Holy Rollers: Murder and Madness in Oregon's Love Cult
by T. McCracken and Robert B. Blodgett
A Sacrificial Bonfire
***My burdened heart was sad and sore;
The things that charmed me charmed me no more;
The pleasures that I once enjoyed Have left a sting,--my peace destroyed.
I wandered very far away; In Egypt I'll no longer stay,
My Father's house has and to spare; He offers still to me my share.
Coming home, yes, coming home, To Father's house I'm coming home;
Jesus calls, I'm coming home, To Father's house, no more to roam.
From the Reverend Knapp's Bible Songs of Salvation and Victory
Step three in starting a new church: Have one's followers obey one implicitly. That's what Creffield did.
This isn't as hard as it sounds. At this point in starting a new church, even someone who began with the intention of duping people is probably beginning to believe his own message. All these other people believe I am a special messenger from God--if not His exclusive messenger--so maybe I am. And if I am really God's exclusive messenger, that surely must mean I am in possession of special insights that ordinary mortals lack. So why shouldn't I be telling people how to live their lives? I know better than they do.
Joshua [as the flock now called Creffield] knew better than God's Anointed [as the flock now called themselves]--or so he and God's Anointed thought. They believed he had been given "the authority to regulate the details of their daily life"--even small details. For example, he said that to lead a holy life, they must never use candles or other forms of artificial light--"everything except the light of day was eschewed." As on Smith Island, Joshua said that it was necessary for them to frequently roll about the floor until their sins had been atoned for--and he alone would know when that was. And so God's Anointed obeyed, rolling and praying so loudly that neighbors said the noise could be heard a quarter of a mile away from the Hurts' house. "When they got together for the religious services, all would lie on the floor," O. V. Hurt said. "Creffield would walk among them and sometimes he would roll about, too. While lying this way they were supposed to receive messages from God. Creffield would keep telling them to pray and shout with all their might or God would smite them. . . . "He would keep telling them that God would smite them unless they did as he said. He claimed to be the Savior. I have known Creffield to keep them rolling about on the floor in this manner for from twelve to twenty four hours at one time."
Joshua established rules about how God's Anointed were to eat, how they were to sleep, practically how they were to think. In order to eat, Joshua had to "sanctify" all that was consumed by God's Anointed by touching it with his hands. This sanctification made what had been unfit, fit for consumption. For almost a week all he would sanctify was bread and water--so, according to Joshua, they would know hunger.
Then he sanctified nothing, not even bread and water: "And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh, by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock taste any thing; let them not feed, nor drink water."--Jonah 3:7. Joshua said he had been directed to tell them that they that were to fast, or he would be taken away from them.
Joshua ruled that men, women and children were all to sleep together on the floor in the same room while wearing little clothing. They were to do this so, according to Joshua, they would know cold. Joshua established rules about whom they could communicate with. If someone wasn't one of God's Anointed, refused to accept the "spirit," Joshua told them to have no dealings with "the infidels"--even if the infidels were members of their own families. "Those of your own household may fight you," Joshua warned. "When you get baptized with fire your friends become few."
The flock may have been half starved, cold, and estranged from their families, but they were God's Anointed. They were special. Their names were inscribed on a Holy Roll in Heaven. Could naysayers say the same? Which brought up the problem of O. V. Hurt. He refused to join Joshua's church, but living in his home, God's Anointed were having regular dealings with him. They now referred to him as the "Black Devil," and repeatedly warned him that God would "smite" him unless he made peace with God. Meanwhile, O. V. tolerated the Holy Rollers' presence in his home because he loved his wife and children dearly and hoped that by having them near him--instead of being off on some island doing God knows what--they might come to their senses. He and Sarah, forty-two, had been married for twenty-three years. They had met on the Oregon coast, where Sarah had grown up. When her family, the Starrs, including her brothers Burgess and Clarence and her sister Georgianah, had first moved to the coast in 1873, they squatted in an old Indian hut on the Siletz Indian Reservation. The Reservation was created at a time when the government was trying to "civilize" Indians. "Civilized" people were Christians who tilled the soil, wore cotton or wool clothing, and spoke English. The government parceled out reservations among Christian denominations, and the Methodists--those infidels--were given the Siletz Indian Reservation.
When they were first married, O. V. and Sarah lived at the Starrs' homestead on the Yachats River. It was there that their three children were born--a forth child, Mary Edna, had died in infancy. Later the Hurts moved to the reservation school, where O. V. worked as a teacher and Sarah as the matron. Because of disharmony among the Methodists working for the Indian Agency, the Hurts left the reservation in 1893. They moved to Corvallis where they had since lived peacefully and happily.
