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It'd be close to impossible to tell the story of every wacky cult or fringe religion that popped up in Los Angeles before World War II—weird spiritual beliefs have been wildly popular in the city since the 1920s and con men and the cunningly delusional took full advantage, starting cults based on healing, prosperity, sex, resurrection of the dead, alien contact, and extremely powerful rayguns. Here we've rounded up five of the earliest, most powerful, and most fascinatingly weird cults of those first days—starting as far back as the 1700s—who, in their strangeness, frankly put the later hippie cults to shame.
The Chinigchinich cult seems like more of a religious sect than a true cult, but we're including it as a notable pre-Anglo example of cultish behavior in Southern California. The sect became popular with the native Tongva people sometime around the Mission era; it "duplicates so many Christian ethical and moral precepts" that it may post-date the first Christian missions of the late 1700s, according to The Natural World of the California Indians. Members were initiated via hallucinogenic Jimson weed and sandpainting; eagle sacrifice was also an important part of practice.
The Reformed New Testament Church of the Faith of Jesus Christ
The first English book believed to be published in Los Angeles was called The Reform of the New Testament Church and it was written, perfectly, by the city's first cult leader. William Money was a Scottish fellow who'd been told by Jesus to head West around 1840. Mike Davis's Ecology of Fear says he called himself an "astronomer and weather prophet"; Carey McWilliams's Southern California Country says local residents called him "Professor Money," "Doctor Money," and "Bishop Money." He said he had healed 4,996 sick people (four more patients died), but apparently had few followers; most were native Californians (that is, Mexicans) and he published a Spanish-language book on disease in 1858.
Money also founded LA's first commune, the Moneyan Institute in San Gabriel, "based on common property and total obedience to himself," as Davis puts it. The buildings at the institute were designed to resist earthquakes—most were octagonally-shaped adobe with pyramidal roofs; the main house was ovular and aligned north-south "to 'ride out' the earthquakes," according to the book San Gabriel.
Toward the end of his life, Money created a map called "William Money's Discovery of the Ocean," which showed "San Francisco, a community that he detested … poised on a portion of the earth that he predicted would soon collapse, precipitating the city into the fiery regions" (McWilliams). Davis adds that Money was perhaps also the first to see Los Angeles's potential for apocalypse: "When local newspapers refused to publish [the map], Money invoked a curse on Los Angeles, damning it to the same fate."
Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven
Sure, the men had their cute little aliens and earthquake predictions, but leave it to a couple of Downtown Los Angeles women to give us a truly mindblowing cult story. Taxi dancer and serial rich-man-grifter Ruth Wieland started the Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven with her mother May Otis Blackburn in the early 1920s, after the angels Gabriel and Michael appeared to tell them to sequester themselves from the world and compose a book called The Great Sixth Seal, "explaining the mysteries of life and health, heaven and earth," as described in a 1999 LA Times story. The angels promised to eventually reveal hidden gold and oil deposits to the women, and the women further claimed they knew the secret to resurrecting the dead. Clifford Dabney, the nephew of oil baron Joseph Dabney, thought it all sounded terrific and donated $40,000 in cash and property, including 164 acres near Moorpark.
With about 100 followers, the cult moved to the Harmony Hamlet retreat, "after driving their cars into the mountains and leaving them to rust as a sign of devotion," according to Kim Cooper, whose novel The Kept Girl is based on the group. Here they built a compound that included a sealed-off temple holding "a massive gilded wood throne weighing 800 pounds, sitting upon four hand-carved paws and adorned with a lion's head" (from the LAT). Members also worked in a tomato packing shed, but handed their paychecks over to Blackburn at the end of the day before watching the women ritualistically sacrifice mules. Afterward, they reportedly danced nude.
But it was much darker than even animal sacrifice. Once Dabney realized he wasn't getting those secret mineral deposits, he went after Blackburn and Wieland legally, and in 1929 they were taken in on embezzling charges, according to an AP story from the time (republished on Historical Crime Detective). While investigating the case, police came across the body of 16-year-old Willa Rhoads in a specially-made copper and cedar casket, buried under the floorboards of her foster parents' house in Venice, next to another casket filled with the bodies of seven dogs (her pets in life). Rhoads, the daughter of two Blackburn followers, had died of apparently natural causes on January 1, 1925.
The cult leaders had declared her a High Priestess and her body was kept on ice "in the hope she would be resurrected," along with the dogs, who "represented the seven tones of Gabriel's trumpet." For a year, Rhoads's parents transported her around as they moved, before finally burying her under the floorboards in early 1926.
Meanwhile, police also uncovered four other mysterious deaths, including that of Frances Turner, who was apparently baked to death in a gruesome gesture at medical treatment. Wieland's husband also went missing at some point years earlier, and there was some evidence he may have been poisoned, but no body was ever found.
In 1930, Blackburn was found guilty of eight counts of grand theft and sentenced to one to 10 years in San Quentin, but she was released on appeal the next year. What was left of the Great Eleven "reportedly decamped for Lake Tahoe and was not heard from again."
McWilliams wrote that "the I AM cult is the weirdest mystical concoction that has ever issued from the region." Founded in 1932 by a Chicago couple named Guy W. Ballard and Edna Ballard (a professional medium), I AM was all about money and sex (which it forbade!). The Ballards earned $3 million selling books, phonograph records, I AM rings, "New Age Cold Cream," and "a special electrical device, equipped with colored lights, called 'Flame in Action'" (among many other things), and meetings involved "[b]uxom middle-aged usherettes, clad in flowing evening gowns … in a tabernacle that literally steamed with perfume." In 1938, the group provoked the Christian Century's terrific headline, "Another One in Los Angeles."
Guy claimed to have been enlightened on a hiking trip on Mt. Shasta in Northern California, where Saint Germain appeared to offer him a cup of "pure electronic essence" and a wafer of "concentrated energy." Then they flew around the world together. (Guy said Saint Germain was an Ascended Master, a supernatural being who belonged to what the theosophists call the Great White Brotherhood; many Southern California cultists claim to have been tight with membership.)
The cult spread throughout the US before Guy died in 1939; in the early '40s, Edna and her son were convicted of mail fraud, but eventually cleared on appeal. They moved to Santa Fe to watch their following dwindle. I AM is still around today, though, with locations in Mt. Shasta and Illinois.
Mankind United was started in 1934 by a man named Arthur Bell and its gospel stated that, in 1875, a group of men had "establish[ed] contact with a superhuman race of little men with metallic heads who dwell in the center of the earth," and that the little men (The Sponsors) told the human men that they wanted to help "eradicate war and poverty from the earth," according to McWilliams. Bell (The Voice) promised followers that if they and 199,999,999 other people surrendered all their worldly possessions to join him, they could all be freed from their middle-class oppression and given middle-class freedom:
More than 14,000 Californians thought that sounded pretty sweet and joined up with the cult between 1934 and 1941; meanwhile, leaders made gobs of money through affiliated organizations with names like the International Legion of Vigilantes.
Sometime after 1940, Bell started saying he had a ray machine strong enough to "knock out the eyesockets" of people thousands of miles away, and that it could be used to create power plants "capable of exterminating 1,000,000 people at a single blast." He also told a California legislative committee that he could go into a trance and wake up wherever he wanted.
Many of the anti-war leaders of Mankind United were brought down by sedition convictions in the early 1940s, but Bell went on to create the Church of the Golden Rule, according to the book Mystics and Messiahs; that group also required followers to give up all their possessions and Bell ended up with $3.4 million in assets, including six hotels, five restaurants, Santa Monica's Sorrento Beach Club, and a cheese factory.
· Cults Week [Curbed LA]