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The Oregonian 07-29-01

Rise, fall of Joshua takes others down, too
by John Terry

      Oregon has seen any number of charismatic religious leaders whose offbeat theology and/or rites have at the least raised eye-brows and in some cases besmirched their reputations.

      The most famous of the 19th century was "Dr.,, William Keil (medical status self-bestowed), who governed his communal congregation in Aurora with a velvet glove on an iron fist.

      "King" Keil, as he was known, maintained his theological autocracy over his followers - no marriages without his express approval - from their 1855 arrival in the Northwest until his unanticipated demise Dec. 30, 1877.

      The most recently infamous was Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, whose followers in the 1980s enthroned him in an earthly nirvana on a remote Central Oregon ranch.

      Rajneesh ultimately was ordered back to India in disgrace after he and his minions were adjudged guilty of offenses such as subverting the state's municipal incorporation laws, plotting the murder of its attorney general and the U.S. attorney for Oregon, attempting to usurp the authority of the Wasco County electorate by rigging elections and trying to poison the population of The Dalles.  Rajneesh died Jan. 19, 1990.

      Others were of lesser light, and in their time and place none generated as much attention or scorn as "Joshua the Second."

      Joshua II entered the worldly sphere in 1871 in Germany, and 32 years later Corvallis, Oregon, as Franz Edmund Creffield.  He studied for the priesthood in Germany but quit that country to avoid military service and landed in Portland, where he joined the ranks of the Salvation Army.

      That organization assigned him as commander of its Corvallis out-post, but shortly after his arrival there his behavior took a decided turn for the bizarre. He quit the corps, grew his hair biblically long and, ordaining as his lieutenant army associate Charles Brooks, established the "Church of the Bride of Christ."

      News accounts indicate Creffield billed himself as the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, though he adopted the name of the Old Testament prophet.  A few other men joined early on, but it soon became clear his proselytizing was aimed primarily at the womenfolk of Corvallis.  Their numbers were variously reported at between 10 and 100.

      A Seattle reporter described his ritual: "Creffield was accustomed to get women and girls into his rooms, put them under hypnotic influence and have them strip off their clothing, roll on the floor and become defiled.  He was not satisfied with mining young girls, but caused them utterly to debase themselves."

      His initial meetings were held in the home of Victor Hurt, whose wife, Olive, and two daughters also were disciples.

      When irate men rendered Corvallis inhospitable, he moved to an island in the Willamette River, or a house across the river in Linn County, or both; accounts vary.

      He held forth unsullied until Jan. 4, 1904, when some angry men cornered him and Brooks, escorted them to the edge of town, applied on tar and feathers, and bade them never look back.  Brooks apparently took heed.  Creffield was undaunted.

      He fled to his faithful, who did what they could to remove the glop, and the next day in Albany married the Hurts' eldest daughter, Maud.  The honeymoon took them to Portland, where Creffield sought to reclaim two errant members of his flock, Mrs. Burgess Starr and her teen-age daughter, Esdier Mitchell.

      Starr's husband promptly filed charges of adultery, and Creffield hastily left the city.  A month, or several months, later--again, accounts vary--he was discovered naked, filthy and barely surviving beneath his father-in-law's house in Corvallis.

      The authorities sanitized him, took him to court and sentenced him to three years in the state penitentiary.

      Freed with time off for good behavior in February 1906, Creffield was as zealous as ever.  He went briefly to San Francisco, proclaimed its earthquake his doings and returned to Oregon to set up shop on the coast near Yachats.

      He sent word to the faithful in Corvallis, and they responded.  Victor Hurt brought his womenfolk, including Maud.

      Esther Mitchell walked 100 miles to reach him.  Creffield in gratitude anointed her the "virgin" mother of the next "savior."

      Male relatives bent on delivering their own version of salvation weren't far behind.  One tracked Creffield to the new enclave, leveled a pistol at his head and pulled the trigger.  Numerous times.  It failed to fire.  Creffield interpreted it as a heaven-sent sign of invincibility. He also recognized a need for caution.

      He packed up Maud and Esther, and sought sanctuary in Seattle.

      On the morning of May 7, 1906, Creffield and Maud left their rooming house for a walk.  Maud stepped on a scale in front of a drugstore.  Creffield looked over some goods in the window.  George Mitchell, Esther's brother, who had tracked the trio north, approached, placed a pistol to the prophet's ear and blew him to kingdom come.

      "Holy Roller Shot Down Like a Dog," trumpeted the Oregonian's headline.

      George Mitchell was charged with murder.  A sympathetic jury considered the case for an hour and 25 minutes, decided, to considerable courtroom applause, that his action was justifiable homicide and set him free.

      On the afternoon of July 12, George and brothers Fred and Perry were at Seattle's Union Depot to leave for Portland.  Esther arrived, ostensibly to see them off, an apparently happy reunion.  As George led the way to the train, Esther fell back, pulled a small pistol from beneath her cloak and shot him in the back of the head.  He fell dead.

      Esther and Maud, accomplice in the plot, were jailed.  On Nov. 17, Maud died in her cell of typhoid fever or a dose of strychnine--yet again accounts vary.  Esther may have been with her and held her hand.

      A judge found Esther insane.  She spent three years at Washington's asylum at Steilacoom, was released April 5, 1909, and returned to Oregon.

      A couple of days later she visited The Oregonian office, "thin and tragically worn," to inquire where George was buried.  A secretary looked up the information, but when she returned to provide ft, Esther was gone.

      She died a few weeks later at the home of friends near Waldport.  She was 20.

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