The D.R.E.A.(M.)3 Freedom Revival (also spelled The Dream Freedom Revival, The D.R.E.A.M.M.M. Freedom Revival, or indicated by the call-letters, DFR) is, in its narrowest sense, an itinerant band of secular revivalists (sometimes called miraculous revivalists or immortal revivalists) who have been traveling since the mid-19th century, primarily in Central New York, preaching what adherents call the Populist Canon of Freedom (PCF), an ever-expanding text that attempts to capture the Living Fire of Freedom as it is spoken, written, or expressed throughout time. In the broader use of the term, the DFR is a populist movement intended to encourage participatory democracy in the United States. The acronym D.R.E.A.(M.)3 (or D.R.E.A.M.M.M., which was more commonly used during the 19th century) stands for Dr. Reverend Ebenezer Abernathy’s Mellifluously, Melodious, and Medicative. The full name is often appended by the phrase, “of Greater Central New York.”
The DFR was the first, and is now believed to be the last, known revival company from The Great Secular Revival Movement, a highly controversial underground populist movement that ended with the mysterious disappearance of the DFR in 1866 near Suspension Bridge, New York (now Niagara). (See miraculous revivalists and immortal revivalists below.)
The DFR has always been led by “Ebenezer Abernathy,” a controversial figure of unknown origins, alternately celebrated as a visionary and reviled as a huckster and charlatan. A lengthy diary account from one Mrs. Connelly tells a story of attending the 1858 Independence Day celebration at Onondaga Lake, near Syracuse, NY:
…from the nearby thicket we heard a blast of the most thrilling music, deep drums, horns of all kinds, and pipes, too. We turned to look, somewhat startled, and saw a flash of torchlight. Suddenly the whole wood seemed ablaze with light. And then from the wood emerged a man framed in shadow, silhouetted against the fires that burned behind him. He was unusual [sic] tall and lean, and wore a bowler cocked atop his head. As he came up on the crowd, the people parted to let him through. Holding torches directly behind him were the musicians and then interspersed with them, torch holders. It was dark outside – the fireworks were set to begin – but one could tell immediately that among the crowd there were regular Christian folks as well as coloreds, and women mixed up with the men. But just as I was noting such oddity, the torchbearers suddenly burst forth in a beautiful bouquet of song. I can scarce remember the words but I keep humming that tune to myself – bah-du-bum. bah-du-bum. ba baaa du du du dum… And I must confess to feeling today a kind of stirring and excitement I don’t recall ever having felt before.
And from a letter from a Mr. Dale to a Mr. Heinz:
… [indecipherable] of the most outrageous sort. He were Irish I think. Went by the name of Abernath. Tall and narrow as a pole but with a boomn powerfl voice. I cant say I no yet if he was a preacher or an elixser man or one of them types from the travelin variities. And to tell the truth I would have thought him to be a politician but none of it made no kind of sense anyway. He werent a preacher since he said nothing of the Lord. He didnt try to sell nothing at all either – not no elickser or cure-all. And he didnt ask no one for the vote. Plus they were all singn and dansin and talkn about freedom and how we need to be comn together for it. Sounded ok but he had darkys in it too and women of a low sort. And some of the fellas looked almost like girls in a way that gave me an odd sort of feeling. I guessd it was a kind of entertainmnt for the holiday to meke a kind of stetment about independence. But neither the justis nor any one from town says they new a thing about it. Thats what I dont figure…
Abernathy and his troupe had departed into the night before officials realized that no one had in fact authorized their participation in the July 4th celebration.
The next day, July 5th, fliers were found throughout the city of Syracuse as well as on the porches of nearby farmers. The fliers had the combined appearance of a religious tent revival and a traveling medicine show, and were adorned with patriotic imagery. “The D.R.E.A.M.M.M. Freedom Revival Invites All Citizens to The New American Revival for Freedom!! High Noon! Rounders Station!” – Rounders Station referring to a well-known former Iroquois-British trading outpost east of the city. A platform was soon discovered to have been erected there, adorned only by a large American flag. But those who arrived for an expected noontime event saw nothing but a newly painted sign, which read: “Private Land. Trespassing Forbidden. Order of the Justice.”
