On June 1, 1903, 38-year-old George Hermann Anderson Lawson exchanged wedding vows with 24-year-old Pethellen Von Lennon at the Swedish Bethany Lutheran Church in Cranston. The couple settled at 123 Broad St. in Providence. George’s previous residence had been Rhode Island’s House of Correction.
In 1902, he had been arrested for stealing the pocketbook of 27-year-old Della Agnes (Curran) Carles of Boston. The purse contained $37 and George was sentenced to serve six months in the correctional facility for his crime.
By 1906, he had given up snatching pocketbooks and had embarked on another career. As “Professor Hermann, The Healer,” he advertised that he possessed the ability to cure any disease for a fee. Using ointments and massage techniques instead of medication, George began earning his living as a sort of miracle worker.
In 1907, he was arrested for practicing medicine without a license. While he was incarcerated, Pethellen petitioned the court for an annulment in their new hometown of Wilmington, Delaware. Apparently, she had been married before to a man she claimed had deserted her in 1903. Thinking he was dead, as she couldn’t find a trace of him anywhere, she had married George. But now she discovered the man was still alive.
“The Healer” served three months in the state workhouse there. The day after he was released, he married again, to 40-year-old Mary Gregg Chandler, the wealthy daughter of Samuel Chandler and Hannah Springer. Not even two months passed before Mary appealed to the courts for an annulment. She’d had no idea that her husband’s divorce from his previous wife wasn’t final yet.
Besides, in the short time they’d been together, Mary allegedly suffered severe maltreatment. She claimed George had locked her in her room, beat her with both a closed fist and an open hand and pointed a pistol at her head.
Asserting that he had threatened her life many times, Mary said that George had insisted she sign her property over to him and when she refused, he held a gun to her head and made her sign a note for $3,000.
The threats, she claimed, were ongoing regarding his determination to get her property. She accused him of putting her at knifepoint and warning that he would burn the house down.
As George was taken from the courthouse to return to the state workhouse once again, Mary passed by him in the courtroom. He reached out his hand and, as she held it, she told him goodbye. “I still love you,” he reminded her.
George went to Boston to study theology, then organized a church in New Jersey and began praying to God to send him another wife.
It took a while, but in the winter of 1922, the 57-year-old reverend was content his prayer had finally been answered. That December, May Sutton walked into his church and he believed her presence was the divine intervention he had asked for. Not long after, the People’s Evangelical Church there in New Jersey was decorated for a wedding while the congregation excitedly waited to witness the vows.
But May never showed up, and George was left standing at the alter alone. When he tracked her down, she explained that she didn’t like fanfare and would marry him in a few days in a more private ceremony.
The wedding did finally take place, but May was not a happy wife. The life he had promised her never manifested, and just weeks into their marriage, she was working in a laundromat.
The marriage quickly dissolved, and George set out to find yet another companion. In January of 1923, he married widow Ella Wieber. Announcing that he had turned away from millionairesses in exchange for a good Christian woman, he and Ella set out on a campaign to rid the nation of alcohol. The following year, he became the chaplain of the Ku Klux Klan.
In 1925, George decided to leave the Klan and run for governor of New Jersey. As he made his farewell speech one evening at a Klan meeting, police had to escort him out of the venue with tear bombs and riot guns.
The life of George Lawson – healer, hypnotist, reverend, sailor, baseball team manager, politician, door-to-door salesman, alleged thief and abusive husband – ended unspectacularly when he suffered fatal injuries after falling off a ladder in 1927.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.