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Los Angeles | L.A. THEN AND NOW

To Catholics, Cultist Was Beyond Belief

June 27, 2004|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

"When this you see, remember me ... William."

William Money -- pronounced Mo-NAY -- isn't remembered much at all these days, but that's not what he expected when he autographed a copy of his 1854 book, "Reform of the New Testament Church," which resides in the Huntington Library today. The bilingual volume was the first book published in Los Angeles.

For much of the 19th century, Money was considered one of the most eccentric Angelenos, a much-contested title even today. An outspoken critic of the Roman Catholic Church, he was also the city's first documented cult leader, a quack doctor and an irrepressible gadfly whose weapon of choice was the pen. His stunts included claiming that he could rise from the dead like Jesus Christ.

Money's life is chronicled in a 1943 booklet by William B. Rice, "William Money: A Southern California Savant." The San Gabriel Historical Society also maintains a display on Money, who said he got the word to go west from Jesus himself while standing on a New York street corner.

Much of Money's oddball reputation stems from his peculiar religious credos and his criticism of the Catholic Church. But newspaper accounts describe him as a practitioner of "astrology, natural history, medicine, meteorology, theology, history and cartography," to say naught of prophecy.

Angelenos were more amused than persuaded by his pronouncements, which included that "wicked" San Francisco would fall into the sea. He never said when, though, so who knows? Someday he could be right.

He was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1807 with a caul -- a membrane that envelops the fetus in utero -- around his head. Its presence was thought to indicate clairvoyance. He also had the "likeness of a rainbow in my right eye," he wrote.

Indeed, his parents, a gardener and a house servant, regarded him as having great mystical power. He was just 7, according to his own account, when he began studying natural history, philosophy, law, medicine and theology.

Money left Scotland in 1824 and arrived in New York when anti-Catholic sentiment ran high, which may have influenced him. He moved to Sonora, Mexico, where he built a paper factory and held public debates over religion with the local friars.

In 1840, Money, wearing a broad-brimmed hat, rode theatrically into Los Angeles atop his steed. His Mexican wife, Isebal, and their household goods followed on mules.

An experienced carpenter, he was hired by the pueblo to repair the plaza church, for a total recorded wage of $126. The Sepulveda family also hired him to draw the Palos Verdes area on a map, which the family intended to use to apply for a land grant.

As the Mexican-American War began in 1846, Money left the pueblo to escape pressure to take sides. While on his way back to Mexico, he, Isebal and their three children were forcibly returned to Los Angeles by U.S. Army Gen. Stephen Kearny. It's unclear why, but Kearny may have thought Money was carrying documents to the enemy.

He was carrying papers -- about six reams of maps, drawings and items that had "never been in print," he said, representing much of his life's work. "My whole 26 years of labor was, in one hour, totally destroyed by the Indians in the employ of the American commander," Money wrote in an editorial published by the Star, an early Los Angeles newspaper.

Angry over his loss, he headed to Washington to sue the federal government for $250,000. He didn't get it, and he lost his wife in the process: When Money returned to Los Angeles a few years later, Isebal had taken up with a Frenchman named Pierre "Pedro" Abarta and had a child by him.

Money got a divorce on grounds of adultery. He remarried several times, but no known record exists of what became of those unions.

(Isebal would bear six children to Abarta, including a beautiful daughter named Lastania, who in 1881 shot her seducer on a Los Angeles street. Lastania was acquitted of the killing by reason of "menstrual madness.")

In a town that was pretty much all Catholic, Money founded the Reform of the New Testament Church, a sect with 12 converts, in 1855. Blasting the divine phenomena in Catholicism, he preached: "Miracles

In the newspapers, he challenged local Bishop Thaddeus Amat and other priests to public debates about the papacy. They never took him up on it. The clergy, Money proclaimed, had called him "the most obstinate heretic on the earth."

Most Angelenos thought he was crazy; the rest weren't sure. But when Money boasted that he could imitate Christ and rise from the grave on the third day, Angelenos dared him to prove it.

Money climbed into a pine box. Its top was nailed shut and the box was lowered into the ground.

However, before the last shovel of dirt was tossed atop the coffin, he lost his nerve. "For the love of God, let me out!" he screamed.

As spectators stood there laughing, Money freed himself by kicking off the lid.

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