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When the “Most Dangerous Man in America” Tried to Start A Religion and Change the World from Hudson Street

When President Nixon was in trouble, with his aides taped saying they needed an enemy to demonize, they looked to a Harvard Professor and spiritual guru of sorts that had operated in Greenwich Village. Dr. Timothy Leary was that conjured demon.

Timothy Leary at 551 Hudson Street. 1966.

Social movements and societal upheaval at the time challenged the existing power structure, much as the Black Lives Matter  movement of today has engaged millions of Americans to press for justice and change. The leadership in the White House then sought to find a distraction from its failure to address domestic and international concerns.

Timothy Francis Leary was born October 22, 1920 and died May 31, 1996. He was an American psychologist and writer known for his strong advocacy of the use of psychedelic drugs.

NYTimes, 1966.

As a clinical psychologist at Harvard University, Leary worked on the Harvard Psilocybin Project from 1960–62, when LSD and psilocybin mushrooms were still legal in the USA. The scientific legitimacy and ethics of his research were questioned by other Harvard faculty, because he took psychedelics along with research subjects and was said to have pressured students to join in. Leary and his colleague, Richard Alpert (who later became known as Ram Dass), were fired from Harvard University in May 1963. Many Americans first heard of psychedelics after this incident.

LSD drug advocate Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg (l.) at the Village Gate Theatre, where the League for Spiritual Development sponsored film.

Engaged in philosophy, politics and chemical enhancements, Leary also sought to be a religious figure, or at least to encourage everyone to expand and explore their own consciousness without limits, inspired by the possibility of a better society and better life.

Leary frequented found a safe have in many places in the Greenwich Village and the East Village for these pursuits. Even Jimi Hendrix participated in a fundraiser for Leary at the Village Gate in 1970.

Timothy Leary Lecture at Art D’Lugoff’s Village Gate, 1966

An anchor of his circle and activities at that time was 551 Hudson Street, where he started the League for Spiritual Discovery. Organized as a church with a limited membership of 360 people, he also penned a book called “Start Your Own Religion.”

As reported in the New York Times in 1966:

“We have a blueprint and we’re going to change society in the next 10 years.” The speaker was Dr. Timothy Leary, the prophet of the psychedelic revolution. He made the statement last week after conducting the second public “celebration” of his new religion, the League of Spiritual Discovery, before a sell-out crowd paying $3 a head at a theater on the fringe of Greenwich Village. No drugs were supplied at services.

Dr. Timothy Leary, an advocate for LSD, working at his desk.

Later, after an arrest for marijuana possession and onerous ten year prison sentence, Leary escaped in 1970 from a prison in California by dangling over a telephone wire and pulling himself out of the prison with help from the Weathermen Underground. He escaped to Algeria and spent time with members of the Black Panther Party, who were themselves living in exile in Algeria and maintained their own embassy.

Eldridge Cleaver, author of “Soul On Ice” with Timothy Leary in Algeria.

The song “Come Together” by the Beatles was written as a campaign song for Leary’s ill-fated run for Governor of California against Ronald Reagan. Leary’s slogan was “Come together, join the party,” There is so much more to the life of this countercultural character, who is associated with the phrase “Turn on, Tune In, Drop Out”. The book “The Most Dangerous Man in America” by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis is an award-winning work of non-fiction and source for further fascinating information of his life and the times.

In 2011 the New York Public Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division acquired over 300 boxes of material belonging to Timothy Leary.

The Timothy Leary papers amount to 412 linear feet of letters, manuscripts, research documents, notes, legal and financial records, printed materials, photographs, video and audio tapes, CDs and DVDs, posters and flyers, and artifacts, dating from Leary’s youth in the 1920s until his death in 1997.

The collection contains extensive materials connected to his work as a clinical psychologist, including his time at Harvard University – where he headed the team that conducted the first major studies of psychedelic drugs’ ability to affect positive behavioral change – and at the Millbrook Estate in New York, where he expanded his research, as well as his spiritual and promotional activities. There are also materials pertaining to his childhood, his young adulthood, his eventual imprisonment and exile and his last 20 years in Los Angeles, California, where he focused on the upcoming computer age.

The materials tell an invaluable story of man who was called both “the most dangerous man in America” by President Richard Nixon and “a true visionary of the potential of the human mind and spirit” by William S. Burroughs.

“Timothy Leary was without question one of the most controversial figures of his era, if not the 20th century,” said Michael Horowitz, Leary’s long-time archivist and bibliographer. “He was a polarizing figure in a time of generational conflict, a bold challenger of the status quo (perhaps his most enduring mantra is ‘Question Authority, Think For Yourself’).  The author of some 30 books and nearly 400 research papers, essays and articles, Leary’s charisma and ability to articulate both the inner visionary landscapes and the socio-political implications of psychedelic experience made him, in Ginsberg’s words, ‘a hero of American consciousness.’ It is fitting that The New York Public Library has acquired this central archive of the second half of the 20th century, for it was at Cooper Union that Leary, along with Richard Alpert (later Ram Dass), gave his first public lecture in a non-academic setting; Greenwich Village venues where he produced the earliest psychedelic theatrical events; and Hudson Street where he handed out his own press release at the formal opening of the League for Spiritual Discovery.”

Ad in THE VILLAGE VOICE,Dec. 18, 1969

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