EXCERPT: The Haunting of Vancouver Island by Shanon Sinn




The rural community of cedar is just south of Nanaimo. It was once home to one of North America’s most sensational cults. Much has been written about Brother XII—the infamous preacher of the 1920s and 30s. He was, after all, the charismatic leader of the Aquarian Foundation and later the head of a similar offshoot group. Edward Arthur Wilson—as Brother XII was legally named—would swindle hundreds of thousands of dollars from his most faithful followers. In the end, they would rise up against him and a battle would ensue involving legal proceedings, “psychic attacks,” “black magic,” protective First Nations magic, and assaults conducted by discarnate spirits. Brother XII would flee the battlefield with his closest of confidants—Madame Zee—but would perish on the run. Even the facts surrounding his death, however, have been contested to this day.

While the following events may sound fantastic, it’s important to remember that, according to various sources, such as John Oliphant’s Brother Twelve, all of the people involved believed these events actually occurred.

Historians concur that Wilson was born in England in 1878. His parents were members of a religious group that thought the biblical days of Revelation were at hand. According to later accounts from Wilson himself, he had always been gifted with the ability to communicate with spirits, including higher evolved beings and the dead. As an adult, Wilson eventually became a sea captain and travelled the world. During these travels he is said to have visited the holy temples of Egypt, India, Mexico, and China. He studied religion obsessively and subscribed to Theosophy—a blend of mystical and occult philosophies—in particular.

According to Oliphant, Wilson claimed he had a vision when he was in France in 1924. During this moment of enlightenment, he was told that he was one of the “Twelve Brothers” who had been tasked to help usher in a new age of enlightenment. These Brothers were all living men, but they were to be the tools of the ascended masters of a “White Lodge,” tasked with helping facilitate this global change. Within three years of the vision, Wilson had dubbed himself Brother XII, and the Aquarian Foundation was established.

The headquarters of the Aquarian Foundation were located south of Nanaimo along a coastal region that included the Cedar area. The group would also—in its various forms—establish itself on nearby De Courcy and Valdes islands. The initial followers became frustrated with Wilson and brought him to court when they discovered he had been having extramarital affairs with some of his followers. He was also accused of using money that had been donated to the Aquarian Foundation for his own personal benefit.

In Brother Twelve: The Incredible Story of Canada’s False Prophet and His Doomed Cult of Gold, Sex, and Black Magic, Oliphant says that the original group of followers thought that a “Black Adept” had possessed Brother XII. These Black Adepts were dark beings, similar in nature to the Christian version of demons. Apparently, a shift had come over Brother XII when he had attempted to perform an inner rite called the Sixth Initiation, which involved astral travel in order to obtain spiritual perfection. It was believed it was at this moment that Wilson shifted toward the darkness.

In a letter addressed to Wilson from one of his followers, it was stated that “imps”—small trickster or devil spirits—were seen circling him and an evil-faced monk’s spirit was sometimes viewed in Wilson’s presence.

Incredibly, Wilson was believed to possess the ability to spy on people remotely by leaving his body, pass through walls, listen to conversations through astral travel, and harness power in order to first fight the dark entities—and then later anyone who opposed him.

The Aquarian members began to have misgivings about Wilson as he seduced female followers, swindled people out of vast fortunes, and became more and more physically and verbally abusive.

The group finally brought Wilson to trial in 1928. The Nanaimo Free Press reported that he appeared to put a spell on a man named Turnball who testified against him. When Turnball was in the witness box he appeared to be attacked by a discarnate being, or spirit. Several people in the audience also fainted. The judge had a hard time speaking as well, so called for court to be adjourned for the day.

Jan Peterson said in Harbour City: Nanaimo in Transition 1920–1967 that Wilson was being charged with stealing thirteen thousand dollars, “rape, assault, perjury, opium smuggling, and the sexual abuse of a 10-year-old girl.” One of the key witnesses against Wilson disappeared in Seattle and is believed to have been murdered. As a result the case was dismissed, but the Aquarian Foundation was dissolved by order of the court in 1929.

Wilson’s black magic and spiritual attacks had not been enough to stop the legal proceedings, but the disappearance of the witness and the failure of prosecutors created deeper levels of fear in those who entertained the idea of opposing him.

Oliphant describes an interesting ceremony in Brother Twelve: Wilson chose twelve disciples from his new group of followers and had each of them memorize lines—or incantations, if you will. Finally, on the evening of the ceremony, the group put on blue robes and travelled to De Courcy Island by canoe.

Wilson summoned spirits from “the four corners of the earth.” At one point he yelled, “I now call fire down.” A disciple threw water onto some branches, which immediately burst into flames.

The disciples would later say that during the ceremony they had been in awe of Brother XII’s mastery over the four elements. One of them, however, would later theorize that Wilson had put white phosphorous into the water.

Another entry in the book describes how Wilson tried to kill his enemies with “black magic.” First, Brother XII and two others would sit in a triangle. Then, he would imagine the person he intended to kill. Wilson then verbally cursed the victim while cutting the air with his hand. This gesture was supposed to “sever them from their physical bodies.” Apparently, Wilson put curses like this on various government officials and legal representatives.

According to the Nanaimo Free Press, this second Aquarian-like group formed after the first one dissolved, and the patterns of abuse began to play out in a similar fashion.

In Brother Twelve, Oliphant says that Wilson’s partner-in-crime, Madame Zee, put curses on outgoing mail and conducted hateful rituals. She often assigned harsh and demeaning physical labour to group members who challenged her authority. She even tried to kill a female member of the group using magic.

By the time these new followers were rising up to battle Wilson in court, a deep-rooted fear had taken hold of them. They had seen Brother XII’s powers and had heard what had happened to the previous group members that had dared to face him. Due to this hysteria, the second court case was almost over before it had even begun.

Newspaper accounts claimed that new waves of psychic attacks were unleashed on this second group, similar to the first one. Some of them claimed to have been inexplicably paralyzed or to have been uncontrollably possessed by terror. Apparently, it had been conveyed to them that Wilson had put a curse on the witness box. As a result, all of the witnesses threatened to back out of the court case at the last moment.

According to Oliphant, one of the lawyers had in his possession a First Nations relic—a labret that had been worn by a medicine woman from Haida Gwaii, an archipelago north of Vancouver Island. The lawyer convinced the group members that if they held onto the item in the witness box no harm could come to them. The theory presented was that the magic was from the geographical area—that is to say, it was more local than Wilson’s, so it was supposed to have more power. With this new magic in tow, every witness entered the box and testified with confidence.

When it became apparent that Wilson would lose the case (Oliphant writes that he had lost a “magic ring” that had been given to him by the masters), he fled British Columbia with Madame Zee in tow. They took all of the money—converted into gold—they’d taken from their followers. Before they left, however, Wilson smashed everything of value on the property he could get his hands on. As everyone else was in court, no one was around to stop him.

Edward Arthur Wilson, or Brother XII as he was also known, is believed by Peterson and many other historians to have died in Switzerland in 1934. Oliphant says this has been contested, however. Some people think the cult leader faked his death. For those who do not believe in the powers of servant spirits, psychic attacks, and black magic, this final act was just another con.

Wilson had convinced thousands of his followers to believe in the powers of the spirit world and in his ability to harness these beings. If these powers were real, then Wilson may truly have been “possessed” as many of his followers claimed. If on the other hand, he had no power, then the man had the capacity to fake anything.

*Excerpted from The Haunting of Vancouver Island by Shanon Sinn, 2017

Portrait of a Haida woman with a labret, from Captain George Dixon’s 1787 visit to Haida Gwaii, an archipelago north of Vancouver Island. public domain, George Dixon.