Apocalypse Town: The Doomsday Disciples of Stelle, Illinois

iStock/DaveLongMedia
iStock/DaveLongMedia

In the early 1970s, people in the rural farming community of Cabery, Illinois, looked on with curiosity at what was happening in the cornfields surrounding their town. Ranch-style houses began popping up where stalks once grew, and began spreading out far enough to form street blocks. Plastic and paper factories were being erected. Well-dressed men and women orbited the development. The newcomers' intentions were mysterious, leading locals to begin speculating that their new neighbors might be part of a religious cult, or even laboring to build spaceships. Some longtime residents were so disturbed by the new arrivals that they’d drive by and fire weapons in the vicinity, hoping to scare them off.

But the people of Stelle, as the town came to be known (the word is German for "the place"), wouldn’t be so easily rattled. They believed the end of the world was looming, and they were preparing accordingly. Community friction would pale in comparison to the earthquakes, floods, and volcanic eruptions that would herald the dawning of a new civilization. As the rest of the world scrambled for resources, Stelle would manage its own water, sewage, and communications lines before relocating to a Pacific island—a sprawling collection of Adams and Eves who would survive the end of the world, which they believed would arrive on May 5, 2000.

The date was given to them by their leader, Richard Kieninger, a former engineer from Chicago who had prophesied the apocalypse and set them on a path of readiness. He predicted Stelle would grow to 10,000 inhabitants in just a few years.

He was off by about 9800 people.

 

Short, bespectacled, and soft-spoken, Kieninger was no one’s idea of a charismatic conductor of a new civilization. He even rejected his role at times, insisting he never sought out such an important function as society's savior. Instead, he claimed, it had been bestowed upon him.

In 1963, Kieninger wrote a book titled The Ultimate Frontier, a quasi-autobiography published under the pen name Eklal Kueshana, in which he described being visited as a youth by a “Brotherhood” of scientists and philosophers who instructed him to prepare for pending calamities by erecting a self-reliant society that observed the Golden Rule. For good measure, they branded his thigh with their symbol. (Kieninger would later decline to show journalists proof of his marking.)

Readers of The Ultimate Frontier, though few in number, embraced Kieninger’s message. By 1973, he and several others had pooled $169,000 to buy 320 acres of farmland in rural Illinois, roughly 85 miles south of Chicago. The flat, remote area seemed like an ideal place to wait out the pending chaos; Kieninger claimed he was told by the Brotherhood to focus his efforts there.

Residential housing and a water treatment plant were among the first construction jobs. Next came schools, sewage treatment facilities, and phone lines. (Stelle would eventually fight a nine-year court battle to have their own independently-operated telephone service separated from the major carriers.) Would-be residents idled in adjacent neighborhoods, waiting for an opportunity to join the community.

Space wasn’t the sole determining factor of Stelle citizenship. Kieninger didn’t actively recruit anyone: He had a pool of interested parties who had read his book, then sifted through them to see if they met the requirements for his budding utopia. Residents had to be at least 21 years old with some background in business, as Stelle would have to generate its own economy through entrepreneurial efforts. He turned away people he considered to be of less than sound psychological mind. He also required tithing of 10 percent, with the funds fueling the continued growth of the town. Kieninger said he accepted only about 25 percent of those who applied to become residents of Stelle.

Once accepted, Stelle occupants were expected to follow the behavioral mandates laid out in Kieninger’s book. There would be no drinking or intoxicants of any kind; smoking would be prohibited if people nearby found it unpleasant; men were required to shave and wear business attire even if they labored in construction, switching to their work clothes on site; women could not wear pants. Mothers were instructed not to work, as raising a child was considered of paramount importance; they were expected to offer one-on-one instruction for the first three years of a child's schooling.

In return, Stelle's citizens embraced one another. Doors were kept unlocked and lost $20 bills were pinned to community bulletin boards. Children flourished, reading at age 3 and writing by age 4.

As the 1970s wore on, Stelle blossomed, growing to house more than 200 residents and erecting solar-paneled buildings that would allow its citizens to thrive if electric services shut down in the wake of a collapsed society. Kieninger told curious journalists that Stelle would soon have its own self-contained shops and services, with residents walking into stores and putting items on credit to cut down on paper currency. Work was also moving along on airships that would relocate the community's entire population to a Pacific island when the natural disasters began.

There was just one problem: While Stelle was a united community, their collective faith in Kieninger was starting to wane. Lacking the kind of fiery charisma seen in other coercive cult leaders, Kieninger held little sway over the residents he once enticed to the area. When arguments broke out over the future of Stelle, his community did what any self-sufficient neighborhood would do when faced with a prophet who couldn’t deliver any prophecies: They kicked him out.

