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L.A. Then and Now / Cecilia Rasmussen

Divine Order's Tale Smacks of Cult Fiction

May 23, 1999|Cecilia Rasmussen

If Southern California had an edge toward which its oddest balls inevitably must roll, it probably would be the crags above Chatsworth Reservoir.

Over the years, some of those who have ended up there have been merely exotic--others downright alarming. But none have been stranger than the Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven, a cult that drew its inspiration from a single verse in the biblical Book of Revelation, 11:3 to be precise: "And I will grant my two witnesses power to prophesy for one thousand two hundred and sixty days."

The "two" whose prophetic activities the cult believed were foretold in the verse were a mother and daughter who used sex, religion, greed and animal sacrifices to separate believers from their money. Most of this occurred while the cultists were awaiting the return of the Messiah--an event they believed would coincide with the "resurrection" of a dead 16-year-old "priestess," whose body they kept on ice in a bathtub. Occasionally, the dead "priestess" was taken off the ice for a spin around Los Angeles in the back seat of a touring car.

It all began in 1924, when the angels Gabriel and Michael allegedly appeared to May Otis Blackburn, a 60-year-old clairvoyant, and her 24-year-old daughter, Ruth Wieland Rickenbaugh Rizzio, whom the press subsequently dubbed a "girl of many loves." In fact, when not delivering prophecies, Ruth specialized in convincing suitors to make her loans, which never were repaid.

The alleged angels allegedly told the alleged prophets to close their doors on the world for more than three years and to write a book about the "sixth sense" called the "Great Sixth Seal," explaining the mysteries of life and health, heaven and earth. The angels also promised to reveal the "lost measurements" that would lead them to all the hidden gold and oil deposits in the world.

Upon hearing this revelation, Clifford Dabney, the nephew of local oil magnate Joseph Dabney, joined the cult and offered Blackburn $40,000 in cash and property, including 164 rolling acres that sprawled across a canyon in the community of Santa Susana Knolls in Simi Valley.

All she had to do was share the "lost measurements."

It was in the canyon that the cult built a dozen cabins and a temple filled with furniture, including a massive gilded wood throne weighing 800 pounds, sitting upon four hand-carved paws and adorned with a lion's head. The temple was sealed off, waiting for Christ's return.

During the day, cult members worked at a local tomato packing shed. Every payday, their checks were collected by Blackburn and her husband, Ward Sitton Blackburn, 29, who was known as the "North Star of the World" and sported a long, drooping mustache and 5-inch-long fingernails. They always arrived in their big black car driven by chauffeur-bodyguard David Thompson.

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.

Believing in Blackburn's teachings and clairvoyant powers, wealthy followers William Rhodes (or Rhoads), a carpenter, and his wife, Martha, a real estate agent, moved to Los Angeles from Oregon, along with their beautiful adopted daughter Willa, who became a priestess known as "the Tree of Life."

On Christmas Day, 1924, Willa developed a toothache and subsequent infection, from which she died on New Year's Day, 1925. The Rhodeses looked to Blackburn for help.

Rushing to their side, Blackburn quickly put Willa's body in the bathtub and threw in some ice, spices and salt, declaring that "the tree" would spring back to life in 1,260 days.

Fourteen icy months and three household moves later, the Rhodes settled down after buying a small white bungalow on Marco Place in Venice. There, they put their daughter to rest.

William Rhodes built a metal-lined coffin for his daughter and a trapdoor in the bedroom floor for visiting or quick getaways. In another casket, next to Willa's, they buried seven puppies that represented the seven tones of the angel Gabriel's trumpet. Blackburn returned to her writing, promising that when she finished, Willa would rise from the dead.

In 1929, when Blackburn failed to come up with the "lost measurements of the universe" allegedly stolen from Noah by his son Ham when Noah's Ark was under construction, the disgruntled Dabney sued for fraud. Willa Rhodes soon became the centerpiece in a series of sensational disclosures.

While the police were busy investigating the mysterious disappearance of four other cult members, including Rizzio's 18-year-old husband, and digging up Willa's Venice grave, more members who had turned over large sums of money to Blackburn were filing grand theft charges totaling $50,000.

Notwithstanding the appearance of the archangel Gabriel to Blackburn in jail, where he assured her of an acquittal, Blackburn was convicted on eight of the 15 counts of grand theft and was released on $10,000 bail in 1930.

The next year, 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.

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