Posts tagged The 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.
Back in September, I discussed the incredible story of Rev. A.N. Experidon, better known as “The Bulgarian Monk.” (Click here for the podcast, and here for the OH.org articles.) To briefly recap, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the story: “The Bulgarian Monk” was the stage name of Fr. Experidon, who claimed to be a Bulgarian monk from Jerusalem. He was in America from the 1870s until his apparent death in the early 1890s. He was an amazing character, traveling all over the United States and giving lectures on street corners and in small-town opera houses. He befriended many politicians of his day, tried to convert Brigham Young to Orthodoxy, and probably drowned in Idaho around 1891 or so.
Shortly before his death, Experidon met Ethelbert Talbot, who was, at the time, the Episcopal Bishop of Wyoming and Idaho. (By sheer coincidence, many years later, Talbot was the bishop who deposed Rev. Ingram Irvine, leading to Irvine’s conversion to Orthodoxy.) Anyway, in his memoirs (My People of the Plains, published in 1906), Talbot wrote about his encounter with the wild Bulgarian Monk:
It was at this latter place [the mining camp of Bay Horse, Idaho] that I met for the first and only time a strange, wild man of the mountains, who was spoken of as the “Bulgarian monk.” He carried a gun, and was followed by a dog. Occasionally he would descend from the hills, where he led a solitary life in the woods, to a mining-camp, and preach the Gospel to those who were attracted by his weird appearance and mysterious personality. He affected the conventional dress and bearing of the apostles, and seemed to consider himself a sort of modern John the Baptist. By the more superstitious and impressionable he was regarded with much awe and wonder; by others, and especially the young, he was greatly feared, and mothers would conjure with his name in keeping their children in the path of obedience. Whence he came and whither he went, no one knew. His movements were enshrouded in mystery. I tried to engage him in conversation and elicit from him some information as to his life and purpose. But my efforts were unavailing. As the weather grew cold in the autumn he would disappear, not to be seen again until the winter had passed and the snow had melted in the mountains. Then with his rifle and faithful dog he would once more be seen in the woods. Whenever he condescended to come to a settlement, it was only for a brief hour, to deliver his message or warning, and then disappear. He repelled all attempts to draw him into conversation, nor would he accept hospitality or kindness from any one. He suddenly ceased to make annual visits, and no one seemed to be able to solve the enigma of his life. On the occasion of my seeing him at Bay Horse he was just leaving that place, and I can vividly recall his curiously clad retreating figure, as he climbed the mountain and disappeared among the pines.
Note in particular this sentence: “By the more superstitious and impressionable he was regarded with much awe and wonder; by others, and especially the young, he was greatly feared, and mothers would conjure with his name in keeping their children in the path of obedience.”
In the 1990s, various ghost story books began to include legends of “the Bulgarian Monk” ghost. The first reference I’ve seen is from Deborah L. Downer’s 1990 book, Great American Ghost Stories. In 1995, the fullest story appeared, in Historic Haunted America, by Michael Norman and Beth Scott. Here is what they have to say about the Bulgarian Monk:
Every community has its own eccentric character – an oddly dressed or reclusive man or woman, seeking no meaningful friendships, yet amiable enough when spoken to.
In Bayhorse, Idaho, the recluse was known by all as the “Bulgarian Monk of the Church of Jerusalem.” Some said the monk had no ecclesiastical credentials because he never saved anyone from sin. But that scarcely mattered. He did look somewhat churchly, a young man, tall and lean with a long, black cloak flapping about his ankles and a red fez perched atop his head. He claimed to speak thirty-two languages and said he’d been a guide for Mark Twain in the Holy Land. All quite credible in nineteenth-century Idaho.
Two weary horses and a scrawny dog accompanied the monk as he wandered from one mining camp to another along the Salmon River. He never caused any trouble and if his strange appearance brought a comment from a newcomer to the area, the old-timers would say, “Oh, he’s a harmless coot. Just part of the scenery.” And they always said it with respect, for they both admired and sometimes feared this “missionary man” who lived among them. What proselytizing he did came in tolerable doses.
