1927: Rockridge scandalized by pagan love cult
on May 15, 2012
In 1927, 17-year-old Thelma Reid had just begun her first year of college at UC Berkeley. She was living on 45th street in Oakland’s Rockridge district with her family and did many of the typical things a college coed did—went to class, helped around the house and did her homework. She never expected her studies would spawn one of the biggest scandals in Rockridge history. But then again, it wasn’t ordinary homework.
The collection of poems that would eventually set into motion police raids, arrests and a full-blown media circus was assigned to Reid not by any of her UC Berkeley professors, but by a neighbor, Gertrude Wright. Wright’s home, a few blocks away from Reid’s at 468 Forest Street, served as the international headquarters for a mystical society—called the “Great White Brotherhood”—that blended aspects of Eastern religion with notions of Christian love, racial harmony and communing with God through sexual acts. Reid had been attending one of Wright’s “Sacred Schools”—classes where Wright delivered her unconventional teachings and handed out writings advocating “sacred phallic laws” and “mystical marriages” in which both parties had absolute freedom to explore love in all its exotic forms. Reid’s mother discovered the poems in the family’s home, and referred them to the Oakland Police Department.
But it wasn’t until another mother, Margaret Merwin, concerned about her 18-year-old daughter Caroline, who was also attending brotherhood classes, went to the police that then-District Attorney Earl Warren decided to take action. Warren sent OPD officers to 468 Forest Street and what they found there sent a shockwave through the sleepy Rockridge community for months to come.
In Wright’s home, a full-fledged, old-fashioned pagan society had taken root. According to police records, the raid found an “effigy of a woman with a sword piercing her heart, incoherent messages, cards bearing linked names of males and females and other equally weird evidence.” The Rockridge bungalow had become headquarters for the brotherhood that also had branches in San Francisco, San Jose, Portland and Chicago. Members of the Rockridge society included city council members, schoolteachers and businessmen. Cult founder and high priestess Wright was taken into police custody, along with her disciple Irma Gibbs and three others, on charges of encouraging delinquency.
The media went to town. The brotherhood was dubbed a “love cult” by newspapers around the Bay Area, which painted Rockridge as the epicenter of sexual perversion. Articles spawned sensational tales of paganism and decadence. LA Times columnist Harry Carr had this to say about Reid and Merwin:
“The attempt to paint these girls—and their beef-fed sheiks—as innocent, wide-eyed victims of a freak religion is enough to make anybody laugh. Girls of this day and age are wise guys. And any one of them knows that a so-called religious cult that involves being ‘initiated’ in the presence of men with most of their clothes off is merely an excuse for a debauch.”
The only sympathetic voice at the time belonged to Oakland Tribune reporter Nancy Barr Mavity. “Whether the web in which [Wright] is intangled is one of wheels within wheels of enmity on the part of deserters from the order,” wrote Mavity, “Or whether she is the priestess of views not favored in Western society, she remains the romantic lady in a world where a white stucco bungalow easily becomes a temple.”
In May of 1927, one of the arrested society members, Russel Alley, was tried before a jury, and found guilty of contributing to the delinquency of minors. Unconvinced they could receive a fair trial, Wright and Gibbs jumped bail and disappeared across the border to Mexico. For two years there was no sign of either of them, until Wright sent an emissary back to Alameda County to negotiate her return to Oakland in 1929. Local authorities refused her permission to return, and Wright was never heard from again. Whether she was a pagan cult priestess or just a “romantic lady,” in the end she went down in history as a fugitive from justice.
Image: Courtesy of the Oakland History Room.
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