The Beards Of Summer: Remembering The Days When A Barnstorming Cult Ruled Baseball

Chris Siriano wants to get the hell out of Michigan. Even on a gorgeous fall day in Addison (population 627), with the leaves turning and the sun bright, Siriano—middle-aged, sporting a gray goatee and ball cap—can't stop dreaming about the beach. "I raised my daughter by myself and everybody knew that when I got the kid to college, they could reach me in the Caribbean by email," he says. "I'm done with Michigan winters, basically."

Two barriers stand between the Benton Harbor native and moving south. The first is not unusual: A few years ago, Siriano married the love of his life, a fellow Michigander who didn't share his interest in fleeing south. The second is more distinct. Since the mid-1990s, Siriano has owned and curated the House of David Museum, a 4,000-square-foot archive that tells the weird, hirsute story of the most popular barnstorming team in baseball history.

To describe the House of David in such forceful terms is warranted. For two decades in the early 20th century, a band of religious eccentrics from Southwest Michigan was one of the biggest draws in sports, selling out ballparks in big cities and small towns across the country. Baseball fans adored their aggressive style of play, vaudeville flair, and flowing beards—House of David players were forbidden to shave because of an obscure rule in the strict doctrine to which they adhered. More than any franchise of its day, the House of David skillfully exploited the American love of spectacle. Siriano, who has spent much of his own energy and money preserving their largely forgotten story, is convinced the fascinating artifacts he has recovered belong in the Wolverine State.

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The Israelite House of David was incorporated in 1903 by Benjamin Franklin Purnell. Purnell was born into a massive Kentucky farming family and though uneducated, became a preacher. As a teen, he left his home to spread God's word throughout the Midwest, making pit stops in several states before landing in Detroit. It was there that Purnell first encountered the voluminous writings of Joanna Southcott, an eighteenth-century British servant who claimed seven messengers from God were en route, as prophesied by St. John in Revelation 10:7. Upon arrival of the seventh messenger, "the mystery of God will be finished," bringing thousands of years of peace for the 12,000 members of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Southcott had proclaimed herself the first messenger, naturally. Others followed. In 1895, Purnell learned in a vision that he was lucky number seven, an assertion that angered members of the colony he and his second wife Mary had joined. The couple was booted immediately. For eight more years, they crisscrossed the Upper Midwest before settling with five of their followers in Benton Harbor, a town that had appeared to Mary in another divine vision. A new colony was born.

At the center of Purnell's ideology was immortality, and "evil"—any hedonistic activity that degraded the "Temple of the Holy Spirit"—was the only recognized cause of death. To protect his disciples, Benjamin had to impose some rigid rules. Members could not have sex, drink alcohol, consume tobacco, eat meat, or use profanity. Families had to hand over to the church all of their worldly possessions and live communally. In accordance with Leviticus 19:27, which effectively forbade facial grooming, followers had to forgo shaves and haircuts, leaving a commune lousy with scuzzy facial hair and proto-hesher hairstyles.

Their distinctive appearance drew the attention of curious locals, many of whom started sneaking onto the House of David grounds to steal a peak of their neighbors. Purnell—a natural svengali—played his followers' status as tourist-oddity into a business opportunity. He purchased an adjacent property and built Eden Springs Amusement Park, which opened in 1908. Eden Springs, where parents could simultaneously entertain their children and gawk at the parks' strange operators, was loaded with state-of-the-art attractions: tiny steam locomotives, rudimentary go-karts, a zoo, an aviary, an artificial lake, music, with vegetarian fare at concession stands. By the early 1920s, hundreds of thousands of visitors were flocking each year to "Michigan's most famous summer resort," and the House of David found itself flush with cash.

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They didn't sit on their fortune. The Israelites purchased thousands of acres of farmland and lots of mines—diamonds (Australia), gold (Oklahoma), and coal (Kentucky). They built the world's largest cold-storage facility to supply Southwest Michigan with fresh fruits and vegetables. They operated a foundry, hotels, Great Lakes cruise ships, and trolley cars. Colony members even invented the automatic bowling-pin setter (eventually sold to Brunswick) and the waffle ice cream cone. By 1923, Siriano says the House of David—claiming some 600 members—held $27 million in official assets, and likely much more off the books. The Chicago Tribune (August 18, 1977) later called the colony "a vital force in Western Michigan's economy." Siriano takes it a step further, likening Purnell and his cohorts to a "Roman Empire in Michigan."

