Excerpt: Renegade Amish: Beard Cutting, Hate Crimes, and the Trial of the Bergholz Barbers

Author Donald B. Kraybill looks at the controversy in Ohio over Amish beard cutting hate crimes in this excerpt from his new book, Renegade Amish: Beard Cutting, Hate Crimes, and the Trial of the Bergholz Barbers.

renegadeamishEditor’s Note: On Wednesday, a divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit overturned the convictions of 16 men and women for hate crimes against fellow Amish in northeast Ohio. As this new book on the trial suggests, the unusual case could end up at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Amish. Hate. Crimes. These three words suddenly linked arms in the fall of 2011 when a string of beard-cutting attacks startled the Amish community in eastern Ohio. The fact that the perpetrators were Amish generated an avalanche of news stories about Amish-on-Amish violence as the bizarre story played out until the defendants were sentenced in February 2013.

Pundits and late night talk shows alike poked fun at the Amish—these supposed saints who now had streaks of sin on their faces. Even a cartoonist joined in the humor by depicting a distraught Santa Claus with only stubbles on his chin waiting in vain for children to sit on his lap.

Apart from beards, bonnets, and buggies, nonviolence is a cardinal signature of Amish identity. That a band of supposedly pacifist Amish had assaulted their own people shattered all the Amish stereotypes in the popular imagination.

When this cultural brawl finally ended, ten men and six women from a maverick Amish community near Bergholz, Ohio, were behind bars. A federal jury found them guilty of multiple charges involving conspiracy, hate crimes, kidnapping, lying, and obstructing justice. Most shocking of all, the three Bergholz clergymen—Bishop Samuel Mullet and his two ministers—were among those charged and convicted. The jurors found evidence that the assailants had attacked the Amish victims because of their religious beliefs.

Apart from etching violence into the annals of Amish history, the case set a new legal  precedent—under the 2009 Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act—for its first-time conviction of assailants for religion-driven hate crimes in the same faith community. In addition, because a hate crime conviction requires evidence of “bodily injury,” the jury had to judge whether or not cutting a beard qualified as disfigurement, which is one type of bodily injury.

The verdicts stretched the definition of bodily injury for hate crimes and the nature of acceptable evidence for interstate commerce—a requirement for federal jurisdiction and prosecution of hate crimes. Some legal experts considered the interstate commerce evidence tenuous in the Bergholz case, and others have even raised questions about the constitutionality of the Shepard-Byrd Act.

The Bergholz defendants filed an appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which will likely not announce its decision until late 2014 [see above]. The national import of the Bergholz verdict was underscored in March 2014 when forty prominent civil rights, human rights, religious, and law enforcement organizations, led by the Anti-Defamation League, urged the appeals court to uphold the constitutionality of the Shepard-Byrd Act and to affirm its application to violence within the same faith. The wide range of organizations included the American Association of People with Disabilities, Hindu American Foundation, Interfaith Alliance Foundation, National Center for Transgender Equality, National Urban League, Women of Reform Judaism, Police Executive Research Forum, and many others.

It is a sad irony that some peace-loving Amish became the first to be convicted—under the Shepard-Byrd Act—of violence within the same religious community. The legal issues of the case include not only bedrock constitutional ones but also the future application of the hate crimes statute in America.

Indeed, several constitutional law scholars and the trial judge, Daniel Aaron Polster, have speculated that the case might eventually wind its way to the United States Supreme Court.

In 2006 the Amish were in the media spotlight for their quick and astonishing forgiveness after a non-Amish gunman shot ten girls in a one-room Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. That story, overflowing with Amish acts of goodness, kindness, and compassion, touched the lives of thousands if not millions of people around the globe. But not the Bergholz story. This tragedy had few if any signs of goodness—only sadness, revenge, and violence.

While the “good Amish” in Nickel Mines readily forgave the shooter and his family, the “bad Amish” of Bergholz showered vengeance on their own people. How forced beard cuttings could ever cohere with Amish values was the perplexing riddle in hundreds of media stories.

