Today’s story needs a lot of context, so bear with me for the next few minutes.
In some ways, our story starts with Joanna Southcott.
Southcott was born in Devon, England in 1750 and spent most of her life working as a maid. But in her mid-40s she experienced a series of religious ecstasies that changed the course of her life. She became a prophet, the nucleus of a revealed religion that claimed the Apocalypse was nigh and that only her followers would be saved.
(Well, her followers, and anyone who spent a guinea to buy a ticket guaranteeing them a spot in the Elect.)
In 1814 the Southcott declared that she was, in fact, “The Second Eve,” “The Woman Clothed in the Sun” from Revelation 12, who would give birth to a “man-child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron.”
This man-child was also the enigmatic “Shiloh” from Genesis 49, who would reunite the scattered tribes of Israel: “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.”
Southcott was essentially putting a due date on the apocalypse: October 19, 1814. The 64-year-old Southcott actually seemed to be pregnant, with a belly that grew larger with child every day. But October 19 came, and no child came with it. Southcott herself fell into a feverish stupor from which she never recovered, and died on December 27.
It was eventually discovered that her miracle baby had been a stomach tumor.
Following Southcott’s death, her followers splintered into numerous factions: Southcotttians, Old Southcottians, the Household of Faith, the Shilohites, the Panacea Society. Their beliefs varied widely, but there was one thing they all believed: there would a series of Divine Messengers, who would lead an “In-Gathering” of the scattered Tribes of Israel in preparation for the end times.
Southcott was merely the first.
In some ways, our story starts with John Wroe.
In the 1820s Wroe became the leader of one sect of the Southcottians, who recognized him as the fifth Divine Messenger.
Let’s make one things clear: though Southcottians believed that it was their duty to gather the Tribes of Israel they did not think those tribes were actually, you know, Jews. I mean, maybe at one point in the distant past they were, but now those Tribes consisted of good Christian men and women scattered across the globe.
Wroe declared that if his “Christian Israelites” were Jews, they should look the part. So he held them to the Old Covenant as well as the New: they practiced circumcision, keeping a kosher diet, kept the Sabbath on Saturday, tithed a tenth of their income to the church, and so on.
He even took it one step further. Adults took the Vow of the Nazirite, forswearing intoxicants, letting their hair grow long, and avoiding contact with the dead. To the untrained eye, these new Southcottians were virtually indistinguishable from Orthodox Jews.
Wroe also declared that God demanded he be served at all times by seven young virgins. This led to rumors that he indoctrinated those virgins with a form of “female circumcision” by removing their hymens. With his penis.
It’s hard to say whether the rumors were true or not. Wroe suffered from a number of debilitating physical ailments that may have rendered him impotent. But the public believed it, and their condemnation drove many of the Christian Israelites to leave England and move abroad.
Like Southcott, Wroe finally set a timetable for the apocalypse, declaring that the Millennium would begin in 1863. He was right… sort of. The world as we know it didn’t end, but John Wroe’s world did. He died that February.
Wroe’s Christian Israelite Church was reduced to small groups scattered across the globe.
James Jershom Jezreel
In some ways our story starts with James Rowland White.
As a soldier stationed in Chatham in the 1870s, White was drawn to the Christian Israelite faith. He joined a sect called The New House of Israel in Chatham.
Shortly afterwards, he changed his name to “James Jershom Jezreel” and declared that he was the sixth Divine Messenger. That didn’t sit well with the leadership of the New House of Israel, as John Wroe had declared that there would be no Messengers after him. So White started his own sect, “The New and Latter House of Israel” and started peeling away their followers.
Jezreel’s version of the faith had a few key differences. First, he insisted Christian Israelites should be celibate and not marry, possibly as a reaction to the rumors that had circulated about Wroe. Second, he insisted that Christian Israelites should be vegetarian as well as Kosher. And finally, anyone converting to the Church had to write a full confession of their past sins so that they could be forgiven. And Jezreel would save those confessions in a box. Just in case.
Jezreel was often kept away from Chatham by his duties in the army, but kept in touch with his distant followers by publishing a series of sermons. These were eventually collected as The Extracts from the Flying Roll. The “flying roll” was an obscure reference to Zechariah 5 (“I looked again, and there before me was a flying scroll…”), though in Jezreel’s cosmology it represents a list upon which the names of the Elect are inscribed. The book was so influential that Jezreel’s followers were popularly referred to as “Flying Rollers.”
After his discharge from the army Jezreel went on a world tour, winning over Christian Israelite communities in Canada, the United States, and Australia to the cause of the Flying Rollers.
When Jezreel returned to Chatham, he declared that Shiloh was would arrive in 1885. To accommodate the forthcoming In-Gathering, he began the construction of an enormous temple. “Jezreel’s Tower” was envisioned as a perfect cube 144 feet on each side, capable of accommodating 5,000 worshippers, with a rotating hydraulic lift that supported the choir, gas heat, electric lighting, and a fireproof roof that would protect the congregation from the fire and brimstone during the End Times.
He never lived to see it completed. Like Wroe, Jezreel was right about the world ending, but wrong about which world. He died in March 1885 of an aneurism brought on by his drinking. (I probably should have mentioned he was an unrepentant alcoholic — guess the Vow of the Nazirite only applied to the rank and file.)
