In Episode 59 Rachel takes us to New Orleans, Louisiana and tells the story of Jayne Mansfield’s tragic death. Then, Emily travels to Simi Valley, California and shares the insane tale of the Blackburn Cult, also known as the Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven. Hopefully, you’re horrified!
Story 1 – Jayne Mansfield
Our story today is about a baaaadddd bitch – about whom Marilyn Monroe stated, “All she does is imitate me, but her imitations are an insult to her as well as to myself.” As a response, the star of today’s story, Jayne Mansfield, actively pursued John F. Kennedy because of his affair with Marilyn Monroe. She was quoted saying, “I’ll bet Marilyn’s pissed as all get out!”
Let’s spend a little time talking about this icon.
Jayne Mansfield was born Vera Jayne Palmer on April 19, 1933, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Her father, Herbert, was a lawyer, and her mother Vera was a stay-at-home parent, though she had previously worked as a teacher. When Jayne was only 3 years-old, Herbert suffered a heart attack while driving with her and her mother and he died.
Horrible – I think I’ve talked about it on the podcast before. My biggest fear as a parent is losing my children. My second-biggest fear is my children losing me. As an adult, Jayne reflected, My earliest memories are the best. I always try to remember the good times when Daddy was alive.”
Jayne’s mother, Vera, went back to teaching to support their family, and in 1939, Vera married Harry Peers, a sales engineer, and the family moved to Dallas. Jayne thrived here – she excelled in school and was a natural performer. This child was a ham – she took voice lessons, dance lessons, and violin lessons, and would stand in their driveway and play her violin for any passersby.
When Jayne was 16, she met 20-year-old Paul Mansfield at a Christmas party. It was love at first sight, and these two youths married secretly in the next month – in January of 1950. Jayne was a senior in high school at the time. After she graduated, Jayne gave birth to a daughter, whom they named Jayne Marie.
This woman was a badass – she was a young mom but still managed to go to college, where she appeared in local plays and focused on drama – the thespian kind, not the regular college type. Paul ended up being drafted and served in the Korean War. When he came back in 1954, Jayne convinced him to move to LA so she could shoot her shot in Hollywood.
Of course, no matter how charming and talented you are, Hollywood can be a bitch. After multiple dead-end auditions, Jayne supported her dreams by selling candy at a movie theatre. She also attempted to get into modeling, but she was cropped out of an ad for General Electric because she looked “too sexy.” She did end up getting on TV that year, but chasing her dreams was rough on her marriage. She and Paul divorced in 1955. This was also the year she ended up getting roles in 3 small films: Pete Kelly’s Blues, Hell on Frisco Bay and Illegal.
At this point, Jayne is struggling to distinguish herself from all the other beautiful buxom Hollywood blondes, so she pulls an Elle Woods and makes pink her signature color. She wore a lot of pink, drove a pink car, and eventually bought a pink house with a heart-shaped pool that was named “the pink palace.”
In 1955, Jayne signed a contract with Warner Bros. She landed the role of Rita Marlowe in the Broadway show Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, and in 1957, she starred in the film version. In the subsequent years she stared in more films, including: Kiss Them For Me (1957), co-starring Cary Grant, The Wayward Bus (1957), The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1958) and It Takes a Thief (1960).
Jayne was super recognizable at this point, but it wasn’t so much from her movies – she was photographed… a lot. Remember how I said she was a ham in childhood? That didn’t change. She modeled for Playboy multiple times, and embraced her reputation as a sex symbol. And she stated, “I think sex is healthy, and there’s too much guilt and hypocrisy about it.” Baaaadddd bitttccchhhhh. She was also infamous for whipping her tits out when paparazzi was trying to photograph her going about her business, which I kind of love.
Of course, this led to a very publicized personal life. She married Mickey Hargitay in 1958. This man had won Mr. Universe and had worked as a bodyguard for Mae West. These two look like Instagram influencers – they had 3 kids, but they also had a shit ton of problems. They split up, and Jayne married director Matt Cimber in Mexico in 1964, even though she was still legally married to Mickey. Jayne and Matt had a child together, and then they also broke up. Jayne’s next love interest was Sam Brody, who was her divorce attorney. This relationship was also tumultuous and reportedly abusive. Overall, Jayne was married and divorced 3 times and had 5 children.
As happens in Hollywood, Jayne’s career started to fizzle. She continued to break down barriers by becoming the first American actress to appear fully nude in a major movie, which was the 1963 movie Promises! Promises! She did a few other movies in the mid-60s, and then transitioned into being a Vegas Headliner. She was still considered to be a hypersexualized or even cartoonish version of Marilyn Monroe, although, Marilyn died in 1962 and honestly deserves her own episode at some point. Regardless, about Marilyn’s death, Jayne ominously stated, “Maybe I’ll be next.”
This brings us to June 29, 1967. Jayne had performed the previous evening at a nightclub in Biloxi, Mississippi, and she, Sam Brody, a driver named Ronald Harrison, and her 3 children with Mickey Hargitay were riding in a Buick Electra, headed to New Orleans. The adults were all seated in the front, and the 3 children were asleep in the back. They were driving at night, attempting to get to a scheduled TV appearance.
Just after 2 o’clock in the morning, the Buick Electra crashed into the back of a trailer truck. The theory is that Ronald Harrison didn’t see the truck until it was too late to stop, because there was a machine nearby pumping out a thick fog to kill mosquitos. Ronald, Sam, and Jayne were killed instantly. After the crash, the Buick slid under the trailer, which took the top of the car clean off.
Obviously, police were called to the grizzly scene. They declared Jayne Mansfield, Sam Brody, and Ronald Harrison dead at the scene. Also, horrible detail, there was a dog in the car that also died. Miraculously, the three children, Mariska, Zoltan, and Miklos Jr., were all found alive, with only minor injuries, still in the back seat of the car. Mariska Hargitay, who is now an actress in her own right on Law and Order, still has a scar on her head. In an interview with People Magazine about her tragic loss, she stated, “The way I’ve lived with loss is to lean into it. As the saying goes, the only way out is through.” Jayne Mansfield was only 34 years old when she died.
Remember, this is the 60s, when reporters could show up at a scene at the same time as police – so there are pictures of the accident, including of the dead actress. Jayne had been wearing a wig at the time, which obviously flew off her head during the crash, so some of these photos made it look as though Jayne had been decapitated.
She wasn’t decapitated, but the truth isn’t pretty either. The police report stated, “the upper portion of this white female’s head was severed.” Her death certificate states that Jayne suffered a crushed skull and a partial separation of her cranium. Essentially, she was scalped, not fully decapitated.
Of course, rumors swirled. Many people thought (and still think) that Jayne was decapitated, because of the angle of those photos. There was also a conspiracy theory that centered around Anton LaVey, the founder of the church of Satan. Jayne had apparently been in a relationship with Anton LaVey, and he was not stoked about her relationship with Sam Brody, so he allegedly put a curse on Sam, leading to the crash and rumored decapitation.
This whole situation is obviously tragic, and what makes it worse to me is that it could have been avoidable. The Buick did not have to slide under the semi-truck, and a federal law was put into place after Jayne’s horrible death. Semi-trucks now must have a low steel bar in the back, called the Mansfield Bar, which keeps cars from sliding underneath.
Although many people remember Jayne Mansfield for her sex appeal and heartbreaking death, Mariska Hargitay recalls her mother differently. In the same interview with People Magazine, Mariska stated that, in addition to being a glamorous star with an appetite for life, “people didn’t know that she played the violin and had a 160 IQ and had five kids and loved dogs.”
And that is how I’d like to remember her.
And that’s the story of Jayne Mansfield!
Story 2 – The Blackburn Cult
I’m going to start this story by telling you about an experience that Matilda “May” Otis Blackburn and her daughter Ruth Wieland Rizziod had back in 1922. Allegedly. There they were… minding their own business… when the angels Gabriel and Michael appeared to them and declared them to be the “two witnesses” described in the Book of Revelation 11:3. Which, for reference, that is “And I will empower my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.”
Allegedly, the two angels then appointed the women to write a book of divine knowledge and revelation over the next few years, that, upon publication, would be an omen of imminent apocalyptic events. This book would explain the mysteries of life and health, heaven and earth. And the book, initially to be titled “The Seventh Trumpet of Gabriel” and later changed to “The Great Sixth Seal,” would also reveal “lost measurements” that pinpointed hidden riches and oil deposits.
Another thing that May and Ruth said they heard from the angels was that, after the apocalypse, the world that was left would be ruled by eleven queens from mansions located on Olive Hill in Hollywood. Because when God decided who would rule the earth after the apocalypse, obviously Hollywood is the spot he was thinking of.