The undisputed pride and joy of the House of David, though, was its baseball team. The young men who first laced up their spikes in Benton Harbor had no grand ambitions; they were just looking to break up the drudgery of commune life. It was Purnell who realized that a competitive team could be a critical tool for promoting the House and boosting member retention. "Here's a whole bunch of teenage boys who can't be around any females," says Siriano. "They have a little bit of pent-up energy. So how do you keep them from leaving? Benjamin figured out you have to give these guys a fun pastime other than working at the [amusement] park."

A few of his acolytes—namely pitcher Paul Mooney and outfielder Jesse "Doc" Tally—could really play. In 1915, one year after the team was launched, House of David won its first local tournament. Two years later, the club undertook a rigorous travel schedule, one that would grow to include 185 games a year at ballfields all over the continent, along with home games at the commune's hitter-friendly, 3,500-seat ballpark. And while most of his talent was homegrown, Purnell used his considerable resources to poach skilled opponents and professional barnstormers, offering salaries double and triple what smaller teams could afford, so long as the new acquisitions agreed to grow out their beards during the season.*

On the diamond, they were savvy baserunners, routinely deploying double steals and utilizing the new "pop-up" slide that players perfected in a sawdust sliding pit behind the grandstand. The entire lineup was expected to bunt with precision, particularly when the manager called for a "push bunt," a now-infrequent play where a hitter squares around but then slaps the ball toward the hole between the charging first-basemen and the covering second-basemen. A few of the colony's bigger men could hit for power, too, drawing the attention of one high-level St. Louis Cardinals scout, who traveled with the team during multiple seasons in search of new prospects. Two Society of American Baseball Research authors suggest that the House of David's "brand of baseball was on par with top-flight minor league ball," an impressive feat for a team that drew on paper, at least, its players from a tiny community.

Of course, nobody in Benton Harbor was delusional enough to think fans came to their games solely to watch fundamental baseball. What made the House of David legendary was the team's showmanship. The commune always emphasized the novelty of its team's curly locks, posting advertisements with banner headlines reading "WHISKERS! WHISKERS!" and taglines including "More Fun than a Circus." (Before games, players would often undo the complex braids they tied to prevent their hair from interfering with their swings and pose for pictures in front of local barbershops.) Grandstanding was common—longtime HoD first baseman John Tucker made a habit of catching pop-ups behind his back. The club even invented "pepper," a warm-up routine in which two or three teammates would field a sharp batted ball and pass it between them as fast as possible, using sleight-of-hand to confuse and delight onlookers, a trick the Harlem Globetrotters would later popularize on the hardwood. "Sometimes [the ball] would disappear," wrote Jerry Kirshenbaum in a 1970 Sports Illustrated piece on the team, "only to be located, inevitably, deep inside somebody's beard." (The House of David also fielded a bearded basketball team.)

For a brief period in the mid-1920s, media coverage shifted away from the commune's sluggers and hurlers and towards the frail and aging Purnell, who was accused of engaging in coerced sexual acts with the women (and young girls) of the colony and using embezzled church funds to bolster his personal fortune. Michigan's attorney general eventually took the leader to trial, a legal spectacle that generated 15,000 pages of testimony and over 250 witnesses, and a judge found Purnell guilty of financial fraud and put the assets of the colony into receivership. (The rape and child molestation charges were never proven, though the salacious rumors were dramatized in the 1960 pulp novel King of Harem Heaven.)

