Lavender is Seasonal, but Cults are Forever: A Day Trip to Kirtland

“I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone” – Gandalf

In mid-July 2022, I had a chance to catch up with some TV (thanks second round of Covid). One show I’d heard a lot about was Hulu’s Under the Banner of Heaven. It’s a true crime mini-series based on a book of the same name, centered around the Mormon Religion. From that show to cult podcasts to David Duchovney’s brilliant novel Truly Like Lightning, the universe seems to be throwing Mormonism at me. So, I think it’s time I told you about a little trip I took with my friend Deb.

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It all started with seeing scads of posts on my Day Trips in Ohio Facebook group about lavender farms. I knew Deb (being all hippie-ish like me) would love to go. It took several reschedules (including Covid-related issues, natch), but finally, we headed out to Luvin Lavendar Farm in Madison, OH, on July 30, 2021.

Did you know lavender has a season? Me neither. I guess I should have known – it’s a plant and all. And as lack of research would have it (sigh), we got to Luvin after all the lavender had been harvested. We looked at other wildflowers. I bought some dried lavender and some lavender chapstick, but we did not spend nearly the time at Luvin we thought we would.

A year and a half later, the dried lavender still smells good, though!

If you’ve read my past work, you’ll know this was not my first day-trip rodeo. Before we left, I’d made a list of other possible points of interest. I included places like the Madison Historical Museum, which I thought Deb might like because she was a social studies teacher at the time. But, in my opinion, there was one standout on the list: the Kirtland Temple – a historic Mormon church in Kirtland, Ohio. First of all, it was only 20 minutes from the lavender farm. More alluringly to me, though – it was associated with one of the most heinous crimes in Ohio’s history.

The true-crime addiction is real

Before I go into the gruesome history of Kirtland, I’d like to share what I’ve learned about Mormonism. First, I fully believe that anyone in this country is entitled to worship or not worship however they choose. And, from what I’m learning, just as Christianity (with which I am far more familiar) has many different factions, so does Mormonism. In my research, I found three main subdivisions. They are:

 1) LDS (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) – the oldest and the largest of the three. Its core belief is The Book of Mormon, written by founder Joseph Smith. A few tenants, like polygamy, have been abolished. However, beliefs like only men can join the priesthood are still followed. 

2) RLDS (Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, now more commonly known as “The Community of Christ.”) The members of this faction have a more Protestant view on religion. While they still follow the teachings of Joseph Smith, some vestiges of Christianity have seeped in, like seeing the cross as a symbol of faith and allowing women to have positions of power.

3) FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) Established in the mid-1910s, this group, as its name suggests, tries to get back to the core of Joseph Smith’s teaching. They can believe in polygamy and “blood atonement” (the belief that the only way someone can atone for some sins is through voluntary death). The *problem* with this religion (my opinion, from what I’ve read and seen) is that pretty much any man in this faction can say, “God told me XYZ,” and they can make it happen. Case in point: Warren Jeffs is the leader of the current FLDS. If you don’t know who that is, look him up or watch “Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey” on Netflix. 

Hard to afford all those wives in prison, I’d imagine

So back to why I was interested in the Kirtland Temple. I have a book on one of my many bookshelves called “The Kirtland Massacre.” It revolves around the case against Jeffrey Lundgren, a lifelong member of RLDS, who became a cult leader after establishing his own Latter Day Saint movement, which used the concept of “chiastic interpretation.” According to Wikipedia, “To apply this concept to scripture, one takes a sentence from scripture; if the sentences before and after are consistent, the center sentence is “truth”; when the sentences before and after conflict, the center sentence is a lie.” Lundgren felt the word “OHIO” was chiastic, plus Joseph Smith himself had ended up there. And, even though Smith allegedly cursed the town when he was eventually driven out, Lundgren felt he belonged in Kirtland. Obviously.

Even before he arrived in Ohio, Lungren had shown classic entitled, dickish behavior; from abusing his wife while she was pregnant to embezzling money from almost every job he held. Why anyone would choose to follow him as a prophet is beyond me. But some did. By the time he lived in his farmhouse in Kirtland, Lundgren had a dozen followers that lived with him, attended Bible studies, and gave him their money. Then, in 1989, he convinced a few of his followers (including his wife and son) that a “blood atonement” sacrifice was in order. They dug a pit in Lundgren’s barn and helped him murder the Avery family, who, up until then, were in good standing within the cult. The Avery family consisted of husband Dennis, wife Cheryl, and their three daughters, aged 15, 13, and 6. Nine months later, after Lundgren had moved his cult to West Virginia, someone tipped off the police to his deeds. He was arrested and sentenced to death. Due to their collaboration and conspiracy, Lundgren’s wife, son, and two other cult members were given life sentences. Lundgren was put to death by lethal injection on October 24, 2006. Nobody claimed his body, so he was buried on prison grounds. 

