Pillars of Fire

America’s first policewoman protects the unprotected in a Los Angeles brewing with danger. Mocked and hampered at every turn, and paid 73 cents on the dollar, Alice Wells tracks a missing heiress to an insidious cult — and transforms policing.

Nathan Masters
Feb 27, 2019 · 26 min read
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Across America, female suspects suffered beatings and worse at the hands of arresting officers.

Working from settlement houses within Chicago’s working-class neighborhoods, she and other volunteers dispensed childcare, medicine, education, and other badly needed services to the Windy City’s poor. The next stop was Brooklyn’s famously progressive Plymouth Church. After apprenticing for a minister, she graduated from seminary, broke barriers preaching from the pulpit, and led her own congregation back in the Midwest. There she met Frank Wells, a farmer from Wisconsin, and on December 23, 1905, the couple married. She resigned from the ministry to raise a family — Alice and Frank had three children — and around 1909 a business opportunity for Frank landed the entire Wells family in California.

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Los Angeles Police Headquarters. Photo courtesy of University of Southern California & California Historical Society.
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Photo courtesy of Ian Brabner, Rare Americana
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If not the devil, evil certainly lurked in Southern California as the first decade of the twentieth century drew to a close.

After splitting with the Burning Bush movement and emerging as the head of her own organization, the Pillar of Fire, Alma White received the title of superintendent for life. White ruled with an iron fist: “My word is final.” If White sensed that the devil had deceived one of her followers — if a recruit hinted through word or action at independence — she would make them the target of a “prayer siege.” “People,” White would say, “are like horses — no good until their spirit is broken.” She forbade medicine and doctors; the sick or injured received prayers or had their bodies anointed with oil. And she demanded total commitment from her followers. “There is only one way to join us,” she said. “That is to turn in all your money and live with us.” Helen Swarth, a former Jumper who escaped the Pillar of Fire and later penned a tell-all memoir, described White as someone who sought “to absorb the personality of the convert into…herself, leaving nothing but a shell devoid of originality or initiative.”

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Entering the eerie sanctum of Alma White, Alice may have second-guessed being unarmed.

Inside, the curtains were drawn and the room shrouded in darkness, except for one corner where the sunlight snuck in. The woman, taking a seat in the darkened part of the room, motioned for Alice to sit in the light.

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Nathan Masters

Written by

Nathan Masters is a writer and the Emmy Award-winning host and executive producer of Lost L.A., a public television series about Los Angeles history.

Truly*Adventurous

Truly*Adventurous is a media company conceived in a spirit of adventure and built with reckless faith in the power of punch-’em-in-the-teeth longform storytelling. We commission original true stories from the world’s best nonfiction artists.

Nathan Masters

Written by

Nathan Masters is a writer and the Emmy Award-winning host and executive producer of Lost L.A., a public television series about Los Angeles history.

Truly*Adventurous

Truly*Adventurous is a media company conceived in a spirit of adventure and built with reckless faith in the power of punch-’em-in-the-teeth longform storytelling. We commission original true stories from the world’s best nonfiction artists.

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