Work on Jezreel’s Tower came to a halt. The shell of the half-finished building looked more like an abandoned factory than a glorious temple.
Jezreel’s widow “Queen Esther” tried to take his place as leader, but she drew the faithful’s ire for trying to introduce “open confession,” where congregants would declare their sins before the entire church. She had to battle several rivals for her position, and after her untimely death in 1888 the church continued to fragment.
The Flying Rollers were reduced to a few thousand people spread over three continents.
“Prince” Michael Keyfor Mills
Our story really begins with Michael Keyfor Mills.
Michael K. Mills was born June 19, 1856 in Elgin County, Ontario. As a boy he was raised by his grandfather, a Baptist minister, before settling into the life of an itinerant day laborer. His lifestyle took him all over the Ontario Peninsula, even across the border into the United States. In 1877 he married Rosetta Close, though by all accounts the marriage was not a happy one.
In 1888 Mills met Eliza Court, a “judgess” from Michigan, who gave him a copy of The Extracts From the Flying Roll. Mills quickly converted to the Christian Israelite faith, though it seems that the comeliness of Eliza Court may have been more convincing than the eloquence of James Jershom Jezreel. Court and Mills worked as door-to-door preachers, traveling throughout southwestern Ontario spreading the good word of the Flying Roll. They were incredibly successful. They were also having a torrid sexual affair, even though they were supposed to be celibate.
At this time the American branch of the Flying Rollers was undergoing an upheaval. They were in open revolt against Queen Esther, but no local leader had the power to take her place.
Eliza Court realized Michael K. Mills could fill that void. He was a great preacher and had started to develop a reputation as a faith healer. He was tall and powerfully built with an imposing beard and piercing eyes. He had a hollow sepulchral voice and a hypnotic way of speaking. He could come off as the spitting image of an Old Testament prophet — or a raving madman.
In 1891, Mills claimed to have undergone a terrifying spiritual ordeal:
I was reading a book. The book was spread upon my knees and my two hands lay upon it. I seemed to fall into a trance. Then I heard a voice saying, “The time has come for you to receive the light.” Then I felt the power come to me. I was charged with something like electricity. My hands began to work up and down. I was tingling all over. I sprang to my feet. There was a buzzing sound all around me. It was the mystic influence that enveloped me. My whole being vibrated. The buzzing increased in intensity. I seemed to be lifted from my feet and spun round like a top. My lips were forced to utter these words: “Trials and troubles, wrath and woe, round and round the earth the fire shall go.”
These words I repeated time and time again. Then the buzzing began to die down. A feeling of infinite peace and pity came over me. A new voice took possession of me. “Israel come home; Israel come home,” it said, “Michael is come; Michael is come.” And that was how I received the message from on high and knew I was Michael, “the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people” foretold by Daniel.
Mills claimed that he was torn to pieces and all of his sins burned away, purifying him into the seventh and final Divine Messenger. With Eliza Court’s help, he seized control of the 1,500 strong American branch of the Flying Rollers, assuming the regal title of “Prince Michael.”
Prince Michael announced that the Millennium would start on November 8, 1891. That wasn’t far off, so the In-Gathering had to begin immediately. The 144,000 Elect of the Tribes of Israel must gather in the city of deliverance: Detroit, Michigan.
Flying Rollers across the Great Lakes region pulled up stakes and started the long journey to join their brethren. They purchased three houses at #37 Hamlin Avenue to serve as the headquarters for their holy mission, “The God House.”
Recall what happened to his predecessors when they put a deadline on Armageddon, and what happened next would be no surprise.
The God House’s neighbors on Hamlin Street were not happy to have a cult in their neighborhood — partly because they had odd habits, partly because they kept strange hours, and partly because they were depressing real estate values. The Detroit Free Press published a series of sensationalistic articles accusing God House residents of unspecific scandalous behavior. Neighbors formed a vigilance committee to drive the cult out of town. They pelted Flying Rollers with eggs and bricks, and formed lynch mobs that had to be dispersed by the police.
In March 1892, those neighbors swore out a complaint against the Flying Rollers for immoral conduct. Apparently Prince Michael and his inner circle were practicing nudism indoors, and didn’t mind strutting their stuff in front of open windows in full view of the street.
The police were obligated to investigate, but they were not enthused about returning to the God House. They’d been out a few weeks earlier to round up several teenagers who had run away from their families to join the In-Gathering, and the situation had nearly caused a riot. So they decided to take their time and canvas the neighborhood before making their move.
That’s how they found Rosetta Mills, who was not living in the God House but with friends a few blocks away. By now Eliza Court had completely displaced Rosetta in her husband’s affections. When Mrs. Mills objected to this new state of affairs, Prince Michael strapped her into a straitjacket and irons and had her thrown into a back room for several days. That was the final straw. Rosetta left the God House, and as she left, Prince Michael threw 30 silver dollars at her and bitterly commanded her to “Go and betray your master.”
On March 26, Rosetta Close Mills signed papers officially charging Michael Keyfor Mills with adultery and abuse. Three days later the police raided the God House to arrest mills. At first Prince Michael tried to delay their investigation by reading lengthy selections from The Flying Roll. When that didn’t work he moved on to oblique threats, staring one of the detectives in the eye and declaring, “Your wife shall leave you and your children shall desert you.” That didn’t work either. Mills was marched down to police headquarters and booked.
