May 25, 2004

Holy Rollers: Murder and Madness in Oregon's Love Cult

Frank MacHovec, Ph. D.
Cultic Studies Journal
Vol. 3, No. 1, 2004

Holy Rollers: Murder and Madness in Oregon's Love Cult
T. McCracken and R. B. Blodgett Published by: Caldwell, ID: Caxton Press, 2002, 295 pages, paperback. $16.95 ISBN: 0870044249
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The authors, a naturalist and a paleontologist with an interest in northwest U.S. history, refer to their topic as the “long suppressed” story of Edmund Creffield’s Holy Roller movement, started in 1903 in Corvallis, Oregon. (They explain that older folks in Corvallis don't want to talk about the Holy Rollers.)
Writing for the general public, the authors present the Holy Roller movement chronologically, with many anecdotes of the people involved and their life situations. The book includes 30 brief chapters averaging 10 pages each, and a 3-page epilogue. Also included is an impressive 15-page bibliography that includes birth, marriage, and death certificates, census data, and newspaper articles of the time.

Creffield, a German immigrant who came to the United States at age 20, was a Salvation Army dropout. His real name was Franz Edmund Creffield. He converted an experienced Salvation Army officer sent to discredit him, and the Salvation Army later left town—both events evidence of his charisma and verbal skills. Also impressive is how he was able to intrude into the personal lives and lifestyles of leading families in the community. Five feet six inches tall and weighing 135 pounds, Creffield was not physically an imposing figure. His strength was psychological, called a “hypnotic effect” by some who observed him. He began recruiting members using a traditional Christian approach, and then he claimed to be Joshua. Ultimately, he became a self-proclaimed apostle and gradually added his own version of the ideal religion.

Creffield’s strategy was to claim a direct divine connection and the power to “relieve suffering” by the laying on of hands. He appealed to those sensitized by guilt or a deprived childhood, although many otherwise normal people were also converted. His technique was to lower defenses and disinhibit by sermonizing for up to 24 hours to followers, mainly women, who rolled on the floor seeking forgiveness. This ritual, by which followers believed they became “God’s anointed,” was often repeated daily. Creffield’s ability to have women cancel their engagements to be married, deter married couples from having sex, and have others drop out of work or school demonstrated his power.
Members of the movement burned their furniture and prized possessions, belongings that Creffield called “carnal.” Nonmembers were “infidels” to be shunned, even if they were spouses or a member’s children.

As the result of growing public outrage, the sheriff had two local physicians examine Creffield in the presence of a judge and city attorney. They found him legally sane. Released, he escalated his message, prophesying an imminent end of the world, which drew public interest. Media coverage spread. So did rumors of this man surrounded by women, amid growing suspicion that he had sexual contact with them. He urged followers to remove clothing to be like Adam and Eve. Because the law didn’t stop him, a vigilante group of men calling themselves “white caps” descended on Creffield. He was tarred, feathered, and run out of town. A follower took him in and allowed him to continue his ministry in the family home. Creffield chose to marry a 16-year-old follower, but her family committed her to the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society (she was too young for the insane asylum). There, she was diagnosed as “bright but deranged, mind almost unhinged by religious fanatics.”

Creffield moved to Portland, Oregon and claimed he was “the second Saviour.” Page 62 refers to Maud Hurt vowing “to have nothing to do with him”; but, on the next page, she is referred to as Creffield’s wife, an unexplained gap. His effect on the mainly female group members was strong and destructive. They prided themselves on being “brides of Christ,” and allegedly to Creffield as the second Christ. This behavior further enraged the public. When he was seen nude with a scantily clad woman, he was arrested, tried, and convicted of adultery. He fled but was discovered hiding under a follower’s house. Sentenced to two years in the state penitentiary, he was a model prisoner and won release seven months early.

Creffield then moved to Seattle with his loyal followers. He claimed to have caused the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. This claim impressed group members and strengthened his hold on them. A brother whose sister was “ruined” by Creffield shot and killed “the second Christ” on a Seattle street. The brother, in turn, was killed by the sister he avenged. She later committed suicide, as did Creffield’s wife, bringing this tragic history to an end.
The book is written in a style more journalistic than scientific, although it is well referenced. Its major contribution is its description of how a destructive cult can develop in an average community. The narrative shows the vulnerability of otherwise normal people, and the escalation of a charismatic leader’s control over them. Parallels to modern-day destructive cults are obvious, with similarities to Jim Jones’ People’s Church, Marshall Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate, and David Koresh’s Branch Davidians. The book offers evidence that wielding total control over others may somehow contribute to a slow deterioration of the leader’s mental state. On the negative side, the book misleads when the authors present whole paragraphs in italics, written in the first person, as if they were direct quotes, when they are obviously conjecture and speculations about what people thought and said at the time. However, this is a minor flaw.
The book provides useful information about the developmental dynamics of cult-like groups and their leadership; as such, it is a valuable addition to the database of how destructive cults develop and to the psychopathology of their leaders. Recommended.

