by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It was a time-honored witticism that Los Angeles was the “home of fruit and nuts,” with the former being the oranges and lemons raised in droves in the area, while the latter referred to the many free-thinkers, adherents of alternative lifestyles, and the unorthodox religious folk who often added color and drama here in La La Land. For a time in late 1929 and early 1930, one of the more notorious religious groups in the region was the “Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven,” a small group of folks who had their “temple,” denoted as the “Church of the Divine Science of Joshua, the Branch of the Headstone of the Corner” in Los Angeles and a remote retreat in what is now Simi Valley.
Tonight’s highlighted artifact is a press photograph, from Pacific and Atlantic Photos, Inc. and dated 7 October 1929 of four women, two female teenagers and two girls standing at the porch of the organization’s headquarters, situated on Wilshire Boulevard just west of Western Avenue. The caption on the reverse noted that “startling discoveries came from police and the Los Angeles District Attorney today in their probe of mystical seances with death on the part of members of the weird cult . . . with two persons dead, six reported missing and witnesses to strange deathbed rituals in hiding, police advanced against the armed camp of the cult on the knob of the remote hills 11 miles up a highway from Santa Susanna [sic], California.”
There were lurid assertions and graphic accusations leveled against the cult’s head, May Otis Blackburn, including her alleged role in the deaths of a teenaged member found buried under her house with seven dead dogs and attempts at preservation of the corpse and the purported baking in an oven of another member, who died a couple of days later. Stories of the strange philosophy, titles, rituals and other elements of the association drew plenty of attention in local and national press, but a criminal probe led not to indictments for the deaths, but charges against Blackburn for grand theft concerning $45,000 she received from a member with promises to reveal to him profound secrets of life and knowledge of where to find great riches.
May Otis was born in 1882 in Storm Lake, Iowa, a town in the northwest part of that state, east of Sioux City. Little could be found about her early life, but, when she was about 15 and married to Alfred Weiland, she gave birth to a daughter, Ruth, in Union, South Dakota, in the western reaches of the state. In 1910, May and Ruth, sans Alfred, were living in Portland, Oregon, where May was involved in real estate, though later in the decade she launched a career as a motion picture producer and director with her comely daughter as the leading young lady.
By the World War One years, the pair were in Los Angeles, trying to get established in the film industry and May married her second husband in 1918, though that was short-lived and she wound up wedded to a step-brother, Ward Blackburn, (the two had the same mother) who was about the same age as her daughter. After several years, a miracle occurred while May and Ruth, who sometimes said they were sisters, were living in the Bunker Hill neighborhood as the Archangel Gabriel came to them and revealed a divine plan for the mother and daughter.
This led to the formation of the Order and the acquisition of the house in Los Angeles as its “temple.” The earliest located news items about the organization was in February 1925 when the Los Angeles Times ran a lengthy feature about May and Ruth which opened with this utterance from the latter: “Yes, and the Angel Gabriel used to come into the room where May and I were and after he dictated a while on the ‘Sixth Seal’ and the ‘Seventh Trumpet’ and how we were to gain eternal life and a mine full of nuggets and jewels near Bakersfield, and he’d croon the tunes of Cleopatra and I’d dance for him and he made me custodian of all the Egyptian dances . . .”
The reporter heard these utterances as Ruth and “her elder sister and proctor” May “sat in a ‘magic circle’ of the disciples . . . and prattled for hours such balderdash as this.” The reason for the media interest was that the city prosecutor’s office launched an investigation concerning “their efforts to publicize and sell their published versions of their hallucinations.” Notably, the article added that May and Ruth “seized upon the psychological moment when the attention of thousands had been attracted to the purported ‘end of the world'” to advertise about their visions and writings “which, they said, were to herald the birth of eternal life on earth.”
The article mentioned the attempt at a film career and resulting financial problems, though it reported this was done while May, her mother and stepfather, and Ruth were living in Seattle. It went on to note the move to Los Angeles “to pursue their film career—with May as director” though “fame and fortune didn’t come that easily.” Occupying a small room, while Ruth sought a reinvention as an “Oriental dancer,” what we might call an “exotic dancer” today, May “plunged into introspection. And, then—one night—came the Angel Gabriel!”
The paper added that local officials began taking an interest in the Order’s activities the prior summer and sat in during one of the magic circle sessions, during which an investigator was handed a purple and gold “commission” with an appointment as “Queen of the Holy Engraving.” It was noted that May was planning to build a complex of marble temples on Olive Hill, an East Hollywood eminence where Aline Barnsdall built her remarkable Frank Lloyd Wright home and estate. At the Wilshire Boulevard residence, there were several others, including a black couple and a trio with the monikers of “King Gale of the Four Winds,” “King Arthur of the Four Horsemen,” and the latter’s wife, “Queen Nellie.”
