The eccentric man on a mission declared the world would end on a specific date, and the saved would be raptured. An amused media paid close attention to the prediction, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief or had a good laugh when nothing happened.
Sound familiar? Add a couple twists: it was 1925, not 2011. And the raptured — 144,000 “brides of the lamb” to be exact — would make a pit stop in the woods outside San Diego before heading to the planet Jupiter and then to heaven.
Such was the prediction of a pair of renegade Seventh-day Adventists who turned themselves into a prophet and prophetess of doom. One was a wallpaper-hanger from New York and the other a Hollywood homemaker who liked to claim visions and later tried to kill one of her former supporters.
The 1925 doomsday business began with the prophetess, one Margaret Rowen. She wasn’t new to the news. Since 1916, she’d been having visions and claiming to be a successor to Ellen White, a founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
White had died and, inconveniently, couldn’t weigh in on the matter of whether Rowen was next in line. But the church did: It declared that there was no evidence that Rowen’s visions were of “divine origin.”
Rowen kept at it and formed a break-away Adventist church of her own. Then she predicted that Christ would come on Feb. 6, 1925, inspiring a wallpaper-hanger in New York named Robert Reidt to join her in making prophetic utterances.
Doomsday approached. “For his efforts, Reidt earned, if not an immediate seat on the eternal throne, a run of breathlessly derisive front-page coverage in the New York Times,” the paper said earlier this month in a look back at its coverage of the 1925’s doomsday drama.
Other reporters flocked to see Reidt, described rudely by the Times as “a pale-faced, fat little man of 33,” and his hangers-on, including a spinster and an old farmer.
“At midnight on Friday,” Reidt said, “those who are the brides of the Lamb will turn their faithful eyes to the east and they shall see the sign. Jesus shall they see, mounted on a dark cloud, surrounded by brilliant light that shall blind the eyes of the wicked to deprive them of their sight.”
Here’s where San Diego comes in, according to the Times:
The 144,000 select would be transported from the ends of the earth to the woods near San Diego, where, after a stop on Jupiter — “for the holy shall not travel on the Sabbath” — they would arrive in heaven. As for the unchosen, Reidt said, they would perish during the following week from causes including but not limited to fire, disease, hailstone and pestilence.
It’s not clear where exactly this would happen in the San Diego-area “woods,” nor where the backcountry would find room, even as a temporary inter-planetary waystation, for so many people.
On the appointed date, midnight came and went. The wicked, sadly, were not blinded.
Along with at least one motion-picture crew, the Times stuck things out with Reidt that night and put things this way:
Instead of the long-awaited beam of light, he found a brightly shining moon that diffused a soft glow over the whole countryside.
He gazed earnestly up at the sky and then turned to re-enter the house.
“Well, it doesn’t look as if anything is going to happen tonight,” he said as he slowly retraced his steps toward the kitchen door.
The prophet wasn’t done predicting, however. In 1926, he declared that a fireball would destroy New York City on Feb. 12: “I wouldn’t give five cents for the Woolworth Building.”
That would have been quite a fine deal, actually, even with the Depression coming and all, since the city and the building survived.
Reidt went on to obscurity. Social Security records suggest that he died in 1966 at the age of 73.
Rowen, on the other hand, did not go on to obscurity for a while. She was convicted of trying to kill a Los Angeles-area doctor at a motel after he’d realized she was pilfering money from her church. “As the police arrived on the scene they found Rowen with two conspirators with a shovel, burlap sack, and rope,” a Seventh-day Adventist magazine says.
Maybe they planned to visit the woods outside San Diego for body disposal purposes and then head to the outer solar system.
Rowen’s fate after her stint in prison is unknown. If she ever predicted another doomsday, the press and the public didn’t pay attention.
The woods outside San Diego, meanwhile, have stubbornly remained empty of the raptured waiting for processing. At least as far as anyone knows.
Please contact Randy Dotinga directly at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga.