Delamer Duverus

In the fall of 1977, three years into my job as staff photographer at The National Zoo, I was getting bored. With little structure to guide me and being too young to appreciate what I had, I started thinking about shifting gears. For several years I had heard about a workshop sponsored by The University of Missouri School of Journalism held each year in a different small town in Missouri. Fifty photographers would descend for five days of shooting, nightly group projections/critiques and a final Friday night exhibition for the town. A stellar group of photo editors and photographers from the world of photojournalism were brought in and each photographer was assigned a panel of three. Before you could shoot a single frame though, you had to ‘sell’ a story to said panel and once approved (not as easy as it sounds) each photographer was allowed only ten rolls of B+W film over a three-day period. My panel was made up of Russell Lee (of FSA fame), Bill Eppridge (the LOOK magazine photographer who captured the iconic image of RFK when he was shot at The Ambassador Hotel) and Sandy Eisner (top photo editor at The Washington Post)…I had no idea how lucky I was.

The year I was accepted the workshop was held in Cassville, MO, the home of the infamous ‘spudnut’ (for those in the dark — a fried doughnut hole). With maybe 2000 residents Cassville was a prime example of small-town, midwest America and like much of Missouri, a place full of rich possibility if you could just find it. Many workshop participants subscribed to the local newspaper in advance to try to get a handle on the town and hopefully find a story.

I hadn’t come up with anything prior to the trip but soon after arriving I connected with a few other photographers at workshop central where I heard mention of a sort of commune in a nearby town and headed to Seligman, a one stoplight bend in the road with maybe four hundred people. At the main intersection in town was an older building housing a printing business and a newspaper (the American Sunbeam) both run by a man with the odd name of Delamer Duverus and staffed by a group of mostly young people.

Delamer (real name Earl Aloysius Roberts) was a self-proclaimed prophet who stated he was the ‘voice’ of Duverus. He had written a book called The Golden Reed which outlined his vision of humanity and the future where he predicted the downfall of mankind in the kind of apocalyptic terms usually reserved for science fiction, oracles of doom and madmen.

Delamer’s book had been circulating for several years. One of the responses certain people had to his prophecies was to follow his suggestions that he could ‘help’ troubled children. A number of families with unnamed personal issues had sent their children to live with the extended Duverus clan in Seligman, purportedly so that the children could be ‘set right’. Behind the main building (where Delamer and a few young mothers lived upstairs from the two businesses) were one or two small houses, a couple of trailers and a barn. Not long after I got to the town I met Delamer and asked him if I could hang around for the next few days and shoot pictures. Surprisingly, I met with little resistance and made plans to return later that day.

In my naiveté I thought my plan would be enough and my mentors would be easily convinced that this was ripe material. But I was wrong and through their seasoned guidance it became clear that the better material here for such a short time-frame would be to focus on the kids. Ranging in age from three to eighteen this loose-knit group lived and played together and were home-schooled. I couldn’t really explain what Delamer did all day but I also didn’t have enough information to explore why he had this strange hold on people simply through a book so I concentrated on the kids.

I drove to Seligman each morning and spent my three days shooting and embedding myself in the routines the kids and their parents/caretakers had established. The extent of the ‘schooling’ was a bit questionable but their was no doubt the kids loved having a photographer around and for me at 26 the raw material at this quasi-commune was captivating.

Mid-days I would drive back to drop off film for the temporary lab set up in Cassville. The mentors would have already seen the take by my return in the late afternoon and had made their recommendations for that night’s gathering. If there was a single punched hole in the sprocket-edge of the film you knew they liked that image…if there was a double punch they loved it and it would be projected that evening. By the end of the week I had received at least a dozen ‘double punches’ and it was suggested my work was among the best five from the workshop. I was in heaven and convinced myself that the next years of my life should be spent working for a newspaper. That didn’t happen though less than a year later I left my job and struck out on my own.

As with so much in life when I look back at these moments I wish my time had been better spent mining for more images that might fill out the story and give it added depth. But the residual effect of having been able to capture what I did opened my eyes to the larger world than what the trails and enclosures of the zoo had to offer and helped to propel me into the independence and thrill of the career I still enjoy to this day. The question that remains most vivid in my mind (now that I know that Mr. Duverus’ proclamations and rantings were based on a hatred of Jews and an embrace of all things anti-semitic) was whether or not he had a clue about my background. If so, did he hold me out as an example to his tribe of our supposed ‘control’ of the media? Or of how we looked?

