Heading Logo

Beard-Cutting Attacks

The Continued Impact of the Bergholz Barbers

By Emily Roebuck • Amish Heartland Contributor Published: October 1, 2014 12:00 AM
  • 1 of 5 Photos | View More Photos

In 1995, on 800 acres of mountainous land in eastern Ohio, near the village of Bergholz, a new Amish community was established by Samuel Mullet. In an area known as the Yellow Creek Valley, Mullet was ordained bishop and began to consolidate power; breaking off the relationships and ties his community had with outside Amish groups.

The beginnings of this community, the events leading up to the beard cutting attacks which began in September of 2011, the trial and the aftermath are all discussed in Professor Donald B. Kraybill's book, "Renegade Amish: Beard Cutting, Hate Crimes, and the Trial of the Bergholz Barbers." Kraybill was recently in the area for a book signing at the Gospel Book Store in Berlin and to speak at the Perry Reese Community Center at Hiland High School.

Kraybill's two year research project explored how the cult-like group emerged in the pacifist Amish society, what underlying motives propelled the attacks, the question of whether or not they were truly Amish and the question of why the jury convicted the defendants of federal hate crimes. It also addresses the issue of whether or not this case is significant for religious freedom in America and how it will impact future hate crime prosecutions for Americans.

In the book, Kraybill highlights "the purge" as the trigger event which led to the beard cutting attacks. During this time in 2006, Bishop Mullet excommunicated nine families who had objected to his leadership. When someone is excommunicated or "shunned" in the stricter Amish communities, they cannot be reinstated into another Amish congregation until they go to the bishop who shunned them and repent.

Those who were shunned did not feel that they had done anything wrong. A group of 300 Amish elders from five different states met and decided they agreed on making the decision to nullify Sam Mullet's power to excommunicate.

This direct limiting of his control made Mullet feel his religious authority had been overthrown and brought about anger, frustration and distrust towards anyone outside his own family and community. By 2012, all but one of the 20-some families in his group were directly related to him somehow. Mullet had created a cult-like atmosphere. He was able to control and manipulate everyone living there and treat the community as if it were his own little world.

Mullet began sleeping with the women, promising that the sexual teaching he was giving them would help their marriage somehow. Very few women have spoken about their sexual experiences with outsiders, but during the trial Bishop Mullet's daughter-in-law testified that she was made to have "sexual intimacies" with him. Those who resisted were ostracized from the community. Couples were sometimes separated for weeks or even months.

Another practice which was unique to Mullet's community was placing men and women in small chicken houses, dog kennels and pens inside barns which were called "Amish jails." While these jails were not locked, people stayed in them for days or weeks in isolation. According to Bishop Mullet, this allowed them time to clear their minds and write things down in order to confess all their sins.

The beard cutting and head shaving began within the Bergholz community as a way to repent and show contrition. Families became too afraid to stay at Bergholz because they knew what Mullet was capable of and they were afraid to leave for the same reason. One of Mullet's sons had begun to move his belongings and was trying to leave with his family. When they returned to their house to get the rest of their things they found fresh cut trees lying across their driveway, the doors on their house boarded up, windows screwed closed, new locks on the doors and the basement intentionally flooded.

From the physical and verbal threats to the probing questions about sexual relationships, Mullet was a man who understood how to control and manipulate those around him. He began to call those outside their community "hypocrites" and when the attacks began it was his reasoning that they would be showing these hypocrites what they needed to do in order to get right with God.

The assailants likely believed that they would be helping those who were struggling with the battle between good and evil. Because of Bishop Mullet's teachings, his followers were completely convinced that the cuttings would shame the other Amish and also warn them of God's impending punishment and doom because they had strayed from the true path of Amish faith.

Three of the attacks were nighttime home invasions, two were ambushes inside Bishop Mullet's community in which the people were lured in. Attacks like these are unprecedented in Amish history.

In one instance ,an elderly couple was convinced by their son Emmanuel that they would be allowed to visit their grandchildren and were invited to come for dinner. As they were going to leave, Emmanuel grabbed a pair of scissors and began cutting his father's beard. Two of the teenage grandsons restrained him and covered his mouth when he began to yell for help. The grandparents were released and left the community, refusing to press charges. Two months after the attack, the grandfather died.

