In 1890 Arthur Bently Worthington took Christchurch by storm.
He created a new religion, known as the Students of Truth, after he arrived with his attractive wife Mary (Margaret) Plunkett from America.
Worthington had charm in spades. Tall, handsome, with steel-blue grayish eyes, a fluent talker and appeared to be a well-bred gentleman.
People flocked to the new ideas.
Within two years the sect was successful enough to have built a Temple of Truth and beside it, a big 12-room residence for the Worthington family.
Worthington was well ahead of the times. He was teaching, among other things, free love, the non-resistance of evil and was known for ‘visiting’ the female members of the church.
A group of Christchurch clergymen, led by Methodist minister John Hoskin, began publicly opposing him.
And Hosking, suspecting him of swindling his congregation, went further, investigating Worthington’s past.
His investigations revealed that Worthington was actually Oakley Crawford, sometimes called Samuel Oakley Crawford, born March 1, 1847 in Saugerties, New York State. He had served in the American civil war and was ordained as a Methodist minister in 1867.
His first marriage to Josephine Erricson Moore in 1868 was the first of nine. All except the first were bigamous.
He also started on a long life of fraud, changing his name to Worthington, going to jail in 1870 in New York for obtaining money by false pretences.
Once he came out of prison,he began marrying women, taking all their money then abandoning them - sometimes having fathered children.
In 1889 Worthington joined a Christian Scientist sect as a faith healer. There he met Mary Plunkett, the wife of John Plunkett. Plunkett investigated Worthington finding he was the “one of the most notorious rascals in the United States”.
Worthington, declaring that Mary had converted him to righteousness, fled to New Zealand.
Under fire from Hosking, Worthington denied it all. But he then made a big mistake. He ejected Mary from his church and his household, which resulted in some of his church members turning against him.
Mary went to Sydney.
Moves were made during police investigations to have Worthington extradited back to America or to sue him.
The situation was made worse when he ‘married’ Evelyn Maud Jordan, an Australian woman living in Christchurch. In December 1895 he fled New Zealand, supposedly to gain funds, and ended up in Hobart, Tasmania. When his ventures there failed, he came back to Christchurch in 1897 but public opinion had grown against him and he was faced with threatened riots.
He left again - never to return. But he continued his tricks - being jailed in Melbourne in 1902 for defrauding a wealthy French widow by telling her he was the reincarnated god Osiris and she was his Isis.
After release from prison, he and his family - the long-suffering Evelyn and their three children - ended up in the United States where he set up as a Presbyterian minister but continued swindling. He was jailed again and died of a heart attack on December 13, 1917 while in custody in New York.
Meanwhile, the spurned Mary had returned to Christchurch and in 1901 married dentist John Stains Atkinson. Within a few months she took her own life in a fountain at her home aged 53.
She is buried in the Barbardoes Street Cemetery.