October-ganza Day 16: The Blackburn Cult

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October 16, 2015 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)

A dispatch from California describes a theosophist colony as donning white robes en masse for some “glorious fulfillment” which never arrives…

– “The Cal of Cthulhu”

Today we take a short break from the autumnal confines of New England and head towards Golden West to talk about a real-life organization that Keepers can use a model for that most fundamental group of Lovecraftian gaming – the cult.

May and Rita

The ‘Blackburn Cult’ (they called themselves “Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven” or just “Great Eleven”) was born in 1924 when (mother and medium) May Otis Blackburn and (daughter and actress) Rita Wieland Rickenbaugh Rizzio claimed to have been visited by the angels Gabriel and Michael.  Citing Revelation 11:3 (“And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth.“), the pair said they had been instructed to write a book to explain “the mysteries of life and health, heaven and earth” and to have been given secret methods for diving undiscovered deposits of oil and gold.

Ward Blackburn, straight from Central Casting for Creepy Henchman

Perhaps unsurprisingly the duo had a long history of swindling including duping gullible men into making loans in exchange for the promise of marriage.  California was then (as now) a hot-bed of fringe religious groups and so the ‘Great Eleven’ had no shortage of recruits when they decamped for nearby Simi Valley, where, on 164 acres gifted to them by a wealthy follower, a compound was built.  There was a temple, containing a gilded leonine throne (for the returned Christ), and a dozen cabins, for the cults members, who helped to fund the group by working as vegetable pickers on nearby farms.  All their wages went back to the cult, collected by Blackburn’s 28 year old husband Ward Sitton Blackburn (pictured), who “sported a long, drooping mustache and 5-inch-long fingernails”.  By night, members met in a nearby natural amphitheater where the leaders of the group performed animal sacrifices.  Afterwards the gathered cultists engaged in some de rigueur nude dancing and chanting.

Among it other very fringe notions, the cult believed that heating or cooling the body had beneficial effects.  On one occasion an ailing member was baked in an oven, which proved soon after fatal.  Another cult member, a teen named Willa Rhodes who was regarded as one of the group’s priestesses, died suddenly and was put on ice with the promise of eventually resurrection.  She was later transferred to specially constructed metal coffin and buried next to a septet of ritually killed dogs, the whole of which was kept under the floorboards of her parent’s home, still awaiting her promised resurrection.

Eventually disgruntled supporters sued Blackburn and during an investigation into those charges the police discovered the corpse of Willa Rhodes, the baking death of the other cult member and several suspicious disappearance related to the cult.  No charges even came of these, save for 13 charges of fraud (of which she was eventually convicted of 8) leveled against May Blackburn in 1929.  These convictions were overturned the next year when the California Supreme Court ruled that the testimony used to convict her had been taken illegally.  Most of the members had abandoned the cult however, and only a small group of true-believes relocated to Lake Tahoe, where the group eventually fizzled out.

Here is a newspaper article about the group from 1930.

If you simply must know more, there is an ebook on the topic by Samuel Fort – The Cult of the Great Eleven.  He’s also written more generally on the topic of 1920s cults.

(Call of Cthulhu Keeper’s note: I checked Secrets of Los Angeles to see what that book says about the Great Eleven and, much to my horror, discovered nary a mention!  Have they appeared in some other RPG source?)

Main Source:

Divine Order’s Tale Smacks of Cult Fiction“, The L.A. Times (May 23, 1999)

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