Jul 24, 2016

'Breakaway Amish' a first-person account of rogue Ohio sect

Author was one of Bergholz Beard Cutters in Amish community


TK Barger



In a new book, Johnny Mast tells an insider’s story of an unusual crime spree among the Amish.

He was one of the “Bergholz Beard Cutters,” a member of an Amish community in eastern Ohio that had been isolated from others because of the way Bergholz’s bishop, Samuel Mullet — the grandfather of Mr. Mast — controlled his people.

The Bergholz Amish were not welcome among their fellow Amish. “Those other communities considered Sam a rogue bishop doing his own thing,” Mr. Mast writes in his new book, Breakaway Amish: Growing Up with the Bergholz Beard Cutters.

In Bergholz, where his family had moved when he was 12, Mr. Mast wrote, “I was only an Amish kid working construction and selling horses on the side.” But he was a favorite of his grandfather, and he took part in some of the rogue actions that Mullet ordered. Mr. Mast had joined the church at age 17.

“I can’t help but think back on how Bergholz was when it first started,” Mr. Mast wrote, “how friendly everyone was and what a good place it was. Everyone joined in on everything. We were good neighbors to each other.”

Mullet changed that; Bergholz became a cult with him as the leader. Mullet does not fit the stereotype many have of the Amish, as deeply devoted Christians who live to honor their God. Instead, as Mr. Mast tells it, Mullet canceled all church services and banned reading the Bible: “The devil is twisting things around. He’s twisting the way people are reading the words and confusing people,” Mr. Mast quoted Mullet.

Mullet also sent men in the community who he accused of misbehaving — based in part on a demand that they write down all of their sins and give the list to him (alternatively, they could buy their way out of the writing by paying several thousand dollars) — to sleep in chicken coops or the stable, and Mullet secretly slept with with the men’s wives.

After that practice had become common, Mullet convinced his people, most of them family members, that cutting beards would be a sign of contrition; women would have their heads shaved. “By humbling ourselves and cutting our hair, we could be cleansed of our sins,” Mr. Mast recalled.

Among the Amish, an Anabaptist sect that largely keep to themselves, beards are expected.

Then, at Mullet’s direction, Bergholz people went outside their community to attack other Amish by cutting their beards. Mullet targeted people against whom he or favored people in Bergholz held grudges, including parents who had left Bergholz, and the law got involved.

Mr. Mast participated in some of the hair cutting, including of his father. But, he wrote with some remorse, he took the care to at least try to give decent haircuts and beard trims, and became the community barber.

Mullet and 15 others from Bergholz were prosecuted. Mr. Mast, at age 22 in September, 2012, testified for the prosecution under a grant of immunity. The defendants were convicted of all 87 counts and imprisoned. Mullet’s sentence was the longest, 15 years, and five women and one man got the shortest ones, only one year.

The community then worked to stay together and provide for the families with inmates.

Mr. Mast first went back to Bergholz, but he said Mullet continued to run the community from prison. Mr. Mast finally left — left Bergholz and the Amish faith.

Mr. Mast’s story, written with Shawn Smucker, is a fast and conversational read in which he recollects the events, framed around his testimony for the prosecution in the beard cutters’ trial, and describes how far out of the norm was his grandfather’s lust for power and manipulation of all in his community.

“A lot of people ask me the same question, especially about those days in particular,” Mr. Mast writes. “Why would a bunch of grown men allow another man to treat them that way? I can’t say for sure, but I think that for most of us, Bergholz was all we had. Every friend we had in the world lived there, every family member we cared about at the time. And Sam held the key to all of that.”

Breakaway Amish is published by Herald Press, an arm of the Mennonite Church. Mennonites are spiritual relatives of the Amish; some Mennonites practice ways similar to the Amish, such as not having cars or electricity and limiting children’s education, but most Mennonites live as members of contemporary society with modern ways and education.


Contact TK Barger @ tkbarger@theblade.com, 419-724-6278 or on Twitter @TK_Barger.





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