The Westboro founder has gone to live with the big fag-hater in the sky.
Illustration by Victoria Sin
So, Fred’s gone to live with the big fag-hater in the sky. America mourns. The rainbow flags are fluttering at half mast. Really, you can’t overestimate how cut up the nation is. Who, for example, is left to piss all over the country's dead soldiers? It's a responsibility everyone will have to shoulder together.
Saddest of all, the big ol’ flirt ended his days estranged from even the two dozen people he’d made it his life’s work to keep tame and mute. Excommunicated from his church and emotionally exiled from 99.9 percent of the human race, Fred Phelps died as alone as it is possible for a man to be. Pity him for his grim motiveless anger, but let’s at least remember him as he would have wanted us to: as a psychotic, sadistic life-wrecker and overall pretty bad egg. He certainly didn’t want your pity, as the following catalogue of ugh will show.
HE ONCE BLEW AN ALSATIAN APART WITH A SHOTGUN
A quote from his estranged son, Mark Phelps: “One of my earliest memories was the big ol' German shepherd that belonged to our neighbours. One day it was in our yard, and my father went out and blew it apart with his shotgun.”
BUT DON’T WORRY: HE ALSO WON AWARDS FROM CIVIL RIGHTS GROUPS
Back before there was Fred Phelps, evil’s real-world avatar, there was Fred Phelps, tough, respected civil rights lawyer. Phelps was remembered as an eloquent, determined opponent, and the same righteous, grizzled croak that hypnotised his small flock when he turned preacher was what hypnotised juries. Phelps Chartered Law, the law firm that still bears his name, retains an office in downtown Topeka, Kansas.
“I was raised in Mississippi. I knew it was wrong the way those black people were treated. I instinctively knew it was against the word of God,” recalled the man whose congregation once picketed the funeral of a murdered teen.
Partly because work was thin, Phelps took the cases no one else would touch. In 1960s Topeka, if you were black and trying to sue your employer for unfair dismissal, chances were you'd be recommended to consult Fred Phelps. He was so successful that he won awards from the NAACP for all that racial-equality advancement.
“He made a fortune on all those cases,” said Joe Douglas Jr, the black former Topeka fire chief and long-time civil rights activist. “All the businesses hated him because he was so successful. I think if they discriminated against Martians, he would have done those cases. He could make money.”
HE MANAGED TO AVOID LOOKING TOO BAD FOR AGES
Many former clients were gobsmacked when Phelps reinvented himself as the most hated man in America. “I see him out there, and I hear the venom that comes out of his mouth,” Joe Douglas noted. “If you had asked me in the 60s if he would do this, I would have said never.”
HE WAS A HYPOCRITICAL DRUG ADDICT
In the 60s, Fred Phelps wasn’t interested in turning on, tuning in and dropping out. He was that other, less attractive creature: the middle-class, priggish, self-denying, semi-legitimate drug addict using prescription uppers to get him going, and barbiturates to slam the brakes on at night. Eventually, though, his whole system unravelled. One day, he just didn’t wake up. An ambulance was summoned and it took a comatose Phelps off to spend a week in hospital. This was early 1968. Mrs Phelps told her kids that daddy had suffered an allergic reaction.
HE WAS GREAT AT NOT EATING
After his time in hospital, Phelps returned, dried out and then, in what may have been the unravelling of him, dived straight into a near-suicidal regime of water-only fasting for 47 days. His weight plummeted from around 16 to nine stone.
THERE IS NO MORE UNCOMFORTABLY BIZARRE SENTENCE AVAILABLE ON FRED PHELPS THAN THIS FROM JON MICHAEL BELL’S ADDICTED TO HATE
“Mark remembers the family coming back once to find Pastor Phelps jogging around the dining room table, beating the sobbing [Nate] with a broom handle; while doing so, he was alternately spitting on the frightened child and chuckling the same sinecure laugh so disturbing to those who've seen him on television.”
HE CELEBRATED THE DEATH OF HIS SON’S GIRLFRIEND
In 1970, Debbie Valgos was a sweet local girl who had the misfortune to fall in love with Fred Phelps Jr. The pair tried to elope, but were caught by Fred Sr. Discipline followed, but Debbie was then allowed to attend Westboro services along with Fred Jr. At each one of these, she was called a whore from the pulpit. Despite this, she repeatedly asked Fred Sr what she needed to do to be allowed to see his son. Not long after, Debbie moved out of town and lost it. By 1972, she was dead of a speed overdose, having already taken half a jar of barbiturates earlier that evening. She was still only 17.
Mark Phelps: "I remember getting home from school the day it appeared in the papers, and my dad came dancing down the stairs, swaying from the knees and clapping his hands, singing: 'The whore is dead! The whore is dead!' He paraded around the house, singing and laughing with that maniacal giggle he has, 'The whore is dead!’”
By 1994, Fred claimed not to recognise the name Debbie Valgos.
HE DID NOT APPRECIATE SLUTTY WITNESSES
The week when Fred Phelps noticeably went from merely conflicted and cruel into batshit and evil was in 1977. The event was a bizarre and recklessly unnecessary bit of malicious suing on his part. A stenographer had failed to prepare a transcript for one of his cases on time. So Phelps decided to sue her for the costs of the case he’d lost – $2,000 (£1,200), plus $20,000 (£12,000) in punitive damages.