The remaining history of the DFR is unclear, marked by an ongoing game of cat and mouse between the troupe and local authorities throughout Central New York. Though no laws were known to have been broken by the DFR, Abernathy’s message was radical. His rhetoric expanded the notion of democracy and equality beyond anything that had by then been explicitly expressed in human history. Between 1848 and 1866, the Dream Freedom Revival was both celebrated and, to a greater extent, at least publicly, scorned for having formed what they called a “tent revival for freedom and democracy.” The reason for such intense scorn (and historians generally agree the reason the DFR was ultimately extinguished) was “The Sound of Freedom” – the performers who comprised the heart and core of the DFR. The troupe is believed to be the first peaceful, collaborative group in human history comprising men and women; blacks and whites (and eventually all races); multiple religions; multiple nationalities; varied physical abilities; and different sexual orientations (this last consistently drawing the most vociferous reactions throughout the group’s existence). Or in the words of the lone newspaper account, from the July 6, 1848 Onondaga Standard, the group “…seemed a hodge-podge of coloreds, cripples, misfits, despondents, whores, and other sexual perverts.” In short, the Sound of Freedom was made up of people considered by-and-large out of step with the mainstream of society.
Appearing just before the Civil War, at the beginning of the Second Industrial Revolution, and just weeks before the Seneca Falls Convention, the DFR provided a spirited, celebratory, but critical argument for popular democracy within a society being rapidly mechanized. It existed within a context in which the exploitation of women, slaves and former slaves, children, and laborers stood in stark relief against the idealistic rhetoric of the young nation. Thus, while Abernathy’s message of full, inclusive democracy gained little or no traction among the merchant and ruling classes, the message spread rapidly and enthusiastically among working and indigent peoples, as well as among the oppressed of all stripes. The DFR’s message was certainly threatening to the status quo and those in power, but it proved incredibly exciting and fortifying to those who saw themselves as existing on the fringes – the voiceless personages within the new republic.
After the DFR’s first-known public appearance and their unexplained absence at Rounders Station, the revival seems to have existed – and thrived – entirely underground, on the outskirts of respectable society. Reports of upcoming revivals were spread by word of mouth among servants and working people, housewives, runaway slaves, “drunks and thieves.” Somehow, people knew to show up to a particular place – a concert saloon, a barn, even a clearing in the woods – and then, at an appointed time, as if from nowhere, music would ring out and the revival would begin, characterized by a mixture of secular preaching, showmanship, and extremely eclectic music reflecting the various ethnic and racial cultures represented within the group. Events were sporadic, occurring every few months, but for over 20 years, the mere mention of the Dream Freedom Revival elicited an almost scandalous excitement among residents from Rochester to Utica, and from the Canadian border to Binghamton.
Part of what allowed the DFR to survive was the proliferation of other secular freedom revivals. From the DFR’s inception, Abernathy encouraged members of The Sound of Freedom to splinter and to create their own troupes, the better to spread the message of liberty. As he is said to have stated often: “no man [sic] can hold the franchise on freedom.” As new members swelled the ranks, experienced members broke off, most famously Abraham “Bammie” Jones and Carina “Cee Cee” Curuthers, a bi-racial husband and wife team who starred in the ill-fated but extremely popular underground revival called The Bammie and Cee Cee Hot Time/Color Blind Freedom Revival.
But with perhaps as many as 25 secular revivals crisscrossing the region, the authorities were unable to focus attention on Abernathy and the Sound of Freedom even as they recognized their central role within the movement.
Throughout the 1850s until the start of the Civil War, the “Seculars,” as they were known, proliferated and thrived, at least on an underground circuit. Some even made arrangements with their religious revival counterparts, each camp recognizing the value of the other in people’s daily lives. Often arriving in towns and cities in the same caravan, the Seculars are thought to have blended in at the religious events, closely observing the attendees and spreading word of upcoming secular revivals to those they identified as potentially likeminded. Though most revivals traveled independently, one well-known Secular – Chubby Hogpenny’s Holler of Freedom Tent Revival – was most strongly associated with the preacher Billy “Finn” Murphy with whom Chubby traveled during the 1857 summer tour of the Hudson Valley of New York. The tour was known informally as “The Unto God and Caesar Twin Bill.”
