Blackburn Cult: The Hidden Mission of Self-Styled Messengers of God

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: SECRET SOCIETIES

By Richerd Spence, Ph.D., University of Idaho

Often, leaders of secret societies give an impression of being God’s messengers to their followers. This belief has led many of them to do heinous crimes against humanity. One of such groups to emerge in America was the Blackburn Cult. Who was Queen May, its supreme leader? Did she resurrect an ancient Greek cult? And, what happened in the Death Valley colony?

Painting shows the Seven Seals book being opened by the lamb with the Seven Seals.
May Blackburn had proclaimed that in her book, The Great Sixth Seal, the Seven Seals described in the Revelation would be broken in heaven. (Image: Matthias Gerung/Public domain)

The Blackburn Cult

In 1929, in California, a body of a young woman was found in a wooden box who laid in a fetal position, wrapped in a white blanket, her hair spread over her face. She was dead for almost five years. The body of the young woman had been moved at least twice, kept on ice for 14 months, embalmed with pickling spices, and concealed in a hidden tomb under her parents’ bedroom. Next to her, were the corpses of seven pet dogs.

The seven angels with seven trumpets, from the Bamberg Apocalypse.
Next to the dead girl Willa’s body were the corpses of seven puppies which according to May Blackburn, represented the, ‘Seven Notes of Gabriel’s Celestial Trumpet.’ (Image: Deutsch: Auftraggeber: Otto III. oder Heinrich II./Public domain)

The dead girl’s name was Willa Rhoads who was 16 when she’d died. After enquiring with her parents about the disappearance of their adopted daughter, the father broke down, leading the cops to the makeshift mausoleum under the floorboards. His wife insisted that Willa wasn’t really dead, wasn’t just Willa Rhoads but the ‘Tree of Life’, a celestial princess, and the future queen awaiting resurrection. The seven dead puppies represented the ‘Seven Notes of Gabriel’s Celestial Trumpet’, and were part of a ritual, which promised that. The woman, the Rhoads regarded as their leader and a messenger of God had told them so, which they believed. The leader’s name was May Otis Blackburn, who led the Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven. Others called it the Blackburn Cult.

Learn more about the realm of secret societies.

Blackburn Cult Under Investigation

By the time Willa’s body was found, the Blackburn cult was already under investigation. An oilman named Clifford Dabney had accused Blackburn of bilking him out of $40,000. The money was supposed to finance the writing and publication of a book to be titled ‘The Great Sixth Seal’. May Blackburn said the work would be dictated to her by the Archangel Gabriel which would reveal the secrets of the universe, including the keys to resurrection and immortality and even where to find more oil.

Blackburn Cult’s Harmony Hamlet

Blackburn had also received some land in Southern California’s Simi Valley from the oilman, Dabney, through a deed where she had built a colony for followers, dubbed as Harmony Hamlet. Its centerpiece was a golden throne inside a temple that awaited the arrival of a White Messiah. There was also a natural amphitheater where the cult conducted elaborate nocturnal rituals, including the bloody sacrifice of mules, dogs, and humans.

This is a transcript from the video series Secret Societies. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Rule of May Blackburn

Known to her faithful as Queen May and the Heel of God, May Blackburn ruled everything and everyone with an iron fist. People who crossed her would disappear. One of them was Sammy Rizzio, the husband of her daughter, Ruth Wieland. Ruth, before becoming a high priestess and her mother’s chief accomplice, was an aspiring actress, taxi dancer, and songwriter. It was Ruth’s acting bug that brought the whole family to Hollywood in the early 1920s. But that went out the window when she and her mom started channeling messages from the Archangel Gabriel. May Blackburn’s husband of sorts, Ward Blackburn, a self-described oriental mystic was also May’s stepbrother and a pedophile. It was easy to label May Blackburn a charlatan, and her order a con. But the Great Eleven was just one of the hundreds of cults, new religions, and esoteric orders operating in California at the time.

Learn more about the history of the smaller secret societies in Germany.

