Strange New England

A Compendium of History, Folklore, and Evidence of the Unexplained

Strange New England Podcast
Strange New England Podcast
The Living Machine of John Murray Spear

It looks like a small desk without any legs, just sitting there on a table, a well-fashioned rectangular wooden box containing within it a drawer that pulls out to reveal a crucifix, a journal, a spoon, bottle of white powder and sundry other items that, when attached to the device on top of the box, did something very special, or at least, that’s what was claimed. The device is symmetrical and in its center is a glass column surmounted by a small cast iron skull wearing a helmet and within the glass column one can glimpse a brass bell suspended on a chain. On either side of the glass column are two black horns, much like the ones you would later see on Edison’s talking machines and to their sides, a set of brass balance scales, connected to weights. Near the rear on each side are two glass Crookes solar radiometers, those little glass spheres you can still buy with a metal spinner in the center, moved by the sunlight and photons. There are other strange contrivances attached to this peculiar amalgam of technology, but exactly what the purpose of this device is was made clear by its inventor over a hundred years ago and it was so famous and its purpose so spectacular that it made the national papers and was the talk of the nation. This was purported by its inventor and his followers to be a ‘living machine,’ designed and created by angels for the sole purpose of….well, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. It would be best to begin at the beginning and tell the story. If you look closely at this curious device, you will see engraved in a small brass plate the words, “New Motive Power” and the name John Murray Spear. 

John Murray Spear

In the summer of 1818, a young woman named Mary Shelley was spending an unsettling vacation with her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron in a villa on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. During a bout of cold weather the poets decided to have a contest to see who could come up with the strangest spooky story from among them. In a fit of creative energy seldom seen in literature, 18 year old Mary Shelley created what most people consider to be the founding work of science fiction, Frankenstein. From an assemblage of dead tissue and body parts, Doctor Victor Frankenstein creates a new being, the first and only one of his kind, known only as ‘the monster’. The work was fiction, of course, but it was timely. Science was the new frontier and people, though fascinated with it, knew very little about it. Indeed, science seemed to promise everything that magic used to describe.  Her work became famous on both sides of the Atlantic and in all probability fed the imagination of the protagonist of our tale, John Murray Spear. His interest in electricity, to be specific, would lead to a contraption that would be part perpetual motion machine and part Frankenstein’s monster and it would all happen with the help of Heaven above.

John Murray Spear was born in Boston on September 16, 1804. By all accounts, and there are many, he was brought up to be thoughtful, compassionate and mindful of his fellow man. Named after the actual founder of the movement known as Universalism, he was destined to be connected with Heavenly pursuits for his entire life, even though life wasn’t easy for John and his brother Charles who had to fend for their mother and grandmother while still children after their father died. There was work in the factories of Dorchester where they worked impossible hours to make ends meet, but through the ministration of their Sunday school teacher, both the brothers learned to read and write, giving John a way out of the factory and into the position of apprentice shoemaker. Things began to look up for him, but looking up was about to change his life forever. 

Like his namesake, John Murray Spear felt a calling to become a preacher. He was kind, gentle, thoughtful and full of love and generosity and though he was self-taught and never attended seminary, he began preaching and was well-received. He became an ordained Universalist minister in 1830. He married and the couple had five children. Not bad for a poor boy from Dorchester. He was particularly concerned with the abolitionist movement and he gave help to those people of color who had made it north and to freedom, only to find themselves also desperately poor and in need of assistance. Spear had a reputation for doing the work on the ground, walking among the poor, and he became very respected in his community. 

But something happened to John Murray Spear, something dreadful. During the winter of 1844-1845, Spear was speaking out in Portland,Maine to a mass of people who raged into a mob and beat him senseless. Spear was saved by an old friend, Oliver Dennett who also carefully nursed him back to health. To what extent his injuries included some kind of brain damage, we can never know, but something was changed in the mind of Spear, and he was not in tune with other places, other beings…

Shortly after Spear recovered, his friend Dennett died. One can imagine the sense of loss Spear must have felt, but even stranger what sense of wonder must have pervaded his mind when he sat and watched his hand – seemingly of its own accord and without his own volition, picked up a pen and began to write message to him from, of all people, his dead compatriot – Oliver Dennett. The first note Spear received in this way instructed him to find a man named David Vining and help him. Even stranger, the note was signed by none other than Oliver. 

Alien Hand Syndrome was highlighted in Peter Sellers’ performance in DR. STRANGELOVE. The hand had a mind of its own.

There is a condition known to modern medicine as Alien Hand Syndrome. It occurs when a person’s hand seems to have a mind of its own and cannot be controlled by the owner of the hand. It is often the left hand and according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, there are a variety of causes to this frightening condition: temporal lobe epilepsy, brain surgery, stroke, infection, tumors, aneurysm, among others. Given the fact that Spears had been beaten by an angry mob, is it possible that he had some kind of event or damage that initiated this syndrome? As with many who have suffered from it, it eventually faded and Oliver stopped writing letters, but before he did, Spears became convinced that he was in contact with the dead and that this automatic writing that was occurring came straight from the spiritual realm. 

But what is so strange is that David Vining was real. Time after time, Oliver directed Spear to people who needed his help. Spear was indefatigable – willing to travel far on these missions from the dead. Word of his connection to the spirit realm and his good works began to spread.

In 1848, the Fox sisters, Catherine and Mararetta, began the Spiritualist movement in the United States. While still children, the sisters began to witness strange rappings in their house in the hamlet of Hydesville, New York. One thing led to another and soon, the nation was introduced to the idea that it was possible to talk to the dead, and that almost everybody could do it. Mediums could act as connections to those who had passed on and great comfort could be had about the life of the world to come simply by attending a seance and witnessing the demonstrations of the mediums. Of course John Murray Spear was aware of the movement – he had to have been. It was all the rage. And as he wondered about the actions of his hand and how the process was working, he could find no better explanation than that of being possessed by a kindly spirit, a goodly being who had taken care of him, still working from beyond the grave. Of course, we would have had no idea about anything as modern as Alien Hand Syndrome. 

To that end, Spear dove into the spiritualist movement. He gave spontaneous lectures where he allowed himself to be the medium through which other voices spoke. Already well-known and well-thought of, he became a celebrity of sorts. He attended seances and came to believe that he was not only dealing with the spirits of the dead, but also with spirits of a different sort altogether – angels…angels of electricity…

During a deep trance among his followers, he willingly surrendered by body to that of seven spirits whose task it was to use his body as a vessel with which to construct the new motive power of the age, an age of enlightenment and of power that would flow directly from Heaven in the form of… well, we really don’t know. An aficionado of magnetism and electricity, his angelic engineers conceived of a machine that would have analogues to a heart, to lungs, to all of the systems of the living body, but they would be mechanical in nature and would, once animated, move forward without any further input of energy. The machine would be built, but the spark of life would need to be imbued by another sort of power altogether. And so his followers donated over $2000, a huge sum of money in his time, and he spent the better part of a year building the Heavenly Machine from which the greatest gift of Heaven would flow. There were no blueprints. It was built from day to day, like Mrs. Winchester’s house, with plans abandoned or changed or dropped at the whim of the celestial voices speaking through John Murray Spear. There was a revolving steel arm surmounted by two steel balls, both with embedded magnets. There are obvious positive and negative aspects to the machine, with zinc and copper plates – this was an electrical child being built by a man touched by…well, again, we’re not sure. But as the months passed and word of his wondrous machine reached the masses, the newspapermen followed its evolution. He promised that this device would be Heaven’s greatest gift to Man, a kind of Christlike telephone from which we might speak to God or at the very least, it would provide unlimited power to move the world into a new, more perfect state.

The Mechanical Messiah as found in Miss Akerman’s attic. No one knows if it is authentic or a reproduction… (

The world had heard all of this kind of thing before with one singular exception: John Murray Spear had nothing of the charlatan about him. In fact, he was singularly unassailable because he had put himself on the front line for those in need, had championed for just causes and had even suffered at the hands of unruly mobs when standing for what was right. All those who came into contact with him truly believed that he was in earnest and that he was a good man who had the spiritual health of the nation in his heart. He made no money from his project. All of the funds raised went toward the construction of the device. His prayer gatherings were widely attended and for all the people knew, this man was in touch with the angels, and how the world needed such a thing was clear to them all. 

But the machine just kind of sat there and did nothing. No trouble, he insisted. It is but a vessel, like a human body, and it needed to be imbued with life. For that, he explained, people needed to remember that in nature, life was not perpetuated unless male met female. For this new Prometheus to come to life, a female influence would need to ignite it and for that, he searched for and wide for the child’s mother.