The media coverage of the beard attacks was the most prominent Amish-themed reporting since the shooting at Nickel Mines. Journalists tracked the beard-cutting saga over eighteen months (September 2011 to February 2013), riveting it into the pages of Amish history and the public record. The story of the Bergholz barbers appeared in some 150 television programs and in more than seven hundred print and web stories worldwide. The New York Times, for example, reported four major stories in 2012—two in September and two in December—in addition to its initial coverage of the attacks.  Although the three-week federal trial in Cleveland unpacked evidence about the assaults and presented witnesses—who did what to whom, when, and where—it did not probe the cultural fabric or social history of the Bergholz clan, nor did it address the questions of why and how some gentle, pacifist folks turned violent against members of their own tribe.

This book tackles those questions by exploring the socio-cultural factors that transformed a small clan of Amish—nurtured in a religious tradition of nonviolence and forgiveness—into a culture of revenge and retaliation. What socio-religious conditions propelled this remarkable conversion within a few short years? What prompted a peace-loving people to create cult-like practices and an ideology of malice aimed at its own people? This story is significant not only  for its legal ramifications, but also because it clarifies the factors that led to the moral collapse at  Bergholz and the lessons it offers for all of us, Amish and non-Amish alike.

I was contracted by the US Department of Justice to assist the federal prosecutors in understanding Amish culture as they developed the case against the defendants. I also served as an expert witness at the three-week federal trial in September 2012, explaining Amish traditions and religious beliefs. The views and analysis expressed in this book, however, do not in any way reflect the opinions of the US Department of Justice or the prosecutors involved in this case.

My involvement with the prosecution and the trial offered insights into the case and provided valuable resources for my research. In addition, I drew from a variety of Amish-written documents and conducted interviews with thirty Amish people (twenty-two men and eight  women), law enforcement officers, and several non-Amish people, most of whom were involved with the Bergholz community in some way. The sources I relied on include interviews, court testimonies, legal documents, instructions to the jury, notes of a juror, Amish-written documents, police reports, and media reports. Citations for all of the sources appear in the endnotes.

The voices that speak in this book emerged from trial and hearing transcripts, my interviews, and the other sources noted above. These voices include fifteen members of Bishop Mullet’s immediate family—siblings, children, children’s spouses, nieces, and grandchildren—some of whom lived in Bergholz at the time of the trial. A total of eighteen of my sources had lived in Bergholz for an extended period of time at some point in their lives. I also present the opinions of law enforcement officers, non-Amish people who were involved in the case, and Amish people living outside of Bergholz. The narrative is based on my research as well as the testimony and opinions of all of these people. A multitude of credible eyewitnesses, many of whom testified under oath in court, provided accounts of behavior in Bergholz in their testimonies and interviews.

In telling this story, I use the names of those victims, defendants, and other Amish people whose names have previously appeared in trial and hearing transcripts, media stories, and signed correspondence published in Amish periodicals. However, I do not use the names of the Amish people I interviewed or of Mullet family members who did not testify at the federal trial, given the nature of the crimes and the continuing anxiety of some of these informants, and to protect their privacy and honor their preference.

I sincerely thank all of those who generously shared their time, ideas, and opinions in the interviews. I benefited immensely from the suggestions of several colleagues and others who read a draft of the manuscript and for the advice of an anonymous peer reviewer. Finally, I could not have hoped for a better and more professional editorial team than the one at the Johns Hopkins University Press. They were a delight and pleasure to work with through every step of the project.

Donald B. Kraybill, Ph.D., is senior fellow at the Young Center of Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. Among his many publications, he has authored, coauthored, or edited nine books on Amish society. The above is from Renegade Amish, By Donald Kraybill. Published by Johns Hopkins University Press © 2014.  Reprinted by permission of the publisher. 

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