The DFR unanimously decided to disband in 1861, at the start of the American Civil War. They agreed that upon the war’s end they would meet on the shores of Onondaga Lake, the site of their first public revival. On April 16th, 1865, two days after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, longtime member of the DFR, Françoise “Fanny” Roux, wrote this:
I got to the place early this morning, just like we promised, but no one was there. Maybe they had come last week when they knew the war was over. Or maybe they were dead, I thought, or lost, in the ways so many of us are lost now. Mist came low off the lake. It was cold and beautiful. I kept thinking about what it said in the paper last night: The President is dead. The President is dead. I knew the war was over two weeks ago but I didn’t remember to come here until I heard that Lincoln had been shot.
I stood looking at the lake for a long time and then I started crying. I cried harder than I had in four years – because the war was over and because Charles was dead, and Sonny and his boy were dead, and the President too. But mostly because no one came back. I cried because I knew how stupid I was to think anyone could come back.
And then I swear it was like I was dreaming. Just like you might read about it in a story, I heard the sound of a fife coming from that same spot where we came out of all those years ago. But it wasn’t like the fifes I’d heard these many years, calling all the boys to their graves. It had a familiar sound, something I remembered. And I looked and I saw him coming out of the woods – Ebenezer! And Mr. Gladstone! And Ebenezer saw me and he was smiling and doing some funny little jig like he used to do to make us all laugh. And then before I knew what was happening we were all running to one another, laughing and crying and hollering all at once!
The surviving members of the DFR attempted to begin touring again, but found themselves beset by a weary populace and a dark national mood. Attempts to spread word of the new revivals were often stymied, resulting in a series of disrupted performances and nimble escapes from law enforcement.
The formal end of the DFR came on a bitterly cold day – January 18, 1866 – after a series of audacious public events performed in broad daylight in and around Buffalo, New York. In what was clearly a provocation (some say it was a publicity stunt to energize the movement), these highly publicized DFR events attracted a mixed posse of local, state, and federal troops, who, over the course of two days, trailed the DFR to the town of Suspension Bridge, NY, near the Horseshoe and American (now Niagara) Falls.
What happened next is the subject of continued speculation and controversy. Wildly divergent accounts of this event claim that a) members of the DFR were surrounded in the town of Suspension Bridge, before committing mass suicide by jumping into the Horseshoe Falls; b) that federal troops gunned down all members of the DFR before cremating the bodies in a nearby maple forest; c) that members of the DFR were aided and abetted by local residents, using former safe houses of the Underground Railroad, and eventually escaped to Canada; and d) that a mixed posse of local, state, and federal troops believed they had surrounded the DFR members in a grove of maple trees adjacent to the Falls. Closing in from all sides, the troops were astounded to discover instead fifty-two wild North American Turkeys. The number fifty-two corresponds to the number of federal warrants issued against members of the DFR. No one was ever apprehended and no bodies or remains were ever recovered. What was recovered was a tattered piece of paper nailed to a maple tree, upon which was scrawled the phrase: Fortis et liber. Esto perpetua. (“Strong and Free. May it be [so] forever.”)
The terms miraculous revivalists and immortal revivalists, sometimes used to describe the DFR, refer to the claim made by adherents and historians that the same members of the 19th century troupe, having been “eternally infused with the living fire of freedom” on that cold January day, have been traveling since that time – preaching, singing, and modeling freedom, equality, and participatory democracy throughout Central New York and possibly throughout the United States.
Based primarily on one blurry photograph, believed to be from about 1905, in which a number of potential anachronisms have been identified on the clothing of troupe members, many claim that the DFR actually travels through time, lending its support and encouragement to innumerable freedom struggles, large and small. The photographic “evidence” has since been supported by documentation, the earliest dating from about 1615, which describes individuals, groups, and events which some believe are reasonably similar to the DFR.
“Sightings” have been documented intermittently but consistently since 1891-92. (See: Haudenosaunee Rebellion.) Rumors of underground revivals, led by the Dr. Reverend Ebenezer Abernathy, have surfaced into the 21st century, usually during times of social and political inequities.