Living Legends

  • William Allison. The Monocled Mutineer. Quartet, 1978.
  • Bernard Wasserstein. The Secret Lives of Trebitscb Lincoln. Yale, 1988.
  • Russell Miller. Barefaced Messiah; The L Ron Hubbard Story. Michael Joseph, 1988.

Edwardian England seems to have been a happy hunting-ground for con-men and charlatans, including two of the three chronicled in these books. The first traces the career of Percy Topliss, the 'monacaled mutineer' of a somewhat fictionalised TV drama series. He graduated from mining village petty criminal to spending World War I posing as an officer, who may or may not (controversy rages) have enjoyed a brief moment of glory as a ringleader of the mutiny at the army base camp of Etaples in 1917. After the war he took to armed crime and eventually murder, dying in a police ambush in 1920.

Mysterious and bizarre as the Percy Topliss story is, it appears almost mundane beside that of Trebitsch Lincoln, a Hungarian Jewish adventurer who arrived in Britain in the early years of the twentieth century. He became, in rapid succession, and with the aid of bogus credentials, an Anglican clergyman, a Liberal MP (at a time when antisemitism was rife and in spite of not being able to speak English without a strong accent, and indeed possibly not even being a British citizen), then a shady financier. Like Percy Topliss, he was quick to exploit World War I by peddling bogus military secrets to the Germans from the safety of New York.

By 1920 he had followed this move onto the international stage by resurfacing in Berlin as a leading activist in the underworld of German militarists, Russian émigrés and East European antisemites from which Nazism would later emerge. Even here he found his origins no more of a handicap to his schemes than his possession of what a journalist who encountered him described as "a face on which deceit and brutality are inscribed for all to read".

Remarkable as this story is, it seems at this point to have little to do with the concerns of Magonia. Indeed, it is not without contemporary parallels, since modern Britain can boast at least two figures who have obtained considerable success on highly dubious credentials and - in spite of similar facial handicaps to Trebitsch Lincoln. (in view of both of their remarkable successes with the law of libel perhaps it is unwise to pursue the analogies).

However Lincoln's next port of call was China. After a period as advisor to a warlord he adopted the name of Abbot Kao Chu [left] and became the spiritual leader of a small community of Europeans seeking enlightenment in the East. Here the story becomes familiar to those who have followed the careers of contemporary cult leaders such as the Bhagwan or, in the political field, Gerry Healy of the Workers' Revolutionary Party, or the US ultra-right cultist Lyndon La Rouche.

People leading wealthy but spiritually impoverished lives signed away their cash to the Perfect Master, and in return were humiliated, sexually exploited, and accused of conspiring against him. Finally Trebitsch Lincoln died in 1943 combining his activities as a Buddhist monk with writing as a pro-Axis propagandist and corresponding with Nazi Intelligence assuring them that he could enlist the Hidden Masters on the German side.

Judgements on Percy Topliss and Trebitsch Lincoln may perhaps be tempered by the thought that had they lived the everyday respectable lives of their contemporaries one of them would probably have died on the Western Front and the other as a victim of the Holocaust. However it is not easy to find anything to say in mitigation of L. Ron
Hubbard, other than to acknowledge the skill with he identified his market.

In the 1920' s and 30's various dubious occultists had realised that it was possible to make money not simply by exploiting a few members of the wealthy classes, on the lines of Cagliostro or Alastair Crowley, but to go for quantity of victims via ads in pulp magazines (the Rosicrucians are of course still at it, and the TV evangelists have brought the techniques into the electronic age). Hubbard's rise to fame and fortune in this way, although more spectacular than any of his predecessors, was not unique. What is distinctive is the mythology with which he made. his play for his audience.

The imaginary world of Ron Hubbard is recognisably that of the 1930's film serial. The biographical works produced by the scientologists depict him as a two-fisted adventurer in exotic lands, on the lines revived in the Indiana Jones films. There is apparently little factual basis for this beyond a brief and inglorious term of service on a patrol vessel in the Caribbean in World War II, where he apparently managed to shell Mexico! (One wonders if he ever came into contact with Ivan T Sanderson the Fortean writer and, one suspects, another great embellisher of stories, who was also patrolling these waters at the same time.)

When Hubbard went on to found Dianetics the off-hand pseudoscience and half-digested occultism of the old film serials were faithfully reproduced in the E-meters with which the mental states of devotees were monitored. These recalled the cardboard and tin death-ray machines of these films, and when he turned to scientology's complete cosmology and memories of life on other planets, the results recalled the worlds of Flash Gordon and the Emperor Ming. However, this mixture seemed to appeal to a US public enjoying unparalleled affluence but plagued by insecurity. A public furthermore impressed by attempts, such as Velikovsky's, to underwrite religion with vaguely understood science.

Finally, having become wealthy he used his money in best serial-hero style to buy an Indian Maharajah's Sussex home and cruise the world on his private yacht, apparently searching for extraterrestrial bases, buried treasure and Atlantis.

The description given of life on the Hubbard vessel, as in Trebitsch Lincoln's commune, will be familiar to those with any knowledge of cultist behaviour (curiously enough, Trebitsch Lincoln was at one time trying to raise money to but a boat on which he and his disciples might cruise the world), However the description of life aboard the Hubbard yacht is enlivened by an air of grotesque comedy (indiscipline was punished by perpetrators being thrown into harbours) reminiscent of the Marx Brothers films in which Groucho, although supposedly a con-man, makes no attempt to ingratiate himself with his victims, but insults and humiliates them. Certainly this episode is good evidence for Peter Rogerson's suggestion that the motivation of cult leaders may not simply be a desire for money or power but a fascination to know how far it is possible to go before their disciples revolt.

Among the fascinating sidelights provided in this book is the fact that in the 1950's Hubbard was simultaneously denouncing opponents of scientology as communists, whilst privately attempting to work out schemes to interest communist governments in the cult. It seems he was the real author of Textbook of Psychopolitics - a forgery purporting to be a Soviet document on mind-control, still hawked by the ultra-right in Britain and the US.

The biographers of Lincoln and Hubbard make extensive use of official files prepared on their subjects by bemused policeman and civil servants, and in this way have clarified much that the two sought to conceal, even though much remains obscure (Hubbard in particular seems to rise from penury to wealth in a chapter with little explanation). By contrast Allison and Fairly have given us Percy Topliss as recalled by elderly miners and soldiers. Valuable and vivid as much of the results are, especially in the picture of the hushed-up mutiny at Etaples, it is a pity that it is presented without index or proper footnoting (so that one cannot even find out the circumstances in which the photo they reproduce of Topliss dressed as a officer were taken) and one should not underestimate the extent to which sincere testimony can be tidied up with time so that wartime apocryphal stories become established fact.

What comes out of this testimony is a picture of Topliss as a rare example of a twentieth century legendary figure whose tale has been maintained in limited communities without the aid of the mass-media. His exploits were a proof that even in the harshness of the mines or on the Western Front it was nonetheless possible for the individual to break the system. Ironically, though Topliss's deceptions never encompassed the occult mumbo-jumbo of Trebitsch Lincoln or Hubbard, it is he, not they, who emerges as a figure with the mythic status they sought in vain. -- Roger Sandell, from Magonia 31, November 1988.


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