For generations in Jerusalem, a fabled mansion has been the retreat for foreign correspondents, diplomats, pilgrims and spies–but until now, few have known the true story of the house that became the American Colony Hotel or its bizarre history of tragedy, religious extremism, emotional blackmail, and peculiar sexual practices.
During the boom years following the Civil War, in the country’s heartland capital, Chicago, a prominent lawyer Horatio Spafford and his blue-eyed wife Anna rode the mighty wave of Protestant evangelicalism deluging the nation. When suddenly tragedy struck, the charismatic Spaffords, grieving, attracted followers eager to believe their prophecy that the Second Coming was at hand and in 1881 sailed with them to Jerusalem to see the Messiah alight on the Mount of Olives.
No sooner had they settled into the Holy City than the U. S. Consul and the established Christian missionaries declared them heretics and whispered of sexual deviance. Yet Muslims and Jews admired their unflagging care of the sick and the needy, and Jews were intrigued with their advocacy of a Jewish Return to Zion. When Horatio died, Anna assumed leadership, shocking even her adherents by abolishing marriage and established a dictatorship that was not always benevolent. Ever dogged by controversy, she and her credulous followers lived through and closely participated in the titanic upheavals that eventually formed the modern Middle East.
Written with flair and insight, American Priestess provides a fascinating exploration of the seductive power of evangelicalism and raises questions about the manipulation of religion to serve personal goals. A powerful narrative, the story sweeps through the dramatic collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the establishment of the British Mandate, and finally the founding of Israel where Anna’s house in East Jerusalem, now the American Colony Hotel, stands as an exemplar of beauty and comfort, despite its turbulent history.
About the Author
JANE FLETCHER GENIESSE, a former reporter for the New York Times, researched American Priestess for seven years. Her biography of Freya Stark, Passionate Nomad, was a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award. She lives in Florida and Washington, D.C.
“Jane Geniesee has proved there is definitely a second act. Her American Priestess follows naturally like another jewel from Passionate Nomad. Her story of Anna Spafford's multi-layered journey from Chicago to Jerusalem and beyond is stunning--impressively researched and beautifully told.”
“I have stayed many times at the American Colony Hotel and never imagined it had such a history! Jane Geniesse presents a vivid picture of a dedicated cult’s search for answers in the Holy Land and of the tense relationships of religious groups in Jerusalem, confirming her zest for storytelling.”
–Janet Wallach, author of Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell
“It takes Jane Geniesse to put together the intriguing, improbable and historically rich tale of Anna Spafford. This is a well-crafted read for adventurers, for the curious of mind and especially for aficionados of the Middle East and the American Colony in Jerusalem.”
–Hedrick Smith, author of The Russians and The Power Game
"The folly, tyranny, and heartbreak attendant on religious fanaticism is at the center of this fascinating account of the American Colony in Jerusalem. Jane Fletcher Geniesse's prose powerfully re-creates the terrors of shipwreck and of living through fire and war as well as the sights, sounds, and smells of everyday life in Chicago and Old Jerusalem. In Anna Spafford, Geniesse has created a charismatic, complex, and commanding figure as compelling as any fictive heroine."
–Sena Jeter Naslund, author of Ahab’s Wife
“This carefully researched book tells with considerable verve a history that is eminently relevant at this time of American hyper-religosity.”
–Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon
“Geniesse takes us into the shocking past of the most famous American family in Jerusalem. Readers will be rivited by the dark side of this venerable clan.”
–Leslie Cockburn, producer of “60 minutes”
“This is a huge book in scope, being an account of a group of Chicagoans and Swedes who traveled to Jerusalem to await the last trump and who stayed on to play a crucial role in the city during World War I and beyond. It is also the story of an indomitable woman who, through endurance, will, and personal magnetism, became their leader, unmanning all rivals and creating a fiefdom for her family out of a band of seekers…. The terrible tragedies of Anna's life might have broken another woman, but it was her nature to find design and providence in calamity, rather than arbitrary chance or persecuting fate. It was also that temper, augmented by being in Jerusalem, of all providential places, which caused her to see her own love of dominion as righteousness, and exploitation as ordained mission.”
–The Boston Globe
“Impressively researched and insightful.”
“Geniesse documents the extraordinary life of Anna Spafford, the nineteenth-century American expatriate and cofounder, along with her husband, Horatio Spafford, of an evangelical sect dubbed 'The Overcomers.' Shortly after the Great Chicago Fire , a series of personal tragedies and financial difficulties motivated the couple, together with a small band of followers, to leave the U.S. and settle in Jerusalem. While awaiting the Second Coming, the Spaffords founded a utopian religious colony that eventually evolved into a successful business enterprise, with the famed American Colony Hotel as the surviving crown jewel of their final empire. After Horatio's death, Anna assumed leadership of the American Colony, establishing a series of controversial dictates including the abolition of marriage. Set against the backdrop of an evolving Middle East, American Priestess provides a vivid portrait of both a woman and a region on the cusp of transformation.”
“Anna Øglende Spafford’s life was a classic 19th-century epic, related perceptively by Geniesse.... [She sets her] sprightly account against the era’s Christian Zionism and millennial hysterias. Geniesse paints her charismatic heroine as part ur-feminist survivor, part totalitarian despot.”