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THE HAIRIEST TEAM OF ALL

April 13, 1970
April 13, 1970

Table of Contents
April 13, 1970

Yesterday
Playoffs
  • Transformed by Joe Caldwell and bolstered by Walt Bellamy, Atlanta has an unshakable belief that it will be the first Western Division team in more than a decade to win the pro basketball championship

  • Yoshi Hayasaki (above), who won the all-around title at the NCAA meet, showed again that the Japanese are the world's best gymnasts because they gladly suffer interminable workouts—and slaps in the face

Golf
Cerdan
Baseball 1970
Lively Bantam
Basketball
Horse Racing
Hockey
Hairiest
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

THE HAIRIEST TEAM OF ALL

Part of baseball's storied past was a hirsute nine called the House of David, which traveled from town to town playing the best in local semipro talent. The bearded players were the product of a unique religious sect that still exists

Their ranks are dwindling now and the beards on the old men are ashen and brittle, but the people huddled together in a wooded colony on the outskirts of Benton Harbor, Mich. continue to yearn for the future rather than the past. For them the past is bound up with a stern and shadowy building in their midst known as the Diamond House. The townspeople in Benton Harbor will tell you, though few if any claim to have seen for themselves, that the Diamond House contains the embalmed body of the colony's founder, and they will go on to confide tales about him of the darkest kind. Although these tales once brought the man front-page notoriety, his gentle followers always felt more at home back in the sports section. For they had their own traveling baseball team, and, forget about the skimpy manes of your Ken Harrelsons and the lean muttonchops of your Richie Aliens, they played the game in jungle-dense beards and hair so long that it had to be braided.

This is an article from the April 13, 1970 issue Original Layout

This team, like the religious sect it represented, was known far and wide as the House of David. Although it would be nice to tell you that the Diamond House was so called out of lofty honor for the national game, the name was inspired, in fact, by the sparkling composition of the building's stone surface. As for the man whose remains are said to reside inside, his name was Benjamin Franklin Purnell, or is, rather, for he is still very much alive in the memories of surviving House of David members who regard him as God's seventh angelic messenger. They steadfastly believe, in the face of the ignominy and insult of past years, that those faithful to his teachings can hope to wind up among the 144,000 elect who, it is written, one day will inherit the earth. And they continue to wait for the jubilant day when he will rise to accompany them into the millennium.

Considering that he died in 1927, it is fair to regard the late Benjamin Purnell as late in more ways than one. Yet the older the remnants of his flock become, the stronger their spirits, if not their bodies, seem to grow. Moving between the Diamond House and rambling frame structures bearing such Biblical names as Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Shiloh, they pool their worldly possessions and go quietly about their appointed tasks—preparing meals and canning fruit, making picture frames and running printing presses—with a self-sufficiency that would be the envy of the purest of hippie communes. In accordance with the Biblical injunction that "the wages of sin is death," they remain celibate (even in marriage) and they scrupulously refrain from eating meat. To this day the men among them keep their hair and beards unshorn in emulation of Jesus, whom they consider "our pattern and our waymark."

Notwithstanding Purnell's own very mortal fate, the objective of all this is immortality, pure and simple. "We believe that there is nothing impossible with God," says Tom Dewhirst, the colony's full-bearded, pigtailed secretary, who used to be a heavy-hitting outfielder on the baseball team. "The Bible tells us that the righteous shall never be removed, and that the wicked shall not inhabit the earth. Although we don't know which of us will make it, we're all striving for the highest glory."

Glory was something the sect once knew a great deal of, but that was many years ago. Today in the here-and-now, the walk-up House of David Hotel in downtown Benton Harbor demands rents in advance and posts signs warning NO LOAFING. Along the old highway to Chicago, the colony's florid Grande Vista Motor Court has been converted to kitchenettes, and its nightclub, once frequented by such notables as Clarence Darrow and George Raft, houses a flea market. And business at the block-square House of David cold-storage plant near downtown Benton Harbor has fallen off sharply now that the big open-air fruit market that used to be across the street has moved to the outskirts of town.

As its many business interests attest, the House of David was an enterprising sect, one that saw no theological conflict between its material and spiritual pursuits. On the contrary, the colony even had its own amusement park. Best known for miniature steam locomotives that chug around the grounds, the park still exists, but the zoo, aviary and artificial lake are gone. So is Manna Woodworth's bearded orchestra, whose frisky rendition of Down by the Ohio used to keep things bouncing in the colony's wooded beer gardens.

Gone, too, is the House of David's musty 3,500-seat ball park, which in later years was used for everything from circuses and Little League practice to wrestling promotions starring Gorgeous George. A trailer camp now occupies the site, and all that remains of the old baseball park is the outfield fence, standing alone as if excavated by archaeologists.

When Benjamin Purnell finally gets around to returning, it is doubtful that he or anyone else will be of any mind to resuscitate the old House of David baseball team, the colony's most famed possession. Even more than the amusement park, Manna Woodworth's musicians and other offshoots of the sect, the baseball team belonged irredeemably to times past. It was the product of an era, before television and sports expansion encouraged the civic boosters of every hamlet to start thinking of themselves in big-league terms, in which people were still provincial enough to go to the circus to see bearded ladies, or to the ball park to see bearded ballplayers.

But the House of David team went well beyond being a mere curiosity. It played tight defense, circumnavigated the bases with real savvy and usually—not always, but usually—gave the locals a lesson in how the game was meant to be played. The beards were no hindrance, not even to the catcher, whose whiskers looked like Spanish moss protruding through his face mask. Nor could even the hardest slide unravel the players' long braids, which they wore tucked under their caps (although they sometimes let their hair down between innings to amuse the crowd). And in hot weather, or so some of the players wryly insisted, the beards provided shade and functioned as a personal air-conditioning system.

These barnstorming ballplayers were to baseball what the Harlem Globetrotters are to basketball. For four decades, from World War I through the mid-1950s, there was a team—and sometimes two, three or more—out on the road representing the House of David. Playing upwards of 185 games a season, the men of the House of David had their biggest following in towns like Kewanee, Ill. (pop. 16,000), where they once drew 10,000 fans, and Great Falls, Mont., where a local newspaper hailed the visitors as "the one big baseball attraction of the year." Everywhere they went they wowed the fans with exploits that a sportswriter in El Dorado, Ark., engaging in the kind of wordplay that long tresses seem to inspire, called "hair-raising."

If the thrills failed to come in the regular course of the game, the players enlivened matters with some well-rehearsed bits of grandstanding. John Tucker, the first baseman, deftly caught pop flies behind his back. And whenever Eddy (New) Deal was on third base there was no telling when he might go backward and steal second. Some of the zaniest antics came during the celebrated pepper game, a sleight-of-hand routine in which a group of House of David players tossed the baseball around with such lightning speed that it was almost impossible for the eye to follow. Sometimes it would disappear, only to be located, inevitably, deep inside somebody's beard. The pepper game, promised the posters that went into store windows shortly before the House of David arrived in town, was "worth the price of admission alone."

Most of the monkeyshines were confined to the field. Away from the diamond, the House of David itinerants were as well-behaved a bunch as you could find in baseball, proving, perhaps, that long hair and bushy beards do not necessarily signify a devilish deportment. Whatever drinking and carousing did occur was usually the work of the outside ballplayers who let their beards grow out so that they could play for the House of David. Purists may consider it somehow dishonorable that the House of David beefed up the ball club with hired professionals, but the colony always defended the practice. "When a ballplayer signs up with the White Sox, he puts on a uniform that says Chicago," argues Secretary Dewhirst. "But that doesn't mean he's from Chicago. And with us, the beards were part of the uniform."

Far from trying to put anything over on anybody, there were some hired outsiders who never bothered to grow beards, including Grover Cleveland Alexander, who pitched for the colony—clean-shaven—after his major league career ended in 1930. It is doubtful, at any rate, that the House of David could have remained a big-time attraction for very long had it continued to rely only on its own men. Even during its heyday in the 1920s, the colony had only about 600 members, roughly half of them women. The real wonder is not that it resorted to employing professional outsiders, but that it managed to produce as many good ballplayers from within the fold as it did.

What made the team all the more remarkable was that so many of the House of David's players were foreign-born, having been brought to the U.S. when their parents emigrated to join the colony. Dave Harrison and the Hannaford brothers, Horace and Ezra, came from Australia; Charlie Falkenstein from Germany; Ernie Selby from England. Australian-born Art Vieritz, who became the colony's centerfielder and stolen-base artist, had never seen a baseball before arriving in Benton Harbor at 16.

Ask how a baseball team blossomed from such improbable soil and everyone answers with a shrug of the shoulders. Harrison, the former third baseman who now drives a truck on the colony grounds, says, "I guess it just happened to be, that's all. I suppose it was one of those things that you can't explain."

Whatever the explanation, baseball brought great benefits to the House of David. Financially, the fact that the colony drew so many of the players from its own ranks held down the team's payroll; estimates of profits during the early years run upward from $10,000 a season. And the success of the team around the country boosted morale back home, giving the young boys in the colony something to aspire to and everybody something to bust buttons over. Just as governments have been known to use foreign adventures to rally their people, members of the House of David saw baseball as a means of doing glorious battle in the outside world.

Besides the players themselves, the House of David's emissaries abroad included William Frye, a stout and nattily attired colony member who for many years went along on the team's junkets in the dual, and not incompatible, roles of evangelist and public-relations man. Frye circulated through the crowd selling postcards, dispensing religious tracts and deftly fencing with hecklers who turned out to taunt the bearded visitors, sometimes good-naturedly, sometimes not. The players could always make out where in the stands their postcard salesman happened to be from the laughter that swept through the crowd.

As traveling men, the House of David ballplayers had nothing on the peripatetic Benjamin Purnell. The youngest of a dozen children, Purnell was born in 1861 in a log cabin near Maysville, Ky., a setting, a House of David publication said years later, that "brought to mind the simplicity and surroundings that marked the nativity of the Firstborn Son of God, Jesus." An intelligent, blue-eyed, curly-haired boy, Ben was raised by his hill-country parents on a steady diet of Scripture, and soon he was preaching up a storm. "The Scriptures are like an old fiddle," an early neighbor marveled, "and Benjamin can play the best tune of all."

Benjamin worked both as a railroad tunnel watchman and broom-maker, but he was the restless type from the start. In 1877, still only 16, he married a neighbor girl named Angeline Brown and fathered a child but soon left to go "visiting." Without bothering to get a divorce, Benjamin married again, this time 17-year-old Mary Stollard, a girl from the next county who was to play a central role in the destinies of both Benjamin and the House of David. With Mary by his side, Benjamin traveled around Kentucky, into Ohio and up through the Great Lakes region, pamphleteering, preaching and passing the hat. They made their way by foot, bicycle and horse-drawn carnival wagon, living by their wits and Benjamin's not inconsiderable talents as a spellbinder.

During this circuitous journey of his, Benjamin took to studying the writings of a small but durable fundamentalist cult that had its origins with an 18th century Englishwoman named Joanna Southcott. Joanna, it seems, had attracted quite a following after proclaiming herself the first of the seven angelic messengers spoken of in Revelation 10:7, "But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished...." Following Joanna's death in 1814, England managed to produce a more or less orderly progression of second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth self-styled messengers to succeed her. After that, it awaited only the seventh and last messenger to come along and fulfill God's mystery in the end of days. The bearded, Gospel-spouting members of the sect came to be known as the Flying Rollers. Some found their way to Australia and others to the U.S., a particularly active group gathering in Detroit under Michael Mills, who in 1891 proclaimed himself the long-awaited seventh messenger. Instead of leading anybody into the millennium, Mills himself was led away to jail after being convicted on charges of seducing the daughters of his flock in so-called purification rites.

Among those who found their way to Detroit in the 1890s were Benjamin and Mary Purnell, along with their two children, Hettie and Coy. It was in due time revealed to Benjamin's own satisfaction that he, Benjamin—and not Mills—was the true seventh messenger. Few of Detroit's Flying Rollers would have any of that, but Purnell, undaunted, resumed his travels and, by the force of his preachments and personality, picked up disciples along the way. One stop was Fostoria, Ohio, where in February 1903 an explosion in a fireworks factory killed eight people. The dead included 16-year-old Hettie Purnell, who had been working in the factory.

As one who professed to hold the secret to eternal life, Benjamin was embarrassed and no doubt distressed by the death of his daughter. Outwardly, his reaction to the tragedy was so indifferent—he supposedly refused to claim the body—that his Fostoria neighbors rose against him in abhorrence. On St. Patrick's Day of 1903 Benjamin, who had been corresponding with a group of Flying Rollers in Benton Harbor, arrived there with Mary and Coy. He established the House of David and declared that the time had come for what he called the ingathering of Israel.

To populate the infant colony, Benjamin soon undertook an around-the-world journey to Australia, where followers of John Wroe, the fifth messenger, still lived. On his arrival there he reminded them of Wroe's prophecy: "When Thou art at home Thou shalt be in America." He also invoked the words of the sixth messenger, James Jezreel, uttered on a visit to the U.S. years before: "O happy Michigan, out of thee shall come a Star." In this way Benjamin convinced many of Wroe's people that he was their long-awaited Messianic deliverer. On his return in early 1905, he was accompanied by 85 Australians, including enough musicians to make up a brass band. As townspeople looked on in wonderment, they strutted out of the Benton Harbor train station, horns tooting and hair flowing, and grandly marched to their new communal home.

In 1908 an amusement park was opened to entertain the curious throngs that the thriving colony of so-called Israelites was already attracting. The lucky visitor could hope to catch a glimpse of Brother Benjamin himself, clad in a white suit and matching hat, riding across the grounds astride a snow-white steed. The tourists who visited the House of David in the early days came mostly by inter-urban from neighboring communities and by steamship from Chicago. Ring Lardner left an account of his visit: "It sounds like a roadhouse," but "it was even better'n that. You couldn't get nothin' to drink, but they was plenty to see and hear—band concerts, male and female; movin' pitchers; a zoo; a bowlin' alley; and more funny-lookin' people than I ever seen at an amusement park before."

It was during this prosperous period that the traveling baseball team was born. The young boys had taken to baseball, usually in the form of rounders, which they played once the day's chores were done. They began to compete against boys' teams from neighboring communities, meanwhile polishing their baseball skills by helpfully shagging fly balls and working out with a local semipro team called the Speed Boys.

The young men of the colony, some with only the sparsest facial foliage, were soon beating the best factory teams in the area. As their reputation and prowess grew, they traveled more widely through Michigan, Indiana and Illinois, including expeditions into Chicago to play such teams as the Duffy Florals and Rube Foster's Chicago American Giants. By this time the House of David had built its own ball park but the best players were seldom at home any more. A New York booker had persuaded it to schedule a tour through the Hast, an undertaking that was a rousing promotional success. By the early 1920s the House of David club was a major attraction.

"We had overflow crowds everywhere," recalls the club's catcher, Charlie Falkenstein, an ex-colony member who is now a florist in Buchanan, Mich. "In Shibe Park in Philadelphia we played the Bacharach Giants of Atlantic City before 22,000 people. Connie Mack came around and shook our hands. He said he wished the Athletics could draw like that."

On the field the successes did not come so easily—at least not at first. Taking on the classiest semipro teams in the East, the House of David was lucky to win half its games. A couple of colony players—Pitcher-Outfielder Jesse (Doc) Tally and Shortstop Walter (Dutch) Faust—were as good as most minor-leaguers, and maybe even a few major-leaguers. "The rest of us then weren't so great," concedes Ezra (Cookie) Hannaford, a colony dropout who lives today in Glendale, Calif. "But we tried to develop baseball sense, didn't make too many errors—and at bat we knew how to push a guy around. We played well together, and once in a while we won a game or two even when we were out of our class." At first the outside professionals on the team were limited to a few players like Bill Heckman, a sometime minor-leaguer who could hit the long ball, but the addition of a couple of others was all it took to turn a fair ball club into a powerful one.

Although the ballplayers traveled in the splendor of 12-cylinder Packards, the going was hard. What passed for an interstate system in the early days consisted of roads that were made of clay or gravel and, particularly out West, were often overgrown with high grass. These conditions, though, were no great obstacle to the driver of one of the Packards, Hans (Barney) Dalager, the team's longtime baggageman. Dalager, so the story goes, was usually the last to leave one town and the first to reach the next—and he somehow did it without passing anybody. His nickname was inspired by Barney Oldfield, the race driver.

While its best players were out seeing the country, the House of David was maintaining what amounted to a farm system in Benton Harbor—a boys' team, a girls' team and a men's nine that played home games for the benefit of pleasure-seekers visiting the amusement park. An out-of-town writer who visited the colony in the early 1920s told of watching the House of David defeat "a smart semipro team from Chicago" by a score of "32 to 0, or perhaps it was 42 to 0," only to be informed by a proud colony member: "And this is only our second team. The first team is touring the east. They've won 14 out of 15 games thus far."

The same writer doggedly tried to arrange an interview with Benjamin Purnell but received the brush-off from his underlings. What he did not know was that clouds of scandal were starting to gather over the House of David. And even though baseball games and the colony's other commercial activities were going on as usual, Benjamin, far from submitting to any interviews, was doing a fast disappearing act. By early 1923, with charges swirling about reminiscent of those that had proved the undoing of Michael Mills back in Detroit, Benjamin was a fugitive, and the Michigan attorney general launched an inquiry into his activities.

Benjamin was missing for nearly four years, during which not even the death of his son Coy in early 1924 succeeded in bringing him out of hiding. Finally, late on the night of Nov. 16, 1926, acting on a tip from a disaffected ex-colony member, state troopers raided the House of David and axed their way into the Diamond House. In secret quarters deep within the building, they found Benjamin, sickly and emaciated, attended by several women clad in nightgowns. The state brought receivership proceedings to have the colony abated as a public nuisance.

The 1920s were a decade of courtroom spectacles—Fatty Arbuckle, Scopes, Hall-Mills—and the House of David trial of 1927 had its moments, too. There were 15,000 pages of testimony, some of it claiming that Benjamin was immortal and some that he was merely immoral. In the latter category was the revelation that he was a bigamist. Among the 250-odd witnesses who paraded to the stand was his first wife, Angeline Brown, who told the world that her long-lost husband had been "shiftless and no good."

The defense countered that the House of David leader was the victim of a vast plot hatched by a willful few who hoped to break up the colony and divide its wealth. Benjamin himself testified in the last days of the trial. Suffering from diabetes and tuberculosis, he was borne into court on a stretcher, a wizened man with a white beard who now weighed 117 pounds. Reclining, his head propped against pillows, he denied that he had ever taken liberties with the colony's young girls. Asked why he had gone into hiding rather than face his accusers, he replied simply: "It would have worked against the colony."

In early November the presiding judge declared the House of David a fraud and a public nuisance, ruled that a receivership be set up and ordered Benjamin exiled from the colony. The judge need not have bothered. On Dec. 16, 1927, five weeks later, Benjamin Purnell died at the age of 66. The faithful stood vigil for four days awaiting his resurrection and then, under pressure from health officials to dispose of the remains, had his body embalmed, put inside a glass-topped coffin and placed in the Diamond House. That done, they continued to wait for "his return in whatever manner God ordains."

With Benjamin's death, however, an unseemly power struggle developed between his widow, Mary Purnell, and Harry T. Dewhirst, the present secretary's father, with the result that the House of David soon became a house divided. In early 1930 Sister Mary and her 200-odd followers moved a few hundred feet up Britain Avenue and established a rival settlement called the Israelite House of David as Reorganized by Mary Purnell—or more commonly, the City of David. With Mary went her chief lieutenant, Francis Thorpe, the longtime manager of the baseball team, and several of the colony's ballplayers, including the veteran Doc Tally and two infielders, John Tucker and George Anderson. With those three as the nucleus, Thorpe sent out a strong club that carried Mary's banner—but continued to use the House of David name.

There were also several ballplayers left in "Judge" Dewhirst's faction, among them the Infielder Dave Harrison, young First Baseman Ernie Selby and Tom Dewhirst. Not to be outdone by the City of David, Judge Dewhirst fielded as many as three teams at once, each of which called itself the House of David.

To compound the confusion, there were always unauthorized teams out on the prowl (including an all-Negro club), billing themselves as the House of David. Sometimes, says Eddy Deal, who signed on as a catcher with one of Dewhirst's teams, "The colony would receive bills that these guys had run up. It was giving the real team a bad name."

Judge Dewhirst's teams played a number of exhibition games around the country in the 1930s against major league clubs, but it was one of the fake House of Davids that met the New York Yankees in a spring training exhibition in 1931, when Babe Ruth, as a gag, took the outfield in a beard as bogus as the opposition's name. In 1934 Dewhirst filed suit in New York against the promoter of one group of shaggy imposters. Federal Judge John M. Woolsey, who had delivered the landmark Ulysses obscenity decision a few months before, enjoined the promoter from using the House of David name but refused to intervene in the matter of beards. The law allowed anybody, said the aptly named Woolsey, to "purposely imitate another's facial shrubbery—even to the extent of following such topiary modification...as may have caught his fancy."

But beards and baseball alone were no longer enough during the Depression to assure large crowds. It was as. an extra attraction, therefore, that one of the colony-sponsored teams hired Grover Cleveland Alexander. On one cross-country tour, during which the House of David played the Kansas City Monarchs for two solid months, Alexander, then in his mid-40s, and the Monarchs' Satchel Paige, presumably somewhat younger, pitched against each other for a couple of innings daily in a marathon duel that had all the fitful tension and disjointed drama of a floating crap game.

This game script—the big-name pitcher working the first two innings or so and then yielding to a reliever—was followed not only with Alexander but with such other hurlers as Babe Didrikson and Elmer Dean, brother of Dizzy and Daffy. As another gate attraction, the colony helped pioneer night baseball by traveling with a portable lighting system borrowed from the Kansas City Monarchs, an unwieldy rig consisting of poles, lights and generator. "Whenever a fly ball went above the lights, you couldn't see it," says Ernie Selby, who is now a plumbing contractor in Benton Harbor. "You just looked up and prayed, dear Lord, bring it here. And the generator in center field was so loud you couldn't hear a thing."

Another distraction was "donkey baseball," which the House of David played on the backs of donkeys as a side attraction to the team's regular game. It was never quite as rollicking as its name seemed to promise, and if something else killed vaudeville donkey baseball was certainly one of the death convulsions of House of David baseball. With many of the old ballplayers gone, the colony's various clubs now had far more ringers than ringlets, and the payrolls were rising accordingly. In the late 1930s Judge Dewhirst quietly folded the traveling baseball operation.

The City of David's team continued to struggle along, even after the loss of the crowd-pleasing John Tucker, who dropped out of the colony in 1946, and the formidable Doc Tally, who died in 1950 at the age of 54 while getting ready for another season. The club was kept alive by bewhiskered George Anderson, who every spring took an assortment of hired ballplayers around the country to meet competition wherever it could still be found. During the 1940s and 1950s, Anderson also assembled a House of David basketball team, which toured for a while with the Harlem Globetrotters. One featured performer was Bill Spivey, the 7-footer from the University of Kentucky who had been banned from pro basketball for allegedly shaving points in college. With the cagers, as with the baseballers, there was little shaving of any kind. In basketball, though, the beards could be a disadvantage, since opposing players occasionally found it an effective defensive tactic to grab themselves a handful of whiskers.

Not until 1955 did the baseball enterprise come to an end. The last couple of seasons, during which the baseball team traveled in Ford station wagons, had been fraught with financial trouble and beset by an unusual number of rained-out games, which traveling teams can seldom hope to make up. Anderson, the playing manager, decided to call it quits. As the only remaining colony member on the club, he thus became the last of the House of David ballplayers. Lean and quick-handed, he was a pretty fair third baseman on that final team. He was 45 years old.

Instead of going out on the road to play baseball as he had for three decades, Anderson soon had to face up to the prospect of life in the cloistered confines of the City of David. He shaved off his beard and left the colony. "I still believed in the faith," says Anderson, now transportation supervisor of public schools in Benton Harbor's twin city of St. Joseph, "but I realized that the life there just wasn't for me. I'd been moving around all those years, and now I felt lost. I had to get out."

During the early years some House of David members quit in the belief that the colony, steeped in business and eventually tainted by scandal, had become too worldly. With later dropouts like Anderson, the problem, in effect, was that it was no longer worldly enough. Either way, all these defections, along with death and accelerated attrition brought on by the practice of celibacy, have combined to erode the membership rolls. Today the two rival factions together probably have no more than 150 members, most of them past 60, and it is a rare day when a new member joins.

The bitter feelings that rent the colony in 1930 have pretty much subsided. Judge Dewhirst died in 1947 at 66, Mary Purnell in 1953 at 91. As for Benjamin, most colony members seem to believe his remains still reside in the Diamond House, but Tom Dewhirst is evasive on the subject. As Dewhirst knows only too well, Benjamin is remembered by outsiders less as God's seventh messenger than as some sort of King of the Harem Haven, as a paperback biography published in 1960 put it. A shrill, partially fictionalized account based loosely on transcripts of the 1927 trial, the book was subtitled "the amazing true story of a daring charlatan who ran a virgin love cult in America." It sold 135,000 copies, 5,000 in Benton Harbor.

Ask Dewhirst directly whether Benjamin's embalmed body is still in the Diamond House and he becomes defensive. "No, it s not," he says testily. "That's one of the lies people have told without bothering to get the facts straight."

"Then is the unembalmed body there?"

"That's none of anybody's business."

"Then, how can anybody hope to get the facts straight?"

"Well, I'm not going to help them by talking about it."

Dewhirst and the others of the faith are reluctant to entertain the possibility of the House of David's extinction, nor are they eager to discuss the eventual disposition of the colony's still substantial assets. They expect the millennium to arrive following a devastating cataclysm, and they imply that the predestined event could occur when the membership dwindles to 50 or so. "Our writings teach us," says Dewhirst, "that when 50 are searched out in America, then they will come in by the fifties, hundreds and the thousands." Bob Griggs, a prominent figure in the rival City of David, argues: "When the proper time comes, they'll arrive in great hordes. We're working toward that end now."

And so, sustained by their great faith, the aging brothers and sisters of a religious sect that once fielded its own baseball teams continue to live and work and wait in Benton Harbor. Following the death of Benjamin Purnell in 1927, a Boston-based weekly magazine called the Independent cheerfully delivered an epitaph. "The infamous House of David is drawing near its end," the magazine said. "Nobody will miss the institution." As things turned out, it was the Independent that was drawing near its end—it merged with another magazine nine months later—and the House of David has outlived it by 42 years. With that precedent, we will avoid making any further predictions of the colony's imminent demise.

Instead, let it simply be said, using the parlance of its favorite game, that the House of David seems to be going through a rather prolonged slump. As Dave Harrison, talking baseball on a bench near the Diamond House, observed of slumps not long ago: "When you're not hitting, the thing to do is to just wait it out. Before you know it, you'll get a hit and all of a sudden everything'll be all right again." Had he chosen, the bush-headed ex-infielder might have put it the way that Brother Benjamin, preparing his followers for dire days ahead, did many years ago:

Tho' lightnings flash and thunders roar,
On mountain top the sun peeps o'er!

FOUR ILLUSTRATIONS