The Blackburn Cult, also known by the far more mystically delicious moniker “Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven,” was dreamed up by a mother-daughter duo who got into the religion business in 1924, after having visions of angels ... and visions of dollar signs.
For awhile, business was booming. Sixty-year-old May Otis Blackburn and her 24-year-old daughter, Ruth Wieland Rickenbaugh Rizzio, were making a killing bilking followers, Ruth’s would-be suitors, and an unfortunately deep-pocketed investor (who believed the women’s angelic contacts, Gabriel and Michael, would guide them to hidden reserves of gold and oil) out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The Great Eleven posted up in Simi Valley, where members built cabins and a temple (see below for image of a cult member known as “the King of Peace” holding a sacred object referred to by the group as “the Light of God”) and held down jobs at a tomato packing plant; all paychecks went back into cult coffers. There, they waited for Christ to return, as the angels had promised would happen.
To pass the time, they got creative:
At night the devotees gathered in a natural amphitheater on a brush-and-rock-strewn hillside to watch the high priestesses in their long purple robes kill mules they referred to as the “Jaws of Death.” After the gruesome sacrifices, forest rangers reported seeing the cultists dance in the nude.
On the same site, they constructed a brick “oven” in which they “baked” disciple Florence Turner, age 30, of Monterey Park, allegedly to cure her “blood malady.” Two days later, she died.
But Jesus was taking a long time to reappear, and so were those promised dividents for the Blackburn Cult’s wealthy investor. In 1929, May Otis Blackburn was arrested on fraud charges (some of her disgruntled followers subsequently also filed charges), and later convicted on eight counts of theft:
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.
But the fraud case put the Great Eleven on the radar of law enforcement ... and they found themselves in even hotter water after the body of a 16-year-old cult member was found buried under her adopted parents’ house in Venice, Calif. Interred next to young Willa Rhoads were the corpses of seven dogs “that represented the seven tones of the angel Gabriel’s trumpet;” that’s the dog casket in the photo atop this post.
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.
Although other cult members were reported to have mysteriously disappeared (not to mention that strange “baking” business with Florence Turner), no charges were ever brought in those cases. Blackburn was released after appealing her case in 1931, and in an interesting footnote:
[In 1931], the state Supreme Court ruled that testimony about the cult’s weird rituals was wrongly admitted at the prophet’s trial. “This is a free country, where there is freedom of religious worship, and it is not actionable to the court if the defendant made certain representations as to being divine.”
The Great Eleven cult reportedly decamped for Lake Tahoe and was not heard from again.
Top and middle image: AP Photo