Rumor had it that the monk had a tiny cabin somewhere in the woods and that he was hospitable enough to the few lost travelers who stumbled to his door. He always left provisions for the taking.
The monk fished and hunted, his scarlet cap warning other hunters of his presence in the wilderness. Although generally he was uneasy with adults, children loved him. They came running from all directions when he stopped by the village store for supplies. It was as if they knew he was coming before they ever saw him. The smaller children thought he was so tall because he probably walked on stilts. At other times he would sprint down the road chasing after the children, the sides of his cloak flapping like giant wings, gales of laughter greeting the startled passersby. Of course, he never caught them, for that would spoil the game. He would always fall flat on his face and cry and beat the ground, as if in great suffering.
In the harsh winter of 1890, shortly before Idaho became a state, the Bulgarian Monk vanished. A blizzard blew for endless days, the temperature dropped, and ice-crusted snow made it dangerous for search parties looking for stranded prospectors and families. Avalanches killed many miners, and trains between Shoshone and Ketchum were snowbound for days. Livestock and wild game starved.
And when the storm abated, people started reappearing, searching for family and friends. The old mining town of Galena had been hardest hit, but many had escaped in time.
And where was the monk? Some said he was in Bellevue, Idaho. He wasn’t. Another said he’d seen him in Shoshone. He wasn’t there either. Children sobbed, fearing their friend had died in an avalanche.
In fact, the Monk had been at Galena when the storm struck and he stayed on, camping on Titus Creek. But when the storm grew, he knew he’d have to get over Galena Summit to the safety of the mining camps on the Salmon River. He made snowshoes for his horses and for himself and, carrying the little dog through waist-high drifts, reached safety. He said in all the thirty-two languages he knew that he had “never traveled faster than 100 miles per hour.”
In February 1891, the rains came. Roofs weakened by the weight of snow now collapsed under tons of water. Legend has it that in one section of Hailey Hot Springs people burned a whole block of shanties just trying to keep warm.
Meanwhile, a few miles outside Bayhorse, the Bulgarian Monk set about repairing his remarkably undamaged cabin. Some slabs of siding were gone and the roof had sprung a few leaks. He left for Bayhorse and the supplies he would need. At the village limits, he heard the running and the laughing of youngsters, and his heart quickened. He’d give them a good race this time. But, as he leaped over a boulder, he lost his balance and fell into the rain-swollen river. Pieces of his robe were found later tangled in some brush near the riverbank. The children wept and their parents mourned their lost apostle.
Yet two weeks later a visitor arrived in Bayhorse and was shocked by reporters of the Monk’s death. On the day of the supposed drowning, the stranger said, the monk was twenty-five miles away, playing with the children at Yankee Fork, Idaho.
Could the monk have been in two places at once? Not likely. But soon riders traveling the areas of Bayhorse, Bonanza, and Yankee Fork told of seeing a black-robed figure pacing the riverbanks. He held a lantern high in his hand, but always vanished at the approach of a rider.
Was it the Bulgarian Monk searching for his mortal remains? The questions still provide plenty of speculation around campfires in the Sawtooth National Forest.
In the 2005 book Weird U.S., the authors say that the Bulgarian Monk was “a strange young man” who “was actually no monk at all, but locals took to calling him that because of his odd choice in garb. He wore hooded burlap robes that he tied off at the waist.” They tell the same basic story — the Bulgarian Monk drowned, and then turned into a ghost.
None of the ghost story writers are aware of Fr. Experidon, as an historical figure. From those stories, you get the sense that this Bulgarian Monk was a crazy young man from Idaho, not a well-traveled lecturer and raconteur in his sixties. Of course, it’s not like these ghost story writers are historians, concerned with factual details. I actually emailed Michael Norman (coauthor of Historic Haunted America) awhile back, and he couldn’t provide me with any sources for the above story.