 

Kieninger’s departure from Stelle in 1975 was never explained in full. Some attribute it to a power struggle that broke out between Kieninger and his own wife, who remained in Stelle when Kieninger left to start a new community, Adelphi, in Texas. He returned to Stelle on a monthly basis for meetings as a kind of remote soothsayer before parting ways with them for good in 1986.

In the interim, residents of Stelle had begun to abandon some of the tenets that had brought them there in the first place. When 1976 passed without Kieninger’s predicted economic strife, faith in him was shaken. Citizens balked at being deemed survivalists or perceived as weird by their fellow Ford County residents. Building airships to transport them to new land was going nowhere. Why, people wondered, couldn’t they just exist as a cooperative community without a looming sense of dread?

So the behavioral requirements were largely dropped. There would be no more tithing. Instead, Stelle would focus its efforts on being a green community, expanding its use of solar energy, and using a 21-foot wind turbine for its water treatment plant.

By 1997, only a third of Stelle's 100 or so occupants still believed in Kieninger’s teachings; another third were reformed; the rest lived there simply because they liked it.

Today, Stelle is still on the map and promoting its eco-friendly habits. There are cooperative groups for gardening, tool-sharing, and meal preparation. The community lays claim to a number of U.S. firsts, including the first solar-powered telephone company and the first solar-powered wireless internet service. The further they get from Kieninger’s predicted world demise on May 5, 2000, the more Stelle has distanced itself from its former identity as a doomsday sect.

That’s fine by Kieninger, who never seemed totally comfortable with his appointed role as a prophet. After years had passed without calamity, he told a local newspaper that heralding the end of the world wasn’t as easy as it seemed.

"I’m getting kind of burned out trying to put a precise time on these things," he said.

9 Facial Reconstructions of Famous Historical Figures

A facial reconstruction of King Richard III unveiled by the Richard III Society in 2013
A facial reconstruction of King Richard III unveiled by the Richard III Society in 2013
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Why look at a painting of a historical figure when you can come face to face with one? Forensic facial reconstruction using scans of skeletal remains allows researchers to create 3D models of the face through a combination of science, history, and artistic interpretation. The results may be somewhat subjective, but they’re fascinating anyway. Here are nine facial reconstructions of famous people.

1. Richard III

In 2012, King Richard III’s skeleton was found below a parking lot in Leicester, England, where in 1485 he was hurriedly buried after dying in battle. A reconstruction (above) shows a young man, only 32 years old, with a gentle, approachable face. It’s a far cry from the child-murdering villain portrayed by Shakespeare and other writers. One thing they said does seem accurate, however: The skeleton had a curved spine from scoliosis, suggesting that Richard’s humpback may have been real.

2. Bach

J.S. Bach’s bust has sat on innumerable pianos for centuries, but he only posed for one portrait in his lifetime. So this reconstruction of his face—which was taken from a bronze cast of his skull—offers an interesting glimpse into the man beneath the 18th century wig. You get the same thick neck, underbite, and stern brow you see in the painting, but the reconstruction’s friendly, confused stare lacks the soul of the real man … and his music, for that matter.

3. Shakespeare

Apparently, no one knows anything about Shakespeare for sure—his hair color, his sexual orientation, how he spelled his name, whether he liked his wife, etc. Some people aren’t even sure whether he wrote his plays or not. So this rendering, taken from a death mask found in Germany, is bound to be controversial. But if it is Shakespeare, it’s pretty intriguing. It shows a man who suffered from cancer and had a sad, soulful face.

4. Dante

Maybe it’s because The Divine Comedy dealt with the ugliness of sin that Dante Alighieri is usually depicted as unattractive, with a pointy chin, buggy eyes, and enormous hooked nose. But a reconstruction done from measurements of the skull taken in 1921—the only time the remains have been out of the crypt—reveals a much more attractive Dante. The face has a rounder chin, pleasant eyes, and smaller nose than previously thought. It’s a face with character.

5. King Henri IV

The mummified head of France’s King Henri IV was lost after the French Revolution until a few years ago, when it showed up in a tax collector’s attic. In his day, Henri was beloved by everyone except the Catholic fundamentalists who murdered him in 1610. The hard-living king looks a bit old for his 56 years, but there’s a twinkle in his eyes. What the model cannot show, however, was how much the king stank—apparently he smelled of ”garlic, feet and armpits.”

