THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
Was This Preacher the Real Indiana Jones?
In a small house in a quiet Los Angeles neighborhood, the Holyland Bible Knowledge Society honors the memory of an evangelist and relic hunter who just might be the original Indy.
LOS ANGELES — When I first walk into the Holyland Bible Knowledge Society and am ushered into a lecture hall for a Bible study class, I feel like I have been tricked.
I came expecting to see the treasures of the man who supposedly inspired my childhood cinematic idol, Indiana Jones. Instead, I find myself being quizzed on Old Testament history by an 88-year-old woman named Betty Shepherd in a classroom covered with a map of the “World from Adam to Paul” and a copy of Raphael’s School of Athens.
“We have all types of people who come here. Some who are Christian and think they know the Bible. We even had a [Muslim] who told us he liked us because he knew we weren’t trying to convert him,” explains Shepherd, standing before me with a pointer in her hand while I fold myself into a chair desk, half expecting to look down and see a blue book for an exam.
The museum occupies an immaculately maintained white stucco two-story house with terra-cotta roofing and pink steps on a residential street corner in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. It has no website, but tours as early as 7 a.m. can be arranged by calling a listed number. Shepherd and her daughter, Karen, are all that remain of an organization left behind by Antonia Futterer, a once-renowned preacher and archaeologist who some believe inspired the character of Indiana Jones. Today it is one of L.A.’s best-kept and weirdest secrets.
“Do you know who Esther was?” demands Shepherd. I can’t tell what she was expecting, but my brown-nosing instincts and 12 years of Catholic school kicked in.
“She was the queen in the Old Testament who saved the Jews from Haman,” I triumphantly declare.
“Did you know Esther wasn’t a Jew?” she replies.
“Um, no?” I mutter, ego properly deflated.
“Well, this is why you’re here, so pay attention,” she commands.
Until Shepherd tells me she is 88 years old, I never would have been able to guess her age. If I had to guess—and I’m terrible with heights—Shepherd stands between 5-foot-6 and 5-foot-8 and is of a slender build. Her silver hair is straight and well-kept, part of it pulled back while most hangs down to her shoulders. Her face has that Los Angeles sun-kissed quality, and either genetics or peace with a post-apocalyptic afterlife has made it more youthful than her years.
But her eyes are her most unforgettable feature. The look in her eyes as she jabs her pointer down a list of Old Testament lineage is not that of a zealot, but of earnestness taken to its maximum potential. When she mentions Futterer by name, they take on a misty quality.
Shepherd has tended the museum for more than three decades since she decided to leave the outside world and immerse herself in the world created by Futterer. The house museum is her life. While she never met Futterer, she begins many sentences with the phrase, “Mr. Futterer being Mr. Futterer…” She has sons, but she tells me her daughter is the only one who took the teachings seriously. From the disappointment lacing the tone of her response, I can only surmise they don’t feature much in her now Futterer-centric world.
With energy far in excess of what one would expect from somebody her age, she proceeds to work her way for an hour through Futterer’s most memorable lectures, his Old Testament genealogy, which he claimed could explain the existence of all people on Earth. Ham, a darker-skinned son of Noah, explains the creation of black people, she says, but thankfully did not continue down the slavery-excusing “Curse of Ham” path. Esther was not a Jew, she explains, because Jews did not exist until Judah. Her Bible lesson might seem interminable, but Shepherd keeps me awake by seasoning her lecture with plenty of apocryphal warnings about how the world will be cleansed with fire.
Antonia Frederick Futterer was born in 1871 in Australia to a Catholic father and a Protestant mother. He dropped out of school in the third grade and eventually headed to western Australia to find his riches in the gold rush.
Plagued by appendicitis, he went back to his family home.
“As he is lying on his death bed,” Shepherd tells me, “He says, ‘God, if you let me live I will keep your commandments.’” Futterer survived, “but not right away, because God wanted to test to see if [Futterer] meant it,” Shepherd confides, looking down as her eyes crinkle at me as if I, too, understand that that’s just God being God.
His life saved, Futterer began to walk (according to Shepherd, he went everywhere by foot all across Australia) and preach the word of God. Over the years, and after covering thousands of miles, according to the Los Angeles Times, Futterer and his wife fell in with the preacher Alexis Jeffries—the father of boxing legend Jim Jeffries—who convinced Futterer to go to the U.S. to continue to evangelize.
Futterer initially settled in Oakland in 1911, where he developed his Eye-Ographic Bible, essentially an abridged version of the Old Testament that he claimed made it possible to learn it in 10 hour-long lessons. In the ’20s he moved to Los Angeles and became associated with the notorious Aimee Semple McPherson, the mega-evangelist accused of fabricating her own kidnapping. But Futterer, too, accomplished wonders, including setting the record for the world’s longest sermon (20 hours). He also opened his own organization, the Bible Knowledge Society, near McPherson’s Angelus Temple in Echo Park.
In 1926 Futterer embarked on his first trip to the Middle East find the Ark of the Covenant, reputed to contain the original stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. He was convinced that the Ark had not been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC, but in fact was buried in Mount Nebo in what is present-day Jordan. “Right under my feet is a cave,” he wrote in his diary. “Only a few yards from the very top of Mt. Nebo. The mouth of it was stopped up with stones, just like Jeremiah said the lost caves would be.”
It was on one of these digs that Futterer was photographed being lowered into a cave filled with paintings in Mount Nebo, and it is that image that some claim inspired a similar scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. (I could not find an original source for the claim that Futterer inspired Indiana Jones, and a request put in to George Lucas was not answered at the time of publication.)
Futterer spent two years in the Holy Land, but he never found the Ark. He did manage to bring back a lot of artifacts from his travels and digs, and turned his home into a museum that became the Holyland Exhibition. Those artifacts remained in the house after Futterer died in Cyprus in 1951, and they are my reward for sitting through the Old Testament lesson.
The collection fills several rooms laid out in a fashion charitably described as Victorian clutter. In fact, the whole house could be described as a giant-size cabinet of curiosities.
In one room, mixed in with hand-pierced brass lamps and an ornate game table, is a lap desk that purportedly belonged to the last sultan of Turkey. In another chamber sits a bottle of olive oil made in John the Baptist’s birthplace by Russian virgins, as well as skull fragments from the Hamidian massacres. A piece of salt stone is said to be from the pillar of salt formerly known as Lot’s wife, while other stones are limestone chunks from the Great Pyramids. Another room houses what Shepherd says is a 2,300-year-old Egyptian mummy case bought by Futterer from the Egypt collection at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. There is also a wall lined with the glass slides created by Futterer for his Eye-Ographic Bible which depict the various stories of the Bible. As Shepherd leads the tour, objects are knocked on, bells are rung, gongs are banged, and artifacts are brought down with bare hands for closer looks, and sometimes bumped into.
As to whether Futterer was legitimate or a looter, one historian I talked to suggested it’s hard to see a man as anything but a tomb raider when he came across what was believed to be the remains of Lot’s wife and decided to chop off a piece to bring home.
After Futterer died, the society went into the hands of his two disciples, a Mr. and Mrs. Baker who, Shepherd says, “led completely celibate lives even though they were married.” They were her mentors, and passed the place on to her.
According to Shepherd, around 5,000 people a year visit the museum. I originally went to learn (like many others) and write about Futterer. And yes, there are some delightful objects, and yes, reliving a time of Los Angeles religious awakening and Holy Land fascination is enlightening. But it is Betty Shepherd, this priestess tending the flame of one man’s legacy, that is unforgettable.
And as I hand over the $2.50 that makes up the suggested donation, Shepherd leans in to whisper—earnestly—“God sends people to go here on tours.”