This past Sunday was the First Sunday of Advent of the Christian calendar. In considering posts for the month of December and while unpacking my nativity figures, I could scarcely avoid the mystery of the Incarnation: the Godhead made manifest. So, naturally, I thought of a God Who walked among us in the 1880s, in Walnut Hills, Ohio—a female god known to a sinful world as Mrs. Martin.
Mrs. Hannah Martin, wife of Cincinnati restaurateur and Temperance advocate John B. Martin, founded a sect which came to be called The Perfectionists. This was apparently no relation to the New York Perfectionists (later the Oneida Community) of John Humphrey Noyes, although they shared the belief that humans could become sinless. Mrs. Martin’s group did not believe in marriage, but were to be celibate, rather than Free Lovers like Noyes’s followers. And, being sinless, Mrs. Martin’s disciples were supposed to be immortal.
The Cincinnati Enquirer reveled in stories about the Perfectionists, publishing well over 100 articles over a span of fifteen years about the various members of the cult and their vagaries. The most sensational revelations were that Mrs. Martin was worshipped as Christ manifest in the flesh and her sister, Mrs. Brooke, was the Holy Ghost. The Enquirer and even the New York Times named and shamed the members of this cult. (“In this list are numbered some of the best people in Cincinnati. Exposure to public ridicule, it is thought, will bring them to their senses.”)
Mrs. Martin, who had the revelation that she was Christ after suffering a personal loss, seems to have been more than a touch unbalanced, as might be deduced from this report:
“When Mr. Supplee, the father of the so-called Christ, died about two months ago it was a severe shock to the Perfectionists. Mrs. Martin had frequently told them that her father was the oldest man in the circle of the elect and his life or death would be a test of the truth or falsity of her teachings. She was much broken up over it herself but gave no satisfactory reason why her father had failed to fulfil her prophecy. The alleged deity officiated at her father’s funeral, at which many of her followers were present. It was a strange scene. Pointing to the remains, she said:
“That isn’t my father in the coffin; that’s my brother.”
SHE TOOK ADVANTAGE
Of the occasion to lecture her votaries and also to censure her husband, who, persecuted by reason of her insane beahvior, left her about two years ago. She informed the little group around her that she had stood by the sepulchre of her husband and buried him out of sight. One of those who formerly was under the control of Mrs. Martin says that the fanatical woman is a creature of humor and her conduct at the services depends entirely on how she feels. On certain occasions she will laugh hysterically for an hour; again she will cry and sob for several minutes; sometimes she will sit silent, but more often she indulges in a harangue to her awed listeners, asserting her dominion and authority over them. She is at times very cruel in the exercise of her authority.
Not long ago the son of a sister of Mr. Brooke died and he asked permission of Mrs. Martin to go to his sister and comfort her. It was refused with great sternness. Let the dead bury the dead,” she declared with severity. One of the rooms in the Brooke residence is devoted to the services and is called the chapel. Mrs. Martin usually enters in a dramatic manner swinging her hands. Many of her followers kneel at her feet, and, while she talks about the awfulness of sin, they beg her with the most intense earnestness
TO BE SAVED FROM THEIR SINS.
Her favorite expression as she appears before her worshipers is “I am in the globe.” On one occasion she entered the room singing “Three cheers for the red, white and blue.” A number, but not all of those present, kneeled for her blessing.” Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 3 May 1891: p. 23
For a partisan, but comprehensive look at the Female God’s life and the grand folly of the sect, we can do no better than her obituary.
Like Other Mortals,
Was the Alleged Deity,
Mrs. J.B. Martin,
The Famous Leader of the Perfectionist Sect.
Her Followers at a Loss To Account For Her Death.
Attempt To Keep Secret Her Demise and Funeral.
A Blow Which Shatters the Claims of a Fanatical Religious Body in This City.
The little band of fanatics calling themselves Perfectionists, and over whom Mrs. Hannah Martin, who died last Thursday and was buried Sunday, held sway as a presiding deity, are unable to account for her demise in view of the fact that she always told them that she and those who believed with her were immortal and could not suffer physical death.
