Monks of the Wissahickon: Part IV

Photo By Rick Fink

Photo By Rick Fink

By Joe Tyson III

Besides serving as Johannes Kelpius’s secretary and jack-of-all trades, Daniel Geissler worked variously as a court crier, committeeman, tax collector, commissioner of roads, and overseer of fences.  It seems that Germantown’s assembly “drafted” public officials for either no pay, or a pittance.  In any case, early records indicate that Germantown judges fined Daniel on two occasions for failing to perform his duties.  In 1701 he refused to accept the post of “prison tax gatherer” because the notion of building jails grated on his conscience.  The burgesses elected my 7th great-grandfather Cornelius Theissen in his place. However, that did not end the matter for Geissler.  A magistrate subsequently fined him four shillings for failing to show up in court to set forth his reasons for not serving.  On January 8, 1704 Daniel asked to be relieved as Overseer of Ways, arguing that he had absolutely no knowledge of road building or “cart way” maintenance. Three months later Germantown’s judiciary fined him three pounds for shirking his civic duty.  Of course, Daniel was not lazy by any means.  He shared Magister Johannes Kelpius’s aversion to worldly entanglements, and did not relish trudging long distances through wilderness just to inspect fences, or shout “hear ye, hear ye” in the infant borough’s makeshift courtroom.

Daniel Geissler transacted a few real estate deals between 1697 and 1702, most likely at the direction of “civilly dead” Kelpius, with Chapter of Perfection funds.  His major acquisitions, all in Germantown, were 25 acres purchased from Isaac and Mary Dilbeck (December 1, 1697), 50 acres from printer Reynier Janssen (October 20, 1701), and 50 acres from Willem Streypers (April 4, 1702.)

A year or two before Kelpius’s death in 1708 Geissler and Dr. Christopher Witt—both tired of living in the woods-- constructed a cabin on the land purchased from Reynier Janssen, near Christian and Christiana Warmer’s home.  After Kelpius’s death, Daniel kept house, assisted Dr. Witt in his medical practice, and tended their spacious garden, which grew vegetables, fruit trees, medicinal herbs, flowers, and exotic plants.

Daniel Geissler died in the summer of 1745 and left his worldly goods to widow Maria Barbara Schneiderin, who cared for him during his final illness.

The last surviving member of Kelpius’s Chapter of Perfection was English, not German.  Born in Wiltshire, England circa 1675, Christopher Witt studied biology, astronomy, and other sciences as a young man.  He immigrated to America in 1704 and immediately affiliated with the Wissahickon monks.

A polymathic genius, Witt excelled in multiple fields of endeavor, including medicine, astrology, botany, palmistry, dousing, music, drawing, architecture, and clock-making.  He practiced medicine with consummate skill, utilizing science along with folk remedies, the occult, and faith healing.  In 1738 Dr. Witt conferred Pennsylvania’s first medical degree on his intern, Dr. John Kaign of Haddonfield, New Jersey.   Witt’s healing powers were so remarkable that superstitious folks in Germantown deemed him a “hexenmeister.”  Some crossed themselves after passing their “village witch doctor” on the street.  (We know that Amish farmers put hex signs on barns to repel evil spirits.  A “hexenmeister,” or warlock, can impose and lift curses, as well as effect “magical” cures, sometimes through the intercession of evil spirits.)

A well-known citizen of Germantown, Dr. Witt did not fit the image of a recluse.  Unlike Seelig and Matthai, he stayed in regular touch with the Philadelphia area’s English-speaking community. In addition to treating patients daily for over fifty years, he socialized with the Warmers. Leverings, Wistars, Neiles, Johnsons, Withenholzes, Knorrs, and many other families.  Witt formed a cordial friendship Germantown mayor Francis Daniel Pastorius, his next door neighbor for years.  He paid tuition for some poor children at Pastorius’s school—possibly including his own nephew, William Yates.  Witt and Pastorius held a running poetry contest—composing verses in Latin, Greek, German, and English—then reciting them to one another.  Sometimes Pastorius would simply put a written poem in an envelope and toss it over the fence onto his neighbor’s backyard.

Christopher Witt painted North America’s first oil portrait—of Johannes Kelpius—in 1705.  He also made numerous drawings of plants and animals, sending many of them to London’s Royal Society.  Witt supervised the construction of Germantown’s first stone house—which he occupied after the death of Daniel Geissler.  A virtuoso on keyboard instruments, Witt also built and repaired organs, spinnets, harpsichords, and “virginals.” He translated most of Johannes Kelpius’s hymns from German into English.  Julius Sachse credited him with assembling the first clocks to strike quarter hours in Pennsylvania, and with inventing the cuckoo clock’s pull-chain winding mechanism.

