Murder Mystery NYC Diaries- Case #14: Murder on Mount Zion
Robert Matthews, who later called himself Prophet Matthias, came from a strict Presbyterian household. He was orphaned as a child and was raised by church elders. After moving to Manhattan, he began preaching on street corners and attended an African Methodist Church. It was here where he began his quest for spiritual clarity. After inspiration from Mordecai Manuel Noah, a newspaper editor who had a plan to create a homeland for American Jews, Matthews renounced his Christianity, claiming he was the descendant of Hebrews. He later moved to Albany and attempted to join an evangelical church but was rejected.
In 1830 Matthews was arrested for disrupting a church service in Argyle, NY. Following his arrest, he returned to Manhattan, changed his name to Prophet Matthias, and founded the Kingdom of God, of which he declared himself leader.
Elijah Pierson was born in Morristown, NJ and was also raised in a Presbyterian household. He found work in Manhattan and opened a retail business at age 34. Around this time, he became a leader of the evangelical group The Female Missionary Society for the Poor of New York and Its Vicinity. While working there he met Sarah Stanford, the daughter of a Baptist minister. The two got involved in the practice of retrenchment, which involved cutting back almost all spending involving non-necessities.
After being rejected for a street preaching license, Pierson left the Baptist Church and founded a new church in the Five Points neighborhood in Manhattan. His wife fell ill and when she died Pierson attempted to resuscitate her using divine power. After this, most of his congregation left the church.
Down on his luck, Pierson received a visit from Matthias. He told him he was wrong to pray to Jesus and he should pray to the Father instead. That day he claimed Jesus spoke to him. It was at this point where he decided to become a disciple of Prophet Matthias and took the name “Elijah the Tishbite”.
Many of his followers were wealthy men who spoiled him with the luxuries which they denied themselves for years. Benjamin and Ann Folger, two of Pierson’s friends from the retrenchment ministry, moved 30 miles north to Ossining and bought 30 acres of land. Matthias saw this as a perfect place to found his “kingdom” of Mount Zion. Each member of his congregation was assigned a job based on their inner “spirits”. However, Matthias eventually used his spiritual understanding to assign sexual partners. He declared himself the “Father” of Mount Zion and made Ann Folger the “Mother”, declaring her marriage to Benjamin was invalid because their spirits were incompatible.
Benjamin Folger was sent to Albany to bring Matthias’ children from a former marriage to Mount Zion. When he returned he informed Matthias that he slept with his daughter, Isabella Laisdel, who was married. Rather than punishing Folger, Matthias’ response was beat to severely beat Isabella. He then decided Folger and Isabella were “match spirits” and they must be married. After her husband’s objections, the Kingdom of Mount Zion became involved in a series of legal battles.
Around this time Pierson fell ill. When his health began to fail Matthias refused to allow him to seek medical care. He claimed Pierson was possessed by “devils” and could only be cured by prayer. After eating blackberries for dinner Pierson began convulsing. Matthias ordered his disciples to leave him alone in his bed and only allowed them to pray to be cured. The next morning, he was dead. After an autopsy doctors claimed he was poisoned. Within a few hours this medical tragedy became a murder mystery.
The Trial of the False Prophet
With this revelation, Matthias’ kingdom was in chaos. Mount Zion had a cast of characters fit for murder mystery theater. Benjamin Folger claimed Pierson was the original owner of the land but deeded it to him. Folger went to the authorities and reported Matthias had stolen the property and money which belonged to him. Matthias was arrested and charged with the murder of Elijah Pierson, defrauding Benjamin and Ann Folger, and the assault of Isabella Laisdel.
Folger spread rumors that a black housekeeper working on the property, Isabella Von Wagenen, attempted to poison him and his family to shift the blame from Matthias to her. Isabella Von Wagenen would later adopt the name Sojourner Truth. She sued Folger for libel and won. Folger was ordered to pay her $125, which would be equivalent to nearly $4,000 today.
During the 4-day trial Matthias was held in contempt of court for his outbursts. The defense pled insanity. The judge ruled he was insane when it came to religious matters but sane in every other sense. The murder charge was eventually dropped, but prosecution called for the trial of Matthias’ assault on his daughter. The judge ruled that a father has the legal right to strike their child, but that right is waivered once they are married. He was sentenced to 3 months in jail with an additional month for contempt.
When he was released in 1835 he left for Ohio. It was there where he met Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Latter-Day Saints. The two befriended each other and Smith eventually invited him to speak to his congregation. Smith had no objection to his background or involvement in the New York murder mystery because Matthias went by a different name. However, the friendship between the two of them ended on bad terms when they publicly accused the other of being possessed by the devil respectively.
Stay tuned for our next entry in our exciting Murder Mystery NYC Diary series!