Nearly two months after the election, President Donald Trump still has not conceded his loss, even as members of his own party dismiss his voter fraud conspiracy theories. “You’re headed into the cliffs that guard the flat Earth at that time, brother,” Republican Rep. Denver Riggleman recently told Yahoo News, likening Trump’s claims to those of the flat-Earth movement.
That is exactly where Trump is headed. While no modern president has refused to concede an election, his tactics are not without precedent in American politics. Along with an 1873 Texas governor who barricaded himself in office after losing re-election, Trump enjoys some remarkably fringe company—specifically, people who believe Earth is not an oblate spheroid, but a flat disc.
In 1909, a notorious flat Earth preacher led a ballot-box putsch to maintain his stranglehold over an Illinois town. With declarations of “war,” two competing governments that claimed to be legitimate, and an armed siege between the two factions’ police chiefs at the county jail, the forgotten saga of Zion, Illinois, is evidence that America’s political situation could still be a whole lot stupider.
Wilburn Glenn Voliva was a flat Earther who lived on a strict diet of Brazil nuts and buttermilk. He also, for a time, enjoyed dictatorial control over an entire city.
Born in 1870, Voliva trained as a preacher and became a leading member of a faith-healing church headed by John Alexander Dowie. Dowie was a gifted grifter, amassing a large following and absurd wealth while performing sham “miracles” on the desperately ill (some of whom later sued him when their ailments remained). When authorities finally cracked down on Dowie for practicing medicine without a license, he founded the city of Zion, a new “utopia” governed by strict religious law.
Maybe the city was a utopia for Dowie, but not for many others. He spent lavishly on himself and drove the city into debt. Eventually, Voliva deposed him in a church coup, in part by accusing the elderly faith-healer (whose own health was failing) of trying to assemble himself a harem of young wives.
Now at the helm of Dowie’s “Christian Catholic Apostolic Church,” Voliva effectively ruled the city. Zion had a mayor and a government, but all of them answered to Voliva, who held the title of “general overseer.” After wresting control from Dowie (who died soon thereafter, a broken and betrayed man), Voliva set about making Zion even less fun. Alcohol and dancing were banned, smokers were hauled into jail, and many newspapers were verboten.
When Voliva named his political party the “Theocratic Party,” it was a simple statement of fact.
By 1909, anti-Voliva mutiny was brewing. In this town where theaters, dancing, and eventually even whistling were banned, rivals wrote “a little song concerning Voliva which is hummed sotto voce by some of his opponents,” the Chicago Tribune reported that April. The lyrics of the song unfortunately are lost to history, but the verse was “most decidedly unscriptural in its composition,” the paper wrote.
While unholy verses about Voliva drifted around Zion that month, the city was preparing for one of its most consequential elections ever. For the first time, a slate of anti-Voliva candidates stood a decent chance of beating the preacher’s stooges, who controlled the entire city government.
The two groups’ warring slogans sounded eerily like those of 2020. The anti-Voliva “independents” accused him of trying to build a “wall” around the city—an echo from the future when Democrats would campaign against Trump’s border wall. Voliva’s side accused the independents of being degenerate Satan-worshippers. “Down with the devil’s ticket!” they chanted, according to Chicago’s Inter Ocean newspaper.
Voliva even deployed one of Trump’s favorite insults more than 100 years before the eventual president, calling his opponents “haters.”
Voliva’s camp printed cards contrasting his “Zion Ticket” with his opponent’s “Devil’s Ticket.” The pamphlets accused the independents of lobbying for “free whiskey,” “free theatre,” “doctors,” “dancing,” and “democracy,” as opposed to Voliva’s platform: “anti-saloons” “no theatres,” “divine healing,” “no dance halls,” and “theocracy.”
Incredibly, the advertisements for joyless theocracy did not inspire voters, and the independents won by a narrow margin. Voliva accepted his loss about as well as Trump has.
Much as Trump would later accuse his opponents of relying on illegitimate voters, Voliva accused the independents of smuggling in votes from farmers who lived outside the city. “Voliva contends that at the most there are not more than 735 bona fide voters in Zion City,” the Kenosha News wrote three days after Voliva’s candidates came up short. “The returns on Tuesday revealed 837 ballots had been cast.”
Furious and alleging voter fraud, Voliva’s Theocratic Party simply refused to leave office.
The pro-Voliva mayor denounced reports of his loss as fake news. “You are therefore warned to pay no attention to the foolish statement upon the streets or in print as to there being any other officials at the present time than the old mayor and council,” ousted mayor W. Hurd Clendinen wrote in a proclamation.