May 23, 2004


Alex Ginsberg
May 23, 2004

Charges of sexual exploitation are being leveled against a Queens-based guru who has presided over a worldwide spiritual empire for nearly 40 years, The Post has learned.

The 72-year-old Chinmoy Kumar Ghose – Sri Chinmoy to the faithful – moved to the quiet Briarwood neighborhood from India in 1964 and has since preached a philosophy of celibacy, vegetarianism and meditation to thousands.

His followers – estimated to be up to 4,000 worldwide – are not asked to replace their religious beliefs with his because Ghose preaches that all established religions are a manifestation of God.

The reclusive guru claims that on one occasion he lifted more than 7,000 pounds with one arm and says he has mastered 25 musical instruments.

But some of his longtime members – who are encouraged to paint their houses baby blue – are attacking the guru’s upright image through a series of damning posts to an online discussion board.

Anne Carlton, a former member for 20 years, told The Post Ghose summoned her for sexual encounters over two extended periods – one in 1991 and another in 1996.

Then, in 2000, Ghose called her at work and told her to have sex with another female disciple while he watched.

“I had never kissed a woman or touched a woman,” Carlton said.

“It was not something I fantasized about . . . My mind was completely blown. It was so hard for me, but not only did I do it but I acted happy about it.”

At least two other women have posted similar sexcapade testimonials – one claiming she became pregnant by Ghose, who paid for her to have an abortion in the early 1980s.

That woman, who did not want to be identified, confirmed to The Post that the testimony online was hers and was accurate.

Alex Zwarenstein, who served as one of Ghose’s official photographers until 1989, told The Post he airbrushed photographs to exaggerate the guru’s weightlifting ability – one of the key components of his image.

“He knew I was an artist,” Zwarenstein said. “He called me over to his house and he said, ‘You see that I’ve lifted this but the picture isn’t clear enough. Could you make it so that it looks like it’s a bit higher?’ “

Rudra Tamm, a member of the group since 1968 who served as the organization’s attorney until 2002, said Ghose’s operation is almost entirely cash-driven, with disciples across the world funneling parts of their incomes directly to the guru to support his life and activities.

Tamm said many disciples went into debt just to support the guru and to attend the group’s annual three-month winter trip.

“For a lot of disciples,” said Tamm, “their whole existence is saving enough money to go on the Christmas trip.”

Ghose, who has attracted several celebrities, including Olympic sprinter Carl Lewis and guitarists John McLoughlin and Carlos Santana, owns a house in Florida and four in Queens, including the two-story home on 149th Street where he lives.

The block is adorned with signs that read “Sri Chinmoy Street” – signs never authorized by the city, according to the city Department of Transportation.

There are also about a dozen disciple-owned and disciple-staffed businesses in the Parsons Boulevard area, including two vegetarian restaurants, a carpet store and a barber shop.

A major part of life in the group is athletics, particularly ultra-long running events.

In one particularly grueling project, the self-transcendence marathon, members walk and run around a schoolyard in Jamaica every day for three months, eventually “traveling” 3,100 miles – in honor of the guru’s 1931 birth year.

Ghose denied a request for an in-person interview. A lawyer speaking for the center, Ed Hayes, said that Ghose denied all sexual allegations and maintained he continued to be celibate.

“You’re going to have disgruntled people,” said Hayes. “His [Ghose’s] philosophy attracts many people, and some of them are deeply troubled, some in a sexual way.”

May 1, 2004

Antony Barnett reports on the killing that has shocked the Beatles' guru's college campus

The Guardian
May 1, 2004

Maharishi University are an incongruous landmark for a sleepy Midwestern town close to the Mississippi river.

Even more unlikely are the scenes that take place beneath them as students from across the globe gather twice a day to meditate and send out cosmic vibes of spiritual energy that they believe can heal a stress-stricken world.

But now a murder and allegations of a cover-up have shattered the tranquillity of the college and of the town of Fairfield, Iowa.

The killing of one student by another has threatened the future of not only what Maharishi disciples call 'a safe, harmonious campus', but also undermines the credibility of the one-time guru of the Beatles and spiritual leader to Hollywood celebrities including film-maker David Lynch and actress Heather Graham.

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the bearded purveyor of world peace, heads a movement of tens of thousands of people who believe their brew of transcendental meditation and yogic flying - a kind of bouncing which devotees claim is akin to levitation - sends out powerful vibes of harmony that can end conflict across the planet.

