Over the years, Cincinnati has spawned a plethora of unconventional religious leaders, from Millerites to Theosophists and Spiritualists and voodoo doctors. Few were as colorful or controversial as J.C.F. Grumbine.
Growing up in Cincinnati, Jesse Charles Fremont Grumbine was a deeply thoughtful lad. Over the years, his theological investigations took him along a highly unconventional and eventful transcendental journey that involved a lot of young women.
Jesse’s father, Jeremiah Grumbine, came to Cincinnati from Maryland and set up a business manufacturing trunks and suitcases. He later became a city police officer and eventually a clerk at the Post Office. Jeremiah and his wife, Mary, had five children, all of whom pursued professional careers. Jesse’s older sisters became teachers, one brother became a doctor, and another a lawyer. Jesse, born in 1862, graduated from the old Woodward High School and went off to St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. St. Lawrence was founded by the Universalist Church, and he joined the clergy of that church on graduation, assigned to a congregation in Syracuse, where he married his first wife, Helen Gilbert.
Jesse’s restless spirit found the Universalist Church too confining, so he transferred his credentials to the Unitarians. In his new church, he occupied pulpits in New York, Missouri, and Illinois. The Missouri posting, although reported back in Cincinnati as providing a “large salary,” didn’t cover Rev. Grumbine’s rent. He lost other positions because of his liberal politics and bounced to Pittsburgh and St. Paul, Minnesota, where he finally gave up traditional religion for Spiritualism. Within a few years, he was listed among the top practitioners of that occult sect in a book titled Light of Truth Album:
“Mr. Grumbine is one of our most active workers at present. He was for many years a highly respected Unitarian minister at Geneseo, Ill. Being free from orthodox bias, he had the courage to look into Spiritualism with the inevitable result of proper investigation. Seeing more truth in Spiritualism than in creedalism, he gradually merged into the former and is now a regular speaker in our ranks. He is yet a young man, and highly gifted intellectually. His lectures are both scientific and spiritual.”
In Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Boston, J.C.F. Grumbine established a variety of educational organizations under several names, including the College of Divine Science and Realization. He also called his organization The Order of the White Rose, which he described as a branch of the Rosicrucians, who received guidance from beyond the grave from the late poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. A description of his new society appeared in a 1905 spiritual directory:
“The objects of this Order are to establish a Universal Religion, generically designated the Spiritual Movement. It does not occupy the place or sphere of any other kindred organization. Any graduate of the College of Psychical Sciences or member of the Order can organize a Chapter where such reside. Application for membership in the Main Order must be presented through an official channel, or addressed to J.C.F. Grumbine, 1285 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, Mass.”
Grumbine was a prolific writer, churning out a couple of dozen brief books on occult topics, and was constantly on the lecture circuit, visiting some cities, notably Chicago and Washington, so often that he was considered a resident pastor.
It was in Washington that Grumbine’s morality was called into question. His lectures caught the attention of teenaged Lucille Hunt, daughter of a young, socially connected widow. In 1901, when Lucille turned 18, Grumbine hired her as his secretary and gave her a teaching position in the College of Divine Science. She moved into Grumbine’s rented house and claimed that her mother had stolen some important church papers she’d been studying.
Grumbine fired off a nasty note to Mom, demanding the immediate return of church property. His heated missive was accusatory to the extent that Mrs. Hunt had Grumbine arrested and charged with libel. She told the newspapers that Grumbine had hypnotized her daughter and was holding her prisoner in his house.
As The Washington Globe [October 13, 1901] reported, the “church property” were in fact very personal letters from Rev. Grumbine to Miss Hunt.
“One of these letters leaves no room to doubt the relations of Grumbine and his victim. It is too obscene to even outline and consists principally of the most passionate description of every portion of the body of the young lady, omitting nothing! It is unspeakably obscene and shocking. The man who penned it ought to be locked up for life as a sexual pervert. ‘Lillies’ are the flowery designation he gives her breasts, but in the letter in question he does not confine his description to the language of flowers but vulgarly names each and every portion of her body.”
No wonder Grumbine wanted the “property” back. The scandalous newspaper coverage reminded readers that he had an invalid wife and two young daughters back in Syracuse.
Then the case took a turn to the bizarre. Martha Hunt, Lucille’s mother, was herself arrested and charged with grand larceny by a wealthy Washingtonian named James Fox. Mrs. Hunt, Fox alleged, rented his furnished house while he and his family spent a year in Europe. On their return, they found books, household linen, glassware, and “bric-a-brac” missing. After some months, they brought charges against Mrs. Hunt after, it was revealed, they were tipped off by none other than Lucille.
Despite the salacious content, both lawsuits faded out, Mrs. Hunt being cleared of charges and her libel accusation against Rev. Grumbine settled quietly. Lucille returned home to Mom, and they moved to Brooklyn, where Mrs. Hunt got a job as a bookkeeper for a jewelry store and Lucille taught in the public schools. Lucille never married.
Rev. Grumbine’s long-suffering wife, Helen, succumbed to heart disease in 1908. Five years later, in Los Angeles at age 50, he married a 30-year-old member of his congregation and the couple relocated to Portland, Oregon, the bride’s hometown. It was there that the Rev. J.C.F. Grumbine passed beyond the veil. His obituary, in The Portland Oregonian [June 8, 1938] noted:
“At the time of his death, Rev. Mr. Grumbine was general missionary for the General Assembly of Spiritualists of the United States and Canada. He was a Life Fellow of the Society of Science, Letters and Art of London.”