Some months ago The Enquirer announced the serious illness of Mrs. Martin, and predicted that her end was not far off. Her passing away and funeral were shrouded in the utmost secrecy, even to the extent of holding back the burial certificate for three days. No crape was placed on the door of her late home at 153 Park avenue, Walnut Hills. On Thursday night she died, and on Sunday morning she was carried to her repose in Spring Grove. So anxious were the sect to hide the fact that their leader and deity was gone that they requested Undertaker Epply not to have the hearse and carriages in front of the house until they were ready to carry her poor, emaciated form to mother earth. [In addition, Mrs. Martin’s brother-in-law, Mr. Brooke, tried unsuccessfully to apply for a burial permit without naming Mrs. Martin.] Even the former husband of the dead woman was not notified of her death, and no word was sent to her own brother, Mr. Supplee, who works for Mr. Martin at his restaurant on Fourth street.
The death and interment of the strange woman was as peculiar as her teachings and surrounded by the same air of mystery. When John B. Martin heard of her death he simply said in a voice which betrayed his feelings: “Poor woman. She was the victim of misguided and fanatical friends. She is better off now.”
ALONE WITH THEIR DEAD.
In the parlor of the house which Mrs. Martin occupied—the residence of Mr. and Mrs. John F. Brooke—the ceremony over the remains took place Sunday morning. No one was admitted but the absolutely faithful. The four score of people who stood by her, who believed that she was possessed of supernatural powers and who found in her the embodiment of the Deity, as she had fervently and persistently taught and enjoyed them to believe, were alone with their dead. No curious or impertinent outsider gazed upon the face of the departed. The remains were incased in a handsome black, cloth-covered coffin which bore the inscription on a silver plate:
HANNAH S. MARTIN,
Died May 23
Aged 45 Years.
The features bore a life-like appearance, for she had been a long sufferer. When she died on Friday night the undertaker was sent for, but was especially instructed not to embalm the body. It was learned that the reason for this was that many of her followers believed that she was not dead, but in a trance-like sleep, from which they expected her to awake. They could not reconcile her teachings with mortality, and they trusted with a sublime faith that she might awaken to given them some new revelation, offer them some new comfort that they might remain as steadfast in the future as they have been in the past.
The body was not embalmed, but Mrs. Martin showed no signs of returning life, and the watchers at the couch of death were finally compelled to acknowledge that she had paid the debt of nature, and that the tired body, racked by disease, the active brain overwhelmed with fanatical ideas, was at rest forever. A story was afloat yesterday on Walnut Hills that Mrs. Martin had died of paralysis, and that her features were distorted, but Undertaker Epply denied most emphatically that such was the case. He says that she looked like one asleep after life’s fitful fever, and there was no trace of pain upon the pinched features….
It was an awful blow when the form that had been their beacon, the voice that had been the sweetest music in their deluded ears was stilled, and they were almost stupefied by the blow. The less publicity about the matter the better, for in view of the vain pretensions that their female Christ had made to absolute immortality both in this world and the next, they felt crushed, and the hard, cold, cruel world, the matter-of-fact community, would ridicule and scoff at them more than ever before. A close and careful watch was kept over the body from Friday night until Saturday morning, and during that time nearly all of the little colony of Perfectionists, most of whom have taken up their residence in that part of Walnut Hills, dropped in and remained for some time. Services were conducted by Mrs. Brooke, the sister of Mrs. Martin, who it was said to be her successor as the priestess of the flock.
Mrs. Brooke is very much like her sister in many respects, being possessed of a very highly nervous organism, but lacking in the same flow of language and magnetism. The services on Sunday morning were also conducted by Mrs. Brooke, who was much affected by the situation. Some of the followers of the dead woman provided flowers to cover the coffin, and when the remains were lowered into the grave at the cemetery the lid of the casket was hidden by beautiful wreaths. Sixteen carriages were employed in conveying the members of the sect to the scene of interment….
And now that the great head of the Perfectionists is gone, the question arises, Who will be her successor? While it is generally supposed that Mrs. Brooke will acquire her high position, yet that lady has declared that she would not take it, and the impression prevails that in the event she absolutely refuses John Cook [also reported as Koch], who was the confidential adviser of Mrs. Martin, and upon whom she leaned in her physical and financial troubles, and than whom there is none more faithful, will assume the spiritual throne which she has just vacated. Mr. Cook has been one of the most zealous of the little group, and until a short time ago, when they saw the error of their ways, his brother Willie and sister Alice were also members of the band.
It is still more probable that the Perfectionists will not last long, for the basis of the order was the ability of their leader to give them immortality and ward off the sting of death. For four years there was not a break in their ranks from the grim reaper, but about three years ago he unsheathed his sickle and cut down Mr. Supplee, the venerable father of Mrs. Martin.
