LEE COUNTY, Fla. — Tucked away near the heart of Estero is Koreshan State Park, which has a story so unusual you have to hear it to believe it.
So, to learn more about this land, and the people who lived here and inspired the name, we took a tour with Florida Gulf Coast University Professor Lyn Millner.
Millner wrote a book, “The Charm of Immortality: An American Cult, a Florida Swamp, and a Renegade Prophet,” about the Koreshan Unity settlement.
It was started by a man named Cyrus Teed, whose first name translates as “Koresh” in Persian.
“He was an eclectic medical doctor and believed he was a messiah sent to redeem humanity,” Millner said.
Millner says that in the late 19th century; Teed had convinced a bunch of others of the same thing. And eventually, they all started living together in a Chicago mansion.
“And then he started having problems with creditors; you know, there were bills to pay. And he started having problems with husbands, who were mad at him because their wives had left them to join Cyrus Teed,” Millner said.
And those problems led Teed to southwest Florida.
“He finds out about some land in Florida and he goes down to look at it and that land didn’t work out. But what did work out was that there was an old German settler who had come to occupy this land in the 1880s and that settler had lost everything.” Millner said.
According to Millner, it didn’t take long for Teed to convince that farmer, Gustav Damkohler, that he was the Messiah.
Soon after, Teed and his Chicago supporters moved in, took over, and began building.
One of the last major structures to be built was the Art Hall. The preserved building was used for religious services and musical gatherings. It also contains information and artifacts central to the Koreshan belief system, which Millner says gave followers solace at a time when the world was in turmoil.
“At the time, science and religion were at odds. And people were going crazy because their faith and their science didn’t match anymore. And here was this guy saying, ‘God doesn’t give us anything we can’t understand. I have Somehow, I have something called “Religion-Science” that unites religion and science. You don’t have to worry anymore, I have the answers,” he said, “So he did that, he had his religion-science and then he had this and this is a perfect symbol of how ‘God wouldn’t create anything we couldn’t understand’. The entire universe is contained within a hollow earth. We stand at the edges of it, looking up at the sun, moon, planets, the entire cosmos, and outside there is nothing”.
Research shows that the community also believed that they would achieve immortality through celibacy and live forever in utopia. Throughout Estero’s 200-acre property is evidence of the hard work believers put into that plan, which included building a house for Teed that doubled as a school and dental office.
There was also a “Planetary Court”, where seven women lived, appointed to leadership within the settlement.
At their height, the Koreshan had 250 members and were self-sufficient under Teed’s leadership until his death in 1908.
“They thought it was coming back to life,” Millner said.
And when Teed inevitably didn’t return, the numbers began to dwindle.
But Millner says a new book called “Waco” by author Jeff Guinn shows that Teed lived in an unexpected way.
“So these believers held on, they were declining, they were getting old, and in the 30s called ‘Koreshanity’ and laid out Cyrus Teed’s credentials and core beliefs. Somehow, in the 1980s, this book finds its way into the Waco McLennan County Public Library,” he said.
According to Guinn’s new book, David Koresh of the Branch Davidian religious sect was inspired by Teed without realizing he was plagiarizing.
Apparently, a lover provided him with the information without knowing the source.
“Koresh’s predecessor, a woman named Lois Roden, had been copying from Cyrus Teed for years, some of his philosophies and prophecies; that’s what made her the leader. And David Koresh, almost word for word, he is.” the lamb.’ It’s going to do all these wonderful things right from Cyrus teed in Estero, Florida,” Guinn said.
And according to this new information, David Koresh only learned of the Teed book and “Koreshanity” during the deadly 1993 Waco siege.
“When I started going through the tapes of the negotiators between the FBI and Koresh, the conversations they were having. I noticed a couple of pages, there were 60,000 pages, and two of them in particular, where the FBI mentioned that they had a book on another Koresh Guin said.
“And the FBI says, ‘Looks like you just took a page from this guy, Cyrus Teed. Some of this is straight from Teed’. It’s like, ‘send it’. And I think if they had, lives would have been saved,” Millner said.
Milner says it’s a connection and a legacy that should serve as a reminder to all of us: to step outside of ourselves and our own beliefs. And to listen to others, especially when we disagree.
“When we identify another group that doesn’t necessarily agree with what we believe, there needs to be more conversation. At this moment, what is happening is a total rejection, ”he said.