Nineteenth-century newspapers were often filled with tales of fraud. Stories of credit scams, dubious identities, duplicitous lovers, and a myriad of other reported confidence schemes both fascinated and frightened readers. In 1894, newspapers around the country featured one such story of how Emma Specht, the wife of a business tycoon, came under the influence of a charismatic peddler of strange mystical beliefs. This man, who went by the name Dr. Granby Staunton Howard, convinced Emma to help fund a school for spiritualism at Gunston Hall in Virginia. When her husband began to question Howard’s trustworthiness, the scheme quickly unraveled, leaving shattered dreams and a broken family. With intrigues involving misappropriated funds, false identities, purloined letters, trailing detectives, and courtroom skirmishes, the Gunston Hall scandal offered the kind of imaginative and engaging narrative that newspapers feasted upon. The story brought into focus the anxieties of the industrial age, including women’s roles, religion, legitimacy, and trust. Newspapers broadcast the Specht family drama from Virginia to readers around the world. One such article, published throughout New Zealand, called it “one of the most sensational dramas that has ever been played in real life.”
Dr. Granby Staunton Howard was an elusive figure. He seemingly adopted this grandiose name in the 1880s when he took on the roles of religious leader and medical practitioner. There are hints of other, earlier identities, but nothing definitive. By many accounts, he was a large handsome man, with a full beard, an engaging intellect, and a magnetic personality. He told people that he was born in Rothby, England, on 7 October 1829, into a prominent English baronial family, and that while serving as a British cavalry officer in India, he received initiation into secret Brahmin rituals. He then assumed a mission of spreading a spiritual and holistic message as the “Sage of Aru.”
Emma Specht was part of a growing number of Americans interested in contact with the spirit world. Theosophists, spiritualist healers, clairvoyants, and mediums attracted large audiences, with adherents among social, intellectual, and political elites. She became aware of Howard and his teachings through her acquaintance with three prominent St. Louis men who, in 1884, abruptly abandoned their comfortable lives to follow Howard on a spiritual pilgrimage. One was the Specht family’s doctor, Sylvester Nidelet, a former military surgeon, who after the war built a successful private practice in St. Louis and held office as the city coroner. Through Nidelet she had become acquainted with his fellow pilgrims, Celsus Price and Quintius Price, sons of Sterling Price, a renowned Confederate general and Missouri’s governor from 1853 to 1857. The three men dropped out of contact with most of their family and friends, although Price apparently maintained some correspondence with Emma Specht.
Nidelet and the Price brothers contributed their fortunes to Howard’s cause. When the funds ran out, Nidelet began practicing medicine again in Ogdensburg, New York. Howard, accompanied by Celsus Price, moved across the Canadian border to Preston, Ontario, where he founded a patent medicine company called Oriens Hermeticus. Within a year, this business was bankrupt. Howard then moved to Montreal where he tried to establish a practice as an “electro-therapist,” taking advantage of the fashion for using electric current as a “cure” for almost any physical or mental ailment. It proved another unsuccessful business venture.
Ottawa Journal, January 28, 1899.
To raise needed funds, Howard sent Celsus Price to St. Louis in April 1891 to deliver a series of lectures. Price told reporters that the lectures would introduce a “higher religion” based on a “very ancient Brahmo-Indian-philosophy.” Despite considerable press coverage, less than 200 people attended the first lecture. Because Price had given out so many complimentary tickets, it failed to break even, leaving him without enough money to leave town. “This is indeed a sad ending of what seemed to me a bright prospect for making some money to help us out of our strait,” he wrote to Howard.
In his letter to Howard, Price mentioned how he had heard about a novel written by Emma Specht that “made Sylvester, Q and myself heroes I am told.” The novel, Alfrieda, a concoction of fervid spiritual affirmations dressed up in overwrought melodrama, likely found few readers when she self-published it in 1890. The story follows Alfrieda Hammersley as she motivates those around her on their restorative journeys to overcome personal hardships and failings, delivering an overall message of spiritual transcendence over materialism and “yearnings of the flesh.” Emma Specht unmistakably modeled two main characters, Col. Phocion Stanthrope and Dr. De Lassus Boulogne, on Col. Celsus Price and Dr. Nidelet. In the novel, a troubled Stanthrope goes on a spiritual quest, taking residence in New York City, where he lives in poverty and does charitable works while following the spiritual guidance of “the Sage of Armu,” a shadowy religious leader from India.
