This is one of the least accurate articles I’ve ever read about Edmund Creffield and the Holy Rollers. So why am I including it in my list of articles? Because it was the prime source of information in Wikipedia’ article on Creffield … until I edited the article.
BTW, I’m not knocking Wikipedia. I love it, use it all the time and even donate a bit of money to it every now and then. However, if you’re doing research for something serious (e.g., a term paper), I’d advice using it only as a starting point.
By Lewis Thompson , Startling Detective Magazine, March 1951, Vol. 42, No. 244
Strange indeed was his hold over women, and dire was the destruction and violence that followed in the wake of the prophet
In whatever low esteem the contemporaries of Franz Edmund Creffield may have held him, none, certainly, would have charged him with being dull. For around his person and personality there whirled in the few significant years of his career, two homicides, a suicide, an earthquake and an astonishing amount of sex promiscuity growing out of the most fantastic religious cult this country has ever known.
To this catalogue of dubious fame may also be added the observation that Creffield's accomplishments involved an unparalleled degree of feminine gullibility and receptivity to the power of suggestion.
The story of Franz Creffield's formative years would undoubtedly constitute a rich source for students of the more esoteric aspects of psychopathology. Unfortunately, these details are not known, aside from the facts that he was born in Germany, and that as a youth he came to this country and settled on the West Coast. After the year 1903, however, when Creffield was in his late 30s, data on him abounds, some of it, had it not been solemnly sworn to, pressing the limits of credibility.
Early in that year, there appeared on the streets of Corvallis, Ore., a lean, gaunt, bearded figure, who announced to the few listeners he could muster that, through divine revelation, he had been bidden to found the The Church, which was to be called the Church of the Bride of Christ. Moreover, he declared, the Almighty had appointed him head of the new cult, with the title of Joshua the Second.
But those among his hearers with longer memories recalled that he had been in Corvallis before, under the name of Franz Creffield, and on more worthy, but less dramatic business. In the autumn of 1902, Creffield's voice had been heard on the town's streets as part of a Salvation Army group, of which he was a minor figure.
The conclusion was inescapable that the new, self-dubbed prophet had wearied of the sober, legitimate objectives of the Salvation Army, and had decided to go into business for himself.
At first, Creffield was beset by doubts as to the effectiveness of his approach, for his converts were painfully few, and those from that mercurial fringe which continuously hops from one religious persuasion to another.
But he must have had something – perhaps it was the beard and the glowing eyes – to cause a slowly increasing number of otherwise sensible folk to take him seriously. Before spring was well under way, he was holding regular meetings at the homes of his flock, and instructing them in his guaranteed method of attaining salvation.
For some, perhaps not inexplicable reason, the women listened, and loved it, while their menfolk nodded solemnly, left early, and decided that on future meeting nights, they'd rather bowl, smoke cigars and drink beer with the boys.
That left Joshua alone, with several dozen women, who really believed he was batting 1.000. For his part, Joshua noted their devotion, and decided the time was ripe to deliver the real punch line of his particular brand of faith. But, sensitive fellow that he was, he told the ladies that one little detail would have to be changed – that henceforth meetings would be held in the afternoon. Something about the wrong vibrations of the night air.
A few noted that the new meeting time meant necessarily that all the menfolk would be at work. When this was pointed out to the leader, his eyes flashed scorn at the cynics, who were forthrightly banished.
Now, behind curtained windows and locked doors, Joshua really went to work on his flock. First, he solemnly exhorted the eagerly listening matrons, wives, spinsters and maidens to abjure the pomp and vanity of this wicked world and the evil of false pride.
This can best be described as the softening-up process. For soon, at one climactic meeting, he stood erect, and, particularizing on the theme of the wickedness of vanity, bellowed: "And the most sinful vanity of all is the vanity of clothes, which are a curse! Away with this curse! Destroy it, and be born anew! For I am your prophet, Joshua, the Second, and I ordain it!"
With Joshua, it was no sooner said than done, and even before he'd finished his pronouncement, he began to weave in and out of the congregation wearing nothing more than a glint in his eye.
The ladies, it appeared, were really sent. Within minutes, the floor was a writhing and rolling mass of nude and partially nude bodies, all gripped in the hysteria of religious fervor, all shouting praise to the Prophet, and gratitude for the sweet opportunity to be saved.