The transcript of his booking reads like some bizarre comedy:
SGT. THOMAS: Who are you?
MILLS: I am the Christ.
THOMAS: Are you Michael K. Mills?
MILLS: The Son of Man so call me.
THOMAS: How old are you?
MILLS: Before Abraham I was. In the flesh, however, I am 35 years old.
THOMAS: Your occupation?
MILLS: I am a natural genius. I’ve been a pattern maker, boilermaker, engineer and machinist. I can make anything from watch to a steam engine.
THOMAS: Well I guess we’ll put you down as a carpenter.
MILLS: Yes you may, my elder brother worked at that trade and I succeed to all that was his. So it was foretold by the prophets. He was persecuted by the Hebrews. I am to be persecuted also, for am I not Michael, the second son?
The other residents of the God House were also brought in for questioning. There were nine of them in total, all women. Police couldn’t help but notice that there were only four beds in the entire house.
One of the women, 15-year-old Bernice Bickle, was relieved to be in police custody. She told the police what they already suspected — while his followers remained celibate, Mills was still as randy as a polecat. The Flying Rollers’ inner circle, the “God-Head,” was actually a harem whose primary responsibility was the sexual gratification of Michael K. Mills.
On March 30, Michael K. Mills and Eliza Court were formally charged with adultery, lewd cohabitation, and carnal knowledge of an underage girl. An angry mob marched down Hamlin Avenue and smashed the windows of the God House before the cops could disperse them.
Mills and Court posted bond on April 6, and briefly debated fleeing to join Christian Israelite colonies in New Zealand and Australia. Ultimately, they decided to stay and fight. Big mistake.
The adultery charges and lewd cohabitation charges were eventually dropped because Rosetta Mills decided to return to Canada, get a divorce, and move on with her life. But the prosecution moved ahead on the remaining charge: carnal knowledge of a girl of the statutory age, theretofore chaste, without her consent. The trial began on June 15.
Bernice Bickle was the prosecution’s star witness. She told a harrowing tale of grooming and abuse. How Prince Michael separated her from her family in Sarnia and whisked her away to Detroit. How he tried to seduce Bernice, claiming to be beyond good and evil, and that having sexual relations with him would purify her soul. How she continued to resist him, so he had her locked up and shamed until her will was broken and she ultimately submitted to his demands. It was compelling testimony.
Fellow God House resident May Webster corroborated Bernice’s testimony about the unusual sleeping arrangements at the God House, and implicated Eliza Court as a willing accomplice in Prince Michael’s sexual indiscretions. She also testified that a week before his arrest, Mills had told his harem that anyone who snitched to the police would be damned to fry in Hell forever.
Former Flying Roller Ella Rowlandson testified that her father had rescued her from the cult when he learned that Mills was abusing her.
All in all, the prosecution presented a strong case.
Prince Michael’s defense was surprisingly weak. His primary rebuttal was that he was no longer capable of committing sin, and that as a being of pure spirit his relations were, by definition, not carnal. But he was smart enough to know that wouldn’t fly in a court of law.
His lawyers claimed the police had no evidence against Mills, despite a parade of witnesses who seemed very credible.
They claimed the prosecution was motivated by a conspiracy of real estate agents and merchants trying to drive the Flying Rollers out of the neighborhood. Which was true, but was also beside the point.
Finally, they attacked Bernice Bickle, claiming she was not chaste. They produced the confession Bernice had written when she joined the Flying Rollers, which revealed that as a child she had been sexually abused by two teenagers and her brother Frank. They argued that if Bernice Bickle was not a virgin, she was a fallen women, and if she was a fallen woman, Mills could not be accused of depriving her of her chastity.
His lawyers probably should have brushed up on their criminal law, because in spite of the common understanding of the terms the law considers virginity and chastity two separate things. Virginity is a physical condition that can be lost and not regained. But chastity is a moral and mental state, one that can be entered and exited repeatedly. That Bernice Bickle was not a virgin was utterly irrelevant.
It took only one hour for a jury to find Michael Keyfor Mills guilty and sentence him to five years in Michigan State Penitentiary in Jackson.
The Flying Rollers continued to fragment as Mills served his sentence. Many followers joined other groups of Christian Israelites or left the faith entirely. Prince Michael managed to retain control of a hardcore group of followers through a jailhouse wedding to Eliza Court, which gave him a line of communication to the outside world. He was eventually paroled in 1896 and made several unsuccessful attempts to rebuild his power base in the United States.
Eventually he drifted back over the border into Canada, though he still couldn’t keep out of trouble. In 1903 authorities in Windsor, Ontario shut down the Flying Rollers’ New Eve Press for publishing blasphemous materials. Mills doubled down by publishing articles attacking the mayor and several local judges, who responded by stepping up their attacks.
To escape the heat, Mills and Court went to England in 1906. They had made an attempt to win over the Flying Rollers in Chatham early in their ministry, and it had not gone well. The Christian Israelites in England had their fill of would-be prophets. They laughed at the Americans, told them they were delusional, and barred them from the congregation.
Time had reduced their numbers and weakened their resolve, and Mills was successful. He even purchased Jezreel’s Tower, intent on finishing it and turning it into the grand temple it had been intended to be.
As he celebrated his conquest a recent convert, “Mother” Elinor T. Mason, approached him and declared herself to be “The New Eve” who would help him start the In-Gathering. At her urging, he decided to return to Detroit and rebuild his power base there.
