secret_history (2006-04)

Metaphysical Education

In search of a long-lost library

by Jack Neely

Occasionally, in the back alleys of the Hodges Library, a scholar runs across a book stamped in purple capital letters.

My friend Wes Morgan, a professor of psychology at UT, happened upon one just recently. The book was Freemasonry and Catholicism: An Exposition of the Cosmic Facts Underlying these Two Great Institutions as Determined by Occult Investigation , by Max Heindel. I haven’t gotten around to that one yet.

The stamp within reads, in plain capitals, KNOXVILLE  METAPHYSICAL LIBRARY .

I have heard rumors of such a place for years. Wes is a fairly metaphysical fellow himself, and when he gets curious about something, he can be even worse about it than I am.

He learned via an acquisition book in UT’s special collections that there were once well over a thousand books that bore that stamp; they  ranged widely, from the arcane, like the first book he found, to the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, who might be described as a metaphysician, herself.

Besides the obviously metaphysical, the library contained novels by Daphne DuMaurier, the philosophy of Friedrick Nietzsche, the journalism of Upton Sinclair, and political thinker Will Durant. The Japanese ghost stories of Lafcadio Hearn. Works of O. Henry and Edgar Allan Poe, who had their metaphysical moments, and of Albert Einstein, whose physics once seemed like metaphysics.

The Knoxville Metaphysical Library, its beginning and end—if it ended at all—is shrouded in a metaphysical haze. There are no files about it at the public library; it’s unmentioned in local histories.

But it’s right there in city directories beginning in 1942, listed as if it were something as ordinary as a haberdashery or a burlesque house: the Knoxville Metaphysical Library; 309 Cherokee Building.

It was a war year, and not what I would have thought to be one of the city’s more metaphysical years. Knoxville was a grimy, noisy, practical place; as the recruitment offices were packed, traffic was a problem downtown, as was bootlegging and prostitution.

But that year, in the old three-story brick apartment building at Church and Market, there it was. To get there, Knoxvillians of metaphysical inclinations would have gone past the Cherokee’s ground-floor retail—Elsie Stair’s Flower Shop and George Loo’s Laundry—up the steps to the third floor.

The man in charge was a serious, portly fellow with wire-rimmed glasses and a white mustache trimmed so close you wouldn’t notice it at first. The mildness of his appearance belied his worldly experience and an unusual perspective.

Born and raised in Rutherford, N.J., Edward W. Ogden had moved here as a young man and got involved in printing. Kin to some old local families, he married a local girl, Mary Wilson, and they lived in her family home downtown; they had no children, which left them free to travel. In the early days, they favored voyages on the few sailing ships still in service.

When he was home, he was an executive with the Knoxville Lithographing Company, the Knoxville Paper Box Co. and the Knoxville Journal & Tribune . In early 1917, just before the United States joined the war in Europe, he co-founded the Knoxville chapter of the Red Cross. The successful executive surprised his colleagues when he quit everything at age 46 and went to northeastern France to work with the Red Cross as a medical administrator, managing supplies for 14 battlefield hospitals. He worked as a sort of librarian even then, arranging to deliver 15,000 newspapers daily to the men in the trenches.

His wife came, too, and worked supplying hospitals with bandages. They stayed for more than a year, until the war was over.

One of Knoxville’s most imaginative philanthropists, Ogden founded the Hunter Settlement House at the mouth of First Creek, the bottom of the dangerous slum area known as the Bowery. “There is some good in all of us,” he was fond of saying, “and it only needs bringing out.”

Later, Ogden was involved in some Depression-era relief programs, like the National Re-employment Service. At 64, he quit, without comment. He and his wife moved into an apartment on Walnut, across the street from St. John’s. Around 1938, perhaps feeling a retired executive’s need for an office, he rented space on the third floor of the Cherokee Building, just around the corner.

By 1941, he was operating a free lending library of some sort there. Because most of the KML books in UT’s collection date from the very early 20th century, UT librarian Margie Masterson, one of the few who knows anything about the library, suspects a backstory yet unknown.

There’s intriguing evidence that Ogden and his library had some strong association with a then-exotic faith. Wes found a note on letterhead of a Knoxville Baha’i Library, with exactly the same address—309 Cherokee Building—as Ogden’s office, and of his Metaphysical Library. That sect, which had grown out of the philosophy of some Islamic apostates in Iran in the previous century, stresses the brotherhood of man in the sight of God and emphasizes the truths of all the major religions. The library was never listed openly in the City Directory as a Baha’i project. 

Ogden died at 75 in early 1946. His obituaries mentioned his “free lending library” without using the words metaphysical or Baha’i .

His library left the suite on the third floor of the Cherokee at about the time of Ogden’s death, yielding to the Knox County Association of Baptists.

The metaphysical library somehow survived as an entity of some sort, though for the next several years, his library seems to have experienced a sort of diaspora. It was briefly in the former Journal building (now the burned-out Crimson Building at Gay and Summit Hill) with a Clara Huffman serving as librarian. By 1948 it had moved into room 211 of the Lotspeich Building near Market Square, previously known as the Kern Building, later as the St. Oliver. In 1951, one Hart McNaughton, a former “designer” for a company that produced textile-manufacturing equipment, was “president” of the Knoxville Metaphysical Library. He disappears from city sources about the same time the library does.

When Mary Ogden died in 1954, she was one of the first residents of Shelbourne Towers; there was once an Ogden Street, nearby, named for her and her husband, but like a lot of things, it didn’t survive UT’s western acquisitions in the ’60s.

The Cherokee Building, the original home of the Knoxville Metaphysical Library, is being renovated after more than a decade of vacancy. It will be an apartment building again, as it was before Ogden’s acquaintance with it.