Now, when Sarah Hurt's brother, Burgess Starr, came to see his wife, Donna, at the Hurts' home, she refused to so much as shake hands with him. Joshua had warned her to not touch anyone who had "relations with the wicked world," even her husband: "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?"--II Corinthians 6:14.
At first, when Warren Hartley went to the Hurts' to try and persuade his mother and sister, Cora and Sophie, to go home, they lay on the floor in something like a trance and showed almost no signs of recognizing him. When they finally did acknowledge him, they said they weren't about to leave the "holiest of holies." Warren then wired his father to return posthaste from the Bohemia Mining District.
Lewis was aghast when he heard about the goings-on back home. He'd attended a few of Creffield's meetings when he'd first started preaching in Corvallis, but thought the man was harmless--Lewis was one of those who summed up his opinion by tapping a finger on his forehead. Why wasn't his wife home taking care of their their magnificent new ten-room house? This was 1903 and that's what women were supposed to do in 1903--especially proper women, women who were the wives of respected men, women of high character and standing, God-fearing, decent women.
For heaven's sakes, if Cora was bored and wanted to join some group why didn't she join one of the many fraternal organizations that flourished in Corvallis, organizations such as the Oddfellows, the Masons, the United Workmen, or the Good Templars? Then again, the Good Templars, a temperance group, was the only group that accepted women as members. And how would it have looked if Cora had joined them when it was known her husband drank--not to excess, mind you, but still he was known to have a drink or two on occasion.
When Lewis arrived at the Hurts' to collect his wife and daughter, Cora told him to go away. Joshua had enlightened her about marriage, how it was "unholy," and how "eternal damnation" was what awaited "wives and children who did not separate themselves from unbelieving husbands and parents."
Lewis could not contain himself. Were the rumors true? he asked Cora. Were orgies taking place in the Hurts' home? Cora, who had never lied to him before, said they were not.
How O. V. Hurt managed to live in this chaos and still maintain his job for as long as he did was a marvel to people. It was an extraordinary man who could come home from work daily, find twenty-some people rolling about his living room floor beseeching, "Oh, God, oh, Jesus," and return to work the next morning as though life at home were normal. But finally the "Babel of weird sounds" took its toll.
On Wednesday, October 28th, O. V. succumbed to Creffield's will, or saw the light. He resigned from his position at the Mercantile, sent a note in with his keys that said he had "been living in sin" and that hereafter he intended to devote himself "to the work of God." Signs were posted on the Hurts' porch and door: "Positively no admittance except on God's business."
"Instead of the neatly dressed man of a few weeks ago," the Telegram reported, "Hurt now wears the poorest kind of clothes, and his face is partly hidden behind a sprouting beard of several days' growth. He wears a soft shirt and a slouch hat, and his general appearance betrays a heavy mental strain."
"I believe all those who are followers of our faith are sincere and honest in their belief ,"O. V. said. "I have not so much faith as have they, but I justify them in their belief, and trust that since their views are but slightly in advance of what has been the foundation of many new sects, they are not unlike many who have preceded them and are therefore not justifiably the subject of contempt and ridicule. They preach the faith of John Wesley. They believe no more than many another sect has taught, the difference being that other sects after gaining ground and followers have begun to pander to the worldly."
The day after O. V. quit his job, a housecleaning took place at his home. People in Corvallis usually did a thorough housecleaning twice a year--once in the spring and once in the fall. During a typical fall cleaning, people took their carpets outdoors and beat them with a carpet-beater. The carpets were then laid back down on a padding of fresh straw, and tacked to the floor. Curtains, most of which were white lace hanging on brass rings from walnut or white poles, were washed, boiled, blued, and starched. While still damp they were pinned to a curtain frame to dry. While the curtains dried, the windows were washed until they sparkled.
Any items one didn't want, Jake Bloomberg took off one's hands. Jake drove a team and wagon about the county collecting things for his junk shop. "Any rags, any bags, any bottles today?" he would yell as he approached a house. "The junk-man is coming your way." Outgrown clothing was given to those with smaller children or made over. Garments no longer usable were cut into strips, the strips were sewn end to end, and the long strip was wound into a ball. Balls of this sort were then given to a woman with a hand loom who wove them into rugs and carpets. Nothing was ever wasted.
The Hurts' housecleaning that fall, though, was in no way typical. On Joshua's orders, the flock took all of the Hurts' furniture outside. . . and set it on fire! The flock then took bric-a-brac, kitchen utensils, mandolins, heirlooms, photos and other goods received from "carnal" hands, and put them on the fire. "When God sets us a-going, we will be like King Asa," Joshua preached, "cut down the groves, not stopping at that, but go right up, with drawn sword, and smash the idols of our own household, and make the inmates come down, down, down, until God can lift them up. Hallelujah! This is love divine. Have you got it? 'Buy the truth, and sell it not,' says God's Word."
