‘Amish Mafia’ Is the Tawdriest of the Tawdry

by Mark Wilson

You’d have thought reality TV exploitation had hit bottom with Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, a show designed so that the rest of America gets could laugh at the backwoods, rural hickness of Honey Boo Boo, Mama June, and the rest of the family. Presenting rural Americans as exotic and worthy of gawking at is nothing new to the United States, but Honey Boo Boo is at its most crass because, even if Mama June is in on the joke, it’s clear that the show contributes greatly to their income, making it coercive in a way that Duck Dynasty—another rural American sideshow—isn’t.

Anyway, I thought I’d seen the bottom of reality TV until I watched an episode of Amish Mafia. The show purports to be about a secretive cabal of Amish “enforcers” in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and the reason why you’ve never heard of these enforcers before is that the Amish don’t like to talk about it and actively cover up its existence. Intriguing!

There’s another reason you’ve never heard of the Amish mafia: it’s all made up. Because I apparently have nothing better to do, I checked in on the Amish mafia and found it lacking in veracity.

  • The show itself begins with a disclaimer that some scenes are recreated so as to respect the “innocent” Amish who may have been involved. There’s a tip-off right there.
  • David Weaver-Zercher, a professor at Messiah College in in Pennsylvania, has written several books about the Amish and maintains that an “Amish mafia” doesn’t exist. Ditto, says Donald Kraybill, a professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, who studies the Amish and other Anabaptist groups.
  • But that’s just what you’d expect from a conspiracy, right? Of course no one would be able to find evidence of the conspiracy’s existence. However, in one scene, the main character—”Lebanon” Levi, the godfather of this organization—collects “protection” money from a store in Lancaster. The store is not named, but is identifiable. According to the store’s owners, the idea that the Amish would collect protection money is chuckle-worthy. Discovery Channel did film there, but got permission by telling the owners that they were shooting a documentary about the Amish.
  • It may certainly be true that the cast members used to be Amish. Or maybe they never were. According to Weaver-Zercher, a person is “Amish” only if he or she is baptized into the church, which is to say that there’s no such thing as being “ethnically” Amish. The cast members of Amish Mafia don’t appear to have been so baptized. In any case, the cast seems to be recruited from around town. Lebanon Levi is Levi Stoltzfus, who may be a member of the Neptune Fire Co., the fire department in Richland, Pennsylvania.

Of course, if Discovery Channel is foisting a ruse on the viewers of Amish Mafia, who gets hurt? Even if the show is a ridiculous, over-the-top, and unbelievable ruse, as when Lebanon Levi decides that a “barn fight”—a transparent appeal to fans of mixed martial arts, who may share demographic characteristics with fans of this show—would be a great way to raise cash. Michael Shank, who criticized Amish Mafia in November, says it’s the actual Amish who get hurt because they’re being misrepresented. And because the Amish don’t deal with outsiders, they really have no way to defend themselves. And even worse than that, there are real problems within the Amish community that could be the focus of greater scrutiny, but are overlooked in favor of hyperbolic, fictional problems.

What could be worse than that? Maybe name-dropping some horrible real-life stuff in order to build up a character. A character identified as “Merlin Miller” from Holmes County, Ohio comes into Pennsylvania with the intention of taking over Levi’s operation. Merlin claims to run the Amish mafia in Ohio, and the scriptwriters have him referring to the real-life case of Samuel Mullet, an Amish religious fanatic who was convicted last year of hate-motivated crimes against other Amish. He also sexually assaulted the members of his little group. Amish Mafia uses the Mullet story as a grotesque jumping-off point for the Merlin character to claim that he is even worse than Mullet, so look out!

Putting aside the offensiveness of Amish Mafia, we’ve really come full circle with reality television, haven’t we? Amish Mafia is a fully scripted television drama that tries to pass itself off as a “reality” show. Why not cut out the conceit and just call it a fully scripted television drama about a made-up thing called the Amish mafia? Of course, that wouldn’t engender as much interest, but the preposterousness of the whole idea makes one wonder how many people out there really do tune in because they’re entranced by this apocryphal cabal that no one is willing to talk about. Then again, there are still people out there who think that “professional” wrestling is real.

I had hoped that once we got through our fascination with reality TV, we’d go back to scripted TV. Turns out the next iteration of reality TV is just badly scripted reality TV presenting itself as unscripted reality TV. I guess the soap opera hasn’t died out, after all.