Followers of “King” Benjamin Purnell opened the House of David in Benton Harbor on this day in 1903. This religious community was best known for its amusement park and its traveling bearded baseball team.
The Israelite House of David was a religious society (some have called it a cult) co founded by Benjamin and Mary Purnell in Benton Harbor in 1903. Fifteen years earlier, the Purnells had become acolytes of a religious sect known as the Visitation Movement that followed James Jershom Jezreel, the “Sixth Messenger.” While studying the texts of the movement, the Purnells realized that a seventh messenger was supposed to soon appear, and that together, they were it.
Their religious colony soon garnered hundreds of followers. By 1906, the group owned 1,000 acres of land, which they used as fruit orchards and to farm grain. The sect also had its own cannery, carpenter shop, tailor shop and steam laundry, and owned its own electrical generating plant. The group also had a zoo, three brass bands and two orchestras. The zoo drew in visitors, while the bands travelled the country on the vaudeville circuit.
The House of David also became active on the baseball scene. The group’s team toured America from the 1920s to the 1950s, playing against both major and minor league teams and the Negro League. To be more competitive, the teams recruited players who weren’t members of the religious group, including Grover Cleveland Alexander, Satchel Paige, and Mordecai Brown.
The order came under fire in the 1920s, though, as 13 female members of the group said under oath that they had sexual relations with Benjamin Purnell while they were under-age. Michigan newspapers ran critical stories of the Purnells, but Benjamin died before his trial concluded.
The group fractured after the bad publicity and trial, though one splinter group, the Old House of David, was said to have three surviving members in 2010.