Photo: Bishop Sam Mullet, the leader of the Bergholz Amish community and the leader of several beard cutting attacks in the Ohio Amish community.
The strange case of the Amish beard cutters five years ago thrust a normally quiet community into the national spotlight. The bizarre attacks seemed so out of character for a Christian community whose traditions emphasize nonviolence and forgiveness.
Now, as the fifth anniversary of those attacks approaches, a new book, published by MennoMedia’s Herald Press, tells the inside story: Breakaway Amish: Growing Up with the Bergholz Beard Cutters by Johnny Mast (written with Shawn Smucker). Mast is the grandson of Bishop Sam Mullet, who led the attacks—and who pressured his grandson to participate by cutting his own father’s beard.
The Bergholz Amish community where Johnny Mast grew up in southern Ohio became increasingly isolated from other Amish people as his grandfather Sam Mullet exerted cult-like control, ordering abusive attacks of beard and hair cutting and other punishments, including forcing men to live in chicken coops. Some of the wives of those men moved in with Sam Mullet, who sexually abused them. “Somehow I’m getting a lot of power by committing these sins,” Mullet told Mast after Mast learned of his grandfather’s activities. “I know it’s wrong, but I’m getting a lot of power.”
Members became convinced that cutting their own hair was a sign of repentance and remorse—“a cleansing humiliation and a fresh start,” Mast says. But when that conviction drove them to forcibly cut off the beards of Amish people outside their community, it was more than a strange religious ritual. It was a crime.
Recalling the disturbing events, Mast writes: “I saw images I’d rather forget: Holding my own father’s hair in my hands and cutting off pieces with a scissors.
Watching six or seven men wander down toward Sam’s barn, chunks of their hair shaved off, their beards cut straight across with sharp scissors. I remember seeing those disheveled men, skinny from not having eaten, their weird hair and their hats that no longer fit quite right, and thinking they looked like demons.”
The Bergholz community was founded by Sam Mullet and attracted families who preferred the strict Amish way of life practiced there—no indoor plumbing, no tractors, no cars, no radio or television, no cell phones. Life was peaceful until Mullet began using violence and intimidation, along with strange punishments, to control the community. A teenager at the time, Mast lived and worked on his grandfather’s farm. In hindsight, he writes, “What I didn’t realize was how Sam operated: he used knowledge and emotions and sometimes lies to drive a wedge between people. Isolated people, it turns out, are very easy to control.”
Mast asks, “Why would a bunch of grown men allow another man to treat them that way? I can’t say for sure, but I think that for most of us, Bergholz was all we had. Every friend we had in the world lived there, every family member. Sam held the key to all of that.”
He adds, “I think most people stayed in Bergholz because they honestly believed that if they left, they would go to hell when they died.”
Mast’s story is one of redemption and courage. At age 22, he testified against his grandfather and 15 other defendants, many of them his aunts and uncles. They were all found guilty and are serving sentences for their crimes of up to 15 years. Mast left the community—the only world he knew.
Mast reports that Bergholz is still controlled by Sam Mullet, from his prison cell. Mast’s parents remain there, even though Mast’s father was a beard-cutting victim. When Mast left the community, his mother begged him to stay and “try to do everything Sam tells you to do.” His parents have refused to meet his wife, Clara, and young daughter, Esther Jane. “It would be nice to see my dad again, to be able to have a regular conversation,” Mast says. “But what happened in Bergholz ruined that.”
It did not ruin Mast’s belief in God, however, though he lost interest in belonging to a church. But since the birth of his daughter, Mast is interested in seeking out a new church home at some point.
“Everything that happened led me here: to Clara and Esther Jane and a new life,” he writes. “I don’t live with regret. Actually, I have a lot of hope these days. I think it’s going to be a good life.”
Donald B. Kraybill, author of Renegade Amish, writes in the foreword: “Breakaway Amish is a story of human tragedy. It chronicles what happens when men, in the name of God, abuse positions of power to exploit, harm, and denigrate others. It’s an important, cautionary tale, and the rest of us would do well to listen carefully.”
Tom Shachtman, author of Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish, says of the book, “Seldom do
outsiders get such a revealing glimpse of what happens to an isolated group when, as Johnny Mast writes, ‘You learn to ignore the voices in your head that were telling you, This isn’t right. None of this is right.’ An eyewitness account of a leader’s twisted descent into mental hell and of the havoc it can cause among people who only seek to be devout and faithful.”
Mast, 26, works on a construction crew. He and Clara and their daughter live in Ohio.
Shawn Smucker is the author or coauthor of seven books. He and his wife, Maile, and their children live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.