At the turn of the last century, deep in the pine flat woods of southeast Florida near the small village of Estero, a group of religious believers sought to build a new Jerusalem on the Gulf Coast. These followers of Dr. Cyrus Teed, called Koreshans, believed the earth and universe were contained within a concave sphere. At its peak, their New Jerusalem was home to 250 people. Today, it is the Koreshan State Historic Site. Some visitors report eerie encounters with the vestigial remains of the so-called Koreshan Unity. Even without these stories, it is one of the most interesting ghost towns in Florida.
Cyrus Teed was born in 1839 in New York. He quickly gained an interest in science and medicine and opened a clinic in Utica. During one of his experiments, he was electrocuted and claimed a divine spirit had told him that he was the Messiah. He changed his name to Koresh and began to gather followers. This small group moved to Chicago in 1888 and established a commune. Apparently they were not well received. According to Jack Powell, author of Haunted Sunshine (2001), “The Chicago newspapers ran article after article on him. He was characterised to the public as the leader of a cult that took worldly goods from its followers and kept them enslaved through fear.”
Dr. Teed and his followers came to Estero, Florida in 1894 and acquired 1,600 acres of land through donation and purchase. There they held seminars for the public on Cellular Cosmogony, Teed’s own Hollow Earth theory. The group also believed in communal living, sharing property, gender equality, and various forms of celibacy. The Koreshan Unity was a thriving community with residences, gardens, a bakery, art hall, and store. The seven women who made up the Unity’s governing council lived in a large building called the Planetary Chamber.
The Koreshans even got involved in local politics. They formed the Progressive Liberal Party in 1906 and tried unsuccessfully to influence local elections. Though industrious, the group’s paradise on Earth was short lived. Cyrus Teed died in 1908. As he was dying, he proclaimed that he would be resurrected on the third day. His followers laid his body in a bathtub and maintained vigil over it, waiting for his promise to be fulfilled. Finally, county health inspectors insisted they bury the body, which was decomposing rapidly in the heat and humidity.
They buried Dr. Teed in the bathtub in a crypt at the south end of Ft. Meyers Beach. A few years later, a storm washed away that portion of the beach and no trace of his remains were ever found. Life at the community went on, but with few new members to replenish the ranks, it began to dwindle. The last resident of the Koreshan Unity died in 1981. By that time, the land had been donated to the State of Florida for use as a public park. Today, visitors can wander the picturesque grounds and tour many of the buildings.
Spirit walks and ghost tours have been conducted on the grounds for nearly two decades. Although the interpretive tours have little to do with actual ghosts, visitors have reportedly heard disembodied footsteps and seen shadowy figures moving among the trees. According to author Jack Powell, the house in Punta Gorda where Teed often stayed was widely believed to be haunted by his ghost until it was torn down in 1961. His ghost is still occasionally seen wandering the neighbourhood. The Koreshan State Historic Site is beautifully maintained by the State of Florida and a wonderful place to visit along the Gulf Coast. Just, perhaps, not after dark.