by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It was a great pleasure to return again as a speaker for the La Verne Historical Society, with this evening’s talk being a reprise of the Female Justice presentation on The Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven, a religious organization led for much of the 1920s by May Otis Blackburn and her daughter Ruth Weiland.
As discussed in previous posts here, the pair lived in Portland, Oregon for most of the first two decades of the 20th century, where May worked in real estate and then launched a brief career as a movie producer with her winsome daughter as star in a feature length film and and a short, both made in 1917 and purportedly being among the first movies made in that state.
Shortly afterward, the two moved to Los Angeles with dreams of making it big in Hollywood, though they found the situation slightly more competitive in Hollywood than in the Rose City and it appears that Ruth only found work as an extra at the Fox studio while working as an exotic dancer to bring in some money.
While they experienced lean years living in a cramped downtown apartment, the struggling mother and daughter team claimed to have received visitations from the Angel Michael, who they claimed over a period of a few years provided detailed revelations about life that eventually led them to form The Divine Order.
Gradually, they attracted a small cadre of devotees and they were able to move to a 10-room house on Wilshire Boulevard west of downtown and then to a place on Hollywood Boulevard, though their dreams of building a temple where Aline Barnsdall’s remarkable Hollyhock House was later built went unrealized.
In early February 1924, when Margaret Rowan of the Reformed Seventh Day Adventists drew significant publicity and the scrutiny of the Los Angeles city prosecutor over her claims that the world was going to come to an end, May and Ruth saw a prime opportunity to garner some press for their nascent organization, though they were also put in the sights of the prosecutor, especially after newspaper accounts mentioned that they planned to publish material through a company ostensibly headed by May’s stepfather, Walter Blackburn, also the father of her new husband (and, yes, her step-brother, though not by blood) Wade.
In any case, May and Ruth soon found their most well-heeled supporter when they attracted the attention of Clifford R. Dabney (1891-1977), who worked with his uncle, Joseph, in oil development in the region, including in Huntington Beach, Long Beach and Bakersfield. Dabney was born in Iowa, but spent much of his early life in Spokane, Washington, where his father was involved in real estate, and then in Portland, where Clifford followed that profession.
As with other key members of The Divine Order, including Gale Conde Banks, who became its secretary, and William and Mattie Rhoads, whose adopted daughter Willa was deemed to be a prophetess for the new institution, Dabney undoubtedly knew May in the Rose City. With his growing oil connections, he also brought with him the funds she craved, ostensibly to better prepare for the revelations that would show the public what the Divine Order had to offer the world.
It just so happened that May and Ruth were told by the Angel Michael of a hidden treasure trove of minerals and gems in the same general area near Bakersfield where Dabney was involved in petroleum prospecting. As he began to provide funding for The Divine Order, it appears he was both enthralled by the potential spiritual and financial windfall that May promised to him.
From spring 1925 to fall 1928, Dabney transferred about $45,000, including an oil lease in Huntington Beach, to May, who had a 164-acre compound in a remote location in the Santa Susana Mountains, northwest of Los Angeles, where the city of Simi Valley is today, where the cult could operate in privacy away from the peering eyes of city prosecutors and the press.
Later, he claimed that May and Ruth told him that Gold visited them in angelic form in January 1925 and commanded them to write down the dictation of revelations and publish them, with funds provided by Dabney. Once publication transpired, she told him, she would repay him with proceeds and reassign the lease to him.
Yet, after sending funds in several increments but without seeing the fruits of his investment, Dabney decided to act to recover his funds. In summer 1929, he filed a writ of attachment in Ventura County for the Simi property and, this failing to take effect, he made a complaint with authorities in Los Angeles alleging fraud and theft, but also taking the opportunity to lay out juicy allegations about the rituals, rites and activities of The Divine Order. He also sought the return of property in Monterey Park, acquired for the organization by one of its other members.
Among these were purported disappearances of members, claims of “baking” parishioners in ovens with claims that these would cure them of illnesses, and, most shockingly, the revelation that young Willa Rhoads, who died on New Year’s Day 1925, was buried, first in ice and then in salt and spices, in a box, accompanied by seven dead puppies who were part of the ritual, under the Venice bungalow where she resided in the expectation that May would resurrect her.
In fall 1929, Los Angeles newspapers were replete with lurid stories of the strange practices of The Divine Order with rumors that people such as Willa were sacrificed and that these constituted criminal activity along with the deception alleged by Dabney. By mid-September, the oil operator and his wife, Alice, hired attorneys and then filed five civil suits against May, charging that she had swindled them and others of funds for her “cult.”
In early October, the Los Angeles Times reported that Dabney “asserted that he had contributed large sums to the order upon the promise that divine revelations would be made in a book [known as The Sixth Seal] being written by Mrs. Blackburn and her daughter which would solve all the enigmas of nature and make possible the location of all deposits of precious metals and minerals.”
The account added that May “also promised to explain in the book all chemical and physical problems thus far unsolved by man, using the lost measurements [found in the Bible] and thereby making it possible to find the location of all precious metal and minerals.” The speculator, it was said, provided investigators the names of others who were similarly bilked of their funds, though he wound up being the complaining witness of record.
With the information provided by Dabney at a preliminary hearing, the county district attorney’s office filed charges of grand theft against May and Ruth, though the latter was released and only her mother faced trial. Shortly afterward, the oilman reported that he received death threats, in the form of a dozen letters necessitating the placing of a police guard at his house in the Oakwood neighborhood of Los Angeles near Beverly Boulevard and Western Avenue.
In mid-January 1930, May’s Superior Court trial took place and Dabney spent five days on the stand facing questioning from prosecutors and defense attorneys. He told the jury that he wrote five checks from $500 to $18,000, gave property valued at $500, and assigned the lease of $18,000 value, from which May derived up to $400 per month in royalties. He stated,
Mrs. Blackburn sent for me and my wife and told me that it was extremely important that I sign over the leases to make the final “concord” to complete a circuit in the solar system and give her the divine inspiration to finish the book.
In the preliminary hearing, when asked by a prosecutor what constituted a concord, Dabney answered that “it is the working out of a specific idea between heaven and earth in relation to the solar system.” At trial, he added that he purchased 600 Rhode Island red hens to the Simi compound because May told him she needed the animals as part of divine work.
Further testimony brought bemused expressions to onlookes even as Dabney was deadly serious in demeanor as he admitted that he frequently overdrew his bank accounts with his contributions to The Divine Order, of which, he also acknowledged, he was bestowed the title (there were many such fanciful appellations) of “Prince of the Hereafter and the Now.” One exchange reprinted in the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News included his statement:
I gave so many checks at the command of May Otis Blackburn! My gracious! They were numerous! She kept saying, “Petty, I must have ’em,” and I wrote ’em for five, ten, fifteen, twenty, here, there and everywhere. I couldn’t keep track of ’em. She kept saying, “Petty, you can trust me,” and I kept writing. If I overdrew, it was her fault.
The defense confronted him with questions about whether Dabney told others he had visions in which “you thought it was time to take your rightful place as the Christ, and that you could feel nail holes in your palms?” With that specific instance, he answered that he could not recall and denied strongly that he had other visions.
He also stated that there was a “double cross concord” which flummoxed May when the name Otis was spelled with two “Ts” in the document transferring the oil lease to her. He testified that “Mrs. Blackburn told my wife and I that when we kissed the osculation was the same as an oscillation that was in harmony with the solar system.”
Dabney added that he wouldn’t have given May money “if he hadn’t believed that she herself was conversant with the secrets of the universe” and that she told him she’d personally panned for gold near Bakersfield at a mine located with “The Lost Measurements of Solomon.” Each concord obliquely discussing osculations came at a price and he told the court that one message following such a concord stated that it was “very imperative you do not touch one cent of oil royalties” on the assigned lease as “it will mean life or death to your family.”
While the prosecution relied heavily on the bizarre rites and rituals of The Divine Order and Dabney’s often strange testimony about what his money was purportedly used for, there was little actually presented about what constituted fraud other than that she managed to convince the oilman to part with his money on promise of spiritual and temporal reward.
Still, the jury convicted May of grand theft and she was sentenced to 1-10 years at San Quentin, though she was sent to the county jail, where she was enumerated in the 1930 fenderal census, pending an appeal. It too a while, about a year, but she was granted a hearing before the state appellate court and released on $5,000 bond.
That court and the state Supreme Court both ruled that the evidence presented at trial was prejudicial to May and granted her a new trial, though the latter noted that the teaching of the organization were so strange that it was hard to believe a reasonable person (such as Dabney?) could believe the gobbledygook. The District Attorney decided there wasn’t enough evidence to convict and dropped the charges early in 1932 and May went free, pursuing her teachings for years afterward.
As for Dabney, he continued to work in real estate and oil, including after his uncle died in 1932, and he was able to retrieve the Huntington Beach lease he handed over to May. Nearly two decades later, in 1950, he and his wife filed suit claiming that they were unlawfully denied an inheritance from the $6 million estate Joseph Dabney left. Notably, he claimed his uncle conspired to defraud him in 1927 for transactions consummated in 1920 and 1926 and concerning the division of profits for potentially valuable oil properties. The uncle told the nephew the lands were worthless, but went on to form ten companies to develop on the holdings, half of the profits from which Dabney sought.
He lost the case at the lower and appeals courts and tried to take the matter to the state Supreme Court, but this body dismissed the case stating that Dabney and his wife were “uninterested heirs” by the probate code. The matter ended and Dabney lived another quarter century, dying at age 86 in 1977, his role in The Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven long forgotten.