Deb must have heard the longing in my voice when I listed my ideas of places to visit after the lavender farm and mentioned the Kirtland Temple. “Let’s go there!” she said decisively. I was a little nervous that my great idea would be a letdown. You never know how things will end when you start a new adventure, and now I had someone along for the ride. Hoping for the best, I put it into gear and headed to Kirtland.

I wondered that with all this dark history, the Kirtland Temple (the first Mormon Temple designed and built by founder Joseph Smith himself) might be lying low. This could not be further from the truth, however. The beautiful white, primitive, Neoclassical-style church is well advertised and available for tours, which is what was going on when Deb and I got there.  

We spotted the group of people listening intently to a man as soon as we pulled into the parking lot. As much as I wanted to eavesdrop on what the guide said, I decided it was probably not cool. I’ve been on tours before and know that interlopers are the worst. So instead, Deb and I walked around the grounds, taking photos. We ended up in front of the church just as the tour guide unlocked the main door and let the other group inside. I was quietly confiding in Deb that I felt like running up the steps to see if I could snag some pictures of the inside of the Temple before the door shut when a woman came up to us and asked if she could be of assistance. I was muttering, “no,” when Deb blurted, “we were wondering about the massacre that happened around here.”

The woman looked genuinely surprised and insisted she’d never heard of such a thing. I was stunned that someone offering information about the Kirtland Temple wouldn’t know such a well-publicized event that originated because of said church. But then again, I think most organizations, religious or otherwise, tend to cherry-pick the ideologies and lore they choose to share or ignore depending on their biases. I wondered if she would ask her husband (she informed us that he was the one leading the tour)about it after we’d all left. So, in place of any information about the murders, she briskly cited other facts concerning the history of the Temple, all of which can be found with a simple google search if one is interested. 

Even though this was nowhere near the story we were hoping to hear, Deb and I thanked her, then headed to the Kirtland Historic North Cemetery across the street. This cemetery initially called “The Kirtland Mills Burial Ground,” was established in the late 1820s. It is not large but slightly hilly with some brambled areas. Members of the Smith family are buried there, including Joseph Smith’s grandmother, Mary Duty Smith.

The most intriguing grave marker I saw was that belonging to Mary E. “Maime” Suits. But, unfortunately, other than she was 3 or 4 years old when she passed, I couldn’t find any more information about her. So I researched hauntings in Kirtland North Cemetery, thinking for sure there’d be claims of a child ghost roaming the tombstones. However, the only legend I could find was that of Hattie, “The Veiled Lady of Kirtland.” The lore states that young Hattie was jilted by her beloved. In her distress, she vowed to cover herself with a heavy veil so no man would ever see her face again. The assumption would be that upon her death, she was buried in the Kirtland Cemetery, where she continues to haunt men that visit there. However, my research led me to an even more compelling story about Hattie that you can read here.

The only haunting thing about Mary “Maime” Suits is her grave marker

I wonder if the name is intentionally ironic

After the cemetery, Deb and I decided it was time for a bite. Good old Google led us to Angelo’s Pizza and Ice Cream (the two best food groups around, am I right?). After our homemade ice cream cookie sandwiches, I found the address for Lundgren’s former residence. Wikipedia stated that the house and barn had been raized, and a church now stands on the property. I just had to see it for myself while I was there. When we returned to the car, I plugged the address into Google Maps and followed her instructions. We ended up in a typical-looking neighborhood. No church. So, I theorized that maybe I had gone east instead of westward or some other directional nonsense. We eventually found a New Promise Church. The address did not exactly seem to match what we had, but it had been a long day, so it was time to say “good enough” and head home. I think Deb enjoyed the trip as much as I did. I usually make these day trips alone, but it was fun to have someone with which to conspire. I haven’t told her yet that I’ve discovered some more spooky stories about Kirtland. I wonder if she’ll want to go again…

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