Frank Hurt took his Cleveland bicycle, the one he rode from Corvallis to Oregon City in record time, and put it on the fire. He watched it burn alongside Mae Hurt's fine guitar, the one she won for once having the nation's second highest sales of the Salvation Army's War Cry.
Shotguns, dishes, baby buggies, and a stove were destroyed. Outside, wooden walks were torn up, and flowers, shrubbery, grapevines, and fruit trees were uprooted and added to the fire. Finally, a score of chickens, a cat, and a dog were added to the fire.
Cora Hartley, and her daughter, Sophie, went to their house, smashed their heirloom china, and hauled what possessions they could manage to the fire at the Hurts'. Not that there was much left in the Hartleys' new ten-room house. The two women had already sold most of their valuables and furniture to raise money for Joshua.
They then stripped Warren Hartley's place of photographs of his friends and other goods received from carnal hands, and added them to the fire at the Hurts'. When Warren discovered this, he got a gun and started on a "Holy Roller hunt." Had his friends not intervened, there would have been, he said "several 'apostles' knocking for admittance at the golden gate that night."
Una Baldwin, Sarah Hurt's niece, went to her home and packed her clothing and other belongings in a trunk. She put it on the porch for a drayman to have it transported to the Hurts', where it was to be added to the fire. Word was sent to her father, Edwin Baldwin, and he arrived in time to prevent her carnal goods from being taken to the Hurts'. But he was too late to prevent his daughter's return.
A second fire was started at the Starrs'. Their neighbors were awakened by a bright light and, assuming a house was on fire, jumped out of bed. When they got outside, they saw it wasn't a house on fire, but the Starrs' household idols--furniture and other household goods--going up in flames. Everyone in Creffield's flock now claimed to be in constant communication with God--not directly in communication with God, mind you, but in communication with God through Joshua, God's exclusive messenger on earth. Anyone who couldn't comprehend such an idea didn't understand Joshua's great overriding mission--whatever that might be. He hadn't filled the flock in on all the details yet, but he would. Soon.
God's Anointed also had a new prayer, one they prayed silently to themselves: Please, God, don't let Joshua be wrong.
What fools they would look like if Creffield was wrong . . . so he couldn't be wrong. Please, God, don't let Joshua be wrong.
Creffield no longer had to press God's Anointed to trust that he was having one-to-one chats with the Almighty. They provided the pressure all by themselves. They needed him now as much as he needed them. Now his goals--whatever those were, he would tell them soon--became their own.
Please, God, don't let Joshua be wrong!
The newspapers had a grand time with the story. "Rules of etiquette have been discarded," the Telegram reported. "The members apparently are drifting back to the mode of existence of people upon whom the stamp of civilization has not yet been placed."
"The Indians of the Quinault Agency are typical 'Holy Rollers,'" the Oregonian quipped. "Under the influence of religious excitement they roll from side to side until exhausted. There is no record, however, that they have broken up their furniture, roasted dogs and cats alive, or performed other sacrificial rites which lately made the Corvallis contingent conspicuous as physical demonstrators of 'religion.' But then the poor Indian is but recently civilized."
Many of O. V. Hurt's friends went to his home and pleaded to see him. Creffield or Brooks, however, met all callers, and wouldn't let anyone enter the premises. O. V. was "seeking God," they always said, and could not be disturbed. They themselves never stayed outside long because their presence was needed inside to receive the latest "message from the Holy Ghost." Almost no topics other than the goings-on at the Hurts' were discussed on the streets of Corvallis the next day. The walks between the Hurts' house and Mary's River Bridge were lined with the curious. There are some estimates that as many as 2,000 of the city's 3,000 citizens came to do a little prurient prying that day.
What had been whispered about before was now talked about openly. Were things other than religious services taking place among the Holy Rollers? Would Creffield and Brooks, "two huskies" really live in a locked house with a number of young girls, and do nothing but pray all day? Was Creffield taking advantage of the "weak minded"? Was Creffield preaching more than love--was he preaching "free love"? And what about Martha, the baby the Hurts' had recently adopted? Had she really been burned along with the dog and cat?
I came to
Jesus long ago all laden down with
I sought Him long for pard'ning grace, He would not take me in.
At last I found the reason why as light came more and more;
I had a shelf with idols on just in behind the door.
That shelf behind the door--don't use it any more;
But quickly clean that corner out from ceiling to the floor;
For Jesus wants His temple clean, He can not bless you more,
Unless you take those idols out from behind the door.
From the Reverend Knapp's Bible Songs of Salvation and Victory