George Jacob Schweinfurth was born in 1853 to German immigrants in Marion, Ohio. He was a sweet child, kind and sensitive, a real mama’s boy. He showed no signs of the behavior that forty years later would lead the newspapers to declare him “ten times worse than Brigham Young.”
Like a lot of sensitive young boys in those days, George was drawn to religion. A magazine profile at the height of his fame once put it thusly:
His earnest soul and fiery spirit so impelled him that he was heard ever and anon to begin a song of praise in the special services held in those days for the saving of the wicked. His intuitive soul realized the eminence and glory and power of God, so that the responses which he frequently made in service of testimony were forceful and clear. His longing for association with the good, the pure, and the divine was intense even to pain….
God had put into his breast the fire of divine thought, which sooner or later must burst forth. This unquenchable fervor had caused him much suffering and uneasiness. He was painfully conscious of limitations whenever his soul sought to use its yet unfledged pinions.“Schweinfurth, the Illinois Jesus Christ,” Buchanan’s Journal of Man, August 1889
Others also took note of the young boy’s intense religiosity. When he was only eleven, a local minister told his mother that her son was destined to become a Levite.
Unfortunately the seminary costs money, and the Schweinfurths didn’t have any to spare. As a result, when George reached his majority he did not enter the ministry and instead took on a series of odd jobs: apprenticing in a smithy, clerking in a general store, going door-to-door selling subscriptions to a multi-volume history of the Franco-Prussian War. Alas, none of these positions seemed to suit the sensitive young man.
Finally in 1871 his parents, siblings, and a local Methodist minister were able to scrape together enough money to enroll him in the Grass Lake Union School. Then he briefly served as the sexton and Sunday school teacher at the Methodist Episcopal Church in nearby Jackson, but soon left to begin advanced studies at Albion College and Northwestern University. After his graduation in 1876 the Methodist Episcopal Church appointed George to be the minister of a new episcopal area in rural Tuscola County, MI.
You’d think, having finally achieved his dream, George would have been over the moon. Instead, he was gripped by uncertainty and doubt. Don’t get me wrong, he still had a powerful faith, but he wasn’t so sure about Methodism any more. Or any mainline Protestant denomination, really. They all seemed so moribund, proscriptive, staid. What where they really doing to improve the lives of worshippers, to bring them closer to Christ?
Thankfully, Rev. George Jacob Schweinfurth had enough wherewithal to swallow his doubts every time he mounted the pulpit to speak. He dutifully fulfilled the terms of his one year contract and in 1877 transferred to another church further north in Alpena.
In Alpena, his nagging doubts ballooned into a full-blown crisis of faith. He now knew Methodism had become unmoored from the realities of modern world and grown insensitive to the needs of its parishioners. To deny the world was to deny the truth, and George was devoted to the truth. As writer Alex McCleneghan put it, “as he became of more service to God he proved to be of less service to the church.” Schweinfurth himself put it thusly:
I shall be no more a Methodist than the Savior was a Methodist. I shall be as free as truth can make a man. I will belong to no body of men; I will belong to God.
Once again, Schweinfurth’s powerful sense of duty helped him overcome his doubts and handle the day-to-day operations of his ministry. Inside, though, he continued to search for the elusive truth that remained forever outside his grasp.
Then, in December 1877, he found it.
Or should I say, “her.”
The Woman Clothed in the Sun
Dorinda Helen Fletcher (or “Dora” to her friends) was born in Cherryfield, ME in 1835 and had an unremarkable childhood. She married Rev. J.C. Beekman in 1856 and then proceeded to have an unremarkable adulthood.
Unremarkable, that is, until 1876. At the time the Beekmans were living in Middlebury, VT where J.C. was the pastor of a Congregational Church. You can imagine how awkward it was for him when his wife suddenly started to claim that she was receiving visions directly from God. That did not go down well with the Congregationalists of Middlebury, who abandoned the church and ostracized the Beekmans. Things only got worse in 1877 when Dora announced that her recent weight gain was the sign that she was pregnant with the second coming of Christ, making her the “Woman Clothed with the Sun” from Chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation.
Thinking that it might be best to get out of town, Rev. Beekman took a new appointment from the Congregational church in Alpena. Unfortunately, his wife’s delusions only intensified. When the male child who will rule all nations with an iron scepter failed to appear, Dora announced that she had misinterpreted her visions. She did carry the divine spark within her, but it was not the Christ child.
No, she herself was the second coming of Christ.
The Congregationalists of Alpena took that about as well as the Congregationalists of Middlebury. The Rev. Beekman was let go and politely informed he would never work for a Congregationalist Church again. He had kind of been expecting that. He took a job as the village clerk and then just vanished into the background of his wife’s life.
