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Paschal Beverly Randolph

By Sadie Van Vranken

Paschal Beverly Randolph was an influential spiritualist, sex magician and Rosicrucian in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Born in 1825 as the illegitimate child of a black woman and a white man and abandoned by his father following his mother’s early death, Randolph grew up on the streets of New York. Randolph vacillated between denying his African ancestry and embracing it and also claimed Native American and Spanish descent. In the 1850s, Randolph became involved in the spiritualist, abolitionist, and reform movements, calling himself the “barber-orator.” Despite having only minimal formal education, Randolph became a prolific writer, producing close to fifty works between 1850 and 1875 on topics as diverse as sex magic, spiritualism, clairvoyance, black education, and the origin of man. Randolph was married three times, and developed medical formulas and cooperatively published his writings with both his first wife, Mary Jane Randolph, and his last wife, Kate Corson. Randolph died by suicide in Toledo, Ohio, in 1875.

Randolph’s publishing history is, in the words of his biographer, “a labyrinth.” His works are filled with references to his other writings, many of which are no longer extant or were never published. Randolph’s publishing spans across the country, with books published in New York, Boston, Toledo, and San Francisco, and he had many financial sponsors and publishing partners throughout his career. The bulk of his work is self-published or published in his family, either by his wives or through the “Randolph Publishing Company.” The financial details of his publishing partnerships with Mary Jane Randolph and Kate Corson remain obscure, although in at least one case he informs the reader that “the avidity with which this work was subscribed for enabled me to assume its sole publication, wherefore the right, title and interest in it has wholly reverted from K. Corson & Co. to P. B. Randolph.”[1] This legalistic statement, implying that Kate Corson held the rights to the work in an earlier publication and that their finances were separate enough for Randolph to endeavor to buy the rights back from her, further convolutes the publication history of books published through the Randolph Publishing Company and by Mary Jane Randolph and Kate Corson. Whether these works ought to be unequivocally labeled as self-published, potentially erasing the agency and business acumen of Mary Jane Randolph and Kate Corson, remains a question to be answered.

Two notable exceptions to Randolph’s self-publishing include later editions of his Pre-Adamite Man, which were published by White & Co. in 1869 and Colby & Rich in 1873, both leading publishers in Boston, and After Death: The Disembodiment of Man, also published by Colby & Rich in 1873. These texts, among the more substantial and developed of his works, were first self-published by Randolph, but likely garnered enough public interest to incentivize commercial publication.

Randolph was both fiercely proud of his writings and protective of the rights to his works. The description of his publishing company in the 1872 issue of After Death states that the company was

Established expressly for the publication of works of rare merit and character, by unusually able authors: among others, those of Paschal Beverly Randolph, the world-famous genius, whose works, speaking for themselves, confessedly place him among the world’s best thinkers, for his writings possess a magnetic charm, and wield a power over the reader, not surpassed, and but rarely equaled, by any author of the century.

Unsurprisingly, the Randolph Publishing Company never found the works of any other authors to have risen to their standards for publication. Randolph was also protective of his copyrights, perhaps to the point of paranoia. A suit brought against Randolph in 1872 for practicing free love, was, in Randolph’s opinion, “for the deliberate and expressed purpose of depriving him of his copyrights…”[2] A fire in Boston later that year destroyed many of his books, leaving Randolph in debt and with only the copyrights and some of the stereotyped plates for his books. Financial difficulty prompted him to offer the stereotypes and copyrights for all of his works, together with his laboratory, for sale for $13,750 in 1873.[3] Presumably, no one responded to his offer, and after finding new patrons, he continued the publication of his works in Ohio until his death. Kate Corson, his third wife, continued publishing Randolph’s works after his death under the Randolph Publishing Company until the early 1900s.

Paschal Beverly Randolph built his career on the foundation of self-publishing. Despite his financial difficulties, he self-published more works than any other author on this list, and fought to demonstrate through his authorship and self-publication that “a man, even of mixed blood, has certain rights that are bound to be respected.”[4]

Further reading:

Deveney, John P. Paschal Beverly Randolph: A Nineteenth-Century Black American Spiritualist, Rosicrucian, and Sex Magician. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

[1] Randolph, The New Mola!..., [1873].

[2] Randolph, P.B. Randolph, the "Learned Pundit," and "Man with Two Souls." His Curious Life, Works, and Career, 1872.

[3] Randolph, The New Mola!..., [1873].

[4] Randolph, The Rosicrucian's Story, 1863.