It was reported that May was long subject to “a spiritual dove and a mental voice [which] followed her wherever she went,” while her daughter “heard strange singing voices and poetry.” Over the course of a few days in 1919, a great voice was heard by both at their quarters on Grand Avenue between 3rd and 4th, near the Angels Flight funicular railway, and this was followed by the appearance of Gabriel. He intoned that May and Ruth were chosen as witnesses mentioned in the Book of Revelations “to forecast eternal doom.”
Over the course of forty-two months during the period of 1922-1925, then, the Archangel “lived with them and had dictated thousands of words to be incorporated into two books, ‘The Seventh Trumpet of Saint Gabriel,’ and ‘The Sixth Seal.'” In addition, Gabriel presented to Ruth “the ancient dance music of Egypt,” which was rendered for a Times reporter and “sounded strangely like an ancient carnival turn.” Ruth was eventually to show the world the “dances of Cleopatra and Salome” revealed to her by the Archangel.
In addition, the duo were led to a remote spot near Bakersfield and shown “huge stores of golden nuggets and precious stones,” which was to become theirs once they revealed the mysteries of the Sixth Seal to the world. The Chosen Eleven consisted of May, Ruth, and nine “queens” designated by them and these were to have eleven matching “kings” provided courtesy of Gabriel, with the twenty-two royal arms governing the planet “with the advent of eternal life.” It was on 6 October 1924 that May told the reporter that she was bestowed the honor of being a queen by a visitation from the Archangel the night prior.
To back up their claims, May and Ruth showed the journalist “thousands of pages painstakingly printed by hand and containing the most astounding, bewildering hodge-podge of biblical and mythological references, cross-references and statements that possibly has ever been gathered together. One selection was printed: “when you enter the passover—and go through the teeth into the eyes—time stands still—and there is no time—the eyes turn back—when you get on the other side of the teeth.”
What city officials were investigating was how May and Ruth developed their organization, including a publishing company named for May’s stepfather, Walter Blackburn, and what their plans were, while the city prosecutor told the paper “he will ask psychopathic authorities to make n investigation of the mental condition of” the mother and daughter.
Several days later, a cache of letters was found buried in a metal box in Topanga Canyon and addressed to May by a wealthy Portland lumber company owner who promised marriage, though he was married, but also delivered some $25,000 in notes to her. While it was not definitively determined that May was the recipient and owner of the missives, which included photographs of her and her beau, it was clear that this was the case. Yet, the matter disappeared from the pages of the paper and, aside from an early March 1925 notice that the Order was incorporated “to aid children and adults in distress,” it was another four years before May, Ruth, and the Order resurfaced.
In mid-August 1929, a writ of attachment was filed against May, Ruth, Ward Blackburn, the Blackburn Publishing Company and three others for the “Santa Susana Valley View Tract No. 1” in eastern Ventura County, valued at just above $17,000, by Clifford R. Dabney, nephew of a prominent oilman, Joseph Dabney, who made his fortune at the famed Signal Hill field near Long Beach (the Homestead has a 1912 portrait of the Dabney family, including Clifford, that we’ll feature in another post.) It turned out that Dabney handed over $45,000 to May under the promise that her long-gestating book would reveal spiritual and temporal secrets, including the source of the world’s wealth mentioned above.
In the meantime, the body of Willa Rhoads, a teenager dead for four years, was exhumed in early October under the floor of the house at Venice Beach owned by her foster parents. An investigation was launched into whether Willa was the victim of a sacrificial ritual under the auspices of the Order, as she was averred to be a priestess known as the “Tree of Life.” She was interred in a steel casket, while another larger coffin contained the remains of seven puppies, purportedly representative of the seven musical tones of the trumpet of the Archangel Gabriel. The remains were located below a concrete layer poured under the house and it was found that Willa’s body was sprinkled with oils and spices and wrapped in a sheet and a blanket, while the dogs were handled the same way.
Mrs. Rhoads told police that Willa was buried in this fashion because “her resurrection, which was to take place upon completion of ‘The Sixth Seal,” . . . was to prove the truth of the resurrection for the whole world” and validate the Order and its teachings. She later claimed she could raise he dead and thought she could do so with Willa. THe teen, it was stated, died from an infection that began with a tooth problem, though no doctor was summoned to look at her. May and Ruth declared that, while they knew of Willa’s illness and death, they counseled the Rhoadses to seek medical help” and that they made no promises of resurrection.” May added that she had nothing to do with ordering the burial or being responsible with the embalming. Moreover, it was reported that the Rhoadses moved several times since Willa’s death on 1 January 1925, keeping it packed in ice and salt until it was finally buried along those of the dogs.
