Jul 15, 2017

A cult in Benton Harbor: The good and (alleged) evil of the House of David

The House of David's leader, King Benjamin Purnell, second from right with beard, is released on $120,000 bonds on Nov. 18, 1926 after finally being captured after years of evading the authorities in Benton Harbor, Mich.
King Benjamin Purnell
Ron Grossman
Chicago Tribune

July 14, 2017

One of the most remarkable things about the Israelite House of David — a religious commune founded in 1903 in Michigan — is that it still exists.

Its tumultuous history weaves together the allure of a charismatic leader who was called "King Ben" by the newspapers, a woman dubbed "Queen Mary," a popular baseball team, a jazz band and a compound that drew tourists to its gardens and zoo.

But the House of David faced allegations that it had a sinister side too. The cult and its leader, Benjamin Purnell, were accused of subjecting young girls to improper sexual activity with Purnell. A series of court cases and a state investigation into alleged "immoralities" were covered extensively by the Tribune in the 1920s — before the cult split into two.

Now the two compounds — the original Israelite House of David and its offshoot, Mary's City of David — sit just across Britain Avenue from each other in Benton Harbor, a small city on Michigan's western shore.

"There's two of us left here," said Ron Taylor recently. He joined Mary's City of David in 1977. "There might be three or four over there," he added, indicating the Israelite House of David.

Before the split, the group had perhaps 600 members, and it was among a number of sects that, at the turn of the 20th century, shared a common millenarian belief: The end of the world is at hand, so it's no time to be distracted by the pleasures of the flesh.

An attorney who later headed the House of David explained the group's premise to officials in 1939. By the Tribune's account, the attorney said "his colony is devoted to educational and scientific advancement. Members wear their hair and beards long, he said, because they believe they can absorb electricity from the air with their long hair. And the electricity is just as important as food."

But not all food. By his clients' beliefs, meat was a no-no. So too were tobacco and alcohol. Sex was sinful, and procreation was prohibited. A husband and wife could join only if they redefined themselves as "brother" and "sister."

Sex was, indeed, the group's nemesis. Allegations spread that the cult's founder, Benjamin Purnell, and possibly other men in the group, had sex with girls as young as 10. The accounts by girls and women in Tribune stories read like pages of Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel "The Handmaid's Tale."

The House of David was founded by Purnell, a traveling preacher, and a woman named Mary, whom he had married in Ohio despite still being married to another woman in Kentucky. A judge in 1927 would later say of him: "In the minds of his people, Benjamin has established a kingdom separated from the world in which he has held temporal and spiritual dominance, ordering the physical lives of the members and directing the aspirations of their souls and the operations of their minds."

Purnell came early to his twin callings: preaching and selling. With Mary, he traveled the Midwest, hawking brooms and salvation. Eventually they joined a Detroit commune, whose leader, Prince Mike, proclaimed himself "the seventh messenger," the last of a series of divine emissaries forecast by the biblical Book of Revelation.

Then Purnell stunned an 1895 prayer service. "I am the seventh messenger!" he announced, according to a Tribune account. "Fire and brimstone await those who doubt me!"

Banished from the group, Purnell and his wife resumed their wandering and by 1903 he'd formed the outline of his theology. Perhaps he saw himself in the tradition of the Nazirites, an Old Testament sect. Members didn't cut their hair, drink wine or go near a corpse.

Whatever Purnell's inspiration, the neighbors were outraged when he and his wife skipped their own 16-year-old daughter's funeral in Fostoria, Ohio. So the couple moved to Benton Harbor, where their luck turned. Their new Israelite House of David steadily recruited new members — a necessity, as procreation was forbidden.

Purnell's genius at mass-mailing advertising was noted in a 1914 Tribune article: "He mailed out thousands of books and pamphlets to prospective converts in all parts of the world." Many came.

Still, no one could say that Purnell tried to impose the group's ascetic regime on outsiders. The House of David profited from catering to pleasure-seeking tourists too. It regularly advertised in the Tribune, noting that it was just a 2 1/2-hour drive from Chicago. Ads touted its Eden Springs amusement park, zoo and a beer garden. Over the years, cottages and hotel rooms were available. Guests could enjoy "open-air dancing" to the sound of "vaudeville bands."

Clearly King Ben had an entrepreneurial sense. The cult even fielded a barnstorming team of baseball players who ran the the bases — their long beards trailing — and gained a national following.

The House of David baseball team spread the cult's beliefs and was a money-maker. Under its player-manager Jesse Tally — known as the "bearded Babe Ruth" — the team took on semi-pro teams. It played spring-training exhibition games against major league teams. A 1933 Tribune headline noted: "Yankees Defeat House Of David, 5-3; Break Camp."

Yet despite the popularity of its gardens and ballplayers, there were persistent rumors of a dark side to Purnell's teachings. According to a Tribune article, several women told federal authorities what they witnessed when Purnell and his followers made a fundraising appearance at a 1910 street fair in Chicago. One woman claimed Purnell slept in the girls' tent. Another added that "he has the young girls dance for him at night in their night clothes."

The authorities couldn't get Purnell's side of the story; he'd disappear whenever they wanted to talk to him. In 1914, the Tribune reported: "Benjamin is said to have hidden himself in a vault behind the bears' den in the colony zoo."

In 1923, the Tribune reported that formal charges against the colony were based on "a foundation of deceit, immorality and fraud." A grand jury in that case found that beneath the commune's supposed purity lurked "the rouge and powder, the knowing nod and the meaningful drop of the eye of sophisticated sisters of the street," as the Tribune put it.

That view was both supported and denied at another trial in 1927, which the judge had to start without him. Testimony was heard that young women were "forced into loveless marriages to shield the House of David from state investigators." Of one member, it was said: "She was pulled from under her bed, forced to dry her tears and go and be married." Purnell was accused of having sex with teenage girls as a purification rite.

A defense witness, whose daughter and son were prosecution witnesses, said: "They are dirty scorpions and liars."

Belatedly, Purnell came to court on a stretcher. Emaciated and weak, he denied he was guilty of anything. In November 1927, the judge ordered Purnell to leave the cult. He died a month later, having never been prosecuted on any sexual misconduct charges. In giving his ruling, however, the judge excoriated Purnell for "his betrayal of the spiritual faith of his victims and ... the use of the sacred aspirations of religion to gratify his lust."

That ruling ended a yearslong battle by the state of Michigan to dissolve the cult. A Tribune headline summed it up: "King Ben Exiled From Colony Of House Of David."

But survive it did — even as the sect split into two and Mary's City of David was built. Mary Purnell's leadership had been challenged, and in 1930, she pulled her followers out and founded the rival sect across the street. The cult's assets were divided, right down to the baseball players. Her team was the more successful one, bolstered by ex-major leaguers, such as Grover Cleveland Alexander. Satchel Paige, a Negro League star, called his bearded teammates "the Jesus boys."

Mary's City of David and its tourist attractions had a following in Chicago's Jewish community, too, for three reasons: Many other resorts were "restricted" to Christians; Mary's didn't serve meat, making her menu roughly kosher; and it built a synagogue for its Jewish guests.

Yet after World War II, neither sect was attracting enough members to replace those who died. Mary Purnell died in 1953.

By now, there are only a handful of members left. Ron Taylor, one of the last of Mary's followers, is encouraged by that. He notes that the dwindling membership is consistent with her timing of the day of judgment.

"She said it will come," Taylor explained, "'when all my followers could fit in a clothes closet.'"



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