Edgar Rice Burroughs, Lew Sweetser And The Sword Of Theosophy

November 16, 2022

Edgar Rice Burroughs,

Lew Sweetser And The Sword Of



R.E. Prndle

Originally published in Bill and Sue-On Hillman’s Erbzine

One of the more interesting subjects broached by the Bibliophiles in the recent past is the influence of Esoterica on the writing of ERB.  The positive side of the argument has been taken up by Dale Broadhurst and David Adams while being strenuously opposed by Robert Barrett.  I have to side with the former two.

Mr. Broadhurst in his series of essays on the ERBzine- The Sword Of Theosophy- proposed that ERB was rather strongly influenced by Mormonism among other esoteric religious thought systems.  This took me back a little as my th9ughts hadn’t wandered in that direction.  But as I began searching for contacts the idea became more probable.

As so often when we’re looking for sources or influences we sometimes go too far afield.  I had an accession of older Borroughs Bulletins just before Christmas from a kindly gentleman and genuine benefactor of mankind.  I edit his name out as I’m sure he wishes to remain anonymous.

Among the copies was #19 Summer 1994 which contained an article by the astute Burroughs scholar, Philip R. Burger titled:  “Sweetser And The Burroughs Boys.”  While  looking far afield for esoteric and psychological sources there was a very important one right under my nose.  Sweetser was one od those guys who should have gone far.  He actually rose fairly high but just couldn’t grasp the handle.  From a couple good starts in life he ran downhill until he died lonely and broke in Los Angeles lamenting the disappearance of the frontier.  Well, those were the good old days.

Sweetser and Burroughs brother Harry were the real friends while brother George T, Jr. joined up.  After the gold dredging and cattle ranching went smash Sweetser put his hand to as many jobs as ERB is credited with.

What caught my eye was that in the twenties Sweetser was a lecturer on esoteric subjects heavily tinged with psychology. He had stage show. On page 19 Burger quotes Sweetser: “Everyone of us has a subconscious mind and it is through suggestion to this subconscious mind, either by ourselves or by others, that our destinies are controlled.”  There he had psychology in a nutshell which he had apparently imparted to a young, impressionable Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Sweetser’s act was billed as a hypnotist aided by a trained psychic.  A complete course in the esoteric.

When a young and impressionable ERB went West for the first time in 1889, in addition to the sensory overload of life on the range, he came into contact with Lew Sweetser fresh from Yale where one assumes he must have taken a psychology course or two thus combining a scientific approach with esoteric ideas.  I should like to have heard his lectures.

As there was no television or radio to blot out conversation the only entertainment on those long cold evenings was each other.  All one could do was shoot the breeze.  In the same issue on page 29 is a picture of the assembled families on the houseboat.  They were gathered for an evening of talk.  Of interest, out there in the wilds of Idaho, they are all dressed as for a night out.  Hair up, nice clothes.  Apparently the Burroughses  were not going to sacrifice genteel Yale manners to frontier exigencies.  If you have a copy note the Yale banner on the  right wall.  They also named  their town Yale.

A young Sweetser and Harry Burroughs bubbling over with ideas acquired at college would not be shy discussing them with young ERB.  As they were living in Mormonland with Salt Lake City not too far distant one imagines that the bizarre doctrines of Joseph Smith and his followers would be a constant topic of conversation. After all it hadn’t been too long before that Brigham Young had brought the folk to the shores of the Great Salt Lake and asked them:  “What do you think?”

Congress was passing a law banning polygamy thus restricting the practice of the Morman religion.

Now, the area of New York from which Joseph Smith began his Western migration was a hotbed of esoteric discussion.  I avoid the word occult because od its associations with Satanism.  Occult merely means hidden or secret.  The esoteric thinkers are occult but have no more association with satanism than the exoteric churches.

When the Rhineland Germans emigrated to the United States they were devotees of the esotericists Jacob Boehm and Meister Eckhart.  There was a lot of Rosicrucianism and Paracelsus doctrine in their beliefs.   As they settled in Pennsylvania and became the Pennsylvania Dutch they and their doctrines spread up into New York.

Thus Joseph Smith learned a lot of this alternative religious blather.  This was the same sort of speculation that Madam Blavatsky, who founded the Theosophic movement, incorporated into her doctrines.  The first volume of her book, Isis Unveiled, is concerned with rapping and table turning.  This sort of mediumship arose in the same area from which Joseph Smith migrated

Thus ERB would have been reasonably well informed on these doctrines at a young age.  His interest already piqued,  it is to be expected that he would leave an attentive ear open for additional information.  There was a copy of a book by the leading Theosophist, William Q. Judge, who died in 1896, in ERB’s library.

Then in 1898 on his second sojourn, now a man with a man’s mind, his contact with Sweetser and brother Harry were renewed.  In August of 1898, now 23 years old, Burroughs took a trip to the Mormon capital ostensibly for business purposes but perhaps to see the temple and discuss things with Mormons on their home turf.

Who knows what weird stories he imbibed as Mr.. Broadhurst suggests.

Then, once again at the end of his third Idaho sojourn, this time n company with his wife Emma, he spent several months in the capital of Mormonism.

So that, regardless of whether he actually read Maame B.  I think it obvious that he was fairly conversant with esoteric doctrines of one sort or another while through Lew Sweetser his interest in hypnotism, the subconscious and psychology was aroused.

As these interests were expressed in his writing before Sweetser began lecturing about them, of which ERB must have known nothing, it is more than probable that his first theosophical information was acquired at the feet of Lew Sweetser and brother Harry quite early in life.

Thanks to Philip R. Burger, Dale Broadhurst and David Adams who approach this subject with open minds; with a little effort we may make that theosophical or esoteric  connection clear.  I’ll do my bit.

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