Update: Two years after writing this piece, I traveled to Benton Harbor to visit the remaining followers of the faith and friends of the commune. Knowing what I know now, this article would look very different. I’m going to leave as-is and hope to write a follow-up piece sometime in the future.
While cleaning out my grandmother’s home, my mother and I came across a sepia-tone postcard tucked among a pile of old photos. The postcard featured 15 remarkably hairy baseball players. Underneath the players the words: “The House of David Ball Team. Benton Harbor, Michigan. 31.”
Knowing that my dementia-suffering grandmother, now in a nursing home, wouldn’t be the best resource for information, I took to Twitter to share my discovery. Many were just as curious as I was, but a handful knew who the House of David Ball Team was, and they shared with me stories of the dark, intriguing history behind the players and the cult they were members of.
The House of David was founded in 1903 by husband-and-wife preachers Benjamin and Mary Purnell (a.k.a. Father John Misty and Lorde). Purnell thought of himself as the 7th messenger of God, and his wife the co-messenger. Inspired by the belief that Jesus would return and restore The Garden of Eden, the Purnells practiced strict principles: grow your hair long, stay clear of dead people and abstain from wine, meat and sex. The Purnells were loads of fun.
After traveling the Midwest throughout the late 1800s and getting booted from various communes and towns for their unique ideals — the corpse-fearing couple was banished from Fostoria, Ohio, for not attending the funeral of their daughter who was killed by — wait for it — firecrackers—they finally settled in Benton Harbor, Michigan, roughly 100 miles east of Chicago along Lake Michigan.
It was in Benton Harbor that the House of David blossomed, and their followership grew to nearly 1,000 and their acreage to 100,000. Purnell was a believer in strong work ethic and making moola, so he quickly devised ways to busy his followers and turn his commune into a money-making machine.
In a short period of time a public zoo, garden, restaurant, arcade, movie theater, bowling alley, amphitheater and the world’s largest miniature locomotive popped up on the House of David grounds. They named their new amusement park Eden Springs, and during the first half of the 20th century, it was the Midwest’s premiere tourist attraction. To this day Mid-Westerners old enough to remember the park proudly share their fond memories.
Another byproduct of the commune’s entrepreneurship/non-existent sex life was the House of David Ball Team, formed in 1913. The hairy, sex-deprived men really dedicated themselves to the sport and by 1920s they were kicking ass and proselytizing all over America. They played everyone from the major leagues to the popular Negro Leagues. They delighted audiences with their baseball tricks, and they’re often considered the prototype for the Harlem Globetrotters.
Their barnstorming team became so popular that they created two more, including the all-black Black House of David Ball Team, and they often recruited professional baseball players like Babe Ruth and Satchel Paige to sub in a game or two. Spectators near and far bustled to watch the boys play across America, and the House of David teams remained a popular attraction until the 1950s. I’d like to think while growing up in the greater Chicago era, my young grandmother, with bows in her hair and no idea that she would one day be 91 and sitting in a nursing home, attended a House of David baseball game and procured her postcard.
For decades the Purnells and the House of David prospered, but like many cults, their day of reckoning was upon them.
Rumors surfaced that Benjamin had had sex with female minors of his commune. By the 1920s, over a dozen women had come forward. The press admonished Purnell for his sins and hypocrisy, and he was charged with a variety of crimes including “having sexual relations with women and girls as a religious rite” and “defrauding his followers.” The old perv died in 1927 before he could be charged with anything. In 2003, one of the last remaining House of David members wrote in the Southwest Michigan paper The Herald Palladium that “yellow journalism” falsely convicted Purnell and that based on testimonies from commune members, Purnell was innocent of his sex crimes.
Though the judge tried to break up the commune, the House of David lived on. Mary Purnell and the head of the commune’s board of directors, Judge T.H. Dewhirst, fought over leadership, and Mary eventually gave a big middle finger to Dewhirst and formed her own sect, Mary’s City of David, across the street. Mary’s City of David still exists today, though according to the Chicago Tribune, only a couple of members remain. Same goes for the original sect, The Israelite House of David. Tourists curious about the commune and baseball league can learn more at the House of David Museum, located in nearby Saint Joseph, Michigan.
As for Eden Springs, that too still exists today, though not in it’s original scope. Shuttered in the 1970s, the park is now being rehabilitated by volunteers who want to see the park fully restored. Attendees can enjoy the park’s original miniature locomotive or catch vintage baseball games in the summer.
An interesting footnote: In 1972, Benjamin and Mary’s great-grandson, David, was found guilty of stabbing and killing 20-year-old Janet Uland. Though not a member of his great-grandparent’s commune and known to be an unreliable storyteller, David claimed there was buried treasure on the House of David grounds. David died of natural causes at the age of 59 while serving alife sentence.
After doing research on the House of David, I came to learn that their baseball team was popular with sports fanatics. A couple of Twitter friends pointed me to a Antiques Roadshow episode where a man learned that the House of David Ball Team postcards go for $100 a pop. When I told Grandma she was the proud owner of $100 postcard, she told me, “Oooh sell it!” Another friend pointed to recreated the House of David jerseys going for $200 on Ebbets Field Flannels.
I hate to break it to Grandma, but unless we have to, I probably won’t sell her the House of David Ball Team postcard. That one 5.8 X 4.1-inch piece of paper is worth so much more than $100. For me, it’s a key to a fascinating and complex history, one that I’d like to visit in Benton Harbor, Michigan, someday. It also represents my grandmother’s past, a simpler time when watching a bunch of bearded, sex-deprived religious zealots play ball brought joy to thousands of adoring fans everywhere.