This event was something of a knock-out blow, and after it a few of the deluded people had the courage to withdraw, but with her wonderful magnetism, Mrs. Martin was able to hold the most of her followers. Then another member, a Mrs. Rogerson, the wife of a prominent young business man, died, [after being excoriated by an enraged Mrs Martin for giving birth to a daughter.] and that still further shook the confidence of the superstitious element. To cap the climax, Mrs. Martin herself, the founder, the guiding spirit of the organization, was called away, and now her votaries are like a ship without a rudder.
The Perfectionists have had a remarkable career, and most wonderful has been the record of the late Mrs. Hannah Martin. It will be eight years ago next month since The Enquirer startled the country with an exposure of the existence and strange worship of the Perfectionists. It was not credited by many that in this age and generation people would be so foolish as to bow down and worship any mortal, especially a puny, delicate woman…. Among the members of the Perfectionists was Miss Mazie Andress, a lovely and accomplished girl, the daughter of the late Samuel Andress, of Walnut Hills. Her aunt, Mrs. Flora Miller, and Mrs. Miller’s daughter and son-in-law, were also enthusiasts in the cause. Miss Andress became convinced that she was not doing right; that it was sacrilege for her to pay homage to Mrs. Martin, and she declared her intention to withdraw. Every effort was made to persuade her to remain. Mrs. Martin, who, in spite of her alleged divine qualities, had a violent temper, threatened Miss Andress with the direst calamities should she leave the sect. She predicted that she would not live a year, but Miss Andress mustered up courage and quite the Perfectionists. She was the first to withdraw. Since then her aunt, Mrs. Miller, has also ceased to be a member, but her daughter and son-in-law are among the most devoted of the worshipers at the shrine of the modern female Christ. William Cook, Mrs. Crocker, the milliner, and Miss Cook have also ceased to attend the meetings ,and several others have also awakened from the sort of hypnotic influence which Mrs. Martin exercised over them.
INCEPTION OF THE SECT.
The inception of the Perfectionists was at the Epworth League grounds, near Loveland, in the summer of 1886, where Mrs. Martin, who was an able Bible scholar, gathered a few people around her and they became greatly impressed by her teachings. She gradually gathered them into a sort of circle, and from being a teacher of the faith of Christ she became a Christ herself, an expounder of Divine truth. She grew into being one with God, and according to the philosophy of herself and those who sat at her feet to learn wisdom, was a part of God himself. Of strong, nervous organism she was completely captivated by the homage done her as an individual, and ere long taught that as the cause of death was sin, those who did not sin could not die. She was sinless, and consequently was immortal. Her followers were exhorted to imitate her example and become a part of God himself, and then death could never come to them.
The exact nature of the ceremonies which were held almost daily at the Martin residence, on Park avenue, have never been disclosed. It has been said, and again denied by those who took part in them, that they were sacrilegious. It is known that within the past five or six years Mrs. Martin has extended her power over her followers not only to the extent of directing their footsteps toward the hereafter, but has ruled with an iron hand their temporal affairs. Many of them would not spend their money or make an investment of any kind without consulting her. Any who could afford it have been liberal contributors to a fund for her benefit. About a year ago, when her health began to fail a special party took her to the South and gave her an ocean ride, defraying the expenses out of their own pockets. No one has ever questioned the honesty and intentional uprightness of Mrs. Martin, but she was swayed by a powerful form of fanaticism that would brook no interference and swept all before it. Many wondered how so weak a body should inclose so strong a will and active a brain.
MRS. MARTIN’S CAREER.
Before she became the leader of the Perfectionists Mrs. Martin and her husband, John B. Martin, the well-known restaurant man, were members of the Walnut Hills Methodist Church. They had two bright children, a boy and a girl. One of them died about seven years ago, and after Mrs. Martin had become imbued with the peculiar notions which guided her future conduct the little boy became ill. She refused to send for a physician and tried to cure him with her own peculiar charms. But the God whom she claimed to represent took no notice of her efforts, and the little boy died of what was afterwards pronounced malignant diphtheria.
Mr. Martin tried his best to induce his wife to give up her fanatical course and he stood it a long time, but she refused to accede to his wishes. One day while she was at home, on Park avenue, north of McMillan, some of the Perfectionists called at her house, and demanded that she go with them to the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Brooke to hold services. “If you go with those people you and I separate forever,” declared Mr. Martin with emphasis. She disobeyed his warning and they separated.