Now, the Congregationalists may not have been drawn to Dora Beekman and her pretensions to divinity, but plenty of other people were. And why wouldn’t they be? She was a handsome older woman, intelligent, magnetic, a captivating speaker (if somewhat obtuse)…
Mrs. Beekman… has the same faculty that belong to other leading lights of her sect, and that is, taking a long time and many words to say but little.Alpena Argus, 30 Aug 1882
She called her new religion “Perfectionism,” though others derisively referred to it as “Beekmanism.” Its fundamental tenet was that other religions worshipped Jesus the man, when they should be worshipping Christ the spirit. That spirit now resided in the frame of Mrs. Dora Beekman. So, worship her.
In addition to being the reincarnate Jesus Christ, Dora was also the Bride of Christ, which is a head-scratcher and also just a little bit incestuous. Her religion was also the Bride of Christ and… look, it just gets weird. I’m sure she could explain away any paradoxes if you gave her a few hours. For now let’s put the gross theological implications of being both a woman and a man and also an organization as well as your own mother and wife aside.
Jesus had come to heal the bodies of the ancient world. Dora Beekman had come to heal the hearts and souls of the modern world. Those who truly believed in her could eventually attain a state of perfection and grace where they could not sin, becoming angels on earth.
To accomplish this, her followers had to give up their life and soul to Dora Beekman and obey her blindly with no thoughts of their own. That meant giving up all of their property to the church and entering a communitarian existence similar to that of the early apostles. They also had forgo meat, dairy, and caffeinated beverages, as well as marriage, sexual relations, and other forms of intimacy.
There was no Heaven or Hell. Earth itself was the paradise provided by God, since everything he created was perfection itself. There was no point in wishing for a better world, since the world was already perfect as it was.
It’s a strange message, but for some reason it resonated with many who heard it. (What can I say, the 19th Century was weird.)
To spread the word, Beekman and her followers would infiltrate other churches and then interrupt Sunday services by springing into impromptu harangues and lectures.
That’s probably how Dora Beekman first met the Rev. George Jacob Schweinfurth. You might have expected him to react the way other ministers had: with righteous fury and indignation. Instead, he fell head over heels in love with Perfectionism… and Dora Beekman. He soon became her most devoted disciple.
There are some signs that it wasn’t purely a Platonic love, either. There was a bit of a scandal when he was caught kissing the reincarnate Christ on the cheek in public. That was a big no-no in 1878, especially when one of the participants was a married woman and the other was supposed to be chaste exemplar for his flock.
In September 1878 Schweinfurth was expelled from the Detroit Conference of Methodists for his “queer notions” and “general incompetence.” His superiors grumbled that “he was influenced by female preachers, and his tenets were always those of the last female he met.”
Schweinfurth didn’t care. He had found his savior and would follow her to the ends of the Earth. Or, at least to the greater Chicagoland area, which is where the Beekmanites relocated en masse in 1882.
There were about forty of them of at the time, though that number soon swelled to several hundred through the tireless efforts of Beekman and Schweinfurth. (It also helped that they cult was now based in a large, vibrant city with better lines of communication to the rest of the Midwest.)
Schweinfurth was so integral to the growth of Perfectionism that Dora Beekman rewarded him by “setting aside” her daughter Lily for him. Lily wasn’t so interested in that, and parted company with her mother and the Perfectionists soon after.
That isn’t to say it was all sunshine and roses. The Perfectionists had their share of ups and downs. Like, say, when the reincarnation of our lord and savior Jesus Christ died in April 1883.
Dora Beekman was visiting her followers in Buena Vista, CO when she suddenly fell ill and died. The adoring Perfectionists believed she would rise again in three days in fulfillment of the scriptures, and gathered around to await the blessed event.
As Beekman’s body started to decompose and the stench became unbearable, they reconsidered their position. Perhaps it was more theologically correct to expect her resurrection in forty days. If that was the case, it would be better for it to happen back at church headquarters in front of a larger crowd. So Perfectionists of Buena Vista had the Savior embalmed and sent back to her husband, who was living at the time in Ogle County, IL.
The body made it about a week before authorities in Ogle County made the Perfectionists bury it before it became a public health hazard. Then, just to add insult to injury, J.C. Beekman decided he’d indulged his wife’s weird friends long enough and kicked them out of the family home, which they’d been using as a meeting house.
George Jacob Schweinfurth, Superstar
Needless to say, the Perfectionists found themselves having a dark night of the soul. Was it possible that Dora Beekman had only been mortal, a prophet rather than the promised? If she actually was God, what did it mean if she was dead? Was she really dead? The heated theological debates threatened to tear the cult apart.
It was Schweinfurth who came up with the solution. He announced that Dora Beekman was mortal, but the godhead had reposed inside her. Shortly before her death it had migrated to a new vessel.
That vessel? George Jacob Schweinfurth.
As Mrs. Beekman died, Schweinfurth had a vision of her soul ascending to heaven. On her way, it turned and addressed him directly:
You are Christ, the Holy One, My spirit passes into thine, and by this act transforms thy whole being. Go forth pure and sinless, the only son to God. Thou shalt bring all nations to worship thee, and put to rout the evil one and all the hosts of darkness.
