Proceed north along Mint Canyon Road.” Hamlin Garland twiddled the steering wheel of his Pontiac so that he was heading due north along the main road through the town of San Fernando. “Five miles from the town the road turns to the right. Take that road.”
As Garland drove, his daughter Constance and hired medium Sophia Williams sat in anticipatory silence. They barreled down Mint Canyon Road for another five miles, kicking up a thick cloud of dust that coated the car. A few minutes later, Garland turned right and continued, listening expectantly for more of the instructions that seemed to emanate from the medium’s chest as if disembodied. “A half-mile farther on, you will see an overhanging bank on the right-hand side and a hill with large trees on it. On top of this hill is a pointed rock.” After that half a mile, the dusty Pontiac drew to a stop on the side of the highway, within sight of Mission San Fernando Rey de España. Garland, Constance, and Williams stepped out of the car, squinting in the hot glare of the sun at the pointed rock on the hill as cars whizzed by behind them.
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“Is this the spot?” Williams asked nobody in particular. “Yes,” came the faint, hushed reply, floating from the medium’s chest.
Upon hearing this confirmation, Garland locked the car, and the three climbed the steep hillside toward the pointed rock. They came to a halt when they heard the soft voice again: “You will find the crosses buried about two feet deep around the base of this rock.” Out of breath, sweaty, and nursing wounds on their legs from the cactus plants that covered the hillside, Garland, his daughter, and the medium drew out their spades and struck the dry soil exactly where the ghost of Father Junípero Serra instructed. They did as they were told but found only rocks and dirt—nothing. Earthquakes must have pushed the crosses farther underground, beyond the reach of their tools, Serra’s spirit mused. Disappointed but undeterred, the group drove back to Los Angeles, eager to hunt again for buried crosses at Mission San Fernando another day.
Between October 1936 and August 1938, Hamlin Garland, aged prairie radical and Pulitzer Prize–winning literary voice of the Midwest, spent his days listening to the murmurs of long-dead California mission spirits through his medium and digging holes in the ground throughout Southern California in search of mysterious and ancient Indigenous artifacts related to the California missions, like the crosses he tried to unearth near Mission San Fernando. The metal crosses, warped with age and bearing the scars of a long exile underground, featured cryptic symbols and engravings that captivated Garland, as they had amateur archaeologists before him. Over nearly two years, Garland and his spiritual and earthly companions drove the Pontiac across a stretch of Southern California—from coastal Mission San Juan Capistrano, to the dusty roads of rural Moorpark, to lush Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, and back again to their home base in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. Along his epic quest for these lost artifacts, Garland found the landscape to be alive with the voices and shadows of its past inhabitants, all of whom were only too happy to tell their stories and point Garland in the direction of undiscovered treasure. Garland recorded these messages from beyond the veil and attempted to use them to find buried crosses scattered along the spine of California’s coastal mission system. If he could locate the crosses using the clairvoyant talents of a medium and the help of spirit guides like Serra, he believed, he could not only break open a new narrative about the history of the missions, but also confirm the existence of a spirit realm operating in the midst of the earthly plane. With this high-stakes project in mind, Garland, a man of 74, launched what would be his last escapade across the American West, seeking what he would later describe as the invisible “hands which beckon” at the “borderlands of human life.”
ANGELS AND HERETICS
Long before the spirits of the California missions enthralled him, Hamlin Garland was a force in 19th-century literature with his feet firmly planted in the earthly realm—the northwestern prairie states of Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, and South Dakota, to be exact, a region he called the middle border. Garland made his career as a towering figure of the Gilded Age with writings about the middle border region that were unclouded by rosy nostalgia, favoring brutal firsthand accounts of the area’s hardship, poverty, and isolation. His staunch commitment to midwestern realism was evident in such works as Main-Travelled Roads (1891) and his later Middle Border series, one installment of which, A Daughter of the Middle Border, earned him the 1922 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.
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Garland’s interests branched out from portrayals of the rough life he knew in the northwestern prairies and into the secrets of the occult as the 20th century dawned. In 1908, he published his first book on the supernatural, The Shadow World, but he assured his faithful readers in the foreword that he had no intention of becoming further involved in psychic research. He called himself “a man of the open air, of the plains and the mountains” rather than a seeker of mysticism. However, the supernatural seed had been planted, and Garland’s desire to connect with spirits increased dramatically as he aged, as the people he knew and loved began to die, and after he moved to Los Angeles, a city at the time gripped by a rage for the paranormal. By 1929, after the death of his dearest friend, Henry B. Fuller, he had become fully engrossed in finding proof of human survival after death. It would be the last endeavor of his long and winding career.
When Garland moved to Los Angeles in 1929, the city was at a high point of widespread interest in all things psychic. In the 1930s, you could say that the term City of Angels was often meant literally; spirits, ghosts, demons, angels, or whatever you might be disposed to call them swooped and swarmed throughout the sprawling metropolis—or so many Angelenos believed. Garland was astonished by the sheer number of people claiming psychic abilities in his new city and noted later that “Los Angeles was full of mediums. The personal columns of the Sunday papers set forth the claims of astrologists, psychometrists, mental scientists, and clairvoyants—clairvoyants were especially numerous.” A contemporary of Garland’s, acclaimed journalist and California intellectual Carey McWilliams, preferred the term City of Heretics to describe Los Angeles during this period. In his classic book Southern California: An Island on the Land, McWilliams noted the long history of the occult in the region, particularly in Los Angeles and Pasadena, but stressed that it was not until the 1920s and ’30s that it became a normal part of life for most residents of the area. For McWilliams, the “cultism” in Los Angeles encompassed everything from the extravagant Aimee Semple McPherson’s Foursquare Gospel temple in Echo Park to the almost endless supply of palm readers and diviners on street corners throughout the city. Los Angeles, he suggested, held an essential mystery that fed the psychic imagination.
