By Diane Euston
It was a cold December day on the streets of Kansas City. At 4th and Main, some attention was drawn to a group of strangers led by a wiry, bearded older gentleman and an attractive woman, singing on the corner, asking those passing by to give them money.
What made the scene especially odd was that accompanying the two adults were a slew of unkempt children ranging from three to 14 years old – and it was in the middle of a school day.
A juvenile court officer sauntered by and noticed the scene and walked up to the adults to inquire why the children weren’t in school. What happened in a matter of minutes was a shootout – with the children involved in the attack – in the middle of downtown.
“I am Adam God, father of Jesus Christ!” the leader screamed with a Bible in one hand and a revolver in the other stuffed in the face of the juvenile court officer.
On December 8, 1908, five people lost their lives, and at the center of the event was a religious cult leader known to his followers as “Adam God.”
Before we explore this shocking Adam God Riot on Kansas City’s streets, we need to take a closer look at how this religious sect developed and who was at the center of this horrific event.
James and Melissa Sharp
James Sharp was born in 1857 near Lebanon, Mo. to parents Charles and Eliza. The third born of four children, James was reared on a farm in Pulaski County when his father enlisted in the Union Army. Unfortunately, tragedy struck young James’ life early when his father died of measles in Rolla in 1862. Just 10 months later, his mother died.
This left five-year-old James and three other siblings as orphans. His paternal uncle took the young children in and raised them in Camden Co., Mo.
From James’s own testimony, he explained that by the age of 13 he was out on his own making money from gambling on riverboats. From there, he floated town-to-town with no true direction.
Melissa Frances Roper was born in 1871 in Texas Co., Mo. to Tennessee-born parents, William and Mary. She was raised on a farm there. Somewhere along the way, 30-year-old James Sharp was able to woo a 16-year-old Melissa to marry him. In 1887, they wed in Lawrence Co., Ark.
Her brother later wrote, “James Sharp stole her from home when he wanted to marry her. And I hear from some others that he abused her; shaved her eyebrows off and cut her hair when he got mad at her.”
Those words were written many years later after the murders in Kansas City, so whether or not it is true could be argued.
What is known is that the couple traveled to various places and had a son named Lee in 1894 in California. And, they had an older child named Thomas that remains a bit of a mystery.
By 1903, the couple had settled on a farm nine miles from Woodward, Okla. One evening, Melissa was standing at their door at their dugout house when her husband, James saw a meteor crash onto their farm. While most men would dig up the pieces and sell them to a museum, this event was terrifying for James.
“He screamed at the skies to be forgiven and fell flat on the ground praying,” the newspaper wrote. For two weeks, James cried and prayed.
James later recalled that the Holy Spirit came to him in the pasture and told him to preach. He spoke to his wife, and she explained, “We shook hands and agreed to it.” His divine message, they decided, was best told while traveling.
They sold their farm worth about $1000 and their team, cow and farming implements and promptly donated the $250 they got for it to the poor.
The religious conversion of James and Melissa Sharp had begun.
After two years of roaming around the countryside, James and Melissa had gained some followers of their new religion. At the heart of it was the claim that James was a reincarnated Adam and his wife, Melissa, was Eve.
They were seen on the streets of small towns, “traveling overland in an old wagon with the words ‘Gospel Wagon’ painted on the wagon box.”
A 20-year-old Scottish-born evangelist named John Aitkin had joined the group and claimed to be “God almighty.”
On April 18, 1905, “the most amazing spectacle ever seen on the streets of Oklahoma City” unfolded. There, on S. Broadway at 3pm, James, Melissa, 11-year-old son, Lee and John Aitkin marched completely nude “singing and shouting hallelujahs.”
The leader, surprisingly, was 20-year-old Aitkin. He told the newspaper, “In a day or two we will be killed and lie dead for three days and three nights. Then we will be resurrected. Just as soon as we are killed there will be an earthquake and 7000 people in this city will be killed!”
Within several minutes, the group was surrounded by Oklahoma City police, clothed “under protest” and put in front of the insanity board. When asked if they were ashamed of their actions, James emphatically said no and explained, “I never experienced such perfect peace as that I felt when I had thrown aside my garments and was perfectly naked.”
