By Ygal Kaufman
I’ve been here almost exactly a year. I moved to Corvallis from San Francisco, and I am happy to say I think both you and I are pretty pleased with each other. We’re bona fide BFFs, Corvallis. So for our first anniversary, here’s a tale celebrating its 100th.
In August of 1914, Esther Mitchell-Berry committed suicide in her home in coastal Waldport, about an hour and a half away from Corvallis, bringing to a close one of the strangest stories in Corvallis history.
It started in 1902 when Corvallis was a just small town of a few thousand, almost entirely white Protestants. According to the Benton County Museum, “Corvallis is characterized by wooden sidewalks and unpaved streets. The streets are unlighted.”
Back then OSU was the Oregon Agricultural College, and was still the dominant presence in town. But it was also a hub of trading, agricultural business, railway and river commerce. The Hotel Corvallis reopened after a decade of dormancy, and Corvallis was an up-and-coming stop on the Northwest corridor.
Sometime in the fall, Franz Edmund Creffield, a German-American preacher and eccentric, arrived in Corvallis and joined the Salvation Army. By December, most of the members broke off, following Creffield and his unique brand of Christian holiness. Most of the local Salvation Army group were members or friends of the Hurt family, a longstanding family with pioneer roots in Oregon. One of the members of the new Creffield sect is the man the Salvation Army sent to Corvallis in the wake of the mass defection. He was sent to rebuild the ranks of the local unit, but after attending one of the new sect’s meetings, he was converted on the spot.
Creffield preached a bizarre brand of observance of the scripture, which mixed ultra-literal and fringe interpretations of the Bible. “Compromise, human sympathy, shrinking from persecutions, lowering God’s standards a little, letting down the bars, and giving carnality a chance to creep in,” he wrote in one of his articles exhorting people to return to a stricter biblical path. And yet, carnality seems to have been a major focal point of the break-off group.
Creffield had some rather messianic ideas that tended toward the Koreshian. He changed his name to Joshua, the man who took over for Moses as leader of the Israelites and led them into biblical Canaan, and he led the group in prayer meetings that were noted for their enthusiasm. Followers would launch into trances, rolling on the ground, moaning and shouting unintelligibly in fits that seem to have been far more involved than the “speaking in tongues,” known as glossolalia, that would be a staple of Pentecostal celebrations to this day. Descriptions of the gatherings had people feverishly convulsing and rolling on the ground for hours during twice daily intense prayer sessions.
Locals started referring to them derisively as “holy rollers,” and started to notice their appearance. Sect members looked like run down prisoners, gaunt from days-long fasting sessions, and wearing little more than rags for clothing.
Oh, and people were starting to suspect that Creffield was having sex with the female members. And the sect was mostly female members.
From the Hurt family, there was Frank, his sisters Maud and May, their father and mother Orlando Victor (O.V.) and Sarah. They had a large home which they invited the sect to use as a headquarters. Creffield’s followers proceeded to burn almost all the possessions in the home, including furniture, art, instruments, a cat, and a dog.
The Mitchell family was also integral to the story, as the young Esther Mitchell, just 15 years old in 1903, was one of the sect’s most vociferous adherents. Her family was horrified by this and tried many methods to break her from what they viewed as a cult. Her brother George and older sister Phoebe worked to break her of Creffield’s influence to no avail.
The rumors grew in town that “free love” was being practiced in the Holy Rollers’ compound in O.V. Hurt’s house. A charge that was debatably true, as Creffield was indeed having relations with more than one female member. Under pressure from the community, O.V. kicked Creffield and his followers out of the house, which for a short time defused the growing tensions.
The sect became so unwanted in town that even The Corvallis Gazette openly threatened them, saying in a December 1903 editorial, “Events are likely to occur in a few days, if the Rollers become in any way aggressive, that will put a stop to any further proceedings on their part. Mr. Creffield will be provided with a nice warm coat, that will fit him as closely as the paper on the wall…”
That doesn’t read much like a threat in 2014, but in 1903 it was a clear call to tar and feather him.
Then on Monday, Jan. 4, 1904, they tarred and feathered him.
Not just him, but Charles Brooks, the former Salvation Army captain who was sent to Corvallis to combat Creffield, only to be won over by him, who had by then become his right hand man. Both of them were accosted by a mob, given the “warm coat” treatment and ordered to get out of town. An order they fearfully obliged.
