Violence Among the Amish

On Wednesday, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a 2013 hate-crime conviction against 15 members of an Amish separatist group who forcibly cut the beards of others in their faith. The ruling has re-opened a question: How could this happen?
Photographs taken by the so-called Bergholz barbers during and after their attack on Amish men Raymond Hershberger (left) and David Wengerd (right) in 2011. (United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio at Akron)

Mostly, they came at night. Two or three people would hold down the victims, who were often elderly, while another person used battery-powered clippers or scissors to shear the victims' beards or hair. When they were done, they would take pictures.

The 16 Bergholz barbers, as they have come to be known, carried out five attacks on Amish men and women in Ohio over the course of three months in 2011. Often, they were the sons or daughters or in-laws of the victims. All of them were part of another putatively Amish community of roughly one hundred people who lived together in the Yellow Creek Valley in central Ohio, a few miles east of the town of Bergholz. In February of 2013, they were sentenced to prison terms ranging in length from one to 15 years, becoming the first-ever Americans to be convicted of hate crimes under a federal statute. On Wednesday, this conviction was overturned by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals; two judges on a three-judge panel upheld counts of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and lying to the FBI, but said the attacks didn't meet the standard of a hate crime.

As judge Jeffrey Sutton wrote in the majority decision, there is nothing typical about the Bergholz case, from its setting among the normally peaceful Amish communities to the nature of attack—shaving people's hair and beards. In the initial trial, after five days of deliberation, the jury concluded that these were religiously motivated attacks. But in their decision to overturn this conviction, the Sixth-Circuit judges held that it's not fair to say that faith "permeates the motives for the assaults in this case, no matter how mundane the personal, power, or getting-one’s-way disputes that formed the backdrop to these assaults. Even people of the most theocratic faith may do things—including committing crimes—for non-faith-based reasons." It’s a fascinating question: For people like the Amish, whose lives are almost completely defined by religious devotion, is it possible to extricate faith from anything they do?

In this case, untangling an answer involves a lot of other questions. To start: Were the Bergholz barbers actually Amish? That's what they called themselves, but they didn't attend church, conduct daily prayers, or identify with Christianity. Adult women were allowed to live in the home of the community's leader, Sam Mullet, and members were encouraged to use paddles to strike one another in moments of disagreement. When they first settled in the Yellow Valley in 1995, Mullet's wife, Martha, explained in a letter to an Amish leader that they "wanted to step back in time a little and live more like our grandparents, because the drift in the Amish church is so plain to see ... So we stepped back in times, no bathrooms, no pressure water, no modern or power tools for carpentry work, only allowing dark-colored dresses, etc."

Especially after the attacks, members of the press and other Amish communities frequently called the Bergholz community a cult. Donald Kraybill, a sociologist at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania who consulted for the prosecutors in the case and recently published a book on the trial, says the group isn't exactly Amish, but they're not a cult, either—they're more like a clan.

"They weren’t out recruiting other people to join, they didn’t have people coming from various backgrounds. They’re all members of the same family," he said. "At one point, there were families there in the community who were not part of the Mullet family—but they all got excommunicated because they raised questions about Sam [Mullet], the bishop’s, autocratic excommunications.”

These excommunications played a role in who later became victims of the beard-cutting attacks. One middle-aged couple, the Millers, had followed their six children to the Bergholz community in 2007 but left almost immediately out of religious objections. Another man was part of a committee of Amish bishops that met in Ulysses, Pennsylvania, in 2006 to decide what to do about the excommunications Mullet had issued; ultimately, the committee decided not to honor them, even though excommunications in one Amish community are typically recognized by all other Amish communities across the country.

In his book, Kraybill described the mindset that led to the attacks, which evolved over time: "Like a prophet of old, Sam voiced a lonely, solitary plea in the wilderness against God's rebellious people ... [He] is called to preach against the swelling tide of disobedience in the larger Amish world."

Throughout the legal proceedings, it became clear that Mullet had an extremely strong influence on the Bergholz community and acted as the mastermind behind the attacks. He directed his co-conspirators to attack the victims' hair, reasoning that "it’s a religious degrading to cut the hair and the beard." This was painfully true; after he was attacked, 76-year-old Raymond Hershberger told police that "I'd rather have them beat me black and blue than take my hair."

In October 2011, Mullet told a local Ohio television station that "it’s all religion, that’s why we can’t figure out why the sheriff has his nose in it—it started with us excommunicating members that weren’t listening and obeying our laws." Even though Mullet himself was not involved in any of the attacks, during his sentencing in 2013, the judge told him that he "[deserved] the harshest, the longest sentence. I'm convinced ... that these attacks would not have occurred but for you."

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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