New details on the mysterious “Bulgarian Monk”
Awhile back, I did a podcast on a 19th century figure who called himself “The Bulgarian Monk.” This man, also known as Rev. A.N. Experidon, came to America in the 1870s and claimed to be an Orthodox hieromonk. He remained here until his mysterious death in Idaho in the early 1890s — after which, so goes the story, he became a ghost who haunted a now-abandoned mining camp.
And that’s just one of a multitude of crazy stories about The Bulgarian Monk. He tried to convert the Mormon leader Brigham Young to Orthodoxy. He told people he was going to walk on water like Jesus, and then proceeded to walk into the water. He imitated — no, wait, he was friends with — no, wait, he was the inspiration for — Mark Twain. (It’s hard to keep the story straight, because The Bulgarian Monk kept changing it.)
He preached on street corners and in opera houses in every small town in every state in America. He never slept under a roof, preferring to camp in a tent with his mangy dog (a gift from the Governor of Texas!) and his rifle. And the rifle — well, that came in handy not only to hunt for food, but also this one time when an unimpressed crowd started throwing stuff at The Bulgarian Monk during one of his lectures. Instead of leaving town, the next day he resumed his pontifications, with a loaded gun in his lap. There was no more trouble.
It’s just a crazy, crazy story, and the paragraphs I just wrote don’t even begin to convey it. For more, you can check out the aforementioned podcast episode, and read some of the past articles on this site.
All of which is by way of introduction, because, as the title of this article suggests, I’ve recently uncovered some new details on our intriguing subject. Thanks to the August 23, 1875 issue of the Buffalo Daily Courier, we now know the following facts (or perhaps we should call them claims?):
- Rev. Experidon and his family were, “for some time,” enslaved by the Turks, and the Russian government spent a whopping $37,000 to redeem them. In modern terms, that’s something like $725,000. And even if the newspaper inadvertently added an extra zero, we’re still talking about over $70,000 in today’s money. Of course, I have no idea if this is true.
- He was educated at St. Petersburg, Constantinople, Oxford, and Paris. A later source adds Berlin to this list, and specifies that his time at Oxford was spent at St. Mary’s College. Could there possibly be records of Experidon in these institutions?
- He spoke 13 languages fluently. In later years, the number would swell to 32.
- Rev. Experidon became an Orthodox priest in 1866 (I think — I’m reading a digitized newspaper, and the scan isn’t perfectly clear).
- In 1868 (again, I think this is right, but the scan isn’t clear), he was employed by the Greek Church “to make a tour of the earth, in order to write a history of mankind.”
It’s significant that this Buffalo article is one of the earliest sources we have on Experidon, and thus it’s presumably among the more reliable on the subject of his early life. Another early source (the Statesman of Marshall, Michigan from Sept. 6, 1876) reports that Experidon was given $3,000 by the Church to cover his expenses, and that he traveled through China and Japan before arriving in the United States. A third new source, the Shenango Valley Argus of Pennsylvania (July 15, 1876) states that “12 brother monks are now in this country taking in the Centennial and getting acquainted with the boys.” However, I’ve found no other references to a dozen Orthodox monks touring the United States in the mid-1870s.
Ultimately, all sources on Experidon’s pre-American life originate with the testimony of The Bulgarian Monk himself. All these newspapermen listened to him, maybe interviewed him, and then repeated what he said (perhaps even with some embellishment of their own, at times). So we have to take these things with a grain of salt. But with that caveat, we can come up with a very rough, very preliminary biography of Rev. A.N. Experidon.
He was born in Bulgaria sometime around 1830, most likely to an ethnically Greek family. If the story above is to be believed, he and his family were somehow taken captive by the Turks and then redeemed by the Russian government (which makes me think his family must have been wealthy or politically connected). He was educated in various European academies and at some point became a lawyer. He became associated with the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, becoming a monk and a priest in the 1860s. He lived in Jerusalem for a time (and supposedly met a visiting Mark Twain), but he also traveled to Egypt, where he encountered some former Confederate officers from the Civil War, who had entered the service of the Egyptian government. Late in the decade, probably when Experidon was in his mid-to-late thirties, he was given the task of traveling to America to write a book. He went east, through China and Japan, before arriving on the Pacific Coast of the United States in 1874 or early 1875. After that, our knowledge of Experidon becomes much clearer.
Needless to say, if anyone out there has any information about Rev. A.N. Experidon, especially concerning his early life, please let us know. He may well be the strangest person ever associated with Orthodoxy in America.
My thanks to Ken Wells for helping to inspire this article.