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The House of David

How a Fortune was Built on
Hosannas and Hospitality

The House of David and the City of David (aka The Israelite House of David) are religious communities located in Benton Harbor, Michigan that were originally one sect. The sect was founded at Fostoria, Ohio in 1902, by Mary & Benjamin Purnell. Benjamin said he found his calling after he dreamt that a white dove had perched on his shoulder and told him that he was the sixth son of the House of David. The dove told him that it was his mission to unite the Lost Tribes of Israel in advance of Judgment Day. 

Benjamin and Mary Purnell -- Founders of the House of David

Ben began to preach the gospel according to the dove’s dictates and attracted a few followers. He decided that all new members of his cult should turn over all of their worldly goods to him and forsake ownership of any personal property. They had to adopt a communal lifestyle and refrain from sex, haircuts, shaving and the eating of meat. 

Next it was revealed to Ben and Mary that they should move their tiny group to Benton Harbor and combine with another group of 200 folks there who called themselves the Flying Rollers. Shortly after arriving in Benton Harbor in 1903, they began to send out missionaries all across the US, Canada, England and Australia looking for converts. By 1910, the sect had over 700 members, and in 1916 the membership peaked at 1000.

Converting Gawkers Into Paying Customers 

It wasn’t long after the sect settled in Benton Harbor that it began to attract the attention of locals who were curious about Ben’s followers; with their long hair, beards and communal lifestyle. As the sect’s membership increased, so did the number of people who came to gawk at them. Soon, there were tourists coming from as far away as Chicago and Kalamazoo just to have a look at them.

Benjamin Purnell knew a money-making opportunity when he saw one, so he ordered the construction of an ice cream parlor to cater to the tourists. The parlor was so successful that he organized the sect’s musicians into a band and gave free concerts near the ice cream parlor to attract even more tourists. Ben’s followers enjoyed entertaining the tourists and more of them took up music. 

In 1904, Ben and Mary went to Australia in search of new converts. When they returned to Benton Harbor the following year, they brought along 85 new members. Among them were over twenty musicians and instrument makers. They began hand-crafting musical instruments for their own use and for sale to the tourists. 

Eden Springs Park

By 1907, the concerts and the ice cream parlor were drawing crowds so large that they were overwhelming the small colony. So Purnell bought some additional land and went about building a park, which he named "The Springs of Eden." The first buildings erected were a new ice cream parlor and a bandstand. Then they moved some animals that had been on display near the old ice cream parlor to the park. They continued to acquire animals for display until they had a full-sized zoo. 

Purnell added a miniature train to ferry visitors around the park and the train was so popular that he added more trains and even a midget race track with small gas-engine cars. Eventually the park boasted 8 miniature trains and 2 miniature race tracks. They also built miniature ships and held mock navel battles in the park pond. They built a restaurant, an open-air theatre, a large auditorium that featured silent movies, several bowling alleys, arcade games and even a pool hall. HOD also operated campgrounds, a hotel and a trailer park, gas stations, an auto dealership, a nightclub and a beer garden. 

The Entrance to Eden Springs Park
Entrance to Eden Springs Park

The park was almost entirely self-sufficient. HOD members built all of the buildings They grew, prepared and served all of the food sold to park visitors. They made all of the souvenirs sold in the shops and manufactured the miniature cars and trains. For a while they even generated their own electricity.

During the 1930s, Eden Springs Park became known nationally and was hosting over 200,000 visitors every year. 

The “Shaveless Sheiks of Syncopation.”

The bands were so popular that Purnell added other forms of entertainment. They formed comedy musical acts, string bands, marching bands, jazz bands and dance orchestras. When the crowds grew too large to entertain from a single stage, members performed at multiple stages throughout the park. By 1910, the bands were sent on road trips to appear in theaters across the country. 

The House of David Band
The House of David Band

Later, the House of David musicians entertained audiences all over the world. The demand for entertainment at Eden Springs was so great that vaudeville acts were booked into the park as well.

Baseball in Beards

The House of David was best known for its barnstorming baseball teams which were active from the 1920s through the 1950s. HOD members started playing baseball around 1913, and by 1920, the team was "barnstorming" around the country. They were so successful that other HOD teams were created. The barnstorming HOD teams were a sensation in small towns all across the country. 

Coach Jesse Lee "Doc" Tally created a warm-up drill he called “pepper” that improved his players speed and coordination. Many other teams adopted the pepper drill and it is still being used by teams at all levels today. The HOD pepper drill included a lot of clowning by the players and it became so popular with fans that it was moved to the fifth inning, renamed the Peppergame and billed as a mid-game exhibition. 

The House of David Baseball Team
The House of David Baseball Team 

A peppergame consists of at least three fielders standing 20-30 feet from a batter . The batter hits the ball to one of the fielders, who catches the ball quickly and lobs it from his glove back to the batter, who hits the ball out to another player. The ball begins to move very quickly and the players show off by adding a flourish to their moves. Fans loved the comic antics of the men in beards and long hair. 

Over the years, many big-leaguers played for the HOD teams, including Grover Cleveland Alexander and Negro league legend Satchel Paige, but they were required to disguise themselves as HOD members, by growing a beard or wearing a fake one. There were no black members of HOD, but Satchel Paige wore a false red beard that didn’t fool anyone. There is an enduring myth that Babe Ruth played for HOD, but there is no proof of that. HOD once made him an offer, but he never took them up on it.

Grover Cleveland Alexander once said, “If you want to see the world, join the Navy. If you want to see the United States, join the House of David Baseball team." It was not unusual for the HOD teams to log more than 30,000 miles a year while crisscrossing the US.

During the 1930s, the HOD teams set several firsts in baseball history; including the first signing of female to a professional baseball contract, pitcher Jackie Mitchell in 1933. Babe Didrickson, the famed Olympian and championship golfer also pitched for a HOD team. On April 17, 1930, the House of David played the very first night baseball game, utilizing a portable lighting system at Riverside Park in Independence, Kansas. By 1936, they were regularly playing Negro league teams like the Kansas City Monarchs.

The rise and fall of King Benjamin

As HOD membership and business interests grew, and their followers were toiling away in poverty and obscurity, Ben and Mary were living in luxury and amassing a 10 million dollar fortune. Ben crowned himself King Benjamin and began to misuse his power and influence to satisfy his baser instincts, like taking advantage of the women and girls in his flock.

Ben regularly performed mass weddings where sect members were paired up, after he conducted what he called the "blood cleansing" rite where he slept with each one of the brides. Ben’s sexual exploits began to attract the attention of local prosecutors and morals charges were filed against him several times, but each time he managed to avoid prosecution. 

In 1923, the Detroit Free Press ran a series of exposés on the cult’s financial irregularities and called for the state attorney general to act. Police raided Ben’s colony frequently but they couldn't find him. Finally in 1926, former mistress Bessie Daniels told police that Purnell was living in a secret underground chamber in his mansion. They raided it and found him in bed with several members of his harem.

Ben was convicted and banished from the colony. Soon his health failed and he died in December, 1927. The banishment and death of Benjamin Purnell resulted in an internal power struggle dividing the colony into two separate factions. In 1930, Mary and about half of the original sect moved across the street and founded a new colony called the Israelite House of David.

HOD/COD flourished until the middle of the 1950s. After Mary Purnell died in 1953, at the age of 91, the sect and the park began a steady decline. The park finally closed in the mid 1970s. As of 1992, the group still had 60 members, but membership continued to decline because of their belief in celibacy. There are now only a handful of members still living, all in their 80s and 90s.


Clip from House of David: A Compelling Curiosity 

 

 

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