Blackburn’s Competitors

Among May Blackburn’s competitors in spiritual enlightenment were: Zeralda and Omar’s Love Cult, the Christian Church of Psychosophy, and a House of Judah that featured Garden of Eden orgies, complete with the burnt offering of live lambs. There was also Hickory Hall, which was a sadomasochistic group run by a very strict Most High Interpretress called the Pisgah Crater Cult. Blackburn’s Great Eleven was a mix of Christian Science mind-over-matter, and outright paganism.

Death of Sacrifice

Young Willa had died from an untreated abscessed tooth, but Queen May insisted that the girl had perished from ‘wrongful belief’. There was also a strange suggestion that her death was a kind of test or sacrifice. May Blackburn had a knack with poisons, who told the faithful that Willa had ‘died to save the world’. The Rhoads could have been charged with the failure to report a death and unlawful disposal of a corpse but were not.

Learn more about the story behind The Knights Templar.

Blackburn Resurrects Goddess Hecate?

Marble relief by Zde showing the Goddess Hecate with three heads and holding torches in their hands. Blackburn was believed to dedicate her cult to Goddess Hecate.
It is believed that Blackburn Cult was worshipping the ancient Greek mystery goddess Hecate. (Image: Zde/CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0))

Researcher Samuel Fort speculated that at the heart of the Blackburn Cult, was the worship of the ancient Greek mystery goddess Hecate, the goddess of night, of sorcery and of dogs; the same Hecate as conjured by the three witches of Macbeth. But how could an ancient cult dedicated to Hecate end up in 20th century Southern California?

Did May Blackburn resurrect it? Or did she discover something already there? Also, the Order’s Simi Valley hideaway was just a few miles away from the Spahn Movie Ranch, which became the headquarters of Charles Manson’s family, 40 years later. And like Manson, May Blackburn had an odd fascination with Death Valley.

The Secret of Blackburn’s Spiritual Odyssey

In 1928, in one of her strangest stunts, Blackburn crammed two cars full of followers, embarking on a grueling two weeks, a 500-mile spiritual odyssey across the Mojave Desert. The caravan got to Stovepipe Wells, deep in Death Valley but Blackburn had another destination in mind. She just talked about a ‘bottomless pit’, and a little further was Devils Hole, a natural thermal well of unknown depth, believed to hide the entrance to an inner world. Charles Manson believed that Blackburn’s real purpose was to use the desert, or Devils Hole, as a dumping ground for unwanted items like bodies which along with Manson’s were never found. The mules, which May named the Jaws of Death, were gruesomely sacrificed in Harmony Hamlet.

Cult versus Secret Society

Secret societies came in many forms and operated under many names which were found everywhere and not just in lodges.

But a cult was not always the same thing as a secret society. The term ‘cult’, was often an insult, used to disparage groups, mostly religious ones that were outside the mainstream. Cults were also commonly assumed to exercise powerful psychological control over their members. The same thing was called ‘cultivating loyalty’.

Common Questions about Secret Societies

Q: Who was May Otis Blackburn?

Known to her faithful as Queen May and the Heel of God, who regarded her, their leader and a messenger of God. May Otis Blackburn led the ‘Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven‘, commonly known as the Blackburn Cult.

Q: Who were May Blackburn’s competitors?

May Blackburn’s competitors in spiritual enlightenment were, Zeralda and Omar’s Love Cult, the Christian Church of Psychosophy, and a House of Judah that featured Garden of Eden orgies. There was also Hickory Hall, which was a sadomasochistic group run by a very strict, ‘Most High Interpretress’ called the Pisgah Crater Cult.

Q: What is Blackburn’s Great Eleven?

Blackburn’s ‘Great Eleven’ is a mix of Christian Science mind-over-matter, and outright paganism.

Keep Reading
Women in the Medieval Society: The Case of Hildegard of Bingen
The Holocaust Museum
Lost Nazi Bunkers Unearthed Near Omaha Beach in Normandy