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Brother XII: The shadowy past of a sailor, seducer and swindler

Only a few grainy photographs remain of Edward Arthur Wilson, who fashioned himself Brother XII. - Nanaimo Museum archive photo
Only a few grainy photographs remain of Edward Arthur Wilson, who fashioned himself Brother XII.
— image credit: Nanaimo Museum archive photo

The name Brother XII doesn’t pass easily across the lips of people who know his story.

More than 80 years after the English sailor, mystic and cult leader reportedly tortured some of his followers, took all of their possessions and, in some cases, their wives, Brother XII is spoken of in hushed tones around Nanaimo even today.

Born Edward Arthur Wilson on July 25, 1878 in Birmingham, England in an atmosphere of strict religious devotion, according to John Oliphant, author of Brother XII: The Strange Odyssey of a 20th Century Prophet and His Quest for a New World, Brother XII claimed to be in touch with supernatural beings from an early age.

Following an Egyptian epiphany in the south of France, said Oliphant, Wilson “began to communicate with a disembodied entity that identified itself as one of the 12 masters in the Great White Lodge.

As the disciple of this 12th master, he took the name Brother XII.”

After his epiphany, Wilson, a slim man with a short, pointed beard and dark eyes, produced teachings on which he based his spiritual movement, and recruited wealthy followers from across England and the United States.

In 1927 he created the Aquarian Foundation based upon teachings of the Theosophical Society, and had his followers build homes and cabins near the foundation’s headquarters at Cedar-by-the-Sea. Some of those buildings remain today, and whispers of hauntings exist.

At its peak, the Aquarian Foundation had 2,000 members all over the world, many of whom regularly sent large sums of money. One man, a poultry baron from Florida, arrived at Cedar-by-the-Sea and turned over $90,000, a sum worth more than $1 million today, according to Oliphant’s book.

Brother XII’s followers were often important people with deep pockets and political ties, but an insurrection took place within the ranks of the Aquarian Foundation when Wilson announced he was the reincarnation of an Egyptian god.

This rift, along with allegations that Wilson was misusing foundation funds while having extramarital affairs, caused the foundation to collapse, though he proceeded on with loyal followers and new recruits. As time passed, he became paranoid and dictatorial, and he fortified his Island kingdom on DeCourcy Island while amassing 43 large jars full of gold.

Wilson insisted all assets be converted to gold, wrote Oliphant, because he believed that only gold would retain its value if the stock market crashed or banks failed. Some believe the jars of gold were hidden when Brother XII, in a fit of rage during a final revolt by his followers, destroyed the colony and his flagship, the sailboat Lady Royal.

Many have tried to locate the fortune over the years, digging throughout DeCourcy Island, dismantling the cabins and searching nearby caves, but none have found the treasure.

For many of his faithful followers and investors, Brother XII sent out invitations with the lure of spectacular hunting and fishing, said Mike Gogo, whose father, John Gogo, ran a logging operation on DeCourcy in the late 1920s, the same time the Aquarian cult was at its peak.

Gogo dismisses Brother XII’s spiritual abilities.

“My old man told me a whole different story,” said Gogo. “He told me that this Brother XII would invite all of these guys up. He said there was great hunting and fishing, and all these business guys from Seattle and San Francisco would come up and there would be prostitutes there dressed up like they were working maids. Those maids were very good looking and very obliging.”

Libido met isolation, and the inevitable happened.

“He documented all of these activities one way or another and he blackmailed them. There’s probably not another person who could have told you that story other than my father,” said Gogo.

Gogo’s son, David, acquired Brother XII’s dining room table which he has in his house.

“It was found in one of the buildings out there,” said David Gogo. “A guy was using it as a work bench and had nailed some plywod to it. When they took it off they realized it was this gorgeous, 10-foot long fir table.”

He outbid a Vancouver law firm for the item to keep it in the community, and diners at the table now look over a field where Gogo’s great-grandfather grew potatoes, which he sold to Brother XII’s community.

Other artifacts remain as well, along with buildings like the Mystery House (also known as Center Building) at Cedar-by-the-Sea and a building known as the Aquarian Place in Cedar. Eight years ago, the Nanaimo Museum hosted a Brother XII exhibit that featured the mystic’s printing press, typewriter, and a block of wood with writing on it, among other pieces.

David Hill-Turner, curator for the museum, said the original Brother XII exhibit was well-attended, but some also felt a hesitancy to bring the subject up.

“(We’ve) encountered people that say ‘oh, you don’t talk about that,’” said Hill-Turner. “It’s one of those evil, bad luck things. He was very charismatic and he was very good at separating people from their money.”

To further the mystery, strange things happened when Brother XII was finally brought before the courts.

“Prosecutors fainted, that sort or thing,” said Hill-Turner. “It added to his reputation.”

One of the prosecutors that succeeded in bringing Brother XII to trial was Victor Harrison, who later served as mayor of Nanaimo from 1925-1926 and 1938-1944. Though preserving the Bastion and creating Petroglyph Provincial Park, Harrison, who lived at 215 Newcastle Ave., gained the most respect for helping to end Brother XII’s cult.

In 1931, Brother XII disappeared from the Nanaimo area and reportedly died in Switzerland in 1934, though some reports say he was seen in San Francisco with his lawyer after his alleged death.

Surely long dead now, Brother XII has not been forgotten. In an e-mail to the News Bulletin from southeast Asia, Oliphant said a number of Wilson’s early letters, written when he was a young man, were recently discovered, and the present owner of Mystery House recently showed a documentary filmmaker through to revisit its eerie past. The Fringetastic Theatre Festival presented The Cult of Brother XII in August, a dark musical comedy that highlighted Wilson’s greed and his ability to attract and seduce wealthy women.

“I suppose one might say there is something of a Brother XII revival taking place,” wrote Oliphant.

There is, at least, among those who are willing to talk about it.

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