About three years ago Mr. Martin got a divorce [There are differing reports as to whether it was a divorce or just separation.] and never saw his wife afterward. He always spoke of her kindly, and was deeply grieved to hear of her death, but considered it the best thing that could happen to her under the circumstances. Mr. Martin suffered a great deal pecuniarily on account of his wife. Shortly after the exposure of her society he started a restaurant on Fourth street, but so great was the prejudice against him on account of her conduct, for which he was not in the least to blame, that people would not patronize him, and he had to close out his business there…
The former members of the Perfectionists who left that body are a unit in saying that there is nothing in the daily lives and belief of the members that is not consistent with the highest type of Christianity. Mrs. Martin was only figuratively a Christ, because she embodied in herself Christlike character.
SELFISH AND UNSOCIABLE
Yet the Perfectionists are selfish and unsociable. They never associate with any one else. Several families have been broken up through their pernicious influence. A well-known lady on Walnut Hills said yesterday, in speaking of the death of Mrs. Martin: “It is a judgment of Heaven, because Mrs. Martin had broken up families, and mine is an example. She had robbed me of a husband and daughter, who have become infatuated with her teachings. The misguided set who worshiped her ought to be now convinced that Mrs. Martin was just like other mortals, and God has taken her away for such blasphemy as she indulged in. peace to her soul.” The lady who spoke is an Episcopalian and a worthy mother and wife.
The true followers of Perfectionism are virtually shut out from the world. All their social pleasures are derived at the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Brooke and they would do nothing of a temporal character unless Mrs. Martin was first consulted. At the present time the sect numbers about 65 persons, nearly half of whom are colored. Some prominent people are, strange to say, to be found in the ranks of these fanatics, one of whom, the wife of a well-known Judge, has caused a great deal of trouble in her family by her persistent refusal to attend to her duties at home instead of devoting her time to the worship of a strange and what now proves to have been a mortal deity.
Mrs. Martin was born at Eaton, Ohio, 45 years ago. She had several brothers and sister, and her mother is still alive. One brother takes no stock in her reputed divinity, and for that reason was not informed of her death. Her mother and sister, Mrs. John Brooke, are counted among the most faithful, and they, like all the others, refused to state for the benefit of a dying, salvation-seeking, sin-suffering world just what their belief is, or to what extent Mrs. Martin claimed power to confer the benefits of immortality and the blessed hope of eternal life upon those who followed her teachings.
The meetings of the Perfectionists have long since ceased to excite curiosity among the residents of Walnut Hills. The devoted few have conducted their services with such quietude that none have had the boldness to attempt to intrude, and had they done so they would have been politely invited to retire from the sacred presence of the God-woman. It will be interesting to note what effect upon the ranks of the Perfectionists the death of Mrs. Martin will have. It is predicted that Mrs. Brooke will have force and influence sufficient to hold them together intact and encourage them to believe that their departed divinity will some day return; that perhaps even now she is looking down upon them, and that her spirit will guide them to a place of happiness sand rest which is infinitely more desirable than eternal life in this world would be. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 28 May 1895: p. 8
Her disciples watched at Mrs Martin’s grave for weeks for signs of an impending resurrection that never came. The sect, under Mrs. Brooke and Dr. Julia Carpenter, continued on until about 1905.
It is difficult to tell from the newspaper articles what charisma, what divine fire Mrs. Martin possessed. Some lapsed members suggested that she achieved absolute sway over her followers by hypnosis–they could account for it no other way.
Her malign influence was exercised on her followers before her demise and continued well beyond her death. In 1894, a young member of the Perfectionists named Duncan Jerome, disappeared mysteriously. “He was told he was without sin, consequently he was equal with God. He began to argue: “God doesn’t eat or drink, why should I?” and he refused all food.” [Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 24 January 1894: p. 8] He was secretly sent to an insane asylum under a false name so the sect would not be embarrassed. In 1904, a former Methodist clergyman starved himself to death under the same influence. “Believing that the Lord had ordered him to fast for days, for which sacrifice his prayers were to be answered and his eyesight restored, Rev. Washington Randloph Buckles, a Methodist Episcopal minister, is dead at his home in Sekitan, Ohio, a victim of starvation.” [Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 26 November 1904: p. 8]
Any news of the Perfectionists beyond 1905? Send via dove descending to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.