An Iowa-Native Started a Bizarre Cult Back in the 1920s
Have you ever heard of May Otis Blackburn and the Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven?
I was recently listening to an episode of the podcast My Favorite Murder, when I heard about a strange cult that was started back in the 1920s in Los Angeles. To my surprise, the leader of the cult, May Otis Blackburn, was a native of Iowa! She was born August 2nd, 1881 in the city of Storm Lake, and her story is pretty wild.
In 1922, May officially started the Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven, also known as the Blackburn Cult. According to Wikipedia, she and her daughter Ruth Wieland Rizzio began spreading the word that they were the two witnesses of the Bible's Book of Revelation, and that eleven queens would rule the world after the apocalypse. The site says that May "claimed that the angels Gabriel and Michael were dictating a book to her and her daughter that explained all the secrets of the universe. She promised that when the book was published, the Seventh Seal described in Revelation would be broken in heaven and an apocalyptic event would occur."
As insane as that all sounds, May was able to convince others to join her group. Like a typical cult leader, she had her followers give her money and property. Over the course of seven years, May had garnered around $200,000 from her disciples (which is a lot more in today's money). An article from LA Almanac reports that a man named Clifford Dabney gave her more than $50,000 in cash and assets alone!
In addition to being investigated for defrauding members, May was also suspected of some more serious crimes. Several cult members disappeared or died under mysterious circumstances, including her daughter Ruth's husband Samuel Rizzio. It was rumored that he was poisoned after hitting Ruth, but his body was never found. Another one of May's followers was suffering from a health issue, and Ruth attempted to cure her. After placing the woman in what was described by LA Almanac as a "hot brick oven," she died.
At one point during the cult's run, members lived on donated land in the Simi Valley, where they built their own cabins and a temple. That's where they were said to have performed robed rituals, had orgies, sacrificed animals, and danced in the nude. One of the strangest stories about the cult involved a 16-year-old girl named Willa Rhodes. After dying of an infection in 1925, May promised that Willa would eventually be resurrected, as long as they preserved her body. LA Almanac reports:
"Fourteen months later, when the girl’s parents moved back to Los Angeles into a home in Venice, they brought Willa’s preserved body with them and placed it in a mental coffin beneath the floor of their house. Adjacent to her coffin was placed another coffin containing the sacrificed bodies of seven puppies, said to represent the seven tones of the angel Gabriel’s trumpet."
Surprisingly, May only spent a short time in jail for her cult activities. She was initially convicted for charges of grand theft, but in 1931, the Supreme Court threw out her conviction because they didn't want to impede on religious freedom. As far as the other allegations go, there was insufficient evidence to convict her of any additional crimes. But, the scandal did lead to the decline of the cult.
In case you were wondering, May DID end up publishing a book, but not until 1936. It was called "The Origin of God." She passed away in Los Angeles on June 17th, 1951.
A lot more information on the Blackburn Cult can be found in the book "Cult of the Great Eleven" by Samuel Fort. You can listen to an interview with him below:
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