Beard-cutting attacks throw spotlight on Ohio Amish

October 17, 2011

CARROLLTON, Ohio (RNS) Arlene Miller's 15-year-old daughter had just
awakened her and her husband, Myron, saying that about a half-dozen
Amish men were at the farmhouse's back door asking for Myron.


It was close to 11 p.m. on Oct. 4 -- long past calling hours for
those seeking an audience with Myron, a bishop with the Mechanicstown
Amish church in Carroll County, Ohio.


When Myron reached the door, the men attacked almost immediately,
trying to force him outside, tugging on his long beard. "They finally
got him out on the cement out there and took a big pair of scissors and
started to cut his beard," Arlene Miller said.


The attack, and a similar one in Holmes County earlier the same
night, have brought unwanted national attention to Ohio's Amish
community and exposed a widening rift between mainstream Amish and
followers of Sam Mullet, a 66-year-old bishop who rules a breakaway
group -- some call it a cult -- in an 800-acre compound outside the
rural town of Bergholz.


It also has put the spotlight on the strange punishment some say is
doled out for crossing Mullet. The hair and beard cuttings are meant to
be degrading and insulting to the men, according to Amish experts. Once
married, Amish men let their beards grow and women do the same with
their hair, believing such action is prescribed by the Bible.


Police say the five men who attacked Miller that night were three
sons and two followers of Mullet. Two hours earlier, police believe they
attacked Raymond Hershberger, a 74-year-old Amish bishop in Holmes
County, according to Holmes County Sheriff Tim Zimmerly.


The group got into Hershberger's house by saying they wanted to
discuss religious matters. They held the bishop down in a chair and used
scissors and battery-operated clippers to shear off his beard.


"They held him down and said we are here for revenge for Sam
Mullet," the sheriff said.


In a recent rare interview with The Associated Press, Mullet said he
didn't order the attacks but acknowledged that he didn't stop them.
Mullet said the beard cuttings in Holmes County were to send a message
to Amish people there that they should be ashamed of themselves for
calling his community a cult.


In particular, Mullet was upset that Hershberger had not honored the
ex-communication of two families who left Mullet's group, the sheriff
said. Hershberger was one of many Amish bishops across the region who
criticized Mullet for his order to shun the families.


In the attack on Myron Miller, Mullet was upset with a recent church
order suggesting that Mullet's son, Bill, should shun his father,
according to Arlene Miller. The Millers had helped the son leave his
father's group in 2004, she said.


"Our community church here, not just Myron, but the whole church,
advised Bill that he shouldn't have anything to do with his dad," Arlene
Miller said. "We believe that made Sam mad."


The five men arrested in the attack on Hershberger are all charged
with aggravated burglary and kidnapping. All are free on bond posted by
Sam Mullet. Each could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted on
both felony counts.


Meanwhile, a Carroll County grand jury will decide if similar
charges will be brought against the five men in the attack on Miller,
according to Carroll County Prosecutor Don Burns.


So far, Sam Mullet has not been charged.


"He's saying that he didn't do it, but they consulted with him, they
had a meeting with him," said Sheriff Fred Abdalla of Jefferson County,
home to the Mullet compound. "He knew who all the targets were going to
be, he sanctioned it and he sure as hell never told them not to go."


Abdalla said one of the suspects told him: "If the clippers didn't
break, we were going to get four more guys" that night.


Tucked into the hilly, remote countryside in northwest Jefferson
County, the tiny town of Bergholz has a motto of "wooded hills and warm
hearts" and a hitching post in front of a local bank.


Inside the town's lone restaurant, the lunch crowd seemed a tad
amused by the attention Mullet's group was getting from the outside
world.


"I can't believe how far it's gone," said one Bergholz resident who
declined to give his name inside Marshall's Restaurant and Carryout. "It
was on Jay Leno, and my niece from Dayton called me and said, `What's
going on in your town?"'


Rumors about the Mullet compound have circulated for years, and none
of them have been good. One local resident said earlier this year
several members of Mullet's group had their beards shorn as punishment.


"They just showed up one day and their beards were gone. They said
it was punishment, but they didn't really say for what -- I assumed it
was for working outside the group," said the woman, who asked that her
name not be used, fearful of Mullet's group.


The Mullet compound sits in a valley about five miles outside of
Bergholz, down a winding dirt road with a one-room Amish schoolhouse
serving as the landmark next to the road. As many as 17 families --
almost all related to Mullet -- are said to be living there.


In his interview with The Associated Press, Mullet said he was upset
that other bishops were interfering with his right to punish members of
his group who had broken rules.


"You have your laws on the road and the town -- if somebody doesn't
obey them, you punish them," he told the AP. "But I'm not allowed to
punish the church people? I just have to let them run over me? If every
family would just do as they pleased, what kind of church would you
have?"


Although Mullet's sect has been in the media spotlight for the past
week, David McConnell, an anthropology professor at The College of
Wooster, said Mullet has long been infamous among the Amish.


McConnell, co-author of "An Amish Paradox," which focused on the
Amish settlements in Holmes County, said Mullet has long been considered
a renegade by other Amish groups who "rules his church members with an
iron fist."


"Even before all of this broke, he was out in left field," McConnell
said. "No other Amish church district would affiliate or have fellowship
with them. That in itself is a powerful statement of how isolated he is
from the mainstream."


McConnell said no Amish bishop he knows of would condone cutting
hair or beards as punishment.


"The fact that he has lashed out and retaliated against other Amish
bishops in a way that is so inconsistent with Amish values is the best
illustration of why he's an outlier," he said.


As she sat in a wooden chair near the back door of her farmhouse,
Arlene Miller acknowledged that bringing charges against the attackers
who roughed up her husband is difficult for Amish.


"We're not pressing charges for revenge, we're pressing charges
because they need help," she said. "That community is messed up bad."


Abdalla, the Jefferson County sheriff, said he has been hearing
reports that Mullet is keeping members of his group in chicken coops as
punishment and engaging in marathon religious lectures that leave
members bewildered and sleep-deprived.


"I'm really starting to understand the power he has to brainwash
these people," Abdalla said. "I think a lot of the people who live out
there are going to end up needing psychological counseling for what they
have been through."