Such goings-on, of course, could not be kept secret. For one thing, the zealots among the ladies became missionaries in search of new material. Their friends, and their friends' friends, were invited to come to the afternoon meetings and be redeemed. A few of the newcomers stayed only long enough to sniff, outraged, and stalk out to mutter publicly about the scandalous behavior of some of the town's most respected women.
Others of the proselytes, however – a surprisingly large percentage – were converted. Indeed, the problem of space began to be a critical one, for, as the numbers swelled, there was scarcely room in an average sized parlor for each present to really roll her sins away without getting a neighbor's elbow in the eye.
At just about this time, Joshua gave the ladies another jolt. Having established the evilness of clothes and the righteousness of nudity, the prophet now pronounced another revelation of specific and very personal import to each of the faithful. From among their number, he said, he had been directed to select the one who was to become the Mother of a Second Christ.
If Joshua was not an honest man, he was certainly a thorough one. Now, at the meetings, he retired to the seclusion of another room with one or another of the candidates to test their suitability for the dedicated role he had described.
Considerably later, after cold reason had quenched the fires of their fanaticism, several of those involved testified that Joshua invoked some peculiar practices in this process of selection, including flagellation.
At the time, however, Joshua's performance of this interesting phase of his cult only increased the numbers of his flock and their adherence to him. As the summer of 1903 approached, it became apparent that the Church of the Bride of Christ needed larger quarters.
Joshua, who was business manager as well as Prophet of the organization, cast a speculative eye about for a suitable site, and fastened on wooded Kiger Island, in the a Willamette River, on which Corvallis lay. The only difficulty was that, being short of cash, Joshua could get no established contractor to erect the necessary buildings.
But this turned out to be a pushover for such an imaginative leader as Joshua. He had another revelation, in which he declared that the women of the flock were to construct, with their own hands, and out of the trees God had provided on the island a huge meeting hall and other smaller buildings which Joshua, from time to time, might deem necessary.
The faithful heeded the call with a zestful willingness, and soon the island was astir with chopping, dragging and hammering by dozens of women, of all ages, and all eager to see that the Prophet's revelation was fulfilled swiftly.
In a matter of days, the construction was completed and the meetings of the flock resumed with all the old enthusiasm and fervor. The Prophet and the ladies stripped and rolled, and when, at frequent intervals, Joshua continued the quest for the Mother of a Second Christ, these researches were conducted in the sequestered, vernal arbors in which the island abounded.
Unfortunately, Joshua the Second, unlike his Biblical namesake, could not command the hot, summer sun to stand still. In the course of time, autumn came to the Kiger Island community, and the Prophet noted that some of its members, to guard against the cold rains, were beginning to regard sweaters and dresses with a certain amount of favor.
Joshua was a man to recognize a portent when he saw one, and realized that to save his followers from the apostasy of clothing, he'd have to find more adequate shelter. He looked about in Corvallis, and through some minor, and still unexplained miracle, found a haven in the home of O.P. Hunt, one of the town's most respected citizens.
Back trooped the faithful to Corvallis. Daily, the Hunt house rang with the preachments of the Prophet, and the antiphonal responses of his audience. By now, Hunt, himself, as well as his wife, and daughter, Maude, was convinced that Joshua was pretty big stuff.
He hung up a sign over his door which read: "Positively No Admittance Except on God's Business," and gave himself over to other peculiar practices, which, although they undoubtedly sprang from sincere conviction, did nothing to improve the assessed valuation of his property. As the local newspaper of the town, which was now becoming alarmed, reported it:
"Certain caprices of religious fanaticism have been manifested at the house that are so unusual as to suggest a condition bordering on insanity. Walks about the house have been torn away. Much of the furniture has been reduced to ashes in a bonfire on the theory that God wills it. Kitchen utensils have been beaten to pieces and buried, and it is reported that house cats and dogs have been cremated."
Joshua, apparently was working on the theory that if you keep shocking them, they'll keep coming around. And, so far as his followers were concerned, this continued to be the case as the year drew to a close.