To be fair: if you were flailing around and desperately trying to find a new Messiah, George Jacob Schweinfurth certainly looked the part. Maybe he was a little short — at 5’4”, he was just a tad below average height — but he was an extraordinarily handsome man with delicate “German features,” a rosy complexion, piercing brown eyes, thick auburn hair and a magnificent flowing beard. Contemporaries often said that he looked like a painting of Jesus had come to life and stepped off the wall.
He also acted the part. One paper described him as having a “comportment resembling abject humility.” He was thoughtful, measured, and calm while also being warm, caring and empathetic. Even if he wasn’t the Second (or Third?) coming of Christ he was the sort of person who you’d trust to the ends of the earth.
Even so, not all of the Perfectionists were convinced he was the Redeemer. One group in Alpena, led by Frank Vrooman, split off and continued to worship Mrs. Beekman. Another group in Illinois followed Deacon Weldon, who claimed that the godhead had passed to him and not Schweinfurth.
Most of them stayed with Schweinfurth, though.
The Schweinfurth Crowd
The revived cult’s first order of business was picking a new name. “Beekmanites” was what other people called them, and “Perfectionism” didn’t accurately reflect their doctrines. They briefly went by “The Religion” or “The Church” but those were too short. Then they were “The Church of the First Born, of the Redeemed in Heaven and Glorified Upon Earth,” which was too long. For a few years they were “The Church of the Redeemed,” which was the right length but still too generic.
Eventually they settled on “The Church Triumphant,” which had a nice ring about it. So nice, in fact, that at least three other cults in Chicago were already using it. The name change particularly irked Dr. Cyrus Reed Teed’s Koreshans, who wrote an angry editorial about the Beekmanites stealing their thunder in their newspaper, The Flaming Sword.
Despite all the rebranding efforts, people still just called them Beekmanites. Or, increasingly, “the Schweinfurth crowd.”
The Schweinfurth crowd continued to grow, thanks to the Bread of Life’s magnetic personality and lofty theological arguments. By the end of the decade the Church Triumphant had more than three hundred adherents, spread among branches inn Alpena and St. Charles, MI; Chicago, East Paw Paw and Plum River, IL; Buena Vista, CO; Kansas City, MO; Minneapolis, MN; Louisville, KY; and Leavenworth, KS. Now, three hundred may not seem like a lot to you, but Schweinfurth argued that it was a matter of quality over quantity.
One is equal to 1,000 and two can put 10,000 to flight.
Of course, a growing cult is going to have growing pains. Especially when their primary method of spreading the word is interrupting other denominations’ church services.
In January 1885 and December 1886, non-believers with partners in the Church Triumphant filed for divorce and tried to prove their charges of abandonment by drawing attention to unusual beliefs held by their spouses. They claimed the Perfectionists were little more than a “free love” cult whose followers slept communally… in the nude. (In Victorian Times, that’s the equivalent of a non-stop orgy.) Just for good measure they also claimed the Beekmanites were abusing children.
Neither charge was true. The Church’s neighbors came to the rescue, providing dozens of character witnesses who testified that they were normal people, quiet and earnest. Judges decided the complaints were little more than sour grapes and dismissed them.
Schweinfurth had been called to testify during both sets of proceedings. He did fine on the stand, but the first experience left him so “shaken” he spent the next few months recuperating in a Danville sanitarium. In his absence, the Shakers moved in on his flock and poached a few of them.
In March 1888, Schweinfurth was accused of seducing married women in Kentucky into abandoning their husbands and families to follow him. Like many 19th Century cult leaders, Schweinfurth supposedly had a sinister hypnotic sway over women. As is usual in these cases, further examination reveals this “hypnotic power” consisted of being handsome, treating women like equals, and actively trying to address their concerns and make them feel heard. (Truly, a power which could only come from the Devil.) Everyone joining the cult in Kentucky did so of their own free will.
On the other hand, it sure seems shady that Schweinfurth publicly denied that they had joined at all, because in subsequent months it would become abundantly clear that they totally had.
In April 1888 the Church Triumphant in Chicago began beefing with their next-door neighbor Mrs. Brown, who tried to get them shut down as a public nuisance. The dispute itself was nothing; Brown was just a fragile NIMBY type and her complaints had little substance.
The public prosecutors, though, were vicious. They revived every allegation that had ever been leveled against the cult: hypnosis, free love, the doctrine of perfectibility, etc. They were also able to drag something out of cult members that had not been widely known: that the object of their veneration was no longer Dora Helen Fletcher Beekman but George Jacob Schweinfurth.
The Church Triumphant was able to defeat the charges, but the damage had been done and public perception shifted. They were no longer seen as well-meaning weirdos who thought a dead old lady was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. Now they were brain-dead sheeple who followed a calculating Svengali and flouted conventional morality in broad daylight. Overnight, the Church Triumphant was no longer welcome in Chicago.
