Town remembers, fondly, celibate commune destroyed by sex scandal

BENTON HARBOR, Mich.  — Their members weren’t allowed to have sex. No meat, no alcohol, no tobacco and no personal property, either. Yet to this day, people talk about how fun they were.

These were the strict rules of the House of David, a  commune founded in Michigan a century ago by a man who called himself a messenger of God. He promised eternal life for those who joined his group and obeyed these rules. A thousand people came to Benton Harbor to follow him. And millions came to visit them.

“It was amazing the amount of entertainment and excitement there,” said Chris Siriano, the owner of the House of David museum in St. Joseph. “They wanted to have fun; they wanted to invite America into their lives; they loved to entertain and laugh and have a blast. They always told me it was a means to an end, to get them to tomorrow, ‘cause tomorrow was when paradise was coming.' ”

For years, they had their own zoo and amusement park, their own electricity plant, their own hospital, their own schools, and dozens of their own businesses. They built elaborate mansions to house all their followers. They even fielded one of the most popular baseball teams in the country at one time. They were like a city within a city, and when people out here talk about the old days, they inevitably mention the legend of the House of David.

“They had a profound impact on Benton Harbor,” said Bob Myers, curator of the Berrien County Historical Association’s museum.” Anybody that grew up here, back in the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, early ‘70s, you hear that all the time. Everybody remembers the House of David.”

But a lurid sex scandal involving the group’s leader brought a court trial, unflattering national media coverage and a swift end to the colony, which split in two and slowly died off over the years. There are only a few members left now, keeping to themselves, waiting for the imminent day when Jesus returns and establishes his kingdom along Lake Michigan.

Despite this controversial past, Benton Harbor doesn’t shy away from the group’s history. If anything, it’s celebrated and promoted, and remnants of its past are being preserved or brought back to life by locals who were never even members.

There’s a House of David room at the city library. A new House of David museum in next-door St. Joseph. The old amusement park is being resurrected. There’s even a bar in town that promotes a beer it brews using spring water from one of the colonies. Years after it disappeared from the public eye, the House of David still has an impact on Benton Harbor.

“It’s just a super mysterious, twisted, secret, unusual, fascinating story that touches everything from entertainment, to sports, to sex — or lack thereof — to religion, to everything,” Siriano said.

Although its reputation was stained in the 1920s, when more than a dozen girls in the colony told authorities they’d had sex with colony leader Benjamin Purnell, there are a lot of people who still look back on the House of David’s heyday with affection and nostalgia.

“Was it a cult? Gosh, he taught that he was the Messiah and the messenger of God. Was he? Who are we to say?” Siriano said. “I don’t think so, but I don’t believe that faith. But I love the people and I love the story. Yeah, it probably was a cult. But, you know, a good cult.”

Drawing in the masses

Benjamin Purnell was a twice-married former broom maker and traveling preacher from Kentucky who one day declared himself the seventh and final messenger of God, as foretold in the Book of Revelation.

He and his wife Mary wound up in Benton Harbor in 1903 and started a commune called the Israelite House of David on land donated by a follower. He preached that Jesus was about to return to usher in a restoration of the Garden of Eden. He prescribed an austere way of life. He encouraged entrepreneurship and hard work. And by 1916, more than a thousand people had joined him.

The group taught that all sex was a sin, even for procreation. Married couples who joined had to then regard themselves as brother and sister. Since killing is a sin, their diet was strictly vegetarian, and members refused to serve in war. Men were forbidden to shave or cut their hair based on a verse in the Bible, which meant members were instantly identifiable by their long hair and beards. And everything that was theirs and everything they would earn went back to the group, which fueled an economic empire.

They had a hotel, a resort, a restaurant, a zoo and an entire Island in Lake Michigan called High Island, which they logged for timber. They owned 100,000 acres of farmland and created what was billed at the time as the world’s biggest farmers market, and built the world’s biggest cold storage building for the food they produced.

Half a million tourists came every year to Eden Springs Park, the massive amusement park they operated featuring a bowling alley, a billiards parlor, a movie theater, a jewelry shop, a dance hall, a greenhouse, pony rides, souvenir stands, vaudeville shows and the world’s largest miniature railroad.

When a few of the colony’s long-haired men were refused jobs by the city because of their appearance, Benjamin Purnell bought a majority stake in the streetcar company, took over and staffed the cars with his tie-wearing, bushy-bearded, long-haired followers.

But as odd as their appearance was — and as mysterious as their doctrine appeared — they endeared themselves to residents of Benton Harbor.

“The people of the House of David were always regarded by people in the community as being kind and friendly and honest and helpful,” said Debbie Boyersmith, a local preservationist who would visit their park as a child.

Siriano agreed. “They really were the most kindhearted people I ever met in my life,” said the 55-year-old. He grew up in Benton Harbor, earned a degree in history at college, moved back and began researching his hometown's past.

“I’ve loved history since I was a kid,” he said. “The more I read, the more I studied, everything touched back to the House of David.”

He became obsessed. He collected thousands of House of David artifacts and opened museums in several locations. He spent time with the group’s remaining members, helped renovate some of their properties, wrote books and produced documentaries on the group. But his true passion is the House of David baseball team, which has its own floor in his new museum just outside downtown St. Joseph.

House of David baseball began as a distraction from celibacy, Siriano said. “They had a lot of teenage boys with a lot of pent-up energy. Benjamin noticed that they had some pretty good athletes, so they started a baseball team.”

