Little is known about the early life of confidence trickster Arthur Bently Worthington. His real name was Oakley Crawford, but he was also known as Samuel Oakley Crawford. He was born to Samuel Crawford, a lawyer, and his wife, Susan Reynolds, on 1 March 1847 in Saugerties, New York state, USA. After service in the American civil war in 1864–65, he is said to have been ordained as a Methodist minister in 1867.
Crawford married Josephine Erricson Moore in New York on 23 May 1868. This was the first of at least nine marriages, the rest of which were bigamous. In October 1870 he was gaoled on a charge of obtaining money by false pretences. After his release in June 1873 Crawford, using a bewildering variety of aliases, began a practice of marrying or forming a liaison with a wealthy woman, and then abandoning her and any children (he is known to have fathered three) after swindling her of her wealth. Worthington practised many occupations, including law; all were fronts for criminal activities.
In 1889 Crawford fled a bigamous marriage in Grand Forks, Dakota, and went to New York city where he assumed the name by which he is best known. Arthur Bently Worthington then joined a Christian Scientist sect as a faith-healer. He soon won the heart of the sect's international journal editor, Mary Plunkett, a 'handsome and magnetic priestess' of the movement and the wife of John J. T. Plunkett. The pair declared themselves 'soul mates' and went through a widely publicised mock marriage. John Plunkett at first accepted the situation and parted amicably from his wife, but under the influence of followers scandalised by her behaviour he investigated Worthington's background. Worthington was quickly identified as 'one of the most notorious rascals in the United States', who had left 'scores of victims in every town he visited.'
Worthington confessed that his career had been 'full of deceptions' – his life had been a 'living falsehood'. Despite his protestations that Mary Plunkett had converted him to righteousness, he fled America with the now self-styled Mrs Worthington (later 'Sister Magdala') and her two children, arriving in Christchurch, New Zealand, in January 1890. He and the 'decidedly attractive' Mary Plunkett established in Christchurch what was intended to be a new religion, the Students of Truth. Worthington's personal charm drew attention: he was tall and handsome with 'steel-blue grayish and expressive eyes.' A 'fluent and easy talker…his manner [was] that of a well-bred gentleman.' Soon the pair were attracting converts prepared to give over all their worldly possessions for the cause.
By August 1892 the sect was so successful that it had built the imposing Temple of Truth, and next to it a 'magnificent 12-room residence' for the Worthington family. There was a regular journal, and by early 1893 an Auckland branch and an imposing social hall in the headquarters complex. But a cabal of clergymen had been organising to oppose 'Worthingtonism'. His suspected swindling of his followers and his doctrinal unorthodoxy were bad enough; his 'peculiar teachings' on free love were even more disturbing. 'Marriage vows under his teachings have lost their divine sacredness, and wives are leaving their husbands and husbands their wives.' The Worthingtons were regarded as having a deleterious effect on the moral atmosphere of Christchurch 'to the great fear and mortification of the really good people of that town.'
The assiduous John Hosking, a Methodist minister, uncovered Worthington's past through enquiries in the United States. Worthington denied it all, and retained most of his followers. However, he went too far when he ejected Mary Plunkett from the church and his household, an action probably taken partly because her wealth had run out and partly because she had built up a rival power base within the Students of Truth; this was centred on the élite Order of the Temple in which, according to the more lurid newspaper reports, promiscuity was rife. Exiled to Sydney on a stipend, by mid 1893 she was openly exposing her ex-partner in the press.
Many followers stayed with Worthington, despite continuing exposés of his theology and morality. From March 1893, following police investigations and a cabinet decision, the authorities attempted to persuade the United States to extradite him. The American government preferred to leave such a troublesome citizen in New Zealand, where he was now getting into financial strife, particularly after buying the Temple from its trustees in January 1895. His indebtedness was compounded when, on his 'marrying' Evelyn Maud Jordan on 3 August 1895, a number of his followers deserted him and others pressed him for debt recovery. By November there was serious talk of suing him. In December he left New Zealand, supposedly to collect funds in the United States, but in March 1896 the trustees of the Temple heard that he was in Hobart and was not intending to return.
However, Worthington's ventures in Tasmania having failed, he returned to Christchurch in September 1897 and attempted a comeback through a series of lectures at the Oddfellows' Hall. Angry crowds gathered outside and available police reinforcements were barely adequate. On the third Sunday an estimated 6,000 people, threatening riot, had to be forcibly dispersed. The anger soon dissipated when it was clear that Worthington was by now too discredited to make converts.
By April or May 1899 Worthington had departed for Australia; he never returned to New Zealand. In 1902 he was gaoled for seven years in Melbourne for defrauding – in the guise of the reincarnated god Osiris – a wealthy French widow (his 'Isis'). The presiding judge described him as 'one of the most dangerous imposters that ever came into this country.'
After release Worthington, now a self-proclaimed reformed Christian, raised money from followers to take Evelyn Worthington and their four children (the family had returned to New Zealand during the course of his sentence) to the United States, surviving a shipwreck en route. There he became a Presbyterian pastor in the Poughkeepsie–New Hamburg area of New York state. After several years of preying on his congregation he was expelled from the ministry, and began to engage in further swindles around the United States. Worthington was arrested in January 1917 and spent the rest of the year in custody, dying of a heart attack on 13 December after being confronted by one of his latest female victims.
Despite the brevity of his period in New Zealand Worthington made a substantial impact. He had always been a man about whom superlatives were used. He could allegedly 'shed copious crocodile tears and bleed freely from his lungs, whenever the occasion required.' He was said to be 'one of sin's most miserable slaves, one of Satan's most degraded vessels, and one of hell's most legitimate victims.' His preaching on sex and his alleged sexual proclivities made him one of the most loathed figures in a society trying to emerge from colonial rawness to middle-class respectability.