Thursday, 1 September 2011
The Brides of Christ and the Salvation Army
Outbreaks of religious zeal disrupted more than one Western town. A self proclaimed prophet or healer would step forth to attract his share of believers and scorners, doers and back-sliders. Depending on the nature of his claims, he might also encounter opprobrium and tar and feathers. Usually such religious movements faded, as time and reflection turned believers into doubters, but occasionally the movements ended in violence and tragedy. The strange history of Prophet Joshua Creffield and his Church of the Brides of Christ was as twisted a tale of prophecy gone awry, as any. Double murder, suicide, and madness marked its end.
The story began quietly enough on a day in 1902 when a southbound passenger train made its scheduled stop at Corvallis, Oregon. Salvation Army Captain Franz Edmund Creffield was among those leaving the train. Creffield, a yellow-haired, slender, slightly built young man, had just been appointed head of the Salvation Army in Corvallis, and likely he scanned the depot platform looking for a greeting committee. Situated on the west bank of the rolling Willamette River, orvallis had just begun living down a reputation for rowdiness. Now the county seat, it was surrounded by thickly timbered blue hills and the richly productive soils of the Willamette Valley. Oregon Agricultural College, one of Oregon's land-grant institutions, was located there. Corvallis meant to be a comer.
So did Franz Edmund Creffield. Two years earlier, he had stopped to listen to Salvation Army services being conducted on a Portland, Oregon street corner, and he had seen the light. It shone so brightly for him that he joined the Salvation Army and rose rapidly to become a captain. What he had been before his conversion remains uncertain. A slight foreign accent marked Creffield as German. It would be claimed that he came from a well-educated, well-to-do Swedish family; that he himself was well-educated, and had once trained for the priesthood in Germany; and that he had deserted from the German Army. Whatever the truth, the Salvation Army respected Creffield's ability to bring in lost souls. Despite his frail appearance, the young captain possessed a booming voice and a magnetic personality.
These two attributes would shortly serve Joshua Creffield mightily. Soon after his arrival Creffield decried the Salvation Army as being worldly, not of God, and defiled. When he decided to form his own religious sect, a number of Corvallis Salvation Army members followed him. "I am Joshua," Creffield declared. He called his new sect Church of the Brides of Christ and its members God's Anointed. All, he said, would obey the precepts of spiritual love. The Church of the Brides of Christ lived up to its name from the beginning and attracted mainly women followers mothers and daughters, aunts and cousins. Girls attending the local college skipped classes to go listen to the new prophet. Meetings took place in members' homes. They were somewhat like afternoon tea parties.
That men worked all day to support their homes and families, and generally left the pursuit of culture and religion to their wives helps explain why most of Prophet Joshua's followers were women. Unfortunately for women who found it easy to give vent to pent-up emotions and frustrations through a display of undue religious zeal, attending one of Prophet Joshua's sessions was like willfully being wrung through a wringer to come out purified on the other side.
Immersed in a shared feeling of true belief and led by the rising cadence and frenzy of their prophet's voice, Corvallis matrons found themselves swaying and rolling, singing and praising, crying out avowals of sin and repentance. Self-identity merged with that of the group. There came a sense of oneness, of great mental release. The words of Prophet Joshua seemed all important. The actual physical fatigue which followed three or four hours of intense worship left the women's minds all the more open to Prophet Joshua's suggestions. His will became theirs. They, in return, gave Prophet Joshua strength. Their belief in him gave him belief in himself.
Men did number among Prophet Joshua's followers, but the percentage was never high. 0. V. Hurt, a prominent Corvallis businessman and a member of Benton County's Republican Committee, followed Prophet Joshua over from the Corvallis Salvation Army as did Hurt's son Frank. Yet another male came among the Brides of Christ when the Portland Corps of the Salvation Army sent William. Brooks to Corvallis to discover what was happening to the Corvallis Corps. Prophet Joshua converted Brooks into an apostle, much to the horror of Salvation Army Command who now moved rapidly to distance themselves from this breakaway group.
By the summer of 1903 Prophet Joshua had attracted nearly a hundred followers, who began meeting regularly in a house on Main Street. Only when people living nearby complained about the noise and the increasing tendency for devotions to continue late into the night, did the prophet seek out a more secluded place of worship. Kiger Island, a lushly vegetated strip of land set in the Willamette River six miles south of Corvallis, became the site of Prophet Joshua's summer camp. Here he and his Brides of Christ set up a tent city. In its centre, women constructed a twenty-foot square tabernacle, a wigwam covered with fir boughs. Not far from the tabernacle stood a small tent in which Joshua and Apostle Brooks (who was also busily contacting Salvationists to come and join him) obligingly whipped the devil out 'of sinners. The faithful would chant and roll for hours, even days, at their prophet's bidding. Members of the sect became noted for their sunken eyes, pale complexions, and far-away stares.
