In Philadelphia, the era of the secular-political guru had its roots in the 1960s counterculture.

People not inclined to put their faith in a guru with claims to know the truth of existence were more than willing to consider gurus who spoke to issues of a more tangible nature. Theses included drugs as a way to expand consciousness, macrobiotics, vegetarianism, remote viewing, the use of crystals as a method of healing, the I Ching as daily oracle (replacing priest, rabbi or minister), the use of feng shui or Tarot cards as spiritual guides (replacing old grandma notions of opening the Bible and randomly selecting a passage meant just for you).

Only exotic imported religions from the East made inroads into the army of patchouli oil-wearing “seekers.” For the spiritually indifferent, total submersion into other aspects of the culture — politics, revolution, rock-n-roll, or the films of Jean Luc Goddard — was all that was needed to keep body and soul intact. 

These were the days when people took LSD for its kaleidoscopic color wheel sensations, popping it in their mouths the way they would a party amphetamine. 

Philadelphia’s high priest of psychedelics, Ira Samuel Einhorn, was born in 1940 to Bea and Joseph Einhorn. A second son, Stephen, would be born later but the parental favorite was Ira, a lover of books, who as a boy would read far into the night despite the fact that his uncontrolled precociousness was often a problem for teachers and family. 

Steven Levy, in his iconic book, Unicorn’s Secret: Murder in the Age of Aquarius, which documents Einhorn’s life up to and after Einhorn’s murder of his girlfriend Holly Maddux in the 1970s, writes:

“Once in school, Ira’s restlessness would be disruptive. He would yell out in class, get out of his seat, and wander. His report cards reflected the problem quite specifically. For his subject grades, there was a line of O’s for outstanding. But his marks for conduct were always P for poor.”

“All seems possible,” Ira Einhorn wrote in a letter in 1963. “Nothing is too difficult when I occupy this rarefied atmosphere — I exalt in the expectation of my future dreams as I encompass all I touch. In these moments when one reads Chinese like a native, zips through the quantum theory without a pencil, and explains Wittgenstein to his dog, the mind seems to be an enemy that is able to digest data faster than an electronic computer.” 

Einhorn entered the University of Pennsylvania in 1957 but, according to Levy, his university education was almost entirely self-directed. He attended very few classes but graduated in 1961. In the mid-Sixties, he moved to a century-old building called the Powelton Apartments, nicknamed The Piles. “This moniker was earned by its stone edifice and perpetual disrepair; the building was entering a state of intentional neglect that would worsen over the years until the city ultimately condemned it,” Levy writes. 

And yet Powelton Village was a prime real estate area for the city’s bohemian elite.

“Powelton was Philadelphia’s Bohemia,” Levy explains, “the place that housed its outcasts, fringe characters, mavericks, counterculturists, and lunatics, along with a number of people — possibly the majority in 1963 — who were just plain poor. Located only a few blocks north of the University of Pennsylvania and virtually abutting the growing campus of the Drexel Institute of Technology, the Powelton was an amiable enclave of declining Victorian homes on quiet tree-lined streets, with a dash of ghetto tenements mixed in.” 

Guru Einhorn had large groups of people visit him, sitting in a semi circle around his elevated position on a window seat while he expounded on LSD, cellular consciousness, preparadigmatic issues and Marshall McLuhan. 

His reputation as a seer was growing and people listened to him as they would listen to a medium. Einhorn survived by borrowing money from friends and family and then dealing a little marijuana on the side. Later, corporations and organizations would pay to hear him speak on the coming new age and its impact on technology, or they would treat him to daily expensive lunches at a French eatery, La Terrasse, in University City. 

The treatment accorded Einhorn mirrors the treatment accorded Hare Krishna’s Srila Prabhupada when the latter issued directives to his devotees to humble themselves and serve him, the guru, in all things. In Einhorn’s case it was not about directives or anything related to a Godhead, it was all about giving Ira his due because he was Ira and just as deserving as a swami. 

Called the Mayor of Powelton, Ira knew everybody: Allen Ginsberg, John Cage, Julian Beck of the Living Theater, Alan Watts, Jerry Rubin and the Mothers of Invention rock group. 

A Philadelphia magazine writer who profiled Einhorn then commented, “He was a terrible writer. His poetry has been described as Whitmanesque yawp and he wrote in block capital letters.” 

In 1967, when Don De Maio started the Distant Drummer, Philadelphia’s premier underground newspaper, Einhorn went to the newspaper’s office on Pine Street and demanded that he be given a column. De Maio, according to Levy, felt intimidated by him. “He was very aggressive, but at the same time he was a very nice Jewish boy.” 

