1920s Illinois Lived In Fear Of The Priest-King Of The Flat Earth
Let’s set the scene: It’s 1920s Chicago, and you’re a jazz-loving youth with a respectable job bombing election booths for Al Capone. After a long night of lindy-hopping in one of Chicago’s many fine speakeasies, you decide to take your jalopy for a short drive through the countryside just north of the city. As you enjoy the fresh air, you start whistling your favorite 1920s tune (Buddy Bolden’s “Funky Butt”). Suddenly, the car is surrounded by heavily armed police officers with white doves painted on their helmets. As they club you to the ground, you notice that each cop has a Bible holstered next to their gun.
The cops drag you to a small town, which would be picturesque if not for the erratically punctuated signs on every street corner, ranting against smoking, cursing, and modern medicine. Tired-looking people scurry back and forth as “old-timey” music blares from loudspeakers. At the entrance to town, a large billboard screams, “THIS CITY FOR ZION PEOPLE AND ZION PEOPLE ONLY…TRAITORS, THIEVES AND THUGS WILL FIND THIS CITY HOTTER THAN HELL!” At the local courthouse, you’re given a huge fine for your blasphemous whistling and ordered to leave and never come back. As you speed away, you curse yourself for accidentally straying into the tiny empire of Wilbur Voliva, King of the Flat Earth.
These days, belief in a flat Earth is largely contained to your weird aunt’s Facebook page and the occasional B.o.B. lyric. But for almost 40 years, believers in the theory maintained a theocratic city-state in northern Illinois, where they plotted numerous stunts aimed at proving the world was flatter than yesterday’s Sprite. But how did this come about? Well, to understand that, we have to go back to 1893, when a serial killer stalked the World’s Fair …
The Devil Adjacent To The White City
The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair was one of the grandest and most fabled events in American history. A magnificent temporary city was built in Jackson Park, full of grand classical facades painted gleaming white. Human zoos abounded, a deranged stalker shot the mayor in the face, and the serial killer H.H. Holmes lurked in the shadows, luring unsuspecting victims into his notorious murder house. But one of the most significant attendees didn’t manage to make it into the fair at all.
John Alexander Dowie had landed in San Francisco a decade earlier, following a controversial career as a preacher and small-time scammer in Australia. Dowie had planned to make his fortune in America, but his attempts to start a new church in California quickly floundered. In 1892, he moved out to Chicago, where the World’s Fair promised to provide a steady stream of new converts. Unfortunately, he was unable to afford a booth inside the actual fair. Instead, he built a sort of ramshackle wooden hut just outside the fairground, where he preached against the “carnival of the World, the Flesh, and the Devil, properly enough called the World's Fair." The World’s Fair raised no objections to this behavior, probably because they recognized good advertising when they heard it.
When not ranting like a third-tier Batman villain, Dowie helped pioneer the modern version of faith healing. Nowadays, you can’t turn on the TV without a very shiny man lunging at the screen and promising to cure Covid if his followers just chip in to buy him a new sex yacht. But back in the 1890s, it was profoundly shocking for someone to claim Christ-given healing powers, then try to get rich using them. In exchange for an increasingly huge fee, Dowie swore he could heal every old-timey disease from ague to scrofula. With the help of some celebrity clients, he soon had thousands of followers in the Chicago area, all happy to hand over their life savings in exchange for a chance to attend one of Dowie’s flamboyant healing ceremonies.
By 1900, Dowie was richer and more respected than a writer who can end sentences with a punchline. But perhaps the memory of the World Fair’s gleaming white city stayed with him because that’s the year he bought 10 square miles of land northwest of Chicago and incorporated the city of Zion, moving his followers there en masse.
Escape From New York
Rejecting the separation of church and state, Dowie openly declared that Zion would be run as an absolute theocracy, with himself as priest-king. While Dowie reclined in his luxurious mansion, his followers worked long hours in Zion’s highly profitable candy factory. When their minuscule wages became too much of an inconvenience, Dowie started paying them in coupons that could be spent only in the town’s general store. His handpicked police force patrolled the streets, enforcing strict laws against everything from whistling to wearing tan shoes. Dowie also banned all doctors and made possession of modern medicine punishable by jail time, insisting that all diseases should be treated by a combination of prayer and giving him large sums of cash.
But Dowie wasn’t content with ruling the tiniest dictatorship until David Geffen’s beach house. He wanted to conquer the world. And like most supervillains, he decided to start in New York. In 1903, eight specially chartered trains set out from Zion for the Big Apple. They carried Dowie’s luxurious private carriage (the Gulfstream jet of its day) and 3,000 of his closest followers, who fanned out across the city spreading the good news. Dowie himself had booked Madison Square Garden for two straight weeks of sermons, which he was sure would convert all of New York to his teachings. It … did not work out that way.
Now in 1903, New York was less of a city and more of a large street brawl with bedrooms attached. Dead horses littered the sidewalk, the official language was enraged yelling, while the city’s trash was all hurled directly into the East River in the hope of creating a garbage island big enough to build a prison on it. It was quite simply the most elegant and sophisticated city in the world, and the locals had no intention of being lectured by a bunch of hayseeds from Chicago. Dowie’s missionaries were greeted with a fascinating variety of obscene gestures wherever they went. Meanwhile, the carefully planned Madison Square Garden sermons were a disaster, with the sparse crowd booing and whipping coins at the stage while Dowie screamed about “wicked rats” and “maggots.”