As services began, Prophet Joshua would sway and weave. The tempo of the chanting increased. When it seemed near peaking, "Away, vile clothes!" the prophet would suddenly shout. Off his came. Unabashedly, the faithful followed his example, and shirtwaists, skirts, chemises, petticoats, and corsets landed in colourful heaps. "Roll, you sinners, roll" Prophet Joshua cried, and roll they did.
Toward the end of summer a story began circulating in Corvallis that out on the island Prophet Joshua had begun search for the mother of a new saviour. Some married couples soon let it be known they were no longer a part of Prophet Joshua's following. Yet some of the town's most respected citizens continued to belong to the cult, among them Mr. Hurt and his family. Hurt came from pioneer stock, and no women in town could be judged more respectable than his wife and his oldest daughter, attractive, intelligent Maud. In fact, their membership in Prophet Joshua's cult helped allay suspicions regarding it.
The Church of the Brides of Christ's summer idyll ended with the coming of Oregon's autumn rains. Prophet Joshua with twenty of his followers elected to take up communal living with the 0. V. Hurt family. Then on the night of October 29, 1903 the cult's activities at the Hurt house electrified the citizens of Corvallis. A huge bonfire blazed on the lawn. Into the flames frenzied Brides of Christ consigned clothing, bedding, household furnishings, musical instruments (which had belonged to the Salvation Army - also the Salvationist's flag), even the wooden walks surrounding the house. They uprooted and destroyed plants and shrubbery in the yard. They beat into uselessness utensils that could not be burned. A rumour spread that Prophet Joshua and his followers had sacrificed dogs and cats in the fire, and had even talked of offering up a small child.
Signs appeared on the yard gate and above the front door which warned, "Positively no admittance except on God's business." Prophet Joshua and Apostle Brooks turned back anyone trying to contact those in the house. A reporter speaking briefly with the prophet learned that a message from God was about to be received inside. Infected by 0. V. Hurt's example, other Corvallis followers of Prophet Joshua set fires in their yards to destroy their worldly possessions. This spread of religious zeal outraged the other towns - people; sane folk did not commit such acts.
The crowd that gathered around 0. V. Hurt's house on Halloween night came more in anger than from curiosity- and this anger was fuelled by certain local preachers and the new Salvation Army Officer. Stones hurled from out of the crowd thudded against the Hurt house or crashed through windows. Two bolder men kicked the glass panes from the front door. Then, deputies arrived to protect the Hurt family from the crowd and to arrest Prophet Joshua Creffield and Apostle William Brooks on charges of suspected insanity. When the deputies entered the house, a young girl lay on the floor, her face covered with a cloth. Prophet Joshua lay near her, his head next to hers. Seated on pallets and ready to record the expected divine message, other Brides of Christ surrounded the pair.
"Don't lift the cloth," one follower warned a deputy. "The message will be broken." The deputy jerked off the cloth, but the girl remained in a trance. Prophet Joshua and Apostle Brook found themselves hustled off to the Benton County jail, while Mr. Hurt explained to the press. Prophet Joshua insisted on spiritual love, he said, and household goods and other possessions had been destroyed because they were worldly and because followers must renounce all worldly ties. Those living at the Hurt home awaited God's command to go out and preach. Hurt, too, had withdrawn from the world and would devote himself to the new faith. One Bride of Christ told the press, "They killed Christ, killed the apostles, and stoned the disciples to death. It's either heaven or hell, and I'm for heaven."
Many Corvallis people, especially those men whose wives and daughters appeared all too willing to forsake homes and families in favour of Prophet Joshua's teachings, now developed definite feelings toward the prophet. They wanted him out of town, never to return, and such was the ultimatum delivered by the Benton County Court when it could not legally prove Prophet Joshua or Apostle Brooks insane; but the two men had no intention of leaving Corvallis.
About this time a small photograph and copies made of it began to travel from hand to hand among Corvallis men. Unnoticed by Prophet Joshua's devout during their summer meeting on Kiger Island, a young photographer had slipped ashore to record the happenings. The photograph fully swung public opinion against Prophet Joshua. In all too clear black and white, the photograph depicted naked Prophet Joshua among recognizable, equally bare local Eves.
