The Mystery Machine: Finding James Shelby Downard (Part 1)
Hey Lodge Members!
As you guys already know, the mystery that is Penny Royal involves many different threads and many different rabbit holes, some going quite deep. One of the most fascinating (and frustrating) is the mystery of the “mythic” author and researcher, James Shelby Downard. Though cryptozoologist Loren Coleman might disagree (more on that later), Downard is notable as the originator of the concept of synchromysticism (the term was coined by Jake Kotze in 2006), or what is know today as the magic of synchronicities and meaningful coincidences. This is particularly significant to understanding the phenomena and system of phenomena that seem to be at the heart of Penny Royal (and similarly Hellier), as synchronicities appear to increase as one interacts more with the mystery, and the mystery starts looking back at you.
Downard’s most well known work is his essay, King Kill 33, which was co-authored by Michael A. Hoffman II and which appeared in the book of essays, Apocalypse Culture, edited and published by Adam Parfrey in 1988. For Downard, the world was influenced from top to bottom by a Masonic conspiracy that involved magic and ritual on a scale never before imagined, running so deep into the American psyche that no one but the initiated could see it.
When I first read Walter Bosley and Richard Spence’s Empire of the Wheel series, I immediately drew a correlation between the mysterious and unsolved murders and disappearances that had occurred in Pulaski County and the surrounding Penny Royal region. Those correlations are what led to correspondences with history professor and author Richard Spence, and he ultimately ended up as a guest in Season One of Penny Royal. Spence is actually an expert on James Shelby Downard, and published an article in the Summer 2012 edition of Paranoia Magazine titled “Searching for James Shelby Downard: Magister Survivor of Freemason Persecution.” We’ll be discussing that article in later parts of this particular series, and I’ll make it available for Lodge members to read and dissect. Spence did a spectacular job drawing together what was available in 2012 to paint a picture of the “real” Downard. But now, eight years later, we’ve discovered new information.
A few more things on the perspective of who Downard “was”…
Bosley and Spence mention Downard frequently in the Empire of the Wheel, but one of the most relevant references appears on Page 179:
“James Shelby Downard (1913-1998) conjured up a phantasmagorical and unsettling portrait of an America riddled with ‘Masonic Sorcery’, ‘Call to Chaos’ cultism and ‘Mystical Toponomy,’ an America in which literally nothing was what it seemed. Downard purported to unveil this nightmarish reality in such works as King Kill 33, his expose of the occult underpinnings of the JFK assassination, and even more vividly in his bizarre autobiography, The Carnivals of Life and Death (Feral House 2006). To Downard, the America of ‘baseball-hot dogs-apple pie-and-Chevrolet’ was but a facade beneath which the ‘eternal pagan psychodrama’ played itself out in a never-ending cycle, invisible to those uninitiated in its secret symbols and rituals. It is easy, and comforting, to dismiss Downard as a simple nut-case, because, if he isn’t, America is a much stranger place than most of us could possibly imagine.”
In the introduction to “King Kill 33” on his Revisionist History website, Michael Hoffman describes meeting Downard for the first time:
“I remember sitting in Shelby’s airstream trailer in St. Petersburg, Florida in 1977, along with the great Fortean philosopher William N. Grimstad and Charles Saunders, a brilliant recluse who was a close friend of Jack Kerouac toward the end of the Beat writer’s life (a fact missed by every one of Kerouac’s numerous biographers; so much for biographers). Shelby’s conversation that day ranged from the occult significance of the Theremin musical instrument to the sorcerous implications of elevators, the relationship he had with an evanescent rabbit named Petey; the sinister connotations of the circus and the mystical topography of the American Southwest, which Mr. Downard knew the way you and I know our backyard. As he fried our hamburgers, he regaled us in his prospector’s drawl with the hidden wonders of a tapestry of coincidences which he wove from the seeming mundane details of everyday living, into a magic carpet of incomparable strangeness and peerless utility.”
Much of what Downard was writing about in his works seems to support what we’ve been discovering in our investigation of the Penny Royal mystery. Somerset appears to be one of those towns in America with the sweet veneer of normalcy over a layer of murder and corruption, and there are undercurrents of Masonic influence as well as numerous other secret societies and fraternal orders. There seems to be a “pagan psychodrama” playing out here in incredible detail, and over a number of decades, with events clicking together like some mysterious machine synchronized by a magical working.
And while I do think this sentiment is true in many ways, I do not believe that the Freemasons are involved, or that the Penny Royal mystery is premised on Masonic sorcery. I think Freemasons are an easy scapegoat for conspiracies since they are a secret organization and their inner workings are occulted from the public. It’s too easy to blame them, or other secret organizations like the Skull & Bones or any other groups mentioned in pop culture references. What makes more sense to me, and this applies to other occult and paranormal phenomena, is that what really is going on is something not easily imagined. And that truth is always stranger than fiction, and therefore stranger than what we can imagine.
