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The Blackburn Cult

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Although the beliefs and practices of what is now known as the Blackburn Cult are bizarre and border on humorous, they were probably responsible for the deaths of several people for which they were never prosecuted. This included non-prosecution for manslaughter after “baking” one of their disciples in order to cure her from a blood disease.

This story is not without a bit of macabre humor. Two of the cult’s followers, a married couple, preserve the dead body of their foster daughter for almost five years. During the first year of preservation, they moved around a lot with the cult and were naturally obliged to take their daughter’s body with them. In order to transport her from one residence to the next, they propped her up in the back seat of their automobile. “The remains were so well preserved that passers-by thought they saw a living girl.”

There are four stories below which begin with the time that authorities began their investigation into the cult known then as “The Divine Order of the Royal Arm of the Great Seal,” and end with her conviction on fraud charges. After the four stories is a link to a PDF file of a March 29, 1930 Sunday newspaper feature magazine insert about the cult. It’s a little hard to read but the entertainment value is worth it. After the PDF file link, I’ve posted some links to more current information about the cult. There is also a self-published, fact-based novel written by the son of the last surviving member of the cult entitled: “The Blackburn Chronicles: A Tale of Murder, Money and Madness.” The book is available at Lulu.com .

Update on 10/16/2014: A new, non-fiction book about this cult has recently been published and is available on Amazon: “The Cult of the Great Eleven.” The author has asked me to add his comments to each story.

 

Story #1:

BELIEVE CHILD SACRIFICED IN RITUAL OF CULT

Find Body in Casket at Foster Parent’s, Home In Los Angeles

PRESERVED IN ICE

Expected Resurrection, Authorities Told By “High Priestess”

 

[LOS ANGELES, Oct. 7, 1929] —Documents of a strange religion cult were examined by the police here today in an effort to determine whether the death of Willa Rhoads, 16-year-old “High Priestess” of the organization, whose body was found in a specially made casket beneath the floor of her foster parent’s home here, was sacrificed as a part of ritual of the organization.

The Great Eleven Club cult leaders, May Otis Blackburn and her daughter, Ruth Wieland Rizzio.

The Great Eleven Club cult leaders, May Otis Blackburn and her daughter, Ruth Wieland Rizzio. Photo Source: UCLA Digital Library Collection

The foster parents, Mr. and Mrs. William Rhoads were held as material witnesses yesterday after the officers unearthed the casket containing the girl’s body and another in which were the bodies of seven dogs.

Mrs. Rhoads tearfully admitted that the girl died more than four years ago and that her body had been kept for more than a year in the hope she would be resurrected through the powers of the cult. For more than a year after Miss Rhoads’ death on January 1, 1925, the corpse had been preserved in ice, the foster mother said.

Although a preliminary examination failed to produce anything indicating the girl had met a violent death. Captain B. W. Thomason, of the police “bunco” squad voiced-the theory that her life had been sacrificed in the operations of the cult.

Police suspicion was directed to the Rhoads home’ after two other members of the cult, Mrs. Otis Blackburn, the “High Priestess,” and her daughter, Mrs. Ruth Angelina Wieland Rizzio, had been held on charges of embezzling about $50,000 from persons who had contributed to the organization which bore “the name of “The Divine Order of the Royal Arm of the Great Seal.”

The dogs had been pets of the dead girl and, according to the story old by Mrs. Rhoads, represented the seven tones of Gabriel’s trumpet, which the cultists expected to proclaim “resurrection morn.”

The investigation was started- at the request of Clifford R. Babney, wealthy Venice, Calif., oil operator, who charges that after becoming a member of the cult he advanced approximately $40,000 to Mrs. Blackburn pending the completion of a book she was writing, to be known as “The Sixth Seal,”‘ and upon which the colony based its beliefs

Mrs. Blackburn’s arrest on an embezzlement charge disclosed activities of the cult, which brought revelations leading to the discovery of the girl’s body.

