BERRIEN SPRINGS — The history of the House of David religious community looms large over Berrien County.
Unfortunately, much of the history that has been passed down is wrong, according to three experts who spoke Sunday on “Myths and Fables about the House of David,” at the History Center at Courthouse Square in Berrien Springs.
“Entertainment is not to be confused with the truth,” said Brian Ziebart, a trustee, archivist and historian for the House of David.
He was joined by Debbie Boyersmith, the preservationist for Eden Springs Park, whose family was part of the House of David for many years, and Ron Taylor, a trustee, archivist, historian and the museum director. His family joined the House of David in Sydney, Australia, in 1919.
Even the moniker of “King Ben,” which has followed House of David founder Benjamin Purnell for decades, was a creation of the press at the time and accepted by the public, according to Taylor, who said that no one within the colony ever referred to him that way.
Along with its religious community, the House of David maintained a highly popular amusement park, traveling baseball team, a jazz band and other attractions.
That all came crashing down when Purnell was accused of seducing young girls and defrauding his followers, Taylor said. Purnell was tried in a civil case, but no criminal charges were ever filed or proven, Taylor said.
But the federal court assumed that Purnell was guilty from the start, Taylor said. This was despite the fact that many prominent citizens came together to post his $50,000 bond, and a petition with 954 signatures was sent to Michigan’s attorney general, asking that the legal case be stopped.
The Appeals Court ruled that Purnell was guilty of “disgusting and revolting crimes against the chastity of young girls,” Taylor said. The colony was declared a “public nuisance” and “a menace to public morals,” without any criminal charges being brought.
The colony was put into receivership. The rulings led to “an avalanche of legal problems” by stating that other members, or past members, were entitled to redress for the alleged fraud. The Michigan Supreme Court later overruled the decision to dissolve the group.
Purnell died on Dec. 17, 1927, not long after the initial trial ended. His body was placed in the chapel at Diamond House, and remains there to this day.
But he wasn’t buried sitting on his white horse, and his wife, Mary, was not buried standing up, which are some of the more ridiculous myths floating around about the Purnells, Boyersmith said.
In fact, Benjamin Purnell didn’t even like horses, despite rumors that he often rode around on a white steed, Boyersmith said. This was no doubt fueled by an uncomfortably posed photo on a white horse that Boyersmith said was borrowed from a traveling carnival.
There is enough remarkable history around the House of David that you don’t have to make up things, she said.
The ice cream waffle cone wasn’t invented at the Eden Springs Park, but the recipe was improved there to give it more crunch and stability, such as it has today, Boyersmith said.
The operation sold recipes for Welch’s grape juice, Birdseye frozen pies and Smucker’s jams and jellies, she said.
Its bowling machine patent was sold to Brunswick. Other patents included a self-closing toilet. The House of David baseball team played the first organized night game in Independence, Kansas, in 1930, Boyersmith said.
Many people want to know if there are ghosts around the property.
“There are ghosts,” Boyersmith said, with mysterious voices heard and objects that disappear. She said she has never felt scared or threatened in her own spectral encounters.
There were a lot of famous visitors to the park, Ziebart said, from Al Capone to Babe Ruth to Walt Disney. But many of the claims published about their activities are wrong, he added.
Al Capone never rode around in a private train car with Benjamin Purnell, and Walt Disney, a train enthusiast, never bought one of their engines, a fact Ziebart said he confirmed with a Disney authority.
Many of the myths were spread by books with such lurid titles as “King of the Harem Heaven.” But other misinformation has been spread by historians with their own agenda, or those who didn’t do good research, Ziebart said.
Ziebart did his own sleuthing to find the “legendary” escape tunnels rumored to be under the grounds. Using ground-penetrating radar, no such tunnels were discovered.
The History Center’s gift shop offers more authoritative accounts of the history of the House of David.Those who want to do their own exploring can take part in the Halloween miniature train rides at Eden Springs Park, 793 M-130, Benton Harbor, from 5-9 p.m. Oct. 12-13, 19-20 and 26-27. Rides are $4 per ticket. Call 927-3302 for information.