Right after Christmas, 1905, the Norton family of Santa Rosa sold their home, said their goodbyes, and headed east with their three children to meet the Lord in the upper Midwest. But the Nortons apparently hadn’t gotten the memo: The 1906 Dies Irae had been called off, and now the prophecy was an indefinite promise that Jesus would be coming back Real Soon Now. Before 1916, definitely.
The Nortons were bound for the House of David, a religious commune in Benton Harbor, Michigan that was founded just two years earlier by Benjamin Purnell, a charismatic Kentucky preacher who claimed that he and his wife were jointly the seventh and last “Messenger” who would presage the second coming of Christ. In 1902, Purnell prophesied that the millennium would come four years from then — later upped to 1916 or when all the signs would be in place, whichever came first — and that his “elect” (144,000 men and 144,000 women) would, at that instant, become immortals in the flesh. His followers were always seeking portents that those good End Times were really nigh, and they celebrated on hearing news of the 1906 earthquake. One wonders how the Nortons must have felt about the boast that a church leader had “called down” the quake, which also meant death for so many of their former neighbors in Santa Rosa.
The House of David never came close to the tipping point of that many converts; at most, there were around a thousand members in Benton Harbor (there were 500 living there at the time of the California quake, according to a newspaper account). But despite the smaller than expected numbers, the enterprise thrived, becoming almost entirely self-sufficient with a dairy, fruit and vegetable farms, a state-of-the-art sawmill, a jam and jelly factory, and much more. The operation was also profitable, thanks to all that free labor provided by converts (as well as the requirement that new acolytes, such as the family from Santa Rosa, turn over all earthly possessions), and the House of David would come to sprawl over 100,000 acres of prime land in southwest Michigan.
Articles on the “Flying Rollers,” as they were dubbed by newspapers of the day (it’s an obscure Old Testament reference unrelated to the “Holy Roller” nickname for Pentecostals), loved to mention that men were forbidden to shave or cut their hair and sometimes offered drawings, helpfully educating readers how a person of European descent might look like with long hair. But except for those who chanced to cross paths with Purnell’s small band of missionaries, few outsiders had actual contact with members of the faith. That all changed, starting in the 1920s.
After WWI, Americans were most likely to read about the House of David in their sports pages, as the church fielded a semi-pro baseball team that barnstormed around the country. Although players were an unusual sight with their often waist-length hair braided into a tight ponytail, it was a serious team, good enough to even win exhibition games against major league teams. They also wowed fans between innings with a fast-paced version of catch they called the “Pepper Game” — think of the Harlem Globetrotters with a baseball (short film clips here).
If you didn’t follow sports in the 1920s, perhaps you danced to the music of one of the House of David touring bands (although the musicians weren’t allowed to dance themselves). Both male and female bands hopped around the country, often playing large halls. The ten-piece jazz group, “House of David Syncopep Serenaders” even appeared at Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club.
But if you were anywhere near the upper Midwest, you probably thought of the House of David as a destination amusement park that attracted 200,000 visitors a year during the mid-1920s. The all-free entertainment included a vaudeville stage, bandstands for the House of David musicians, a 3,500 seat baseball field for the House of David non-touring teams, bowling alleys (they invented an automatic bowling pin setter) a miniature railway system with 11 rideable trains, and souvenir stands where artisan treasures and trinkets in jewelry, ceramics, leather or wood could be purchased and often customized with your name. And of course, there was an auditorium welcoming visitors in for religious lectures.
Give the Purnells their due; in only fifteen years or so, they transformed a fringe religious community that newspapers had pigeonholed as a “queer cult” into an entertainment empire worth a fortune. Their apocalyptic dogma was no longer mentioned in the press, and as far as I can tell, no newspaper mentioned that embarrassing detail about Jesus’ failure to show in 1916. Not that their religious past was entirely forgotten: As Purnell began collecting animals for his amusement park zoo, some papers printed rumors that the colony was building a modern Noah’s Ark. Ummm…..could they know something we don’t?
Legal troubles began as early as 1907, when the state of Michigan found that the House of David was less a religious association than a business, and forced it to change legal status. There were vague accusations against Purnell of “immorality” (read: statutory rape) from 1909 onwards, and by 1916, former members were charging in court that he was having sex with teenage girls, afterwards assigning them to marry randomly selected men in the colony. Of course, intimacy with their new husbands was forbidden because celibacy was a central tenet in Purnell’s gospel.
Similar suits followed, and Purnell went into hiding for four years. It later came out that he never left the compound during that time, but was an invalid under the care of a small cadre of trusted aides. Even most of his followers apparently thought he was away; it would be bad if the true believers saw the Seventh Messenger — a man they believed immortal — wasting away. Benjamin Purnell was fatally ill with a combination of TB, diabetes, and heart disease.
A 3-month trial in 1927 ensued, and the judge’s comprehensive 191-page decision (fully reprinted in the Benton Harbor newspaper and generally summarized in a period survey on religious cults) revealed that the House of David had many skeleton closets, and might have been more accurately called the Stalag of David. Children were poorly educated (Purnell’s own son could not read or write); members were not allowed to leave the grounds without passes from the office; all outgoing mail was read and censored; the women who managed housing, called “sweepers,” were expected to eavesdrop and inform on fellow members; detailed records were kept of the required monthly personal confessions; “scorpions” who dared to leave the cult were forced to sign blanket affidavits asserting there was no wrongdoing.