But a number of those outside the select circle, particularly the menfolk, were experiencing serious misgivings. Of course, they told themselves, the wild stories about nudity could not possibly be true, but still, this Prophet fellow would bear looking into.
This judicious attitude was given an abrupt shock, with the dissemination, all over town, of a photograph on Kiger Island. While it was a group picture, it was certainly an unposed one, snapped at the height of the nude frenzy of a "meeting."
All hell broke loose.
Fifteen shocked and outraged husbands took drastic measures, and half a dozen fathers sent their daughters to cool off in corrective homes. Then, in conjunction with others of the town's males, they dealt with source of what they considered all this deviltry.
On the evening of January 4, 1904, a delegation firmly, and not at all politely, escorted the Prophet to the edge of town, and there submitted him to certain ministrations. These took the form of reducing him to what he himself had described as his favorite condition – the nude – and then covering him, entirely, with a liberal coating of tar and feathers. In this condition, they left him, with the strong advice that he get out of Corvallis, and stay out.
But what the committee in charge failed to realize was that when you start pushing around a prophet, you have to contend with his followers, too. For the next day, it became known that Joshua was resting comfortably in the Hunt home, two of whose residents, Mrs. Hunt and her daughter, Maude, had searched for him the previous evening in the woods, found him, and brought him back to the house, where they helped restore his batterered person and outraged dignity.
Then, to compound this sensation and really give the town something to talk about, before a week had passed, Joshua and Maude Hunt were married.
Corvallis gulped, and then generously swallowed the event, believing, no doubt, that under his new status, Joshua would cease to be a menace to the modesty of the female population.
For weeks, this optimism seemed borne out. Joshua and Maude appeared to be settling down in connubial regularity, and the town breathed even easier when it heard that the Prophet, as he still called himself, had gone to Portland for a visit.
What the town did not know was that, never for a moment, had Maude's husband abandoned the conviction that he was duty bound to continue the hunt for the Mother of a Second Christ.
They did not know he had gone to Portland because of a hankering to test the fitness of a certain follower, whom he had noticed, but hadn't gotten around to, on Kiger Island, and who, in the meantime, had moved to Portland with her husband.
Corvallis, however, was not long to be kept in the dark. In mid-May, word reached the town, and the horrified ears of Maude Hunt Creffield and her father, that Joshua was wanted by the police. The Portland husband, it appeared, had surprised his wife and the Prophet and had sworn out a warrant for Joshua's arrest on a charge of seduction.
O.P. Hunt, who long since had soured on his son-in-law, gave concrete warrant of this feeling when he offered a reward of $150 for Joshua's apprehension, and his outraged daughter promptly sued for, and obtained a divorce.
The object of all this not-so-solicitous attention, however, was remarkably skittish about showing himself in public. The police looked, and public-spirited citizens looked, over a good section of Oregon, but they couldn't turn up Joshua. It fell to a small boy, concerned with the ancient and honorable pastime of fishing, to dig up a much larger worm than he'd ever imagined.
The small boy was Roy, an adopted son of O.P. Hunt, who, on a day in late August, 1904, while looking under the Hunt home for a bait can, came upon bits of food and other evidence which suggested that the place was inhabited by something human.
He called his father, who in turn called the police. After a brisk ten minutes of poking and shouting, the officers flushed from its hiding place an object which they recognized as Joshua. But it took an uncommon amount of imagination to do so. The Prophet was thin to the point of emaciation, stark naked, with the encrusted dirt of months clinging to his hide.
Tearfully, the Hunt women, mother and daughter, admitted the truth. Joshua, they said, had beat his way from Portland to Corvallis, presented himself to them secretly, and begged sanctuary.
The Prophet was unceremoniously hauled off to Portland where Multnomah County authorities promptly brought him to trial on the seduction charge. The prisoner admitted the specific act named in the indictment, but pointed out that it could not be a crime, since he had acted under divine direction. The all-male jury listened with skeptical ears, and indicated decisive disagreement with this explanation by finding him guilty. Joshua was sentenced to two years in state's prison.
God and parole boards sometimes move in mysterious ways, for the latter body of the state of Oregon permitted Joshua his freedom after serving only fifteen months of his sentence.