That was fine by Schweinfurth, because he had already left town.
Heaven and Hell
The Beekmanites had always had a base of operations in northern Illinois, since Dora Beekman had been running the church out of the family’s home in Byron. Her followers may have been kicked out of that home after the Messiah’s death, but there were still significant numbers of them concentrated in Ogle County, along with neighboring Winnebago, DeKalb, and Boone Counties.
The Weldons of Rockford were well-to-do farmers who owned 800 acres of fine fertile land, situated about five miles outside of town. They were popular and socially influential, but also proud and headstrong. In the early 1880s, they felt they had been snubbed when their church relocated to a building further away from the Weldon Farm. In spite, they turned their backs on Episcopalianism and embraced something new: the Church Triumphant.
The Weldons became Schweinfurth’s most devout followers. They also, maybe, became perjurers. Family patriarch Spenser S. Weldon was one of the character witnesses who testified in the 1885 and 1886 divorce proceedings. At the time he falsely presented himself as merely the cult’s neighbor and not a devotee. Perhaps he felt that he wasn’t truly a member, since he had yet to surrender all his personal property to the Messiah. In March 1888, he rectified that omission by deeding the family farm over to Schweinfurth.
Up to this point, the Church Triumphant had been rootless. Followers lived communally in rented housing, and were frequently as poor as Job’s turkey. Schweinfurth himself was little more than a hobo, always moving from city to city to keep the faithful in line. Now, though, the Church had a permanent base of operations and wealthy patrons. They could finally go all out — and they did.
Weldon Farm was renamed “New Zion.” Schweinfurth sank more than $20,000 into renovating the property, transforming it from a working farm into a show farm. He would have spent even more if he didn’t have an inexhaustible source of free labor, which is to say, devoted cultists working free of charge. The property was soon bristling with brand new barns, carriage buildings, and sheds. The main farmhouse was renovated into a veritable mansion that could accommodate more than a hundred people. The King of Kings imported purebred horses and pedigreed cattle which the cult bred and sold, but were mostly used to show off Schweinfurth’s newfound wealth and impress potential converts.
With the influx of money also came a new economic and social stratification of the Church hierarchy.
- Male rank-and-file members worked all day in the fields, and slept in a minimally furnished, unheated bunkhouse. Female members took care of the cooking and cleaning, and slept in the much nicer main house. Both groups were rewarded for their hard labor with a daily ration of mush. Yum.
- Above the common cultists sat the “apostles.” These were the worthiest of Schweinfurth’s followers, who had their own private accommodations in the main house and ate fine food at the prophet’s table. Outsiders and other cultists could not help but notice that the primary determinant of “worthiness” seemed to be whether you had donated a lot of money to the church.
- The worthiest of the worthy were Schweinfurth’s “angels,” a group of attractive young women who attended to the Almighty’s every need. It was more than a bit unseemly.
- Schweinfurth himself lived like a prince. He had a whole floor of the main house to himself. He ate the finest food, wore the finest clothes, slept in the finest bed. When he left the farm, he traveled in an opulent carriage pulled by thoroughbreds. When he returned, his “angels” carpeted the drive with flower petals and filled the air with joyous song.
Rockford residents soon picked up on the new living arrangements at Weldon Farm. They jokingly referred to the main house as “Heaven” and the bunkhouse as “Hell.” It was a comic exaggeration… but not by much.
Inside “Heaven” the luxurious parlor doubled as the church for Schweinfurth’s Sunday afternoon services, which usually included an improvised sermon and would last for several hours. Cult stenographers would copy down the Messiah’s words, print them up, and redistribute them to congregations in other cities.
The more conventional churches in Rockford were not happy about the cult that had settled in their midst. The Rev. Samuel L. Conde of Westminster Presbyterian Church took point, becoming Schweinfurth’s most implacable foe. A typical Conde sermon might include lines like the following…
[Schweinfurth] is a dangerous man… His sophistries are hard for any one to meet unless thoroughly familiar with the Scripture on the second coming of the Christ. There is not a particle of insanity about him, and I am convinced he is perfectly free from any lust of the flesh, for I know of the most thorough tests… Outwardly, no meeker, more patient, more perfect man has ever come under my notice. I honestly believe he is possessed of the devil, who has come to the world in the garb of an angel of light…
At the opening of the meeting I read the account of the devils being cast out of a man into a herd of swine, which ran into the sea. Now, what is this impostor’s name? It is Schweinfurth. It is a German name. What does it mean? Schwein, swine, and furth, to the sea. It is remarkable that the Devil could not hide his first impostor. His name betrays him. I don’t want to have anything to do with a man whose name is a reproach.
