A sympathetic look at Bergholz

A reporter from the Cleveland Plain Dealer visited Bergholz recently, and has given us a look at the community from a different perspective.

Unlike most previous coverage, this article provides a rather sympathetic look at the group:

Last week, members of the Bergholz community scoffed at the government’s portrayal. They said they were tired of being treated like zoo animals by others in different Amish communities, who stop, whisper and watch their every move.

The community lacks trust in law enforcement and fears that authorities, through the courts, may try to take the children of parents headed off to prison and pull them from the settlement.

Lizzie Mullet sees the fear daily.

When a sheriff’s cruiser drives by the school, many of the school’s 44 students cringe, fearing someone will be arrested, she said. Since the arrests last November, usually timid students have become rebellious, she said; others cry more easily. But she and other members say the community pushes on.

Sam Mullet remains the group’s religious leader, even as he sits in a holding cell in Youngstown. The 18 families in the settlement — about 40 adult members and scores of children — meet Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays for gatherings. They talk, listen and sing hymns.

This is not to excuse the attacks or actions of community members, but based on most coverage til now, it’s been easy to stigmatize these people as a whole.  This piece puts a human face on the group.  The actions of some members rightly stirred anger among observers, so I think it might be a little uncomfortable to read coverage written from this perspective.

Bergholz Ohio Marvin Fong
A man and child walk in the Bergholz community (Marvin Fong/The Plain Dealer)

That said, there have been strong indications that this is in fact a cult or cult-like group, with all the negatives that entails.  Beyond the beard-cutting attacks, the trial included testimony that Mullet disciplined members by spanking and making them sleep in chicken coops, and that he had sexual intercourse with members’ wives.

An article like this one reminds us that groups like this create victims within the group itself (most obviously, the children, but probably not stopping there).  On the other hand it also raises the question as to how culpable are the adults who end up in these types of groups.  Are you automatically a victim if you fall under the sway of a powerful leader…or are you at fault for allowing yourself to be manipulated?  That seems to me a difficult psychological question which may have different answers depending on the individual.

The article contains a summary of the formation of this community in the mid-1990s.  There are also 20+ photos taken within the community, including many from the school.

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    21 Comments

    1. Good article and I think the writer brings up an interesting question – are the members victims or at fault for letting themselves be manipulated? Yes, they’re adults but mind control as well as fear are so powerful, I think helpless is probably more of how they would be feeling. The fact that he remains their leader, shows their fear I believe. You would think they would see his behavior, erratic as it seems to be, and get a new leader, but they haven’t done that (and perhaps I’m simplifying the process). I feel bad for the community, really, and see lots of victims ~ if not physically, then definitely mentally and emotionally.

      1. You’re right, something to think about Beth. How much perspective can you have…Mullet being related to people here only complicates things and probably makes it that much harder to refute him. He’s a father to 18, I’m not sure offhand how many of his children are still with him but looks like some are.

        1. Lattice

          Additionally, it’s important to remember that these people made a vow to obey the word of God AND the rules of the Church. They believe that this man was chosen by God (by Lot) to be in the position he was. Lots of very difficult issues here.

          1. That is a good point, Lattice (love your name, by the way) ~ and I think people don’t realize or believe (and maybe I’m the only one who does) that God may choose people not because they are good but perhaps because they aren’t, to show that our devotion should not be to man but to Him. I don’t think they think that way though – I think they think God chooses people because they’re good, which explains their “blind devotion” so to speak. I’m glad you thought of that.