The attacks fell upon nine victims; eight men and one woman. Federal prosecutors eventually charged ten men and six women with multiple crimes involving conspiracy, assault, concealing evidence and lying to the FBI.

A disposable camera was used during the attacks. Thinking it had been destroyed, the prosecution learned that it had merely been hidden in the woods. The prosecution was able to find the camera and the pictures were used during the trial (some of the photos are included in Kraybill's book).

The government had built its case against the attackers on the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This federal statute criminalizes physical attacks based on a victim's gender, sexual orientation, disability, race, ethnicity or religion.

"The Shepard-Byrd Act does not regulate religious speech or belief," said Kraybill. "but it does criminalize violent conduct that targets victims because of their religion. The First Amendment does not protect individuals who exact violence in the name of their own religious beliefs."

During the three-week trial, the jury determined that forcible beard cutting is considered temporary disfigurement. The jury also found evidence that in four of the attacks the assailants were motivated because they disliked the religion of the victims. Bishop Mullet was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Four men, including two ministers, received seven-year sentences. Five-year sentences were imposed on three other men and the remaining eight defendants received one and two-year sentences. By the summer of 2014 most of the defendants had returned to Bergholz.

"It has never happened before in Amish history that all the ordained leaders in an Amish congregation are in jail," commented Kraybill.

In August of 2014, the appellate court overturned the hate crime convictions in a 2-1 sharply divided decision, citing an error in the district court's instructions to the jury. What is at stake now is, what motivated the attacks. Was it family feuds, interpersonal spite, or religion? The federal district court had instructed the jury that a religious motive was evident if the victim's "actual or perceived religion was a significant motivating factor for a defendant's action...even if he or she had other reasons" for attacking the victim.

"The appellate court opinion made a distinction between religion being the primary or predominant motive and religion being a significant motive among other motives," said Kraybill. "The Bergholz case was the first religious hate crimes conviction under the 2009 Shepard-Byrd Act. The interpretation of the motives will be the deciding factor as the case moves forward. It will affect not only the convictions for the Amish, but for other religious hate crimes and all types of hate crimes decisions in the future."

Sam Mullet and the other defendants remaining in prison are still under indictment. They remain convicted for concealing evidence and perjury. They may petition the district court to be released from prison as the legal process continues.

For his research work and his book, Kraybill interviewed 30 Amish people related to Bergholz (including former community members and relatives of Bishop Mullet), held interviews with detectives, sheriffs, an FBI agent, knowledgeable non-Amish people and the foreman of the jury from the trial.

When asked if he would write another book to follow up Renegade Amish, Kraybill said that it is likely that a revised version of book will be published as a paperback sometime in the future after all the legal dust settles. But it's hard to know how many months or years in the future that will be.

"With the recent appellate court decision, this case is in extra innings," said Kraybill. "The case is now elevated to something even more important because it's outcome will determine how future hate crimes are prosecuted in America."

Kraybill is a Distinguished College Professor and Senior Fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College. He is the author, coauthor and editor of more than a dozen books on Amish culture, including "The Riddle of Amish Culture" and "The Amish and Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy. "Kraybill is considered the country's foremost authority on Amish society and was the only expert witness called to the stand by the government during the trial.

One of the questions that has been discussed and debated around the beard cuttings and the trial is whether or not the Bergholz Barbers are indeed Amish. Do they identify themselves as Amish? Yes, but Kraybill's book makes note of 25 different ways in which the people living in Mullet's settlement deviated from other Amish communities, violating fundamental tenants of Amish society.

From their own words, the Amish have recognized that the role of a leader should be taken on and carried out from a place of healing. In an eastern Ohio Amish newsletter called the "Gemeinde Register," an essay called "A Shepherd's Authority" reminds us that those in authority must be like a physician, their "one desire must be to heal."

The events in Bergholz not only show us what can happen when a person in authority abuses power to exact violence and sexual misconduct, but also serves to show that when those inside the community reach out and seek help they will find it. Our government, our laws and our common humanity compel us to provide that help and protection and to make sure that as legislation moves forward it continues to do so.

Rate this article

Do you want to leave a comment?   Please Log In or Register to comment.