Aitkin was sent to the asylum for a year, and the Sharps were released after one month.
The Sharps disappeared temporarily into the countryside until more conversions hit the newspaper headlines.
Give Up Your Land and You Shall Be Free
In January 1906, James, living with his family in a two-room shack in Ft. Smith, Okla., made the newspapers again. He claimed that his religion called on him- reincarnated Adam- to be joined by four beasts.
The first beast, “a lion,” was Aitkin who was admittedly still locked up in the asylum. The second beast, “a flying eagle,” was a new follower named John James Pratt, Jr. (1865-1951), also known as Jack. Jack’s younger brother, Lewis, Lewis’s wife and children would soon be in the thick of this traveling cult.
James claimed his son Lee had not been seen since August 1905, and Melissa claimed, “He was stolen from us [in Kansas] and placed in a reform school.” James called his 11-year-old son “the youngest preacher in the world.” Although he couldn’t read or write, he knew the Scriptures.
By 1906, the Sharps took a handful of followers southwest of Oklahoma City to Boone. After Aitkin was released from the insane asylum, he allegedly stayed on for a few more months because he found he could convert more followers there. Aitkin was back with the Sharps by the summertime, and the religious sect began to call themselves “Adamites.”
In August, 10 men, including James, were arrested in Oklahoma and charged with “unbecoming conduct and disturbing the peace.” The story that unfolded was certainly concerning.
Sixteen-year-old Lucy Comer wrote to her older sister, revealing that their widowed father, William Comer had allowed the Sharps and all their followers to encamp on their farm in June 1906. Within a short time, Comer had been converted and turned over his $7000 farm and equipment to the group. About 45 members of this religious cult were living in tents “in a promiscuous manner, disregarding all marriage rights or marriage relations, and pretending to assert that they live in the Garden of Eden.”
The farm had become overgrown, as it was part of this religion to not work. Those who joined were expected to turn over all of their money and possessions into a communal account to be used for whatever the group would need.
James claimed to cure one member of the cult of blindness while another was cured of consumption. Comer, who had turned his farm over to the cult, claimed that he had suffered from stomach trouble and lack of appetite until Adam God cured him.
Thirty-one-year-old Jack Pratt had convinced his brother, Lewis (b. 1864) his wife, Della (b. 1877) and their five children under the age of 11 to sell their farmland and home to join the cult. On Comer’s land, the Adamites lived in tents until Comer’s daughter’s letter tipped off authorities.
She wrote that two young children, identified as two-year-old Edna Pratt and six-year-old Ellen Perrin had been tied to a tree for days by Eve (Melissa Sharp) “because they would not believe.” The children were covered in mosquito bites.
Unfortunately, records don’t indicate exactly what happened, but the members arrested were found not guilty.
For a short time, the cult seems to have separated, with the Pratts moving to Kansas City and the Sharps continuing on to Denver, Colo.
“The Public School is Wicked and the Devil is Its Teacher”
After leaving Oklahoma, Lewis Pratt, his wife and children surfaced in Kansas City in October 1906 where they sought out the charity of the Provident Association who put the family up at 914 E. 3rd St. There, Lewis refused to work “although his family were starving and in need of clothing and medicine.” He claimed God would support them.
When the general manager threatened to remove his children if he did not work to support his family, Lewis went to work in the society’s wood yard. The general manager said he needed to drop religion and get to work, and in response, the Kansas City Star reported, Lewis said he “could get more money from people on the street than he could by work.”
Lewis’s young children and wife were singing on the streets for money instead of sending the children to school. A judge in Kansas City ordered the children to attend Karnes School.
The order was ignored, and in February 1907, Lewis was back in court. He told the judge, “The public school is wicked and the devil is its teacher.” He insisted the children would get their education from the Bible.
Under pressure from the judge, Lewis agreed to send his children to school the next day. When they didn’t show up, the judge sent a juvenile officer to look for him. The family had left Kansas City – for the time being.
Seeking the Garden of Eden in Denver
While the Pratts left for Kansas City, the rest of the religious cult headed to Denver, Colo. where they set up operations in a large frame house on the banks of the Platte River. The cult garnered enough attention that a national journalist sought them out in February 1907 and wrote an article which made it into newspapers across the nation.