In the end my sense of him was and is of a crackpot who represented little danger to anyone save the young lives of his charges. Roberts died in 1986 and along with him Delamer Duverus bit the dust.

8 Responses

  1. I spent a little bit of time with the Duverus family in search of a friend who had joined them. They never did let me visit with my friend, but allowed me to observe some of their activities, and Delamer even gave me some pretty obviously bogus medical advice for a urinary tract infection I had at the time.

  2. Rick garrett

    Max…Thanks for your fine photos and for posting them for people to see, especially for those who were part of that group in those days. And your personal comments are interesting to read. But Duverus did not hate people of any race, creed, or nationality and this is evident if you read his writings. He was not anti-Semetic but very respectful indeed to Jewish people, but warned, as it originally did in the Bibles’ Book of Revelations and in Christ Jesus’ life, of pretenders in the Faith.
    I was a part-time photographer on the Sunbeam staff when it began in 1972, and worked on and off there for about 9 years. Bogus advice was not allowed in the environment because it caused disharmony and restrictions on visiting never happened unless a member of the group didn’t want to be visited.
    Rick Garrett

  3. Max,
    When I was 21 I moved to Seligman and I lived with the Duverus family from 1971 to 1795. I do not remember any photographer from Mizzou so I must have left the family before your visit. Your photographs are very good and I recognize everyone that is in them.
    From the standpoint of your assignment, the decision to photograph the children was absolutely correct. In spite of the overwhelmingly bizarre characteristics of that environment, the children’s security and value was the most important and cherished directive. I like to think that the children responded well to the deference afforded them and I think your photographs seem to reflect their response.
    Even to this day I have been trying to understand the social dynamics that created such an unusual setting. When I moved to Seligman and became part of the family, there were less than a dozen people not including the children. Afterward, over the course of the first year, another 14 or 15 people joined the group. Up until the time I left the group, many people joined and many people departed, several of whom were original members of the group. When Don Wood, the original editor of the Sunbeam, and his wife moved back to California, I became the editor of the newspaper; a position for which I was totally clueless and incompetent. But that didn’t really matter; the newspaper was essentially a platform for Roberts. As a young man, I was convinced that he had some special knowledge of our destiny and our place in the world and that his prescriptions for leading our lives made complete sense. But after four years I realized that what he had to say was total nonsense.
    I think that you are correct about his anti-Semitism but his was not malignant. His anti-Semitism was more a product of his upbringing: he held no contempt for any particular individual. He was, rather, completely self-absorbed and most certainly relished the idea of a student of photo journalism paying so much attention to him. The people in the group sucked in every syllable as though it were god inspired which gave him continuous validation. I was becoming more and more disillusioned and doubtful of his declarations until he began expounding on physical principles. I was a student of Physics at the University of Missouri before joining the group and soon realized that he was making up everything as he went along: his assertions regarding electromagnetism and perpetual motion machines was all that I needed to hear. I moved back to St. Louis shortly thereafter.
    As I said, I am still reassessing and rearranging the dynamics of the social interactions and cohesion of this group dynamic and still come to the conclusion that the force of his ego-centric personality over a group of psychologically crippled young people is the only thing that kept him alive.

  4. Annora Nin

    I know this is going to be a delicate and touchy thing to ask, but I wonder if anyone has ever heard of anyone speak of any physical or sexual abuse at this commune? I have a specific reason for asking, but I’d rather not go into it here. I’m not even sure these comments are being read or seen any more, since they are 3 to 4 years old.

  5. I know this is a delicate and touchy thing to ask, but I wonder if anyone has ever heard of any physical or sexual abuse taking place at this commune? I have a specific reason for asking but rather not go into it here. I’m not even sure anyone is reading this site any more after 3 or 4 years.

  6. Mark Jacobson, 917-748-2953

    Hello Max.

    This is Mark Jacobson. I’m reporter here in New York City in the middle of writing a book about a man named William Cooper, the author of an odd tome named Behold A Pale Horse. One of the most interesting chapters in Cooper’s book is a reprint of a document called “Silent Weapons For Quiet Wars.” This is a manuscript of uncertain provenance but there’s no doubt that Delamer Duverus had a acquired an early copy of it at one time, probably between 1986-1989. I am trying to track down what Duverus and Cooper might have had to do with each other, since Cooper reprints one of DD’s poem/koan/etc, One Basic Truth, in the frontispiece of Behold A Pale Horse. I was wondering if you would mind talking to me about Seligman and what you found there. Your pictures are very evocative.
    Thanks a lot and looking forward to hearing from you
    Best,

    Mark

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