Pepper, May S.

Pepper, May S.

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

For many years Mrs. May S. Pepper was the pastor of the First Spiritualist Church of Brooklyn. She was earlier a member of the New England Spiritual Campmeeting Association at Lake Pleasant, Massachusetts and is listed in their 1879 list of members. Mrs. Pepper spoke at the National Convention of the National Spiritualists Association at Masonic Temple in Washington, D.C., in 1897, along with such notables as Cora L. Richmond, Moses Hull, Mrs. Cadwallader, and Dr. J. M. Peebles.

In an interview given October 15, 1973, Mrs. Dorothy Evelyn Begg, an octogenarian lifelong resident of the New England Spiritual Campmeeting Association, spoke of “our great May Pepper Vanderbilt, the very finest medium that ever came here and was probably ever anywhere.” Presumably this is the same May Pepper, though nowhere else can reference be found to Pepper being a Vanderbilt. However, Mrs. Begg went on to say,

May Pepper Vanderbilt was very well to do, but she had this gift and this is Bright Eyes, her control, the little Indian girl. When she was traveling with her husband she went through the reservations out west before she became a public medium and she saw the starvation and privation and everything else there and it upset her awfully and she adopted this little Indian girl and took her home with her and she only lived a few months. We never knew, May never knew, whether it was because she was in a house and was accustomed to running free and so she couldn’t take or whatever, but she died. But she was very grateful to May. She said if it was possible to come back she would be her guide and she did come back. Every meeting opened with Bright Eyes, her young voice and her cute little broken English, and she was the guide that what we call controlled May Pepper’s meetings and certain circles on the platform work.

When asked if May Pepper was a trance medium, Mrs. Begg replied,

Yes. Yes, May Pepper was a trance medium and she was absolutely astounding from the time she got up from her chair back of the podium until 11 o’clock at night. She never stopped. She never rested. She went back and forth on that platform from one end to the other and she had names, dates, figures. Names of relatives way back, full three names never just Mary, you know, but it’d be the whole three names. I was there one night and I saw … she called a man in the front of the audience and she said, to the best of my recollection, she said, “Sir are you so and so and so and so?” He said, “Yes.” And she said, “Do you have the gall to come here tonight when you haven’t spoken to your own brother for 30 years?” His face was a sight flushed, you know, angry. And she said, “You’re not leaving this hall until you’ve shaken hands with your brother. He’s in the back of the hall. Did you know it?” You could see he was stunned. He didn’t know his brother was there. So, she said, “Come on, I don’t want any back talk. Back you go…” went to the back of the hall and shook hands with a man. She’d never seen either one of them before in her life. “Now,” she said, “you can come back and sit down and I’ll give you your message.” Oh, she did things like that. There was a young Italian at a meeting one night and she called his full name and she said, “Sir, you are very anxious, aren’t you?” He said, “Yes.” She said, “You want to know how your brother died, don’t you?” He said, “I do,” and he stood up. She said, “Well, I’m glad to tell you it was not a suicide. He was murdered.” This young Italian, he shot up in the air, you know, and he ran right to the platform and people didn’t do that. He ran right to the platform, put both hands up on it, and he said, “Tell me. Tell me. Tell me.” And she told him the date, the man that did it, how it was done, the whole thing and he kept blessing her and blessing her and weeping and, oh, the whole place was in an uproar. He said, “I’ve been so afraid it was suicide. So afraid for his soul.” Oh, she was a wonderful woman. She suffered extremely from nervous headaches and her chauffeur would drive her around all night long. It was the only way she could get any sleep in the back seat. She’d be lying up. She had to get the oxygen, especially in the summer. Of course, we didn’t have oxygen tents then. This, of course, is just a plain dress, but I wish you could have seen her big, you know, and her favorite dress was a deep purple at the top and at the bottom of the skirt and from the bottom of the skirt to the waist were shafts of lavender. Pale pink over the entire dress was a silver mesh, and a great bunch of grapes caught the skirt in swirls. Oh, what a beautiful gown. Then she had a garnet ruby gown with black sequins. Of course, in those days most of our mediums wore sequined gowns in the evening. It was the thing to do and they did it.

Yet, whether a Vanderbilt or not, May Pepper became the pastor of the First Spiritualist Church of Brooklyn, New York. Nandor Fodor reports that she caused lively discussion in the press because of her clairvoyant work. The congregation would write letters to deceased friends and loved ones, seal them in envelopes, and place the envelopes on a small table at the front of the church. After a prayer and short sermon, Pepper would randomly pick up a letter and answer the question written and sealed inside. She also asked the spirit she saw clairvoyantly to look for its own letter. The pile of letters would move and then one would separate itself and fly out, to fall to the floor, as though an invisible hand had pulled it out. Such well known psychical investigators as William James and Professor James Hyslop witnessed this and were unable to explain it.

On January 20, 1905, the Brooklyn Daily Standard Union newspaper carried an unusual report:

The Rev. May S. Pepper, the pastor of the First Spiritualist Church, has evidently been sustained by the members of her own church, according to a notice sent out today. Mrs. Pepper was last week the subject of an attack on her character by a man named Pepper, who claimed to be her husband. The attack on Mrs. Pepper’s character caused a furor among the Spiritualists of the First Church, who were slow to believe them. Mrs. Pepper arranged to meet the members of the church and its officials and explain her conduct and past history. This was scheduled for last night, but its place of meeting was kept secret.

The notice sent to The Standard Union contains theses words: “The regular religious services next Sunday will be held at 8 P.M., at which a fine inspirational sermon will be delivered by the pastor, the Rev. May S. Pepper, following which will be given a demonstration of the immortality of the human soul through her psychic gift.”

There was no subsequent report so it is unknown what the exchange was about.


Dorothy Evelyn Begg Interview:
Fodor, Nandor: Encyclopedia of Psychic Science. London: Arthurs Press, 1933
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