Outraged husbands and fathers reacted quickly. Wives and daughters were either shipped off to visit distant relatives or were committed to the state insane asylum at Salem, or, if the girls were under sixteen, to the Boys' and Girls' Home in Portland. Fifteen women and girls were committed to the two institutions. Esther Mitchell, a frail, lovely young girl, reportedly chosen as the mother for a new saviour, was among those placed in the Boy's and Girls' home in Portland. She had come under the prophet's influence while visiting the Hurts, for she and Maud were faithful friends. Esther's sister, Donna Mitchell Starr, also fell under the prophet's spell. To remove her from his influence. Burgess Starr relocated Donna and their young children in Portland.
Suddenly 0. V. Hurt underwent a change of mind. He renounced his faith in Prophet Joshua's creed and asked the prophet and Apostle Brooks to leave his home. Joshua and his remaining followers moved into a house on the east bank of the Willamette River. It was out of Corvallis, true, but was still directly across from the town and easily reached by ferry. On the cold winter night of January 5, 1904, twenty grim men surrounded the house in which the prophet had found refuge. Prophet Joshua and Apostle Brooks were seized and taken to Corvallis. The group marched openly down Main Street to a sawmill on the towds north edge. A pot of hot tar and sacks of feathers waited. "Let us pray," the prophet said. "We have heard too much of your prayers already," came the answer. Angry men forced Prophet Joshua and Apostle Brooks to strip, then covered them liberally with the tar and feathers, with an extra portion of the mixture assigned to Prophet Joshua. Met," said the Corvallis men with contempt, and pointed to the county line.
Apostle Brooks disappeared from Corvallis, but Prophet Joshua not only returned the same night, but eloped with Maud Hurt. The newlyweds headed for Portland, to visit Donna Mitchell Starr, who despite her forced removal to that city still maintained faith in her prophet. Shortly, Donna's husband brought charges against Prophet Joshua. The prophet had alienated his wife's affections, Starr claimed. Prophet Joshua disappeared. Concerned citizens, including 0. V. Hurt, posted a reward for information leading to Joshua Creffield's arrest.
For three months the prophet remained hidden, and Corvallis began to calm down. The town congratulated itself that the Church of the Brides of Christ no longer existed. Women who had been among its members were allowed to re- turn home from the asylum at Salem, and from the Boys' and Girls' Home in Portland. Then to everyone's astonishment, activity flared at the 0. V. Hurt house as the Brides of Christ met again. Women insisted on picking and tending flowers, particularly those which grew along the northwest corner of the home. Hurt sighed and sent his wife back to Salem and other men kept a closer watch on their womenfolk.
On July 29, 1904 Boy Hurt, the fourteen year old adopted son of 0. V. Hurt, decided to go fishing. Needing corks for floats, he checked under the house and noticed something white. Investigation revealed a pillow and two soiled quilts. "Roy," a voice said. Turning, the boy confronted the naked, starved shadow of Prophet Joshua. The boy ran for his foster father, 0. V. Hurt returned with the chief of police. The two helped the pitifully weak prophet from under the house.
Prophet Joshua had been living in a shallow depression scooped out among the foundations at the northwest corner, the darkest and least likely place to be searched. In return for messages and directives received during their flower-picking activities, a select number of followers had supplied the prophet with food. When Mrs. Hurt was returned to Salem and the other women were more carefully watched, Prophet Joshua's food supply virtually ended. For nearly a month, he had lain in his burrow, praying and starving.
The prophet was bathed, clothed, and placed in the Benton County jail to await the arrival of Sheriff Ward from Portland. Asked what he would like to eat, Joshua replied, "Anything but hog meat. The Lord won't let us eat hog meat, you know." He appeared taciturn, but rambled continuously, saying, "Oh, I feel so good. Jesus is so near me. Jesus told me last night this would happen."
The usual spectators gathered to watch Sheriff Ward escort the now notorious prophet to the Corvallis depot. Starr and three of his relatives were among them. Mr. Hurt counselled against violence. He also refused to accept the reward for Prophet Joshua's capture, due his foster son. Sheriff Ward further thwarted Starr's hopes of bushwhacking the prophet by having the tram stop two blocks north of the courthouse, rather than the depot. "I expect to be killed," Prophet Joshua said of his leave taking. "Men who are not understood are always killed. If the Lord commands it, I shall be killed."
Sheriff Ward got the prophet to the Portland jail safely. A group of ministers visited him while he awaited trial. They surveyed the thin, bearded prophet with curiosity and disdain. He should give up this mad business of being a prophet, they urged. "I am not crazy," Prophet Joshua replied. I am Elijah." "But there are other Elijahs," he was told. "There are many impostors," the prophet answered. "I am Elijah."