Most damning, however, was discovery that members were given “perjury books” instructing them how to testify regarding questions asked about “Benjamin and the girls.”
As it came out at the trial, a select group of girls age 12 and older always lived in rooms next to Purnell, and he socialized exclusively with them. Thirteen testified that he had coerced them into sexual intercourse via religious arguments, such as he was really “testing their faith” or suggesting they would become immortal as well. Judge Fead wrote in his judgement: “The general trend of the girls toward Benjamin’s quarters was too pronounced and regular to be entirely accidental….This is not true of all the girls but there was a general trend which brought a large number of them to Benjamin’s residence. It was not at all so with the boys…The conclusion is that Benjamin, from the founding of the colony, has had immoral relations with a large number of girls and women of the colony, and that such relations have been imposed on them by the force of Benjamin’s position and power as spiritual and temporal leader.”
The court decreed that the commune was to placed into receivership and Purnell banned from the premises, members allowed to visit him only under “proper protective conditions.” Purnell died eleven days later.
Your obl. Believe-it-or-Not footnote: In 1960, a sensationalized account of Purnell’s sexcapades appeared in a dimestore novel, “King of the Harem Heaven,” which was quickly pulled from the shelves after the colony sued the publisher for libel. But in 1972, Purnell’s great grandson was convicted of murder, despite a defense psychiatrist testifying that the defendant had read that book over and over as a youth, coming to identify with his ancestor as a “powerful, smart, and somewhat magical man,” the boy not realizing that the author was portraying Purnell as a psychopath.
SANTA ROSANS WELCOME SAVIOR
Are Preparing to Leave for Michigan Where They Will Meet Their Lord
There will be an exodus from this city Wednesday of parties who are going to meet the Lord. There are several Santa Rosans in the party and they are starting for Benton Harbor, Michigan, where they claim the Lord will appear shortly after the New Year, and where they hope to welcome the Heavenly Visitor. They are now disposing of their property and will hasten to the eastern city to extend a welcome to the Coming King.
The pilgrimage from this city will be headed by Mr. and Mrs. C. J. Norton, and they are very enthusiastic over the trip that they soon will take. The advent of the Savior has become their chief topic of conversation, and they are kept busy answering the various questions that are propounded to them by those who are curious about the purpose of their proposed trip east. It has been revealed to them that the Lord will reveal himself to a company of people composed of 144,000 of those who have been faithful, and that they will be the ones who are permitted to remain on the earth and inherit the same with all other good things that have been prepared for the truly good.
These Mr. Norton says, are the members of the house and Lineage of David who have been dispersed over the earth because of sin and now the time has arrived when they shall be gathered as the chosen ones, and those who do not avail themselves of this opportunity will be doomed to everlasting punishment. Mr. and Mrs. Norton expect to be joined on the trip by large companies from many cities of the state, including Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and other points. The trip will be made with considerable anticipation, as would naturally follow from those who are anticipating the final coming of the Lord to gather in those who have gone to meet him, and who are looking for his coming.
Santa Rosa people will doubtless regret the loss of Mr. and Mrs. Norton from the community, but will rejoice that they are going to be privileged to meet their Lord, and hope that they may be found in readiness when the Master comes to reward his servants “whether it be noon or night.”– Santa Rosa Republican, December 26, 1905
DEPARTED TO MEET THE LORDMr. and Mrs. Charles J. Norton Have Gone to Benton Harbor, Mich., Expecting to See Savior
Mr. and Mrs. Charles Norton departed on the afternoon train over the Southern Pacific en route to Benton Harbor, Michigan. They are going to meet the Lord as they believe, in that city, according to the story published in the Republican several evenings since. Mr. and Mrs. Norton are accompanied by their three young children, and were accompanied on the first stage of their journey celestial to Oakland pier by a number of relatives.
The people who left this afternoon are under the impression that the Lord will reveal himself to them and to his chosen people, numbering 144,000, at the Michigan city, early in the coming year. They have an abiding faith in this belief, and in carrying out their plans sacrificed their property here on Boyce street to obtain the finances needed to travel half way across the continent.
Mr. and Mrs. Norton assert that others from this city will also journey to meet the Lord in Michigan, and they expect to make their home there for some time to come. It is the belief of these people that they will be permitted to live and inherit the earth after the Lord has manifested himself to them in an unmistakable manner. The Santa Rosans believe they will be enaged [sic] from mortal to immortal on obtaining the expected vision of the Savior of Mankind.– Santa Rosa Republican, December 28, 1905
Still Await His Coming
Letters have been received from Mr. and Mrs. Charles A. Norton who recently left here for Bar Harbor [sic], Mich., to join others of the same faith to “meet the Lord.” The letters are dated from the “House of David” and tell of the colony of the “Lord’s chosen” who have gathered from all parts of the earth to await His coming. The colony is said to have all the conveniences that “modern science and ingenuity has invented from the greatest to the smallest.”– Press Democrat, January 17, 1906