A police captain was quoted as saying that he believed Willa “was sacrificed as a part of this weird cult’s rituals” and a report noted that Ruth’s husband, Samuel Rizzio, who married her in Santa Ana in 1924 and lived with her in the Rhoads house where Willa died, was missing and a search for him prompted from a complaint filed by his mother. Added to the reporting was May’s admission that she buried the box of letters and what was said to have been $100,000 in securities at Topanga Canyon and did so because “the Angel Gabriel personally commanded she must give up all worldly loves.
At the same time, Dabney, who joined the Order in 1924, made his accusation of theft against May and Ruth, who were arrested just before the discovery of Willa’s remains, and added that a healing ceremony was conducted over the young woman when she came down with diptheria. He continued that she was taken to the Santa Susana Hills ranch, likely the site of oil prospecting by his family, and placed in an oven to be “baked” as members of the Order “placed a hot brick against her body.” He said “they were told the girl was healed and had gone away.”
When authorities visited the four-room shack that was this rural “temple” of the Order, they found a throne, furnishings and other items “arranged in an imposing way” by May “to await the new ‘messiah’ who is expected to lead stricken humanity out of the burning bush of worldly sin.” A police investigator told the Van Nuys News that there were four missing persons and that it was thought “these four may have been buried secretly by members of the order as a part of their rites and their belief in a quick resurrection.”
A husband and wife who were members of the Order then told investigators that Frances Turner was placed in the same oven Willa Rhoads was “baked” the day before her death in the home of May’s mother, Jennie Blackburn. Most members of the organization were instructed to leave the ranch while Turner was “baked” the entire day, but no one saw here subsequently, even though it was asserted she was quickly buried at the Moorpark Cemetery and that a death certificate was falsified using one for Turner’s sister. David Thompson, a young black man who served as caretake for the ranch and was arrested for killing animals on orders from May, told investigators that Turner was paralyzed, that a sister cared for her on the property, and that an undertaker took the body away, adding that there was nothing suspicious about the death.
There were subsequent statements by Order members about May’s plans for a refrigerated mausoleum where dead members of the sect could be stored until their resurrections could be effected and one recently departed member who was a pharmacist claimed May sought a poison that could not be traced, but was given a harmless colored water instead. Meanwhile, the criminal complaint by Dabney lead to a hearing in which he provided details of how the money he gave May and which came from royalties from Huntington Beach oil wells was used and how he feared for his family because of representations made by her about how she needed funds to protect Dabney’s relatives from a situation in which “a terrible concord [a harmonious relationship between a person, assigned a name like Dabney’s “Prince of the Hereafter and Now” and the solar system] has been received from the solar system on the White Mind between heaven and earth.”
The county grand jury indicted May on multiple counts of grand theft, while Ruth evaded charges, while Dabney pursued a $50,000 civil suit against May. A six-week trial took place in early 1930, while the sensational claims about sacrifices of Willa, Frances Turner and others subsided. Yet, the proceedings featured plenty of witness testimony about the proceedings, teachings, and rituals of the Order and the media had a field day reporting on the strange and fantastic statements offered on the stand. During the early stages of the trial, popular Times columnist Harry Carr humorously compared May to famous oil con man C.C. Julian, suggesting that, while Julian’s advertisements were more “elegant,” May bestowed amazing monikers and made grand spiritual promises so that “the lady gave the cash customers [like Dabney] the most for their money.”
Ruth and May testified at the end of the trial, but, after a lengthy deliberation over forty-eight hours, the jury of eight women and four men returned a verdict of guilty of eight counts, with each subject to a term of one to ten years at San Quentin (a women’s prison opened a few years later at Tehachapi and later moved to Chino.) Pending appeals, May was incarcerated at the county jail, where she was enumerated for the 1930 federal census.
In March 1931, however, the state appeals court ruled that evidence concerning the operations of the Order were improperly admitted by the judge and ordered a new trial, while May was freed pending a supreme court review. In early December, that body, noting the constitutional protection of religious freedom, affirmed the appeals court ruling, though a second trial was not sought by prosecutors and the matter ended.
In 1936, May self-published The Origin of God, a modest-length 266-page tome compared to her unfinished dictate works from Gabriel. Four years later, the census listed her, her husband and his father at “Mortimer Park,” now the community of Santa Susana, not far from the ranch where her Order once operated. She died in 1951 at age 69 and nothing as located in newspapers about her passing. Ruth also receded from public view and lived nearly a half century after the trial, dying in 1978 at age 80. A city with a colorful religious and spiritual history has few parallels with the strange saga of the Order and this photo is a notable document of the organization.