When folks think of explosions of wild spiritualities they usually think of the 1960s and 70s. But California in the 1920s was equally as crazy, and many would argue more.
The Victorian Era started the ball rolling with Spiritualism, Theosophy and The Golden Dawn. Between these, all the concepts that would grow and be experimented with through the 20th century emerged: mediuimship/channeling, clairovoyance, astral projection, astrology, mixtures of eastern and western religious concepts, past lives, ceremonial magick, cabalic esotericism for non Jews, the list is endless.
All of these interests and the children of the Victorian generation who begat this explosion converged in Los Angeles during the 20s to the 40s.
It was at first accidental then purposeful. In 1920 the population of Los Angeles was 576, 673. By 1930 the population had more than doubled to 1, 238, 048. Why? Hollywood, baby. Hollywood came on the scene and hopefuls from across the land gathered to be part of the film industry. They were a perfect audience for the new forms and creative mixtures of Spiritualist, Theosophical and post Golden Dawn ideas that were erupting in the young, loose, anything goes era of the roaring 20s.
Before now, Lodges were the way this stuff was explored. Men had their Freesmasonry lodge, or their Rosicrucian group or hundreds of other types of lodges practicing everything from drinking to symbolic morality to the occult. During the 1800s Lodges were how it was done. But in the new 20th century things were changing. People with interesting systems of alternative spirituality were discovering a way to actually achieve stability was to form a little hub in LA and offer a correspondence course by mail across the country or even mail as far as Europe.
Correspondence courses quickly became the new Lodge. You would advertise whatever incredible new system or method of achieving amazing hidden knowledge of reality in magazines, and interested parties would contact you and pay you to send them a step by step educational course by mail. You would get your lessons mailed to you, mail back your “tests” and when finished with the system, which could take anywhere from 25 to 75 letters,, you’d graduate and be able to form local Lodges.
Over the decade as Los Angeles’ reputation grew, it attracted droves of occultists and those wanting to start their own systems of alternative spirituality as well as all the young Hollywood fodder.
To be sure, there was also an explosion of charismatic Christian sects as well as numerous more sedate Protestant denominations. But we talk today about the wild and crazy stuff.
Examples include the Blackburn Cult, also known as the Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven, or the Great Eleven Club. It was started in 1922 on Bunker Hill in Downtown Los Angeles,California and later formed a retreat in the Southern California Simi Valley. The group’s founder, May Otis Blackburn, is said to have received revelations directly from angels, and along with her daughter Ruth Wieland Rizzio believed she was charged by the archangel Gabriel to write books revealing the mysteries of heaven and earth and life and death.
In 1929 group leaders were indicted for grand theft and investigated in the disappearances of several members. These indictments created a media sensation when the background on the grand theft was revealed to the public. May Otis Blackburn was charged with twelve counts of grand theft, and articles at that time referred to Blackburn as a “cult leader.” The cult later collapsed after May Otis Blackburn was imprisoned for stealing $40,000 from Clifford Dabney.
The following is a wonderful summation by a gentlemen who goes on the web by the moniker Deadhand who was going to write a book on the subject of Occult and cult activity in Los Angeles during the 20s to the 40s. I alas, do not know his real name, but would LOVE to be able to properly credit him. Here is his take:
“A great many “lost” souls hoped to abandon the ways of the old world and make a new one on the West Coast, where the motion picture industry seemed to teach that all things were possible.
Films stars of the 1920’s 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 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 was said to have found Southern California a “fruitful field” for his studies of religious movements. He estimated that there were, in the late 1920’s, approximately 400 cults active in Southern California alone, with memberships numbering in the hundreds of thousands. The included such notable organizations as Zeralda and Omar’s “Love Cult,” also known as the “Sacred Schools Cult”, the Mazdaznan Cult, the “Perfect Christian Divine Way” cult, the “Christian Church of Psychosophy,” and the “Pisgah Work.”
There were numerous Devil-worshipping cults, too. A man name Macario Timon was murdered in Oakland in 1926, and in the victim’s home police found books and manuals of the cult and prayers signed in blood, indicating the victim himself was part of such the cult. They also found, behind a large red seal in a folder a sketch of a sun rising behind some hills, with a cross at the base of a tree, surrounded by bizarre symbols. 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 certain 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 jailhouse 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 but important role in another cult’s future, was based in Los Angeles and was adamant that the end of the world would occur on February 6th, 1925. She is estimated to have had a thousand followers and was the subject of much publicity at the time, to include mention in national magazines, yet she was rather more successful as a self-promoter than as a prophetess, as most LA residents would attest on the seventh day of February 1925.
A Mrs. Nelson was investigated in Oakland for her fitness as a mother after she admitted abandoning her children and husband. At the time of the interview, the abandoned husband was a resident of a state asylum. She claimed that one child, whom she had found and reclaimed, 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.
One woman under police protection in 1930 was so terrified of the cult she had joined and 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 Evangalista cult – the leader of the latter was found beheaded, with all his family members murdered in their sleep, allegedly by disgruntled followers. 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. And a New York writer complained in 1922 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.”
Not surprisingly, 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” cults, which, he said, caused the most trouble.”