Just recently I got word back from my preacher/teacher friend I mentioned in my previous columns about bootlegging and Elisha’s bears: “You are quite the wit, or…at least half one.” I can own up to that. It’s pretty much the kind of banter he and I expect from one another, and his conversation almost always leaves me smiling. But the smiles are wry ones, because virtually all of our stories involve humans who, although they might search with all their hearts for transcendence, always end up acting very, sometimes poignantly, human. And some of the tales I’ve managed to collect over the years are not the stuff of comedy at all, but dire tragedy. I recall one of these today, shared with me not by my preacher friend, but rather by my father, who was sixteen when the events occurred and who remembered them all too well.
In early 1933, with so many Americans either starving or mad with worry at its prospect, an itinerant, independent evangelist, remembered by some as Anna Skaggs and others as Mary Scalf, began preaching on Rockhouse Creek in western Martin County. She collected a cult and even ordained a prophet. This prophet, John Mills, was said to be able to change water into wine and grapevines into snakes, and although few besides his immediate family joined the cult they stirred enough ruckus eventually to attract the national media. John’s brother Leonard had been committed to Eastern State Hospital in Lexington, and to free Leonard from the State’s care John determined that a human sacrifice was necessary, with the notion that God would restore the dead back to life within three days. It seems that at first Mills resolved to offer up four of his nieces, but the girls had enough sense to run away and either they or other neighbors notified the authorities. Some family accounts hold that the cult then considered sacrificing at least one infant, but after law officers arrived and removed the children—considering the worshipers’ plans, the respect the peace officers showed for Freedom of Religion is amazing, if not extreme—Lucinda Mills, mother of John, Leonard, and other cult members, offered herself up for the sacrifice saying that she was willing to give her own life to get Leonard out of the asylum.
And so on February 8, 1933 John Mills laid his mother on a makeshift altar, caressed her with a Bible for awhile, then strangled her with a log chain as he spoke in supposedly unknown tongues. Too late to stop the sacrifice, the sheriff and deputies burst back in finally—some accounts claim the family was readying the body for burning—and arrested all the worshipers. On April 11, after a period in jail in which he alternated between violent rages and catatonic fits requiring a physician to break out two of his teeth with a chisel so he could be force-fed, John Mills was found guilty of homicide and was sentenced to life in prison. Two of the cult’s other votaries were given sentences of 21 years apiece, and still more were acquitted, but all the guilty were eventually paroled. Mary Scalf or Anna Skaggs, or whatever the original instigator’s name may have been, was never named in any of the indictments and got off scot-free. And now they’re all dead, and that old common arbitrator Time has washed away most of the memory.
Lucinda Mills was my grandmother Sparks’ first cousin. I’d hoped to write a book about her sacrifice, but I was never able to figure out how without sounding sensationalistic. I’ve often wondered if Lucinda truly offered herself to get Leonard out of Eastern State, or simply to prevent John from killing her grandchildren. I’ll never know. But we’d better be careful of thinking that nothing so perversely insane could ever happen again, or on a larger scale. Remember Jim Jones. The Hale-Bopp Cult. Ervil LeBaron and Warren Jeffs. The zealots that destroyed the World Trade Center who, whether or not Franklin Graham wants to admit it, worshiped the same God that good Jews, good Christians, and good Muslims all do. The rich televangelists who exhort you to send your last savings to them as “seed money” for the so-called Prosperity Gospel. Anytime humans don’t use the single faculty that separates them from all other creatures, tragedy follows. The words an elderly cousin told me in 2001 still ring in my ears some nights, hauntingly: “We’d ‘a’ got her back if only the law hadn’t busted in on us when they did.”