Apologetics Index

Holy City – William E. Riker

Little is left of Holy City these days but legends and lore about the oddball cult whose members pumped gas, preached white supremacy and sold “holy water” to tourists in a hollow off Highway 17 in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

For the first time in decades, though, there are dreams about its future. Holy City is for sale: 140 acres for $11 million.

The three men in their 80s who have owned the land for nearly 40 years, including contractors Leo Pellicciotti and Harry Bellicitti of Saratoga, have put it on the market.
– Source: Former Holy City for sale — minus cult members, The Daily Review, USA, Nov. 20, 2006

The story of Holy City is one of the most colorful along Highway 17 and I highly recommend an excellent unpublished paper by Joan B. Barriga called “The Holy City Sideshow.” Author Betty Lewis has also authored an excellent book on the subject.

Holy City was established by “Father” William E. Riker, known to his band as “The Comforter,” along with 12 members of his Brotherhood of The Perfect Christian Divine Way in 1919. Holy City was believed by its devout followers to be the future center of the world – a utopia with Riker and his wife as King and Queen.

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William Riker was born in 1873 in California. As a young man he was good looking and had a magnetic personality that worked especially well on women. He started as “Professor” Riker doing palm reading and then went on a national tour doing a mind reading act. While in San Francisco, the District Attorney filed bigamy charges against him and Riker quickly fled to Canada leaving both his wives behind.

In Canada he developed a new philosophy called The Perfect Christian Divine Way that emphasized white supremacy, total segregation of the races, no drinking of alcohol, separation of the sexes and being “born again.” He returned to San Francisco and set up a commune, requiring his followers to give their money to him to free themselves from worldly concerns. In 1918 he bought 75 acres of land in the mountains about 10 miles south of Los Gatos for $6,000 or $7,000, later expanding it to 200 acres. By this time his congregation was up to 30 people and Riker had them building and running tourist oriented businesses.

Riker was apparently exempt from his religious rules of being separated from women because he soon married Lillian. One of his earliest women disciples, Frieda Schwartz, became irate at this and filed suit to recover her funds. There was great publicity over the suit but it only served to draw curiosity seekers to the area. Soon Riker had a $100,000 a year tourist trade business going alongside the Old Santa Cruz Highway including a restaurant, comfort station, gas station and observatory where for 10¢ visitors could see the moon through a telescope. Billboard signs enticed visitors with: “Holy City answers all questions and solves all problems” and “See us if you are contemplating marriage, suicide or crime.” Although Holy City was advertised as a religious place, in fact no church was ever built.

In 1926 Holy City was incorporated with all property and income in Riker’s name. In 1929 he established radio station KFQU [Adult readers might want to try pronouncing the radio station call letters silently to themselves ]. This was the second licensed station in California, although Riker’s license was revoked two years later for “irregularities”. While it was transmitting it offered a broad variety of popular programming including a one-half hour show with a Swiss yodeler. In the 30s Holy City’s population grew to 300, mostly out-of-work drifters from the depression who could find work there.

In 1938 Riker ran as a minor candidate for California’s Governor (he later ran three more times) and in 1942 he was arrested by the FBI for pro-German sentiments. This was during World War II and he was writing support letters to Hitler. The famous attorney Melvin Belli represented Riker in court and freed his client – but then Riker filed suit against Belli, claiming the lawyer had defamed his character during the trail by repeatedly referring to him as a “crackpot”. Belli also won that case and got his $7,500 fee.

About this same time, Highway 17 opened and there was a dramatic drop in traffic along the Old Santa Cruz Highway running through Holy City. The city began to decline, and in 1959 a complicated real estate transaction threatened to take control of the property away from Riker, then 86, who fought it and lost. A series of mysteriously set fires then destroyed most of the buildings. Finally in 1966, at age 93, Riker shocked his few remaining disciples by announcing that he had converted to Catholicism. He died soon after in 1969 at Agnew State Hospital.
– Source: Richard Beal, Highway 17: The Road to Santa Cruz, Pacific Group,

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First published (or major update) on Sunday, November 12, 2006.
Last updated on December 26, 2006.

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