A Historical House and a Holy Hooligan

by on August 31st, 2017

sanxay2The Press Citizen recently had an article about Gloria Dei Lutheran Church’s plans to relocate a historical home on their property, before selling said property to the UI. That house was at one time owned by Theodore Sanxay, one of Iowa City’s early citizens and business owners. He was also one of the founding members of the First Presbyterian Church, and you can find his name on the Church’s original 1847 Constitution, as well as two letters written by him, on the Library’s Digital History website. Those two letters tell a small part of a very interesting story: the beginnings of the First Presbyterian Church, and the Reverend Michael Hummer. The letters were written to Rev. Hummer while he was out east raising money for the new church that was being built, and they discuss various details related to the ongoing construction and various costs, but also relate gratifying little bits of information and news: “Mr. Trowbridge has married the widow Willis!” and “I am commencing business here once more…My father wanted me to try business in some other place as he thought I had made a perfect failure here.” Reverend Hummer eventually returned to his flock, and the Church was completed in 1850. Before that, though, things got a little weird.

It seems that, in addition to money for the Church, Rev. Hummer picked up something else on his travels–a penchant for Swedenborgianism and “spirit rapping.” Additionally, his record keeping left a little to be desired (you can see one of his collection ledgers), and it was never really known how much he raised, or how much he paid himself. In the end, charges were brought against him in the Church (or, as he referred to it, “a den of ecclesiastical thieves”), and he was expelled. Rev. Hummer, in turn, brought charges against the Church, demanding he be paid for the work he’d done. When that payment was not forthcoming, he came up with a solution: he climbed the church belfry and stole the bell, yelling and swearing at the townsfolk while he did it, intending to install it at his new Spiritualistic church in Keokuk. Concerned citizens intervened, though, and the bell was first spirited away to a secret location in Rapid Creek, then hauled out towards California with a caravan of would-be gold prospectors. Along the way, it was sold to some folks in the Mormon Church, and the bell has been missing ever since. His theft of the bell was major news of the day, reported in newspapers as well as documented in graphic form by young artist George Yewell, who watched the whole thing go down. 160 years later, it was re-imagined by Adam Witte for Little Village.

And what became of Rev. Hummer? He was in Keokuk for a while, where he continued to stir up trouble with the Church, the locals, and the law: in 1851 he was arrested and charged with attempted murder of his wife, as well as indicted and tried for adultery. He moves on to Kansas, where, in addition to being a pastor in several locations, he nearly gets murdered over squatter rights for a parcel of land in Topeka, and stands up to Confederate soldiers during a raid in Lawrence.  Rev. Hummer died in Wyandotte in 1884. His obituary in the Wyandotte Gazette said he was “a man of remarkable physical power and endurance…His determination to know what to mortals is not revealed unbalanced his strong mind.” Others described him as “a man of vigorous intellect and an orator, but of ungovernable temper” and “a monomaniac” (this last one was by his own lawyer). How to account for such a personage is beyond me, but a small clue might be found in one of the other letters we have on our Digital History site. This letter is from Rev. Crozier, to Rev. Barrett, both of whom were pastors at First Presbyterian. In it, Crozier recounts that Rev. Hummer’s mother, Martha Evans, was one of the captives of the Abb’s Valley Massacre in Virginia, 1786. Crozier says “The severe strain on her intellect & nervous system in that terrible captivity and the horrid massacre that preceeded it probably affected her mind as there were very great eccentricities of character in her & many of her children.” Perhaps his mother, who suffered through a terrible ordeal beyond her comprehension, passed on in her son the desire to have strong faith and to endure, at all costs.

Short story made long, I’m glad the Sanxay House is being relocated and preserved; more than a structure, it is a survivor and reminder of our city’s very beginnings.

2 Responses to “A Historical House and a Holy Hooligan”

  1. Adam Witte says:

    This is such an interesting story! I knew about the bell and the spirit-knocking, but not about his attempted murder and near-victimhood later on. Sounds like he lived several lives. I wonder if his spirit continued to knock around Iowa City…

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