Immortality has been the pursuit of many throughout the ages, and there have been numerous people throughout history who have claimed to have discovered the secret to attaining it. Our strange story here begins with a man called James Bernard Schafer. Born in 1896, he was well-educated, holding a medical doctor’s degree, but also surrounded by controversy, not the least of which that he was once a member of the Ku Klux Klan. He was also heavily into anything paranormal, exoteric, or occult. In the 1920s, Schafer began raising eyebrows when he started an organization called the Royal Fraternity of Master Metaphysicians, a group with the somewhat cryptic stated purpose of carrying out “the joyous work of helping others to help themselves.” However, it was really more of like a cult, and it was with the founding of the group that Schafer would really derail off into the bizarre, leading down a path of strange mystical practices, cult-like behavior, and the time they tried to create a child who would live forever.
At the time, Schafer called himself “The Messenger,” and was making some pretty bonkers claims about his purported supernatural powers, such as reading minds, healing the sick, or most spectacularly the ability to “dematerialize” any object or person he chose. His group adhered to some pretty strange practices and beliefs. They believed that all sickness, mental problems, and indeed death itself were brought about from the mind when it experienced “destructive thinking,” essentially merely woes projected by the mind itself. Clear the mind and eliminate these destructive thoughts, and you could greatly extend your life span and even become immortal, Schafer claimed. To this end, group members lived a simple lifestyle governed by numerous rules such as no alcohol, coffee or cigarettes, as well as a strict vegetarian diet that eschewed all salt or seasonings and changed by the week. They truly believed that through their teachings and lifestyle a person could live forever, with Schafer asserting “immortality can be actually achieved, not as a ghost or spirit.” Anyone was welcome to join, and the price of learning how to banish all illness and potentially live forever came at the price of just $250 to enter, a one-time so-called “love offering” which in today’s money is about $4,000. What a deal!
One might think that these weird claims made by the eccentric Schafer would put people off, but if you know anything about cults then you know that it did quite the opposite. In fact, Schafer began pulling in legions of members, who were separated into levels such as Truth Students, Adepts, and Master Metaphysicians, and by 1930 he had thousands of members from all over. All of these new members translated to loads of cash, and he even had an offshoot branch just for kids called “The Cosmic Network.” He would often give members payment for work they did for him or give thanks to people who made donations through checks he issued from “the Inexhaustible Bank of the Infinite in the Universal Mind,” which were basically worthless because they were only payable in “Ideas and Everything Desired With No Limitations.”
Through donations, offerings from his followers, and by selling “fellowship certificates” for $100 a pop, Schafer was pulling in massive amounts of money, eventually in 1938 buying the opulent 24-acre William Kissam Vanderbilt Estate on Long Island as a retreat he called “Peace Haven,” which was open to be used by paying members as an auxiliary home. The group also bought the Adelphi Theatre in New York city, changing its name to the “Radiant Center” and holding metaphysical seminars there. Schafer even tried to request tax-exempt status from the government by claiming that they were a religious organization, although this didn’t work out for him. It was quite the operation he had going, and was really making the news at the time, with Time Magazine calling the Royal Fraternity of Master Metaphysicians “a theological goulash of Rosicrucianism, Christian Science, Christianity, Supermind Science, faith healing and How to Win Friends and Influence People.” However, for all of the talk he was generating, one of Schafer’s strangest stunts was the time he tried to use his teaching in order to create an immortal baby.
In 1939, Schafer began his bizarre experiment by becoming the guardian of a 3-month-old baby girl named Jean Gauntt, whose mother allowed him to take the child to his mansion because she was too poor to care for her. Far from merely a goodwill gesture, Schafer’s real plan was to use his metaphysical techniques and philosophies to make “Baby Jean” literally immortal, after which she would grow to rule the Royal Fraternity of Master Metaphysicians for all eternity. According to Schafer, a baby was a perfect candidate for immortality, as its mind had not yet been polluted with the negative energy the group so shunned. A baby was essentially a blank slate, and with the right guidance could become immortal much more easily than an adult could. Shafer would say:
I can think of no child outside of royalty who might have had a better start in life. The last enemy to be overcome is death. A baby has an empty brain. We’ll keep impressing on it the beauty of life and the side of life that we are trying to live. If the child doesn’t think anything that’s bad or destructive it can’t be torn down.
To do this, Baby Jean was to be raised on a strict special diet called the “Eternity Diet,” and would be taught to never touch certain food or drink, and to never indulge in alcohol or cigarettes. She was to be trained with various metaphysical mental techniques, watched constantly by Schafer’s followers 24 hours a day in her own private nursery, and most crucially of all never allowed to hear any mention of death of disease, not even the faintest whisper of it, as it was thought that if she did not understand the inevitability of death then it would never come for her. In fact, it was imperative that all negative thoughts be banished, and that she live in an atmosphere of complete and utter peace and tranquility. If all of these stringent criteria were met, it was thought Baby Jean would become truly immortal and lead the fraternity into the future for all time.
Unfortunately for Schafer, his experiment would only last 15 months. In December of 1940, Baby Jean’s mother changed her mind, demanding that she be returned. This was mostly due to the controversial nature of what the group was doing with the child, which was all over the news, as well as the spreading rumors about how weird and cultish the group was. Since they had never legally adopted Jean and there was no official agreement, they had no choice but to return her as requested. It would prove to be not only the end of the experiment, but the beginning of the end for the fraternity itself. Many of the group’s members were becoming disillusioned, their families worried about them, and complaints filed against Schafer were numerous. He was being painted as a conman, and he was eventually brought to trial to face criminal charges and various lawsuits filed by his followers and their families. Schafer would ultimately be found guilty of Grand Larceny and be sent to Sing Sing Prison in 1942.
When Schafer was released from prison, he opened up a correspondence school in order to continue his teachings, and also began publishing his own metaphysical magazine. He made a decent living doing this but never achieved the heights he had enjoyed before, nevertheless plugging along until 1955, when both he and his wife were found dead in their car from carbon monoxide poisoning along with a suicide note. Baby Jean herself would go on to grow up and have a normal life, and it all has become quite the strange historical tale of a misguided madman and his outlandish ideas. While there does not seem to have ever been any real chance that his immortality scheme could work, it is still a totally off-the-wall tale of a man driven by strange ideas, and an experiment that has gone down as a bonkers historical oddity.