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Friday, November 25, 2011

Bishop Sam Mullet: Amish Outlaw

     Whenever an Amish man gets his name in the paper, or is seen on television, it's because he has run afoul of the law. That's because the Amish, unlike their English counterparts, avoid calling attention to themselves. The crimes that bring unwanted publicity to these private people are mostly petty, and usually involve alcohol and Amish boys in their teens.

     Edward Gingerich got on TV and in the regional press after he stomped his wife to death in 1993. My mass market paperback about the case, Crimson Stain, made him the most notorious Amish man in the country, perhaps the world. Earlier this year, when he hanged himself in a barn, he briefly popped up in the news. If his name comes up again in print or on TV, it will be as a deceased relative of an Amish law breaker.

     Sam Mullet, the 66-year-old bishop of an eighteen-family Amish enclave in and around the village of Bergholz, Ohio, has been in and out of the local news for almost ten years. The cult-like leader of a renegade group at odds with the larger Amish community in central and eastern Ohio, Mullet has been accused of beating and brainwashing members of his clan as well as having sex with a number of married Amish women. In September 2008, Mullet's son Chris pleaded guilty to three counts of unlawful sexual conduct with two minors in 2003 and 2004.

     In my book, Swat Madness, I wrote about a 2007 SWAT raid on a Bergholz Amish school house. In that raid, Jefferson County Sheriff Frank Abdalia, a longtime Mullet adversary, seized the children of a Bergholz Amish man who claimed that members of Mullet's enclave had sexually molested his children. The complaintant's wife, Wilma Troyer, had refused to let her husband take their children to another community.

     During a three week period in late September and early October 2011, men from the Bergholz group, allegedly on Sam Mullet's orders, invaded Amish dwellings in Holmes and other Ohio counties where the intruders forceably cut the hair and beards off the men, and shaved the heads of the Amish women. These terroristic raids were intended to degrade, intimidate, and humiliate the targets of Sam Mullet's wrath. The bishop had allegedly asked his raiders to bring back photographs and clippings of his victims' hair as proof his orders had been carried out.  (According to author and Amish scholar Donald B. Kraybill, mens' beards and the uncut hair that married Amish women roll into buns are treasured symbols of religious identity.)

     On October 8, 2011, Sheriff Abdalia's deputies arrested Sam Mullet's sons, 38-year-old Johnny and 53-year-old Lester. The deputies also arrested Levi and Lester Miller. Johnny and Lester Mullet were charged with burglary and kidnapping in connection with the hair and beard cutting home invasions in Holmes, Carroll, and Trumbell Counties. Shortly after their arrests, the Amishmen were released after making bail.

     FBI agents and Jefferson County deputies, on November 22, arrested Sam Mullet, three of his sons, and three others from his clan on federal civil rights charges as well as a number of state violations related to the hate crime home invasions. The United States Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio said, "While people are free to disagree about religion in this country, we don't settle those disagreements with late night visits, dangerous weapons, and violant attacks."

     Articles about Sam Mullet that included photographs appeared in the New York Times and hundreds of newspapers across the country. CNN and Fox News aired segments on the FBI arrests. Suddenly Sam Mullet and his local band of Amish outlaws were national news figures, an extremely rare event in the Amish world. While the Amish abhor notoriety, the media loves it because people are fascinated with Amish culture. Although stories like this tell us virtually nothing about how the Amish really live, they provide the illusion of accessibility into the darkest corners of Amish life.


  1. An interesting article. I find it fascinating, as most Americans do, when the Amish make their presence in the media. The stereotype of the "average Amish family," to me at least, consists of a tight family presence, hard work, and a general notion of kindness and respect. However, stereotypes are not all inclusive. Fundamentalism is present in some degree in all cultures. Assuredly, the ACT of cutting off the hair of both Amish men and women is, short of sexual assault, probably the most heinous, disrespectful, and disturbing eve t that they could ever have experienced. As such, it can only be defined as a hate crime, and should be prosecuted as one. Personally, I am curious as to whether the Amish who were assaulted will go outside of the law to seek justice. Being so removed from society and its laws and customs to begin with, I wonder if those harmed will retaliate violently to seek revenge. If I was one of the victims who had their sacred religious identity forcibly removed, I would at least consider the notion of seeking vengeance with my fists, instead of the hand of the law.

  2. Their ethic of forgiveness may prevent them from reacting violently with one another. If that is the case, then they strike me as being really distinct in historical terms. I would like to hear from an anthropologist or sociologist regarding how rare it is for a group to practice this kind of ethic of non-retaliation (beyond 'shunning') that the Amish practice.

  3. This latest Amish episode reminds me of "Witness" an Amish movie filmed or set in Iowa years ago.