It did not end well.
Prince Michael was caught trying to sneak over the border from Windsor, and denied entry as a foreign national with a criminal record in the United States. “Mother Elinor” turned out to be notorious scam artist Ann O’Delia Diss Debar, who joined forces with Mills’s secretary David Livingston Mackay to drain the church’s coffers and disappear.
Mills was forced to return to England and live in diminished circumstances. He descended into bitterness, and even had to sell Jezreel’s Tower just to make ends meet. He died in January 1922 a lonely, broken man.
The Flying Rollers remaining in Chatham joined the Panacea Society, a Christian Israelite sect in Bedford. Jezreel’s Tower was turned into a jam factory in 1923, and demolished in 1960.
And that was the end of Michael Keyfor Mills. But not the end of the story.
“King” Benjamin Franklin Purnell
The other part of our story starts with Benjamin Franklin Purnell.
Ben Purnell was born in Greenup City, Kentucky on March 27, 1861. He was good-looking and bright, but vain and lazy, more interested in fooling around with girls than working. He married one of his neighbors, Angelina Brown, in 1877, but did not change his womanizing ways.
After the birth of their daughter Sarah Jane, Angelina grew tired of Ben’s permanent adolescence and kicked him out of the house. Shortly afterward he met Mary Stollard, who would tolerate his wandering ways as long as he always came back to her. The two were soon married — even though Ben had never bothered to get a divorce from Angelina.
The couple eventually left Kentucky to travel the Midwest. Despite his lack of formal education, Ben became an itinerant preacher by using his charm, social intelligence, and a handful half-remembered Bible verses. Over the course of several years Ben and Mary worked their way through Ohio and Indiana, with a few stops along the way for Ben to schtup a local widow or lonely farmers’ daughter. By 1887 Ben and Mary had settled in Richmond, Indiana with their two children, Coy and Hettie.
Richmond had a large colony of Flying Rollers, which Ben joined. When Prince Michael proclaimed himself the Seventh Messenger in 1891, the Purnells were among the families who relocated to Detroit to join the In-Gathering. Ben became a “Pillar of Israel,” one of the sect’s chief officers and missionaries, similar to a bishop or presbyter. The Purnells remained faithful even after Mills was sent to prison, though in later years they would deny having ever been involved with the New and Latter House of Israel.
But during a meeting of the inner circle on March 12, 1895 Benjamin Purnell had a shuddering, ecstatic vision and began speaking in tongues. As he emerged from his trance he announced that the Flying Rollers were living a lie: Michael K. Mills was not the true Seventh Divine Messenger.
That honor belonged to Benjamin F. Purnell.
Needless to say, Eliza Court Mills was not amused. And when it came time for the rest of the cult to pick sides, well, they decided to dance with the one that brought them. The Purnells were forced out and left town in disgrace.
Ben Purnell was down but not out. He had one huge advantage: he wasn’t Michael K. Mills. In many ways he was Mills’s opposite: handsome rather than imposing, gentle instead of rugged, charming instead of intimidating. And he could still turn on the hellfire and brimstone when it suited him. It wasn’t long before he found a new flock, a Flying Roller colony in Fostoria, Ohio.
One of his new parishioners mentioned that he knew Mike Mills was a phony because he’d never produced any sacred writings. In a sense, it was true: the New Eve Press had churned out tons of material, but it was all tracts and pamphlets, focused on the here and now rather than the great hereafter. Ben took that criticism to heart and quickly assembled a book of his own sermons, The Star of Bethlehem, to establish his legitimacy.
In February 1903 tragedy struck Fostoria when the local fireworks plant exploded, killing twenty workers. One of those workers was Hettie Purnell, Ben’s daughter. But Ben and Mary, bound by their Nazirite vows, would not claim the body or even acknowledge that the girl had died. The townsfolk had great difficulty understanding this. A mob laid siege to Ben’s church but was held back by police, who suggested that it might be better for the Purnells to leave town before things got worse.
The Purnells had a long-standing invitation to come visit a Flying Roller colony in Benton Harbor, Michigan run by automotive pioneers the Baushke brothers. Ben realized the small resort community on the shores of Lake Michigan was a great place for a colony: close enough to the city that it would be easy to make converts, but far enough away from the city that it would be hard for an angry mob to assemble at a moment’s notice. He took over the colony and gave it a new name to separate it from Mills’s New and Latter House of Israel: “The House of David.”
He sent out the word that the In-Gathering was to begin at the House of David, a place of the pure faith unlike “the carnal law as practiced as Detroit.” Unlike his predecessors, he pointedly did not announce that the Millennium was nigh. Christian Israelites came from all across the country and even from as far away as England and Australia, swelling the size of the colony to almost a thousand faithful at its peak.
And that is how Ben Purnell became Brother Ben, the Seventh Messenger, Shiloh, younger brother of Christ, leader of the Lost Tribes of Israel, King of the Seventh Kingdom, King of the Israelite House of David, Church of the New Eden, Body of Christ. It was a mouthful, so the papers just called him “King Ben.”
The centerpiece of the new colony was, oddly enough, an amusement park, “The Springs of Eden.” In its heyday the park drew 200,000 visitors a year and featured a miniature railroad, a zoo, thrill rides, bowling alleys, a midway full of carnival games, and a food court serving every snack imaginable. In 1904 the House of David even sent a delegation to the St. Louis Worlds’ Fair, where they reportedly introduced the world to the waffle cone.