You’re probably unsurprised to hear that May and Ruth believed they were to be two of those queens… you probably are also unsurprised that they decided that – like the queens they were – they needed some god damned followers. SO, they went ahead and founded a religious group. They called the group “the Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven”, or more simply as the Great Eleven Club or as we know them now… the Blackburn Cult.
So, who were these self-proclaimed queens and high priestesses? Well, the two were failed actors –they did actually have one notable credit and that was starring in and producing a film called A Nugget in the Rough in 1917. This was Portland, Oregon’s first feature film. And probably one of their last, if we’re being honest.
After Nugget, the women moved to Los Angeles, and Ruth worked downtown as something called a “taxi dancer,” which was the early 20th century’s version of an erotic dancer, but one that worked in cars. May on the other hand was a clairvoyant. She was 41 years old and was married to a younger man – 29 years old – named Ward Sitton Blackburn. He was described as “exotically mustachioed” in one article and I think that’s the best description I’ve ever heard. Until I read a deeper description: he sported a long, drooping mustache and 5-inch-long fingernails. Gross.
May called him her “North Star of the World.”
Now you may be wondering, how did the high priestesses gather followers? It started with Ruth attracting horny men with her feminine wiles. She used her hotness to get wealthy men interested and then she’d tell them her incredible story about the angels and they were like WHERE DO I SIGN.
In particular, one man named Clifford Dabney, who was the nephew of an oil magnate, heard about Ruth and May’s incredible experience with the angels and instantly forked over $50,000 in cash and assets to Blackburn (worth approximately $750,000 today). In return, he was promised to be among the first to see the divine book that the angels requested May and Ruth write. He also donated 164 acres of land in the Santa Susana area of Simi Valley in Ventura County. This was where he, May, Ward, Ruth and the growing group of other followers eventually settled. This group was enthralled by the fact that May and Ruth were in touch with angels and would soon know more about heaven and earth than anyone else.
Locals came from far and wide to talk to May and Ruth and hear what they had to say about the angels. By now May was going by “Queen and High Priestess” and Ruth the “Warder of the Purple Robes.” People who wanted to hear from the Queen and the Warder only had to pay a small membership fee and then they’d have access to the upcoming release of the Divine book, any future prophesies, and of course, an affiliation with the divine Great Eleven.
All of this happened to work because, well, May and Ruth were attractive and charming and frankly, this makes a difference. So, the women took their 100 followers and went to work in the Simi Valley. Their only requests were that 1) the people who came to Simi Valley had to drive their cars into the mountains and leaving them to rust as a sign of devotion. AND, 2) work at a local tomato packing shed and give all of their paychecks back to May and Ruth.
So, the followers did this. They built a dozen cabins and a temple filled with furniture, including a massive gilded wood throne weighing 800 pounds, sitting upon four hand-carved paws and adorned with a lion’s head. The temple was then sealed off, you know, until Christ’s return.
As with most cult leaders, they were raking in the dough while the followers were living modest lives. In fact, May and Ruth and their husbands always arrived in a big black car driven by their chauffeur bodyguard.
So, what were the cult followers doing while they out in the Simi Valley? Well, at night the devotees gathered in a natural amphitheater on a hillside to watch the high priestesses in their long purple robes kill mules. Fun Fact: they referred to donkeys as the “Jaws of Death.” I have no idea why. THEN, after the gruesome sacrifices, the cult would dance in the nude.
Unfortunately, murdering mules was not the only crazy, horrible thing that happened as part of the Blackburn Cult. You see, the cult was plagued by rumors of strange happenings and mysterious deaths.
Samuel Rizzio, who was married to Ruth Blackburn, mysteriously went missing after allegedly striking his wife. Apparently, they had a heated fight and he hit her so hard that he drew blood. After that the other followers were like NOT TODAY SATAN, not going to hit our cult Queen! And…Sam abruptly disappeared and was never seen again. I will say that someone sent a note to his mother that ominously said that he was “now a high priest, invisible to less spiritual eyes.” So basically, “he’s finnnneeee you just can’t see him anymore because you don’t believe enough.” But, in reality, most people think that he was poisoned.
Another member of the cult, Frances Turner, was a 30-year-old paralyzed woman with a blood disease. Now, May was eager to prove to her followers that she was actually backed by the angels. And to prove that she decided to help cure Frances. Of course, May was not a doctor… not even remotely able to CURE the fact that she was paralyzed… so, she did what any person might do. She put her in a giant homemade stone oven for two days. And, OF COURSE, this resulted in Frances’ death, because duh.