Prophet Joshua chose to defend himself at his trial. Instead of denying the charges of adultery, he harangued the jury, with Bible in hand. 1 am guilty in the eyes of the world, but God is on my side," he stated, adding that like Christ he had been misunderstood. Guilty as charged, voted members of the jury who thought they understood the prophet well enough. The judge sentenced Prophet Joshua Creffield to two years in the state penitentiary at Salem.
A model prisoner. Prophet Joshua was able to reduce his sentence by working as a member of the road crew. For each day spent labouring on the roads, one was subtracted from his sentence. Meanwhile, Maud Hurt Creffield's family persuaded her to divorce the prophet, and in Corvallis the Church of the Brides of Christ seemed a thing of the past.
Early in 1906 Prophet Joshua was released from prison. He went to San Francisco. But lack of followers there made it hard to be a prophet. The sedate town of Corvallis, with its green trees and blue hills, still appealed to him Prophet Joshua wrote his exfather-in-law: "Hurt, God has resurrected me. 1 have got my foot on your neck. God has given me back His own. I will return to Oregon and again gather all my people." He had a new plan - to take up government land on the Oregon Coast at a place called Ocean View.
The Corvallis-Newport railroad connected Corvallis with the Oregon coast, and it wasn't long before mothers and daughters, sisters and cousins began buying tickets at excursion rates. Beautiful Esther Mitchell bought a ticket. Not only had she kept her faith, but she worked as a go-between to help Prophet Joshua re-win his divorced wife, Maud.
Prophet Joshua dressed his followers in rough cotton wrappers, and again Oregon woods rang with his exultant cry, "Vile clothes, begone! Roll, you sinners, roll!"
Corvallis men, a few who had rejoined the recently reformed Salvation Army Corps, lost all patience. One angry husband trailed his wife to Prophet Joshua!s camp. In nearby Newport he bought a revolver. When he spied Prophet Joshua boarding a ferry to cross Yaquina Bay, he jerked out the gun, pulled the trigger five times, then threw the gun down, and kicked it away in rage. The husband had loaded the rim-fire revolver with center fire cartridges. "I am Elijah, the Restorer," Prophet Joshua reassured his followers. "No man can kill me."
Prophet Joshua took credit for the San Francisco earthquake that rocked the city and nearly destroyed it. He had cursed San Francisco with its churches that would not listen to him and in particular the Salvation Army which was by right his army,, he informed his faithful, and the same curse lay upon Portland and Corvallis, those towns that had dishonored him. Without knowing it was cursed. Donna Mitchell Starr would probably have left the city o£ Portland to be with the prophet anyway. Abandoning her sleeping family by night so the crying of her young children couldn't deter her, she left her husband a note and stole $3.50 from his pockets. Of the money she said, "I think I have been worth that much to you."
Donna walked the ninety miles separating Portland from Prophet Joshua's coastal camp, but the prophet had prepared to leave his Eden. Coastal residents were hostile toward him and his Brides of Christ. They made it difficult for him to lay in supplies his camp needed. Food was growing scarce, and a body of Corvallis men with lynching on their minds was said to have set out for his camp. By a circuitous route, Prophet Joshua left for Seattle, Washington. He intended to meet his ex wife there.
Unfortunately for Prophet Joshua, George Mitchell had had a revelation. God willed him to kill Prophet Joshua. It preyed on George's mind that two of his sisters, Esther Mitchell and Donna Mitchell Starr, should be willing dupes for this false divine. George followed Maud Hurt aboard the northbound train at Corvallis. He had a hunch she'd lead him to the prophet. She did.
Prophet Joshua enjoyed his Seattle stay. Not only were Maud and he remarried, but he was able to convince Maud's brother to sell his house and property and to donate the money to the new colony. Maud's brother and his family were already on their way to Ocean View on the Oregon coast. Prophet Joshua intended to follow, but first, he would buy Maud a new skirt. Her old one appeared quite ragged.
On the morning of May 7, 1906 Maud and her prophet set out early for down- town Seattle. They strolled down First Street, listening to the whistles and toots of incoming and outward bound ships in the harbour. Maud stopped to weigh her-self on a scale in front of the Quick Drugstore. From the opposite side of the street, George Mitchell sighted the couple. He ducked into the shadows of a doorway, and his hand closed around the .38 revolver concealed in his jacket pocket.
