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If there is one commodity that the United States of America has had an overabundance of in its entire history, it was Messiahs. Consider for example, two of the less-well known Messiahs of the late nineteenth century, Dora Beekman and George Jacob Schweinfurth.
Dora Beekman was later described as a "handsome lady, slight in frame but with great powers of endurance." Her husband, Reverend J. C. Beekman had just started a new position as pastor of the Congregationalist church in Byron, Illinois in 1876 and was, by all accounts, a gifted preacher. Unfortunately, he wasn't quite prepared for his wife's sudden revelation that she was the true Christ who needed all true Christians to believe in her. Not long afterward, Dora decided to leave him to travel to Alpena, Michigan and continue her mission. It was there that she started gathering followers, including George Jacob Schweinfurth who was, at that time, a pastor of the local Methodist church.
As for the reason why this preacher's wife was able to attract a following, this newspaper description may provide some idea of how persuasive she could be:
"Her learning is spoken as something remarkable. She was a brilliant speaker and her powers of magnetism were such that she held the attention of her listeners until she had finished speaking. She has been known to speak continuously for three hours. In conversing with her some difficulty was experienced, from the fact that she was slightly deaf. No one questions her sincerity but it was very generally believed that she was crazy."
Despite this rather widespread skepticism about Dora's crusade, her small circle of followers grew. When Dora decided to return to Byron, it was George Schweinfurth who came with her, something that likely didn't sit well with her husband Despite this rather odd living arrangement, J.C. Beekman apparently went along with his wife's new religious mission, at least at first. Not only did Dora write all of his sermons but her bizarre religious ideas were so extreme that his congregation voted to fire him as pastor.
Though the Reverend Beekman had no real faith in his wife's religious crusade, she controlled him so completely that he pretty much went along with whatever she wanted. Her followers, who were dubbed "Perfectionists" slowly grew in number and George Schweinfurth served as her chief lieutenant. It was never a big cult though. In Byron alone, there were about forty Perfectionists and, at most, there were likely no more than two hundred followers overall. Still, there were Beekmanite churches in Chicago, Louisville, Leavenworth, Minneapolis, and Kansas City, among other places. The main bulk of her followers lived in the community of Buena Vista, Colorado where Dora Beekman had relocated.
And then things got really strange.
When Dora Beekman died in April, 1882, her follower were in an uproar. Her long-suffering husband, who hadn't even been told she was ill, wasn't notified by telegram until the day after her death. According to one news story, "the Perfectionists, holding that she was Christ, insisted that she would rise again on the third day, and refused to embalm her remains until the fourth day and mortification had set in." After they embalmed the body, the followers transported it in a sealed coffin back to Byron and laid it in front of her husband's house. Once the townspeople were allowed to open the coffin and verify that it was the body of Dora Beekman, she was buried in the local cemetery.
The Perfectionists, somewhat disappointed at her not rising on the third day, decided to hold a vigil to see if she would reappear on Earth forty days after her death. She didn't. Instead, what followed was a rather bizarre legal spectacle as the Perfectionists tried to seize all the property that they had given Dora Beekman, including the rather nice house in Byron where she had lived for a time. Since the house was deeded to her husband, the cultists unsuccessfully went to court to try to get it back.
With their belief in Dora's messianic message still somewhat unshaken, the Perfectionists announced that George Jacob Schweinfurth would be Dora's successor and declared that they could see her spirit guiding their affairs. Since the large house now owned by J.C. Beekman was off limits to them, they held their meetings in a rented hall.
From that point on, it was George Jacob Schweinfurth who was running things and, while he refrained from declaring himself to be the Messiah, at least at first, he was determined to run the Perfectionists his way. After converting one very prosperous farmer, William Weldon, Schweinfurth turned Weldon's large farm in Rockford, Illinois, (about fifteen miles away from Byron) into the centre of operations for all of his Perfectionist followers. Since Dora Beekman's legacy was still strong (though everyone was disappointed by her failure to return after her death), George Schweinfurth simply represented himself as being a teacher of divine truth until May, 1889 when he publicly proclaimed himself the Messiah.
To be continued.
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