambitious immigrant to Cincinnati, and narrated by a white-bearded homunculus who walks through walls. A story within a story within a story. And then things go south.

Or whatever direction you go in when you fall into a Kentucky cave and hike down to the world within this hollow earth. Down there, I-Am finds a guide—a curious being whose appearance resembles that of an Olympic luger—and engages him in extended philosophical, scientific, and religious debates. Etidorhpa smacks orthodox science on the wrist, suggesting that the real reason skeptics think the world of science and spirituality can’t be unified is because their science lacks imagination. The fault lies in us; the forces out there are divine ones—tipped by the title of the book, Aphrodite spelled backwards—and we need to read up and be humble if we want to feel the full glory of the universe. The book explores the biggest ideas possible: Why are we here, and where are we going? It seems safe to say Lloyd would have loved string theory.

 

Some editions of the novel feature a rather unusual author’s photo: Lloyd sitting in a library, surrounded by books, with a skeleton leaning over his shoulder. The skeleton holds a text open to a scientific drawing of a plant—Lloyd’s life’s work. But the look on the author’s face isn’t exactly academic: He seems a thousand miles away, dreaming of eternal themes and all that unites the sassafras leaf with the dust of dead stars.

Today, his astounding collection of books—mostly on botanical and pharmaceutical subjects—is housed at the corner of Plum and Court streets. That building, a downtown landmark since 1970, is a brilliant architectural deception, its tossed-off 1970s modernism and humdrum concrete shell camouflaging the amazing curiosities within. A little like the man himself. Lloyd tried to carefully ladle out his ideas in hopes that they’d find a sympathetic audience, one that would filter his concepts into the world at large.

In a file among his personal papers at the library, Lloyd left an explanation of how he came to write Etidorhpa. He started the book in the 1880s, he says, just as he began thinking broadly and critically about the scientific establishment. That was his world. Some considered him the greatest pharmacist of his age, a rare practitioner known far beyond Cincinnati. He was a driven authority on exotic plants and their chemistry; in his lifetime he wrote eight science books and published thousands of articles.

Born in 1849 in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, he was 4 when his family moved to Boone County, where his father found work as a railroad surveyor. In 1863 he moved to Cincinnati, a complicated crossing during the Civil War. Smaller than most his age, Lloyd was taunted as “Johnny Reb,” and learned to run fast to avoid getting thrown in the canal.

He left school at 14 to begin an apprenticeship, sweeping floors in a pharmacy, working his way up to soda jerk, then pharmacist. Studying chemistry and medicine on his own, he began to make elixirs. Lloyd’s up-from-his-bootstraps ambition eventually led to a home, office, and pharmaceutical factory on the west end of downtown, and impressive notoriety. Mark Twain was a dinner companion, Grover Cleveland was just someone he went fishing with, and he was once commissioned by the Smithsonian to conduct a scientific survey of licorice in the Ottoman Empire.

Still, it didn’t make him happy. Thinking back to the 1880s later in his life, he declared: “About that time, science was most dogmatic. Authority ruled with an iron hand, and the man who presumed to even question aloud, was likely to be crucified.” Lloyd was a respected figure in Queen City society, no boat-rocker, and yet he quietly felt like he had been put on trial.

 

The reason why is tied up in the perpetual tension between establishments and self-taught innovators. By the time he began questioning the scientific establishment, Lloyd was a leading figure in the Eclectic Medicine movement, a stream of the healing arts that thrived in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Eclectics drew on folk remedies, Native American practices, and the deepening knowledge of plant biology, finding medical treatments in herbal remedies and other botanicals. Cincinnati, home of the Eclectic Medical Institute until 1939, was a leading center for the discipline.

As the name implies, Eclecticism was a movement that covered a lot of ground, and under its aegis you could find both fraudulent healers and straight-laced men of science like Lloyd. The Eclectics were taking on Big Pharma long before it was cool, or very big. And for that reason, along with their inability to come up with accepted standards and practices, Eclecticism was attacked by mainstream medical institutions. Some Eclectics relished their outsider status, but not Lloyd, who once confided to a pharmacist friend that he’d received “nearly a lifetime of ‘cold shoulder’ from men of learning and science.”

A professor of physiology at the University of Cincinnati who once dropped in on Lloyd’s laboratory was impressed by the passion the man exhibited for the scientific method. In a tribute to Lloyd published in 1923, the peer wrote, “Is science a cloak to you which may be put on and off during convenient working hours? If so, John Uri Lloyd does not interest you, for to him it is life itself…. He follows her [science] as lovers, romance; and children, the rainbow. Alkaloids are not things to be made into medicine, but voices which speak from another world.”

As that quote suggests, Lloyd may have loved science a little too much. But there was a place for the ideas that he was playing with: fiction. In a novel one could speculate. Fiction was a way to make an argument without having to stake your professional reputation on it.