Dowie quickly fled back to his mansion in Zion, but the trip was a humiliating disaster that caused doubts among even his most fervent loyalists. To make matters worse, the $300,000 spent on the expedition left Zion facing bankruptcy. And that’s when Dowie made his biggest mistake. In search of financial stability, he turned to Wilbur Glenn Voliva, his most talented and ambitious follower. Voliva was a skilled organizer who quickly solved Zion’s financial woes. Dowie even gave him power of attorney over the entire organization. At this point, Voliva began a careful campaign to undermine the “new Elijah” and take power himself.
Wilbur Stops The Steal
Voliva launched his coup in 1905, when Dowie was in Jamaica recovering from a stroke. The founder was accused of stealing church resources and deposed, allowing Voliva to take his place as “General Overseer'' of Zion. Dowie died in exile two years later, still furious over his ouster. Voliva spent the next few years fighting off challengers for the leadership. In 1909, for instance, his enemies defeated Voliva’s puppet government in Zion’s municipal elections. However, Voliva refused to recognize the result, insisting that the election had been rigged. Summoning his supporters, he barricaded himself inside city hall. However, they were forced to retreat to the second floor when the anti-Voliva faction broke through on ground level, leading to a bizarre situation where rival governments occupied the two floors of city hall, staging raids on each other via the stairwell.
Meanwhile, the newly elected police chief was laying siege to the police station, where Voliva’s own chief was threatening to open fire on anyone who approached the building. Fortunately, Voliva had an ace in the hole -- he had secretly bought Zion’s assets in a bankruptcy auction, making him the legal owner of most of the town. He then caught a lucky break when three of his chief rivals discredited themselves by breaking an elderly woman’s arms and legs during a particularly enthusiastic faith healing ceremony (we guess that’s what happens when you let Vecna into your church). By 1910, Voliva was firmly in control of Zion, allowing him to embark on his next quest: proving that the Earth was flat.
Dowie had often preached that the Earth was flat, which fit with his general dislike of modern science, but under Voliva it became one of Zion’s central beliefs. The town’s schools taught that the Earth was a disc with the North Pole at the center. Voliva further believed that a huge wall of ice surrounded the outer rim of the world, claiming that “the Earth is like a steak on a circular plate surrounded by a rim of mashed potato.” This handy rim of ice potato helped keep sailors from falling off the edge and into Hell, which was a slightly larger disc right below us. And below that was a third flat disc containing a kind of super-hell for the souls of a mysterious race who supposedly inhabited the world before Adam. Yes, it was hells all the way down in Zion.
To promote his flat Earth beliefs, Voliva built one of America's most popular independent radio stations, which became well known for its “old-timey” music. It was kind of like if your dad’s favorite ‘70s rock station existed entirely to warn the world about the dangers of the Annunaki. But Voliva didn’t stop there. He also offered a $5,000 reward for the first person who could prove the Earth was round. Sadly, nobody ever collected, probably because the people who actually proved this had all been dead since the late Iron Age.
Meanwhile, Zion’s trusty printing press published numerous flat-Earth periodicals containing such arguments as "If the Earth is rotating so fast...the wind should always blow in the opposite direction from the way the Earth is traveling...Where is the man who believes he can jump off the ground, remain in the air one second, and come back down 19.3 miles from where he started?" Voliva further believed that the Sun was a small ball of fire located just a few miles from the Earth, reasoning, “God made the sun to light the earth, and therefore must have placed it close to the task it was designed to do. What would you think of a man who built a house in Zion and put the lamp to light it in Kenosha, Wisconsin?”
The Zionese Liberation Army
Meanwhile, the situation in Zion was going from bad to worse. Voliva had kept all of Dowie’s insane laws (including the prohibition on doctors) and added a bunch of his own. It was now illegal for husbands and wives to take a bath within 50 feet of each other, lest they be driven to some kind of rubber duck-based erotic frenzy. Voliva also banned whistling, standing outside with more than one other person, and reading newspapers on Sunday. These rules were strictly enforced by his force of “Zion Guards,” with Voliva ominously declaring that “it’s fine to chase the devil with prayer, but a meat axe comes in handy once in a while.” Although even the Guards were powerless against the elite gangs of Chicago high school kids who had taken to sneaking into the city at night and stealing the craziest street signs, causing Voliva to demand that every sign in town be electrified to shock any teenage pranksters.
Things came to a head in the early 1930s, when the Great Depression caused the town’s candy factory to close, bringing financial hardship to Zion’s Oompa Loompa community. Meanwhile, Voliva was busy embarking on his latest epic voyage around the world, during which he hoped to sail along the ice wall at the Earth’s edge. He was also repeatedly falling ill, probably due to eating only Brazil nuts and milk, which he believed would allow him to live to 120. With Voliva busy giving himself scurvy, the fed-up townsfolk began plotting yet another coup, this time aimed at destroying the theocratic government once and for all.
In 1937, Voliva awoke to learn that the town’s magnificent tabernacle had been set on fire. The blaze also destroyed his beloved old-timey radio station, while a separate arson attack reportedly claimed his house. A slate of reform candidates had won the recent town elections, and while Voliva once again refused to recognize the result, he found his support had slipped away. Even the Zion Guards had turned in their guns and Bibles and disbanded. As the new government reclaimed city resources from his personal control, Voliva found himself forced into bankruptcy. He retreated to Florida, where he died two years later, as bitter and broke as Dowie had been in his own exile. On his last visit to Zion, he was forced to put the new tax sticker the authorities had designed on his car.
It bore the image of a globe.
No one except a low-down scoundrel, a person lower than the dirtiest dog, yes lower down than a skunk, would choose to follow Alex on Twitter.