It’s pretty easy to see how these ghost stories would develop, though. Bishop Ethelbert Talbot said that “mothers would conjure with his name in keeping their children in the path of obedience” — Don’t make me call the Bulgarian Monk! The children who grew up in the 1880s and early 1890s would have known him personally, as a strange and frightening figure. Given this hold he apparently had on the imaginations of the locals, it’s not surprising that kids would tell campfire stories about him after his death. This would be especially likely if, as the stories say, his body was never found.
The Bulgarian Monk is not a ghost, haunting a remote region in Idaho. That said, his last known residence — Bayhorse, Idaho — is now a ghost town. Just last year, it became part of a state park, and it’s now open to the public.
Continuing on the theme of Rev. A.N. Experidon (aka “the Bulgarian Monk”) from yesterday, I thought I would check out some of the claims made by our itinerant friend.
In the Atlanta Constitution (April 30, 1876) Fr. Experidon is reported to have met Loring and Colston, two former Confederate soldiers, in Egypt, where they were in the service of the Egyptian Khedive. About 50 ex-Confederate soldiers did go to Egypt after the Civil War, and both William W. Loring and Raleigh E. Colston were given rather high positions. Both ended up returning to the United States before their deaths, and Loring wrote a book about his experiences, called A Confederate Soldier in Egypt (1884). There’s no mention of Fr. Experidon in the book.
Speaking of books, Fr. Experidon claimed to have been a tour guide in Jerusalem for a group which included Mark Twain. Twain did in fact visit Jerusalem in 1867, and he sent accounts of his experiences back to a U.S. newspaper. In 1869 they were published under the title Innocents Abroad. Again, no mention of Fr. Experidon.
Fr. Experidon also claimed to have met Brigham Young and attempted to convert him to Orthodoxy. This is reported as early as January 8, 1876 (in the Atlanta Constitution). Young died in 1877. There doesn’t seem to be any mention of Fr. Experidon in the various books about Young available on the Internet, but, as Reader Mo suggested in the comments yesterday, it’s possible that the Mormons — who are great record-keepers — have some record of that visit.
So the famous people Fr. Experidon is supposed to have met were in the right places at the right times. That doesn’t necessarily mean he actually met them, of course, but it helps. I suppose in the case of Twain, Fr. Experidon could have simply read Innocents Abroad and then made up the claim that he had met the author. The reporter in the Constitution article on January 8, 1876 remarks, “He occasionally quoted Mark Twain, and it is the opinion of your reporter that it is from this history, he obtained most of his information.” In other words, Fr. Experidon is a fraud who is basing his tales on Twain’s book. I personally don’t buy that argument, but it’s easy to see why someone might come to that conclusion.
One last thing — in the article I posted yesterday, from the San Jose Daily Evening News (March 28, 1889), we find this sentence: “He is a Bulgarian by birth and in his own country was a lawyer by profession.” Over on our Facebook page, Florin Curta pointed out that Bulgaria (and Jerusalem, for that matter) were under Ottoman rule when Fr. Experidon lived there. Florin writes, “There was no other law in the Empire than sharia modified by kanuni (imperial decrees and/or lawcodes).” In other words, since Fr. Experidon was a Christian, he simply could not have been a lawyer in the Ottoman Empire. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t some kind of lawyer, somewhere (Greece, perhaps, as Florin speculates?). But whatever the truth, it is complicated.
UPDATE (9/14/09): I contacted the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and they could find no record of Fr. Experidon’s visit to Brigham Young. However, they said, “It is very possible that he visited and it was never recorded.” And while I still suspect that Fr. Experidon did meet Brigham Young, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Mark Twain wrote extensively of his own encounter with Brigham Young in his 1872 book Roughing It, which was a prequel to his earlier Innocents Abroad. I can certainly see why some people thought Fr. Experidon was just ripping off Twain.
