William Blake’s Masterpiece Inadvertently Burnt in Cult Ritual

by Carrie Bailey

In Corvallis, Oregon on the 24th of March 2013, a cult organized by Nathan Dunham ritually burned a copy

William Blake's prophet work is often compared to the biblical story of Genesis.
William Blake’s prophet work is often compared to the biblical story of Genesis.

of The First Book of Urizen by William Blake. The work was prophetic in nature and the copy had been in the possession of Dunham’s father, Dr. Uri Dunham. It was reported to be one of only eight known to still exist.

The cult, who call themselves Red Dawn, had been struggling to gain membership and notoriety for some time. Their organization consisted mostly of college age men whose parents worked at the local university. The members themselves were generally unemployed, in their early twenties, and had staged a series of public demonstrations to promote their political and quasi-religious agenda. In September 2011, Red Dawn stole a tractor from a local organic farm and “liberated” 200 livestock. Photos of the incident went viral on Twitter and police captured the members involved before they reached the peak where they intended to graffiti the tractor and leave it as part of their demonstration.

The total membership of Red Dawn is unknown, but the group claims to engage in illegal and bizarre activity to raise awareness of the values they view as the cause of the high unemployment rates and lack of opportunity for the middle class within the Willamette Valley where they operate. One tenet of their philosophy blames the region’s economic problems on placing more value on the past more than on the future. During scheduled and highly publicized book burning on 7th and Monroe at 2 A.M. on the 24th, Dunham brought books from his father’s collection to burn in the “Antiques Bonfire.” Though most of the items brought by Red Dawn for the demonstration had considerable value or historic relevance, the copy of The First Book of Urizen burned by Dunham was later said to have an estimated valued around 7 million dollars.

Originally printed in 1794, The First Book of Urizen, is often regarded as one of Blake’s most important works. The last copy of the book brought 2.5 million at auction from a private collector at Sotherby’s in New York in 1999. Blake’s masterpiece is widely regarded as one of the more valuable books in the world owing to its rarity and historical significance. The manuscript itself has been reprinted numerous times often dropping the “first” from the title. It is a story of myth commonly compared to genesis and illustrated by Blake. Each copperplate used to create what Blake called his “Illuminated Printings” was colored with ink before being printed. Although there were eight surviving copies of the book originally made by Blake, each had variations in the plates and the order in which they were bound varied as well.

Red Dawn had no comment to make on whether the book burning had been intentional. Dr. Uri Dunham described the event as a tragedy, but did not press charges against the organization until after speaking with an agent from his insurance. Nathan Dunham spoke to reporters about the incident at the time and in regards to the absurd nature of his organization’s activities, the unlikely loss of such a valuable book, and the fact that no one in their right mind would flee a crime scene on a tractor while tweeting their location while being chased by 200 chickens, he was quoted as saying, “Happy April Fool’s Day.”

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