Her husband standing silently by Mrs. Rhoads told investigators that her stepdaughter had died of diphtheria January 1, 1925. Believing she would be resurrected, the body was placed’ in a copper lined casket made by Mr. Rhoads, packed in ice and for more than a year transported from one dwelling to another as the family changed residences. Despairing of the resurrection that never came, Mrs. Rhoads told officers that the burial took place Feb. 10, 1926.

Source: Associated Press, Oct. 7, 1929

Update on 10/16/2014: Comments & Clarification from author of a book on this cult.

The specially made caskets were cedar and lined with copper.  Willa’s stepfather soldered the joints to make them airtight.  He and a companion spent two days creating what amounted to a compact but reinforced burial chamber beneath the floor of the bedroom, i.e., they didn’t just dig holes and place the coffins in them.  It was a bit more elaborate.

Willa was preserved on ice for 14 months and then interred beneath the floor at the Venice cottage.  It took 600 pounds of ice a week to preserve Willa’s body (no one had household freezers back then). She was only transported once “upright” in a car – the day she died, and then she was wrapped in a blanket.  During every other move she was in her coffin.  The press made up the whole bit about her frozen body being moved around propped upright in a car – it sold papers.

Story #2

Los Angeles,  Oct. 9, 1929 (AP)] —Los Angeles authorities today attempt to ascertain whether four missing women, all purported members of the religious cult known as “The Divine Order of the Royal Arm of the Great Seal,” are dead, and if so what caused their deaths and what disposal was made of their bodies.

The body of 16 year-old Willa Rhoads, [the caption below says 19] described as a priestess of the sect was found Sunday in casket under the flooring of a house occupied by her foster parents Mr. and Mrs. William Rhoads, cult members. Investigation of the circumstances of her death and burial both indicated she died of natural sauces, but a chemical analysis of the body is being made.

Blackburn Cult 1

AP photo dated Oct. 7, 1929. Caption: The caskets of Willa Rhoads, 19 year-old princess of The Divine Order of the Royal Arm of the Great Seal, whose body was buried under the home of her foster parents, and of the seven dogs (in the other casket) which were buried in the same grave as part of the cult practices. – Photo donated to HCD by “Deb.” -Click to open larger photo in new window.

Members of a colony maintained by the religious order in the Santa Susana Hills hills north of here, were being questioned regarding the reported deaths of Frances Turner, Harlene Sartoris, Katherine Bolz and Addle McGuffin. Investigators say they have evidence to indicate ‘the women are dead and are attempting to learn in what manner they died and where they are burled.

Mrs. May Otis Blackburn, head of the cult, her daughter, Mrs. Ruth Angeline Welland-Rizio, and Mr. and Mrs. Rhoads wore held In the Los Angeles county jail until completion of the investigation of the reported deaths, the burial of Willa Rhoads, and charges of embezzlement made by Clifford Dabney, Long Beach oil man against Mrs. Blackburn and Mrs. Welland-Rizio.

Source: Associated Press, Oct. 9, 1929

Update on 10/16/2014: Comments & Clarification from author of a book on this cult.

Detective Frank Condaffer, homicide, is the man in the suspenders behind the casket in the photo on your site.  He investigated the Great Eleven and was also one of the detectives Margaret Rowen, another cult leader, turned herself over to in 1927, after arranging for the death of one of her former supporters.

Frances Turner was paralytic and unable to speak.  She died after being “treated” in a cult-created stone oven for two days.  Harlene Satoris had come to the Great Eleven after having been released from an asylum in Oregon, having both medical and mental issues.  She died from either a gastric illness or heart troubles on colony grounds  Katherine Bolz was never found – and may have never existed. There are no records of her anywhere, aside from newspaper articles.  No family, census records, etc.  Addie (not Addle) McGuffin reappeared in the 1930s and rejoined the cult.  No one knows where she was off to, though she was supposedly charged by the cult to hide the only draft of the Sixth Seal from authorities.