Her name was Carolene Brady, and, during the trial, Phelps put her on the stand for three full days, had her declared a hostile witness, relentlessly badgered her and tried every gutter trick in the book to turn it into a show trial about her character, calling in her former boyfriends, and apparently dubbing her a "slut". When he lost, he immediately applied for a retrial. But district authorities were onto him, and when he falsified some of the witness statements for the retrial they had the smoking gun they needed. He was disbarred for two years.
HE SUED SEARS ON BEHALF OF ALL OF US; HE WAS A SEARS MARTYR
By 1974, an increasingly opportunistic Phelps seemed to ejaculate a fresh lawsuit every six and a half minutes. When a TV his sons had been buying on layaway at Sears was out of stock on the day they made the final payment, he duly launched a $50 million (£30 million) lawsuit against the company, on behalf of everyone who ever failed to get their TV/washing machine/bolt gun on time.
This being America, the legal shuffle then a) continued for six years, b) cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and c) resulted in a win for Phelps, although the amount settled on was ultimately $60 (£35) less than the cost of the TV they’d been trying to buy: $126 (£75).
Somehow, in all that kerfuffle, they never even got the original TV.
HE SUED REAGAN RE: THE POPE
As this vexatious litigant dragged himself into the 1980s, his lawsuits got even weirder. He decided he would sue the federal government for appointing an ambassador to the Vatican, because, he said, this violated the line between church and state. He lost.
FRED FIRST CAME TO NATIONAL ATTENTION WHEN HIS CHURCH PICKETED THE FUNERAL OF MATTHEW SHEPHERD, A BOY MURDERED IN A GRUESOME HOMOPHOBIC ATTACK
Phelps then applied for a city zoning permit to build a bronze statue celebrating his entry to hell. It was denied.
THE HITS NEVER STOPPED
Phelps ruled with a literal iron rod. He regularly beat all of his kids, but the most extreme example available to us was when he nearly finished off Nate Phelps on Christmas Day. Nate and Mark had made the fatal error of acquiring some Christmas lights. Fred did not allow Christmas – it was yet more sodomite blasphemy, basically. For his crimes, Nate received more than 200 strokes from an adze handle. He was beaten in 40-stroke batches, alternating with his brother, Mark, who was receiving 20 at a time for slightly lesser crimes. Mark later said he was “hoping I'd be knocked out, or killed... anything to end the pain”.
APPARENTLY, ONE OF HIS FAVOURITE TACTICS WAS TO GRAB A KID BY THE HANDS AND PULL THEM UPWARDS, THEN REPEATEDLY SMASH HIS KNEE INTO THEIR GROIN AND STOMACH, WHILE WALKING ACROSS THE ROOM LAUGHING.
He continued to do this even when they were sexually developed teens. Bit weird, Fred Phelps.
HE CREATED A HIGH QUALITY LABOUR FORCE OF CHILDREN
One day, Phelps was stirring some melted chocolate when he remarked that the kids should try and sell the leftover bits of low quality chocolate in the neighbourhood. The kids jumped at the chance to get out of the house. But they couldn’t quite have envisaged that, from now onwards, they would be going round the city of Topeka and beyond every day from 3 till 8 on weekdays and selling industrial quantities of sweets door-to-door.
On weekends and during summer holidays, they’d be out from 5AM to 10PM, up as far as Omaha, St Joseph, Missouri or Kansas City, shepherded by their mother in the station wagon, while dad was free to practically give up work. Hanging around on the streets like that led them into all sorts of bizarre scenarios, like the time a teenage Jonathan Phelps was chased down the street and bitch-slapped by a knife-wielding transvestite.
AT LEAST RUNNER’S WORLD BLOODY LOVED THE GUY
Phelps forced his family on long and arduous physical exercise programmes, both as a sort of Hitler Youth control device and to get them ready to outrun any coming apocalypse. In this, as with much else in life, he was very successful. So much so that the family were occasionally profiled in fitness magazines. He’d first read about the new "science of aerobics" on the back of a Wheaties box, and had subsequently marched his entire tribe off to the local track, where, from his youngest – who was five – upwards, they were all forced to run five miles every day, no matter what the weather.
Soon, he upped that to ten miles a day. Then, they were being made to run a marathon every Saturday. This had two effects. One: getting a seven-year-old to run a marathon is child abuse, no question. Two: they actually became incredibly good at marathon running, and started getting national attention once they began entering races. In fact, so impressed were the hacks at Runner’s World that they featured the Phelps family on two separate occasions.
HE WAS BRILLIANTLY CUNNING
An under-noticed fact when people sue the Phelpses is that many of them are lawyers. And that, because of how legal aid works, most of their fees are still paid by the state. So being sued can actually be a way to drum up business and profit for Team Phelps. “Being sued was kinda win-win,” agrees ex-cult member Lauren Drain.
FRED PHELPS WAS A SEVERELY DAMAGED MAN, AND IN MANY WAYS HIS STORY IS ONE OFTEN REPEATED ELSEWHERE: THE RATHER ORDINARY DOMESTIC TYRANNY IMPOSED BY THIS BROKEN VESSEL SEEMS FAR MORE UNPLEASANT THAN ALL THE MORE PUBLICITY-SAVVY PLACARD-WAVING STUFF HE DID OUTSIDE THE COMPOUND GATES.
To cheer his demise would be to miss the point. Given how consumed he was by his inferno of projection, death is as much a release for him as it is for the rest of us.
But still – fuck that guy.