Garland first encountered the spirits of Southern California in 1935. After one of his many speaking engagements throughout the city, he received a letter from attendee Gregory C. Parent of Redlands. In the letter, Parent told a fantastic tale about a period in 1915 when his clairvoyant wife, Violet (now deceased), had received messages from California mission priests, neophytes, and Spanish conquistadors detailing where she could find buried Indigenous artifacts. According to Parent’s story, the treasures were primarily metal crosses that Indigenous people from the missions had buried to protect them from Mexican thieves during the secularization of the mission lands and buildings in the 1830s. Using the mission spirits as guides, Parent explained, he and Violet had unearthed a total of 1,500 crosses, breaking the soil with their spades exactly where the spirits instructed. Parent assured Garland that he had many of the unearthed crosses at his Redlands apartment.
The crosses, kept in a meticulously organized set of 17 glass cases, held Garland spellbound. The artifacts featured symbols and engravings that, according to Garland and Parent—and recorded history—had no logical explanation. The spirits had explained to Violet that the Indigenous-crafted crosses long predated the Spanish arrival in the Americas and had been brought to California from what is now Guatemala sometime before the 12th century. Why, Garland wondered, would the Christian symbol of the cross or engravings he identified as being made by “Moors” and “Arabs” appear on pre-contact Indigenous artifacts? Where and when did they come from? Why did they wind up in Southern California? How would their discovery upend the established history of the Americas?
To confirm the Parents’ remarkable story himself, Garland hired medium Sophia Williams. With her help, he tapped into the spiritual energy that infused the mission environs and searched for crosses. Together they recovered 16 metal relics in 12 locations—including Mission San Fernando on a return expedition. Reveling in his psychic-archaeological discoveries, Garland later wrote why he had gone to such great lengths to recover the crosses: “I believe we can validate the collection [of crosses], and if we do, we will open a wide historical vista in early California history.”
But other, more personal reasons were also driving Garland’s unwavering fascination with the crosses. He had moved west to be closer to family while awaiting the birth of his grandson in Hollywood and after suffering the death of his beloved friend Fuller. Fuller’s passing had struck Garland’s very marrow. And more losses—his brother-in-law Lorado Taft, author Arthur Conan Doyle, playwright Augustus Thomas, other close friends—followed. Perhaps Garland, then pushing 70, felt he needed to spend as much time as he could with his family as he neared the end of his life. Shortly after embarking on his crusade for the enigmatic crosses, he morosely recorded in his diary, “Each of these deaths brings the gulf a little nearer to me. I am headed for it and the way is all downhill. At times I forget this but now and again I know I am to go soon.” Believing he was in contact with the spirits of people who had been dead for centuries and hearing a medium confirm contact with the recently departed Fuller must have provided immense comfort to Garland: to know that the soul survived that irreversible transition. As he contemplated his own final passage, Garland’s pursuit of the crosses became much more than a treasure hunt with historic implications; it became an increasingly desperate attempt to verify that there would be more than darkness awaiting him and those he had loved on the other side.
FINAL RESTING PLACES
As the months wore on, however, Garland and his daughter began to have their doubts about the whispers coming from Williams and their bearing on life after death. First, he had it on good authority from experts on mission-era California that the so-called ancient artifacts were probably only 10 to 15 years old and most likely had been purchased at a five-and-dime. Garland’s 16 crosses were probably more full of hucksterism than secret history. If the Parents and later Williams had indeed planted the crosses—a possibility Garland acknowledged—then the entire basis of his psychic-archaeological exploration would fall apart. Perhaps the artifacts were too good to be true. Constance, too, began to sour on Williams and her mediumistic abilities. Beginning to suspect that Williams was a fraud, Constance found that her father asked his medium leading questions that made it quite easy for her to fabricate answers from “Father Serra” or “Cortés.” After 22 months, Garland ended his search for the crosses confused and a bit skeptical. “The whole thing is astounding,” he confided to a friend, “and yet I can’t rid myself of a feeling that it is all coming out of our own minds.”
Casting these doubts aside, in 1939 Garland published his account of his quest in a book he called The Mystery of the Buried Crosses: A Narrative of Psychic Exploration. It was not well received. Garland managed to sell only 850 copies, far from his estimate of a few thousand, and many booksellers refused to purchase the title at all. The depth of Garland’s disappointment at such a vulnerable time in his life must have been overwhelming. Was it all really as silly as reviewers and the book’s poor sales performance suggested? What about his distinguished reputation? Had he really been led so far astray by his grief and his need to know what came next?
Unbeknownst to Garland, he would have little time to dwell on such thoughts. Five months after the release of The Mystery of the Buried Crosses, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and joined his dear friends in the fourth dimension. Who knows what Garland found in the gulf that beckoned him? Sophia Williams claimed she did. “Two days after his death I heard him very distinctly,” she wrote to a mutual friend of theirs. “All he said was ‘It’s true, Mrs. Williams, it’s true.’ ”
As for the crosses themselves, 12 of the 16 relics Garland and Williams found traveled even farther than California from their supposed Central American origin. Today, they reside at the West Salem Historical Society in Wisconsin, in Garland’s middle border region. But the original 1,500 crosses Gregory and Violet Parent claimed to have discovered remain lost to time. Perhaps they lie hidden in an attic in Redlands, or maybe the soil and the mission spirits reclaimed them. Only those on the other side know. •