Story #3

[Los Angeles, March 3, 1930] Mary Otis Blackburn, organizer and high priestess of the Divine Order of the Royal Arm of the Great Eleven, a religious cult, today awaited sentence on eight counts of grand theft.

The woman, whose “concord” in the cult was that of “the North Star,” was convicted yesterday by a jury which had deliberated since Friday. She was ordered to jail. Her attorney has not revealed whether he will appeal the case. The penalty under California law is from one to 14 year in the penitentiary for each count.

The high priestess received the verdict with compressed lips. Her daughter, Mrs. Ruth Wieland-Rizzo and Mrs. Blackburn’s aged father wept.

The grand theft charges grew out of a complaint by Clifford Dabney, wealthy oil operator, that the cult leader had bilked him out of $40,000. He testified she obtained the money from him to finance the writing of a book to be known as “The Great Sixth Seal,” which she told him was being dictated by the Archangels Gabriel and Michael.

Dabney testified Mrs. Blackburn told him that the book would reveal sources of untold wealth in oil and mineral deposits.

Upon her promise to reveal the secrets of the book to him three years before it was distributed to the public, he said he agreed to finance it.

Dabney made his complaint to the district attorney last October. An official inquiry into the activities of the cult began immediately and resulted in the discovery of the body of a young priestess, Willa Rhoads, buried beneath the floor of her foster parent’s home. The girl had been dead three years, but the body was not buried until 1926 as Mrs. Blackburn told the foster parents the competition of “The Great Sixth Seal” would result in her resurrection.

Miss Rhoads body was preserved with ice, salt and spices. In the grave were found the bodies of seven dogs symbolizing the seven notes of Gabriel’s trumpet. The girl’s parents Mr. And Mrs. William Rhoads testified that burial was made when they lost faith in Mrs. Blackburn. An autopsy revealed the girl died of natural causes and no action was taken.

Source: Associated Press

Story #4:

[Los Angeles, March 14, 1930] Mrs. May Otis Blackburn, cult leader, yesterday was sentenced to one to 10 years in San Quentin penitentiary for the grand theft of $45,000 from Clifford Dabney, oil operator and cult follower.

A writ of probable cause was granted by superior court permitting her to remain in the county jail pending an appeal. A motion for a new trial was denied.

Mrs. Blackburn was accused of obtaining the money from Dabney on false representations that angels were aiding her in writing a book which would reveal the location of vast mineral deposits on the earth.

Update on 10/16/2014: Comments & Clarification from author of a book on this cult.

May Blackburn was released on appeal in 1931 by the California Supreme Court, which ruled, among other things, that the cult deaths and disappearances brought up during her trial were inconsequential to the fraud charge against her, and so prejudiced the jury.  There was also the question of religious freedom, the court ruling that as an American, anyone is free to give away as much money as they want to whatever religious leader they want, and if they are of sound mind, they can’t say they were defrauded.

Samuel Rizzio, May Blackburn’s son-in-law in 1924, disappeared after an altercation with his wife, Ruth.  There was circumstantial evidence he was poisoned during a subsequent cult ceremony, but since a body was never found, no charges were ever pressed against any member of the cult.  His brother, Frank, actually managed to convince May Blackburn to give him a job driving for her, and then spent his free time snooping around trying to collect clues on his brother’s death.  He actually found some, but to no avail.

The cult practiced frequent dog sacrifice, but also sacrificed mules and other animals.  It also sacrificed cars and trucks.  Its ceremonies and beliefs were about as odd as you can imagine.

Story #5

PDF Link: http://www.historicalcrimedetective.com/pdf/Blackburn-Cult-March29-1930-Feature-Story.pdf

Links:

Divine Order’s Tale Smacks of Cult Fiction

Wikipedia – The Blackburn Cult

Los Angeles and the 1920s Occult Explosion:  This story gives great background on the popularity of religious cults in Southern California during the late 1920s.

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