In the latest episode of my American Orthodox History podcast, I talk about Rev. A.N. Experidon, better known as “the Bulgarian Monk.” He was, without a doubt, the weirdest man in the history of American Orthodoxy.
For the whole story, I’d encourage you to listen to the podcast, but below, I’m reprinting an article from the San Jose Daily Evening News (March 28, 1889):
A BULGARIAN MONK
He Will Preach on Santa Clara Street This Evening
A Man With a Mission and a Strange History – A Former Guide in the Holy Land
A Bulgarian monk, was on the streets to-day and attracted much attention. He called at the office of the Mayor this morning to secure permission to preach at the corner of First and Santa Clara street, in the open air, this evening. A large crowd gathered around the man, attracted by his strange garb. He was dressed in a long black gown reaching to his heels. His hair is long and he wears a red cap.
A reporter for the EVENING NEWS engaged the monk in conversation and found him to be a man of pleasing address, and evidently of intelligence and education. His name is Rev. A.N. Experidon and he says he is a Bulgarian monk of the Christian Church of Jerusalem. He is 60 years of age and has been engaged in his mission for 30 years.
FORMERLY A LAWYER
He is a Bulgarian by birth and in his own country was a lawyer by profession. In his early life he acted as a guide at Jerusalem to many prominent American tourists, among them the United States party under Dr. Gibson. In this party was Mark Twain, then a young man, and it was during this journey that Mark got his material for “Innocents Abroad.” The traveling monk therefore finds numerous old friends among prominent people in the United States. There is one gentleman in Woodland, a clergyman there, who was piloted through the
WONDERS OF THE HOLY LAND
By him. Thirty years ago the monk entered upon his mission of teaching the gospel to the people of the earth in accordance with the belief of his church. He studied at St. Marys, Oxford, being associated there with many who are now prominent in the politics of England and Canada. He afterwards studied at Paris, St. Petersburg, Berlin and Constantinople, his studies there being largely devoted to theology and languages. He speaks now thirty-two languages and dialects, and if he has the same command of the others as he exhibits in English he may be said to be fluent in all.
The Christian Church of Jerusalem, of which the Rev. Experidon, or “the Bulgarian Monk,” as he advertises himself, is a member, is what is known in Russia as “Stahto Bratsu,” “The Old Brotherhood.” It preaches the Gospel of Christ, love and charity, regardless of any sect, and recognizing no arbitrary teachings,
And no canonical laws. Indeed, the monk seems to delight in demonstrating from the Bible the inconsistency of the teachings of each of the Christian sects. He quotes Timothy to prove that women are forbidden to preach until after they are 60 years of age, and offers it as an indication of the absurdity of any divine inspiration being received by the Salvation Army or the Methodist female revivalist.
The Bulgarian monk has been thirteen years in America and has preached through Mexico and
EVERY STATE IN THE UNION
Except California. He is now “doing” every county in this State and from here goes to South America. If he manages to finish the countries there he will return to the United States and end his days here. He will die somewhere on this continent, and while prosecuting his self-appointed mission of preaching the gospel of Christ, free from arbitrary interpretations and canonical laws. He is engaged also in the preparation of what he states is a cyclopedia of the world, which he intends for publication.
He will lecture this evening at the corner of Santa Clara and First streets. He states that his subject will be “To Convert all American Preachers, Priests and Christians.”
Was he Orthodox? Originally, yes, but by 1889, I’d guess not. He had been in the United States for around 15 years at that point, and he became stranger and stranger as time passed.
The message of the Bulgarian Monk, if indeed there is a message, seems to be this: America is a frontier for Orthodoxy. I’ve said this before; Orthodox America, like the Wild West, attracted both heroes and outlaws — the good, the bad, and the ugly. And the Bulgarian Monk is one of the ugly ones.
I think the point is, not all of the Orthodox clerics who came to America were saints, or missionaries, or even normal human beings. We had our fair share of oddballs, of whom the Bulgarian Monk might be the oddest.