This post appears as part of the USC Libraries' Discover at a Distance initiative, which highlights ways the libraries support the USC community with resources for remote teaching and learning.
Up they came, night after night, whisked above the clouds by Professor Lowe’s Great Incline railway, to glimpse the secrets of the cosmos. Two peaks over on Mount Wilson, Edwin Hubble might have been shifting paradigms with his discoveries. But atop Echo Mountain, the nightly crowds would gather around the wizened Edgar Lucien Larkin, director of the Lowe Observatory, and hear astronomy explained as a kind of magic. “Not sorcerer of Egypt or Eleusis,” Larkin was fond of saying, “ever conjured up a more magnificent spectacle, or weird influence, nor impression more fascinating to mind and sense, than the marvelous display of rising celestial bodies.”
A self-taught astronomer from Illinois, Larkin came to Southern California in 1900 to work the observatory’s 16-inch refracting telescope and discuss science with the tourists. His lectures became a huge draw for the Mount Lowe Railway. He soon found an audience off the mountain, too, penning a nationally syndicated column about astronomy. Although his astronomical research rarely broke new ground, Larkin, with nearly 9,000 bylines to his name, was among the most-read scientists of his time.
He was also one of the few fluent in the language of Theosophy, an alternative religion then flourishing in Southern California. Such books as The Matchless Altar of the Soul cemented his reputation as a writer who bridged the gulf between ancient mystery and modern science. Although Larkin did speak out forcefully against pseudosciences like astrology, just as often he indulged in the esoteric. Fascinated by secret histories, he became convinced on a trip to Mexico that the same hands, survivors of the sunken continent of Pan, had built the pyramids in both Oaxaca and Egypt—and reported as much to his millions of readers.
After his death in 1924, Larkin’s legend grew. Hubble had discovered the universe. Surely the Wizard of Echo Mountain had discovered something wondrous, too. In 1932, the Los Angeles Times reported that, some years earlier, Larkin had trained his telescope on the slopes of Mount Shasta, searching for survivors of another lost continent, Lemuria. Peering through his lens, the Times incredibly claimed, Larkin saw “a great temple...of carved marble and onyx,” and a “mystic village” populated by a thousand Lemurians. Credulous readers perpetuated the story, and do so to this day, assured that Edward Lucien Larkin was a wizard indeed.
Discover more, at a distance: