Illinois Jesus


On History

A forgotten Midwestern religious sect and the strange novel it inspired.

An illustration from Six Years in Heaven.

The most confusing thing about the rural Midwest is the importance placed on being normal. Perhaps this comes from demographic homogeneity: there’s a comforting stability in being able to drive a hundred miles in almost any direction and find a landscape almost identical to the one from which you set out.

The Midwest is construed as a place where nothing happens—that being, it should be emphasized, a good thing. Native Americans once lived here, of course; but there’s no longer any sign of them aside from some low mounds and their continuing near-universal use as school mascots. When I grew up here, no one wondered why they’d left. Probably it was more exciting somewhere else. Who could blame them? It’s a fine place to leave.

But on returning, as I did recently, the effect is disorienting: this is a place where everyone is cheerfully convinced of the rationality of their insanity. I was never immune to this. In school, everyone was perplexed by race problems. We weren’t racist. How could we be when there weren’t any black people? We ignored that in Rockford, Illinois, ten miles away, desegregation lawsuits were impossibly still grinding through the court system. Likewise, we firmly believed that gay people weren’t something we had; we learned we’d had a Jewish family in our town only after they’d safely escaped. This seems ludicrous to me now, and things have undoubtedly changed since the turn of the century. With the arrival of the Internet and cable TV, the boast that newscasters were carefully trained to speak like us—because we, among all Americans, had no accents—isn’t quite as impressive.

In 1988, when I was ten, my parents moved to a five-acre farm between the rust-belt city of Rockford and the village of Winnebago. Not being from the area, they were naturally curious about the history, and one of them found a Works Progress Administration history of Illinois in the library. In that book, we discovered that the country road we lived on had once not been so somnolent. A block north of us, a large complex of buildings painted red bore the name Weldon Farm, but once it had been called Heaven. In the 1880s it had been the center of an obscure religious sect—still lacking a Wikipedia entry of their own—called the Beekmanites. A woman named Dorinda Beekman had declared herself to be Jesus, as one did in those days; she died after promising to rise from the dead in three days. Her considerable followers were disappointed until one of them, a red-headed man named George Jacob Schweinfurth, neatly solved the problem by explaining that her spirit had moved into his body. Many agreed; he and his followers, the Church Triumphant, moved into Heaven and lived communally, where he’d attracted attention as far away as the New York Times.

A block south of my parents’ place, the road dead-ended in front of a run-down house. A “bad” family lived there, and their children occasionally went to school with me. We would have called them poor white trash had we not been afraid of being beaten up. Their house, ramshackle as it appeared to be, had a history as well: it had once been Hell. Schweinfurth had lived in luxury in Heaven, arrayed with young women called Angels. Their husbands, had they any, and members of the group who’d fallen out of favor, were sent to Hell, where the work needed to keep the sect fed was done.

7274905_origThe end of the Church Triumphant is predictable. The Angels started bearing children; this was declared to be a miracle, their fathers being the Holy Ghost, but the locals noticed that many were suspiciously red-haired. After too many Holy Ghost Children, Schweinfurth was arrested and driven from town. Later, he announced that he’d taken up Christian Science and moved to Chicago, where he became a realtor, thereafter vanishing from history.

I was surprised, at the time, that most of my classmates seemed entirely unfamiliar with this story. Schweinfurth’s cult was considerably more interesting than anything that seemed to have happened in Winnebago, Illinois, in the succeeding century. I came to realize I’d made a novice move: it was unseemly to be interested in local history. No one in the Midwest is familiar with the phrase “tall poppy syndrome,” but the idea, which can be traced from Herodotus, is abundantly familiar: those that stand out are cut down.

* * *

Every once in a while I search the Internet for Schweinfurth or Weldon Farm or Beekmanites. I don’t know what I’m looking for: maybe to make sense of the houses that held the place I grew up like distant and mismatched parentheses. What happened at Heaven and Hell is mostly beyond the reach of the Internet, of course, but surprising traces from the past pop up occasionally. Ongoing digitalization has worked its magic: first, a reference to a novel about Schweinfurth. Then, against all odds—the book seems to barely exist and I have never seen a copy—I received a badly scanned PDF courtesy of the Library of Congress. The full title alone indicates what the reader is in for: Six Years in Heaven: A True Story of Human Credulity and Unexampled Devotion, Embracing a Complete Expose Of the Abominable Practices and Monstrous Professions of George Jacob Schweinfurth, the False Christ, Whose Main Heaven is near Rockford, Illinois, with a Biographical Sketch of this most Remarkable Religious Pretender of the Century. The book is by one Alex. [sic.] McClenaghan, seemingly his only literary effort.

Six Years in Heaven is not a forgotten Midwestern masterpiece. It’s hard to say exactly what it is. Though the subtitle announces it “a true story,” it’s very much a novel. From the start, there’s a romance between a beautiful, impressionable young girl, Clara McCoy, and her devoted admirer, both from Shelbyville, Kentucky, who will be ensnared in the machinations of Schweinfurth in Rockford. Schweinfurth appears as himself, sometimes speaking in sourced quotations, and many of the supporting players—the members of the Weldon family, who gave Weldon Farm and my parents’ road its name, for example—do as well. Periodically the invented narrative breaks off and the reader is presented with events that seem more straightforwardly historical; sometimes even public documents are introduced into the text. The whole is illustrated, albeit not very skillfully, with depictions of climactic scenes. A figure of Satan—or at least a man dressed in a Satan suit—smiles behind the bearded Schweinfurth whenever he appears.