Three other people went completely missing… their names were Harlene Sartoris, Katherine Bolz and Addle McGuffin and they belonged to the cult.
But perhaps the strangest story associated with the Blackburn Cult was the attempted resurrection of one of their High Priestesses, a 16-year-old girl named Willa. Now, Willa was the adopted daughter of William and Mrs. Rhodes (yep, no first name, just Mrs.). They were members of the cult and May took a liking to Willa, to the point where they believed she was one of the 11 high priestesses of the cult. They even referred to Willa as the “Tree of Life.”
So here’s what happened. On New Year’s Day of 1925, Willa died from… a severe infection as a result of a toothache… apparently. Luckily, May assured the grieving parents that the girl would be resurrected to life after 1,260 days had passed and her book was published. All they had to do was preserve her body for the event. So, the deceased girl’s body was immediately placed in a bathtub to be preserved with ice, spices and salt. The cult started trying to build a refrigeration unit on-site, but in the meantime, they literally kept her on ice. And it took 600 pounds of ice a week to preserve her body.
After fourteen months, the girl’s parents had to move back to Los Angeles and so, of course, they brought Willa’s preserved body with them. They made a special mental coffin that was lined with copper and airtight. They then buried this special casket beneath the floor of their house. AND, on top of that, they also buried another coffin next to her that contained the sacrificed bodies of seven puppies. Why? Well, apparently the puppies represented the seven tones of the angel Gabriel’s trumpet.
Throughout all of this time, keep in mind that May and Ruth were collecting money from the followers. Like most cults, the people had essentially turned over their lives to these women and were pouring any money they were earning into funding the creation of this book that was going to direct them to oil reserves and tell them about the future of the earth and heaven and the impending apocalypse.
Another weird thing that the cult did was take regular pilgrimages to places like “Devil’s Hole” out in the Mojave Desert, which was reputed to be a bottomless pit that went straight to an inner world beneath the earth. Some people think that the real reason they went to the desert was to dump unwanted items – like bodies – in a place they’d never be found.
By 1929, it had been seven years since May and Ruth promised this book from the angels… and people started to lose patience for its completion. WHEN was this impending apocalypse actually going to happen!? The people wanted to know. So, eventually, they filed charges of fraud and theft against May and Ruth. Clifford Danbey lead the charge and said that the women had taken as much as $200,000 (approximately $3 million today).
As the police started to look into this allegation, they also discovered a few other things that were suspicious… like unreported deaths and disappearances. They even eventually discovered the mummified body of Willa Rhodes beneath her parent’s home. They examined the body to see if it was obviously sacrificed by the cult but couldn’t see enough evidence to charge May and Ruth with the murder.
In the end, the deaths and disappearances were not the things that got May in trouble. There was no proof! But May was arrested and charged with fifteen counts of grand theft based on Dabney’s complaint. Hearings were held late in 1929, followed by a six-week trial in the first part of the following year.
Coverage of the court proceedings focused almost exclusively on the weird and secret teachings, services and other activities of the organization, while precious little was actually stated about the alleged crime. Even when Dabney was interrogated by both sides during the trial, most of what was published was about his role in the cult.
Despite this, the jury of eight women and four men took two days to deliberate during the first part of March 1930 and then rendered a verdict of guilty on eight counts. When May was sentenced, after a short delay, the judge decided to issue a concurrent sentence of one to ten years at San Quentin State Prison. A motion for a new trial was denied, so May’s attorneys went to the state appeals court.
You see, May claimed that stories of Sam and Willa had been improperly admitted to frighten the jury, and had nothing to do with whether she’d committed theft. In 1931, a judge agreed with May and let her go. As the State Supreme Court said, “This is a free country, where there is freedom of religious worship, and it is not actionable to the court if the defendant made certain representations as to being divine.”
Remarkably, Ruth and May were never charged with any deaths or disappearances, and the Blackburn Cult continued to exist a bit, though the publicity and scandal eroded membership and credibility, as you might imagine. In 1936, May Blackburn actually did publish a book, called “The Origin of God.” Which was confusing and bad, riddled with weird religious imagery. It didn’t change the world or get anyone rich.
In 1951, May passed away at age 69 and her daughter, married and with the surname of Williams, lived more than a quarter-century beyond that, passing away in obscurity in Sacramento in 1978 at not quite 80 years.