Wealthy Richmond widow influenced by cult leader

Time Capsules/November 26, 2003

Fate brought Esther Price and Joseph Jeffers together.

Fate was the name of a magazine of the occult. Price was a wealthy Richmond widow who responded to an advertisement placed in the magazine by a religious cult called the Kingdom of Yahweh. Jeffers was the flamboyant and charismatic leader of the cult. When Price died in 1978 at age 84 under questionable circumstances, the story that emerged is a tale of faith and suspicion.

The Nov. 25, 1978, Times-Dispatch included an Associated Press report on a third will purportedly left by Price that had been filed with the Phelps County, Mo., Probate Court. The will had been executed in 1966. Two wills previously filed with the court were dated 1976 and 1978.

The 1978 will, written just a month before Price's Aug. 28 death, left her entire estate to Jeffers. The 1976 will bequeathed $285,000 to Kingdom Voice Publications Inc., a publishing firm run by Jeffers, and the 1966 will left only $25,000 to Jeffers' organizations.

Price was the daughter of a prominent Richmond banker and contractor, John T. Wilson, whose construction firm built several of the city's landmarks, including the old Federal Reserve Bank and the Miller & Rhoads downtown department store. Price lived on Monument Avenue with her husband, an executive in the lumber business, until his death in 1963. Soon after he died, she moved to the Jefferson Hotel in downtown Richmond and lived as a frugal recluse.

It was during the period shortly after she moved to the hotel that Price fell under the influence of Jeffers and his cult. Those who met Jeffers during his visits with Price at the Jefferson could not forget him.

His clothing was usually clownish in appearance. One resident recalled the outfit Jeffers was wearing when they met: red slacks, blue suede shoes, long white coat and broad-brimmed white hat. Jeffers seemed protective of Price whenever they were together, and he was guarded around her friends.

"There was an air of secretiveness and mystery," one hotel resident said.

Jeffers was born in 1898 in Alabama. He was ordained a Baptist minister in 1918 and became a traveling preacher with a flair for theatrics. His magnetic personality easily attracted followers.

In 1935, Jeffers officially broke his ties to the Baptist church by founding Kingdom Temple Inc. in California and proclaiming himself the reincarnation of Christ. He turned to Yahwism, a religion based on the belief that there is only one true deity whose name is Yahweh.

Jeffers' teachings soon evolved into an odd mixture of fundamentalist Christianity and New Age spiritualism that included reincarnation, spaceships, aliens, astrology, and numerology. Jeffers' personal life was tumultuous, with five marriages and numerous brushes with the law.

Price abruptly left Richmond and moved to Jeffers' Missouri commune in late 1975. Jeffers later said she joined the commune because he had been able to establish contact with her deceased husband in the spirit world. Price's relatives received only occasional letters and calls from her after she joined Jeffers in Missouri.

One of Price's sisters-in-law received a Sept. 9, 1978, telephone call from a friend in Missouri that suggested something might be wrong with Price. The sister-in-law called the sheriff in Phelps County, Mo., and learned of Price's death. Price's body had been transported back to Richmond where a local funeral home had handled her Sept. 1 burial beside her husband in Riverview Cemetery. The funeral home had been unaware Price had relatives in the area who should have been notified.

The Phelps County prosecuting attorney requested an investigation into Price's death, and a Richmond Circuit Court judge ordered the exhumation of Price's body in late September 1978 so an autopsy could be performed. The autopsy report released that November said the primary cause of death was cancer of the bladder, but foul play could not be ruled out because of "the paucity of information about the events occurring in her terminal days." However, no charges were filed.

When Price's relatives and other beneficiaries named in earlier wills learned that the 1978 will left Price's entire estate to Jeffers, they filed lawsuits contesting the legacy. Settlement of the estate was finally achieved in February 1982. Price's worth, once estimated to be near $5 million, had by the time of the final accounting dwindled to about $300,000 and a few real estate holdings.

Lawyers believed Price had given the bulk of her wealth to Jeffers' organizations before her death. In the final disbursement, Jeffers received $170,000, with the remainder going to family members and 13 charitable organizations named in the 1966 will.

Jeffers led the Kingdom of Yahweh until his death in 1988. The organization later moved its headquarters to Arizona.

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