Rhoda and the Antichrist (Part One)

On December 24, 1855, a 37-year-old factory worker named Justus Washington Matthews, believing himself to  be possessed by an evil spirit, agreed to have the spirit driven out of him by members of the religious sect to which he belonged.   Over the course of the next few hours, he was blindfolded, beaten with a stick, had his neck cut open, and was then stabbed to death.    The resulting criminal investigation would become national news, both for the brutality of the victim's death and the strange religious cult that had been operating in the New Haven, Connecticut area for years with little real fanfare.

At the centre of the controversy was a 69-year-old woman named Rhoda Wakeman at whose house the murder took place.   Born Rhoda Sly on November 6, 1786, her life seemed uneventful enough with her marriage to a distiller named Ira Wakeman and the birth of their numerous children.  A devout Methodist, Rhoda regularly attended meetings and read the Bible and other religious texts voraciously.   Her religious awakening apparently began in 1825 with a personal vision of Jesus, apparently spurred on by a death threat from her brutal husband.  As Rhoda's daughter would later attest, Ira was a vicious drunk who seemed disturbed by his wife's religious zeal and often threatened to kill her if she continues to preach the gospel.  

After years of abuse, Ira finally carried out his threat and told Rhoda that "the world would never be at peace for as long as [she] lived."  He reportedly told her that, “Last Saturday night I took my razor and went before the glass to kill myself. I made a league with the devil, more steadfast and strange than ever, if he would clear me. And then I would Kill you first—and by the great Jehovah Christ I will do it—and they may execute me on the gallows.”  Still holding her youngest child in her arms, she sat in one of the two chairs he had placed before the fire.   Though she believed that he would cut her throat, instead he drew a piece of burning wood from the fire and then stabbed her with it.    

What followed was a strange vision in which a single white spirit stopped the demons who were trying to take her soul.   Instead, this unnamed spirit escorted Rhoda Wakeman up to Heaven where Christ appeared before her.  Another spirit took her aside and told her to "make your peace with God" before taking her up to see God and the heavenly choir.   The spirit then took her back to earth where she saw her dead body lying on the floor.   She also saw her husband repeatedly saying, "By God, she's raised!" before she returned to consciousness.   Though the general consensus of most observers was that she had been rendered unconscious by Ira's brutal beating, Rhoda insisted that she had died and been returned to life by the grace of God.    From that day forward, she felt inspired to preach her own unique take on the Gospel and the will of God.  And so, the Wakemanite movement was born.

While ostensibly one of the many Christian sects that were flourishing throughout the United States during the First Great Awakening, the doctrine preached by Rhoda Wakeman had a few innovations that set her aside from the rest.   Along with acknowledging God as the Supreme Ruler and that Jesus had died to save the world from sin, Rhoda declared herself to be a messenger sent to redeem the world.  She also renounced the concept of marriage and insisted that men and women live chastely and to free themselves from the earthly lusts that would only corrupt them.   As well as being the head of her sect, Rhoda insisted that God had entrusted her with supreme power over the earth, including the ability to end the world whenever she saw fit.   She also had the power to know anyone's sins simply by looking into his or her eyes and, if she chose, to forgive those sins.    Much of her doctrine focused on the devil's works, especially in spreading doubt about her doctrine.   

Based on certain Biblical passages, Rhoda concluded that her main enemy on earth was the "Man of Sin", an evil spirit that could pass from body to body and who was actively working to overthrow her and her church.  Also referred to as the Antichrist, the Man of Sin had first tried to kill her when he entered the body of her husband.    She put herself out of harm's way by moving in with a daughter and going from door to door to gather recruits to her new church.   Once she had enough followers, she put the next part of her plan into action:  dealing with her brutal husband.     

For all that she had the power to forgive sins, Rhoda obviously had no intention of being so merciful towards Ira.   First she had her followers tie him up and then, according to one account, "drew a knife or poniard, and with it made a most unnatural assault upon him, inflicting wounds of a very serious nature. The assault would doubtless then have proved fatal had it not been for the fear of some of her more responsible disciples, who becoming alarmed, put an end to the attack.”   Ira died not long afterward but Rhoda and her followers denied being responsible and claimed instead that Ira had been killed by the Devil after his satanic pact expired.  As proof of his evil nature, Rhoda also insisted that she once saw "“streams of fire fly out of the eyes of her husband and had seen little devils about two feet high dance around him in the room.”

As for Rhoda, she gained a reputation in the New Haven area for her odd behaviour, including talking about the spirits that pleaded with her nightly to preach the word of God as well as openly weeping at the sight of people going to other churches preaching false doctrine (i.e., anything that wasn't part of her creed).   She was also paranoid about the evil enchanters lurking just about everywhere, and they always revealed 51AU9l-e7+L._SY346_[1]themselves whenever they expressed any kind of skepticism about her claims.    

Even her own family wasn't immune.   Though she had managed to convert most of her children, she continued to demand total obedience to her word.   When one of her sons-in-law proved unsuitable (whether due to skepticism or simply because she didn't like him), Rhoda excommunicated him and, when her daughter objected, did the same to her.  If they weren't for her, then they were against her and were part of the legions of devils who wanted her dead.  

Not that this stopped Rhoda Wakeman from gaining a number of followers, including one man, Samuel Sly, who became her chief acolyte.  Samuel became just as active as Rhoda was  and spent much of his time preaching her doctrine to anyone who would listen (and anyone who wouldn't).    Described by one source as a "very good, harmless, prayerful man who always spoke like a child."   Samuel had a reputation for being simple-minded even before meeting Rhoda, which likely made him especially vulnerable to her preaching.   In later years, the two of them would become inseparable.  They even lived together after Sammy gathered enough money to rent a series of houses where Rhoda could live and her followers could meet.

By 1850, Rhoda and Samuel were living in a small house not far from the Yale campus.  They supported themselves by boarding children and selling various concoctions made from roots and berries (Rhoda had a reputation a a healer).   They also continued their prayer meetings which brought in people from all over the area.   One of her new recruits, Amos Hunt, would gain a place of honour in the group and would continue with the Wakemanites for many years.    

Unfortunately for Amos,  Rhoda and several other people would become sick from a pie that he and his wife had brought to a meeting in 1855.  Concluding that the pie had been poisoned, Rhoda declared Amos Hunt to be the newest "Man of Sin" and insisted that he be "given up as a living sacrifice to God."    Amos, who was naturally not inclined to die for what was likely just a case of food poisoning, offered the Wakemanites a cash settlement of $500 instead.    Though Rhoda's followers accepted the money, Amos apparently had second thoughts and sued to get the money back.

This lawsuit, along with believing herself betrayed by someone she trusted added to Rhoda's sense of persecution.   She also believed that accepting Amos' money had tainted her group.    For whatever reason, Rhoda decided that the evil influence of the Man of Sin had passed from Amos Hunt and had invaded the body of another follower, Justus Washington Matthews.   This evil influence revealed itself when Matthews' wife Mehitable began experience convulsions and Rhoda began feeling sick as well.   Concluding that Matthews was responsible, she and her Wakemanites concluded that a blood sacrifice was the only way to purge themselves from evil.

And Justus Matthews paid the price with his life.  

To be continued






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