There was also a movie theater that could be turned into a tabernacle when it came time for King Ben to deliver a sermon, and a performing space that played host to marching bands; hula dancers; boxing matches; the aeronautic antics of “Little Otto and the Great Beyer”; and Frederick DoBell, “the electric high-wire wonder.”
During World War I the House of David constructed an artificial lake and staged mock naval battles between miniature English and German battleships. At one point the ships collided and one of the pilots died. When asked by the papers if he thought it was worth risking the faithful to put on a show, King Ben replied, “Brother, if that man had really been living in the True Faith like he was supposed to, he couldn’t possibly have died!”
There was also a baseball stadium. Ben loved baseball and started a “House of David” team. They specialized in a “pepper game” which was more about showmanship than competitiveness — think of them as the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball and you’ll be in the, uh, ballpark. The bearded ballplayers were such a huge draw that at one point the House of David had a dedicated home team and multiple barnstorming teams.
Unfortunately, the House of David didn’t have enough young healthy men to pad out the roster of multiple baseball teams, so they would hire ringers to pick up the slack and give them fake beards to wear while they were on the field. From time to time they even bolstered their roster of players with over-the-hill all-stars and attractions like Grover Cleveland Alexander, Mordecai Brown, Chief Bender, Satchel Paige, and Jackie Mitchell. That was okay with most crowds, who were just excited to see the bearded players show off. Even though most spectators they thought they were actually watching Orthodox Jews. And Babe Ruth in a fake beard.
The Springs of Eden was so successful that the House of David quickly started new successful ventures, including a gas station, a motor lodge, a streetcar line, a lumber company, and a freight business. Well, I say “The House of David” but that’s not quite right. The state of Michigan apparently thought all this commercial activity was unbecoming for a religious organization, so many of these ventures were actually incorporated under the ownership of Benjamin Franklin Purnell.
Like his predecessors, King Ben seemed to think that his exalted status as a divine being freed him from the restrictions placed on his followers. While the rank and file tithed almost every penny of their earnings to the House of David and lived in a sort of genteel poverty, Ben lived large, wearing immaculate white suits studded with diamonds. While his flock kept kosher and vegetarian and teetotal, Ben enjoyed steak. And whiskey. And cigars.
And of course, while his followers remained celibate, King Ben had a harem of young brainwashed so large that even a debauched sultan would say, “Dude, what’s your problem?” At its largest extent, Ben had a group of 50-60 girls running his errands and attending to his sexual needs.
Anyone who objected to this state of affairs was invited to leave. King Ben would gladly give them $10 and a railroad ticket to Chicago. If they continued to protest, Ben would produce one of their written confessions and threaten to reveal their darkest secrets to the whole congregation. That usually did the trick.
Still, a harem that large was impossible to keep secret, and word soon got out to the surrounding community. Lawsuits were filed by former members in 1906, 1907 and 1908 alleging sexual misconduct and financial impropriety inside the colony, though Ben’s superior resources enabled him to defeat them all. An indiscreet sailboat orgy on Lake Michigan in 1909 proved trickier to cover up, but he managed.
The first real trouble developed in 1910. First, Lulu Baushke left the House of David after King Ben started putting the moves on her daughter. Then, when early convert Leonora Wade died her estranged husband Richard, tried to rescue his daughters Hazel Ruth and Cleatus from the colony. Hazel was one of Ben’s favorite girls and one of his most effective missionaries, so he gave Richard Wade the runaround.
But Richard Wade could not be dissuaded, and Ben panicked. To cover up his abuses he arranged for a mass wedding in Chicago, pairing up his young followers at random. That way, any physical evidence of sexual intercourse could be passed off as normal marital relations. Privately, he told the young men that they were not to touch their new wives under any circumstances. Anyone who seemed like they might sympathize with Wade or testify on his behalf was shipped off to High Island, near the Upper Peninsula, where they couldn’t be reached.
Richard Wade eventually had to give up his pursuit. But he had inadvertently shown King Ben the way to handle all of his problems: marry off the victims, hide the witnesses, and get the hell out of Dodge.
Process servers could never manage to find King Ben, no matter how thoroughly they searched the Springs of Eden. It was rumored he would flee to Canada when he saw them coming, but no one could ever be sure. In actuality, he had constructed an elaborate series of electric alarms and secret underground tunnels that allowed him to stay one step ahed of the law at every turn.
He also started to reorganize his business interests to disguise their true ownership and shield him from personal liability. And if anyone ever did manage to drag him into court, he had a sheaf of pre-written testimonials from House of David members vouching for the purity of his conduct.
But even that couldn’t protect King Ben from popular wrath. Mobs and riots were now starting to be a distinct possibility. King Ben started to cary a loaded revolver on his person, and key followers were armed with leaded clubs just in case things started to get ugly.
In 1914 he was successfully sued for libel by Augusta Fortney, who he had called a harlot in print after she fled the cult and exposed his harem. But it was a hollow victory, as she was only awarded six cents in damages.
In 1915 the House of David was sued by for libel after they had published a series of defamatory articles about local politicians. King Ben couldn’t dodge that bullet, so he set up his own son, “Prince” Coy, to take the fall on his behalf. A disillusioned Coy renounced the faith and started the process of drinking himself to death. Queen Mary continued to support Coy in his exile. When King Ben objected, she threatened to divorce him and take half of everything he owned, which got finally got Ben to shut up.