The released man immediately hied himself south, to Los Angeles, presumably to brush up on the prophet business and figure out his next operation. Before long, he had moved up to San Francisco, and from there began to write letters.
One of these was to a Corvallis girl, beautiful, blonde 17-year-old Esther Mitchell, who had been of the faithful in the Prophet's Corvallis heyday. Joshua informed the otherwise intelligent and appealing girl that the ultimate mantle had fallen on her. It had been revealed to him, he said, that she was to be the Mother of a Second Christ. It was now her solemn responsibility, he admonished, for her to await his instructions regarding the time and place to fulfill her great destiny. Esther received the letter and, in all sincerity and earnestness, believed it.
But the Prophet, it appeared,was hedging his bets, for at the same time he wrote to his ex-wife, Maude, who was living with her brother, Frank Hunt, and his wife, in Seattle, Wash. He reminded her that he was still God's appointed, a statement he rightly guessed she had never quite disbelieved, and told her he was about to resume his work. Would she not put away the evil thoughts concerning him she had once entertained, and join him again as his wife in the great undertakings which lay before him?
Maude was a pushover. She promptly replied that of course she would remarry him and urged him to come to her at once.
Joshua reached Seattle in early March, 1906, married Maude, and then settled down to live with, and off, Frank Hunt, his brother-in-law. The Prophet was never guilty of not recognizing a good thing when it was right under his nose.
First, however, he had to bring Hunt and his wife into his camp. By what exhortations he achieved this will never be known, but accomplish it he did. Before long, the two were as ardent followers as he had ever had, and when Joshua realized this, he moved in with his proposition.
The Church of the Bride of Christ, he told them, needed a new Eden in which to take up the glorious work which had been interrupted by the sinful men who had clapped him into prison. And Joshua knew just the site - a lonely, isolated spot on the Oregon coast, south of Waldport, where, in idyllic unity, the faithful could gather and live in accordance with the True Word, as expounded and interpreted by the only true Prophet.
There was only one minor detail, Joshua added casually. He would need cash on the line with which to take title to the property. However, he went on, this petty item need cause no great concern. Now, if the Hunts would merely sell their house, and turn the money over to him. ...
The Hunts didn't have a chance. Obediently, they did as Joshua suggested, and, days later, the Waldport property was bought. With so much accomplished, the Prophet had a couple of more convenient revelations. He told Maude and the Hunts that they had been chosen to precede him to the new Eden and ready it for the triumphant return of himself and the rest of the faithful. The latter group, he explained, were to be alerted by him, through the mails.
Joshua got busy with his pen and ink, while his relatives got busy with preparations for the journey. Finally, on the morning of April 17, 1906, the Prophet stood on the platform of the Seattle railway station, bidding goodbye to his relatives, who were taking a train to Newport, Ore., from where they would ferry across Yaquina Bay to Waldport.
Joshua figured it was a good occasion for a speech. "The hand of God is on the three of you!" he intoned. "You have been chosen for a great mission! Those who come to be saved will remember that you helped prepare a place for them, and your names will be blessed!"
Here the Prophet paused, sucked in a mouthful of air and then went on with his exhortation. "I have not told you before," he declaimed, "but now you may know that the disbelievers and the wicked are doomed! The evil will fall, and the scoffers be destroyed! I tell you there is a curse on their cities! Corvallis is doomed! Portland is doomed! Seattle is doomed! San Francisco is doomed!"
The departing trio nodded solemnly and swung aboard the train. The next day, at Newport, any cynical doubts they might have had that the Prophet had been talking through his hat, were dispelled when they heard the news that was electrifying not only the West Coast, but the entire world. On the very morning after the Prophet's dire forecast, San Francisco was being shattered by earthquakes and gutted by fire!
When a self-styled prophet calls such a shot as that, only the inevitable can happen. From Seattle, Joshua peppered the female population of Corvallis with exhortations and commands. "Come to Waldport at once," he commanded. "Corvallis will soon be destroyed."
If some in the town were timid, their reluctance vanished when the Hunts got word to Corvallis of the prediction Joshua had made on the Seattle station platform, That did it. Girls and women poured out of the town literally in droves.
