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Sunday, September 07, 2008

PROPHET, AS A JOB TITLE

I am an admirer of the English philosopher Charles Chaplin. How could you not admire a man who could juggle while on roller skates, and who at the same time could observed that “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot”. Keeping this philosophical approach in mind I would say that the life of Franz Edmund Creffeld began in an extreme long shot, in the far off kingdom of Germany in 1871. Franz trained for the priesthood but abandoned his mother country and Church in order to avoid military service. He immigrated to the United States, where, in 1899, he arrived in the little town of Corvallis, Oregon, in the uniform of an officer of the Salvation Army.
Corvallis was (and is) a farming community on the West bank of the Willamette River, about half way between Portland and Eugene. At the turn of the 20th century it was home to nine churches, an Odd Fellows Hall, a Freemasons Lodge and a small core of about 25 adherents to the relatively new Salvation Army. But by 1902 the 28 year old local commander, Lt. Creffeld, was beginning to find the doctrine and command structure of the Army to be too restrictive. By 1903 he had begun to seriously shift his preaching away from the dignified structured Victorian ideas of the Salvation Army to something with more of an American free spirit; his Salvation Army commanders described Creeffeld’s adherents as “Come-Outers” but they described themselves as “Holy Rollers”. Being so possessed by The Spirit as to writhe on the floor and babble in tongues had been a practice of the great William Booth, the Salvation Army’s founder, and the Army was one of the few social or religious organizations at the turn of the century in which woman could hold respected leadership positions. Creffeld built upon all of this. His congregation contained a majority of women. In the summer of 1903, in an act of extraordinary sexual independence for the time, the two dozen women built with their own hands a meeting house on Kiger Island, a 2200 acre wooded sanctuary between the Boonville Channel and the Willamette River, just south of Corvallis. That summer the sect was bursting with curious women and girls drawn to the power of Franz Creffeld and the forbidden hints of feminism. Come winter the revolution shifted back to town, into the home of prominent local businessman and convert, Mr. O.P. Hunt,, Mrs, Hunt and their young daughter Maude Hunt. Mr. Hunt hung a sign over his front door: “Positively No Admittance Except on God's Business”. The return to town brought increased scrutiny from the unconverted males of Corvallis, and they did not like what they observed. Even less did they like what they suspected. . Rumors made the rounds of naked rambles in the wilds of Kiger Island. And when the wooden walks around the Hunt home were torn up and burned, along with stacks of furniture and piles of kitchen utensils, all to cleanse the soul of as much physical property as possible, one of the local newspapers suggested “…a condition bordering on insanity”. His flock were encouraged to wear old clothes instead of new. Members were discouraged from having contact with family members who were not also followers. Indeed, Creffeld had begun referring to himself as a prophet. He announced that he as henceforth to be called “Joshua II” It was too much for a good Christian manhood of Corvallis to tolerate.On the night of January 4, 1904 a dozen or so self described “white cappers” (adorning themselves after the Klu Klux Klan’s white robes) set upon Franz Creffeld and dragged him to the edge of town. There they threatened Franz with tar and feathers. (I doubt they actually applied the treatment since the usual effect of hot tar on human flesh was serious burns, often eventually resulting in the victim’s death. No such injury was recorded on Creffeld.) More likely Franz was merely roughed up, frightened, stripped naked and then chased into the woods; where later Mrs. Hunt and Maude were able to find and secretly escort the prophet to their home. Shortly thereafter the town was appeased by news that “Joshua” and young Maude Hunt had been married. The sexual escapades of “Joshua”, real or imagined, would seemed to have been ended.Still it was clear that the locals had reached some sort of limit. A half dozen of his young female followers were committed to the “Boys and Girls Aid Society”, including O.P. Hunt’s son and his new bride, or were shipped off to relatives out of state. One or two women were even committed to the state lunatic asylum. A sullen quite catching of breath settled over the town that ended in April of 1904 when the Portland police issued an arrest warrant for Franz on a charge of adultery with a young adherent from that town, Esther Mitchel. In addition the aggrieved party, George Mitchel, the young ladies’ elder brother, even posted a $150 reward.Franz immediately disappeared, and was not seen again in Corvallis again until August when he was discovered, filthy, nude and starving, secreted beneath the Hunt household. Arrested and tried in Portland, Franz was found guilty and sentenced to two years in the state prison. And it was upon his arrival there that we get our first (and only) clear look at Franz Creffeld; five feet six inches tall, weight, 135 pounds. There is something mystical about his eyes, “hypnotic”, glaring defiantly, almost mockingly, into the camera. For the first time you can begin to get a feeling for the power of this man, and the power of his lunacy. Jail was not going to stop him. He was released, with time off for good behavior, in February of 1906. What he could not know at the time was that he had barely three months left to live. Franz Creffeld was ready for his close up.Out of jail, Franz immediately reconstituted his flock, especially the Hunt family, who sold their property in Corvallis and used the funds to purchase property near the small town of Waldport, where Alsea Bay meets the Pacific Ocean. The Hurt family had deep roots in Waldport, but even here the rather bizarre practices of Creffeld’s church caused friction, in particular when a young girl spied several female followers cavorting naked on the beach. Franz began to consider the advantages of moving to the more cosmopolitan Seattle.
It was in Seattle, on May 7, 1906, that Franz (Joshua II) Creffeld and Maude, out for a walk, paused in front of Quick’s drugstore on First Street. There George Mitchell, convinced his sister Esther had been and was still being violated by the prophet, shot Franz in the back of the head. The prophet died instantly. His killer was tried in Seattle, and skillfully put the victim’s past behavior on trial. On July 10th the jury began to deliberate. They were out for just an hour and a half before returning a verdict of “not guilty”. After celebrating for three days, George Mitchell was preparing for reconciliation meeting with his sister at the Seattle train station, when he was gunned down - by Esther. She told the first police to arrive, “Of course I killed George. He killed Joshua the Prophet, didn’t he? What else was there for us to do?” The Seattle Police Chief, Charles Wappenstein, complained, “I wish these Oregon people would kill each other on their own side of the river.” Esther’s use of the word “us” right after the shooting probably contributed to both her and Maude being arrested and charged with George’s murder. Maude had bought the gun and Esther had used it. While awaiting trial Maude took strychnine. Her father, O.V. Hurt, arrainged to have Franz’s body reburied next to Maude’s. And Esther Mitchell survived an attack of typhoid fever contracted in the Seattle jail. At trial she was judged to be insane and for three years she survived in the Washington State Asylum at Steilacoom. She was released on April 5, 1909, “thoroughly disgusted with herself” according to the hospital staff. O.V. Hurt collected the girl and took her with him back to Waldport. There Esther managed to find some peace, and in 1914 at the age of 26 she married. But three months later she too drank strychnine, just like Maude. It was time for the final fade to black. P.S.: on March 26, 1997, outside of San Diego, California, some 40 members of the religious group “Heaven’s Gate”, committed suicide. About twenty of those unfortunates were decedents of the Franz Creffeld’s movement, who had been recruited from Waldport in September of 1975.P.P.S.; Tom Stoppard, another Englishman, observed, “The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means”.

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