The country north of the Cypress Hills was the site of some pioneer-era intrigue and excitement, courtesy of a religious sect called “the Dreamers”.
Dreamers were ethnic Germans originating from South Russia who came to Alberta from Java, South Dakota in the early 1900’s, settling in an area known as Josephsburg. The Dreamers considered themselves the “Gemeinde Gottes”, or literally translated “People of God” and were led by Jacob Merkel Jr., who was naturally the “Son of God” . An offshoot of the Adventist or Millerite movement, Dreamers believed that Saturday was the proper day for the Sabbath; that a second coming of Christ was imminent; and called anyone who didn’t belong to their sect “devils” and refused to shake hands with them .
However, their greatest distinguishing attribute was their tendency to interpret members’ dreams from the week previous; and their belief that if anyone of them had a dream that a certain devil should be punished or harmed, that one of the Dreamers would be designated to dole out punishment.
The Dreamers soon became a nightmare for Josephsburg settler, John S. Lehr. Having received several letters from the Dreamers previously, threatening to burn his home with his family inside , he awoke on April 11, 1908 at one in the morning to find his house aflame. He and his wife and four children escaped through a window, and upon seeing that part of the house’s foundation had been removed, and gasoline inserted under the floor, he called upon the Royal North West Mounted Police (RNWMP) to investigate. Hence began what was perhaps one of the most bizarre criminal cases in early southeastern Alberta history
Warrants were issued for the arrest of nine members of the sect: Jacob and John Reib; Christian, Emanuel and Daniel Gill; August and Fred Neiman; Karl Otta and leader, Jacob Merkl Jr. Medicine Hat RNWMP commanding officer, William Parker, recalled that Merkl Jr. proved to be a little more difficult than others to bring into custody. When Corporal Humby and Sergeant Ash of the Medicine Hat arrived to apprehend , the Son of God dashed from his stables to the house. Sergeant Ash took notice of this, and on mount, beat Merkl to the house where he found a loaded rifle, which Merkl Jr. subsequently denied that he was going to use.
When the trial began, John Lehr testified to the court that one of the nine accused had told him that all non-Dreamers “must be destroyed as Babel was.” He also testified that another of the accused, whose mother had earlier been found guilty of shooting at the Lehr children and fined $20.00, threatened Lehr that he would kill him if he ever found him by himself. To top it all off, Lehr’s dog had recently met its end through poisoning, and he believed that the Dreamers were responsible for this as well. The Dreamers were also accused of plotting to kill a man named Michael Gill, along with others in the community.
Several neighbours and former members of the Dreamers sect were then brought into testify, confirming the preceding allegations made by Lehr. Rounding off the prosecution, letters from Jacob Merkl Sr.—or “God” as he was lovingly known — were admitted as evidence, each one conveying that those who opposed the Dreamers would meet an unmerciful demise. In one of the letters, “God” proceeded to spell out what he thought of the non-Dreamers, and offered as his closing statement: “show this to your Satan judge”.
When it came time for the defense to shed light on the story, the Dreamers denied all of the aforementioned allegations. They asserted that they did not have the inclination to shoot children or commit arson, because all they did was read the Bible and sing religious hymns. As far as their namesake was concerned, it was asserted that Dreamers only discussed those dreams that were recorded in biblical records, such as Jacob’s dream at Bethel. Defendants went as far as to say that “the Dreamers” wasn’t their name at all. Adding to the confusion was the fact that “Satan’s Judge”, the magistrate W.E. Martin, had gone missing, apparently fearing threats on his life made by ‘God’ and the Dreamers.
The prosecution was left in disarray, and after two weeks, all charges were withdrawn. It was only afterwards that one member, August Neiman, was re-arrested and held on charges of perjuring the court. The other eight were brought in and told by Parker that if they gave their recognizance in the form of $500 each to keep the peace for one year, that he would let them go; and if f they refused they would be given a year in prison. All agreed to the above terms and left, allowing their comrade to serve 18 months behind bars. Parker also noted that he warned the Dreamers they had better obey Canadian law going forward, or they would be deported.
This spelled the beginning of the end for the Dreamers. They broke up shortly afterwards, never again causing the RNWMP serious trouble. Although he disapproved of the zeal with which they practiced their religion, Parker found very little else at fault with the Dreamers, adding in a report: “I must say they were splendid farmers, raising good crops, and were hard working people”.
In his 1908 report to RNMWP Commissioner Perry, Supt. Jas. O. Wilson of Medicine Hat concluded the affair: “we have a detachment in the Dreamer settlement and have constant day and night patrols … Although we are unable to connect these people with the burning of Lehr’ s house, their arrest has had good effect.”
Byfield, Ted et al., Alberta In The 20th Century-Volume II, (1992, United Western Communications, Edmonton)
Parker, William, William Parker- Mounted Policeman, edited by Hugh Dempsey (l973), Hurtig Publishers, Edmonton)
Stuber, Vivian M., and Grace Roth. “The Dreamers.” Plains, Trains and Wagon Wheels, Medicine Hat, Alberta : Dunmore South History Book Society, 1994,