The two trains daily to Newport on the Corvallis & Eastern Railroad were jammed with pilgrims headed for the Heaven-on-earth the Prophet was providing. Women left their husbands, and daughters their parents.
To Esther Mitchell, the fragile young blonde, whom Joshua had informed from San Francisco of her chosen role as the Mother of the Second Christ, the time of fulfillment was at hand. She had never wavered in her firm faith in the prophet, and she needed no dramatic, borne-out predictions to convince herself that his word was the word of God. For her, it was enough that he had established the new Paradise and summoned her. She was among the first to make the pilgrimage.
Throughout the month of April the trek continued, and as it did so, the population of the Waldport colony swelled. On reaching it, the faithful found that whatever living accommodations they were to enjoy, they would have to build themselves.
Meanwhile, back in Corvallis, the male population was progressively stunned, frantic and then furious. Wives, daughters, sweethearts – many of them gone. After the first shock had subsided, and the enormity of the situation realized, the boys who had been left behind first regretted their temperate conduct on a previous occasion when they had Joshua the Second in their too tender hands. Then and there, they determined to correct this grievous error. Guns cocked, they went out to find him.
It fell to Louis Hartley to get first crack at the quarry, and, at the same time, provide unwitting cause for the errant females to swoon more quickly at the sound of Joshua's voice, and more avidly to do his bidding.
Armed with an excessive amount of righteous indignation and a .32 revolver, plus cartridges, Hartley set out, not so much in pursuit of the strayed lamb, but of the bearded wolf, whose hide he hoped to puncture. The chase led him to Newport, and thence to the ferry slip, where, he had been informed, Joshua was in the process of shepherding a dozen of his followers to the new Canaan.
One thing wrong with Hartley was his timing. He arrived, much out of breath, at the slip, just as the ferry was blowing its customary three blasts to indicate that it was under way and about to enter the navigable waters of Yaquina Bay.
Frustrated and cursing, at thus literally missing the boat, Hartley drew out his .32, drew a bead on the figure of Joshua leaning over the rail of the retreating vessel, and pulled the trigger.
All he got for his pains was a feeble click. He tried again and again, but the gun failed to fire.
Aboard the ferry, Joshua, always the actor, was quick to exploit the advantage of this unpredicted miracle. "How ridiculous," he pointed out to his awe-struck coterie. "How ridiculous of the man to try to kill me: I am Joshua the Second and therefore indestructible."
The ladies listened and believed. When they reached their destination and had an opportunity to relate to their sisters in salvation the miraculous event, Joshua's stock, already well above par, soared even higher.
It is possible that their opinion might have changed, had they heard the diagnosis of the laconic gunsmith who subsequently examined Hartley's revolver. "How did you think this would go off?" the gunsmith asked. "It's a center-fire pistol and you were using rim-fire cartridges."
Although this abortive effort discouraged the enraged Corvallis male community, it did nothing to lessen their ardor for their now most pressing objective in life. Joshua, they still figured, should be rubbed out.
Therefore the Corvallis men trekked to Waldport and to the very heart of Joshua's woodland retreat. Again, they were notably unsuccessful. Joshua was an old hand at hiding out, and where the legally constituted authorities of a large section of Oregon had been unsuccessful, the motley Corvallis contingent could hardly expect greater results. Joshua, for a while, went underground, and then overground.
His direction in this latter phase was toward Seattle, and the Corvallis cavalcade got wind of his destination. A hurried council-of-war resulted in the decision that it would be inexpedient for those in the field to take up the chase for the fleeing fugitive. For the most practical of reasons, having to do with rail connections, they decided to telephone the alarm to Corvallis, where eager reserves waited poised for action.
In this squad was George Mitchell, brother of Esther, the designated Second Mother. The summons could not have reached a more responsive ear. This was on the afternoon of May 6, 1906.
The next morning he was in Seattle and managed to be hot on Joshua's trail before noon, even though the Prophet had found it expedient to trim sharply his flowing beard. The scene of the resultant dramatic incident was First Avenue, just off Cherry, in front of Quick's drugstore.
At this point, Joshua and his wife, Maude, both fully clothed, in deference to the local city ordinances, paused so that she might test her estimate, at a cost of one cent, against a weighing machine. As Maude stepped on the scale, George Mitchell, sure in the righteousness of his cause, silently walked up behind Joshua, and fired a bullet into his head back of the left ear. Apparently, it was a bad day for miracles, for Joshua fell to the sidewalk, and along with his life gave up his claim to indestructibility.
