Akron faith healer David A. Messner’s congregation was doing just fine until THAT WOMAN arrived in the 1930s.
A dark-haired beauty with brown eyes, Madelyn Messner was 50 years younger than the gray-haired preacher who had been widowed for more than a decade.
Tongues wagged. Gossip spread. Scandal ensued.
Messner, a carpenter by trade, founded a tabernacle at West Bowery and Cedar streets about 1932 to promote “divine healing of physical ailments.”
Worshippers at the Divine Healing Gospel Mission called him “the Miracle Man.”
By gently daubing olive oil on the foreheads of sick people, Messner claimed to cure the illnesses of thousands of people.
“I represent a Christ who is able to heal men,” he said.
Born in Akron in 1860, Messner said he received his religious calling as a boy when he picked up a Bible at 3 a.m. in the family attic and began to read the 15th chapter of St. John — even though he hadn’t been taught how to read.
“God saw my intellect and showed me ‘The Word,’ ” he said. “That’s the way God works.”
Messner said he discovered the power to heal in 1894 while praying over a woman who had been shot by her husband.
“The Lord told me to put some oil on her forehead and I asked the Lord to heal her,” he said. “The Lord healed her.”
Testimonials of miraculous healings were common in Messner’s congregation.
In 1934, Carrie Gummo, 63, of South College Street, said she used crutches for seven years because severe rheumatism kept her from walking. When Messner anointed her with olive oil, she “felt the strength return” to her feet.
“Now every day, I walk a little,” she said. “God healed me.”
Dollie Meadows, a Nathan Street resident, said her 13-week-old daughter Lorena was born with a cleft palate, no thyroid gland and no tonsils.
She said the baby was cured after Messner anointed her: “X-rays taken just a few days ago show that she has tonsils, that her palate is cured and that her glands are there.”
Blindness, deafness and paralysis were among afflictions that Messner said could be cured. By request, he mailed out “blessed handkerchiefs” to people across the country.
“I buy them at 30 for a dollar,” Messner said. “I dip them in olive oil and mail them. They have had great results.”
Messner, 74, whose first wife, Sarah, died in 1920, met his second wife on a healing mission to City Hospital in 1935.
Madelyn Emery, 23, a Tallmadge native, was bedridden with a high fever when the preacher anointed her with oil.
“All at once I felt a thousand needles,” she recalled.
Three months later, the congregation received a jolt, too, when Messner and Emery got married in West Virginia.
“He’s the most wonderful man in the world,” Madelyn said in March 1936. “He’s too good for me, but then, he’s too good for any living woman.”
Bride works in office
The new bride, chatty and giggly, took over office duties at the healing mission, which by then had moved to South Main and Bartges streets.
Many in the congregation took a dislike to the pretty newcomer. Within months, the church services, which usually attracted hundreds, dwindled to dozens of worshippers.
Things unraveled further when Madelyn’s secret past began to emerge. For one thing, she already was married.
Bigamy charges were filed in August because she hadn’t formally divorced Orval Bishop, an Akron machinist whom she wed in September 1931.
Furthermore, she previously had been the wife of Akron rubber worker Ray Meekins, whom she married in June 1929 at age 17.
Pastor Messner was shocked at the news but professed his love for Madelyn.
“She told me she was single and had never had anything to do with any other man,” he told reporters.
Righteous indignation swept the congregation. In September 1936, all heck broke loose.
One night after a service, Messner returned to his apartment at 659 Wooster Ave. and found his wife writhing in pain. She sputtered something about being attacked. One side of her face was turning purple with nasty-looking burns. Messner called an ambulance.
Wrapped in gauze, Madelyn sobbed while telling police her story. She said she had received a phone call from a woman claiming to be in need of healing. When the doorbell rang, she went downstairs.
“I saw a man and woman standing there,” she said. “It was dark but I could see she had on a white dress with polka dots. Then she threw acid on me.”
Suspicion immediately fell on a churchwoman who had voiced opposition to the minister’s wife and was seen wearing a polka-dot dress that night. Police arrested the woman and questioned her, but she denied any involvement in the attack.
Vulgar, threatening letters arrived in the afternoon mail at the offices of local officials.
Akron Municipal Judge Don Isham received a note that read: “You saw what happened to Mrs. Messner. You’re next.”
A note to Summit County Prosecutor Herman E. Werner read: “You’ll be in a wheelchair when our bunch is done with you.”
The notes were signed “The Mission Comittee,” with “Committee” misspelled.
The investigation took a twist when police dug deeper into Madelyn’s history and found that she had claimed to be Madalayne La Vierre of Marseille, France, when she applied for a job at B.F. Goodrich in 1934.
After being hired, she often feigned illness. Bosses accused her of sticking pins in her fingers and holding a water bottle against her hand to mimic food poisoning.
Detectives questioned Madelyn for 11 hours at police headquarters while her husband, David, sat by her side, frequently kneeling in prayer.
“I am ready to tell the truth for the first time,” Madelyn finally blurted out. “I did it; I did it; but I don’t know why!”
She admitted that she had soaked a cloth in disinfectant and rubbed her face to create the illusion of an acid attack. It was a ploy for public sympathy.
“I guess it was the devil in me,” she told her husband.
“God have mercy on this poor creature, stripped naked of her lies,” Messner said.
Officers escorted Madelyn to jail. The next day, a threatening note arrived in the mail at the healing mission: “We got Mrs. Messner. We’ll get you.”
Messner cited the note as proof of Madelyn’s innocence despite her confession.
“My wife couldn’t possibly have sent this letter,” he said. “She was in jail all day.”
Police arrested him, too. After an hour of questioning, he admitted sending the last note.
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” he said. “I don’t even know of ever having told a lie in 60 years of church work.”
Chief Detective Verne Cross summed up the views of many when he told a reporter: “That whole bunch is goofy.”
David Messner pleaded guilty to making a false report to police and was fined $100.
Madelyn Messner was treated at Massillon State Hospital for four months. All charges against her were dropped.
The couple closed the tabernacle in May 1937.
“It’s our enemies who are causing us to leave,” Messner said. “They’ve been after our mission for a long time.”
The retired minister was 88 when he died in 1949. He was buried next to his first wife in East Akron Cemetery.
Madelyn Emery Meekins Bishop La Vierre Messner, who was not listed as a survivor, moved away, fell into obscurity — and was never seen again.
Beacon Journal copy editor Mark J. Price is the author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.