In 1873, a young Chicago mother named Anna Spafford was abord the SS Ville du Havre when it sank in the mid-Atlantic. She was one of the 87 survivors. Her two children were among the 226 victims. Spafford returned to Chicago to rejoin her husband, who had stayed to attend to their affairs in the wake of the Great Fire.
The tragedy led them out of their Presbyterian congregation and, in the spirit of the time, they were swept up in Millennarian Christianity; this was around the time the Jehovah’s Witnesses arose from the Bible Student movement. Calling themselves “the Overcomers,” they turned their eyes towards the Holy Land, and in 1881 headed for Jerusalem, where the Spaffords and their tiny flock and established a small commune known as the American Colony in Jerusalem.
The Colony grew as Millenarianism flourished, and Spafford’s Chicago connections led a group of Swedish farmers from Näs to join them. Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature, took an interest in the expats, visited the colony, and produced her novel Jerusalem—which was adapted into a movie in 1996. The colony was slowly absorbed into the city; about all that’s left, aside from Lagerlöf’s book, is the American Colony Hotel, which emerged from the colony’s hostel.
The colonists were also witnesses to the 1915 locust plague, one of the largest of modern times, and especially resonant for its location. While being a millennarian Christian in the midst of a plague of locusts must have been an eerie experience, the colony joined in the scientific response to the crisis. They recorded the plague in pictures—and in print for National Geographic—as well as an exquisite timelapse of a molting locust, producing a set of hand-tinted plates that, depending on your reaction to such things, are either beautiful, profound, or creepy.
Image: Library of Congress
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