Blackburn Cult (Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven)

A mysterious 1920s cult led by a mother-daughter duo with apocalyptic prophecies and bizarre rituals.

Religion: Christianity
Founder: May Otis Blackburn
Founded: 1920s
Ended: 1930s
Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

The Blackburn Cult, formally known as the Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven, or the Great Eleven Club, was a new religious movement that flourished in Los Angeles, California, in the early 1920s. Founded by May Otis Blackburn and her daughter Ruth Wieland Rizzio, the cult promised its followers divine knowledge, hidden treasures, and a pivotal role in the forthcoming apocalypse.

In 1922, May Otis Blackburn, alongside her daughter, claimed to have received divine revelations from the angels Gabriel and Michael, who declared them the “two witnesses” described in the Book of Revelation 11:3. These angels supposedly charged them with writing a holy text that would unveil all mysteries of life and initiate the end times. The promised book, initially titled “The Seventh Trumpet of Gabriel” and later renamed “The Great Sixth Seal,” was to contain lost measurements revealing the locations of untold riches and oil deposits.

Blackburn’s mystical pronouncements attracted a significant following, and she, along with her daughter, began to demand financial tributes from their adherents to support their divine mission. Clifford Dabney, a nephew of an oil magnate, was among those who contributed significant sums, handing over $50,000 in cash and assets, including 164 acres in Simi Valley, Ventura County, which was used by the cult as a spiritual retreat and communal living space. Here, bizarre rituals, including animal sacrifices and purportedly nude dances took place. The group also faced allegations of more sinister activities, including the mysterious disappearances of several members and the death of a cult member supposedly cured by being placed in a hot brick oven.

The cult’s most notorious incident involved the death of 16-year-old Willa Rhoads, who died from a tooth infection in 1925. Blackburn convinced her parents, also cult members, that Willa would be resurrected upon the publication of her book. Her body was preserved in a bathtub with ice, spices, and salt, and later moved to a coffin beneath the floor of her parents’ Venice home, surrounded by the corpses of seven dogs, which represented the seven tones of Gabriel’s trumpet.

The Blackburn Cult’s activities came under scrutiny in 1929 when disillusioned followers, led by Clifford Dabney, accused May Otis Blackburn of fraud and theft, leading to her arrest and the eventual discovery of Willa Rhoads’s preserved body. Blackburn was convicted on 8 of 15 counts of grand theft in 1930 but was released from jail on bail pending appeals. Her conviction was overturned in 1931 by the California Supreme Court, which ruled that the evidence, while indicative of unconventional religious practices, did not conclusively prove she had defrauded her followers without genuine belief in her prophetic claims.

The scandal and legal battles decimated the cult’s following, and while Blackburn published “The Origin of God” in 1936, her movement never recovered its former influence. May Otis Blackburn died in Los Angeles in 1951, her legacy a cautionary tale of early 20th-century religious fervor and the dark turn it can take​​​​.

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