by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Sunday afternoon at 2, the next installment of the Homestead’s Female Justice series examines the bizarre saga of May Otis Blackburn, her daughter Ruth Angeline Weiland, and their religious organization, the Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven, which was formed in Los Angeles in the mid-Twenties and became, at the end of the decade, the subject of wild tales and stunning allegations involving strange rituals and purported homicides. Perhaps this introduction will whet your appetite and spur you to join us for this remarkable story that involved a grand theft trial and questions of religious freedom.
There was a bit of fanfare in the Los Angeles press in early February 1925 because Friday the 6th was the date prophesied two years before by Margaret Rowen, head of the Reformed Seventh Day Adventists, when the world would come to end. When the 7th arrived and the sun rose and all seemed as normal as it could be, Rowen lamented that she expected to be hounded by the press and professed “that isn’t the first time that finite minds have made a mistake in attempting to gauge the infinite.”
Rowen, however, found herself with some competition in the prophecy game as word was bandied about that a pamphlet was to be issued by the Blackburn Publishing Company called “The Seventh Trumpet of Saint Gabriel” and which averred that, rather than a sudden end to the planet, the fated day was to make a new era marked by a “law of divine osculation,” the latter word purportedly a reworking of “oscillation.” Before we get to that, though, let’s at least have a little background on the principals.
Lawrence LaBonte Goodness, a deaf farmer born in Montreal, and his wife Matilda Ferguson were living in Sharon, Wisconsin, a small town on the border with Illinois, some 65 miles southwest of Milwaukee when their daughter Matilda May was born in 1864. The family then apparently moved to Iowa, where, in fall 1879, the 15-year old married William R. Otis, a farm laborer. In August 1881, the couple had a daughter, also named Matilda May, though she commonly used her middle name.
It looks as if William Otis died young, as Matilda married again in 1884, wedding Edgar P. Holt and with whom she was living in Fort Benton, Montana, the oldest settlement in that territory. In 1899, the couple had Abbie Ruth after having and losing a child. In the first decade of the 20th century, however, May Otis married Augustus J. Weiland, who apparently adopted young Ruth, but, in 1908 May filed for divorce on the grounds of cruelty and sought custody of the girl. The following year’s Portland city directory included May listed as the widow of Augustus (though he shows up in the 1912 directory as a cook) and in 1910, mother and daughter were counted in the census in the Rose City. In both sources, May’s occupation was given as a real estate agent.
In 1915, May obtained a marriage license to wed George E. Blum, but two years later, when she was listed as renovating a house in the city her surname remained Wieland. In June 1918, a marriage certificate was issued in Vancouver, Washington, across the Columbia River from Portland to her, stating it was her second nuptial, and Lawrence Holmes, a native of Norway and also wedding for the second time, with both shown as residing in Los Angeles. It was later said that Holmes bought a nearly 600-acre ranch south of Riverside that same year, planted carob trees on the tract, and lived there until he was forced to sell it for the Lake Mathews reservoir project.
When the 1920 census was taken, though, Holmes, who invented and manufactured a folding bed named for him, was a theater actor as a young man, and reportedly worked with Thomas Edison on the development of a motion picture camera, was listed as divorced while living with his sister in the Angel City. Clearly, May had a habit of finding new men to get involved with and, in at least three documented cases to date, marry, but she wasn’t done.
Speaking of the motion picture camera, it appears that was the next “project” for May and her winsome daughter, Ruth, as they tried to make their way in the Angel City. They would not appear in public documentation though until their transformation as “spiritual sisters” by early 1925 and, in a Los Angeles Record article from 6 February, it was stated that Ruth told Los Angeles City Prosecutor Jack Friedlander, who was investigating both the Rowen end-of-times prophecy and the Blackburn pamphlet, that
prior to receiving the divine revelation [about “The Seventh Trumpet of Saint Gabriel” and the new “law of divine osculation”] she was leading lady of the Starlight Motion Picture company in Portland, Oregon, having been featured in two photoplays, “The Tale of a Dress” and “A Nugget in the Rough.”
[Ruth added] “I also worked as an ‘extra’ for Fox Films in Hollywood, and have entertained at clubs as a professional dancer.
