Cults of the 1920s

(I posted a draft version of the article below on the HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast forum in July, 2010.  It is copyrighted and excerpts should cite the source, “Cult of the Great Eleven,” and author, Samuel Fort.  Thank you.)

“It should be obvious to any man who is not one himself that the land is overrun with messiahs…Each of these has seriously made himself the center of a new theophany, has surrounded himself with a band of zealous apostles, has hired a hall for a shrine, and has set about busily to rescue Truth from the scaffold and put it on the throne.”

 – Charles W. Ferguson, The New Book of Revelations, 1928

 A prevalent perception is that cults, particularly California cults, are relatively new phenomena borne of the counterculture of the 1960s. Yet in many ways California experienced greater cultural change in the 1920s than at any time up through the modern day. The 20s were a time of excess, abandonment, and experimentation. This was the decade of Gertrude Stein’s and Earnest Hemingway’s “lost generation” of young adults who had been traumatized by the horrors of the Great War and who had subsequently grown cynical of the values of their parents and grandparents – the ones they held responsible for starting and perpetuating the horrific war.  

Believing the old traditions and values had failed them, many men and women sought liberation by rejecting all they had been taught and experimenting in all things new. A great many of these “lost” souls hoped to create a new world on the West Coast, where the new motion picture industry hinted that all things were possible.

Film stars of the 1920s immersed themselves in the occult.   A society page reporter, not from Hollywood and so unfamiliar with its ways, once visited a major studio of the time and was astounded to find that, “hundreds of performers are more than passingly interested in necromancy, superstition, and prognostication in general.” He reported that seers – palmists, crystal gazers, and trance mediums – were everywhere. “I am told that these do a truly amazing business among the players (actors).” He learned that many actors paid annual fees to astrologers so that they would be informed of any momentous planetary changes that might affect their careers.

“This modern world is full of primitive minds,” stated the famed religious scholar, Dr. Lewis Browne in 1929, when explaining how it was that men and women of his age could be so easily drawn toward unorthodox, pagan, or primitive religious practices.   A resident of Santa Monica, Dr. Browne found Southern California a “fruitful field” for his studies of religious movements.   He estimated that there were, in the late 1920s, approximately 400 cults active in Southern California alone, with memberships numbering in the hundreds of thousands. They included such notable organizations as Zeralda and Omar’s “Love Cult,” also known as the “Sacred Schools Cult”, the “Mazdazan” cult, the “Magi” cult, and the “Christian Church of Psychosophy.”

There were numerous Devil-worshipping cults, too. A man named Macario Timon was murdered in Oakland in 1926, and in the victim’s home police found books and manuals of the occult and prayers signed in blood. They also found a sketch of a cross at the base of a tree, surrounded by hills with an eerie sun floating above them, and bizarre symbols around the whole.   One of the prayers written in blood began, “Most powerful Lucifer…” and went on to beg for wisdom and knowledge that could be used to overcome enemies.

Purification by fire and “Garden of Eden orgies” were the hallmark of the Oroville-based House of Judah cult, in which members prayed and chanted together while a stitch away from being nude. They sacrificed lambs, which were burned alive, according to horrified neighbors.

A self-proclaimed “Bishop,” Wilbur Leroy Cosper, was arrested in Oakland in 1926 and sentenced to six months for violations of the “medical practice act” for mixing levity, religion, and medicine. His minions, who gathered to wait for him outside the jail, were “lightly clad dancers, major and minor deities, a scattering of archangels, and scores of (uncostumed) followers – mostly women.” They promised passersby a “resurrection day” to celebrate their leader’s eventual release. The “Bish,” as he was called, told reporters through the bars of his jail cell that they should attend the promised gala, which he hinted would include “graceful maidens in aesthetic dances.”

It is likely that many of them accepted the invitation.

Margaret Rowen founded the Reformed Seventh Day Adventist Mission, not to be confused with the Seventh Day Adventist church. Mrs. Rowen, who will play a peripheral role in the development of the Great Eleven, was based in Los Angeles and was adamant that the end of the world would occur on February 6, 1925. She was estimated to have had a thousand followers and was the subject of much publicity, yet she was more successful as a self-promoter than as a prophetess, as most Los Angeles residents would attest on the seventh day of February, 1925.

A Mrs. Nelson claimed that one of her children was born as a result of “delvings in the occult, mysterious experiments in mind control, and spiritual investigations” while she and her husband were members of an unnamed cult. At the time of the interview, her husband was a resident of a state asylum.