Even so, as he planned Etidorhpa, Lloyd moved cautiously. Long before publication, friends and a few associates received a stunning pamphlet announcing a book’s imminent arrival. There was no description of what the book would be about, merely the title. Word circulated that its author would field no questions regarding its nature. He was simultaneously testing the waters and creating buzz. Give Lloyd credit for going viral, years before anybody knew what a virus was.

More than 1,200 subscribers ordered the book, and they got a handsome package. Published by the author himself in a limited edition, with his signature on every one, Etidorhpa was born a collectible, and targeted at readers who were not going to give Lloyd the kind of treatment the AMA was giving Eclectics. Years later, Lloyd would note how he never pushed the book, just circulated it among the cognoscenti, in ever widening circles, until editions reached around the world.

 

The book is full of ideas and scenes that reflect Lloyd’s life. The action begins when I-Am-The-Man-Who-Did-It confesses to betraying an unnamed secret society, which leads to his kidnapping. That story would have resonated widely with the book’s original readers, who probably had heard of the real-life kidnapping of William Morgan in New York State in 1826. Morgan made provocative boasts in the press that he had been paid an advance to write a book exposing Masonic practices. One account says that Morgan was kidnapped, taken on a boat to the middle of a New York lake, and drowned in order to protect the secrets. His abduction took place across the street from where Lloyd’s mother lived; she witnessed the event, one of the most notorious kidnappings of the era, and John Uri grew up hearing about it.

After he is kidnapped, I-Am-The-Man is sent to a cave in Northern Kentucky, which serves as a portal to the world inside the Earth, a realm forested with giant mushrooms. The pseudo-scientific “Hollow Earth” theory had existed for centuries, and in the 19th century Cincinnati became a stronghold. Captain John Symmes (after whose family Symmes Township is named) was a hero of the war of 1812 who wrote and lectured around the country on his passionate belief that the earth was as empty as a balloon. There’s even a monument to Symmes in Hamilton: A round rock, with a hole through the center.

But back to those Tesla-sized mushrooms. When I-Am-The-Man ingests them, he launches on an extended hallucination that may be the most vivid part of the story. It’s why Etidorhpa is frequently called “the first psychedelic novel.” Lloyd’s younger brother Curtis was a leading mycologist—an expert on fungi. Indeed, after Curtis died in 1926, his collection of mushrooms was bequeathed to the Smithsonian. There has long been speculation that John, with his brother’s scholarly assistance, experimented with psilocybin mushrooms and reported on it in his novel. It isn’t impossible; Terence McKenna, the late authority on all things psychedelic, said that an “open-minded reader” would be convinced that Lloyd had first-hand experience. In an academic pamphlet that is part of a huge file of his publications in the downtown public library—“Discovery of the Alkaloidal Affinities of Hydrous Aluminum Silicate”—Lloyd describes in passing how he tested “the alkaloidal salts of morphine, quinine, cocaine, etc.,” by putting each on the tip of his tongue.

But Nicholas Money, a world-famous mycologist at Miami University, is someone who has thought about such issues far more than most, and he disagrees. “My guess is that he did not [ingest psilocybin mushrooms],” Money says. He suggests that Lloyd was taking his inspiration from several contemporary accounts of experimentation well-known at the time. Both John and Curtis, Money says, “were really quite conservative in their approach to these compounds…Curtis certainly enjoyed a glass of beer, but I’d be surprised if they were testing other compounds.”

The book is vast, maddening, sodden with crackpot notions and plot devices probably culled from Jules Verne and other fantasists. And yet it deeply mattered to Lloyd. What he wants the reader to understand most, it seems, is that an inflexible orthodoxy will never understand the universe. Lloyd believes that with humility we can see the divine forces that drive the universe. And that with humility and the right science we can understand the universe. Much of the novel is a running argument between the doubting rationalist and his underground guide. Lloyd himself refused to give ground to the rationalists; backed against the wall, he’d argue he had a better theory for how things worked.

After Etidorhpa, Lloyd was a credentialed predictor of future events. When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 1898, an Enquirer story noted that such geologic phenomena had already been explained in the novel. In the wake of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, another Enquirer headline read: “The Earthquake Calamity at Frisco Was Predicted. Remarkable Warning Written By John Uri Lloyd…” And when an inventor named Lester Hendershot claimed he had designed a generator to power cars without gas in 1928, a Cincinnati Times-Star article pshawed that the 79-year-old Lloyd had envisioned such a thing decades before. Lloyd died in 1936, just days before his 87th birthday, and by then he was remembered fondly as both scientist and seer.

