Female Justice Recap: “Persons Believing They Have Divine Power are Entitled to Assert It”: Religious Freedom in the May Otis Blackburn Theft Trial

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Last fall’s post highlighting a photo of female members of the Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven, a religious group (headlines of the time screamed “CULT”) operating in Los Angeles for much of the 1920s, provided a general overview of the institution, its principals May Otis Blackburn and her daughter Ruth Wieland, and the early 1930 grand theft trial of Blackburn that led to a conviction in the county’s Superior Court, an appellate court review and a Supreme Court ruling vacating the lower court’s verdict and ordering a new trial, upon which Blackburn was officially released of all charges in spring 1932, though she spent a year in county jail before she was released on a bond pending the appeal.

This afternoon’s presentation of the twisted tale of Blackburn and the Divine Order as part of the Homestead’s Female Justice series did add some elements to the story not covered in the post, and, as is often the case, there are some (hopefully) minor corrections to make, as well, to that post and to Friday evening’s preview post. One of these additional components is the remarkably convoluted circumstances surrounding the family relationships of the principals.

Matilda Otis was born in Wisconsin in 1864 to deaf farm laborer Laurence La Bonte, whose surname, ironically enough, became Goodness, and Matilda Ferguson. She married William R. Otis at age 15 and the couple had a daughter, also confusingly named Matilda, though the mother became known as Jennie, while the daughter was called May. Jennie later married Edgar P. Holt and what adds to the challenges in understanding the family dynamic is that, in the 1900 census, the couple had a 10-month old daughter, Abbie Ruth, in their household. Ten years later, however, Edgar and Matilda were in La Center, Washington, about 27 miles north of Portland and there were no children.

[Portland] Oregon Journal, 5 August 1917.

This was because it seems obvious that May, who would have been about 18, gave birth in July 1899 to Ruth Angeline , and almost certainly out of wedlock and then had her mother and stepfather taken the baby into their household. Shortly after that, however, May married Augustus Wieland and the youngster took his name, with the family residing in Portland, Oregon, not far, of course, from her mother and her second husband.

As would be the case for the next roughly two decades, May’s marriage to Wieland was short-lived, as she filed for divorce and sole custody of Ruth in 1908. The next year, Portland City Directory listed May as a widow, it being common for divorced women to choose that way of referring to their terminated marriage, and her occupation as a real estate agent. That profession was also shown on the 1910 federal census as mother and daughter continued to live in the Rose City.

In 1915, May married again, with her spouse being George Blum, but this relationship was also short-lived. By the time she married her third husband, Lawrence Holmes, she’d created a motion picture production company and made two films in 1917, a two-reel short called “The Tale of a Dress: and a six-reel full length titled “A Nugget in the Rough”, starring her winsome daughter—making May a pioneer both as a woman making movies and for shooting the first known full-length picture in Oregon.

The enumeration of the Rhoads family at Portland, Oregon in the 1920 federal census. They soon moved to Los Angeles and joined the Divine Order with Willa becoming a prophetess.

The following year, May and Ruth migrated south to the Angel City to seek out their Hollywood dreams, though they found virtually no success at all, though Ruth later said she was an extra on some films issued by Fox. Instead, she became an exotic dancer, while she and her mother lived in a cramped quarters on Grand Avenue on Bunker Hill.

It was during these lean times that the two said they were visited by the Angel Michael, who stayed with them for three-and-a-half years and transmitted to them revelations about divine truth and also happened to show them unbounded wealth in rare and precious stones buried somewhere near Bakersfield. These latter would be theirs once they published what he recited to them in volumes called “The Seventh Trumpet of Saint Gabriel” and “The Sixth Seal.”

May and Ruth decided the time was right to publicize their work just as the date of 6 February 1925 prophesied by Margaret Rowen, leader of a Reformed Seventh Day Adventist group, to be the end of the world was near. While it certainly got their names in local papers, it also drew the scrutiny of City Prosecutor Jack Friedlander, who was investigating Rowen for potential fraud. What resulted were a series of articles over a few days in which the strange pronouncements of May and Ruth were first publicized.

