The good and alleged evil of the House of David The House of David was founded by Benjamin Purnell, a traveling preacher, and his wife Mary, as a a religious commune in in Benton Harbor, Michigan. The commune had it's share of scandel, but most people knew of it because of the Eden Springs amusement park, zoo, and beer garden it advertised to vacationers.
And of course, the House of David baseball team. Ron Grossman Contact Reporter One of the most remarkable things about the Israelite House of David — a religious commune founded in in Michigan — is that it still exists. Its tumultuous history weaves together the allure of a charismatic leader who was called "King Ben" by the newspapers, a woman dubbed "Queen Mary," a popular baseball team, a jazz band and a compound that drew tourists to its gardens and zoo.
But the House of David faced allegations that it had a sinister side too. The cult and its leader, Benjamin Purnell, were accused of subjecting young girls to improper sexual activity with Purnell.
A series of court cases and a state investigation into alleged "immoralities" were covered extensively by the Tribune in the s — before the cult split into two. Now the two compounds — the original Israelite House of David and its offshoot, Mary's City of David — sit just across Britain Avenue from each other in Benton Harbor, a small city on Michigan's western shore.
He joined Mary's City of David in Before the split, the group had perhaps members, and it was among a number of sects that, at the turn of the 20th century, shared a common millenarian belief: The end of the world is at hand, so it's no time to be distracted by the pleasures of the flesh.
An attorney who later headed the House of David explained the group's premise to officials in By the Tribune's account, the attorney said "his colony is devoted to educational and scientific advancement. Members wear their hair and beards long, he said, because they believe they can absorb electricity from the air with their long hair.
And the electricity is just as important as food. By his clients' beliefs, meat was a no-no. So too were tobacco and alcohol. Sex was sinful, and procreation was prohibited.
A husband and wife could join only if they redefined themselves as "brother" and "sister. Allegations spread that the cult's founder, Benjamin Purnell, and possibly other men in the group, had sex with girls as young as The accounts by girls and women in Tribune stories read like pages of Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel "The Handmaid's Tale. A judge in would later say of him: With Mary, he traveled the Midwest, hawking brooms and salvation. Eventually they joined a Detroit commune, whose leader, Prince Mike, proclaimed himself "the seventh messenger," the last of a series of divine emissaries forecast by the biblical Book of Revelation.
Then Purnell stunned an prayer service. Perhaps he saw himself in the tradition of the Nazirites, an Old Testament sect.
Members didn't cut their hair, drink wine or go near a corpse. Whatever Purnell's inspiration, the neighbors were outraged when he and his wife skipped their own year-old daughter's funeral in Fostoria, Ohio.
So the couple moved to Benton Harbor, where their luck turned. Their new Israelite House of David steadily recruited new members — a necessity, as procreation was forbidden. Purnell's genius at mass-mailing advertising was noted in a Tribune article: Still, no one could say that Purnell tried to impose the group's ascetic regime on outsiders.
The House of David profited from catering to pleasure-seeking tourists too. Ads touted its Eden Springs amusement park, zoo and a beer garden. Over the years, cottages and hotel rooms were available. Guests could enjoy "open-air dancing" to the sound of "vaudeville bands.
The cult even fielded a barnstorming team of baseball players who ran the the bases — their long beards trailing — and gained a national following. The House of David baseball team spread the cult's beliefs and was a money-maker.
Under its player-manager Jesse Tally — known as the "bearded Babe Ruth" — the team took on semi-pro teams. It played spring-training exhibition games against major league teams. A Tribune headline noted: According to a Tribune article, several women told federal authorities what they witnessed when Purnell and his followers made a fundraising appearance at a street fair in Chicago.
One woman claimed Purnell slept in the girls' tent. Another added that "he has the young girls dance for him at night in their night clothes. In , the Tribune reported: That view was both supported and denied at another trial in , which the judge had to start without him. Testimony was heard that young women were "forced into loveless marriages to shield the House of David from state investigators.
A defense witness, whose daughter and son were prosecution witnesses, said: Emaciated and weak, he denied he was guilty of anything. In November , the judge ordered Purnell to leave the cult. He died a month later, having never been prosecuted on any sexual misconduct charges. In giving his ruling, however, the judge excoriated Purnell for "his betrayal of the spiritual faith of his victims and A Tribune headline summed it up: Mary Purnell's leadership had been challenged, and in , she pulled her followers out and founded the rival sect across the street.
The cult's assets were divided, right down to the baseball players. Her team was the more successful one, bolstered by ex-major leaguers, such as Grover Cleveland Alexander. Satchel Paige, a Negro League star, called his bearded teammates "the Jesus boys. Many other resorts were "restricted" to Christians; Mary's didn't serve meat, making her menu roughly kosher; and it built a synagogue for its Jewish guests.
Yet after World War II, neither sect was attracting enough members to replace those who died. Mary Purnell died in By now, there are only a handful of members left. Ron Taylor, one of the last of Mary's followers, is encouraged by that. He notes that the dwindling membership is consistent with her timing of the day of judgment.