Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Cults and Holy Rollers


Warning: This is a long post.
Some of you who have been reading might be wondering why I haven’t discussed the Showman family who were killed in Ellsworth, Kansas on October 15, 1911. I assure you I will get into that murder in more detail later. I am going to discuss it a bit here due to some (probably red herring) connections to other axe murders throughout the country. Beginning in 1909 in Rayne, Louisiana, a series of axe murders was attributed to a black, voodoo/Christian cult called the “Sacrifice Church” headed by Rev. King Harris. The families lived along the Southern Pacific Railroad line which led investigators to believe the killer worked for the railroad. All the families were black and I have seen some reports stating all the families had mixed-race relatives but have not found any source documents to back this up. So why get into it?


On January 20, 1912 in Lake Charles, Louisiana the Broussard family was discovered bludgeoned to death in their home. Felix, Matilde, Margaret, Lewis and Albertine Broussard had all been murdered in their beds with an axe. Somewhere at the crime scene was left a message: “When he maketh inquisition for blood, he forgetteth not the cry of the humble.” The message was either followed with the words “the human five” or signed with a name, Pearl Ort. According to one source, the words “the human five” were written at a number of crime scenes and there was some speculation that the killer was aiming for five victims each time but that is not born out by the crimes themselves. It was also reported that in several crime scenes the victims had their fingers splayed apart by bits of wood so their five fingers were held apart. The religious message is an intriguing thing. It is Psalm 9: 12 and means God will not allow evil to go unpunished. Another biblical quote attributed to these crimes is “Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire” and is from Matthew 3:10. The fire is God’s wrath and the tree is the physical person. The fruit is the soul and so means if a person does not have a good soul, they are meant for God’s wrath. More literally, if a tree continually produces bad or no fruit then its best use is firewood. If it is true all the victims were or were related to people of mixed race then it can easily be interpreted this was a message of purification. The use of Psalm 9:12 probably indicated a killer who believed they were God’s agent on earth. The human five could relate to the five senses but I honestly have no clue.

Officials in Ellsworth, Kansas received a letter from Denver and according to the newspaper it was postmarked six hours before the discovery of the murders. The letter rambles a bit but specifically mentions Mathew 3:10:
[sic]According to Mat. 3:10 and Josh. 9:24-27 the ax users namely the
Gideonites are inhabitants of Lincoln, Neb., and surroundings of the same city.
If you will follow my advice examine all Nebraskians, living in your city, and
if you fail to find the ax man, I may write you more.
To me this is clearly a rambling letter from nobody. The post mark issue could easily have been a mistake of the Denver postal worker who failed to change the time on his stamp. The letter is unspecific and references nothing at all except that a “Nebraskian” might be the axe murderer. A more intriguing letter was sent after the Villisca murders. Detective Thomas O’Leary had been put in charge of filtering the mail Villisca was receiving after the murders of the Moore family and Stillinger girls. One he received was from Wichita and the writer identified himself (for lack of a gender-less term) as “Miss Tree of life.” The letter spoke of vengeance and axes and referred to “death upon earth [as] Errette.” Errette likely comes from the German erretten which means (roughly) deliverance and could have been capitalized because it was being used as a proper noun. I only say this because the letter mentions it again “It is only More for the Errette is still in you.” The capitalization of “More” probably references the surname Moore and another passage, “the neighborhood, the press where these killings take place, seldom record or take note of the root, for God will Show Man,” probably referenced the Showman family. The letter was signed “Eli Eloi which is an obvious reference to “"Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" (My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mat 27:46 & Mark 15:34)

This is intriguing only in its capitalization and a fleeting reference to the Showmans. The two letters were written by two different persons, the Villisca letter was written by a more educated person, and with the letter to Villisca coming from Wichita it’s very likely the writer knew about the Showman murders when writing it. Are these letters anything more than sick jokes? Probably not and the Biblical references don’t really link them to the crimes in Louisiana and Texas. For one it seems those murders where the work of multiple people. Clementine Burnabet was arrested after the murders of the Randall family in Lafayette, Louisiana in November of 1911. Ms. Burnabet’s father was awaiting his hanging after being convicted (on testimony of his daughter and son) of murdering the Andrus family in Lafayette in February 1911. Clementine was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. She then confessed to killing three other families in Rayne, Crowley and Lafayette, LA. While she was incarcerated four more families were wiped out and I’m unsure if investigators ever looked into her brother, Zephirin. Her father was granted a new trial but it isn’t clear how that went. The Texas/Louisiana axe murders show a classic “mission” style of killer or for a more modern term, ideology driven, while the Midwest Axe murders are sexually based. The Midwest Axe man likely had no interest in communicating with the authorities in any form as it would just have attracted more attention to him and in his mind; he had a good thing going. If you have more information about the Texas/Louisiana axe murders let me know.

Accounts of the Texas/Louisiana murders from Gene Thibodeaux, Crowley Post-Signal, February 4, 2007.
Villisca letter found in “Villisca: The true account of the unsolved mass murder that stunned the nation,” by Roy Marshall.

4 comments:

Stu Wahlin said...

In Roy Marshall's book, I could have sworn I read something about "Holy Rollers" being in town (Villisca) at one of the churches. I'll have to see if I can find that part again.

Inspector Winship said...

Just writing from memory here. The "Holy Rollers, I believe, were actually in Clarendon, Iowa, one county over. Lyn Kelley wasn't an Holy Roller though. He was a Presbyterian Minister. I'll check my notes and if I find different I'll post it here.

Unknown said...

First of all, I love this blog, thank you. I wondered if you had looked at the Cassaway murders in San Antonio? They are attributed to the Louisiana-Texas axeman and are counted among his 49, but as I understand it, the back of the axe was used, only on the head, the mother had it the worst, and there was a cloth laid over her head. It doesn't sound like the other murders of that killer and sounds a lot more like your killer. You probably have, but I could not find any reference to the family specifically on the blog.

Inspector Winship said...

Thanks for reading and I'm glad you are enjoying the blog. One day I will update this place. I haven't touched on any of the Louisiana-Texas murders beyond just this brief post. The problem is those murders are such a rabbit hole and there isn't a lot of information out there about them. Not a lot of effort was put into solving these crimes. One thing I do find interesting (caution: Rabbit Hole warning) is when the killer in LA-TX was active, nothing was happening up north and when the Midwest killer was active, nothing was happening down south. Also, and this is only from memory, I'm pretty sure the rail line on which the LA-TX victims lived was Southern Pacific which is the same line the Hill family in Ardenwald lived near. These are circumstantial things but interesting none the less.