In 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, 49-year-old Marie Ogden, a spiritualist and millennial Christian, moved to Dry Valley in San Juan County, Utah, to establish a religious colony and to await the end of the world. Two years later when one of the commune’s members died, Ogden claimed the body was going through a transformation and left it unburied, with attendants daily bathing the corpse.
The body became mummified because in Utah, in the 1930s, there was no law about burying the dead. The story made national headlines in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Milwaukee Journal and Idaho Statesman.
San Juan County is the largest county in Utah, just smaller than the state of Massachusetts. In 1942, there were only 40 miles of paved road. Even today, there are only two stoplights in the entire county. One is a full, four-way stop; at the other, the light just blinks.
The county was settled by Mormons, devout followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and residents tolerated eccentricity and also believed in divine revelation and the kind of prophecy espoused by Marie Ogden. Mormons generally received their revelations direct from the Lord. Ogden got hers daily from her typewriter as she sat down at her desk.
HHHA former socialite and widow from Newark, New Jersey, Ogden had been married to Harry Ogden, a successful insurance executive. During World War I, she raised funds for the Red Cross and later became president of the Federated Women’s Club of New Jersey. When her husband died in 1929, she and her daughter despaired.
During her deep grief and soul searching, Ogden studied numerology, astrology, spiritualism, theosophism and wrote 60 religious tracts with titles such as Messages of the Dawn, Wisdom and Truth. “She established reading societies, study groups, spiritual soul-fights. She toured the country lecturing. The messages which came to her typewriter eventually told her to seek out the spot where the Kingdom should be built,” wrote Wallace Stegner in Mormon Country. “Obedience, communistic living, direct revelation, personal abstemiousness and intense religious conviction, flight from the world and sanctuary in the desert, were an old story,” he added. Ogden’s followers had to give her their property, abstain from all meat and eat only fish and vegetables. There was no alcohol, tobacco or coffee. The 100 or so believers lived on open range in a world of sagebrush, red sand, red rocks, cactus and low cliffs.
Though it was a desert with searing summer heat and wind-swept winter cold, Ogden said, “when the greater changes come, we expect to have a semi-tropical climate and other changes in regard to water supply, which will enable us to grow every kind of fruit and vegetable we may desire.”
Various articles have been written about Ogden and the Home of Truth in Blue Mountain Shadows: The Magazine of San Juan County History, published by the San Juan County Historical Society. In 2009, Stanley J. Thayne finished his master’s thesis at Brigham Young University-Provo titled The Home of Truth: The Metaphysical World of Marie Ogden, successfully placing her and her followers in the larger context of American millennial religious movements and calling her one of the first of the “New Age” religious practitioners.
In 1934, Ogden wrote, “Do you know that we are approaching a New Dispensation – the Aquarian Age; the beginning of the true Christian Era when the principles of Divine law will be universally practiced as well as preached: lived as well as taught?”
HHHOgden rejected all forms of materialism. She raised followers from Boise, Idaho, and moved them to a colony 14 miles from Monticello along County Road 211 that is now the entrance to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park and the popular rock climbing area known as Indian Creek.
Her followers tried mining, farming and gardening, but they also went hungry, worked for wages with local families and ran San Juan County’s only newspaper, The San Juan Record, which Ogden had purchased. Historians know much about her because she published accounts of her beliefs in the newspaper and also printed religious pamphlets.
Commune carpenters built simple board-and-batten buildings in places called the Outer, Middle and Inner portals. The structures had no insulation, only tar paper in the bedrooms. I knew I had to photograph what was left.
Like the Ogdenites, I am also drawn to deserts for the simplicity, the clarity, the bright stars at night. “To the deserts go prophets and hermits; through deserts go pilgrims and exiles. Here, the leaders of the great religions have sought the therapeutic and spiritual values of retreat, not to escape but to find reality,” wrote Paul Shepard in Man in the Landscape.
HHHOgden’s followers wanted to be left alone, but publicity over the unburied corpse swirled with headlines like “Strange Cult in Desert Trying to Bring Dead Woman to Life,” from the Milwaukee Journal, and “Strange Cult Would Bring Back Life” in the Reno Evening Gazette. San Juan County Sheriff Lawrence Palmer visited and was turned back. Physician I.W. Allen came with nurses and determined the body of Mrs. Edith Peshak was not a health hazard. Twice daily the corpse received a salt bath and a milk enema. Eventually, the state of Utah demanded a death certificate.
The woman’s son, Frank Peshak, arrived. “He saw his mother’s body, blue-black, mummified, shrunken, and shouted hysterically that he would take it and bury it immediately. For some reason, he did not, perhaps because his father was still a cult member, still clinging to the hope that his wife would be restored, and perhaps because the nurses’ report had to say in truth that the mummy was not a menace to health,” Stegner wrote.
Secretly, in the dead of night, Ogden finally had Mrs. Peshak cremated on a bower of cedar, pine and juniper 4 feet wide, 4 feet high and 7 feet long. The adverse publicity of caring for a corpse diminished followers at the Home of Truth. They drifted away, some to Moab, some to Durango. “Those electing to withdraw from the sect did so completely destitute, into a largely unfamiliar region, at the harshest ebb of the worst depression in the nation’s history,” John F. Moore said.
The cult dispersed, but Ogden stayed, dying in a local nursing home a few weeks before turning 93. She is buried with a simple gravestone in the Monticello cemetery. Her articles, diaries and other religious tracts have been displayed at the Monticello Visitor Center.
HHHI’m not sure I believe in reincarnation. Although I find spirituality in nature, I can’t say I’ve had any direct revelations from God, and never on my typewriter. Communal living, although an interesting idea, does not last, but I do accept Marie Ogden’s belief in Utah as a magnificent landscape. Dustin Fife wrote about “Marie’s references to Utah as a land of beauty and promise (which) continued throughout her tenure as editor of the paper; more importantly, she introduced the themes of escape and renewal.”
Another writer finds sandstone salvation. Utah’s Terry Tempest Williams echoes Ogden when Williams writes: “As the world becomes more crowded and corroded by consumption and capitalism, this landscape of minimalism will take on greater significance, reminding us that through its blood-red grandeur just how essential wild country is to our psychology, how precious the desert is to the soul of America.”
I concur. The stark beauty of Southeast Utah, the stunning sandstone spires of the Needles District in Canyonlands; yes, I believe in red rock redemption. What better place to escape to. Maybe Marie Ogden found the Home of Truth after all.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.