 

On a cold day in February, John Uri Lloyd makes an unexpected appearance at the library that bears his name. From a FedEx package sent by his great granddaughter in California, his eyeglasses tumble out. Anna Heran, the library’s curator of exhibits, pulls them from a golden case. The lenses are small flat ovals, held in place by a delicate wire figure eight; they look like antique props that would be right at home in a Sherlock Holmes movie or a Decemberists video—appropriate for the Steampunk of Plum Street.

Heran holds them up to the light. Behind her are bookshelves containing a fraction of the 250,000 volumes Lloyd collected in his lifetime, and a display case holding treasures he brought back from trips around the world: pottery from Turkey, a bust from Japan. As the sunlight hits the spectacles, she decants a loud cackle. “They travelled across the country, just for fun,” she laughs.

They barely look strong enough to alter one’s vision. You want to look through them, but can’t. They are too small to put on. And perhaps you shouldn’t—because Lloyd saw things nobody else could.

Also at the library this day is Ken Henson, painter, Art Academy professor, and student of Lloyd’s life and times. He’s dressed in a black sweater, coat, two black scarves; he looks vaguely priestly and devilish at once. Henson uses a word others have often uttered before in talking about Lloyd: alchemy. “Etidorhpa reveals that his interest in alchemy is as much, if not more, about a spiritual pursuit as it is about a desire to yield the bounty of the laboratory—gold or the elixir of life,” he says.

Henson has been researching a circle of Lloyd’s associates in the Queen City at the turn of the 20th century. “Cincinnati was such a laboratory for interesting, intelligent, eclectic ideas, a place where the sciences met mystical ideas,” he says. Lloyd wasn’t the only gnostic in residence; there was quite a cast of characters. Jirah Dewey Buck, for instance, a homeopathic doctor and authority on Masonic secrets. Buck founded a branch of the Theosophical Society in Cincinnati, which advanced an esoteric belief system that coupled philosophy with theology; at the same time, and somewhat diabolically, he was also a member of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, a secret order engaged in practical magic that was waging war with the Theosophists.

It all has the funky atmosphere of an Alan Moore graphic novel waiting to be made. Henson has a placid smile on his face as he lays out a subterranean battlefield in Cincinnati a century ago. To this coterie add Joseph Buchanan, a bearded, crinkly-looking Eclectic practitioner from Covington who was a pioneer in psychometry and an authority in “phrenomesmerism.” (You had better look that up.) A third member of this world, and the most important one to the story of Etidorhpa, was John Augustus Knapp.

According to Henson, Knapp was “a true classic journeyman from the golden age of illustration.” One of Knapp’s projects was illustrating McGuffey’s Reader, one in the series of standard textbooks found in most American grade schools in the 19th and early 20th centuries. You couldn’t get more wholesome than that, but Cincinnati-born Knapp, who went to the McMicken School of Design (now the Art Academy), also illustrated one of the classic mystical texts of the era—Manly P. Hall’s The Secret Teachings of All Ages, a book that spread occult knowledge to new corners and provided a visualization of gods and monsters that filmmakers and album cover designers would rip off for decades to come. Knapp and Hall also designed a set of Tarot cards; The Philosophical Research Society has recently reprinted the deck. Not surprisingly, Knapp was a member of the Theosophical Society, and did many illustrations of mushrooms for Curtis Lloyd. Somehow, he ended up in Los Angeles.

The artist sounds like a true believer: He claimed to have photographed the Kentucky cave that serves as the entrance to the hollow earth in Etidorhpa. Real or not, talking to Henson about these matters, you begin to feel yourself slipping into a dark, forbidden phenomenological maw. He makes an interesting case for this secret Cincinnati, and sees many of its denizens’ concerns intersecting in Etidorhpa.

“A lot of these figures saw science and mysticism as justifying one another—the same way today that New Age spirituality uses Quantum Physics to justify itself,” Henson says. These figures had crossed whatever dotted line exists between being fine upstanding citizens and zealous exponents of esoteric truths. Between sitting in a canoe with Grover Cleveland and lecturing to a class that medicine held in one’s hands could give off healing energy.

That’s what makes John Uri Lloyd so fascinating today: He kept one foot in civil society, and one on the other side. He didn’t lean in one direction or the other; he bestrode the Gilded Age like an anagogical colossus. If Etidorhpa is to be believed, even on its face, we don’t know who he was, really. And if he ever came clean and fully told us, scholars like Henson haven’t found it yet in the tens of thousands of pages at the Lloyd Library.

There is, however, a book. Browning’s Paracelsus and Other Essays was written by Jirah Dewey Buck in 1897, and published in Cincinnati. Musings on Faith and Reason, the book was presented as a gift to Lloyd, and Buck took the time to sign it for his friend. Henson recites it from memory: “To Prof. J. U. Lloyd. A builder in the great work and a devoted servant of the great brotherhood.”

Originally published in the April 2015 issue.

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