Einhorn got his column, The Unicorn Speaks, but De Maio was shocked at the quality of the first submission.

“It was sloppy, incoherent, everything uppercase, no punctuation.” Almost immediately there was a Drummer staff revolt to dump the column, so Einhorn was relegated to freelance status but that was okay by him because he wanted publicity for himself at any cost.

When Einhorn visited California in 1966, he reported that, “California is definitely a product of the twentieth century in a way that New York or Philadelphia will not possibly be for years to come.”

Einhorn taught at Temple and conducted night courses on the Penn campus. As the guru of the psychic paradigm shift, he became an expert on McLuhan, Herbert Marcuse, and Wilhelm Reich. Levy writes that he also taught classes in his apartment at the Piles where sometimes the sessions turned into parties where joints were passed and Einhorn took off his clothes and danced around. 

In the 1970s, there were many pop-up albeit minor gurus in Powelton. I knew of one such guru, a gay naturist who held his own brand of nudist, marijuana-laced consciousness-raising parties in which the all-male participants took off their clothes, sat in a circle on the floor and, when sufficiently stoned, submitted to the guru’s sexual peccadilloes and commands. 

Einhorn became a countercultural celebrity. He was verbal, pushy and forceful. Many said that he used his body bulk the same way that (then) Mayor Frank Rizzo did. When the first Earth Day was instituted on April 22, 1970, Einhorn rushed the podium and controlled the microphone for fifteen minutes, forcing keynote speaker Senator Edmund Muskie to delay his speech.

While it can be argued that Einhorn had a lot to do with Philadelphia’s Earth Day celebration in Fairmount Park, according to Ken Anderson of the Hawaii Free Press

“…The history of environmental activism’s biggest day is as cloudy as the ozone layer so many activists are fighting to save. Far more embarrassing than Einhorn? The fact that Earth Day was initially promoted as a way to fight global cooling. ‘The world has been chilling sharply for about 20 years,’ prominent ecologist Kenneth Watt told an audience at Swarthmore College in 1970, noting that if it continued, ‘the world will be about four degrees colder” by 1990 and 11 degrees colder by 2000.’”

In 1970, Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich predicted worldwide famine by 2000. Another prediction was that gas masks would be required in big cities by 2010, and that American life expectancy would drop to 42 years old.

Most people today know of Ira Einhorn as the murderer of his girlfriend, Holly Maddux. 

Einhorn and Maddux lived together in another Powelton residence, 3411 Race Street. Maddux disappeared in 1977 and her body was discovered decaying and mummifying in a truck in a closet at 3411 Race about a year and a half later. People didn’t want to believe that the venerable guru could do such a thing, so Einhorn’s bail was set at $40,000 (he only had to pay ten percent). 

The unexpected happened when Einhorn escaped to Europe for 23 years until his extradition to the United States in July 2001. 

Philadelphia-based novelist and journalist Maralyn Lois Polak, who read poetry with Einhorn at the old Bandbox Theater in Germantown, interviewed him at his 3411 Race Street apartment before the death of Maddux. 

In a piece for WorldNet Daily, an online news site, Polak recalls the following: 

“He had the worst body odor in the history of the entire world. When I was a student, and he was a professor, he patted me on the head. We sat in his class, even if we hadn’t registered. He had a profile like a hawk, aquiline nose, raven hair. Smoked in the classroom, which was illegal. And flicked his ashes into the radiator, which was insouciant, or incendiary, I’m not sure which.

“Ira loved Holly and knew she was alive, but already he had a new girlfriend. Though he was the worst-smelling man you would ever meet, he never was short of new women, standing in line waiting to be abused.

“His mother still believed in him. She mortgaged her house to pay for his lawyers. When he fled and vanished, she still believed in him.

Once Ira asked me out, but I didn’t go.”

On April 3, 2020, Ira Einhorn died alone in his cell at Laurel Highlands Prison in Somerset, Pennsylvania. 

After his death, he got one more round of publicity: an obituary in The New York Times.

“He preached peace, love and environmentalism. Then he killed his girlfriend, stuffed her body in a steamer trunk and fled to Europe.”

Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York, and Frontpage Magazine. Thom Nickels is the author of fifteen books, including “Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” His latest, “Death in Philadelphia: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest” was released in May 2023.

One thought on “Thom Nickels: Peace, drugs, Earth Day, and murder — a look back at Philadelphia’s Ira Einhorn”

  1. Excitable boy, they all said.
    Interesting ecological predictions back then by the climate alarmists.
    Let that be a lesson to you.

Leave a (Respectful) Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *