Aunt Arletta Green Clarke, First Lady of Iowa, 1913-1917

Arletta Green

The 1920 legal name change from Benjamin P. Williams to Elbert Benjamine was caused, he said, by ostracism from his relatives in Iowa motivated by religious antagonism. His Williams relatives in Iowa consisted at that point of his five children and ex-wife living on a poultry farm outside of Adel and his mother living in town, none of whom could be fairly accused of ostracizing their father, ex-husband, and son. And yet it is clear that SOME relatives wanted him change his name legally if he was determined to pursue a career as a writer and teacher of astrology, Tarot, and other things not discussed in Adel polite society.

The census records of the Williams and Benjamine families from 1910 through 1940 provide an interesting clue to events of 1920 as well as a reminder of a major mystery of 1910.

From top to bottom: 1910 census entry for Benjamin and Rita Williams, 1920 entry for Benjamin and Elizabeth Williams, followed by 1920 entry for Emma G. Williams, 1930 entry for Elbert, Elizabeth and Will Benjamine, 1940 entry for Elbert and Elizabeth Benjamine; 1910 entry for Grace, Benjamin, and William Williams, 1920 entry for Grace, Benjamin, William, Mary Grace, Norman, and Zilla Williams, 1930 entry for Grace, Zilla and Norman, 1940 entry for Norman, Grace, and Zilla

In the first entry we see that as of the 1910 census Benjamin Williams is not just divorced (as we see from his ex-wife’s status in the censuses of 1910, 1920, and 1930) but remarried to Rita or Reta, an Iowa native born around 1876, living in Steilacoom, Washington, doing odd jobs. Here is a 1910 photograph from Steilacoom looking across Puget Sound towards the Olympic Mountains.

Grace Williams was apparently opposed to her husband’s literary ambitions and interests from the start, and Elizabeth Benjamine was fully supportive of him throughout their marriage. But crucial years of his contact with the Brotherhood and beginning of public work (Denver in 1909 through Carmel in 1918) took place between the divorce from Grace and the marriage to Elizabeth, about which the best eyewitness account would be from Rita about whom we know nothing at this point other than what is in the 1910 census.

While the 1910 census raises many unanswered questions, the 1920 census points to an answer to a question– what was behind Benjamin/Elbert’s claims of being ostracized and harmed in business prospects by his family in 1920? Grace is at home on a chicken farm with five children in 1920, but Emma Green Williams is not at home in Iowa but rather staying at a boarding house on North Broadway, the main thoroughfare nearest the home of Elizabeth and Elbert in Los Angeles. We can surmise from this that she was not entirely antagonistic to her son and new daughter in law if she was willing to go to California to see what they were up to. That in the aftermath of this visit the legal name change occurred is likely related to Emma’s advice, but a new piece of evidence about her own sister’s family the Clarkes suggests where the real pressure was coming from.

Emma’s next younger sister Arletta Green Clarke was the wife of the governor of Iowa from 1913 through 1917, the period in which Benjamin fathered three more children with his ex-wife after marrying another woman. Since Rita was a native Iowan whose parents were also Iowa-born, it is likely that Iowa acquaintances of the Williamses and Clarkes and Greens knew her identity, although that story is now lost. Elbert had four first cousins in Iowa all of whom were also sons and daughters of the governor. George Washington Clarke had been Lieutenant Governor of Iowa from 1909 through 1913, so his combined tenure in the capital of eight years occurred precisely during the years when his Williams in-laws were probably setting tongues wagging in Adel and possibly Des Moines as well.

Emma Green Williams left Elbert Benjamine a substantial inheritance upon her death in 1932 which he used to build up the church of which his son Will was now an employee. Will likewise changed his surname to Benjamine, the only one of her grandchildren to do so and the only one to be publicly associated with The Church of Light. Her presence in Los Angeles in 1920 suggests that perhaps a legal name change was imposed as a condition of future inheritance, assuring that the Williams name would not be associated with astrology and occultism.

Here is a summary of Clarke’s gubernatorial career from a national database of state governors: