The religious group known as the Blackburn Cult, the Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven, or the Great Eleven Club, was started in 1922 on Bunker Hill in Downtown Los Angeles, California; and later formed a retreat in the Southern California Simi Valley. The group's founder, Mary Otis Blackburn, is said to have received revelations directly from angels, and along with her daughter Ruth Wieland Rizzio believed she was charged by the archangel Gabriel to write books revealing the mysteries of heaven and earth and life and death.
Newspaper articles from the time period reported strange rituals including the sacrifice of animals, sex scandals and attempts to resurrect a dead 16-year-old girl. Police found the corpse of Willa Rhoads under the floor at the Rhoads' residence, wrapped in spices and salt and surrounded by the bodies of seven dead dogs. Mr. and Mrs. Rhoads later confessed to the police that they had placed their daughter in the tomb fourteen months earlier at the suggestion of May Otis Blackburn. The cult was also accused of killing a member in an oven, poisoning another during a "whirling dervish" ceremony, and making several other members disappear.
For awhile, business was booming. Sixty-year-old May Otis Blackburn and her 24-year-old daughter, Ruth Wieland Rickenbaugh Rizzio, were making a killing bilking followers, Ruth’s would-be suitors, and an unfortunately deep-pocketed investor (who believed the women’s angelic contacts,Gabriel and Michael, would guide them to hidden reserves of gold and oil) out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The Great Eleven posted up in Simi Valley, where members built cabins and a temple (see below for image of a cult member known as “the King of Peace” holding a sacred object referred to by the group as “the Light of God”) and held down jobs at a tomato packing plant; all paychecks went back into cult coffers. There, they waited for Christ to return, as the angels had promised would happen.
To pass the time, they got creative:
At night the devotees gathered in a natural amphitheater on a brush-and-rock-strewn hillside to watch the high priestesses in their long purple robes kill mules they referred to as the “Jaws of Death.” After the gruesome sacrifices, forest rangers reported seeing the cultists dance in the nude.
On the same site, they constructed a brick “oven” in which they “baked” disciple Florence Turner, age 30, of Monterey Park, allegedly to cure her “blood malady.” Two days later, she died.
The grand theft charges grew out of a complaint by Clifford Dabney, wealthy oil operator, that the cult leader had bilked him out of $40,000. He testified she obtained the money from him to finance the writing of a book to be known as “The Great Sixth Seal,” which she told him was being dictated by the Archangels Gabriel and Michael.
Dabney testified Mrs. Blackburn told him that the book would reveal sources of untold wealth in oil and mineral deposits.
Upon her promise to reveal the secrets of the book to him three years before it was distributed to the public, he said he agreed to finance it.
But the fraud case put the Great Eleven on the radar of law enforcement ... and they found themselves in even hotter water after the body of a 16-year-old cult member was found buried under her adopted parents’ house in Venice, Calif. Interred next to young Willa Rhoads were the corpses of seven dogs “that represented the seven tones of the angel Gabriel’s trumpet;” that’s the dog casket in the photo atop this post.
The girl had been dead three years, but the body was not buried until 1926 as Mrs. Blackburn told the foster parents the competition of “The Great Sixth Seal” would result in her resurrection.
Miss Rhoads body was preserved with ice, salt and spices. In the grave were found the bodies of seven dogs symbolizing the seven notes of Gabriel’s trumpet. The girl’s parents Mr. And Mrs. William Rhoads testified that burial was made when they lost faith in Mrs. Blackburn. An autopsy revealed the girl died of natural causes and no action was taken.
Although other cult members were reported to have mysteriously disappeared (not to mention that strange “baking” business with Florence Turner), no charges were ever brought in those cases. Blackburn was released after appealing her case in 1931, and in an interesting footnote:
[In 1931], the state Supreme Court ruled that testimony about the cult’s weird rituals was wrongly admitted at the prophet’s trial. “This is a free country, where there is freedom of religious worship, and it is not actionable to the court if the defendant made certain representations as to being divine.”
The Great Eleven cult reportedly decamped for Lake Tahoe and was not heard from again.
Indicted for grand theft Edit
In 1929 group leaders were indicted in Los Angeles for grand theft and investigated in the disappearances of several members. These indictments created a media sensation at the time the background on the grand theft was revealed to the public. May Otis Blackburn was charged with twelve counts of grand theft, and articles at that time referred to Blackburn as a "cult leader." According to TIME Magazine article "California Cults", the Blackburn Cult was also known as "The Great Eleven", and May Otis Blackburn was referred to as "Heel of God." The cult later collapsed after May Otis Blackburn was imprisoned for stealing $40,000 from Clifford Dabney.
Further reading Edit
- "Cult Leader May Otis Blackburn and her daughter Ruth Wieland Rizzio in Los Angeles, Calif., 1929", Changing Times: Los Angeles in Photographs, 1920-1990, Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA Library. 1929.
- The Origin of God: By Rev. May Otis Blackburn, May Otis Blackburn, 1936, 266 Pages.
- "The Blackburn Chronicles: A Tale of Murder, Money and Madness," by R.J. Baudé, Lulu.com, 2008, 193 pages.
- "Cult of the Great Eleven," Samuel Fort, 2014, 240 pages. ASIN B00OALI9O.