They began playing on the semi-pro circuit and became a huge draw, not just for their talent, but especially their looks. In the clean-shaven era of the early 1900s, when major league teams forbade players from having facial hair, their appearance was shocking.

“They thought that man should be in the likeness of Jesus, so that’s quite a spectacle on the baseball field,” Siriano said about the players, who ran the bases with waist-long hair flowing in the wind behind them.

Soon, major league teams began scheduling exhibition games against them, games the pros would often lose.

“They were good,” Siriano said of the House of David. “They were very good.”

For years, they reportedly had an average winning percentage of .750, and often made it through a season without losing once. They were most famous for their “Pepper Game,” similar to what would later become the Harlem Globetrotters’ flashy antics on the basketball court, in which the baseball players would whip the ball back and forth to each other or make it seem to vanish in their beards. It fascinated their crowds.

But despite their athletic skills, the team wasn’t allowed to play in the major leagues because of their beards and long hair, so most of their time was spent playing in the Negro League, where they felt they had an affinity with others banned from playing the majors based on their appearance.

“They invited the House of David to play with them, and they became a huge part of Negro League baseball, which is really weird — a bunch of long-haired, white dudes,” Siriano said.

For a while, they were so popular, the colonies had several teams barnstorming the country. But by the 1950s, the team came to an end as the colonies faded. They remain a topic of fascination for fans and collectors of baseball history.

“I think it was their looks, I think it was the level of competition, the good quality ball and probably a little bit of mystery that surrounded them,” said Terry Bertolino, co-author of “The House of David Baseball Team."

Sin and redemption

It all came crashing down in the 1920s, when more than a dozen girls in the colony told authorities they’d had sex with Benjamin Purnell while they were still underage. Sex with the leader, they claimed, was presented to them as a necessary step in their salvation.

This caused a massive sensation. The ensuing trial featured 300 witnesses, 15,000 pages of transcripts and reams of national newspaper coverage. In the end, Purnell was convicted only of fraud and his religious commune was deemed a public nuisance. But the sickly man died of tuberculosis before sentencing.

The whole sordid affair left the colony reeling, and it split in two. One faction, the original Israelite House of David, was led by a former judge who took over after Benjamin Purnell’s death. The other was led by Mary Purnell, wife of the founder, who left the original group, took about half its membership with her, bought land just down the street from the House of David’s properties and began a new colony called Mary’s City of David.

To this day, the two groups remain next to each other in Benton Harbor, more friendly than not, as two strange islands within the urban blight around them.

Years after all the drama, the House of David is associated less with its scandals and unusual faith, and more with the group’s impact on the area’s history.

“I think they’re remembered for the things that were public attractions,” Myers said. “It was primarily a religious order, but that’s really not what people saw. They saw more of the public things, the public attractions.”

Their spectacular baseball team. The friendly, long-haired streetcar conductors. The massive farmers market. And the spectacular amusement park.

What remains

Carey Williams just wanted to buy another miniature train for his collection. He wound up owning a time machine.

Williams collects amusement park trains, and he learned that several unique ones were lying cold and unused at this unusual abandoned amusement park in west Michigan — not too far from his Chicago home — called Eden Springs.

He and a couple of others bought not just the trains but also 42 acres of the old park, creating a nonprofit and working to bring back to life what was still there beneath the weeds that now smothered everything. A few years ago, they opened it to the public for the first time since the 1970s, when the fading colony shut it down. And they fired up the famous trains again.

“I’m a collector, and most people collect things and put them on their shelf and at best, some people come visit, but it’s pretty much a private-type thing,” said Williams, 57. “Where this is something that I can share with the public on a weekly basis. There’s just a warm feeling inside knowing that people enjoy it every time they hop on the train.”

To the people who started coming by, it was about more than a little train. It brought back a part of their childhood they thought was long gone.

“The opening weekend, one lady walked in, and we were running the steam engine, and she could smell the steam, and she started to cry,” Boyersmith remembered. “She said, ‘This is what I remember from being a child, coming into this depot and smelling the train.’ You just can’t make that stuff up. People have that kind of memory.”

Boyersmith was born in Benton Harbor, moved to California and came back to Michigan a few years ago to take care of an ailing grandfather who was once a member of the colony and played on the baseball team. Restoring the park, the 57-year-old said, brings to life something her grandfather built. She was never a member, and the park isn't affiliated with either of the colonies, but she’s quick to defend the group’s reputation.

“You can call any religion a cult,” she said. “But it’s their beliefs. And while we may not share their beliefs, we respect them; we respect that that’s their way of life, and that they believe it wholeheartedly. The ones that are there, they’re our neighbors and they’re nice people. They couldn’t be kinder.”

She’s one of dozens of volunteers who clean and maintain the park. It’s far from what it once was, and it struggles to break even on small donations and $3 train rides. But they're making slow progress in making it viable again.

“We’re still uncovering what’s here and finding out what we have to work with,” Boyersmith said. “It’s kind of like uncovering an old civilization and seeing it come back to life a little bit.”

The park's grand, old fountain is flowing. The grounds are lit and decorated for holidays like Halloween and Christmas. And the original baseball diamond was cleared to host vintage baseball games in honor of the original House of David teams.

“Everybody’s really happy to see something done with it,” said Boyersmith. “People my age and older remember coming down here and having their first dance or their first kiss up there on the bridge. They did a whole lot of good stuff in the time they were here. We want to honor it and make it something they can enjoy again.”

Follow John Carlisle on Twitter: @_johncarlisle.


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