Now Conde’s etymology needs a bit of work: “Schweinfurth” actually means “swine ford”; i.e., a place where you’d drive hogs across a river, and in this case it’s just a town name in Bavaria, where his ancestors were from. Linguistics aside, Rev. Conde frequently found himself unable to finish his harangues because he was constantly getting interrupted by Church Triumphant members who had infiltrated his congregation. (That’s what they do, remember?)
Conde’s personal tormentor was Mrs. Medora J. Kinnehan, one of the women who had thrown aside her husband in Kentucky to follow the Lamb of God. Her interruptions became increasingly rude, and fistfights threatened to break out among the pews. This state of affairs lasted for several months, until Kinnehan and every other member of the Schweinfurth crowd had been blacklisted from every non-Triumphant church in town.
The cultists’ behavior drew the attention of local whitecaps, Midwestern vigilantes in the mold of the KKK — not exclusively racist (but definitely racist), nativist, reactionary, and devoted to preserving the status quo with violence. They ordered Schweinfurth and his followers to leave Rockford forever, or be roasted alive. The Messiah didn’t budge, but he did add several bodyguards to his retinue, which seemed to do the trick and frightened the whitecaps off.
For the most part, Schweinfurth seemed content to take the brunt of the town’s anger and turn the other cheek. Very Christlike. Well, most of the time. When a sudden downpour and flash flooding demolished several bridges and houses, Schweinfurth was all too happy to claim the disaster his doing, divine justice for Rockford’s general wickedness and rejection of his divine nature.
The Illinois Jesus Christ
In the summer of 1889, the growing Church Triumphant was the focus of a lengthy profile in Buchanan’s Journal of Man. The article included a rare interview with George Jacob Schweinfurth, or, as the magazine called him, “The Illinois Jesus Christ”:
Are you the Christ?
I am. I am more than Christ, I am the perfect man and also God. I possess the attributes of Jesus the sinless and have His spirit, and more than that, I am the Almighty Himself.
This, then is your second advent on Earth?
It is, and I am accomplishing untold good. The time is not far off when I shall make such manifestations of my divinity and power as will startled the world and bring believers to me by thousands and tens of thousands…
I have unlimited power. I can come into a room with closed doors and disappear. I can raise the dead, cure disease, and do all the miraculous things which I accomplished when I was on the earth before. I do not practice them often, for I wish to convert the world to the truth without depending on supernatural powers, but by the truth itself…
I shall be here many years in the present body, and the world will see wonderful sights before I cast off this body. But I am incarnate, and when this goes into the corruption of death my spirit will enter another body and still live on earth… [I]n form and substance the identical body I now possess was the one that was crucified on Calvary…
As myself, I never experience the animal passions of man, for I am God… The whole world is impanelled as a jury to try us, but those who now persecute us will be utterly destroyed.“Schweinfurth, the Illinois Jesus Christ,” Buchanan’s Journal of Man, August 1889
Other fun tidbits from the article included:
- Schweinfurth was in the process of writing his own version of the New Testament to correct its “doctrinal errors.”
- Buchanan’s noted the Messiah currently had thirteen “angels” tending to his every need — a surprising number, given that there were only about 75 people at Weldon Farm at the time.
- Among the “angels”, he had a favorite: his “soul mate” Sister Angelica, a “pale, dark-eyed, lissome creature of 22 years… willowy and spirituelle with a far-away look in her eyes.” Angelica’s quarters were right next to Schweinfurth’s and she sat at his right hand at dinner.
- The rumor going around Rockford was that to become an “angel” one had to pass the “Garden of Eden” test. That involved spending the night with Schweinfurth, al fresco. If you could deny your animal passions, you would emerge in the morning purified, perfected, and free from sin. Of course, that was only a rumor, right?
- Dr. J.S. Wilkins, a Chicago minister whose wife had deserted him for the Church had hired a female private detective to investigate Schweinfurth. Miss E.C. Claflin threw everything she had at the Messiah, including herself, and eventually reported back that he was on the level. Then she quit her job and joined the cult. Despite his agent’s failure, Wilkins was still suing the cult for $25,000 in damages for alienating the affections of his wife.
- Schweinfurth had responded by mortgaging the farm and shuffling around other assets to shield them from seizure. Those assets amounted to about $50,000 in total — which were all in Schweinfurth’s name.
While Buchanan’s coverage was surprisingly even-handed, the author couldn’t help but see Schweinfurth as symptomatic of the problems of modern religion:
More than nineteen centuries of belief in a very limited Deity and his perfect representation on earth by a man have prepared millions to believe in a human God… There is no antidote for this modern paganism but the cultivation of the intellect and free investigation of the mysteries of life.
Holy Ghost Babies
No one knew it at the time, but the summer of 1889 would prove to be the peak of the Church Triumphant’s power.
In March 1890, Schweinfurth called a Grand Convocation, the first general assembly of the Church since Dora Beekman’s death some seven years previously. Hundreds of the faithful from all across the Midwest journeyed to Weldon Farm for the celebration. Honored guests included Francis Ward of Chicago; Charles Clement Whitney, “the Christ of Minneapolis”; and L.E. Francis of Kentucky, “the chief apostle of Schweinfurthism in the South.”