Also in 1915, two young girls he had exiled to High Island after they resisted his advances tried to commit suicide by drinking insecticide. One of them died, and the other was seriously injured.
In 1916, after a successful revival meeting, an excited Hazel Ruth Wade planted a kiss on her sham husband Irving. Irving, who was saying chaste, was horrified and immediately reported it to King Ben. Ben was not happy that his favorite was showing interested in other men, shamed her in public, and started taking out his frustrations on her. In response, Hazel Ruth left the House of David and, once on the outside, started to realize how toxic it was. She devoted the next several years to trying to take down the cult and providing support to those who
In 1919 one of Ben’s Australian parishioners, Isabelle Pritchard, discovered that Ben had been canoodling with her two daughters and sued him with Hazel Ruth Wade’s assistance.
In 1920, Ben’s long-time secretary Esther Johnson left the cult to get married to an apostate and convinced her new father-in-law to sue the House of David and reclaim the money he’d donated to them, plus wages and interest. In the end, they were awarded $24,000, the first significant defeat the House of David had suffered in a court of law.
In 1921, John W. Hansel sued the House of David after he was forcibly expelled from the colony at gunpoint. The House of David responded by trying to entrap Hansel in a fake plot to violently overthrow the colony. It didn’t work, and Hansel was eventually awarded $15,000. Furthermore, the case attracted attention to Ben’s private conduct and public opinion began to turn against him. The state of Michigan indicted him on charges of rape and corrupting minors, and put a $3,000 bounty on his head.
But good luck collecting on that. By 1922 King Ben had dropped completely from sight. Rumors flew that he had fled to Canada, or had died.
Until 1926, when the Detroit Free Press received a letter claiming King Ben was alive and had never left Benton Harbor. It disclosed the existence of his secret tunnels and explained where they could be found. A daring police raid smashed down the doors of Ben’s residence, explored the secret passages and discovered 65-year-old King Ben in bed with scantily clad “nurse” Myrtle Tulk and two other teenage girls in nighties. He was arrested on the spot.
Lawsuits against Ben that had been on hold during his vanishing act were consolidated and went to trial in May 1927. The trial lasted an astounding two months. The formerly dynamic King Ben was a shell of himself, suffering from diabetes and tuberculosis thanks to years of rich living, and had to be carried into court on a litter.
The plaintiffs were merciless. Every terrible thing Ben had ever done was dragged in front of the court: his hypocrisy, his financial irregularities, his sexual abuse, his secret death camp on High Island. When Queen Mary refused to testify against her husband, the prosecutors brought out Angelina Brown to prove that her bigamous marriage was not legal. Esther Johnson and Hazel Ruth Wade, who had been in the cult’s inner circle, provided reams of damning detail that could not be denied or refuted. Ben’s defense involved ad hominem attacks, making outrageous demands from the judge, and challenging opposing counsel to a fistfight. Needless to say, it wasn’t terribly effective.
At the beginning of December, the decision came down. The court declared the House of David a threat to public morals, and ordered that it be dismantled and the proceeds redistributed to its members.
But it was too little, too late. Ben died on December 16, 1927. When he didn’t rise from the dead after four days, his body was embalmed, placed in a glass coffin, and hidden somewhere on the grounds of the Springs of Eden.
And that was the end of Benjamin Franklin Purnell. But not the end of the story.
“Queen” Mary Stollard Purnell and “Judge” Harry Thomas Dewhirst
This story is, amazingly, still going on.
After King Ben’s death the state of Michigan decided that the House of David was no longer a threat to public morals and did not have to be broken up. But a faction led by Ben’s private secretary, Judge Harry T. Dewhirst, decided it would be best if the House of David severed all ties with the Purnell family. They ousted Mary Purnell from the Springs of Eden, giving some cash, a hotel and some farmland as compensation.
Well, Queen Mary didn’t take it lying down, and set up her own “Reorganized Israelite House of David” right across the street. In the end, the competing colonies split the town’s Christian Israelites between them 50/50.
Business continued more or less as usual. Of course, as celibate organizations past their prime, the Houses of David started a steep decline.
They kept rival baseball teams going for a while. Dewhirst’s House of David had to shutter their team during the Depression because of a lack of able-bodied young Christian Israelites who could play. Mary’s Reorganized House of David kept their team alive until the early 1950s by filling every position with ringers.
The Springs of Eden, too, eventually had to be shuttered, though in recent years there’s been an attempt to restore it to its peak glory.
Judge Dewhirst died in 1947.
Queen Mary kept on until 1953, though in later years her preaching took a more Theosophical bent.
Their Houses went on, though they never found a new Messenger capable of starting an In-Gathering. Amazingly, both Houses are still around, though their combined membership can be counted on a single hand.
I’m not sure what we’re supposed to learn from this astonishing story. It’s astounding how corrupt leaders kept falling into the same behavior patterns over and over. And it’s equally astounding how their gullible followers kept falling for the same lies again and again. If this is all just human nature, well, humanity is trouble. Bring on the Millennium.
Scratch that, I did learn one thing from this story.
Never put a fixed date on the Apocalypse. I know it seems like a great motivator, but let’s face it: you’re only asking for trouble.