One woman under police protection in 1930 was so terrified of the cult she had abandoned that she refused to state its name for fear of deadly retribution. Eventually it would be known as the cult of “Hickory Hall.” The woman said that the priestess who ran the cult, a Mrs. Leech, also called the “Most High Interpretess,” “dominated the household mentally and physically…we could have no wills of our own, no thoughts except hers.” When the former member objected to children in the cult being spanked with sticks, she was bent over a chair and spanked by five other cult members instead, “just like a child.” She fled that same night. Later she would receive a telegram from her former cult brothers and sisters that contained only four telling words: “We won’t hurt you.”

In 1929, the Fresno Bee reported that the leader of the “Brother Isaiah” cult was traveling around Southern California in his “tri-motored airplane” inspecting property upon which he might open a new branch of his own cult. Area realtors were on the plane with him, pointing out properties that were available and haggling prices.

Indicative of just how accustomed Californians had become to cult activity is the fact that this story did not appear on the front page of the newspaper. It was not reported as news at all. It was conveyed as a minor happening on the Women’s Daily feature page, alongside Fall Formal Fashion, Rector’s Recipes, and a notice that a party was to be held at Mr. and Mrs. E.W. French’s home the coming Saturday.  

There were so many cults that the District Attorney had an undercover man whose job it was to infiltrate and monitor them. His name was Detective Eddie Kane and he achieved a flash of fame for befriending and then exposing the fraudulent activities of a popular spiritualist of the time, Elsie Reynolds.

An editorial in a Van Nuys newspaper in 1930 complained that, “Los Angeles…extends a welcome asylum to every cult of every kind that seeks a place to hide temporarily its ugly head until it can build sufficient strength to begin the spreading of its poisonous propaganda. The number of cults in Los Angeles are a standing joke the country over.”

Dan Thomas, a Los Angeles reporter echoed these sentiments when he wrote, “Detroit has its auto factories, Pittsburgh has its steel mills and New York has its night clubs; and Los Angeles, not to be outdone, has its own peculiar and unrivaled specialty, too – Los Angeles probably has more fake ‘religious leaders’ – and more suckers to follow them – than any other city in the country.”

It wasn’t just Californians joining cults, though. In Michigan there was the infamous “House of David” and the Evangelist cult (the leader of the latter was found beheaded, with all his family members murdered in their sleep, allegedly by disgruntled cohorts).  Chicago had the “Magi Cult”. Pennsylvania had the “Hex murders.”   Iowa had the “Flock of Holiness.” Kansas had the “Brotherly” cult, led by a blind pastor who required married women to kiss men other than their husbands or else suffer eternal damnation.  

A New York writer complained in 1922 article titled Freak Religions Infest New York that, “We have the most variegated menagerie of cults anywhere to be found,” lamenting that “freak religions” were infesting the city, being supported by “women of a certain age suffering from suppressed religion.”

In 1927, Charles Ferguson wrote in The New Book of Revelations that, “In the New York Sun for November 20, 1927, announcements were made of over one hundred and forty religious services for the one borough of Manhattan…fully half had to do with cults and sects of cults bearing no relation to any form of orthodox Christianity.

Obviously, cult activity was not contained within the borders of the United States.   In 1927, a reporter posed the question to his readers, “How do Americans and English residents of the Riviera amuse themselves?” According to Italian police, he wrote, “They join cults.” He went on to say the local police stations had to employ a secretary to track all the cults and sects. There were, one policeman reported, nude cults, vegetarian cults, Spartan cults, the Simple Life cult, and of course numerous “Occult” occults, which, he said, caused the most trouble. “It takes a secretary to keep track of the various cults and sects,” he complained.

Canada, not to be outdone, had the “Sons of Freedom,” a sect that was fond of, among other things, appearing nude in public.

Clearly, it was not difficult for the prospective leader of a new cult or religious sect to find followers in the post-Great War world. Many people were so hungry for alternative answers to age-old questions and dilemmas that they were willing to try almost anything and follow almost anyone. A new cult leader need not offer them doctrines that were particularly original in message, either. Many of the cults mentioned above were so similar in premise that it would be hard to distinguish them from one another were it not for their different locales and years of activity.  

Recurring mantras of cults of the era were that the world was coming to an end very soon; that the Great War had heralded the beginning of that end; that God had appointed the leader of the cult to be His spokesperson on earth; that the old way of interpreting God’s teachings must be abandoned given modern man’s more sophisticated and scientifically-based understanding of the universe; and that that God isn’t who, or what, had been historically believed.

This, then, was the fertile field in which May Otis Blackburn sowed the seeds for The Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven.


2 thoughts on “Cults of the 1920s”

Leave a Reply