In the east-facing buildings of the 272-acre Maharishi University, some 800 students mix a traditional undergraduate education with a heavy dose of meditation and yogic flying.

But in the early evening of Monday 1 March an incident occurred which critics allege makes nonsense of the notion that meditation can bring world peace.

At 7pm Shuvender Sem, a 24-year-old from Pennsylvania, sat down in the university dining hall with fellow students to eat his organic vegetarian dinner. Suddenly Sem stood up, took a knife from his pocket and plunged it into the heart of 19-year-old Levi Butler.

In the ensuing melee, Sem stabbed Butler at least three more times before he was restrained. The police were called and Sem, said to be extremely calm, gave himself up. Butler was taken to Jefferson County Hospital, where the first-year student from California was pronounced dead.

The death left many in the college in a state of shock - if yogic flying brings harmony how could one of their own kill in their midst? And as further details of that day emerge, more serious questions are being raised about the Maharishi's theories.

The knife Sem used belonged to the dean, Joel Wysong. Earlier that day, in a class called Teaching for Enlightenment, Sem attacked another student, John Killian, stabbing him in the face with a pen. Killian needed seven stitches. Sem was taken to the dean's apartment where he was supposed to be under supervision. But it was there that he stole the knife before going to the dining hall.

Sem has been charged with aggravated assault for the first attack and first-degree murder for the second. But because the university authorities did not report the earlier crime, this has led to the allegation that they intended to cover up the violence.

Critics of the Maharishi - including former students and staff and Fairfield residents - have been inundating the local newspaper with calls and emails. They allege that the movement strives to prevent negative publicity that might halt donations from its wealthy alumni. Some claim incidents have been hushed up in the past, although no hard evidence has emerged.

The university defended itself by saying it was not its role to bring criminal charges and that this is the first such tragedy to happen on a campus claiming to be the most crime-free in America.

Some members of Butler's family are now considering suing the university, which could have devastating repercussions for its international reputation.

Butler's uncle, Benjamin Howard, posted an email which said: 'I am terribly angry that this organisation places its public appearance above the safety of its students. The earlier link "Safe Harmonious Campus" from the [university] web page reveals one major selling point for the university. Of course an administrator wouldn't wish to call police when something violent happens on campus. It would ruin that unblemished record of 30 years with no crime. If a lawsuit is necessary to teach this campus a lesson, then so be it.'

The Maharishi himself is reported to have blamed the violence on US foreign policy. Dr Craig Pearson, executive vice-president of Maharishi University, said: 'Maharishi Mahesh Yogi has made one comment regarding this event. He said that this is an aspect of the violence we see throughout society, including the violence that our country is perpetrating in other countries.'

But the most serious criticism levelled against the movement is that transcendental meditation may exacerbate existing psychological problems in students.

Dr Kai Druhl taught physics at the university for 13 years. He has since left to teach at a college 20 miles away after becoming disenchanted with the movement.

He said: 'There were certainly initial benefits for some of the students but the promise of complete enlightenment is just not true ... it just doesn't happen and I saw how this intense meditation can damage some students, particularly if they have mental problems.'

Druhl recalled a student with schizophrenia being told to come off his medication, as meditation along with a herbal remedy would cure him. The student had a major breakdown.

Druhl described a culture where such events were treated as 'top secret'. He said: 'There was a definite understanding between staff members that you must not allow any bad news to leak out. You were required to keep up this image of a perfect campus at all costs.'

Supporters of the Maharishi claim the murder was a freak tragedy that could happen anywhere. They say the university did all it could in the circumstances and has been as open as it can. Some blame the alignment of the planets for the tragedy, while others believe the 'Maharishi Effect' was not sufficiently in place to protect Butler because of the declining number of people meditating in the domes.

Bill Goldstein, the university's lawyer, said: 'In my 22 years as legal counsel the issue of image is never considered with regard to reporting incidents on campus. The university reports incidents to the police every week for their action and has always done so. The fact is that the university is the most crime free of any in this state. No incident like this has ever occurred.'

Defending the university's failure to report the earlier stabbing, he said: 'The injury did not appear serious. The event appeared as a very short altercation in class with a rather minor wound and its implications were, very unfortunately, not apparent at the time. Nevertheless, Sem was removed from class and placed in the custody of the Dean of Men to consider what immediate disciplinary or precautionary measures should be taken prior to a customary, full-scale disciplinary review.'

As the Maharishi and his followers grapple with the ramifications, the Fairfield newspaper summed up the mood of the community: 'The university cannot afford to ignore reality. It has an obligation to step back and take a good, hard look inside - for the sake of its students, its movement, its town and itself.'