Community Says Punitive Cutting of Hair Began as a Reminder to Repent

The New York Times/December 29, 2012

Bergholz, Ohio - More than a year before the violent beard-cutting assaults on outside Amish that brought notoriety and felony convictions to the insular Bergholz settlement, several followers of Samuel Mullet Sr., the clan's leader, used similar practices on each other.

At a time of turmoil and self-questioning, they devised the shearing of men's beards and women's long hair - symbols of Amish faith - as a way to repent their sins and start anew with God, according to interviews with Mr. Mullet, his daughter Wilma and other followers.

Beard-cutting and other practices alien to Amish tradition grew out of a family feud and bitter child custody battle that shook the settlement, the members said.

In 2009, after years of conflict, an Ohio court gave Wilma Mullet's estranged husband custody of their two young daughters, removing them from Bergholz. The community joined Wilma in her outrage and despair and concluded that they must have brought the calamity on themselves.

"We felt God was against us," Mr. Mullet said in a recent interview at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown, where he is being held without bond, pending sentencing in February. "The community was sinning, and men were not leading Christian lives."

Mr. Mullet decided to stop holding the semiweekly church services that are the norm for the Amish, instead calling meetings that were filled with accusations and confessions. To this day, the community does not hold church services, which Mr. Mullet calls a phony cover for sinful daily living.

In that tormented climate, Wilma Mullet concluded that her brother Johnny and other men were mistreating their wives and children and having impure thoughts about other women.

One night in early 2010, Wilma and another woman took it upon themselves, she said, to force her brother and six other husbands to rethink their ways, cutting off their beards in front of the others.

In later weeks, several other men were sheared and a few women had their hair cut back, all in the name of spiritual rebirth.

Around the same time, Mr. Mullet said, another resident, Raymond Miller, had the idea that errant men should clear their heads by sleeping in chicken coops, sometimes for two weeks at a time. Mr. Mullet insisted that he never ordered anyone to stay in a shed and that "the door was never locked."

Mr. Mullet does take credit for another practice that scandalized other Amish. After two members got into a fistfight, he had men use wooden paddles on each other to work out their disputes.

Martha Mullet, Samuel's wife, said that she had initially been shocked by the beard-cutting and other practices but that they "seemed right for our people."

Federal prosecutors have described the self-deprivation and corporal punishment in more ominous terms: as ways for followers to show their slavish devotion to Mr. Mullet.

The fateful step of shearing outsiders, according to Mr. Mullet and trial testimony, first occurred as an idea to the grown children of Marty and Barbara Miller, after the Millers rejected Mr. Mullet as a cult leader and urged the children to move out.

According to testimony, in the summer of 2011 the elder Mr. Miller criticized a son for having let his beard be cut the previous year.

Then he added, in what the children apparently took as a challenge, "If God is with me, my beard will not be cut."

That September, a dozen of the children and spouses barged into the home of the Miller parents, threw the couple down and hacked off his beard and her hair.

As the group fled, Mrs. Miller testified, a son shouted: "God is not with you! God is not with you!"

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