by Paul E. Johnson
with a special introduction by Alan Dershowitz
The Prophet Matthias came forth to establish God's kingdom on earth, and this grandiose kingdom would settle in various New York sites. Its theology was a mixture of Biblical and philosophical clichés, but cults like Matthias' don't generally attract followers based on theology but rather through the charisma of the leader. This was not the first—nor would it be the last—of these revivalist "kingdoms." Most have disappeared from memory, as this one undoubtedly would have, had its leader not been the subject of a sensational trial just as the penny press was becoming the dominant media among newly-enfranchised, working class Americans.
The provable criminal case against Matthias was thin and weak. One of his followers had died, and Matthias was accused of poisoning him. However, the motive was unclear, and the several autopsies were inconsistent. The judge instructed the jury to acquit him of murder, which it duly followed, much to the outrage of assembled crowds that demanded he be hanged. He was then tried for manslaughter on the theory that he denied the sick man medicine for religious reasons. This charge failed as well. As a last recourse, he was charged with beating his daughter. This, too, would have been difficult to sustain because under the law at the time, a father was authorized to beat his daughter if he felt it necessary to instill proper values or deter improper conduct. But the daughter had already married at the time of the beating and so was emancipated from her father. Now only her husband could beat her. He was her master.
This concept—that husband and wife "are one, and he is the one"—produced the only conviction in the case. At the trial, the defense lawyer produced a letter from the daughter seeking dismissal of the assault charge because she had reconciled with her father. Normally, that would have been sufficient to end the prosecution, but her husband objected to dismissing the case, demanding that Matthias stand trial for hitting his wife and, in effect, damaging his property. He said the bruises were still visible.