A comedy mystery podcast in which two friends discuss a weekly mystery.

Evangelist Family Murders

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I hope you’re wearing old clothes today, Willy, because we’re going to get a little messy. A little bloody, in fact, because today we’ll be talking about an unsolved case of axe murder. Now this one’s going to get a little brutal, so I thought we could start out with me telling you a little about a film known as Tappy Toes.

Our story today begins in Naples, Italy, in 1885, when a child named Benjamin Evangelista was born. Benjamin Evangelista moved to the United States, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to be exact, in 1904 at age 19, and he quickly anglicized his name, changing it to Benny Evangelist. Two years later, in 1906, he started to receive visions directly from God…or so he claimed.

As one naturally would after hearing directly from the almighty, Benny Evangelist started a cult called the “Union Federation of America” and went on to write a self-published four volume book called “The Oldest History of the World: Discovered by Occult Science.” In that book, which was the “bible” for the Union, Benny Evangelist declared that he was a divine prophet, spiritual leader, and mystical healer. The book relates the adventures and good deeds of someone named Miel, an “exalted and powerful prophet,” and “representative of God on earth.” Apparently using the Christian Jesus as a prototype, Evangelist had the prophet Miel traveling with two “assistant prophets,” obliterating dissension among peoples, winning wars for the righteous, and spreading the gospel of God’s commandments wherever he went. Evangelist wrote of one character in his bible wrenching the head of an antagonist from his shoulders and hurling it at his feet, while other characters suffered dismembered arms.


Other than being a cult leader, Benny Evangelist was a carpenter by day, and he would also charge people $10 to heal physical and mental disabilities, using methods such as religion, black magic, and herbal medicine. Evangelist attracted quite a large crowd to his rituals and earned a large sum of money as a result of these healings. These healings, along with his cult sermons, would take place in his basement, where he had a dozen or so horrifying wax figures that hung from the ceiling. There were also “celestial planets” depicted in the basement, as well as a large eye that lit up using electricity, which he used during his healing rituals. Despite all this, Benny Evangelist was a devout Roman Catholic church attendee, who, many believed, performed his séances and other cult rituals with the sole motive of making money and not because he actually believed any of it.


Not only was Benny Evangelist a faith healer and a carpenter, but he was also a family man. In 1929 when this story took place, Benny had a wife named Santina, and four children: Angeline who was 8, Matilda who was 5, Jean (or maybe Jay?) who was 4, and Mario who was 18 months. Santina was apparently even more religiously fanatical than Benny, but apparently was not shrewd enough to understand the cult activity to be a means of making money rather than an actual religion. However, other than his immediate family, it is said that Benny was rather estranged from the rest of his family, even from his brother, who lived within walking distance.

The night in question was the evening of July 2, 1929. Earlier that day, Evangelist visited a man who was keeping watch over a house that was supposed to be demolished that day. Being a carpenter by day, Evangelist told that man that he had purchased all the lumber that was salvageable after the house had been demolished. He explained to the watchman that he had made an arrangement with a delivery company for the lumber to be delivered directly to Evangelist’s home on St. Aubin Street in residential Detroit the following morning, July 3rd, and he would pay them the cash he owed then. However, as far as anyone knows, the truck never showed up on the morning of July 3rd.


The Evangelist family didn’t notice that the truck didn’t show up, as they were all over the place…literally. A real estate agent named Vincent Elias came out to the house that morning at 10:30 for a business meeting, only to discover that all six of Evangelist family had been hacked to death with an axe. Santina Evangelist and her four children had all been slaughtered while they were sleeping in their beds and their skulls had been crushed. There are a couple of different reports about where Benny’s body was found. According to the United Press, Benny had been decapitated while he was asleep in bed with Santina, and his head was sitting on a chair near the bed. However, according to the Associated Press, Benny was “Sitting before his desk, which also served as an altar, his hands folded as though in prayer….The head lay on the floor beside the chair.”


When police searched the home, there was no trace of a weapon anywhere, but they did find bloody fingerprints on the door latch. Of course, in 1929, a fingerprint is only beneficial if you have an actual finger to match it to or a copy of a fingerprint on file, which requires either a suspect in custody and someone willing to dedicate a lot of time to looking at every single fingerprint on file and trying to match it to the one found on the door latch.


Also, there was no large amount of cash that would have been set aside to pay for the delivery in the morning, as police had expected to find. Police found this to be suspicious and wondered if perhaps the money had been a motive for the murders. However, try as they might, the police were never able to identify the delivery company that Evangelist had arranged to drop the lumber off at his house.


On July 4th, the day after the bodies were found, all of Detroit’s police squads were ordered to join a city-wide search for the killer and a $1000 reward was offered for any information that led to an arrest. At first, the police believed that the Evangelist family murders were connected to the murder of a mother and her three children two weeks prior, but it was determined that there was no connection between the murders, as the fingerprints from each crime scene did not match.


Police were unable to identify any witnesses who had seen anyone enter or leave the house. They identified a suspect named Angelo Depoli who had a stained knife and axe in a barn behind his house, which police believed could have been used as the murder weapons. Although neighbors claimed that he was a frequent visitor to the Evangelist home, the stains were proven to have not been blood, and the man was let go. Police also questioned Vincent Elias, the man who had found the butchered Evangelist family, as his feet were the same size as the bloody footprints leading away from Benny’s decapitated body. However, Elias was determined to be innocent of the crime. The police also attempted to identify a list of Benny Evangelist’s followers, to determine if perhaps the family had been murdered by a disgruntled former devotee.


A psychic claimed that the murderer was a man of less than medium height, of dark complexion, and strong, agile, and wiry. His hair was reddish and he was egocentric. All of this was determined because Uranus was rising on the eastern horizon. However, because the moon was in conjunction with Venus, the psychic also stated that a woman who was not Santina Evangelist was involved in the crime. Because Mercury and Uranus were 50 degrees apart, the psychic confidently declared that the crime will be solved easily. And now we know that all this psychic stuff is mere hogwash because we are talking about this crime on MysteriYES.

A funeral for the family was held on July 6th, and a huge crowd of 3,000 curious people packed the streets. The police were hoping to identify a suspect at the funeral, and even arrested a man who was described as “acting queerly, with excited suspicion.” However, the police identified that this man had nothing to do with the murders.


In March of 1930, eight months after the murders, the Associated Press reported that an eyewitness to the brutal murders had been uncovered. The witness was a dog, which belonged to the Evangelist family. This was the last time the Associated Press printed anything worth reading.


In 1932, three months after the murders, a man named Robert Harris confessed to the crime. Harris was the founder of his own Detroit-based cult and was already in jail for murder. On November 20, 1932, police found the body of James J. Smith tied to a crudely built altar and stabbed through the heart with a silver knife. Harris claimed that Smith was a willing sacrifice and had offered himself as such.  However, the fact that Harris had to knock Smith out with a wagon axle before stabbing him threw suspicion on that claim. After his arrest, Harris declared himself to be a king and revealed his plans to kill several more people, including Detroit’s mayor. While police truly believed that they had solved the mystery of the Evangelist family murders, the finger prints found at the scene did not match Harris’s, and it was determined that Harris did not commit the crime.


Even though this case remains unsolved almost 90 years later, there are a few theories that attempt to explain what happened to the Evangelist family. The first theory is that an angry client of Evangelist’s, who perhaps felt swindled out of his money by Benny’s healing rituals, was the one who murdered the family. After all, a murder with an axe is a pretty violent and angry way to kill, and it sounds as if Evangelist got the most violent treatment of all, having been completely decapitated. This theory makes some sense to me. In 1929, $10, which is what Benny Evangelist charged for a healing, would be equivalent to about $141 in 2017 money. If someone paid that much money in expectation of some kind of healing and was disappointed, I could see that person becoming very angry about that. Of course, I wouldn’t have gone to a healer in the first place nor would I have murdered an entire family when things didn’t go my way, but I know that not everyone has the exceptional coping skills that I do.


Another theory is that a disgruntled former cult member or perhaps a member or leader of a rival bn        cult had been the murderer. Some evidence that lends itself to this is that it seems that the family were murdered in ways that were reminiscent of some of the violent deaths depicted in Evangelist’s four volume bible. One would suspect that, assuming this isn’t just a mere coincidence, one would have to have a pretty good knowledge of Evangelist’s cult in order to murder in ways similar to the murders in his book.


Or perhaps the murders were committed by someone involved with the delivery company, as the police originally believed. After all, no lumber had been delivered but the cash had been taken from the house. Could the deliverymen have plotted to kill the family in their sleep and steal their money while keeping all the lumber for themselves?


And finally there’s the theory that the murders were committed by some random maniac who just decided to step into the Evangelist home and kill the whole family in their sleep. Who knows?


I don’t really have a preferred theory. I think the murders could have been committed by any number of people, but I do think the large sum of money was a motive. However, brutal axe murder probably isn’t the most effective means of murder when committing a robbery, so I guess it could be possible that the cash could have just been a surprising bonus. I don’t really know what drives someone to murder an entire family—including four children—with an axe.