- Murdering Holiness: The Trials of Franz Creffield and George Mitchell
Murdering Holiness recounts a very particular tale: the rise and fall of a tiny radical Christian sect in the American West. The main character is Franz Creffield, a German immigrant who founded the sect in Corvallis, Oregon, in 1903. He attracted perhaps twenty core members, mostly women, who engaged in fervent devotional practices such as rolling on the floor for hours on end. The local community, tolerant at first, soon became hostile, as rumours circulated of animal sacrifices and, eventually, sex between Creffield and the women. Creffield had a rough ride: he was arrested for insanity; tarred, feathered, and expelled from Corvallis; convicted of adultery in Portland and imprisoned; and finally, shot and killed in Seattle after trying to reunite his followers. [End Page 314] His killer, George Mitchell, the brother of two of the sect's female adherents, was himself tried for murder, acquitted, and then shot by his own sister, Esther, one of Creffield's most fervent followers. She in turn was accused of murder, but never tried by reason of insanity. The first half of the book details the rise of the sect and its eventual dispersal, culminating with Creffield's murder, while the second concentrates on Mitchell's murder trial, his own murder, and the fate of his killers.
With such a cornucopia of sordid detail and sexual scandal, Phillips and Gartner could easily have produced a standard sensationalist story, good at best for titillating the imagination. But instead, by adopting the techniques of micro-history, they transform their account into a broad study of religion, insanity, and the law in early-twentieth-century America. Thus, they reconstruct the specific events of the Creffield saga in painstaking detail, using every source at their disposal, yielding a 'thick' description that only such a focused study can procure. But they then use this as a springboard to discuss broad issues such as female religious fervency, vigilantism, attitudes towards sexuality, and the social and political contingency of the law. In this, they draw on their wide knowledge of the relevant scholarly literature and on substantial complementary research. The authors also regularly adopt the classic micro-historical stance of examining the abnormal in order better to grasp the prevailing norm. Thus, studying community and legal reactions to an increasingly radical sect allows them to trace the limits of religious freedom in the United States. Similarly, examining public reactions to George Mitchell's trial allows them to test the cultural purchase of the 'unwritten law' that exculpated men who murdered in defence of their family's sexual honour. Despite the undeniable patriarchy of contemporary American society, newspapers were divided on whether the 'unwritten law' should prevail, or the 'rule of law' be applied and a murderer punished. Both sides also marshalled competing visions of masculinity to underpin their arguments, pitting Mitchell's manly responsibility towards his sister and Creffield's inherently unmanly behaviour against Mitchell's cowardly and unmanly shooting of Creffield in the back.
But the micro-historical approach has its limits, as we can see in the authors' insistence on the contingency of the law. Through their detailed accounts of the trials and hearings that dotted the saga, they argue that the law was far less the consistent application of rules than a series of decisions contingent on the particularities of the case, on the prevailing political and social climate, and on the individual histories of decision makers such as judges, doctors, and jurymen. Hence, contradictory rulings in insanity hearings reflected community pressures and authorities' desires to dispense quickly with an increasingly [End Page 315] embarrassing affair. And in acquitting Mitchell, 'twelve men of the jury "made" a law about justifiable homicide in the circumstances of the case.' But decisions in the Creffield cases were so highly contingent precisely because of the exceptional character of the affair. Most unexceptional cases that came before the contemporary courts, such as the recurrent arrests of drunks and prostitutes that characterized much urban criminal...