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The Weird and Twisted History of the Blackburn Cult

Sex scandals, strange disappearances, and the attempted resurrection of a 16-year-old "princess"...

blackburn cult
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  • Photo Credit: UCLA Library Digital Collections

In 1922, on Bunker Hill in Los Angeles, California, May Otis Blackburn and her daughter Ruth began to receive revelations that came directly from the angels Gabriel and Michael. At least, that's what was happening if you heard them tell it. According to Blackburn and her daughter, they were, in fact, the "two witnesses" first seen by John of Patmos in a vision as described in the Book of Revelation.

Blackburn claimed that Gabriel and Michael were dictating a book that revealed all the secrets of the universe. When this book was completed, the Seventh Seal would break in heaven and an "apocalyptic event" would occur on earth. The book was going to be called "The Seventh Trumpet of Gabriel," though the title was later changed to a slightly more evocative "The Great Sixth Seal."

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Blackburn and her daughter founded a religious group known variously as the Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven, or more simply as the Great Eleven Club or the Blackburn Cult. The "Great Eleven" referred to a proclamation made by May Blackburn that, after the apocalypse, the world that was left would be ruled by eleven queens from mansions located on Olive Hill in Hollywood. Blackburn herself was sometimes referred to as the "Heel of God."

As they gathered followers, Blackburn and her daughter demanded tributes of money and property in order to finance and support their great work. Eventually, the cult retired from Los Angeles to a retreat in Southern California's Simi Valley. 

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While the book that was supposed to have been "The Sixth Great Seal" was never published, May Blackburn did, eventually, publish a book called The Origin of God in 1936. The narrative contained elements of many of her previous revelations. By the time of its publication, however, the Blackburn Cult had spun out of control—plagued by rumors of strange happenings and mysterious deaths.

Samuel Rizzio, who was married to Ruth Blackburn, mysteriously went missing after allegedly striking his wife and was never heard from again. He was said to have been poisoned by May Blackburn, but his body was never found. A member of the cult itself, Frances Turner, a paralyzed woman, was allegedly placed in a sort of homemade oven for two days, resulting in her death. But perhaps the strangest story associated with the Blackburn Cult was the attempted resurrection of Willa Rhoads.

blackburn cult
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  • May Otis Blackburn's husband, Ward. 

    Photo Credit: UCLA Library Digital Collections

A 16-year-old "princess" of the cult, Rhoads had died under mysterious circumstances. Police found her body 14 months later, under the floorboards of her parents' house. She was practically mummified, her body wrapped with spices and salt, and surrounded by the corpses of seven dead dogs that had been sacrificed, presumably to help ensure her resurrection.

Accompanying these chilling episodes were additional claims and accusations: sex scandals, animal sacrifices, "whirling dervish" ceremonies, and the disappearances of several other cult members. Yet what ultimately landed May Otis Blackburn behind bars, however briefly, had little to do with the otherworldly. In 1929, Clifford Dabney, a former member of the Blackburn Cult, charged Blackburn with defrauding him of $50,000 that he had given her to help her write her book. 

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The district attorney launched an investigation, uncovering additional fraud claims from Blackburn’s other followers and eventually bumping up the bill to $200,000. What’s more, the investigation unearthed many of the strange events and disappearances outlined above. Ultimately, Blackburn was convicted of eight counts of grand theft. She appealed the ruling, which found its way before the California Supreme Court in 1931. The California Supreme Court overturned the original verdict on the grounds that the evidence relating to the cult's bizarre activities had no bearing on the charges of grand theft, and that it was impossible to prove whether Blackburn had, in fact, taken the money in bad faith. 

May Otis Blackburn was then released from prison, but the Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven was effectively finished. Blackburn went on to publish The Origin of God in 1936, and eventually died in Los Angeles in 1951. It's possible that the secrets of the Blackburn Cult died with her.

Featured photo of May Otis Blackburn and her daughter Ruth Wieland Rizzio courtesy of UCLA Library Digital Collections