M …is for

The Mysteries of Myra

The Mysteries of Myra (1916) was one of a number of landmark serials produced by Theodore and Leopold Wharton at their independent film studio in Ithaca, New York. Having earlier contracted with William Randolph Hearst to produce several popular serial films—including The Exploits of Elaine (1914), its two sequels (1915), and the Wallingford comedy (1915), all of them distributed through the Pathé Exchange—the Wharton Brothers were anxious to pursue another serial project. They decided on a combination mystery/drama and love story, which according to The Moving Picture World, centered on “the occult forces of Good and Evil, show[ing] the puzzling phenomena of premonitions—prophetic dreams—and play[ing] upon the visions and communications with the spiritual world.”

Pioneering in both subject and execution, The Mysteries of Myra aimed to avoid the hackneyed melodramatic lines of many early serials. By offering an entirely different theme, the picture purportedly would demonstrate the way that science had become powerful enough to “prove” the existence of the unscientific. The scenario was written by Charles W. Goddard, a veteran of serial pictures who had scripted The Perils of Pauline (1914) and whose association with the Whartons dated back to their first Elaine serial production. On the Myra scripts, Goddard collaborated closely with Hereward Carrington, the well-known British-born American investigator of psychic phenomena and author of more than a hundred books and pamphlets on subjects ranging from parapsychology, spiritualism, and psychic phenomena to stage magic, alternative medicine, and fasting.

One of many graphic and colorful ads for The Mysteries of Myra.

While Carrington supplied most of the supernatural story lines, he derived many of his ideas from noted occultist, ceremonial magician, and novelist Aleister Crowley, who at one point visited the Wharton set during the filming, likely at Carrington’s invitation. The serial’s Black Order that menaces the heroine and hopes to precipitate her death was clearly modeled on the “Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn,” a so-called mystical organization of which Crowley was a member. Similarly, the secret “thumbs up” sign used throughout the serial derived from the organization’s rituals.

The eponymous heroine Myra Maynard is a sensitive young woman with latent psychic ability that makes her susceptible to the predations of the members of the devil-worshipping Black Lodge, who wish to destroy her. The Lodge’s Grand Master, it seems, has already caused the deaths of her two older sisters. He intends to bring about Myra’s death as well, knowing that if she dies before she reaches her eighteenth birthday, her late father’s fortune will revert to the Black Order that he leads. Scientist and psychic researcher Dr. Payson Alden, Myra’s champion, devotes himself to protecting her from the ongoing interference of Arthur Varney, who pretends to be her friend but is secretly a member of the Lodge.


Members of the Black Lodge gather to plot the demise of Myra (Jean Sothern).


Chosen to play the lead was actress Jean Sothern, a former child star in vaudeville who had appeared in numerous pictures for Fox, IMP, and other studios. According to Motography, Sothern had been personally selected for the part by Goddard and Carrington, who believed that she, like the fictitious Myra, possessed extraordinary mental abilities. Playing opposite her was Detroit-born Howard Estabrook, who began his career as a stage actor in New York before making his film debut in 1914. As Dr. Alden, Estabrook not only served as Myra’s admirer and protector; he also introduced into the story a variety of fantastic investigative devices like the hypnotizing wheel, the mystic mirrors, and the thought camera, all of which were reminiscent of Dr. Craig Kennedy’s inventions in an earlier Wharton serial The Exploits of Elaine. Cast as Myra’s chief antagonist and Lodge Grand Master was Wharton regular. M. W. (“Mike”) Rale, who had appeared in The Exploits of Elaine (and who would appear again in Beatrice Fairfax and other Wharton pictures). Also featured was Leo Wharton’s wife, Bessie, as Mrs. Maynard.


Dr. Payson Alden tries to protect Myra from the predations of the evil Master, who wants to destroy her.