The police sided with Voliva. “Zion City is trembling on the verge of riot,” the Detroit Free Press wrote on May 2. “The city hall there is filled with heavily armed policemen, supporters of Voliva, while the independent or anti-Voliva faction insists that it will seat its newly elected officers.”
“It means war,” Voliva said in a proto-Trumpian speech, reported by the Inter Ocean on May 2. “We are fighting for the right and for religion and we do not intend that these men shall gain control of the city through illegal voting. The old city officials were re-elected and must be given the offices. I’ve hired two big attorneys to prosecute those who perpetrated these election frauds. I mean business.”
In a press conference that day, pro-Voliva police chief A.K. Walker (who, by rights, should have left when his party lost the election) hinted that he would use force to keep power. “I’m for law and order,” Walker said. “I’ll guard the city hall if I have to swear in half the men in town as deputies.”
The pro-Voliva faction was willing to beat their opponents with clubs, should they try to take office. After a rumor claimed that the newly elected officials were about to swear themselves in at an administrative building, Mayor Clendinen called up Walker, who sent out a call to arms among Voliva supporters, who took up guns and clubs and marched to the building.
The rumor turned out to be a false alarm, and everyone went home.
While physically barring their opponents from City Hall, the Theocrats started holding sham city government meetings. Due to an anti-Voliva attorney seizing the keys to the city’s lockboxes, the Theocrats lacked access to important documents like ballots. They attempted to hold a recount during a May meeting, but “having no records, no treasury, and no ballots, the council merely re-appointed A.K. Walker chief of police,” the Inter Ocean reported.
It took a 300-person fistfight to finally oust the Theocrats from office. Fed up with being called frauds, the independent mayor, five newly-elected independent councilmen, and hundreds of their supporters stormed city hall in an all-out melee: “With Bare Fists From Early Evening Until After Midnight,” one headline read. The report logged hundreds of injuries.
The Theocrats retreated to the upper floors of City Hall, where they barricaded themselves while the independents finally swore themselves in.
Even then, the power struggle wasn’t over. A.K. Walker, the pro-Voliva police chief, blockaded himself in the local jail with stockpiles of food and water, preparing for a siege.
“Don’t come a step nearer or I’ll shoot,” he bellowed through an upstairs window at the new anti-Voliva Chief John Jaap, according to an Inter Ocean report on May 5.
“I’m the regularly appointed chief of police,” Jaap replied.
“You are not!”
“I demand that you give up the city jail!”
“You’ll never get this jail!” Walker shouted. “I’m here to stay for two more years.”
Ultimately, as with Trump’s attempt to overturn the election, courts ruled against Voliva’s candidates. Raging from the pulpit, Voliva threatened to assemble a 4,000-man army to defend his throne, and even called on the courts to be abolished.
“I am not through fighting yet, I want you all to know!’ shouted Voliva. ‘I’ll carry the whole matter to the Supreme Court of the country. I will not stand for this lying, stealing, and cheating. I’m in the fight to stay. I want to make a formal announcement right now that in 10 years I will own every foot in Zion City. Take that and remember it.”
Unfortunately for the progressives, Voliva was sort-of correct. The independent candidates were able to take office, and lawsuits from independents briefly stymied Voliva’s political ambitions. But he was effectively able to take over Zion again the following year by purchasing much of the land back from a state bankruptcy receivership, which had held the properties ever since Dowie spent the city into debt.
Enshrined again in power, Voliva implemented even more draconian morality rules. Couples were prohibited from bathing within 50 feet of each other, historian Christine Garwood writes in her book Flat Earth, and bathing suits were criminalized. He enforced his rules with an 800-strong “Zion Guard,” members of which carried Bibles in their gun holsters.
Within four years of regaining control of Zion, Voliva went all-in on flat Earth, dissolving the city’s public schools and creating a new district under his control, which taught that the globe was a Satanic lie.
But the fringe beliefs under which Voliva ruled also led to his undoing. Through the ensuing decades, the flat-Earth schools became a crucible for political opposition in Zion, with school-board elections acting as proxy wars for the city’s political fights. A victory by independent school board candidates in 1934 would spell the beginning of the end of Voliva’s reign.
By the end of the decade, a secular government took over Zion and closed Voliva’s flat-Earth schools. One of the new government’s first tasks was designing a new vehicle-tax sticker to display on cars. As a last, great good-riddance to the former theocrat, the new officials chose a globe.
Like Trump fleeing New York City for Mar-a-Lago, reviled in the city where he’d made his fortune, Voliva soon slunk away to Florida to spend his final days fantasizing about rising to power once again.