Flight from the Williamites, 1021 COBJ, Vol. 50, No. 9 Pg. 14

PositionVol. 50, 9 [Page 14]

50 Colo.Law. 14

Flight from the Williamites

No. Vol. 50, No. 9 [Page 14]

Colorado Lawyer

October, 2021

Historical Perspectives


For thousands of years, religious groups have survived by having members live together, pool their resources, and "hold all things in common."1 But what happens when a member decides to leave the group, asks for his or her money or property back, and is refused? The Colorado Supreme Court addressed this question in a 1909 case involving a woman who claimed she was conned out of her worldly possessions by a cult led by Henry Truman Williams.

From Gardening Guru to Cult Leader

Those who knew him in the 1870s might have had a hard time envisioning Williams in his later role as the leader of a religious cult in the Colorado hinterlands. During the seventies, he worked as a travel agent for several Western railroads, was agricultural editor for the New York Independent, and edited Horticulturist magazine.2 He also published a number of domestic guides with tides like "Ladies' Fancy Work: Hints and Helps to Home Taste and Recreations," and "Beautiful Homes: or, Hints in House Furnishing," along with a book on window gardening and a guide on "How to Destroy Insects on House-Plants, Flowers, etc.: in the Window, the Garden, the House."[3]His best-known book seems to have been a travel guide called The Pacific Tourist, published in 1876. Of his publications in the 1870s, only a book on occultism he published in 1878, titled The Secret Book of the Black Arts, gave a hint of his more esoteric interests, and perhaps of the darker things to come.4

By 1879, Williams had become the leader of a cult headquartered in New York whose members became known as "Williamites."5This group eventually adopted a set of beliefs and practices that have become all too familiar in cults of its type. They practiced faith healing and shunned modern medicine. Its members, who were considered part of a single family, were told that to be healed of their diseases they must donate themselves and all their worldly possessions to God and submit unquestionably to orders from the group's leadership. As a practical matter, this meant giving all their possessions to the group.

Food, clothing, and supplies were purchased for group members from the common fund as needed. Members were also required to practice celibacy. But it was rumored that Williams himself was not subject to this restriction, and he was the only male cultist permitted to make visits to the female quarters of the cult facility. Allegedly, some women in the group became pregnant, which raised suspicions about Williams's character.

From New York, the cult relocated to Chicago, where they were raided by police. The Williamites had taken in orphan children, and there were rumors these children had been abused and some of them had died. After authorities seized several of the children, the cultists moved on to Denver, only to find that the Humane Society of Chicago (which in those days protected abused children as well as animals) had notified the Denver authorities of their concerns. After that, the group continued migrating to increasingly more isolated Colorado locations: first to Colorado City, and then to Edlowe (now a ghost town in Teller County), where they established a camp...

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