An Empire Of Women


Yet Lewis got little chance to enjoy his real accomplishments: his problems had already begun to close in on him. The league, which he had thought would save him, proved to be his undoing. Doubts began to surface about what had seemed his almost miraculous power of selfrenewal. A rival publication, The Rural New Yorker , attacked him. Reaching for the same market as Lewis, it sought flaws in his plans and had little trouble finding many and inventing more: Lewis’s past record proved him untrustworthy; not all of the affiliated correspondence schools would honor Lewis’s claims to represent them; league members would never get their money’s worth. Lewis must have been furious to find himself attacked on the one front where he really was delivering most of what he claimed.

The complaint of a widow who had lost merely a few hundred dollars finally brought him down.

But the attack was effective because enough was going wrong elsewhere in his empire. Worst of all, the money being collected for subscriptions was not always finding its way to the publishers. Subscribers were not receiving their magazines. The Eastern publishers who had been a chief support of the league convention demanded a reorganization. In April 1911 Lewis agreed. Less than a year after his moment of greatest triumph, he relinquished all possessions and offices except the presidency of the American Woman’s League.

Although bankrupt, Lewis still seemed to think that women could be his salvation. As receivers moved in to assume control, Lewis reorganized the executive committee of the league into the Regents Publishing and Mercantile Corporation. With more borrowed money he repurchased his old buildings and equipment. The Art Academy became the University City Pottery Works, making sets of dishes and ornaments for tasteful homemakers to be sold by mail catalog and “delivered free to your door.”

The league became the American Woman’s Republic, with Mabel Lewis, his wife, as president. She was formally installed by Belva Lockwood, who in 1884 had run for President of the United States on the Equal Rights ticket, the first woman ever to make such a run. Mabel Lewis swore to uphold a constitution that began, “We, the Women of the United States…” and rested on a Declaration of Equal Rights that proclaimed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that men and women are free and equal…”

It was a brave show, but a doomed one. There was no money, and the third of the government’s so far unsuccessful legal attacks on Lewis was moving toward a trial. In the courtroom, during his mail fraud trial of 1912, Lewis doodled an ideal community that he called the Valley of Peace—something he surely needed by then. It would be in California; the women of his Republic were to be its core.

The sketch shows a large central plaza surrounded by public buildings. Residential streets radiate from the center, and a highway leads to nearby railroad tracks. The doodle now hangs in the historical museum at Atascadero, California, the new town that Lewis created in 1913 out of a dry Salinas Valley hillside. Some people there still remember the spirit of the man they once referred to as the “father” of their town and who himself called it a “colony.” They remember that his energy inspired them to come there. They think his greatest exaggerations merely revealed his visions, and they have good reason to think that Lewis’s courtroom doodle, made at a time when Atascadero was no more than live oaks and salamanders, provides to this day a fair outline of their town.

THERE WAS INDEED something oracular about Lewis. Yet like most oracles, he was a little careless about details. When, in the mid-twenties, the Post Office and the Justice Department renewed their twenty-fiveyear pursuit, they finally found him vulnerable. He could no longer summon the encouraging support of a thousand vocal women. And the complaint of an aggrieved widow who had lost a mere few hundred dollars in Lewis enterprises finally brought him down.

Lewis’s prison sentence, five years, beginning in 1928, was unusually harsh for a first conviction on mail-fraud charges. His struggle for parole was bitter and, ultimately, unsuccessful.

Yet he served his time so enthusiastically that he made the warden a personal friend and won the freedom of the jail. He always maintained that the jury had confused him with a notorious swindler, recently convicted, who happened to have the same name.