An Iowa-Native Started a Bizarre Cult Back in the 1920s

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I was recently listening to an episode of the podcast My Favorite Murder, when I heard about a strange cult that was started back in the 1920s in Los Angeles. To my surprise, the leader of the cult, May Otis Blackburn, was a native of Iowa! She was born August 2nd, 1881 in the city of Storm Lake, and her story is pretty wild.

In 1922, May officially started the Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven, also known as the Blackburn Cult. According to Wikipedia, she and her daughter Ruth Wieland Rizzio began spreading the word that they were the two witnesses of the Bible’s Book of Revelation, and that eleven queens would rule the world after the apocalypse. The site says that May “claimed that the angels Gabriel and Michael were dictating a book to her and her daughter that explained all the secrets of the universe. She promised that when the book was published, the Seventh Seal described in Revelation would be broken in heaven and an apocalyptic event would occur.”

As insane as that all sounds, May was able to convince others to join her group. Like a typical cult leader, she had her followers give her money and property. Over the course of seven years, May had garnered around $200,000 from her disciples (which is a lot more in today’s money). An article from LA Almanac reports that a man named Clifford Dabney gave her more than $50,000 in cash and assets alone!

In addition to being investigated for defrauding members, May was also suspected of some more serious crimes. Several cult members disappeared or died under mysterious circumstances, including her daughter Ruth’s husband Samuel Rizzio. It was rumored that he was poisoned after hitting Ruth, but his body was never found. Another one of May’s followers was suffering from a health issue, and Ruth attempted to cure her. After placing the woman in what was described by LA Almanac as a “hot brick oven,” she died.

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