    2. I would guess that a suspended sentence would be enough to scare most of these into not doing anything physical again.
      It’s a strange case; forced beard cutting is certainly outside of normal Amish behavior. On the other hand, the sheriff of the county and the Bergholz group have been at it for years already. (I remember reading a few years ago that the Bergholz group had filed a lawsuit of some kind against him … again, not usual Amish behavior.) How much that conflict played into the whole thing is hard to say. Then there was the time law enforcement showed up at the school and caused a scene (there used to be a youTube on that one, given from an anti-government perspective).
      Whether willful or not, I have come to distrust the media spin on things. Just recently a Mennonite man was charged with child abuse here in Lancaster, accused of slamming a little girl’s head against a door frame and punching her in the face. The local newspaper has portrayed him very negatively. But a family member says that what actually happened was that the little girl had a reactionary fit and was throwing herself around. In the process of trying to control her, she banged her head against the door frame etc.
      It is hard to say what has really happened in these cases … I am glad I am not a lawyer nor a judge! 🙂

      1. Re: suspended sentence, that would be my guess too…I don’t know how the law views these things, but it seems like there would be a a pretty big distance between a suspended sentence and some of the potential lengthy punishments that have been cited as possible in this case (10 years, even life).

        On the other hand I believe a lot of Amish in Ohio are fearful of these people. Were Mullet alone out of the picture (ie locked up), what effect would that have on the rest of the Bergholz group? Would other Amish still have reason to fear for their safety?

        Likewise, glad it’s not my call.

    3. Alice Mary

      Life goes on...

      Despite the problems of the adults in this community, I was relieved to see some smiling faces among the children—who are also victims. I wonder what we’ll hear from THEM in the future, as they grow up (and assuming at least SOME of them leave the community). Meanwhile, life goes on for those who remain—chores attended to, learning/teaching, playing goes on. The photos show what looks like a tidy, organized community (I was surprised by all the photos—of adults as well as children. I’m guessing photography isn’t avoided there?)

      I can only hope and pray that this community makes positive decisions in the future…and that those kids will still be smiling, thriving, 10+ years down the road.

      Alice Mary

    4. Judgement

      I would not speak harshly of people who have been manipulated. I think it is a trap anyone could fall into, especially at the hands of a skillful manipulator.

    5. Ann

      Good article to remind us to pray for the children and their famlies.

    6. Mary

      I think they have signs that leads me to believe they are a cult, or at least heading that direction. And yes, it was wrong what they did and I am not refuting the fact that they should face consequences for their deeds. However…the media is blowing it out of proportion, as well as the law going beyond what would be necessary. All that money wasted on this case could have been used in a much more profitable way! My heart goes out to the children, as well as the adults that became ‘victims’of one man’s manipulation!

    7. Don Curtis

      Mark's opinion

      I read this article to my son, Mark. His view is that this group is a cult. Like most cults its leader had a manipulative control over his followers that was unhealthy and unscriptural. Like most cults, the followers became victims. In Mark’s opinion the best thing for this community would be for it to disband and for the members not incarcerated to go back to Amish communities in good standing and be submissive to the authority of those churches. Children of those incarceraged would best be served by being taken in by relatives in Amish communities in good standing. To continue on as they are is to continue in an unhealthy situation. Also, as the children grow up they will be hard pressed to find marriage partners outside of that one particular community where everybody is related. Amish in other communities would be very leery of allowing their young folks to be connected with the young folks of Bergholtz. Mark thinks it is a very sad and sick situation. We should pray for them.

      1. Lance

        My understanding of the situation is that the Bergholz community started when Sam Mullet was banned by Fredericktown and these others followed him to Bergholz. When they followed him, they went into the bann too. While Mark’s New Order might take these people back in, the order of Amish that these people came from or are likely to be similar to will continue to hold the bann against them. So, these people are actually kicked out of an Amish community, and they are not going to be just let back in without a lot of difficulty. As is noted in the “Amish Grace” book, Amish have a lot harder time forgiving some things amongst themselves than we are lead to believe. What these people did or supported might not be seen as forgivable. This is also so very unusual, the Amish may not know how to handle it, nor may want to.

        Mark is correct, this is sad and sick and we should all pray for these people.

