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FACING DOWN THE RULERS OF WALL STREET A HUNDRED YEARS AGO. THEY ARE BACK.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

PROPHET AS A JOB TITLE

I am an admirer of the English philosopher Charles Chaplin, who observed that "Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot”. As an example I now present the life of Franz Edmund Creffeld, which began in 1871 with an extreme long shot, in the far off kingdom of Germany. 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 he eventually arrived, in 1899, in the little town of Corvallis, Oregon, wearing 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. The oraganization was revolutionary. William Booth, the Army's founder, often became so possessed by "The Spirit" that he writhed on the floor and babbled in tongues. Also the Army was one of the few social or religious organizations at the turn of the century in which woman could hold respected leadership position. Dispite these socially advanced positions, by 1903 the 29 year old Corvallis commander, Lt. Creffeld, was finding the doctrine and command structure of the Salvation Army to be too restrictive. Creffeld built upon his congregation, which already contained a majority of women and led them off the Salvation reservation. And in the summer of 1903, under Creffeld's direction and in an act of extraordinary sexual independence for the time, the two dozen women members built with their own hands a meeting house on Kiger Island, a 2200 acre wooded sancturary in 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. His Salvation Army commanders described Lt. Creeffeld’s adherents as “Come-Outers” but they described themselves as “Holy Rollers”. 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 told of naked rambles in the wilds of Kiger Island. And when the wooden skdewalks 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 the temptation represented by physical property, one of the local newspapers suggested “…a condition bordering on insanity”. Creeffeld’s 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 henceforth he was 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 in 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 is 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 and then chased into the woods, where later Mrs. Hunt and Maude were able to find and secretly escort the prophet back 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 Joshua's 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. But 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. The aggrieved party was George Mitchel, Esther's elder brother, even posted a $150 reward for the arrest of "Joshua". Franz immediately disappeared, and was not seen again in Corvallis again until August, when he was discovered, filthy, nude and starving, hiding beneath the Hunt household. Arrested and tried in Portland, Franz was found guilty of adultry 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 the real 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 and attraction of this man's lunacy. This was the little man all those women were swooning for? Jail could not restrain or reform Franz Creffeld. 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 now ready for his final 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 Hunt 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. And 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. George Mitchell was tried in Seattle. His lawyers skillfully put The Prophet's behavior on trial. On July 10th the jury came back after deliberating for just an hour and a half. To no one's surprise the verdict was “not guilty”. After celebrating for three days, George Mitchell was preparing for reconciliation meeting with his sister Esther 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” was correct. Maude had bought the gun and Esther had used it. While awaiting trial Maude took strychnine. Her father, O.V. Hunt, arrainged to have Franz’s body exumed and reburied next to Maude’s.At her trial Esther Mitchell was judged to be insane. For three years she survived in the Washington State Asylum at Steilacoom. She was released on April 5, 1909, and was according to the hospital staff, “thoroughly disgusted with herself”. That diagnosis would appear to have been incorrect. Mr. O.V. Hunt collected Ethe 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. Except there was to be a sequel. On March 26, 1997, outside of San Diego, California, some 40 members of the religious group “Heaven’s Gate”, committed suicide. It was, they believed, the price for a ticket aboard the space ship approaching earth behind the comet Hailey Bop. About twenty of those deluded unfortunates were decedents of the Franz Creffeld’s movement, who had been recruited from Waldport in September of 1975. Final fade to black. Fade in title card, which reads; Tom Stoppard, another Englishman wote, “The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means”.
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