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The Blackburn Cult

Angels Flank a Book Holder

Image by the Los Angeles Almanac.

The Blackburn Cult was, arguably, one of the strangest religious cults to have operated in Los Angeles (which says a lot). It was officially called the Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven, or Great Eleven Club, and was founded in the Bunkerhill neighborhood of Downtown Los Angeles by 41-year-old Matilda May Otis Blackburn(1) (she went by May) and her 24-year-old daughter, Ruth Wieland Rizzio(2).

In 1922, Blackburn and her daughter proclaimed that the angels Gabriel and Michael appeared to them and declared them to be the “two witnesses” described in the Book of Revelation 11:3. The women further declared that the two angels appointed them to write a book of divine knowledge and revelation over the next few years, that, upon publication, would be a harbinger of imminent apocalyptic events. The book, initially to be titled "The Seventh Trumpet of Gabriel" and later changed to "The Great Sixth Seal," would also reveal “lost measurements” that pinpointed hidden riches and oil deposits. Blackburn later described being willingly chained to her bed for several months

Blackburn Cult, May Otis Blackburn, Ruth Wieland Rizzio, 1929

May Otis Blackburn and daughter Ruth Wieland Rizzio, 1929. Photo from the L.A. Times Photographic Archive at UCLA Library

When Blackburn and daughter Ruth, self-proclaimed queens and high priestesses, began gathering followers around them, they also began siphoning money from their disciples. Ruth, reported to have been an unsuccessful film actress and a “dancer” (with indications that this occupation was not what it seemed), was said to have had no problem attracting men and had already shown talent for extracting money from them. One Blackburn follower was Clifford Dabney, a nephew of an oil magnate, who turned over $50,000 in cash and assets to Blackburn (worth approximately $750,000 in 2019 dollars). In return, he was promised to be among the first to see the Blackburn’s book (with its “lost measurements”) ahead of publication. Among the assets Dabney donated to Blackburn was 164 acres of land in the Santa Susana area of Simi Valley in Ventura County.

Sometime later, Blackburn and her younger husband, exotically mustachioed Ward Sitton Blackburn(3) (proclaimed by Blackburn as “North Star of the World”), led cult members to build cabins on the donated Simi Valley property where cult members would take up residence, awaiting the return of Christ. They also constructed a temple on the property featuring an elaborate guided throne that was reserved for Christ. Cult members residing at the property were compelled to work at a nearby tomato-packing house and turn their pay over to the Blackburns. In the evenings, robed members gathered for rituals in a natural amphitheater on the property and sacrificed mules and, according to some witnesses, danced in the nude. Among other bizarre occurances, it was alleged that one cult member was placed in a hot brick oven in order to cure a malady, dying as a result. Four other cult members were also reported to have mysteriously disappeared, including Samuel Rizzio, Ruth’s husband(4) who was said to have hit her. It was alleged that these persons had been poisoned.

Blackburn Cult, Ward Blackburn, May Blackburn, 1929

Ward Blackburn, husband of May Blackburn. Photo from the L.A. Times Photographic Archive at UCLA Library

On New Year’s Day of 1925, 16-year-old cult member Willa Rhodes died from a severe infection as a result of a toothache. Blackburn assured her grieving parents, also cult members, that the girl would be resurrected to life after 1,260 days had passed and her book was published. All they had to do was preserve her body for the event. The deceased girl’s body was immediately placed in a bathtub to be preserved with ice, spices and salt. Fourteen months later, when the girl’s parents moved back to Los Angeles into a home in Venice, they brought Willa’s preserved body with them and placed it in a mental coffin beneath the floor of their house. Adjacent to her coffin was placed another coffin containing the sacrificed bodies of seven puppies, said to represent the seven tones of the angel Gabriel’s trumpet.

By 1929, Dabney and some other Blackburn followers lost patience for the completion of Blackburn’s book and her promised apocalyptic events. They filed charges of fraud and theft against Blackburn for as much as $200,000 (approximately $3 million in 2019 dollars). As allegations also emerged of unreported deaths and disappearances, police expanded their interest, leading to the discovery of the mummified body of Willa Rhodes beneath her parent’s Venice home. It could not be determined that Willa had died from anything other than natural causes, however, and police were unable to uncover any viable evidence regarding the disappearances of the four missing cult members, including Ruth’s husband.(5) Prosecutors also could not substantiate the allegations of a cult member's death from being baked in an oven.

Blackburn Cult, Los Angeles Times, October 11, 1929

Los Angeles Times, October 11, 1929, edition, featuring a story about the Blackburn Cult. Photo is of Ward Blackburn, husband of May Blackburn. Los Angeles Times.

Nevertheless, in 1930, Blackburn was convicted on 8 of 15 counts of grand theft. She remained out of jail on bail pending appeals. In 1931, the California Supreme Court threw out her conviction, ruling that evidence used in her conviction, although clearly demonstrating unconventional and even, possibly, offensive religious practices, failed to establish that she did not sincerely believe in her pronouncements and promises and that she did not take money from followers in good faith. Furthermore, the high court ruled that the victims appeared to be of sound mind when they willingly accepted Blackburn's teachings. At worst, the victims suffered from their own bad judgement. The court cautioned that the approach used to prosecute the specific charges in the Blackburn case was a dangerous encroachment on religious freedom as protected under the U.S. constitution.

As a result, Blackburn was exonerated, but the publicity and scandal around her case decimated her following. In 1936, she finally published a book titled “The Origin of God.” She died in Los Angeles in 1951.

(1) A number of accounts cite May Blackburn's age in 1922 at 60. She was, however, born in Iowa on August 2, 1881.
(2) Ruth Wieland was the daughter of May Otis and Jack Wieland. She was born in Union, South Dakota, on June 25, 1898. It is unknown what had happened to Jack Wieland.
(3) Ward and May were married in January 1924.
(4) Samuel Rizzio and Ruth Wieland were married in June 1924. He was then age 18 and she 26. Ruth had earlier married Edgar J. Richenbaugh in Los Angeles in 1919, but divorced sometime prior to 1924.
(5) Samuel Rizzio's disappearance remains unsolved.

Also see book, “Cult of the Great Eleven”, by Samuel Fort.