Trial offers a crash course in the Amish

Erik Eckholm / New York Times News Service /


Published Sep 2, 2012 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

CLEVELAND — When Nancy Mullet entered a federal courtroom here Thursday to testify in the hate-crimes trial of her father-in-law, Samuel Mullet Sr., and followers of his renegade sect, the jury knew at a glance which side she favored in this wrenching clash among Amish.

She was not wearing the small white scarf, tied behind the head to reveal the ears, that was adopted last year by Mullet’s group and adorned his six female co-defendants and a dozen other women from his settlement who watched the proceedings from the gallery.

Instead, she wore the white cap with a chin tie that is preferred by most of the region’s conservative Amish orders. Seemingly small distinctions in clothing are filled with religious meaning.

As Nancy Mullet walked to the witness chair, she passed a cluster of women wearing the same kind of cap, who had come in support of victims of the peculiar beard-cutting attacks by Samuel Mullet’s followers that roiled eastern Ohio last fall.

Jury members and spectators alike received a crash course in Amish culture from testimony during the first week of the trial. They had heard a prior witness snap at an unwary lawyer who referred imprecisely to a hair covering, telling him, “It’s a cap, not a bonnet.”

To many outside his clique, Mullet’s decision to have the women switch from caps to what others disparaged as “skimpy scarves” was one more sign that he was isolating his flock and leading them into sin.

Adopting different headgear was hardly Mullet’s most serious transgression in the years leading up to last fall’s violence. According to Amish critics, Mullet created a cult with decidedly un-Amish traits, including sexual favors for the bishop (himself), unheard-of methods of discipline, such as forcing miscreants to ponder their sins in a chicken coop, and festering anger at those who quit his church.

For the Amish, the minute practices of daily life, from hair coverings to choice of buggy wheels, are intertwined with their fundamentalist Christian beliefs.

The 16 defendants could be tried for simple assault without going into the fine points of what those on both sides call the Amish way. But to prove the far more serious hate-crime charges brought here by the U.S. attorney, Steven Dettelbach, prosecutors must show that religious differences drove the attacks. Groups from Mullet’s 18-family settlement near Bergholz, Ohio, are accused of forcibly shearing the beards and hair of perceived enemies.

So prosecutors have stressed the religious aspects of Mullet’s bitter feuds with critics and those who dared flee his settlement, and whom he accused of doing the devil’s work. They have heard Amish describe how profoundly their self-worth is tied to their uncut beards — Mullet’s is a foot long — and hair. One of the forcibly shorn men, his wife said, sat through dinners holding his napkin over his chin.

To counter the hate-crime charges, defense lawyers have tried to focus instead on the personal grudges and family disputes that affected the choice of victims.

Between the symbol-laden appearance of many in the courtroom and statements that, coming from the reticent Amish, can only be called startling, the trial has presented a spectacle. Mullet’s wife, Martha, sat impassively as she heard her daughter-in-law describe being repeatedly forced into sex with Mullet, only to have him call her a whore when she finally refused. Two of Mullet’s brothers and two of his sisters in the gallery — in caps, not scarves — barely concealed their disgust as defense lawyers described his odd practices as true Amish.

Most of the witnesses speak Pennsylvania Dutch at home, and some apologized as they groped for the right English word.

Conservative Amish end schooling at the eighth grade and do not watch television. The girls are taught to cook, sew, raise children and obey their husbands. The Bergholz women in the courtroom, who have led particularly isolated lives, watched raptly as two female prosecutors managed the government’s case and as a federal marshal with pink handcuffs on her belt stood by. (All the court-appointed defense lawyers are men.)

Because it was so central to Mullet’s disputes, the jurors got a quick education in the Amish tradition of shunning, or excommunicating individuals who defiantly stray from the path. “It’s a last resort” and “a heartbreaking thing to do,” testified Andy Hershberger, who was attacked along with his 76-year-old father, Raymond, in October by some of Samuel Mullet’s sons, wielding razor-sharp horse shears for clipping horse manes.

Shunnings should occur only after months of discussion and a near-unanimous vote of the congregation, Hershberger said. Normally, other Amish groups respect the decision and tell the offender he must make amends with his original church.

Attackers told the elder Hershberger that he became a target because he had joined other Amish leaders in rejecting Mullet’s use of shunning decrees against people who quit his settlement.

Some 300 bishops from three states gathered in 2006 in Ulysses, Pa., to discuss the issue. They appointed a committee, including Hershberger, that made the rare decision not to honor Mullet’s decrees.

It was a stinging rebuke that Mullet never forgave.

The story of Bergholz is filled with contradictions. An adult daughter of Barbara and Martin Miller told the court how she and five brothers went to live with Mullet’s group because it offered a more conservative, biblical Amish life. Compelled to testify for the prosecution, that daughter, Nancy Burkholder, also said the children had deeply resented their father’s constant criticism.

Yet those children cast their lot with a leader whose teachings are far from orthodox, and who is known for vindictive rages. The women of Bergholz, according to testimony, became angry a year or two back at their husbands, accusing them of ogling “English” women, as non-Amish are called, while shopping. The unrest reached the point where, under Mullet’s supervision, several men had to spend days in chicken coops and consent to beard-shearing to help them renew their faith.

Yet some of these same women, according to testimony that went unchallenged by the defense, accepted Mullet’s intimate sexual “counseling” and urged others to give in to his ministrations.

The Amish are nothing if not private, and the airing of family rifts and church battles has, for many, been little short of a cataclysm. Barbara Miller, who is Mullet’s sister, had to listen as her daughter exclaimed to the world she was a bad parent; then she had to describe how her children and their spouses came one night to cut her husband’s beard and her own waist-length hair, and how they called their parents “godless” and collected the shorn locks in a paper bag to present to Mullet.

“It’s the worst thing I’ve ever done,” Miller said of her own painful testimony.