May was said to be the financier, perhaps through her real estate proceeds or, more likely, her grifting, of Starlight and “A Nugget in the Rough” can be found on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) as being produced in 1917 with Ruth listed in the credits as “the Nugget,” while “The Tale of a Dress” was a two-reel production shown along with it. One researcher suggests that the six-reel “A Nugget in the Rough” might be the first full-length production made in Oregon.
This attempt to make young Ruth a star in Portland failed, however, and the two migrated to Los Angeles to seek their Hollywood dreams. Laurence Holmes may, in fact, have been a well-to-do target for funding to break Ruth into the film business in this area as Blum might have been a mark in the Rose City.
In any case, the 7 February 1925 edition of the Los Angeles Times introduced the “spiritual sisters” and their prophetic gifts with a remarkable introduction:
“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, he’d croon the tunes of Cleopatra and I’d dance for him and he made me custodian of all the Egyptian dances—”
The unnamed reporter was at the residence of the two at Wilshire Boulevard and Manhattan Avenue, just west of Western Avenue, as they sat in a “magic circle of their disciples of their cult of the Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven . . . and prattled for hours such balderdash as this.”
With the two taking the opportunity of Rowen’s prediction and drawing the attention of Friedlander, it was added that, following the flop of their films in Portland and unable to find success in Hollywood, “the two women were much to themselves, occupying a tiny room while Ruth sought headlines as an Oriental dancer and Mrs. Otis [sic] plunged into introspection. And then—one night—came the Angel Gabriel!”
In August 1924, a Times reporter visited the two at their more substantial quarters on Wilshire and found a few persons with fantastical titles such as “King Gale of the Four Winds,” “King Arthur of the Four Horsemen,” and the latter’s wife, “Queen Nellie.” That journalist was informed that “for many years during May’s life, a spiritual dove and a mental voice followed her wherever she went” while “Ruth had heard strange singing voices and poetry.” The two then claimed to have heard the voice of the Angel Gabriel while in their cramped quarters on Grand Avenue between Third and Fourth streets on Bunker Hill.
For the next three years, they went on, Gabriel “lived with them” and dictated what became two works: the aforementioned “The Seventh Trumpet of Saint Gabriel” and “The Sixth Seal.” He passed on to Ruth “all of the ancient dance music of Egypt” and dances of Cleopatra and Salome, though, when “King Gale” performed this music it sounded to the reporter “strangely like an ancient carnival tune.” The angel then directed the “spiritual sisters” to a location near Bakersfield where they claimed he showed them gold nuggets and precious stones, “to be theirs upon the presentation of the Sixth Seal.”
What resulted was the revelation of “The Royal Family of the Chosen Eleven,” comprised of May, Ruth and nine queens, the eleven to have their kings and all to reside in a palace of marble atop the “Mount of Olives” in Hollywood, which soon after became oil heiress Aline Barnsdall’s estate with the fantastic Frank Lloyd Wright “Hollyhock House” upon it. Proof of the legitimacy of the Divine Order was the two tomes, described as “containing the most astounding, bewildering hodge-podge of biblical and mythological references, cross-references and statements that possibly has ever been gathered together.”
An illustration of the verbiage found in these productions was the opening words of “The Sixth Seal”:
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 Prosecutor Friedlander was trying to determine was how May and Ruth were able to raise the funds for the publication of these books, produced by the Walter J. Blackburn Publishing Company, located at Olive and Tenth streets in downtown Los Angeles, Blackburn being the wife of May’s mother, who commonly went by Jennie. Friedlander was reported to be considering having the two women interviewed by “psychopathic authorities” to determine their mental fitness.
As to money to continue their operations, May and Ruth did find a wealthy benefactor as they incorporated the Divine Order in March 1925 with the reported purpose “to aid children and adults in distress.” With that, the whole menagerie disappeared from public view for more than four years, but when it did emerge, it was something to behold.
For the rest of the story, join us on Sunday afternoon—you’ll hopefully be entertained and enlightened by the remarkable tale of the “spiritual sisters” and their religious odyssey!