Joanna Southcott identified Napoleon as the Antichrist and herself as “The Woman Clothed in the Sun” from the Book of Revelation. George Rapp his Harmony Society (“Hold Fast What Thou Hast”) also saw Napoleon as a potential Antichrist and were on the lookout for the mysterious Sun-Woman.
Female scam artists and mystics of dubious provenance are often compared to Joanna Southcott, including Maria Monk (“The Awful Disclosures”).
Contemporary accounts compared “Prince” Michael K. Mills to other cult leaders, including Joseph Smith of the Mormons, “The Illinois Jesus” George Jacob Schweinfurth (“Holy Ghost Babies”), and hollow earth enthusiast Dr. Cyrus Reed Teed (“We Live Inside”).
Mills’s attempted return to America in 1907 was orchestrated by notorious spiritualist scammer Ann O’Delia Diss Debar (“Spirit Princess”), who conspired with David Livingston Mackay to subvert his place in the New and Latter House of Israel.
“King” Ben Purnell’s daughter Hattie was buried in a cemetery in Fostoria, Ohio. Other notable figures buried in Fostoria include lawyer and art collector John Quinn, whose death started a chain of events that ultimately led to a landmark legal case about the nature of art (“The Brouhaha”).
The House of David introduced the Waffle Cone at the 1904 St. Louis Worlds’ Fair. Another debut at that fair? Peanut butter (“Crunchy or Wrong”). Other debuts at Worlds’ Fairs include pressed pennies (“Pressing Matters”).
When Prince Mike went to jail, some other cults tried to poach his members, including John Alexander Dowie’s Free Christian Church (“Marching to Shibboleth”).
- “Joanna Southcott.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joanna_Southcott Accessed 8/1/2020.
- “John Wroe.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Wroe Accessed 8/1/2020.
- “James Jezreel.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Jezreel Accessed 8/1/2020.
- “Jezreel’s Tower.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jezreel%27s_tower Accessed 9/1/2020.
- Beucher, John Benedict. Empress of Swindle. Forest Grove, OR: Typhon press, 2014.
- Fogarty, Robert S. The Righteous Remnant. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2014.
- Jenkins, Philip. Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
- Jezreel, James Jershom. Extracts from the Flying Roll, Sermon I. London: New and Latter House of Israel, 1879.
- Purnell, Benjamin Franklin. The Star of Bethlehem: The Living Roll of Life, Book III. Benton Harbor: House of David, 1903.
- Sterling, Anthony (pseud.). King of the Harem Heaven. Derby, CT: Monarch Books, 1960.
- “The Rites of a Strange Sect.” Victoria (BC) Daily Times, 3 May 1886.
- “Death of Queen Esther.” Chicago Tribune, 29 Jul 1888.
- “The New House of Israel.” Port Huron (MI) Times-Herald, 29 May 1891.
- “Missionary street preaching.” Dixon (IL) Evening Telegraph, 4 Aug 1891.
- “The Latter House of Israel.” Port Huron (MI) Times-Herald, 19 Nov 1891.
- “Emitted balls of fire.” Chicago Inter-Ocean, 15 Dec 1891.
- “A Strange Sect.” Detroit Free Press, 10 Feb 1892.
- “Latter House of Israel.” Chicago Inter-Ocean, 17 Feb 1892.
- “The police take a hand.” Detroit Free Press, 4 Mar 1892.
- “Nearly mobbed the elders.” Muncie Evening Press, 4 Mar 1892.
- “Petered out; citizens indignant.” Detroit Free Press, 5 Mar 1892.
- “More concerning Prince Michael.” Port Huron (MI) Times-Herald, 9 Mar 1892.
- “Another chapter in the life of Prince Michael.” Port Huron (MI) Times-Herald, 19 Mar 1892.
- “Neighbors all indignant.” Chicago Inter-Ocean, 20 Mar 1892.
- “Prince Michael’s reign over.” Chicago Inter-Ocean, 27 Mar 1892.
- “Michigan news.” Port Huron (MI) Times-Herald, 28 Mar 1892.
- “Religion as a guise.” Akron Beacon-Journal, 29 Mar 1892.
- “The law’s strong arm.” Detroit Free Press, 29 Mar 1892.
- People v. Mills, 94 Mich. 630 (1893)
- “Prince Mike’s Successor.” Detroit Free Press, 22 Jul 1892.
- “Pardon Prince Mike.” Detroit Free Press, 03 Feb 1895.
- “Out of prison.” Detroit Free Press, 20 Jun 1896.
- “Prince Mike is again on deck.” Windsor (ON) Star, 7 Jan 1903.
- “Benjamin is wrong.” Benton Harbor (MI) News-Palladium, 16 Oct 1903.
- “Here’s a religion that approves of race suicide.” Chicago Inter-Ocean, 8 Nov 1903.
- “They swear vengeance.” Detroit Free Press, 15 Nov 1903.
- “Opposition for Drake.” Detroit Free Press, 20 Dec 1903.
- “Meat Eater accepts Benjamin’s defi for wrestling match.” Benton Harbor News-Palladium, 21 Oct 1904.
- “Judge Horne in a quandary.” Detroit Free Press, 31 Jan 1905.
- “Ben says he is an angel.” Benton Harbor News-Palladium, 24 Mar 1905.