But just before vacating, Creffield, red all over from scouring and still reeking of turpentine and pine tar, would marry Maud Hurt in a rushed ceremony at the courthouse in Albany, witnessed by only Frank Hurt and his wife Mollie.
Creffield ran off to Portland to avoid the vigilante “white caps,” which as you may have guessed, got their name from the Klan, while his new wife returned to her family home to the disapproving acceptance of her father O.V. Hurt.
While staying in Portland, where he quickly attracted a circle of mostly female followers, Creffield committed adultery, then still a prosecutable crime, punishable by up to two years in prison. It was with Donna Starr, aunt to Maud Creffield as well as sister to Esther Mitchell, another dedicated follower. Some reports even indicated it was with multiple other people at the same time. Starr’s husband, Burgess Starr, swore out a warrant and the search was on for Creffield, who had been rumored to have secretly returned to his wife Maud in Corvallis.
O.V. Hurt had to put out a reward as weeks passed without Creffield turning up. His followers in the sect spent much of the time fasting and praying fiercely. Their families committed some of them to institutions during this time.
Finally, in a twist that would seem crazy in most other stories, the eccentric religious leader was discovered hiding in a crawl space under the Hurt house itself. Creffield had been under O.V.’s nose, quite literally, stinking, filthy and naked, living in a six-foot pit he had dug out for himself under the house. For a while he was being secretly fed by Sarah Hurt, the matron of the house. Then when she was bundled off to a mental institution (partly because she had been seen “talking to herself” in the corner of the living room above where Creffield’s pit was) another sect member, Cora Hartley, was secretly feeding him until she moved away.
Creffield was convicted of adultery and served 17 months in state prison. During his incarceration, his followers were in disarray, with many more of them being committed to mental institutions. But upon his release, nearly all of them were right back by his side, and his power over them seemed as strong as ever.
Creffield had reformed the sect and was staying in Waldport. In April of 1906, Cora Hartley’s husband Louis, under the firm belief that his wife had been sleeping with Creffield as well, attempted to shoot him, but loaded the gun improperly and misfired. Undeterred he sought a working gun, while George Mitchell, brother of young Esther, fearing his sister had become a sexual partner of Creffield’s as well, also set out to kill him. If this weren’t enough, Ed Baldwin, father of Ona Baldwin, another young female sect member, had also come to the conclusion that Creffield had to go. With all three men and rumors of others all gunning for him, Creffield took his wife Maud and fled to Seattle.
Franz and Maud Creffield had to take an out-of-the-way route to Seattle, splitting up, while he took a route that avoided going anywhere near Corvallis, as now Burgess Starr was also carrying a pistol looking to shoot Creffield on sight. He went mostly by foot through the mountains to Eugene, where he caught the train to Seattle.
They had successfully made it there, narrowly escaping several of their pursuers, who had caught up to Maud at the Albany train station. But George Mitchell had picked up their trail and finally found them on the morning of May 7, 1906, strolling down 1st Avenue. He snuck up to an entryway just ahead of them, waited until they walked by, then stepped out and shot Franz in the back of the neck, killing him instantly.
It was never proven that Creffield had slept with Esther Mitchell, as her brother initially claimed, and eventually he even admitted it was his fear that it would happen in the future that drove him to kill Creffield. Still, public opinion, as well as that of the papers, was firmly on Mitchell’s side. He was swiftly tried, and while never denying the crime, which was witnessed by many, he was acquitted by reason of insanity.
The Mitchell family attempted to reconcile the sisters, Donna and Esther, with their brother George. Donna would have none of it. Esther relented, but she had secretly hatched a revenge plan with the widow Maud Creffield. Just two days after George’s acquittal, he was shot to death by his sister Esther.
In November of 1906 Maud Creffield killed herself by ingesting poison while she and Esther were in county jail awaiting trial. Esther was eventually also found not guilty by reason of insanity, as her brother had been. She spent several years in a mental institution before remarrying and then finally taking her own life, a hundred years ago this August, ingesting poison as well.
And thus ended Corvallis’ trip into the fringes of religious cults and societal intolerance, a story of our city’s past that should be known by all true Corvallisites.
For more information on the wild true story of the Holy Rollers in Corvallis, read Murdering Holiness by Jim Phillips and Rosemary Gartner or Holy Rollers: Murder and Madness in Oregon’s Love Cult by T. McCracken and Robert Blodgett.