The opening chapter (“The Dagger of Dreams”) established the serial’s unorthodox premise and introduced the main characters. With her pivotal eighteenth birthday approaching, Myra has begun sleepwalking, just as her late sisters had. Apparently, she is already under the influence of the Grand Master, who is pursuing her demise. Over the next few episodes, Alden tries to counter the Master’s powerful magic with scientific reason. He hypnotizes Myra in an effort to break the spell that has been cast on her, at one point releasing her “astral body.” Retaliating with his own schemes, the Master sends poisoned balloons and later a poisoned plant to Myra; then he paralyzes Alden with an “electric” spell and seals him in a coffin.

Alden, though, recovers and continues to subvert the plans of the Master, whose magical hold over Myra remains strong. The Master “absorbs” Myra’s astral body into his own, unleashes a deadly flood, attempts to incinerate Myra, invokes a chant that causes her heart to fail, and places her in a state of suspended animation. When that fails, he summons a “Fire-Elemental” to set ablaze the barge where Myra is hiding and burn her alive. He then conspires with an elderly couple, promising them an elixir of youth if they agree to destroy Myra. Most dangerous of all, though, is the “Thought Monster” that he creates and sets upon the hapless heroine. But when the Monster overhears the Master’s plan to destroy it once its deadly work is done, it turns on the villain and deals him a final and fatal blow, ensuring that Myra and Alden are at last free of him—and, presumably, free to live happily ever afterward.

The Master’s magic is so strong that he is able to release Myra’s astral body.


The finished serial comprised fifteen episodes, with an additional two episodes that were planned but never theatrically released. Yet, while its basic story line was consistent with the pattern of The Exploits of Elaine and other early serials, The Mysteries of Myra departed radically from its predecessors in other ways, particularly in its use of occult elements. The Whartons evoked those elements by a series of special effects that included unusual angles, lighting, and superior technical work such as dissolves, double exposures, and fades.


To achieve the otherworldliness of the spirits and spectres, Leopold Wharton applied a reddish tint to the prints, sometimes deliberately over-exposing them to ensure a sense of ethereality and add to the mood of mysticism. Especially well executed were the ghosts and supernatural apparitions that are resurrected during the séances and the scenes of the “astral bodies” leaping or flying out of their natural bodies, merging with other bodies, and dissolving again. Quite advanced for the time, these effects, especially the two-color treatments, were rather complicated to film.

A production as nontraditional as Myra demanded a vigorous and nontraditional promotion. And that is precisely what Hearst delivered. He peppered his many publications with graphic and colorful ads for the serial. Later novelized by author and director Eustace Hale Ball, the serial also enjoyed various promotional novelty items, from small metal advertising buttons to cardboard masks (now highly collectible). Another popular giveaway was the “Crolette,” a cardboard planchette that purportedly could be manipulated in order to contact the spirit world, much like a mini-Ouija board.

One of the most popular promotional giveaway items was the Myra button.




Survival Status: Most of the serial is presumed lost. But, according to Progressive Silent Film List, three episodes (incomplete)—5, 12, and 15—survive in the Library of Congress Film Archive/American Film Institute Collection. One reel of episode 12 can be viewed on YouTube. Episode 12, “The Elixir of Youth” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ewIpdogU9Q.

Directors: Theodore Wharton, Leopold Wharton

Release Date: August 24, 1916

Release Company: Wharton, Inc., distributed by International Film International Film Company Service, Inc. (Pathé Exchange)

Cast: Jean Sothern (Myra Maynard), Howard Estabrook (Dr. Payson Alden), Allan Murnane (Arthur Varney), M. W. Rale (Master of the Black Order), Shino Mori (Professor Haji), Bessie Wharton (Mrs. Maynard), Elsie Baker (The Vampire Woman), LeRoy Baker (Willis, the Maynards’ Butler), F. W. Stewart, Robin H. Townley, Aleister Crowley.

Episodes: (three reels, with the rest of the episodes in two reels) 1. The Dagger of Dreams. 2. The Poisoned Flower. 3. The Mystic Mirrors. 4. The Wheel of Spirit. 5. The Fumes of Fear. 6. The Hypnotic Clue. 7. The Mystery Mind. 8. The Nether World. 9. The Invisible Destroyer. 10. Levitation. 11. The Fire-Elemental. 12. Elixir of Youth. 13. Witchcraft. 14. Suspended Animation. 15. The Thought Monster.