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Continued from Part One
With their belief in Dora's messianic message still somewhat unshaken, the Perfectionists announced that George Jacob Schweinfurth would be Dora's successor and 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.
According to the newspaper coverage of the prayer meeting where he first made this claim, Schweinfurth's message was straightforward enough. "I am the same Jesus who appeared on Earth 1889 years ago - the same son of God," he said. "When I came before, I did not destroy Satan and his devils. I left my work incomplete. I have come now to finish it up. This time, I will not leave a niche or a corner in which a single imp can hide. I am the promised child who is to bruise the serpent's head. Every act and thought of my life inflicts a bruise on the old tempter."
If the newspapers were somewhat skeptical of Schweinfurth's claim, Schweinfurth had a ready answer for that as well. "I know that I will be scoffed at and spit upon by the world," he added. "Some people will say I am crazy; others will say I am a fraud; but the church will oppose me more violently than the world. The church has become so infested by devils that all faith has left it. It would crucify me if it could. Shall I be crucified as I was before?"
And how did he know he was Christ? He goes on to say that he had a vision when he was five years old telling him that he would meet a holy woman who would act as his "spiritual mother" and train him for his "divine life." The woman in question was Dora Beekman, thus tying up neatly the sticky problem of what her former followers would say about his sudden ascension to Christhood. Schweinfurth also claimed to be able to work miracles, including turning water into wine, though he refused to perform before skeptics, only those with "faith in their hearts."
George Schweinfurth would preside over his following in a cult-like atmosphere that scandalized his neighbours. The large Weldon farm, which he named "Heaven" was outfitted with fine furniture and stocked with purebred livestock. Lurid stories about what was happening at "Heaven" trickled out along with tales of the various miracles he performed for his followers. While Schweinfurth and his chosen disciples (mostly women) lived in high style, the workers who were actually charged with keeping up the farm lived on dry bread and corn mash. There were also rumours about sexual relations between Schweinfurth and his female disciples, including his being the father of many of the children born there.
Twice a week, Schweinfurth's "angels" would dress in skin-tight clothing to stage elaborate religious skits, most of which had been written by their "Messiah." One newspaper story in 1892 described an extremely elaborate ceremony welcoming Schweinfurth home after one of his "missionary" tours.
“The woods were scoured and stripped of every blossoms, florists at Rockford were called on for elaborate displays. One hour before he was expected, the prettiest damsels, decked in gala attire, carpeted the road for a mile with flowers. The heavenly host met him two miles from the house, unhitched the horses from the carriage that bore his sacred person, and attaching a rope covered with evergreen, hauled him to the abode that was lonely when he was away. Cheers rent the air as the procession moved over the flower-strewn road. Old Deacon Weldon was standing on the front step and as soon as a halt was called, the deacon advanced with stately step and placed a gilt paper crown over Schweinfurth’s pompadour and stentoriously shouted ‘Hail, thou mighty King, thou the Almighty God.’ Then the true revelry broke loose. All the pretty girls in short dresses, very short ones too, danced until they could dance no more. Fiddlers fiddles, an angel who expected to be chief harper in New Jerusalem harped until several strings broke. The welcome ended in a grand feast that evening, at which wine flowed like water--for Schweinfurth and his favorites--the rest of the poor devils ate dry bread and cold mush.“
But the party eventually came to an end for this new Messiah. Outraged townspeople accused him of "breaking up families" (one husband even sued him for "alienation of affection" due to his wife becoming part of his flock). Schweinfurth was obliged to beef up security at his farm after local vigilantes threatened to break into his house, tar and feather him, and "roast him alive." By the late 1890s, disgruntled former members of Schweinfurth's group took him to court following allegations that he had forced them to turn over all of their possessions to him. As new religious movements arose and Schweinfurth's message lost much of its appeal, his community largely dissipated.
By 1900, Schweinfurth basically renounced his old claims of being the Messiah and announced that he had joined the Christian Science church instead. Not long afterward, he announced that he would be leaving "Heaven" and moving to California for reasons that he chose not to share with the press. By that time, he had only a single follower who largely stayed due to not having anywhere else to go. All of his "angels" and "apostles" had decamped long before.
When George Schweinfurth finally died in 1910, he had been quietly living for years under the name "G.J. Furth"in the city of Chicago. His long career as the Messiah had finally come to an end and the newspapers moved on to other curiosities to write about. Such is fame.
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