Maud and Joshua crossed the street. As they passed George, he stepped from the doorway, pressed the gun's muzzle against Joshua's neck and pulled the trigger. Prophet Joshua died instantly. Maud seized George, tried to hold him there. Then she dropped beside the body of her fallen husband. 'We cannot die," she told the summoned doctor. "He can never die. No man can kill him"
George awaited arrest calmly. He wired 0. V. Hurt in Corvallis: "I've got my man. I'm in jail here, George." Later he spoke freely with reporters. "I've been looking for Creffield and I got him," he said. 1 have no regrets. I am willing to take any punishment that is meted out to me without a whimper. I did not ill a man, 1 killed a brute. He obtained a devilish influence over my two sisters and ruined then and 1 only did what any true brother would do." One cynical reporter considered George's statement and assumed he had just heard the opening argument of the defence. He was right.
The men of Corvallis agreed with George Mitchell's point of view. 0. V. Hurt summed it up. "Mitchell's well aimed shot," Hurt said, "spared others the trouble of sending Creffield to an eternity that he deserved." Corvallis citizens prepared to journey to Seattle to testify in George's behalf, and a Corvallis newspaper volunteered to handle donations directed at defraying his legal expenses.
In Seattle, Maud Creffield buried her husband beneath a plain wooden marker reading, "Died May 7, 1906, Franz Edmund Creffield, Aged 35." Called as a material witness to his murder, Maud sat calmly in her prison cell. "Joshua will again be in our midst," she said, "and Satan will be rebuked. My husband cannot be killed. He is only sleeping. Next Sunday, he will arise and become the reincarnation of Elijah the Restorer"
Meanwhile, Seattle reporters discovered that whatever Prophet Joshua reffileld had been, he had also been a bigamist. He had married once before in Seattle. George Mitchell's open, boyish fact and candour won the sympathy of the public. Flowers, candies, jellies, and jams were brought to the King County jail for him, while at Joshua's camp on the Oregon Coast a handful of starving women tried to exist on mussels and edible plants. They sought shelter with the family of one girl, but her father turned them away. A timber cruiser discovered them accidentally, and took word of their plight to the newspapers.
0. V. Hurt set out to rescue them One was his daughter May, another his daughter inlaw with her five months old baby. A third, Donna Mitchell Starr, was wanted in Seattle to testify at her brother's trial. Onlookers jammed the court to watch 0. V. Hurt weep on the stand and recount the ways Prophet Joshua Creffield had destroyed his family. The man had gained wonderful powers over his followers, Hurt said. He would keep them rolling on the floor ten to twenty-four hours at a time. He made the women bum their clothes and wear their wrappers, and during the rolling ceremonies, even the wrappers came off.
Nineteen year old Esther Mitchell testified against her brother. "Creffield always treated me properly as he did all of his other followers," she maintained. The charges of adultery raised against Creffield by Starr had been false. Of the prophet, she added, "They sent him to the pen to break up our religious camp." Of her brother she said, "He never helped me. I believe he should be hanged."
The grand jury failed to agree with Esther. Finding George guilty of justifiable homicide, the jury acquitted him. Spectators greeted the decision with cheers and applause. Men rushed forward to pat George on the back. Two days later, Esther went down to Union Station to see George off, hoping she would forgive George, two of her other brothers had suggested the farewell. The light coat she carried over one arm concealed a pearl-handled revolver. She spoke briefly with George, then as he turned to board the train she pulled out the gun. Esther placed the muzzle beneath his left ear and fired. Death was instantaneous. As George had done, Esther awaited arrest calmly.
She and Maud Creffield had conspired to kill George. Because it seemed likely Esther would have the best opportunity, she gained the right to make the first attempt. She had succeeded. The police immediately arrested Maud as an accomplice to the crime. "He was a holy man," Esther said of Prophet Joshua Creffield. 'My brother was of the world and defiled. It was right that he should be punished for what he did, but the law set him free."
The law determined not to treat George's murderers with such leniency. King County officials found both Esther and Maud insane. Maud died in her jail cell of self administered strychnine. In accordance with her last wishes, 0. V. Hurt had his daughter laid to rest beside her husband, Franz Edmund Creffield.
Blame for George Mitchell's death shifted from the still young, still lovely Esther Mitchell to the dead woman. Esther never ceased maintaining Prophet Joshua had always behaved properly to- ward her. After three years in an eastern Washington asylum, she was released. A few weeks later she died quietly in the home of friends on the Oregon coast not far from the prophet's doomed settlement. And with Esther Mitchell's death ended the strange, twisted story of Prophet Joshua Creffield and the Brides of Christ.
Posted by David Miller at Thursday, September 01, 2011