But, throughout this investigation, we will indeed explore allegations of Masonic sorcery. It is absolutely true that Aleister Crowley traveled around the US contacting Freemason Lodges and attempted to gain access to actual magical rituals maintained by the organization’s internal Magian Society. And it is true that Downard interacted multiple times with individuals that were affiliated with the Freemasons, though I question if his stories of their involvement are premised solely on his own madness and paranoia and the convenience of the accusation. We’ll be discussing Downard’s Masonic conspiracy much more as this particular series and investigation into the Downard mystery progresses, and hopefully provide a few answers to the question of whether there is any truth to it or, in fact, any truth to anything in the Downard canon.
And that’s what I ultimately began to realize, the deeper I dug into Downard’s writings — it became more and more apparent, to me at least, that Downard may not be who he says he is, and that his “writings” were not in fact written by him. A cursory look at his writings and one will notice that none of them, including his autobiography, “The Carnivals of Life and Death,” were written solely by him. All of this works include a co-author, always from a small coterie of individuals: William Grimstad (aka Jim Brandon), Michael Hoffman, Elena Freeland or Adam Parfrey.
For a few years now, I’ve suspected that Downard was potentially a literary invention employed by these individuals and others to disseminate their theories and ideas. Grimstad, Hoffman and Parfrey are controversial figures in their own right. If you dug deeper via the links I provided above into who these individuals were, you probably quickly discovered that they have deep ties to the radical right in American politics, affiliations with the American Nazi Party and connections to other white supremacist groups. Troubling connections. And if you read deeper into Downard’s writings, there is an undercurrent of racism and bigotry beneath the theories of synchromysticism and mystical toponomy. These ideas definitely lend themselves to explaining some of the phenomena we’ve experienced with the Penny Royal mystery, but it’s difficult to divest these theories from their unsavory authors.
James Shelby Downard, however, was absolutely a real person. Richard Spence has confirmed that with his research and, as we’ll explore in this series, I’ve also been able to track down and prove the veracity of many events in his life and the reality of his existence. But I’ve also discovered something that I believe no one else has discovered — how William Grimstad found James Shelby Downard initially, and when you know that, it re-contextualizes everything. We’ll be exploring that as well, and I’ll be sharing never before seen evidence.
Downard is not just related to the Penny Royal mystery because of his writings about synchronicities and coincidences and theories about the pagan psychodrama playing out beneath small town America. He also has a peculiar connection to Dan Dutton here in Somerset (more on that later as well). In addition, Downard’s family moved from Oklahoma to Ft. Thomas, KY, just south across the river from Cincinnati, when he was a child and he grew up, essentially, in Kentucky. He also attended college at Centre University in Danville, KY, just 35 minutes north of Somerset and part of the northern reaches of the Penny Royal. Also, as fans of Hellier are probably already aware, one of Downard’s co-authors and proteges is William Grimstad, who authored the book “The Rebirth of Pan” under the pen name Jim Brandon.
And Downard is directly related to us because of his corollary connection to a series of weird documents we received prior to the release of Season One of Penny Royal. We intended to include the documents in Season One, but ended up cutting that segment out because of time and, also, because we had yet to receive permission to release the documents. They’re extremely strange, clandestine documents, and when we received them I immediately had the feeling that we should not have them in our possession. But they’ve become a significant part of the Penny Royal mystery, especially because they seem to turn the mystery back in upon itself, in another strange loop, and reference our research and the research of others intimate to the story, and bring us back around to James Shelby Downard. How we received those documents and how they relate to our research in the Penny Royal mystery is just as strange as anything else that we’ve uncovered. And we’ve just gotten started engaging in answering the who and why of the documents.
A few weeks ago, I also hired a local private investigator here in Somerset to help us track down and discover who James Shelby Doward really is. All of the events in the latter part of his life appear to be suspect. A second “auto-biography” is in the works by the fantastic author and researcher Adam Gorightly, but I question if we’ll get much more than the folk myth of Downard. And his original auto-biography, co-written by Elena Freeland, includes numerous lies and mis-statements, with apologies and excuses repeated therein for mis-remembering facts about his life. We are supposed to accept these as literary artifice but believe the events as told as true. Our private investigator contacted both Hoffman and Freeland, and both were willing to give us more information upon agreement by her client that we not “discount” Downard if they provided information about who he was. Which prompts the question, if he is who they say he was and all the stories are true and he wrote everything himself, then why would we need to agree to not publish anything that discounted him?
Hoffman has since refused to offer any information, despite our assurance that nothing discounting Downard be published. And we’ll be providing Lodge members with a detailed report of the private investigator’s findings as soon as they’re received. Some of this is going to be never before seen information about who Downard really was. And the truth of who he was is important in understanding how he really relates to what is playing out in the Penny Royal mystery.
Either there are aspects of his life that directly correlate to events happening to us here in Somerset, or conversely a small group of individuals fictionalized some aspects of his life and those fictions correlate to us and events happening here. Both are intriguing in their own right, but the reality will no doubt be stranger than fiction…
And you’ve gotta love a good mystery.
Thank you guys so much for being a part of this investigation and mystery, and for supporting us as patrons. I can’t tell you how excited we are to share this with all of you.