A photo of Willa Rhoads from the Boston Globe, 16 October 1929.

By this time, May married for what appears to have been the fourth time and her latest spouse was Ward Blackburn, whose mother was Emma Faulconer and whose father was Walter Blackburn. After Faulconer died, Blackburn married May’s mother Matilda, or Jennie, after Edgar Holt died in 1912.

While the Blackburns were in Portland when the 1920 census was taken and Ward worked as a theater usher, they soon migrated to Los Angeles to join May and Ruth and, purportedly around 1922, May and Ward, who were step-siblings, though not by blood, were married. No marriage record, however, has been found for them. In May 1924, Ruth wedded Samuel Rizzio, who was then living in Alhambra and had been in the Los Angeles area for at least several years.

Despite the hullabaloo surrounding the end-of-times prophecy and the opportune publicity generated for May and Ruth and their newly launched Divine Order, which was incorporated in March 1925 with the expressed purpose “to aid children and adults in distress.” May also arranged for the creation of the Walter J. Blackburn Publishing Company, situated at Olive and Tenth streets in downtown Los Angeles, to issue the religious tomes, which were purportedly being written with the assistance of the Divine Order’s secretary and business manager, Gale Conde Banks.

The inaccurate report of the finding of the body of Samuel Rizzio, missing husband of Ruth Wieland, in the Los Angeles Record, 1 November 1929.

Banks was another Portlander, he being a military school teacher there, who decamped to Los Angeles to join the group. Also doing so were William and Mattie Rhoads, who brought their adopted daughter Willa with them, when they settled in Venice. Mattie, who appears to have been the more dominant personality of the couple, was listed in the 1910 and 1920 census as a “Christian Science practitioner,” while William was a lumberman. Like Banks, the Rhoads’ were very active devotees in the order and Willa, who was in her mid-teens, was deemed a prophetess by May.

After March 1925, however, the Los Angeles press was devoid of any mention of the Divine Order for four-and-half-years. During that time, though, the main financial contributor to the enterprise and who was purportedly its president, Clifford R. Dabney, became disenchanted with May and her unfilled promises. Simply put, Dabney, who hailed from a family of successful oil producers in greater Los Angeles, gave up to $50,000 to May for both the inner truths and the more practical benefits of access to those riches supposedly revealed by the Angel Michael in the vicinity of Bakersfield.

What Dabney and other smaller donors did was provide the seed money for the Order’s temple at a newly created subdivision at the eastern edge of Ventura County called Mortimer Park. This was a remote area in the Santa Susana Mountains in what was then the Simi township, now part of the City of Simi Valley. When, however, May continued to rebuff Dabney’s demands for his spiritual and temporal deserts, he filed a writ of attachment on the property and followed this up with a complaint to the Los Angeles County District Attorney alleging all manner of criminal behavior.

Ward Blackburn’s photo from the Los Angeles Times, 11 October 1929.

What transpired has been summarized in the prior post, with media coverage salaciously presenting wild stories of strange rites and rituals, including animal sacrifice, Divine Order members “baked” in ovens to cure them of maladies, the disappearance of some members, allegations of the purchase of poison, rumors that cold storage facilities were sought to preserve the bodies of deceased (murdered or otherwise) parishioners, and more.

One of the more shocking revelations was that the body of Willa Rhoads, who died several years prior, was stored in ice for a long period and then encased in a wood box filled with salt and spices, while seven (this being a vital spiritual number for the Order) dead puppies were buried in separate containers with her. All of this was done by her father with the sepulchre under the Venice residence. When her remains were located, the investigation examined whether she was sacrificed (murdered) by the Divine Order.

