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Murdering Holiness: The Trials of Franz Creffield and George Mitchell

By Rosemary Gartner

Review By Angus McLaren

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 141 Spring 2004  | p. 131-3

FEW BOOK JACKETS are as striking as the one that graces Jim Philips and Rosemary Gartner’s text. Bale-fully staring back at the viewer is a prison photograph of Franz Creffield, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Hannibal Lecter (as played by Anthony Hopkins). Creffield was a strange man. Finding the Salvation Army too tame for his prophetic tastes, in 1903 he arrived (along with the first automobile) in Corvallis, Oregon, where he established a “Holy Roller” sect. It attracted about twenty-five adherents, mainly women. His followers defied husbands and fathers, lived communally, and were reportedly in constant prayer and trances. Creffield’s call for believers to forsake property and family raised the hackles of the respectable. The fact that his women followers dressed in simple shifts led neighbours to suspect orgies. Civic leaders were embarrassed by rumours of “free love” and religious excesses. The local newspaper warned off Creffield and then vigilantes drove the pine-tarred and feathered messiah out of town. 

Creffield had a revenge of sorts by committing adultery with a married sister of one of his persecutors, George Mitchell. The act was still a crime in Oregon and Creffield was imprisoned. Incarceration exacerbated his belief in his mystic powers but he was only to live a few months after his release. On 7 May, Mitchell shot Creffield to death and then gave himself up to the Seattle police, saying he had acted to protect his family. His appeal to the male code of honour succeeded and in July he was found not guilty. But he in turn was gunned down by his unmarried sister Esther armed with a pistol provided by Creffield’s widow. Women were not accorded the right to act under the unwritten law. Officials declared both culprits insane and ordered them to the state asylum. Maud Creffield committed suicide while still in jail; shortly after leaving the asylum two years later, Esther Mitchell did the same. 

Philips and Gartner do a fine job of unpacking this lurid tale. Inspired by Natalie Davis’ assertion that the investigation of a powerful story can “uncover motivations and values that are lost in the welter of the everyday” (241, 230 n13), they devote the first half of the book to producing an engaging microhistory modelled on the works of Davis, Linda Gordon, and Carlo Ginzberg. The authors enlighteningly place Creffield’s religious activities in the context of the “holiness movement” of the early twentieth century, likening him to the Pentecostals with their stress on speaking in tongues, prophecy, and healing. The authors explain why such groups’ egalitarianism and their critiques of materialism especially appealed to women and why worried family members probably projected their own sexual preoccupations onto Creffield’s cult. The wearing of simple clothing could be regarded by the anxious as “nudity” and unkempt or unbraided hair as a sign of licentiousness. In discussing women’s religious zeal, the citizens of small towns like Corvallis were also commenting on gender relations. 

Turning to the issue of how the community responded to the purported prophet, the authors provide a useful reminder of the extent of vigilantism practised in the Pacific Northwest in the early twentieth century. The well-off men who ran Creffield out of town acted in the firm belief that they were only re-establishing order. Though such forms of popular justice had a long history, Philips and Gartner point out that families could now also invoke insanity laws to discipline the wayward. Adult sect members were sent to the state asylum and youths to the Boys and Girls Aid Society Home. Many accounts of the asylum have presented it as imposing order from the top down. Historians now recognized how ordinary people often sought to turn such institutions to their own purposes. The book effectively demonstrates how laypersons could commit a family member to short-term confinement on the basis of their being too religious, too defiant of male authority or too antimaterialistic. 

The first six chapters of this book work very well. In the last half of the book, focused on the trials of George and Esther Mitchell, the authors’ obvious love of the minutiae of the law takes over. Having lamented not being able to provide “a detailed and day-by-day account” (145) of the jury selection process, they nevertheless devote fourteen pages to the issue. They meticulously chronicle the educations, the careers, and the best-known cases of every judge and attorney involved. The accounts of the trials themselves hold few surprises. As the book has already provided insightful analyses of how men employed vigilantism and how women were subjected to the insanity laws, the outcomes of the two legal contests could never be in serious doubt. 

Curiously enough, the authors conclude with a laudatory account of Creffield’s father-in-law, the books least interesting character, whom they nevertheless declare to be “the most admirably human.” Philips and Gartner almost appear to have forgotten that the real strength of their book resides not in its applauding of virtue but in demonstrating how even the most vicious emotions and actions, when carefully set in their social and cultural context, can be made intelligible.