It did not go well. On the first day Schweinfurth was interrupted by a Mrs. Rogers of Chicago, who announced she was the latest reincarnation of Eve. The resulting argument derailed the entire meeting, which became about shouting down heresy instead of making plans for the future.
In July 1890, Schweinfurth had happier news to share. He assembled his adoring flock in groups of seven and announced that Sister Angelica was about to give birth to her second child. Furthermore, this child was special: it had been begotten not by man, but by the divine power of the Holy Ghost. And it wasn’t the only Holy Ghost baby, either: Sister Angelica’s first child had also been immaculately conceived, as was the child Mary Weldon was expecting.
The assembled cultists had questions, though they weren’t the questions you or I might have. No, most of the women wanted to know: why isn’t the Holy Ghost giving me a god-baby?
Schweinfurth didn’t have an answer for that.
Medora J. Kinnehan was not satisfied. She left Weldon Farm and told everyone in Rockford who would listen that Schweinfurth was a “fraud and a licentious and immoral villain.” She claimed to have personally seen “angels” sneaking into Schweinfurth’s room at night, and insinuated that maybe he was standing in for the Holy Ghost physically.
The good folks in Rockford didn’t like hearing that. The whitecaps began sharpening their knives, and even the normally meek Rev. Conde threatened to lynch Schweinfurth in the town square. County prosecutors convened a grand jury to investigate Schweinfurth for immorality. In the press, the beleaguered Messiah could only offer the weak excuse that his “angels” were merely soothing his troubled brow with cold compresses so he could sleep.
Then, at the end of August, Kinnehan tried return to Weldon Farm as if nothing had happened. Perhaps she’d thought she’d made her point, and a Holy Ghost baby of her own would be forthcoming. No dice. Schweinfurth let her stay overnight, returned the personal effects she’d brought with her (minus her watch and jewelry, which had long since been pawned), and sent her packing back to Kentucky. With Kinnehan’s disappearance and no other ex-cult members willing to come forward, the grand jury was disbanded.
That wasn’t the end of it, though. Kinnehan had started a fire that never stopped burning. For the next decade Schweinfurth would be beset by bad publicity, numerous civil lawsuits, abortive criminal prosecutions, and threats of violence. On one of Schweinfurth’s routine visits to Kansas City, whitecaps threatened to tar and feather him. The Messiah had a badass retort handy: “Kansas City can ill afford to incur my anger.” Even so, he began carrying a .44 pistol in his pocket in case divine justice wasn’t up to snuff.
In 1892, two lawsuits were filed against the Church Triumphant by ex-members George F. Ostrander and Matilda Pierce. Ostrander’s suit in particular was troubling, because he had been one of the Church’s longest-serving followers — heck, he had been a Beekmanite before Schweinfurth had entered the fold. In 1890 he finally relocated from Alpena to Rockford, and he was shocked by what he encountered at Weldon Farm. He was also happy to spill the tea.
- Like Kinnehan, he ad had observed “angels” sneaking in and out of Schweinfurth’s room. He also couldn’t help but notice that those “angels” were Sister Angelica and Mary Weldon, the ones who had been blessed with Holy Ghost babies.
- The Holy Ghost babies were Geraldine Joy Tuttle (5), Ariel Tuttle (4), and Myrtle Weldon (4). They all had luxurious auburn hair, just like the Son of Man, who doted on them “as if they were his own” while ignoring other children at the farm.
- Sister Angelica was hardly the willowy, spirituelle twentysomething Buchanan’s Journal of Man had described, but still-pretty-hot-for-41 Aurora Israeli Tuttle. Actually, she wasn’t even Aurora Israeli: her real name was Emma Jean Buck and she tried on pseudonyms the way most of us try on pants. Joking aside, “Tuttle” is the most important part here, because she was married to fellow cultist Harmon Bascom Tuttle. And Harmon, at least, had been taking his vows of celibacy seriously.
- The stratified society at the Farm was once again brought to light. While the rank and file made do with cold mush, with the occasional cabbage or turnip for a treat, Schweinfurth feasted daily on oysters, eggs, beef, and wine. Even though he was supposed to be vegetarian.
- Everyone else was expected to rise before the crack of dawn and sleep eight to a room, but Schweinfurth got to sleep in his own luxurious private bed until almost noon.
- For the previous two years the Church had spent $25,000 to furnish the Messiah’s quarters, along with the private rooms of Aurora Tuttle and Mary Weldon.
- During Sunday services, Schweinfurth would have his “angels” re-enact Biblical scenes for the congregation while dressed in tights. That hardly sounds salacious to us now, but remember: this is 1890s, where bare ankles were basically pornography.