A few days after informing Howard about Alfrieda, Price received a copy from Emma Specht with a note requesting that he visit her. Seeing this as a distraction to his mission, Price declined her invitation. Howard, however, sensed an opportunity. He was certainly aware that her husband, Joseph Specht, was the extremely wealthy owner of the Famous Shoe and Clothing Company, one of the largest mercantile stores in St. Louis. A few weeks later, Howard arrived in St. Louis where he had arranged to stay with the Specht family. For three weeks, he provided religious instruction to a class of eighteen women.
After obtaining a $300 contribution from Joseph Specht, Howard returned to Montreal. Soon after that, the Spechts sent their eldest son, Joseph, to live with Howard and to receive training in medicine and spiritualism. Joseph had just turned 21 and had been a problem for the family. Twice his father had committed him to an asylum because of his drinking, and he had even paid off a local merchant to forestall criminal charges. As one newspaper article aptly put it, Joseph A. Specht “sowed his wild oats with a drill, the ordinary hand method being too slow.” In Alfrieda, the heroine’s son, Paul, was similarly troubled. Recognizing himself, the young man wrote to Howard that he could “plainly see her poor mother heart crying and praying for me throughout the whole book.” The novel imagined Paul saved by becoming Stanthrope’s disciple. Clearly, Emma Specht felt her son needed similar spiritual salvation.
Not long after Howard returned from Montreal, Joseph and Emma Specht visited Virginia to see Gunston Hall, an illustrious plantation house originally owned by George Mason overlooking the Potomac River, about twenty miles south of Washington, D.C. Joseph wanted to step back from his business and find a suitable retirement location. Emma, however, had another project in mind. She envisioned Gunston Hall as the perfect place for Howard to establish his desired school and spiritual temple. Joseph Specht purchased the property, putting the deed in his wife’s name. Soon after the purchase, Howard corresponded with them about acquiring nearby land. Joseph Specht offered to let him have part of the Gunston Hall property. Howard, however, wanted his own place, and asked them for a contribution of $5,000 (equivalent to about $150,000 in 2021 dollars) so he could acquire land and construct his temple. Specht initially sent him only $1,000, but Howard soon convinced Specht to provide the remaining $4,000 in promissory notes, which he quickly cashed in.
In September 1891, Howard purchased five acres on the Potomac River adjacent to the Specht property. He offered $1,000 to the owner, Laura L. Freeman, promising her $500 up front and yearly payments of $50. At the signing, however, he gave her only $10, promising the remainder once the previous owner affirmed her title. Howard then either built or refurbished a house on the property, and constructed a large barn-like structure to serve as his religious hall. When the Spechts moved into the extensively remodeled Gunston Hall the following spring, Howard, with his wife, the Prices, and Dr. Nidelet were already living at their new spiritual compound.
By that time, Howard had run out of money. Emma asked her husband for an additional contribution, but he refused. So, she secretly gave Howard her diamonds, valued at $1,350, and the following year gave him her fancy dresses, valued at $3,000. Other followers gave him what they could, but their donations never met his needs. Since arriving in Virginia, he had made numerous purchases on credit and amassed debts. After several years of nonpayment, his creditors were pressuring him. In addition, he never paid Freeman more than the initial $10 for the property. Although he renegotiated an extension with a new payment schedule, it too went unpaid. Perhaps because of this delinquency, his neighbors threatened to cut off road access to his land, compelling him to take legal action against them in March 1894.
Although Joseph Specht had long indulged his wife’s religious convictions, he did not share them. He began to suspect that Howard was a fraud who squandered the money, and demanded that she stop seeing him. She agreed, but secretly visited Howard. To counter Joseph’s intransigence, Howard offered up a new plan. Her husband, Howard declared, was “moving very rapidly toward insanity,” so he proposed having himself installed as Joseph’s legal and financial guardian. Soon after that meeting, Emma wrote her will, leaving Gunston Hall to Howard. When she then informed her husband that his “good friends” would be looking after his affairs, Joseph sought legal counsel. Following his lawyers’ advice, he confronted Howard, demanding to see his credentials and references. When Howard refused to confirm his identity, Specht threatened to have him investigated.
The morning following this confrontation, Saturday, 12 May 1894, Howard and Specht took the boat to Washington to consult with their lawyers. Later in the day, Emma joined her husband, but refused to see his lawyers. Instead, she went to see Howard’s lawyer. Joseph immediately filed a writ of non compos mentis against his wife and had an arrest warrant issued for Howard, charging him with obtaining money under false pretenses. On Sunday, the police searched the boats going south, without success. By Monday, Specht’s private investigators traced Howard to New York City, and the Commonwealth’s Attorney convinced Virginia Governor Charles T. O’Ferrall to send an extradition request to New York State. When the private detectives arrived in New York, however, they discovered that Howard had fled to Montreal. Specht explored filing an international extradition, but his lawyers recommended against it. Specht then tried to block Howard from retrieving the property left behind by getting a lien placed on it. Howard quickly transferred the property to his lawyer, who moved into the house to halt repossession.