A man named Hatfield periodically turns up, trying to get to the bottom of the story of Clara McCoy and why she disappeared. (One can easily imagine McClenaghan at his study wondering what names people in Kentucky might have.) He is aided by various helpful pastors and once, intriguingly, a lady detective, whose part in the story is all too brief. They confer:

“This seems to be a chance for a story, founded on cold facts, that will discount Haggard’s wildest flights of imagination, if it does not rub shoulders with the alluring tales of the Arabian Nights.” “Truth is stranger than fiction,” laughed Miss Howard. “It assuredly is in this case,” he replied.

Screen Shot 2014-08-18 at 12.07.38 PMDespite Hatfield’s assurances, the question of veracity is left as a problem for the reader to solve. Clara is taken from her home by an apostle named Mamby who trawls the country selling histories of the Franco-Prussian War, keeping an eye out for beautiful women and rich elderly people who might be scammed. He, like Schweinfurth, is a master of mesmerism. Mamby appears to be as fictitious—he would find an easy home in the pages of Bram Stoker—as Clara. So does Dr. Brown, a doctor brought low by misfortune who takes refuge in Heaven and, through his skill in the black art of mesmerism, helps Schweinfurth raise the dead. (Mesmerism appears to be the chief source of Schweinfurth’s power, alongside his looking exactly like pictures of Jesus.)

Six Years’s characters’ motivations are a mystery; they behave with a perplexing idiocy. Arthur Fitzroy, Clara’s betrothed, follows her from Kentucky to Rockford and goes undercover, working as a stable hand in Heaven for five years without catching sight of her, except for once, when he mistakes another woman for her. Then he leaves when Schweinfurth—whom, bear in mind, he still believes to be a swindler— explains to him that she’s left. The woman he mistakes for Clara gets consumption and is sent off to Clara’s parents’ house in Kentucky to die (the death of an Angel being unseemly in Heaven) in front of her parents, who don’t notice that their daughter has been swapped out.

Clara stays six years—with a brief escape—though she fails, from beginning to end, to believe in the immaculate conception of the Holy Ghost children, a central tenet of Heaven’s faith. The problem of motivation goes for Schweinfurth as well. He starts as an extremely religious young man, entirely noble until he proclaims himself the reincarnation of Dorinda Beekman and starts amassing land and followers. A follower attempts to explain:

Mr. Schweinfurth … is one of the most persecuted saints the world has ever seen. When a Methodist, they did not like him because he preached against sociables. He said he did not believe in having kitchens attached to churches.

Perhaps this is true. A minister from Rockford—who seems to be a historical figure—explains that he’s absolutely sure that Schweinfurth had no lusts of the flesh. Late in the book, when the congregation begins stirring, Schweinfurth announces his intention that his followers should be eunuchs, a promising development that goes nowhere, as does his sudden enthusiasm for pedigreed dogs “being valued at one thousand dollars each.” A description of Indiana fiddle-playing technique and tuning seems to have been included simply as padding.

The book is confusing because it was published in early 1894—the introduction is dated December 20, 1893—a year before Schweinfurth’s reign came to its ignominious end. He and the three leading Angels were arrested for adultery in April 1895. Fictionalization might have been a strategy to avoid libel, but that seems craftier than might be expected for a book whose final illustration depicts an elderly Schweinfurth being greeted by the devil at the gates of Hell. McClenaghan’s characters hope that public outcry will eventually bring down Heaven, but it seems more likely that Schweinfurth will be deposed by the more mundane problem of disposing of the bodies of his residents, who fall ill and die at the same rates that everyone else did in the nineteenth century—a troubling problem when they’d been assured they’d live forever.

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Walking around the block the most recent time I was home, I was surprised to find that the dead end that leads to Hell had been blocked, the road torn up and overgrown with pigweed and St. Anne’s lace. The house, my mother said, had been torn down by the police; it had been abandoned for years. Drugs, the police thought. I mentioned that I’d found a novel about Schweinfurth, which surprised my mother. Why, I wondered, didn’t people talk more about what had happened there? What she heard, my mother said, was that Schweinfurth’s descendants were all over town; I’d gone to school with them. The whole thing was embarrassing.

To return to the New York Times article: Schweinfurth, we learn, was threatened by White Caps. The White Caps have also vanished from history, though not as inconsequentially as the Beekmanites. They were rural Midwestern predecessors of the KKK. Another story could be imagined here: Schweinfurth as a transgressor of cultural homogeneity who needed to be cleansed, the victim of religious persecution. One wonders how he would have told his own story, whether he might have been a freethinker rather than a rascal. Early in McClenaghan’s book, we see Schweinfurth as a fervently religious youth in Ohio, not far removed from Joseph Smith, to whom he is later compared. There are mentions made of Schweinfurth’s own versions of the Bible, though these don’t seem to have survived. We’re left with breathless news reports decrying the ignominy of Heaven and Hell and a novel that sells itself by being a true history, albeit with characters and a romance added. One wonders what the Angels would have said, whether they ever attempted to explain the wild years of their youth, years later when those who survived had settled down to sedate farm life: Did they believe they’d been tricked by a false Christ?

They, like Schweinfurth himself, have no voices left.

Dan Visel lives in Bangkok and is writing a book on reading.