The House of David
The House of David was a religious colony in my hometown of Benton Harbor, Michigan.
When I was a boy I was mesmerized by the magical, mysterious House of David.
My father grew up around the House of David, and he told me many stories about its past.
In high school I wrote a highly praised history of the House of David after spending hours reviewing microfiche from the local newspaper, the Herald Palladium, in the Benton Harbor library.
That paper is lost to time, and I've decided to write once more about the House of David.
KING BEN PURNELL
The "Israelite" House of David was a religious commune founded in Benton Harbor by "King Ben" Purnell, his wife Mary, and approximately 200 of their followers in 1903. They were affiliated with a Christian sect known as the "Flying Rollers." King Ben claimed to be the "Seventh Messenger" sent from God to save the world and also the younger brother of Jesus Christ.
To join, you had to hand over all earthly possessions to King Ben and vow to a life without meat, alcohol, tobacco, violence, shaving, haircuts, and sex—even with your wife. But King Ben could have sex with your wives. And he had to "purify" or deflower your daughters once they hit about fourteen.
King Ben amassed a fortune estimated to be in the vicinity of ten million dollars. It's rumored that he also buried millions of dollars that have never been found. He lived in magnificent mansions while his followers lived in minuscule cottages.
King Ben was brought up on morals charges in 1910, 1914, and 1922—and acquitted each time. In 1923, The Detroit Free Press ran a series of articles about his sexual peccadilloes with young girls, prompting the State of Michigan to file charges against him again. Going underground, literally, he went into hiding in the secret chambers he'd had built underneath the colony, but a stool pigeon ratted him out and he was arrested while in bed with several minor females.
In all, 13 girls came forward to testify against him. A sensational trial ensued, but it ended before a verdict could be reached; King Ben died, and the trial was over. Mummified and enclosed in a glass coffin, King Ben is ensconced in a place known only to his followers. They confidently predicted he would rise from the dead. But he never did.
As salacious as all that is, that is not the most amazing part of our story by any means. That would be the tale of the colony itself—split into two after his death.
After lawsuits flew, a settlement was reached by which the man who had been managing the affairs of the colony, Judge Dewhirst, took over the original House of David along with half its properties, while the wife of King Ben, Mary Purnell, started up the new "City of David" next door with the other half of the colony's holdings. The members could choose to go with either side, and they divided up up roughly 50-50.
HOUSE OF DAVID VIDEO
HOUSE OF DAVID
The House of David was completely self-sufficient.
By the 1930s, its then 1,000 members owned and operated vineyards, farms, a huge cold storage facility, extensive greenhouses, a dairy, stone quarries on their own island (High Island, MI), forests for timber, a foundry, factories, a machine shop, a printing press, a tannery, a woodshop, a school, a hospital, and of all things: an Oldsmobile dealership.
They completed their self-sufficiency by generating their very own electricity.
Their agricultural prowess made the Benton Harbor Fruit Market the largest in the world. But none of this is what the House of David was famous for.
I haven't gotten to that yet.
THE HOUSE OF DAVID
The House of David had a beautiful motor lodge with a famous nightclub frequented by such celebrities as Clarence Darrow and George Raft. It was home to one of the world's first vegetarian restaurants, which proved extremely popular. Its baseball team toured the country and played in exhibition games against major league teams, such as the Chicago Cubs, Detroit Tigers, Chicago White Sox, and St. Louis Cardinals. It also had a basketball team that barnstormed the nation, even hosting the Harlem Globetrotters. These teams were a sensation as people flocked to see the long haired, bearded wonders. Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey (for the heavyweight title) boxed at the House of David. The baseball team hired ringers, whom they put in fake beards and wigs. Among them were Babe Ruth, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Mordecai "Three Fingers" Brown, and Satchel Paige. Yes, that Satchel Paige. The House of David fielded the first baseball team to play against Negro league teams, and it was the first team to roster a black player. They also hired and employed the first professional female baseball player in history to play on their team.
The House of David was most well known for its amusement park, The Springs of Eden, which attracted 500,000 visitors per year during its heyday. The park featured a world-famous aviary and a zoo, with lions and tigers and bears (OH MY!). They built the first miniature trains, on which visitors could take a tour through the facilities. Especially popular with tourists was the gift shop, known for its hand-crafted statues, leather goods, arts and crafts. Walt Disney was a visitor at The Springs of Eden, and while there purchased one of their trains. It became a prototype for the future Disneyland. The Springs of Eden finally closed in the 1970s. I visited the park many times.
WHITE SUMMER AT THE HOUSE OF DAVID
My father often took me to concerts at the House of David Beer Gardens. Top big bands used to play there, such as those of Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller. The House of David had its own famous blues and jazz bands that played the national vaudeville circuit. Their artisans even made beautiful musical instruments. My own band, White Summer, was the first rock band to ever play at the House of David, in 1971. And we were the last band of any kind to play there, in 1987. In regard to the latter, to get permission to spruce up the long closed Beer Gardens and play there, my friend Gary Allison, a descendant of a House of David member, arranged for me to be interviewed by the famous orchestra leader, Manna Woodworth. He had to like me first. And he did.
HOUSE OF DAVID
Now, some remarkable firsts. House of David members invented the automatic pinsetter for their bowling alleys in 1910. They played the first ever night baseball game in 1930. They invented the veggie burger. They invented the sugar waffle ice cream cone. They were the first to bottle and sell mineral water in the United States. They operated the first cruise ships (on Lake Michigan).
Future House of David members, the Baushke Brothers, built the first American automobile in Benton Harbor in 1894.
It is mostly all gone now. There may be a handful of ancient members left. I must say that they were known to be extremely long-lived. Sadly, the celibacy clause meant that they didn't have children, and so the House of David died as its members died. Are you listening America, Europe, and Japan?
One of the few things they could not make for themselves was auto parts. My family was in that business for generations and while working in the family auto parts store, I had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with several members of the House of David. They were sincere, honorable chaps.
One last sidebar: King Ben's grandson, David, murdered my gorgeous babysitter, Janet Uland, in 1971 with a golf club after she refused his sexual advances. As his defense, he claimed that the ghost of his grandfather told him to do it. He lived out his life in prison, dying in 2007. I was interrogated by the police for the crime because David Purnell had a similar car to mine, a Shelby GT. I was sixteen years old.