On 18 May 1894, a District of Columbia judge withheld a verdict in the non compos mentis hearing for Emma Specht on the condition that she return to Gunston Hall. She returned, but filed for divorce the following month. Her husband hinted to reporters that much would be exposed during the divorce proceedings, claiming that his investigators had uncovered evidence of Howard’s other aliases and confidence schemes. This set the stage for a sensational courtroom reveal. But that never happened. Instead, the divorce case quietly ended with the couple agreeing to a legal separation. Joseph Specht would keep Gunston Hall and Emma Specht would receive a monthly allowance of $150. She soon moved to Canada to join Howard and his wife. In several court cases over the following months, the courts ordered the sale of Howard’s possessions to pay his debts, and the previous owner reclaimed the land at auction.
The story could have ended there. No grand finale. A broken family. A failed Spiritualist movement. A confidence scheme gone sour. Howard in exile. That, however, would not be the end of Howard. From his Canadian base, he attempted to rehabilitate his reputation and finances. In April 1898, the courthouse in Perth, Ontario, witnessed “one of the most notable civil cases heard in Canadian courts.” Spectators packed the courtroom and followed days of testimony published in full-page illustrated newspaper stories. The plaintiff was Dr. Granby Staunton Howard, a patent medicine manufacturer living in Carleton Place, Ontario. He charged the publishers of the Montreal Star with libel for an article that appeared about him four years prior, describing how a “hypnotic” Howard had defrauded Emma Specht with a spiritualist scam. He demanded $25,000 in damages. According to an Ottawa newspaper, Howard planned to sue many of the newspapers that published such articles about him, and he had already filed a case against the New York Herald.
A few months previously, Howard had gone to court and won a libel case against Joseph Specht. When Specht failed to appear in court, Howard received a default judgment of $10,000 in damages. This, however, was a shallow victory. Because the judgment was against a U.S. citizen, it would be difficult to collect the settlement. Perhaps Howard thought that the Montreal Star would “find it cheaper to settle with him than to defend the case.” He was wrong. Instead, the Star sent an investigator to Virginia to obtain testimony from Joseph Specht and his neighbors in Virginia. The resulting exposé severely damaged Howard’s cause, but what doomed his case was that he refused to testify in court, likely fearing the repercussions of what he would have to reveal under oath. The Star printed the hearings in detail and later published them as a book.
The publicity and the disclosures did not seem to affect Howard’s standing in the Carleton Place community. His second patent medicine business proved more successful than his first. His company operated out of a large building on the rail line. Howard, with his wife, Lillian, lived on the second floor, and Emma Specht occupied the top floor. Local newspapers regularly carried advertisements for his medicines that included various ointments, a “cough cure,” and “manaca bitters” that “opens up the waste pipes of the body.” While the advertisements stopped appearing around 1903, his business continued to operate for many years. In 1906, he incorporated Oriens Chemical Company, and both it and Oriens Manufacturing were still listed in a 1920 business directory.
``Ten Thousand Dollar Libel.``
Alexandria Gazette, November 26, 1897.
If he continued his religious teachings, he did it without public notice. Most newspaper mentions of him were about his involvement with the local chapter of the Loyal Orange Order, a Protestant fraternal organization that combined a Masonic framework with an anti-Catholic ideology.
Emma Specht remained associated with Howard for much of the rest of her life. She was still living with the Howards when his wife died in September 1920. The following year, Edith S. Billings, a 43-year-old widow and author of several occult romances, joined the household. She relocated from New York City where she worked for Azoth: The Occult Magazine of America. Not long after Billings’s arrival, Emma relocated to the Los Angeles area to be near her daughter. An elderly Howard, after years of living as a respectable citizen, then staged his most blatant swindle, selling 85 bogus “old world” paintings to one of Billings’s former acquaintances. When the purchaser took him to court, Howard and Billings sailed to England and got married. After the New York courts rejected the fraud case due to a legal technicality, the Howards returned to the United States and moved to a Los Angeles suburb, near Emma Specht. Howard died there in 1925 at the recorded age of 95; Emma Specht outlived him by nearly 20 years, dying in 1944 at the age of 94.