Maude, who might have laid claim to being one of the most deluded women of her time, took her new widowhood with a high degree of savior faire. "This man thinks he's killed my husband," she announced to the gathering spectators and the police officer who laid a restraining arm on George Mitchell. "But my husband is Joshua, the Prophet. In three days, he will rise again."
Indelicately, Joshua made a liar out of Maude. His body was turned over to the Bonney-Watson funeral establishment, who planted him in Lakeview Cemetery, and at this writing – nearly a half century later – he has not yet ascended from the narrow confines of his piece of Seattle real estate.
In accordance with the statutes, but with what must have been little personal appetite for their work, the authorities of King County indicted Mitchell for murder, and in late June, brought him to trial.
Seldom has a prisoner at the bar been more admired by those who watched the proceedings against him. The men of Corvallis supported him, in a body, with their persons and their purses.
It may be that the incidence of ulcers among the assorted newspapermen who covered the trial took a drastic rise during the proceedings. They were hunting sensationalism and they found it, but the frustrating and ulcer-inducing feature of the situation was that a large part of the testimony was so salacious as to be unprintable.
For the main body of the evidence concerned the life and times of Franz Creffield, and how this bore on George Mitchell's motivation. As witness after witness trooped to the stand to tell what they knew of the magnitude and frequently strange nature of Joshua's exploits, women in the courtroom blushed, lowered their eyes, and covered their faces with their fans; male jaws dropped; and the judge moved uneasily behind his bench.
Indeed, the only one in the courtroom who appeared unmoved by it all was Esther Mitchell, the defendant's sister and ardent believer in Joshua the Second, who sat throughout the entire trial as though the matter was of no concern to her, and who refused to testify in her brother's behalf.
From the very beginning, the verdict was almost a foregone conclusion. The twelve good men and true surprised no one when, at the end of the trial, on July 10, they returned a verdict of not guilty.
The state withdrew its restraining hand on George Mitchell and restored him to his admirers and well-wishers. For two days, this circle toasted and banqueted its hero and then George prepared to return to Corvallis, along with eighty of his fellow townsmen who had attended the trial.
The group, which included Fred and Perry Mitchell, George's brothers, reached the Seattle railroad station in time to catch the 4:30 train. In the waiting room, on the fringe of the crowd, Fred and Perry caught sight of Esther, and asked their sister if she, too, did not want to congratulate George.
The pale, intense girl appeared to fall in with the suggestion, approached George, and exchanged a few words with him. Then the four Mitchells began to walk toward the station platform. George and Perry were ahead, with Esther and Fred close behind. After they had traversed a few feet of the waiting room, Esther suddenly produced a small, pearl-handled revolver from under a coat she carried, thrust the barrel to within a few inches of the left side of George's skull, and fired. George died instantly.
Arrested on the spot and taken to a police station, Esther calmly justified the shooting to astonished police officials in this wise: "Of course I killed George. He killed Joshua the Prophet, didn't he? What else was there for us to do?" She went on to explain her use of the plural pronoun. Days ago, she said, she and Maude Creffield, Joshua's widow, had agreed that should George's trial result in an acquittal, they would themselves mete out retribution for the slaying of their beloved leader. Maude had bought the gun. Since Esther would have closer access to her brother, she had been selected as the agent of vengeance.
Shaking their heads sadly and heartily sick of the violence in Franz Creffield's wake, the Seattle authorities clapped Maude and Esther in jail and obtained murder indictments against them. Maude saved the county the expenses of a trial, for when a matron went to her cell one morning, she found the prophet's widow stiff and cold – a suicide by strychnine poisoning.
Esther, however, stood before the Bar of Justice and, although she refused to so plead, was found not guilty of George's murder "by reason of insanity." The court committed her to the Washington State Asylum, where she spent the next three years.
At the end of that time, she was released as having regained her sanity. For Esther, it was a small favor. A few weeks later, she died in Waldport – within hailing distance of the ill-fated New Paradise created by Joshua the Second.