This was, in short order, followed by a sensational report in the Los Angeles Record that a body found in a remote canyon near Wrightwood in the San Gabriel Mountains was definitely known to be that of Ruth Wieland’s long-missing husband, Samuel Rizzio. Yet, within a couple of days, a more subdued statement appeared in the press that the remains were not, in fact, those of Rizzio, but of another man, who was identified by the tattered insurance policy found at the scene.

A post -trial feature in the Philadelphia Inquirer, 23 March 1930.

The reality was, for all of the hype and bombast of purported activities of the Divine Order, May was arrested and charged, with Ruth released from jail, on fifteen counts of grand theft based on Dabney’s complaint. Hearing were held late in 1929, followed by a six-week trial in the first part of the following year. Coverage of the court proceedings, though, focused almost exclusively on the weird and secret teachings, services and other activities of the organization, while precious little was actually stated about the alleged crime. Even when Dabney was interrogated by both sides during the trial, most of what was published was about his role in the Divine Order.

Despite this, the jury of eight women and four men took two days to deliberate during the first part of March 1930 and then rendered a verdict of guilty on eight counts (Dabney did recover some of this funds shortly afterward). When May was sentenced, after a short delay, the judge decided to issue a concurrent sentence of one to ten years, with such wide latitude being common at the time, at San Quentin State Prison. A motion for a new trial was denied, but May’s attorneys immediately looked for relief with the state appeals court.

That took some time, but, a year after the conviction, the California Appeals Court ruled in March 1931 that evidence introduced about the operations of the Divine Order were not germane to the charges and thereby served to prejudice the minds of the jury against May. The following month, she posted $5,000 bond and was released from county jail, where she’d been incarcerated since she was found guilty and was awaiting transfer to San Quentin if the verdict was upheld.

Los Angeles Record, 26 October 1932, and its report on the new religious organization overseen by May.

The case was then sent up to the California Supreme Court for review and, in early December 1931, the high court rendered its judgment. The court noted that:

the whole plan of life and salvation is a babel of incoherency abounding in absurdities of an extreme type, and the wonder is that rational minds should ever have become obsessed by such chimerical illusions.

Still, it went on, as paraphrased by the Los Angeles Times, “only earthly matters concerning money should have been allowed as testimony” because “matters concerning her practices and religious beliefs would tend to prejudice a jury against her.” It noted that “there is complete freedom of religious belief in this country, and persons believing they have divine power are entitled to assert it.”

The matter was remanded back to the county Superior Court for a new trial and a date was set for early March 1932, but it was decided not to pursue the case any further and May was freed and her conviction set aside. Notably, the Record reported that she was “back in business” that fall and, while the old Divine Order temple was in ruins, another building at the Mortimer Park property had a sign for The Church of the Divine Science of Joshua—Branch—The Headstone of the Corner.”

May, her husband (and step-brother–though not blood related) Ward, his father and her stepfather, Walter, Gale Conde and others at the Mortimer Park (Simi Valley) compound in the 1940 census.

Four years later, May published a book and, in the 1940 census, she (with the listed occupation of a writer), Ward, Walter Blackburn (her mother Matilda/Jennie having died in 1931), Banks and other holdovers from the Divine Order were still living at the compound and practicing whatever religion they were legally entitled to observe. Not present was Ruth, whose whereabouts could not be determined. In 1951, May passed away at age 69 and her daughter, married and with the surname of Williams, lived more than a quarter century beyond that, passing away in obscurity in Sacramento in 1978 at not quite 80 years.

It’s quite a story this sensational tale of May Otis Blackburn, her daughter and “spiritual sister” Ruth Wieland and their Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven, but for all of the hype and notoriety, there was an important question at issue with the state’s courts relating to the freedom of religion and the prejudice of testimony unrelated to the actual charges in violation of that expression. For more on the organization and its leaders, see Cecilia Rasmussen’s 1999 Los Angeles Times article, Samuel Fort‘s website, and the website of Kim Cooper and her book The Kept Girl as just three samples of what is available.

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