In the Montreal Star libel trial, the defense counsel proposed that “the case before the Jury practically simmers down to this: Is Howard a Brahmin-Indo-Philosophical Zealot or a Simple Charlatan?” Of course, the lawyer wanted the jury to choose the latter, but perhaps the answer was not quite that simple. Many others engaged in similar kinds of questionable behavior. The trade in unregulated and often dangerous patent medicines was a booming industry. Dubious medical providers, insurance peddlers, and spiritualists were all part of the late 19th-century landscape. A person’s identity could easily be shed and a new one fabricated, just by moving to another town, another state, or another country. Howard never accrued great wealth, nor did he have many devoted followers. If he was a charlatan or a zealot, he was never very good at either role.
G. S. Howard, “Signs and Symbols. Their Significance in the Religion of the East. ‘The Seven Sisters of the Secret Chamber’ – Why They Are So Called,” Metaphysical Magazine, 9:6 (June 1899), p. 370-374. Available online through Google Books.
Report of the Trial of the Libel Suit of Dr. G. S. Howard of Carleton Place, Ont.: Against the “Montreal Star,” [Montreal?: s.n., 1898?]. Available online through HathiTrust.
William Renwick Riddell, “Was the Handsome ‘Doctor’ of Carleton Place a Faker?” [Toronto: 1931?]. Available online through the University of Toronto.
Emma E. H. Specht, Alfrieda. A Novel. St. Louis: Published by the Author, 1890. Available online through Google Books.
“A New Religion to be Preached in St. Joseph by Colonel Celsus Price,” St. Joseph Daily Herald, 27 April 1891, p. 3.
“Colonel Celsus Price: He Delivers the First Discourse to a Small Crowd,” St. Louis Republic, 29 April 1891, p. 2.
“Col. Celsus Price’s Second Lecture,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 22 May 1891, p. 9.
“The Gunston Hall Cult. A Chapter of Secret History Relating to the Return of Col. Celsus Price,” St. Louis Globe Democrat, 30 July 1894, p. 4.
“The Gunston Cult: Letters Showing the Relations of the Spechts to Dr. Howard,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 13 June 1894, p. 6.
“At Gunston Hall: Revelations of Life at That Mecca of Mystics,” St. Louis Republic, 14 June 1894, p. 1.
“Mrs. Specht’s Story. An Interesting Chapter in the History of the Gunston Hall Cult,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 15 June 1894, p. 6.
“Beppo Balsamo Outdone: Mahatma of Gunston Hall,” Washington Post, 17 June 1894, p. 19.
“The Gunston Hall Cult. Occult Powers Employed in the St. Louis Postmastership Campaign,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 29 July 1894, p. 4.
“A Sensational Story. Charmed By a Fakir,” New Zealand Herald (Auckland), 1 September 1894, suppl. p. 2. Same story published in at least five other New Zealand newspapers.
“Dr. Howard’s Effects at Auction,” Washington Times, 4 Dec. 1894, p. 2.
“Libel Cost Him $10,000. Carleton Place Physician Gets Heavy Damages,” Ottawa Journal, 19 November 1897, p. 1.
“Dr. Granby Staunton Howard Secures a Verdict Against Mr. Joseph Specht,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 28 November 1897, p. 12.
“Dr. Howard vs. The Star. Jury Gives Its Verdict for the Star. Less than Five Minutes Out of Court to Deliberate,” Montreal Daily Star, 3 May 1898, p. 9.
“Dr. Howard’s Philosophy. The Indian Yogi and Their Peculiar Tenets,” Montreal Daily Star, 4 May 1898, p. 9.
Deed from Laura L. Freeman to Grandby S. Howard, written 19 September 1891, recorded 24 May 1892, Fairfax County, Deed Book M-5, p. 358-359. The previous owner, Albert Kinsey Owen, provided a slightly revised deed to Laura Freeman, “to correct any possible informality in the former deed.” He signed the revised deed on 22 October 1891, recorded 12 March 1892, Fairfax County, Deed Book M-5, p. 97-98. Deed from Laura L. Freeman to Grandby S. Howard, 12 November 1891, recorded 27 April 1893, Fairfax County Deed Book O-5, p. 268-273.
Grandby S. Howard vs. Albert K. Owen and Edward Daniels, Fairfax County, Chancery Records, 1895-012. Available online through the Library of Virginia.
Joseph Specht vs. Granby S. Howard, Fairfax County, Chancery Records, 1894-035. Available online through the Library of Virginia.
Saks & Co. vs. Granby S. Howard, Fairfax County, Chancery Records, 1896-042. Available online through the Library of Virginia.
Emma E. H. Specht vs. Joseph Specht, Fairfax County, Chancery Records, 1895-032. Available online through the Library of Virginia.
David I. Rogow vs. Granby S. Howard, New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, 1922. Available online through Google Books.