The false prophet of Leyden, Massachusetts

My recent post on cities reminded me of a curious story from the town of Leyden, Massachusetts.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts (for that is the official name of this state, a peculiarity shared with Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky) is completely divided up into municipalities, the smaller ones being towns, the larger ones cities. Since 1938, there have been 351 municipalities. Some of the towns are very small (Nahant is 1 1/4 square miles and Gosnold has only 75 inhabitants) but they are all fiercely independent.

Although I had lived in the state most of my life, I realized some years ago that I had visited less than half the municipalities in the state. I decided to visit them all. It took me a few years, not to mention at least three ferry rides to reach towns on the islands off Cape Cod. Along the way, I picked up some curious stories about some of the lesser-known towns.

Leyden is a hilly and heavily forested town

Leyden is a hilly and heavily forested town these days

Leyden certainly is not well known. With a population of 711 in 2010, it is a sleepy little town on the Vermont border. It’s not even easy to find, because no numbered state highways run through the town. Back in the 1790s, it was a somewhat more important place, with a population of about 1000, which made it one of the bigger towns in the western part of the state in those days.

It so happened that in the year 1797, Sgt. Dorril, a former British Army soldier, said by some to be a deserter, appeared in town, proclaimed himself a prophet with divine powers, and organized a communal society. This society practiced the sharing of property in common. They were also vegetarians, even giving up leather shoes so not as to exploit animals.

According to the most common versions of what happened, Dorril’s downfall came about in classic fashion. Dorril was speaking one day to his followers from a platform. He proclaimed his physical invulnerability as part of his divine attributes. It so happened that Captain Ezekiel Foster, one of the townspeople who did not accept Dorril as a prophet, was in attendance. He promptly got up on the platform, and beat up Dorril until Dorril agreed to renounce his claims to prophetic and divine powers. Naturally, his community swiftly disbanded. This was in 1798.

Dorril dropped out of sight. But some decades later, a newspaper reporter tracked him down for an interview. And this is where Dorril’s story takes on a sulfurous tinge. According to the reporter, Dorril claimed that he had deliberately taken on the role of one of the false prophets mentioned in the Bible, whose coming was a presage of the End Times. In effect, he was claiming to take on the role of one of the Damned to bring on the triumph of God.

Why he made this claim is unclear from what I’ve been able to find out. Perhaps he was trying to justify his ultimately ridiculous role by making it seem more important. Perhaps he was trying to capitalize on the Millenarian thinking so popular in the United States in the decades before the Civil War. If so, he failed, for he vanished out of the historical record. And so far as I can tell, the End Times haven’t yet arrived.

I remember passing by the town hall, which is a small wooden building

I remember passing by the town hall, which is a small wooden building

My own visit to Leyden was unremarkable, apart from needing street maps of the towns in the region to find my way there. Coincidentally, another religious commune had formed in Leyden around 1968, but it had broken up for good only a few years before I visited. So I saw nothing remarkable. And because it is so out of the way, I’ve not been in Leyden since.

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About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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11 Responses to The false prophet of Leyden, Massachusetts

  1. E. J. Barnes says:

    And I went to Gosnold with Our Intrepid Writer!

  2. Russell says:

    Nice post — I do enjoy a sulfurous tinge. And if you do get some reliable information that the End Times have arrived, I trust you’ll blog appropriately.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      The sign I’m watching for, Russell, is when demons take possession of the high-density moving stacks in Harvard University’s library and try to crush me to death. I always time out my escape route when consulting the books on the supernatural among those shelves.

      • Russell says:

        Ha! Good to know you have put some thought into this, BB. The scene you describe makes me think of Venkman & co’s first paranormal encounter in Ghostbusters; watch out for ectoplasm amid the stacks.

  3. danagpeleg1 says:

    What did the water, air or soil in New England contain back then, that sprouted so many interesting religious ideas? Seems to me there was no other place and time where so many of them were born in such proximity…

    • Brian Bixby says:

      “The times, they are a-changin’ . . .” The soil has something to do with it. Most of the new religious groups with curious ways flourished in the more recently settled parts of New England, which were mostly marginal agricultural land. When God seems dead-set against one becoming reasonably prosperous, no matter how hard one works, it’s great encouragement to think about changing one’s relationship with God.

      But a lot more of it has to do with the concurrent political, social, economic, and religious turmoil of the era. The colonial era status system was breaking down, and in the chaos people felt they had greater freedom as individuals, less constrained by society, to explore their beliefs and practices.

  4. danagpeleg1 says:

    Makes sense. Pretty much like Late Antiquity, with the fall of the Roman Empire which brought up a lot of new religions and sects, including Christianity. I guess unrest is the mother of all (or many) religions…

  5. crimsonprose says:

    What an amazing goal, to visit all the towns in an area (though I have done so for Flegg Island, but that’s not so big). But this of End Times prophet, it makes me think of a Clive Barker plot. Excellent post.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      I’ve since gone a step beyond, and visited some of the towns that are no more, either because they were annexed by neighbors (e.g., Charlestown by Boston) or sunk under the Quabbin Reservoir. The latter’s a post for another day.

      Haven’t read as much Barker as I would like to have, but that’s a compliment indeed!

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