6. Cleopatra’s Sister

Cleopatra hated her half-sister Arsinoe IV so much she had her dragged out of the temple of Artemis and murdered. In 2013, researchers said they had discovered what may be Arisone’s body, based on the shape of the tomb, carbon dating, and other factors. The resulting facial reconstruction shows a petite teenager of European and African blood. And yeah, maybe this is closer to what Arsinoe would look like if she were trapped in The Sims, but since Cleopatra’s remains are long gone, this may be the closest we get to knowing what she looked like.

7. King Tut

King Tutankhamun, whose famous sarcophagus has traveled far more than the “boy king” did in his 19-year lifetime, had buckteeth, a receding chin, and a slim nose, according to 3D renderings of his mummy. His weird skull shape is just within range of normal and was probably genetic—his father, Akhenaten, had a similarly shaped head. Tut’s body also had a broken leg, indicating he may have died from falling off a horse or chariot.

8. Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus, who challenged the belief that the sun revolved around the earth, died in 1543 at age 70. When his body was found in 2006 in a Polish church and confirmed by matching DNA to strands of his hair left in a book, the Polish police used their forensic laboratory to make this portrait. They made sure to include Copernicus’s broken nose and the scar above his left eye. Who knew that the Father of Astronomy looked so much like the actor James Cromwell?

9. Santa Claus

The remains of St. Nicholas, i.e. Santa Claus, have been in a church in Bari, Italy, since they were stolen from Turkey in 1087. This reproduction, taken from measurements of his skull, reveal that St. Nicholas had a small body—he was only 5’6”—and a huge, masculine head, with a square jaw and strong muscles in the neck. He also had a broken nose, like someone had beaten him up. This is consistent with accounts of St. Nicholas from the time: It turns out that Santa Claus had quite a temper.

A version of this list was first published in 2013.

Fabric Allegedly From Queen Elizabeth I’s Only Surviving Piece of Clothing Is Going on Display

© Historic Royal Palaces Courtesy of St. Faith's Church, Bacton
© Historic Royal Palaces Courtesy of St. Faith's Church, Bacton

When Eleri Lynn, curator of historic dress at Historic Royal Palaces, first laid eyes on the Bacton altar cloth, she had a feeling that it wasn’t your typical 16th-century altar cloth. She had come across it online while researching Welsh connections to the Tudor court, and decided to pay a visit to St. Faith’s Church in Bacton, Herefordshire, England, to see it in person.

“I knew immediately that it was something special,” she told The Telegraph. “As I examined it, I felt as though I had found the Holy Grail, the Mona Lisa of fashion.” After a year’s worth of careful analysis, experts believe it was originally part of a dress that Queen Elizabeth I wore in the Rainbow Portrait of 1602. That makes it the only known surviving piece of clothing worn by the Virgin Queen.

Elizabeth I Rainbow Portrait
Isaac Oliver, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The cloth and Elizabeth I’s dress are both embroidered with roses, daffodils, and other flowers. The altar cloth shows animals like butterflies, frogs, squirrels, and bears, which Lynn thinks were added after the Rainbow Portrait was painted. Lynn also noticed that the altar cloth contains strands of gold and silver, which only the royal family could wear during Elizabeth I’s reign due to strict sumptuary laws.

Bacton altar cloth from Elizabeth I's dress
© Historic Royal Palaces Courtesy of St. Faith's Church, Bacton

Close-up on Bacton altar cloth from Elizabeth I's dress
© Historic Royal Palaces Courtesy of St. Faith's Church, Bacton

Since royal attire was so extravagant, it was often handed down to the next generation or reincarnated as upholstery. And, according to a statement from Hampton Royal Palaces, Elizabeth I sometimes gave her hand-me-downs to Blanche Parry, her Chief Gentlewoman of the Bedchamber and the woman who had nursed her from infancy. Parry, as it so happens, belonged to St. Faith’s Church. Lynn and her fellow historians posit that Elizabeth I may have even sent this particular fabric to St. Faith’s in memory of her companion.

While recycling or reusing clothing was sustainable, it has made it difficult for Lynn and her contemporaries to track down fashion relics from the Tudor dynasty. In addition to that, Lynn told The Telegraph, “Oliver Cromwell sold off every item of clothing in the royal stores, so the only things we have, including a hat which might have been worn by Henry VIII, have come back to Hampton Court after they have survived elsewhere.”

St. Faith’s has loaned the cloth to Historic Royal Palaces, the charity that oversees Hampton Court Palace, where you can see it on display along with the Rainbow Portrait and other Tudor artifacts from October 12, 2019, to February 23, 2020.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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