The author wrote, “Perhaps the most freakish of cults to surface was the Adam and Eve sect with a mission to lead people back to the Garden of Eden.” The garden, the journalist stated, would be near Denver and members would wear nothing but fig leaves.
The journalist was led into the home by Mother Eve, formerly Melissa Sharp, and into a room full of dirty, unkempt children. There, “a wild-eyed, tremendously whiskered man sat upon a throne and announced in a loud voice that he was Adam, sent to lead men back into the Garden of Eden.”
The journalist was introduced to 12-year-old Lee, James and Melissa’s son, who they now claimed was Abel reincarnated. The journalist asked if there was an Abel, there must be a Cain.
Mother Eve acknowledged there was a Cain. Her son, Thomas, was Cain but had done “a lot of dreadful things” and “could not come into the Garden of Eden.” Mother Eve continued, “He is working for a grocer in Kansas City and is earning filthy lucre.”
This was the only mention of another son named Thomas in all of the records located.
Mother Eve told the journalist, “We shall not have money or clothes or house or any property. We shall sleep in the fields or under tents, and every man will take what he needs from his neighbor. . . Adam will cleanse men from their sins and lead them back to the Garden. There we shall live forever.”
A follow-up article written three months later indicates that Adam (James Sharp) had grown violent in his predictions for the future and had set his sights on a new Garden of Eden.
After acknowledging that none of their followers worked, the children were not taught to read or write and everyone turned their possessions into a common fund, James (Adam) exclaimed, “This here city is mighty wicked, and I am a-going to bring destruction upon it. . . I am a-going to get vengeance. I haven’t decided just how. Maybe I’ll have one of them mountains move over here and squash out the whole town, but I don’t know yet.”
After destroying Denver, the self-proclaimed Adam God planned to “go on a mission as the Messiah to the waiting people of British Columbia.”
Doukhobers in British Columbia
James had heard of the Russian religious sect that rejected the government and practiced pacifism. In 1899, 8000 members of the Doukhobers sailed to Saskatchewan.
In 1908, their leader, Peter Verigin went to southwest British Columbia to buy land to create a self-contained community for 6000 of the Doukhobers.
James had not only convinced himself he was Adam God; he also convinced himself and a dozen of his followers that he was what the leaderless Doukhobers needed. In July, they crossed over the border to join up with the Russian-born sect.
Armed with guns, the Adamites were confronted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who, deciding they were likely harmless, let them continue north into Canada. When Sharp and his followers arrived at the Doukhobor settlements, they were shocked when the religious sect declined Adam God’s invitation to be their new Messiah.
With arms still in hand, the Adam God sect headed back south and back into the United States.
A New Houseboat as Home
In August 1908, the group, limited in numbers, went to Montana near White Earth where they preached in small towns. There, they met 19-year-old Willie Enghnell, an epileptic from a large Swedish family. He was easily converted and handed over all he owned to James. Willie later explained, “I gave him two revolvers and everything else I had because he was Adam.”
The Adam God cult, including leaders James and Melissa Sharp, Lewis and Della Pratt, the Pratt’s five children and Willie Enghnell moved southwest. Each of the cult members – including the small children- learned to shoot at targets as they moved camp to camp. They carried guns, according to their leader, because “we knew our enemies were comin.’” When they hit the Missouri River, they sold their wagon and bought a houseboat with plans to float south to Kansas City.
The Adam God Riot
When the group arrived in Kansas City in approximately November 1908, they tied up their houseboat near the Hannibal Bridge. They had yet to find their Garden of Eden, but they had accumulated a surplus of firearms.
On Dec. 18, 1908, Kansas City and the rest of the nation could no longer ignore the Adamites led by Adam God, James Sharp. At the end of the incident at 4th and Main, five people were dead and a slew of questions remained.
The details described here were never completely revealed in 1908, but pieces of the cult’s story came out. In the next issue of the Telegraph, we will explore the Adam God Riot, the sentencing and the aftermath of the cult members who did survive that fateful day.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com