The Woman Mark Twain Thought Was the ‘Most Interesting That Ever Lived’

tags: Mark Twain, Mary Baker Eddy

Gil Troy, a native New Yorker, is Professor of History at McGill University. His tenth book on American history, The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, was just published by Thomas Dunne Books of St. Martin’s Press. Follow him on Twitter @GilTroy

If we can fly in airplanes, defying gravity, because a little old apple fell from a seventeenth-century tree near Isaac Newton, if we can turn on lights because lightening hit a little eighteenth-century key of Benjamin Franklin’s, many of us think positive when trying to heal—and sometimes blame ourselves when we don’t—because a little old nineteenth-century lady slipped on the ice, Mary Baker Eddy.

Actually, in 1866, when the then Mary Baker Glover Patterson had the little fall that launched a bestseller, a religion, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning newspaper, 1,200 Reading Rooms, a communications empire, and some Supreme Court lawsuits, she was only 45 years old. And she would live another 44 years. But she had already hit the average life expectancy back then – and lived a stressful life. In the previous fifteen years she had buried a husband, a fiancée, a brother, her mother, and her spiritual mentor, Phineas Quimby. She had also lost contact with her only child because—depending on which faction you believe—either no one wanted to care for a widow and her rambunctious son or she was too self-involved with psychosomatic illnesses to mind him. Beyond that traumatic pile-up, Mary Baker Eddy was an emotional wreck, one of those fragile, melodramatic Victorians, prone to acting hysterical and staying in bed. Professor Harold Bloom called her "a monumental hysteric of classic dimensions, indeed a kind of anthology of nineteenth-century nervous ailments." However, this great American go-getter put the theatrics to great use.

Now, on February 1, 1866, Mary was in critical condition, having sustained a serious spinal injury after slipping on the ice while walking in Lynn, Massachusetts. Instead of dying, she had her life-defining, empire-creating, history-making, faith-healing epiphany. On her third day of anguish, writhing in pain, she opened the Bible, and, “As I read, the healing Truth dawned upon my sense.” She rose, feeling better.

She realizedthe power of “Life in and of Spirit; this Life being the sole reality of existence.” She would say, “I gained the scientific certainty that all causation was Mind, and every effect a mental phenomenon.”This insight would make her a Gilded Age spiritualist celebrity whose legacy resonates in every health food store entered and healing ritual attempted, in every organic vegetable consumed and homeopathic vitamin swallowed. ...

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