Two newspaper editors seized the opportunity to help Spear search for her. S. Crosby Hewitt and Alonzo Newton knew a good story when they saw one and they made sure there were headlines as the search progressed. It wasn’t long before the angels told the world the name of the new Mary: Mrs. Semantha Mettler, the wife of a Boston doctor. She was also, not coincidentally, a medium. When she joined the room, Spear went into one of his trance states and she, like those in the room, had to ask themselves if they were in the presence of the Heavenly host itself when he spoke. The newspapers chronicle what he said that day when the mother met her child. In his trance state, the angels spoke:

“How fondly, how constantly, how widely is this one beloved! How beautiful is the influence this woman exerts! Wherever she is she attracts In this particular she possesses a most remarkable character. Her friends know no bounds to their affection for this one; and there is nothing which they would leave undone to gratify her. There passes from this woman a very marked influence. It is not precisely the religious influence; it is not precisely the moral influence, it is not precisely the practical influence; but it is, so to speak, a compost of all; and these are charmingly intermingled, imparting a most adhesive influence. This medium has been commissioned to widely instruct this woman for a high purpose. There is before this woman a new and beautiful labor. At 10 o’clock tomorrow the purpose of his mission to this place will be unfolded. Let this woman be in the region of the tranquilities at that hour.”

Beautiful labor: these were the words spoken by Spear while under the influence of the angels. And that was her purpose for this woman was supposed to be the conduit that would shunt the power of life from the celestial realm to the machine, spurring it into life, and in a sense, she was to give birth to it. After all, Spears had worked on the machine for nine months…

The next morning, at 10 o’clock, Mrs. Mettler was brought into the chamber with the machine and went into her own trance, all while being witnessed by Spear and his followers. Soon, she began to experience all of the symptoms of labor. It was as though she was undergoing the full gestation of a child in the matter of an hour and the mechanism was designed to absorb her maternal influence. As she moved and writhed and moaned, the witnesses observed something no less than marvelous. As reported that evening in the Boston’s New Era newspaper, “THE THING MOVES!” That day, the world changed. In Lynn, Massachusetts, a thing made of metal, chemicals and wood, began to pulsate like a heart. The monster had been given the spark. 

According to Spear, this living child would grow and soon would move the wheels of the world, replacing all other means of moving machinery. It would take over all.

How strange it must have been there that day to watch the machine move. One must wonder, though, if these people had any idea how electricity worked and how copper and zinc react when a current is applied to them? The basic dynamics of a simple electric motor was not known to the world yet, but Spear may have touched upon something that a fellow from Vermont did in 1834, not many years before. Thomas Davenport invented the first battery powered electric motor to power a small printing press. A well-read man like Spear may have heard of Davenport’s achievement, but may not have understood the forces involved. Electricity seemed magical, moving things with unseen forces. Perhaps Spear was correct in that one day, electricity would power the world, overwhelmingly moving the machines of industry, replacing water power and that of the steam engine. Certainly this extraordinary claim seems pretty commonplace today, but in his day, no one knew that. Perhaps it was nothing more than the movement of a metal plate responding to a magnetic field. People believed that invisible spirits could rap and tap and communicate through mediums. Why not build a machine to channel the power of God? 

News of the movement of the new machine spread throughout the land, but those who did not take to communicating with the dead and the ways of the spiritualists had no use for such practices. To a mainstream religious American audience, this might even have hinted of witchcraft and magic. Instead of being divinely inspired by the angels, was this some Devil’s work? Reports claim that John Murray Spears’ machine was destroyed by an angry mob, tearing it to pieces and trampling it beneath their feet. Spears faded into obscurity after that. He never thought to rebuild the machine and his hope to tap into an invisible power that might move the machines of the world was forgotten.

Except it wasn’t. An invisible force does move the machines of the world – electricity. He must have believed it would work and in his own way, he was right. It wasn’t a hoax, as far as the idea goes. Given the knowledge of his age, we might even look back upon him, strange as his sensibilities seem to us today, he really did want to gift the world a very real power. Just not what he thought it was. 

And his machine? We thought it was destroyed – it was reported as such, but in 2019, in Greely, Colorado, a Miss Akerman passed away and her home, full of hoarded objects, was being cleared when the machine showed up resting in her attic. It must have sat there for one hundred and fifty-six years.  If it isn’t the real machine, even though it is clearly labeled, it certainly looks like the God machine of John Murray Spears. Whether or not it works remains a mystery, but then again, such things as this beg for speculation and make us wonder, “what makes it tick?” For that matter, what makes one want to know? Better to ask how a persons’ hand might write messages of its own volition and how this alien hand could lead to a machine that claimed to be a robotic body for God.


John Murray Spear

Alien Hand Syndrome

The National Library of Medicine – Alien Hand Syndrome

Tom Burby

Thomas Burby is the owner of and the author of THE LAST BOY ON EARTH and THE SEVEN O'CLOCK MAN, both available on Mr. Burby has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Maine and an MSEd in the Science of Education from the University of New England. He loves a good scary story...


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  1. Hello! Big fan. Recently relocated to the PNW, have been to a few eccentric and out of the way places here- but if you might possibly refer me to a guide book, website with anything close to your NE knowledge for more it would be much appreciated. Missing my wacky and whimsical NE every day.

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