LEE COUNTY, FL. Just outside the heart of Esther is Koreshan State Park, which has a story so extraordinary you have to hear it to believe it.
So to learn more about this land—and the people who lived here and inspired the name—we took a tour with Florida Gulf Coast University professor Lynn Milner.
Milner wrote a book—The Allure of Immortality: An American Cult, the Florida Swamp, and the Renegade Prophet—about the Koreshan Unity settlement.
It was founded by a man named Cyrus Teed, whose name translates as “Koresh” in Persian.
“He was a doctor of eclectic medicine and he saw himself as a messiah sent to save humanity,” Milner said.
Milner says that by the late 1800s; Teed convinced a group of others to do the same. And eventually, they all began to live together in a Chicago mansion.
“And then he started having problems with creditors; you know the bills had to be paid. And he started having problems with husbands who were angry with him because their wives had left them to join Cyrus Tid,” Milner said.
And these troubles brought Tid to Southwest Florida.
“He hears about some land in Florida and he comes to look at it, and that land didn’t work out. But it turns out there was an old German who came to this land to homestead in the 1880s, and that owner lost everything,” Milner said.
According to Milner, it didn’t take Tid long to convince the manor of the manor, Gustav Damkoller, that he was the Messiah.
Soon after, Teed and his supporters from Chicago moved down, took over and started building.
One of the last major buildings was the Hall of Arts. The surviving building was used for religious services and musical gatherings. It also contains information and artifacts important to the Koreshan belief system, which Milner says gave followers comfort at a time when the world was confusing.
“At that time, science and religion were at odds. And people were in a frenzy because their faith and their science were no longer playing. And this guy said, “God doesn’t give us anything we can’t understand.” thus, I have something called “Religious Studies” that connects religion and science. You don’t have to worry anymore, I have the answers, she said. he had it, and it is a great symbol that “God would not create anything that we cannot understand.” The entire universe is contained within the hollow earth. We’re standing on the edge of it, looking at the sun, the moon, the planets, the whole cosmos, and outside there’s just nothing.”
Research shows that the community also believed that they would achieve immortality through celibacy and live forever in a utopia. Esther’s entire 200-acre property testifies to the hard work the believers put into this plan, including building a house for Tid that served as a school and dental office.
There was also the “Planetary Court” – where lived seven women appointed as the leaders of the settlement.
At its peak, the Koreshans numbered 250 and were self-supporting under Tid’s leadership until he died in 1908.
“They believed he was coming back to life,” Milner said.
And when Teed inevitably didn’t return, their numbers began to dwindle.
But Milner says a new book called “Waco” by author Jeff Guinn shows that Teed did live in an unexpected way.
“Thus, these believers held on, they declined, they grew old, and in 30s called “Koreshanity” and laid out Cyrus Tid’s credentials and core beliefs. Somehow in the 1980s, this book ended up in the Waco McLennan County Public Library,” she said.
According to Guinn’s new book, David Koresh of the Branch Davidian religious sect drew inspiration from Tidd, not realizing he was plagiarizing.
He was apparently given the information by his mistress, without knowing the source.
“Koresh’s predecessor, a woman named Lois Raden, had been transcribing some of Cyrus Tid’s philosophies and prophecies for years; this is what made her a leader. And David Koresh, almost word for word, he’s a ‘lamb,’ He’s going to do all these wonderful things right from Cyrus Tid to Esther, Florida,” Gwynn said.
And according to this new information, David Koresh only became aware of Tid and the Koreshani book during the deadly siege of Waco in 1993.
“When I started going through the tapes of the conversations between the FBI and Koresh, the conversations they had. I noticed a couple of pages, there were 60,000 pages, and two of them in particular where the FBI mentioned that they had a book about another Koresh, Guinn said.
“And the FBI says, ‘Looks like you just took a page from this Cyrus Tid guy.’ Some of it is taken directly from Tid.’ It’s like “send”. And I believe that if they had done that, lives would have been saved,” Milner said.
Milner says it’s a connection and a legacy that should serve as a reminder to all of us to reach beyond ourselves and our own beliefs. And listen to others, especially when we disagree.
“When we discover another group that doesn’t necessarily agree with what we believe in. We need to talk more. What’s happening right now is a total rejection,” she said.