Oct. 30, 2021 — Those who grew up in Florence may remember whispers of a mysterious sea cave somewhere north of town. Known as "Preacher's Cave,” depending on the source it was the home to dark rituals, drug parties or human sacrifice. None of those things were true, but the story of how the cave got its name is most definitely a case of truth being much stranger than fiction.
This is the story of how a cave, somewhere between Cape Perpetua and Heceta Head, and the events that happened within, made up part of a story that headlined major papers all across America.
For three weeks in spring 1906 this cave, just off the beach, was the home to five women and a baby. The group was waiting for the return of their leader, the man they considered their messiah, Joshua, as he had asked them to call him.
Born in Germany, Franz Edmund Creffield, or “Joshua,” first appeared in the city of Portland in 1903 and joined the Salvation Army. Shortly thereafter, he was sent to Corvallis. For a short time, Creffield was a loyal soldier. However, soon Creffield was struck by divinity and decided to form a group he called the “Brides of Christ Church” (BCC) and, using his charismatic personality, began rapidly accumulating followers.
Before long, the BCC earned a reputation for being an eccentric group of religious zealots. Their services, which often lasted until sunup, mainly involved the devoted rolling on the ground begging The Almighty for forgiveness. Thus, they became known as the “Holy Rollers.” Increasing the ire of locals was the fact that these marathon prayer sessions often brought out a side of Corvallis’ women that their husbands did not appreciate, but a side Creffield did appreciate. Soon rumors of nudity, depravity and free love spread throughout the Willamette Valley.
The town of Corvallis was quickly tiring of the BCC’s shenanigans and, to salt the wound, Creffield had begun convincing some of the town’s married women to leave their husbands to join the sect.
The Jan. 6, 1904, Corvallis Times mentions Creffield being tarred and feathered by locals and told to leave town. Instead, he married a woman, in town, the very next day.
Knowing his house was home to more than just him and his new bride, just three days later, on Jan. 9, the Times asked if Creffield could “live in the same locked house with a number of young girls, and do nothing in the world but be religious.”
Creffield was arrested on a handful of occasions and served time around Oregon but never was incarcerated for long. At one point he told his followers he was responsible for the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which they believed.
As time went, on the pressure from locals eventually became too much. Creffield was forced to leave Corvallis and become nomadic as his number of followers continued to grow.
In April 1906 in the town of Yaquina, which is now part of Newport, Creffield was to meet up with a woman and her daughter that wished to join his "church." The woman's husband had secretly followed them and attempted to assassinate Creffield, but his gun jammed and Creffield was unharmed.
Creffield fled with some of his followers. A group of five of his flock, along with a baby, stayed on the coast. They migrated south by foot. Locals in Waldport and the other small communities along the way had no interest in helping and the women eventually found shelter in a small sea cave south of Yachats.
Creffield resurfaced in Seattle in hopes of starting anew. He rented a sparsely furnished room and went about his business of accumulating followers. His dream was short-lived as George Mitchell, the brother of two other women who had joined his flock, tracked him down on the street and pulled his revolver. This time the gun didn’t jam. Much to the shock of his followers, their messiah was shot dead in the street.
Mitchell made no attempt to flee. In fact, he readily admitted to what he had done.
"Well, I shot the man for ruining my two sisters. That's all there is to it," said Mitchell.
Would the man be found guilty for this crime or was he only doing what any good brother would do? A jury would decide and almost every newspaper, not only in the northwest, but all over America, would cover the trial on their front page.
Meanwhile, unaware of any of these events, were the five women and baby in the small sea cave. They survived on mussels, clams and crabs and whatever else they could scavenge from the surrounding seashore. They all steadfastly agreed that it was only a matter of time before their savior, Joshua, came for them.
In fact, when timber cruiser George Hodges, of the long-disappeared community of Salado, came upon them and told them their leader was dead, they didn't believe him.
"Creffield is the Second Messiah," said one of the women in the cave.
Not only wouldn't they believe he was dead, they also had no interest in leaving.
“[Creffield] had told them to remain where they were until his return, and they refused every offer that I made to see them safely back to civilization," said Hodges. "They would rather starve to death than disobey his instructions."
Hodges left them all the food he had on his person and set out to find help. This wasn’t an easy task. Ignoring his pleas for these women’s safety, folks living in the area had no interest in helping these “Holy Rollers” — for they “would rather have let the unfortunates starve than do anything to encourage the male ‘Rollers’ to return to that part of the country.”
In fact, it appears that Hodges found no assistance and the women were not extracted from the cave until word reached relatives in Corvallis, who contracted with a Waldport farmer to help them back to civilization.
From then on, the little rocky hole on the Oregon Coast would be known as “Preacher’s Cave,” though the preacher it referred to never actually set foot in the cave.
Mitchell was tried before a jury of his peers and found not guilty by reason of insanity. Tragically, that is not the end of the story.
Mitchell’s sister, who was also a member of BCC, using money she earned from witness fees during her brother’s trial, purchased a gun. Just two days after being set free, Mitchell was shot and killed by his own sister as revenge for the killing of her messiah. The cult leader’s powers extended even from the grave.
After extraction from the cave, the women were sent to mental hospitals around the state to be “cured” of their “religiosity.” After being discharged, some of these women returned to the area and settled here. They had families and life went on.
In contrast to the original reaction, when the former “Holy Rollers” returned some years later, things were better.
Theresa McCracken, one of the authors of a book on the subject called “Holy Rollers,” says she believes many of BCC members came to the coast to find anonymity. She alleged they were successful, that is until the 1950s, when The Oregonian published an article about this story. Names people recognized from around Waldport were mentioned in that article and the secret was out.
“Kids were on the bus reading this article,” said McCracken. “They had never heard the story, but when they read it they realized it was talking about their parents.”
McCracken said locals went to every store in town that sold The Oregonian, bought every copy of that day's edition, and burned them all. They were determined to protect their and their neighbors’ secrets.
The secrets they couldn’t protect, well they simply moved on and realized that this was a story of good people who got wrapped up with the wrong person.
“The stigma stayed long after the news blew over, but locals were actually quite respectful and willing to let bygones be bygones,” said Brian Bray, great-nephew to one of the women from the cave.
The actual cave, itself, was not treated so well through the years. For years the cave was left virtually untouched, respected by locals and those that stumbled upon it alike. Sometime in the last 20 years, though, things have changed. The walls are covered in graffiti and the cave floor covered in trash.
It appears no preacher, God fearing or otherwise, spent any amount of time in the cave. It appears no human sacrifices were ever made or satanic rituals practiced in the cave. The worst thing that has ever happened there is probably happening right now; people that visit the cave aren’t treating the cave like the interesting and historically significant spot it is. They’re not even treating it like a normal sea cave should be treated. Some think the solution would be to mark its location, build a trail down and hope people will treat it with respect if they know what it is. Some feel the best solution is to simply keep quiet about where the cave is and simply let time cloud the memory of the cave's actual location.
There is no question the story is an important one, even if as just another mystery of the Oregon Coast.