Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times
We tend to think of cults, especially creepy polygamist cults, as a fairly modern phenomenon. The idea usually conjures up image of a 60s style hippie commune, with a handsome and charismatic man at the head of the group.
But all the way back in 1914 the Carter County Herald ran a piece on a Michigan based cult with the headline, “Mating In the House of David.” The story, based on a legal brief filed by a former member of the cult, alleged that women in the cult, many of them young teens, were assigned to men by means of a lottery system.
The item, with a November 20, Kalamazoo, Michigan dateline, reads:
“How more than 40 couples were forced to choose mates by a chancery plan in the House of David, a so called religious colony located near Benton Harbor, Mich., was disclosed in a bill of complaint filed by Augustus E. Holliday, a twenty-year-old girl, who is seeking a divorce from Allen Holliday.”
The story continued, explaining how the colony had been established “for more than 10 years” and was headed by a man named Benjamin Purnell who had “until recently… forbidden marriage,” because, “his flock… had not (yet reached) the perfect state.” When Purnell did finally allow marriage among his followers, Holliday stated that matches were made via lottery.
“Mrs. Holliday alleges in her complaint, more than 80 girls and men were led to separate rooms and the mating was decided by means of slips of paper, each containing the names of one couple,” the story reads. The story continued, alleging that, “matches were made without regard for love, the bill declares.”
Reading between the lines, there seem to be allegation of other untoward action from Purnell towards his young, female parishioners. The story said Holliday alleged, “that she fell a victim to Purnell when a girl of 17, and that other girls of the colony also were involved before the leader decided to permit marriages.”
It was an odd little item; interesting, but not overtly related to anything local. At least not at first glance. Located where it was in the scrapbook – following other general interest items from around the country, some of them related to divorce and relationships – it seemed like an oddity preserved merely for that reason, rather than any local historical connection.
A story in the June 22, 1922 issue of the Herald, however, would explain why the 1914 story was included in Uncle Jack’s scrapbooks.
More than seven years after the editor of the Carter County Herald included the story about the weird Michigan cult, the follow-up piece explained why it was more than a weird one-off to fill space in the paper.
The story, titled “Probe For Cult,” begins, “Under date of June 8th the Cincinnati Post had quite a lengthy article regarding two former Carter County citizens, Ben Pernell and his wife.”
The story continues, explaining that Purnell, whose name is spelled with the second letter as “u” and as “e” in different portions of the same story, and who “hasn’t shaved or had a hair cut in 20 years, is going to be investigated again.”
“Detectives have been snooping around the House of David, temple of the Flying Rollers, a cult of some 900 followers who live in a combination religious colony and amusement park along the shore of Lake Michigan, just out of Benton Harbor.”
Among the allegations were, “repeated reports of peculiar love rites in the House of David,” of the sort alleged by Holliday, as well as, “rumors of mysterious disappearances of cult members on High Island, a desolate outpost of the organization in upper Michigan.
“King Benjamin” and his wife, “Queen Mary,” of course called the reports unfounded. But they definitely raised the eyebrows of those outside the community, with Purnell preaching the end of days and – though he denied the reports – allegedly fixing dates to the impending apocalypse on several occasions before changing them.
But by 1922, the paper stated, the end of the world apparently concerned Purnell less than his possible legal woes and “the inroads modernism is making in the cult – including jazz and flapperism.”
Still, Purnell, remained defiant. The cult leader, who founded his colony in 1903, said at the end of the article, “Our colony has endured despite the slanders of myriad enemies.”
And despite the investigations and persecution, Purnell was never prosecuted. He was ordered by a judge to leave the cult in 1927, but he died a month later, never having been prosecuted on his sexual misconduct charges.
The House of David still exists to this day, but in a much diminished capacity. According to a 2017 Chicago Tribune article the cult – which eventually split into two organizations – had two members left at the splinter Mary’s City of David and “three or four” remaining at the original House of David.
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