- Other branches of the Church were similarly riddled with sin. Worship leaders in Chicago, Kansas City, and Alpena were called out by name. It was intimated that the goings-on in Alpena were so heinous that several congregants had been driven to insanity and suicide.
All Ostrander and Price wanted was to be treated fairly. They demanded the return of some $300 they had handed over when they had joined the commune at Weldon Farm, along with back pay for two years of unpaid manual labor. If they didn’t get it, they were perfectly willing to take their suits to trial and let the rest of the tea out of the pot. Schweinfurth caved. What else could he do? He settled the Ostrander and Price suits for a combined total of $1600 — about $50,000 in modern money.
If he thought that would make his problems go away, he was wrong. Price happily took the money and vanished, but Ostrander stuck around and became the cult’s most famous detractor. Sort of the Leah Remini of 1892.
After settling the suits, Weldon Farm was closed to outsiders and Schweinfurth refused to talk to reporters. As the Alton Evening Telegraph noted, “it doesn’t pay, and Schweinfurth never engages in anything that doesn’t yield a fair profit to George Jacob.” That didn’t stop the troubles from mounting, either.
In 1894 Schweinfurth expanded his sexy Biblical tableaus to include dancing. The combinations of tights and sensual gyration drove away several of his older and more socially conservative followers, who joined the “Vrooman crowd” in Alpena in venerating Dora Beekman.
The following year two of the cult’s youngest members, including Schweinfurth’s own nephew Carl, ran away and made their way to Ostrander’s support group for ex-members. Meanwhile Chicago-based faith healer John Alexander Dowie, who smelled weakness like a shark smells blood, turned his attention to peeling off as many members of Schweinfurth’s flock as he could.
Church members were leaving in droves, and money became uncomfortably tight. The residents of Weldon Farm had to take outside work, even the Messiah, who worked as a milkman and had a lucrative sideline collecting a bounty on sparrow scalps offered by the county.
Finally, the Coudrey suit threatened to destroy everything. In late 1893 George W. Coudrey, a stencil and dye manufacturer, filed suit against Schweinfurth claiming that the Lamb of God had stolen the affections of Coudrey’s wife with his hypnotic wiles. That part of the suit was just sour grapes. The more serious allegations were financial: after Mrs. Coudrey abandoned her husband and took their five children to Weldon Farm, she and the Church had been purchasing goods on her husband’s credit. That part was pretty open and shut. Coudrey had canceled checks with forged signatures and everything.
Schweinfurth’s defense was to present no defense at all. He didn’t have the money to settle the suit, so he hoped against hope it would collapse like every other prosecution against him had. He did not hire an attorney and did not appear in court when summoned to testify. In fact, his only communication with the court was a brief and condescending letter saying that while he was “unable to resist the doings of man” he was certainly above them.
In April 1895 the jury found Schweinfurth guilty of all charges after less than an hour of deliberation and awarded Coudrey $50,000 in damages. Schweinfurth was immediately arrested on charges of immorality and illegal cohabitation, then released after paying a $3,000 bond.
When the sheriff of Winnebago County went to attach Schweinfurth’s personal property and satisfy Coudrey’s liens, it turned out the Messiah had no personal property left to be attached. Weldon Farm had been returned to Weldons and everything else of value had been given away to other Church members. The only material possessions Schweinfurth retained were three suits, two overcoats, a 2-year-old-colt, and a gold watch. Total value: $65.
The sheriff took it anyway.
That brought an end to the Coudrey suit, but the ongoing criminal proceedings still hung over Schweinfurth’s head like the Sword of Damocles. Fortunately the trial date kept getting pushed back because prosecutors were unable to find ex-cultists willing to testify. There were also some difficulties locating the Messiah, who had fled the state in April 1896 to escape Winnebago County’s jurisdiction.
While on the run, Schweinfurth conceived of an elegant solution to his problem. After procuring a quickie divorce for Aurora Tuttle, she and Schweinfurth were wed in Minneapolis on September 7th, 1896. That same day he also married off his other leading “angels,” Mary Weldon and Maggie Teft. The marriages retroactively legitimated his bastard children, and prevented the most potentially damaging witness from testifying against him since she was now his wife. The immorality prosecution, already on shaky ground, completely collapsed. Prosecutors threw in the towel and in October Schweinfurth triumphantly returned to Weldon Farm with his new bride in tow.
The triumph was short lived. After seven years of non-stop scandal, Schweinfurth’s followers had dwindled from an all-time high of about 394 believers spread across eight states to an all-time low of 45 believers, almost all of whom lived on Weldon Farm.
Church finances had never been worse, though Schweinfurth could still count on the support of the Weldons which meant that he, at least, could live comfortably. At one point in 1897 he tried to protect the Church’s remaining assets by properly incorporating as a charity for the first time, but couldn’t navigate the paperwork.
