Historic mansion was once home of Portland “starvation cult”
The motto of Kate Ann Williams' cult was “Pray and be Cured,” and adherents went on rigorous 40-day fasts that occasionally killed them. The cult disappeared after its leader starved herself to death.
A color lithograph of George and Kate Ann Williams’s Victorian
mansion, located at 18th and Couch streets downtown. This image
is from before the building known as The Lawn had been built; it
would have been just to the mansion’s right. (Image:
By Finn J.D. John — April 22, 2012
Near the corner of 18th and Couch, deep in Portland’s historic Northwest neighborhood, stands an enormous house that’s been carved up into upscale condos — 10 of them. It’s known as the George H. Williams Townhouses.
Until a dozen years or so ago, it was known as The Lawn, and featured 32 super-budget apartments sharing two toilets and one bathtub. Over the years, hundreds of artists, musicians and PSU students — as well as a few drunks and junkies — paid $45 to $150 a month to live in The Lawn as it slowly deteriorated from its onetime grandeur.
Those who lived in The Lawn may have considered themselves starving students, or starving musicians. But few if any of them knew the rooms they were living in were once home to people who really were starving — starving themselves, deliberately, and on a few occasions fatally.
They were members of one of Oregon’s weirdest faith cults ever — a cult that called itself simply “Truth.”
The Starvation Cult
At the time, The Lawn was a sort of annex to an even more colossal, ornate Victorian mansion on the corner of 18th and Couch, which was demolished in 1916.
A photo of “The Lawn” in 1984 when it was being added to the
National Register of Historic Places. (Photo:
National Park Service)
The property was the home of two of Portland’s most prominent citizens — prominent for very different reasons — who were married to each other. They were former U.S. Attorney General George H. Williams, one of the primary architects of Reconstruction in the defeated Confederate states; and his eccentric and unpredictable wife, Kate Ann, whose behavior was widely blamed for her husband’s fall from grace in Washington. Now back home in Oregon, Kate Ann had become the leader and prophetess of her own Christian holiness sect.
Kate Ann’s sect never reached the levels of homicidal madness that Corvallis’s Bride of Christ (“Holy Rollers”) church would become known for a decade later (here's a link to that story, which is in two parts). But the parallels are chilling, and it’s entirely possible that given enough time, “Truth” would have followed the same path.
Like the Holy Rollers, “Truth” focused on absolute holiness — a close and rapturous communion with God. It prescribed the repudiation of material things to “purify” one’s spirit. Its followers were predominantly women, and some of them were already starting to leave their families and move into communal housing — at The Lawn or at a place in the 500 block of Madison Street. And it directly resulted in the death of at least two of its adherents — including the cult’s founder herself.
Pray and be cured — of what?
The motto of “Truth” was “Pray and Be Cured,” which raises an intriguing but unanswered question: Was there something that Kate Ann wanted to be “cured” of? It’s unusual for anyone to get interested in faith-healing unless she or he has something very specific in mind. Could it be that her first husband — whom she divorced for infidelity — gave her syphilis, and she was suffering through the tertiary stage of that madness-inducing disease? It’s impossible to say for sure, but it would certainly explain a few things.
The sect actually wasn’t all that crazy when it started, and it developed a decent-sized congregation, meeting in the living room of the Williams mansion. Judge George Williams, though he never became an official member, attended the services regularly — at least, at first he did.
By 1893, though, things had started getting weird. Kate Ann developed a doctrine of lengthy fasts to purify the spirit — she referred to it as “going into the wilderness.” And she led the way, launching herself into a 40-day fast, in which she ate nothing but communion bread and wine. She urged her fellow adherents to do likewise.
And then people started dying.
Starving in a mansion
At first, the connection wasn’t obvious. Weakened by lack of food, a starving person usually succumbs to something else first, such as a viral infection. But authorities soon started getting the hint. They couldn’t say with certainty, but they suspected Williams’s cult was killing people.
Finally, a particularly egregious case made it undeniable. This was the death by starvation of a 50-year-old woman named Alice Wells. Wells had undertaken a 40-day fast and then launched straight into another one with only a few weeks to recover; it wasn’t enough, and she died in the fifth week of her second fast.
The doctor they called in took one look at her emaciated corpse, refused to sign the death certificate and sent for the coroner. The coroner arrived to find the body being fiercely guarded by “half a dozen tearless women and one lad of 18” — and the 18-year-old turned out to be her only son.
The women at first refused to let the coroner in to see the body. They grudgingly relented only after a big argument, during which the coroner had to emphasize his legal authority and probably threaten to use it. When he finally got to see Wells, he instantly confirmed the doctor’s diagnosis: Death by starvation.
He then went to speak to her brother-in-law, and the son volunteered to accompany him. Away from his mother’s fanatical friends, he talked to the coroner freely.
Story of a starving fanatic
Young Mr. Wells said his mother had been a robust woman when she fell in with Williams’ cult, and it totally changed her personality — and, her son added, not for the better. He and his father were part of the cult at first, but when Williams introduced fasting to the cult, the two men left. Mrs. Wells, however, stayed on.
During the coroner’s subsequent inquest, several alarming things came to light. One of them was the fact that as the leader of “Truth,” Kate Ann Williams was arrogating to herself the voice of God — with the practically meaningless caveat that she gave no commands to her followers unless the voice of God told her to do so. This, of course, required Mrs. Williams to be able to tell the difference between the voice of God and the voice of her own delusions — a capability that there was some reason to suspect that she lacked.
One of her followers also testified that she occasionally would pass on to an adherent an “order from God” that he or she should start a 40-day fast. Could she have handed down such an order to Wells? Did she? The question was left unasked, but it must have hung heavy in the hearing room.
Williams was shielded by the position of her husband, but pressure started to mount after Wells’ highly publicized death. It may have been in response to that pressure that, a few weeks later, Kate Ann Williams went “into the wilderness” for an extended journey of 110 days — nearly four months of eating nothing but a morsel of communion bread and a sip of communion wine each day.
It proved too much, and the 61-year-old self-proclaimed prophetess herself succumbed to starvation and died, in April 1894.
(Sources: Teiser, Sidney. “Life of George H. Williams, Almost Chief-Justice, Part Two,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, December 1946; Portland Morning Oregonian, 12/19 and 12/20/1893; Portland Daily Telegram, 12/19/1893 and 4/18/1894; Drake, Monica. “Farewell to the Lawn,” Portland Mercury, 6/22/2000)