- “Immortality to converts or their property back.” Benton Harbor News-Palladium, 17 Apr 1905.
- “Flying Rollers in Detroit.” St. Joseph (MI) Daily Press, 27 Jun 1905.
- “Former Dowieite leads ‘Holy Rollers’ in England.” Chicago Inter-Ocean, 10 Jun 1906.
- “Jezreelites get a new leader.” Chicago Tribune, 10 Jun 1906.
- “May deport Little David.” Detroit Free Press, 13 Dec 1906.
- “Michael fears arrest again.” Detroit Free Press, 15 Jan 1907.
- “Many more come.” Benton Harbor (MI) News-Palladium, 13 Mar 1907.
- “Have falling out.” St. Joseph (MI) Herald-Press, 19 Mar 1907.
- “New Eve sits in splendor”, Detroit Free Press, 20 Jan 1907
- “‘Mother Elinor’ Mason alleged ex-convict”, Detroit Free Press, 29 Mar 1907.
- “‘Mother Elinor’ ’tis alleged, took $10,000 in jewels.” Detroit Free Press, 30 Mar 1907.
- “Peace flew away.” Yale (MI) Expositor, 5 Jul 1907.
- “Women after Holy Ben.” St. Joseph Herald-Press, 20 Sept 1907.
- “Plan grand opening of park.” St. Joseph Daily Press, 22 Jul 1908.
- “Will continue for days.” St. Joseph Daily Press, 13 Nov 1908.
- “Michael and Jezreelites ousted from sanctuary.” Detroit Free Press, 31 Oct 1909.
- “‘Flying Rollers’ near bankruptcy.” Chicago Inter-Ocean, 26 Dec 1909.
- “Habeas corpus writ fails to believe Owen Swant before court.” St. Joseph Daily Press, 15 Dec 1910.
- “Prince Michael now in London.” Detroit Free Press, 28 Aug 1912.
- “To sell Jezreel’s temple.” Calumet (MI) News, 6 Jan 1913.
- “‘King Ben,’ head of House of David, has disappeared.” Indianapolis Star, 18 Dec 1914.
- “Dramatic scenes as slander case goes before the jurymen.” Benton Harbor News-Palladium, 11 Nov 1915.
- “Cult defends accused head.” Detroit Free Press, 31 Dec 1919.
- “Jezreel’s temple to be turned into jam factory.” Indianapolis Star, 23 Jan 1921.
- “Billposting near Jezreel’s Temple.” London Times, 10 Sep 1912.
- “Sin to wed, but ‘Rollers’ may suspend rule.” Chicago Tribune, 17 Dec 1914.
- Gibson, Idah M’Glone. “‘Love God’ made men followers take vows of celibacy, says woman of temple.” Day Book, 19 Dec 1914.
- “65 girls claim charges against Israelite’s head.” Saint Joseph Herald-Press, 10 Nov 1921.
- “Head of Jezreelites is dead in England.” Moline (IL) Dispatch, 21 Jan 1922.
- “The kink lays it to enemies.” Buffalo Times, 6 Jun 1922.
- “Des Voignes hears case of Purnell.” St. Joseph Herald-Press, 7 Feb 1923.
- “Claim leader force dyoung girls to wed.” Fort Wayne (IN) Journal-Gazette. 9 Feb 1923.
- “Startling disclosures revealed; ‘King’ Purnell files $200,000 suit against former cult members.” Port Huron (MI) Times-Herald, 23 Feb 1923.
- “Bacchanalian revel in ‘Shiloh’ related.” St. Joseph (MI) Herald-Press, 21 Mar 1923.
- “Ben Purnell may have fled.” Fort Wayne (IN) Sentinel, 6 Apr 1923.
- “Thorpe defends Benjamin Purnell.” South Bend (IN) Tribune, 6 Apr 1923.
- “Religion cloak for immorality at david colony.” Muncie (IN) Star-Press, 29 Apr 1923.
- “Resume probe of Israelite deaths.” Decatur (IL) Herald and Review, 1 May 1923.
- “Deserted grave hides new Shiloh mystery.” Detroit Free Press, 20 May 1923.
- “‘King’ Ben Purnell youthful sheik.” Columbus (IN) Republic, 23 May 1923.
- “Immediate bail demanded for Benjamin; Bookwalter asks $50,000; advises with lansing.” Benton Harbor (MI) News-Palladium, 17 Nov 1926.
- Embry, Jessie L. and Bambraugh, John H. “Preaching through Playing: Sports and Recreation in Missionary Work, 1911-64.” Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 35 No 4. (Fall
- Stuart, Gwynedd. “The resurrection of a bygone amusement park.” Chicago Reader, 14 May 2014. https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/benton-harbor-michigan-house-of-david-edenspringspark/Content?oid=13451457 Accessed 9/10/2020.
- Frost, Julieanna. “The Rise and Fall of Prince Michael Mills and the Detroiit Jezreelites.” American Communal Societies Quarterly, Vol. 8 No. 3 (July 2014).
- Windscheffel. R. “The Jezreelites and their World: 1875-1922” in J. Shaw et. al (eds), The History of a Modern Millennial Movement: The Southcottians. London: I.B. Tauris, 2017.
- Ben Purnell’s Star of Bethlehem
- Eden Springs Park
- James Jershom Jezreel’s Extracts from the Flying Roll
- Mary’s City of David