Johann Jacob Zimmerman, the Chapter of Perfection’s founder, bequeathed his astrolabes, telescopes, and ephemerides (almanacs) to Johannes Kelpius in 1694.  Kelpius willed those same items back to Zimmerman’s widow, Maria Margarethe in 1708.  She gave them to Christopher Witt.  According to Julius Sachse, Christopher passed them on the Warmer family when he became blind. The American Philosophical Society at 104 S. 5th St. owned the astronomical devices in 1896.  They were not on display, but dumped helter-skelter into a musty storeroom.

With Zimmerman’s eight foot long telescope Witt observed The Great Comet of 1743, and jotted down the following data:

“(The comet’s) atmosphere or tail is not long, but directing
itself to the southeast.  (Its) motion is but slow,
(heading) northwest.  He rises about 10:45 A.M. in the
E.N.E. and passes our meridian at 5:15 P.M. in
latitude 15-30 North and sets three-quarters after night
in the west-northwest.  His latitude with respect to
the ecliptic is 21 degrees 30 minutes…longitude Aries
14 degrees, 30 minutes.”                              

In 1718 Dr. Witt purchased 125 acres of Germantown property from Jan Doeden and his wife Mary for sixty pounds, thus attaining financial security at age 43.  He continued to render medical care to poor people gratis and the solvent for a fee. Included among his services were astrological counsel, palm readings, and divinations performed with the aid of a hazel twig.  Between 1708 and 1745 Witt lived with Daniel Geissler, on the Warmer estate. The pair remained in contact with Conrad Matthai, Johann Seelig, and other surviving Monks of the Ridge.

An avid herbalist, Dr. Witt mailed English naturalist Peter Collinson many specimens of North American plants, including Lychnis, Mountain Ranunculus, Marsh Martogon, Spiroea, hollow-leafed lavender, snake root, and three varieties of Jaceas. Collinson and Philadelphian John Bartram both corresponded with the doctor.  Bartram’s letter of 6/11/1743 to Collinson provided an interesting portrayal of him.

“I have lately been to visit our friend Dr. Witt, where I spent four or five hours very agreeably—sometimes in his garden, where I viewed every kind of plant, I believe that grew therein…We went into his study, which was furnished with books containing different kinds of learning; as Philosophy, Natural Magic, Divinity, nay even Mystic Divinity; all of which were the subjects of our discourse within doors, which alternately gave way to Botany, every time we walked in the garden.  I could have wished thee the enjoyment of so much diversion, as to have heard our (conversation.)…”

After Daniel Geissler passed away in 1745, seventy year old Dr. Witt moved to the large stone home he designed eighteen years earlier for the late Christian Warmer Jr. at Pastorius St. and Germantown Ave.  Circa 1746 Witt purchased a mulatto slave named Robert Claymoore to do gardening, home maintenance, food preparation, and other tasks.  Because Claymoore had exceptional mechanical aptitude, his master also taught him clock-making.

In his late seventies Christopher Witt’s spine became bent, apparently due to arthritis.  He also began going blind.  By the summer of 1761 he was nearly sightless.  In his letter to Peter Collinson of July 19, 1761 John Bartram wrote that Witt had recently visited his West Philadelphia estate.  Bartram reported:  “Dr. Witt was lately in my garden, but could not distinguish a leaf from a flower.”

Christopher Witt died on or about January 30th, 1765.  By a last testament, dated November 7, 1761, he willed most of his land to Christian Warmer III, the grandson of Germantown tailor Christian Warmer Sr. and his wife Christiana, who had shown great kindness to the Wissahickon monks.  Robert Claymoore received his freedom, a piece of land, clock-making tools, furniture, and other household contents.  Witt contributed sixty pounds to Pennsylvania Hospital for treatment of the indigent.  He also left a property at 5073 Germantown Ave. to his nephew, William Yates.

Mourners wrapped Dr. Witt’s body in a linen sheet and reverently placed it in an unvarnished pine box built by Robert Claymoore, on top of a “cushion” of wood shavings. As the early February sun set, they interred him beside Daniel Geissler in a small burial ground on Christian Warmer’s property near High St. and Germantown Ave. Julius Sachse wrote that some citizens reported “spectral blue flames … dancing around his grave…for weeks.” Others claimed to have seen “the shriveled, bent-over form of Dr. Witt (post mortem)… toiling up the hillside behind his house (at Germantown Ave. & Pastorius St.)” In 1859 The Episcopal Diocese of Philadelphia built St. Michael’s Church on top of this graveyard, which locals then called “Spook Hill.”  In addition to the bodies of Geissler, Witt, an unknown number of anonymous monks, assorted Warmer family members, and Robert Claymoore, this unmarked plot holds the remains of a half dozen paupers, plus some Hessian and British soldiers killed in the Battle of Germantown (October 4th, 1777.) Over sixty years ago the Episcopal Diocese sold St. Michael’s to an African-American congregation, which renamed it The High St. Church of God.  A faded stone plaque on one side of the building memorializes the Monks of the Wissahickon.   According to historian David Spencer, the bones of Daniel Geissler and Christopher Witt lie beneath this church’s altar.