Just five weeks after his exile, the House of David founder passed away from tuberculosis, forcing members—many of whom stood vigil for days awaiting Purnell's resurrection—to pick a new leader. Fortunately for the ballplayers, they chose Harry "Judge" Dewhirst, a former California businessman who was committed to the athletic program and unafraid to break with baseball tradition. Beginning in 1930, the team illuminated countless ball fields for the first time using portable light standards they had purchased from the Negro League's Kansas City Monarchs. Dewhirst integrated the club, too. His most prominent black signee was Satchel Paige, who he brought on (along with Paige's longtime catcher Cy Perkins) in 1934 for the prestigious semi-pro Denver Post Tournament, which his side ultimately won. Paige loved playing for the "Jesus Boys," as he affectionately called his freelance employers; Paige biographer Larry Tye notes that Satchel's stint with the House of David was the first time white reporters caught "a prolonged look at black baseball's best-kept secret."

The popularity of the team was a boon for the commune, who made a tidy profit each season off ticket sales and whose "messengers" were able to pass out free literature explaining their beliefs during games, at home and on the road. "They never really pushed religion," says Siriano. "They just never ignored it."

The Beards Of Summer: Remembering The Days When A Barnstorming Cult Ruled BaseballS

Siriano is far too young to have seen the House of David on the field, nor did he have any family in the church. He's just a former history major at Western Michigan University who visited Eden Springs as a child. Over time, he became more and more interested in the strange House of David team. "It was an unbelievable story and it's right here in my backyard," he said. "And nobody was doing anything to save it."

About thirty years ago, Siriano started digging. At the time, there were a few dozen church members still alive, and Lloyd Dalager—a former electrician who played for the baseball team in 1936—took Siriano under his wing, relaying as many stories as he could recall. In his spare time, Siriano used the disposable income he earned as a real estate agent to post advertisements for House of David memorabilia in antique digests, baseball magazines, and newspapers across the world. Slowly, he built up his collection. There were knickknacks laying around in barns, basements, and attics, many of them near the team's old spring training facility in Hot Springs, Arkansas. He traveled as far as Australia and Europe in search of authentic House of David artifacts.

Today, Siriano owns more than 40,000 such items. There's an old player piano the colony built to entertain children at their ballpark. (It still plays if you drop in a nickel, though it could use a tune-up.) There are dozens of posters, pennants, and game-worn jerseys. There's a picture of Babe Ruth donning a fake beard during a contest he played against one of the colony's many impostors, and of a pre-revolutionary Fidel Castro—sporting his own trademark whiskers—following a game he played against the House of David in Cuba. It's a mind-bending collection. As the humble Siriano admits, "it's crazy how many different avenues of baseball this story touches."

By the middle of the 20th century, with the advent of television and a rapidly urbanizing (and suburbanizing) population, barnstorming through far-flung small cities was no longer economically viable. Dewhirst shut down his traveling operation in the late 1930s. The City of David, a splinter camp founded by Mary Purnell following her husband's death, toured with its own team under increasingly miserable conditions until the mid-1950s. The amusement park that originally bankrolled the athletic program ceased operations in the early 1970s. For decades afterward, commune members lived off the proceeds from their once-vast holdings, but their vow of celibacy made extinction inevitable. Only three remain today: Dalager, at age 99, is the only former ballplayer left. None of them will agree to sign a living will, thus preserving what remains of their property, because the piece of paper, as a legal acknowledgment of their mortality, would symbolically invalidate the worldview to which they've devoted their lives. "They totally believe that they are going to live forever," says Siriano. "And they are still waiting."

The House of David Museum is already the most comprehensive resource available documenting the story of baseball's greatest religious-commune-based team. Eventually it will become the only reminder of the House of David's barnstorming glory. Siriano hopes that a local university will pony up the money to purchase and display the collection, but school budgets are tight. Until a worthy suitor emerges, he'll keep teaching the tale to baseball nerds and religious scholars who swing through Addison. He logged more than 100,000 visitors at the first location in Benton Harbor, and 1,000 more have stopped by the new building since it opened last July. It might not last forever, but what does?

*An exception was made for Grover Cleveland Alexander, who played clean-shaven for the House of David following his retirement from Major League Baseball in 1930.

Top photo courtesy Chris Siriano. Additional photos by Adam Doster.

Adam Doster is a freelance writer who tweets here and blogs about history, culture, and sports here. He lives in Chicago.

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