One of my favorite con-artists in history, and there have been plenty, was Edward Kelley. He successfully conned wise men and emperors, and eventually died of his own success.
Ed Kelley was born in Worchester, England, in 1555. His youth was an obscure life of petty crime. He was caught and charged for corpse-stealing. He was put on the pillory for forgery. Later, he was accused of forgery a second time and he had his ears cut off. Not to be deterred, he began wearing a monk’s cowl, both to hide his missing ears and for the openness and trust that the outfit garnered from the people around him. Presumably because that made it easier to con them.
At the age of 27, Ed Kelley was on the lamb. Fleeing downtown London, where he was wanted for numerous crimes of deception, including swindling, forgery, and traveling under a false name, he followed the Thames to Mortlake. He ended up on the doorstep of John Dee.
John Dee, age 55 at the time, was a respectable citizen and a very famous man. He was an officer in the court of Queen Elizabeth I. He was a healer, an adviser, and the court astrologer. He was well-educated at the university, and was a scientist who recommended improvements to the royal navy’s navigational process. Twelve years prior, John Dee had drawn up a “State of the Nation” report on the Tudor economy. He was known as being one of the great intellects of the era. But in addition to being known as a broad polymathic intellectual, he was also widely known to have a passion for alchemy, spirits, and the occult.
One has to wonder: did Kelley, wearing his monk’s cowl and in dire need of protection from a powerful man, deliberately target John Dee? Had Kelley heard of Dee’s fascination with spirits and spells and angels? Did he deliberately concoct a plan that would allow the young man to become both financially secure and politically protected at the same time?
We can only speculate, of course.
But what did happen was this: The young lad, the wanted con-artist, Ed Kelley walked into the home of John Dee in March 1582. He exhibited an intense interest in all of the topics that fascinated the older man. He grudgingly and humbly admitted that he had some skill communing with spirits. He spoke with some knowledge about scriptures and folklore, and was even able to go into a trance and speak with the archangel Uriel!
Over the span of a few days, Kelley demonstrated his remarkable abilities. Kelley was able to have angelic visions. Kelley was able to speak in tongues. He was able to write in letters of an unknown script. Kelley was able to determine the names of angels by moving stones around on a board inscribed with letters. And old John Dee was so impressed with the boy that he gave Kelley room and board and a salary of £50 per year.
Of course, the pattern is not particularly mysterious. Since he was staying as John Dee’s guest in his own home, Ed Kelley had access to Dee’s library. With a little bit of snooping and subterfuge, he even had access to Dee’s own journals. Wasn’t it amazing, then, when thoughts and speculations of Dee’s would emerge during a “seance” as the words of a divine spirit! These words being channeled, of course, through the talents of Ed Kelley.
John Dee had a much younger wife. She was 27 years old at the time that Ed Kelley showed up on his doorstep. One can only imagine what she thought about the arrival of their new house guest. But whether she protested or not, John Dee was not to be deterred. His young new protégé was the opportunity that he had been seeking for a long time: a chance to truly tap into the spirit world.
Of course, tapping into the spirit world was the type of thing that could get you in trouble in England in the late 1500’s. The emerging Church of England was struggling to assert and maintain its power, and Dee was a worldly enough man to know what might happen if the gaze of the church lingered for too long on his experiments with scrying and alchemy.
So Kelley and Dee made their way, with their spouses, to Europe! The continent! At this time, it was ruled by Emperor Rudolph II. Rudolph was a goofy, meek and indecisive ruler. He had no political presence, was known for waffling horribly on important issues, had no taste for war or battle.
But, he was fascinated by books, machines, and the sciences. He was not a learned man himself, but was definitely a collector and an enthusiast of the mysterious arts. He collected mad devices and trinkets and rare books and astrological charts. While England was trying to make its religion more austere and pure, “Holy Rome” was no so holy, and no so Christian. Instead, the emperor’s fascination with magic and science left the continent a perfect place for a renaissance of mysticism.
Into this fray, Kelley and Dee threw themselves.They traveled around, doing their “research” and trying to educate and enlighten people. The entire time, Dee was happily showcasing Ed Kelley’s talents… and Kelley could not have been happier about it. Kelley continued to make amazing discoveries and revelations. For example, he was “shown”, through diving revelation, an entire alphabetic language–Enochian–which was supposedly the language used by angles! Naturally, this revelation came through one of Kelley’s trances, and only Kelley could actually read the script. But John Dee was finally getting the reward for his intellectual researching that he had always longed for…. how could he possibly be skeptical?
They only got one audience with Rudolph himself, and bungled it somewhat by going off and accusing Rudolph of sin and mischief. Although they were dismissed from that meeting with nothing, they did get the attention of some investors. I say “investors” because all evidence suggests that these sponsors were more interested in Kelley’s claims about alchemy, and transmuting elements into gold, than any of Dee’s interests in speaking to angels and discovering the spiritual ordering of the universe.
Once again, the ever-practical Ed Kelley instinctively seemed to know what mattered the most to people. He arrived home one day from uncertain wanderings carrying a red powder that he insisted had the ability to change elements into gold, if only used in the proper manner. He gained all kinds of celebrity. The older partner John Dee, once well-respected, now found himself being treated more like the “sorcerer’s apprentice” than the sorcerer himself.
Power, the saying goes, corrupts. It goes to one’s head, and can make one cocky. Ed Kelley would use his ability to “speak with angels” to inform John Dee of all sorts of different instructions that the angels apparently wanted carried out. It turned out that any chores that Ed Kelley did not want to do, the arch-angel Uriel also did not want Ed Kelley to do.
Then, one night, it turned out that the arch-angel Uriel wanted Ed Kelley to sleep with John Dee’s wife.
It is a sign of the power and charisma of this young man, that John Dee complied…. at least at first. There is some indication that this may have been the “last straw”, however, because John Dee soon after decided to go his own away, and leave Ed Kelley to his own fame and fortune. By 1590, things were looking very good for Ed Kelley.
Meanwhile, word of Ed Kelley’s ability to make gold from nothing spread far and wide. Rudolph the II had heard of his fame, and knighted him for his efforts. Apparently there were even rumors that Elizabeth I was interested in having him return to England, regardless of church proscriptions against alchemy.
In reality, Emperor Rudolph may or may not have believed that Kelley could manufacture gold. But the exploding fame of this young alchemist began to make Rudolph nervous.
Kelley might be able to make gold, or he might not. But Rudolph definitely wasn’t going to take the risk of having Kelley go off and make gold for someone else!!
So he had Kelley arrested. Although history becomes murky at this point, what evidence there is points to him being forced to produce gold, failing to produce gold, being locked up, trying to escape, wounding himself in the process, and then dying.
It is the ultimate case of dying from your own success.
Oh, Ed Kelley! If only fewer people believed that you could do the things you were famous for!