Rumors were constantly swirling that Schweinfurth would abandon Rockford for friendlier skies, though it was hard to imagine where that could be since he was now nationally infamous. In 1898, a Church spokesman denied the latest rumors that “Heaven” was to be moved to Portage, WI:
When we leave the Weldon farm we will go to a warmer place…
The outburst of laughter made him quickly realize his mistake.
Excuse me, I should have said a milder climate. None of our people want to go to Wisconsin to live and neither does Schweinfurth. He is doing very well where he is.
It was the right call. The Church Triumphant would have been more welcome in Hell than they would have been in Portage.
George Jacob Schweinfurth, Scientist
Then, in August 1899, George Jacob Schweinfurth made an astonishing announcement. He had been reading the works of Mary Baker Eddy when the scales fell from his eyes. He was no Messiah, with power over the living and the dead. He had no special insight into theology or philosophy. He was just a man. And now that man was a Christian Scientist.
Yes, Schweinfurth had once again fallen under the sway of a charismatic woman and abandoned everything he held dear to follow her.
Though Schweinfurth was no longer the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, he continued to run the day-to-day operations of the Church Triumphant for the next several years. The few true believers remaining tried to convince him that he really was divine, but they could not undo his conversion.
It was all a bit much for Geraldine Schweinfurth, the oldest of the Holy Ghost babies, who was now 14. In September she ran away from home and took refuge in a neighbor’s house. She just wanted her father to stop being so weird so she could be normal like other girls.
When Schweinfurth announced his conversion, he seemed to think his previous experience as the Savior of All Mankind would be a fast track to promotion in the Church of Christ, Scientist. He was wrong. Mary Baker Eddy did not want anything to do with the Illinois Jesus and pointedly refused to answer his increasingly desperate letters.
He was reduced to contributing abstruse theological essays to Harmony, an independent faith healing magazine, but that didn’t last long either. It turns out even the Christian Science-adjacent didn’t want anything do with him, either.
The residents of Rockford were unmoved by the Son of Man’s fall from grace. They had been calling for him to leave town for years, and those calls had only grown louder since he had renounced his divinity. In November 1902, Schweinfurth finally heeded those calls, loading his wife and three children into a wagon and relocating to the mean streets of Chicago.
Once again, there was no one left on Weldon Farm except for the Weldons.
Hold the Pork
So, what does an ex-Messiah with no job experience do? There aren’t a lot of firms out there hiring Wonderful Counselors, Mighty Gods, Everlasting Fathers, or Princes of Peace. Today we’d say, “go to law school” but in 1903 the answer was “get a job in finance.” (Actually, that’s probably still viable career advice…)
That’s exactly what George Jacob Schweinfurth did. He became a stockbroker, selling mining stocks through the firm of Wire, Schweinfurth, and Co. He did remarkably well… at least, until his clients realized who their broker was. So the firm changed its name to the Chicago Promotion & Brokerage Company. That worked for another year or two, until the clients got wise again. At this point, the other principals in the firm decided they’d had enough and dropped Schweinfurth like a hot potato.
Unable to find work due to his name, Schweinfurth dropped the “Schwein” and became regular old “George Furth.” That enabled him to get a job working for Frank T. Fowler, Chicago’s Superintendent of Streets. It was menial work and only paid $2.50 a day, but he was glad to have it. At some point, his employer realized who “George Furth” really was, but they decided they didn’t care. He was one of the hardest-working, most honest employees in the department.
That’s what George Furth was doing when he caught typhoid fever and died on July 20th, 1910. The man who had once been the most reviled man in Illinois was now so obscure that the press that once breathlessly reported on his every move didn’t even realize he had died until months after the fact, and had to hastily compose obituaries.
George Jacob Schweinfurth was survived by his wife and three children.
Well, stepchildren, really. Their real father was the Holy Ghost.
Cults can’t stop thinking about the “Sun Woman” from the Book of Revelation. The Harmony Society (from Series 2’s “Hold Fast What Thou Hast” and “That No Man Take Thy Crown”) was obsessed with her, as were Dr. Cyrus Reed Teed and his Koreshans (from Series 4’s “We Live Inside”) and Johanna Southcott and the Christian Israelites (from Series 5’s “Exceeding Great”). Who can blame them? She’s great.
It’s an apocryphal story at best, but one source claims that during Schweinfurth’s initial crisis of faith he had a complete mental breakdown and and began insisting he was Charley Ross. Ross, as you may remember, was the victim of a famous kidnapping in Philadelphia. He was also seventeen years younger than George Jacob Schweinfurth. Anyway, we covered Charley’s sad story earlier this series in “Your Heart’s Sorrow.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Perfectionists had frequent conflicts with the other cults and fringe religious movements that proliferated in 1890s Chicago. Scottish faith healer John Alexander Dowie (from Series 6’s “Marching to Shibboleth”) attacked Schweinfurth as a false Christ and actively tried to peel off his followers. Hollow Earth messiah Cyrus Teed (from Series 4’s “We Live Inside”) was mostly just angry they’d stolen his church’s name.
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