        1. Don Curtis

          Contact Mark

          Hi Lance,
          You should write or give Mark a call sometime. I’ve told him about you and he said he’d enjoy talking to you. Maybe you could even come for a visit and go with him to his church. Anyway, I’ve posted his name and address and phone number above if you’re interested.

    8. Don Curtis

      Contact Mark

      Sorry, I didn’t post it on this thread. If you want to contact him:
      Mark Curtis
      9417 County Road 101
      Belle Center, OH 43310
      937-464-9006

    9. Carolyn B

      On a happier note

      On a happier note re: these photos, I was very surprised to see such access to the school, especially the interior. I was pleasantly surprised to see how colorful with the students’ own work the walls are decorated.

      Erik, I noticed a couple girls wearing shoes while everyone else seemed barefoot. What are the logical guidelines of when to save shoe leather and go barefoot? Thanks for any feedback from anyone.

      1. Access to the school

        Not to be too cynical, but I’ll just say it–it’s probably good PR for this community to let a photographer in to take a lot of photos of the children. Not saying they actively sought that, but the smiling innocent faces shouldn’t hurt their cause.

        On shoes vs. barefoot, it’s probably mainly going to be dictated by comfort and temperature (and custom). I haven’t heard of rules saying shoes must be worn, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist somewhere. Amish kids generally like to go barefoot when they can.

    10. Ann

      I think that the greater Amish community would take these children if that became necessary. They have already given a great deal of support to one of Sam’s sons who left the Bergholz community. One of the victims may have been attacked because he was part of that support. I taxi for families that live in a nearby settlement and yes there is fear that Sam will continue unacceptable behavior if he is not incarcerated for a time. However, those I have discussed this with say they would welcome and support anyone who leaves Bergholz and there is a lot of concern for the children. There have been 2 generations that have been under this man’s influence and there is quite a bit of information that did not come out in the trial about behaviors and customs promoted by Sam.

    11. Dave

      It shows that no system is perfect, and evil can grow in any environment. They are a cult. Maybe incarceration can help the community come to senses, recover, and move-on.

    12. Linda

      Erik, your asking if a person is a victim or at fault for being manipulated, reminds me of two true books. If I remember correctly, Miller’s book recommends knowing what the Bible says, as a prevention of falling into a cult.

      1. Patricia Hochstetler wrote a series of three books about her life in an Amish-Jewish cult, with the titles of DELUSION, DECEPTION, and DELIVERANCE, published in 2007.
      2. OUT OF DECEPTION: The True Story of an Amish Youth Entangled in the Web of a Cult, by Nathan Miller, 2011.

    13. Terri

      See Crist Mullet, Sam’s son, in the pictures? Search his conviction records Jefferson County Ohio. He’s a Tier II sex offender. Confessed to lesser charges of molestion for plea bargain (guilty of rape of 12 yr old girl and molestion of several boys). He’s been in charge since his dad, Sam, was arrested last year, and LIVES on the Mullet farm, around a bunch of CHILDREN.
      If the children are afraid anytime they see a police officer or sheriff it is because Sam continously instructed them that ANY law enforcement was out to harm them, would “stick them in the back with needles to kill them”. This goes back to the custody battle between Sam’s daughter Wilma and her former husband Aden. They are now divorced and Aden has full custody of their 2 daughters.
      The school house is now in session again, but it was empty till October. They did not start school in late August as usual, but waited till a few weeks after the court trial of the adults involved in the beard cuttings was over. I know this because we lived about 2 miles from the school house and the Mullet “compound”.
      There are NO church meetings. Those 3 meetings a week are just gatherings, there is no preaching or prayers, ask any of them, they’ll readily admit it.
      While the children appear carefree and happy, the only adults you see in the pics are Allen Miller, Lizzie Mullet, Eli Mullet, and Crist Mullet. Go in try to talk to any of the other adults – you’ll get nothing.
      A previous commentator was correct, this group needs broken up, extended family members are ready and waiting to readily take in these abused brain-washed people and try to help START to get back to normal.