The antics of self-styled ‘Judge’ Daniel Milton – a notorious late 19th century celebrity – kept journalists busy for over 40 years. The native of Brooklyn, New York spent much of this time in Wrenthorpe, confronting the Wroes over the ownership of Melbourne House, clashing with police and magistrates, and preaching to anyone who’d listen.
When Milton died, following a fall down the stairs at his Bragg Lane End home, papers across the British Isles covered the story in detail. Here’s the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer’s lengthy account.
Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer
Tuesday 16 September 1903
“PROPHET” WROE’S SUCCESSOR
DEATH OF THE WRENTHORPE CLAIMANT
No history of strange religions would be complete without a chapter on Daniel Milton “Sixth Observer of the Church of the Christian Israelites” whose death has occurred at the village of Wrenthorpe, near Wakefield.
A pathetic figure, with spare locks and white beard, Daniel Milton looked like a patriarch, and professed to believe himself divinely commissioned to be the spiritual advisor of the sect of Christian Israelites, and the guardian of their worldly property. The sect was originally founded by one Richard Brothers who sacrificed the honourable post of a lieutenant in the Navy to his religious scruples. He was succeeded by Joanna Southcott, whom Macaulay described as “an old woman with the cunning of a fortune-teller and the education of a scullion.” On her death the organisation of her followers was undertaken by three alleged “prophets” – George Turner, William Shaw and John Wroe, the last named whom had a handsome Doric building, known as Melbourne House erected for him at Wrenthorpe. It was understood that the building was to be the worldly habitation of the “Shiloh” or Second Christ, whose coming had been predicted by Joanna.
In 1857 Daniel Milton, at one time a New England shipwright and later made a “Judge” by the Christian Israelites of New York, made the startling announcement that he was the long-expected Shiloh. His wife and three daughters left him, but this in no way lessoned his enthusiasm. In February 1860, without a farthing in his purse, Daniel Milton arrived at the door of “Israel’s Temple” otherwise Melbourne House, Wrenthorpe, and informed John Wroe that he was Shiloh and had come to enter upon his inheritance.
“Take him away, take him away!” exclaimed the octogenarian John Wroe, “my bowels yearn within me.” After a prolonged duel with John Wroe, with the policeman in the background, Milton returned to America, temporarily baffled. He came again, however, the following year and made repeated attempts to take procession of the mansion, endeavouring meantime to awaken public sympathy with his cause by addressing a series of open-air meetings. But his attempts proved futile and again he returned to America.
In 1863 Wroe died and the next year Milton once again appeared at Wrenthorpe and this time got possession of Melbourne House holding “Israel’s Temple” against a siege for nearly a month. Indeed he was only ejected ultimately by the treachery of his garrison. Repeated prosecutions served but to increase Milton’s efforts. Probably no civilian in the country wrote more letters to the Home Office than “Judge” Milton and his numerous practical attempts to obtain possession of the mansion resulted in his imprisonment on no fewer than a dozen occasions.
The respect of the villagers for the deluded “Judge”, “Prophet” and “Shiloh” was as great as their pity. It would well-nigh be impossible for any man to have made more sacrifices for his belief. His wife, his family, his comfortable home in the States, he exchanged for solitude and semi-destitution. He dwelt alone in a two-roomed cottage, which was strangely furnished and stocked. There were no blinds or curtains to the windows of the stone-floored living room – only a newspaper pinned across to keep out the draught and to obstruct the views of the many folks who, out of curiosity, assembled in the vicinity. On one side of the apartment stood an ancient Caxton-like hand printing press with cases of type close by. On the trestle table and strewn about the floor were piles of home-printed pamphlets containing reports of legal proceedings in which “Shiloh” was involved, and also thousands of handbills reproducing spiritual quotations, a selection of which “Judge” Milton was wont to issue monthly. Over the mantelpiece in large type were printed the mystic words:-
Jesus and Joanna
My two witnesses
The public demand for his works was very limited and he eked out an existence by making useful articles at his carpenter’s bench and by occasionally undertaking a little white-washing and painting. For over 60 years he was a teetotaller and a non-smoker, and it was his boast that he could live comfortably on 4s. a week.
One of his many declared beliefs was that he would never die. When the villagers argued the point with him he would ramble off into a maze of Biblical references laying special stress on the statement that there was “a certain house which was built upon a rock.” If it were suggested that his explanation was not quite clear, that “Judge’s” invariable retort was that earthly-minded beings could not appreciate such matters.
Time has replied to Daniel Milton. On Wednesday afternoon a neighbour, not having seen the “Judge” for a day or two looked through a crevice in the paper window covering and saw the old man – he was 82 years of age – lying at the bottom of the stairs. The neighbour forced open the door and found the “Judge” in a semi-unconscious condition with a wound on the head, evidently the result of a fall. His earthly mission was soon over and the villagers are touched with sadness that so sturdy and kindly a creature should have lived and died in so pitiable a cause.
A Wakefield correspondent writing last night gives some interesting facts in Daniel Milton’s history:-
Daniel Milton (he says) was a prosperous young ship’s carpenter in New York, when Prophet Wroe was on his travels and visited that city. He was much impressed with Wroe and becoming a great man in the sect firmly believed that he was to be Wroe’s successor. There was one incident at least which gave him some ground for this belief. On being shown a house which Daniel was building in New York, Wroe said (putting his hand on Daniel’s shoulder) “It’s a fine house, Daniel, but I’m building thee a finer house in England.” Daniel was quite convinced that he was to have the house known as Prophet Wroe’s Mansion or Melbourne House. But Wroe never intended this, and when the mansion was completed and invitations were issued to all the followers to visit it, Daniel was overlooked. The reason of this is difficult to understand, unless the Prophet thought he would be trouble with him in the future. Daniel was much agitated and distressed with the slight, and came over to England. He preached to 30,000 near the Mansion. The police interfered and he then took a field for the purpose, but he was compelled to stop again.
Since that time he has crossed the Atlantic no fewer than 22 times and been in danger of shipwreck once or twice. On one occasion it is said that the vessel was considered lost, but Daniel was a giant to work and through his exertion the ship was saved. Each time that Daniel went to America he returned strong in the faith that he would possess the Mansion and control of the affairs of the sect and he was delighted when on two occasions he got possession of the keys to the lodges. The last occasion was no farther back than Monday last.
The gates of the Mansion grounds have for years been kept locked, for Daniel would have been inside had he got half a chance. He has been seen to carry a step-ladder from his house to the Mansion walls in order to look over there at his “Mecca”.
It is only fair to say that he has been a source of great annoyance to the present owners of the property and the greatest fault the man had (in this writer’s opinion) was his devilish delight in any misfortune suffered by the Wroes. He kept a list of all deaths that had occurred on the property since his exclusion from the Church.
The deathbed scene was a singular one. A makeshift bed had been made for him on the floor of his living and workroom, which was devoid of furniture, except for a stool or two. An antiquated printing press stood nearly in the centre of the room whilst on two sides were boxes of type, on another side a case containing pamphlets setting forth his grievances and in the midst lay the patriarchal form of the old man, dying in spite of his own undoubted belief he would never die.
Milton’s relations in America are well to do, a nephew of his being a judge. He was fond of relating how, on the occasion of his nephew being raised to the bench, he (Daniel) said: “You are a judge of the temporal courts, but I am a judge of the eternal courts” for Daniel had been styled Judge amongst this peculiar sect.
More articles on Daniel Milton’s many scrapes in future blogs.