1857: Two surviving members of the Aiken Party

Add comment November 28th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1857, the Utah Territory finished the extrajudicial executions it had botched three days before.

As we have detailed, Utah’s Mormon authorities had during these months of near-war against federal authorities taken prisoner a party of Californians crossing their territory — the Aiken (or Aikin) Party.

On November 25, four members of that party were murdered by the Mormon guards escorting them out of the state — killings that were quite extrajudicial, but also quite deliberately orchestrated by the stated.

Except, they had only killed two of the four.

Although outnumbered by their attackers and miles from the nearest settlement, somehow two men — perhaps John Aiken and John “Colonel” Eichard or Achard, although we cannot be certain of their identities — survived the bludgeons and staggered, wounded, back to the town of Nephi whose residents could not but take them in: an awkward situation since they still had to be done to death and could not very well be gunned down right there in the town.

We excerpt at length here from J.H. Beadle’s explanatory appendix in the autobiography of frontiersman and confessed Brigham Young hit man Wild Bill Hickman. Beadle was a vituperative anti-Mormon propagandist and his prose runs to the purple, but the core facts of the case are historically well-supported; see David Bigler, “The Aiken Party Executions and the Utah War, 1857-1858,” The Western Historical Quarterly, Winter 2007.

Two died without a struggle. But John Aikin bounded to his feet, but slightly wounded, and sprang into the brush. A shot from the pistol of John Kink laid him senseless. “Colonel” also reached the brush, receiving a shot in the shoulder from Port Rockwell, and believing the whole party had been attacked by banditti, he made his way back to Nephi. “With almost superhuman strength he held out during the twenty-five miles, and the first bright rays of a Utah sun showed the man, who twenty-four hours before had left them handsome and vigorous in the pride of manhood, now ghastly pale and drenched with his own blood, staggering feebly along the streets of Nephi. He reached Bishop Foote’s, and his story elicited a well-feigned horror.

Meanwhile the murderers had gathered up the other three and thrown them into the river, supposing all to be dead. But John Aikin revived and crawled out on the same side, and hiding in the brush, heard these terrible words:

“Are the damned Gentiles all dead, Port?”

“All but one — the son of a b– ran.”

Supposing himself to be meant, Aikin lay still till the Danites left, then, without hat, coat, or boots, on a November night, the ground covered with snow, he set out for Nephi. Who can imagine the feelings of the man? Unlike “Colonel” he knew too well who the murderers were, and believed himself the only survivor. To return to Nephi offered but slight hope, but it was the only hope, and incredible as it may appear he reached it next day. He sank helpless at the door of the first house he reached, but the words he heard infused new life into him. The woman, afterwards a witness, said to him, “Why, another of you ones got away from the robbers, and is at Brother Foote’s.” “Thank God; it is my brother,” he said, and started on. The citizens tell with wonder that he ran the whole distance, his hair clotted with blood, reeling like a drunken man all the way. It was not his brother, but “Colonel.” The meeting of the two at Foote’s was too affecting for language to describe. They fell upon each other’s necks, clasped their blood-spattered arms around each other, and with mingled tears and sobs kissed and embraced as only men can who together have passed through death …

[But] the murderers had returned, and a new plan was concocted. “Colonel” had saved his pistol and Aikin his watch, a gold one, worth at least $250. When ready to leave they asked the bill, and were informed it was $30. They promised to send it from the city, and were told that “would not do.” Aikin then said, “Here is my watch and my partner’s pistol — take your choice.” Foote took the pistol. When he handed it to him, Aikin said, “There, take my best friend. But God knows it will do us no good.” Then to his partner, with tears streaming from his eyes, “Prepare for death. Colonel, we will never get out of this valley alive.”

According to the main witness, a woman of Nephi, all regarded them as doomed. They had got four miles on the road, when their driver, a Mormon named [Absalom] Woolf,* stopped the wagon near an old cabin; informed them he must water his horses; unhitched them, and moved away. Two men then stepped from the cabin, and fired with double-barreled guns; Aiken and “Colonel” were both shot through the head, and fell dead from the wagon. Their bodies were then loaded with stone and put in one of those “bottomless springs” — so called — common in that part of Utah.

I passed the place in 1869, and heard from a native the whispered rumors about “some bad men that were sunk in that spring.” The scenery would seem to shut out all idea of crime, and irresistibly awaken thoughts of heaven. The soft air of Utah is around; above the blue sky smiles as if it were impossible there could be such things as sin or crime; and the neat village of Nephi brightens the plain, as innocently fair as if it had not witnessed a crime as black and dastardly as ever disgraced the annals of the civilized world.

* Grandfather of jockey George Woolf, who rode Seabiscuit to a famous victory over Triple Crown winner War Admiral in 1938.

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Corpses Strewn: The Aiken Party Massacre

Add comment November 25th, 2018 Headsman

“Six ‘gentlemen of good address,’ known as the Aiken party, rode into Salt Lake Valley from California in October 1857 and were never seen or heard from again by family members or friends.” So begins the late David Bigler’s 2007 Western Historical Quarterly article, “The Aiken Party Executions and the Utah War, 1857-1858.” It’s an affair with little purchase on the American recollection, buried in the omerta passed over the violent birth of Mormonism, once that faith attained its political accommodation come the late 19th century.

Early Mormonism traded stripe for stripe with neighbors who hated the movement to the extent of an extermination order and the lynching of founding prophet Joseph Smith.

Under the leadership of Smith’s successor Brigham Young, the community relocated en masse to the arid westward frontier between the Rocky Mountains and California — the Utah Territory, spanning the eventual states of both Utah and Nevada.*

But the heretical and polygamous frontier theocracy at first stood in the same fraught relationship with the expanding Republic that it had once had with Protestant neighbors in Missouri and Illinois. Mormons answered to Governor Young as both the civil and ecclesiastical power, ignoring or overruling federal authorities to the extent that enemies slated the sect with rebellion.

“He has been so much in the habit of exercising his will which is supreme here, that no one will dare oppose anything he may say or do,” an Indian Affairs agent reported to Washington of Gov. Young. “His orders are obeyed without regard to their consequences and whatever is in the interest of the Mormons is done whether it is according to the interest of the government or not.”

In 1857 the new U.S. President James Buchanan appointed a new man to replace Brigham Young as Utah’s governor — and sent an armed expedition to enforce the federal writ. Young raged against this move, charging that “their entrance is designed by our Government to be the prelude to the introduction of abominations and death … if they can send a force against this people, we have every constitutional and legal right to send them to hell, and we calculate to send them there.”

Young declared martial law, closed trails through the territory, and braced to “repel any and all such invasion.”** This standoff commenced the 1857-1858 Utah War, which never quite came to open shooting between Mormon militias and the U.S. Army. But among Mormons who could remember civil strife with Americans all too well — “fear turned in their minds” as an interviewee has said on this very site, speaking on that occasion of the most notorious hecatomb of those years, the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Although downplayed in church-supported histories, Mormon guns did ample violence to other civilians of unreliable loyalties in those months.

It is thus that we come to our six gentlemen of good address, the Aiken or Aikin Party — victims of an atrocity not so well-known as those of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, but no less appalling.

Thomas Aiken, John Aiken, John “Colonel” Eichard/Achard, Andrew Jackson “Honesty” Jones, and John Chapman had set out from California to cross those closed trails aiming to meet the approaching federal forces, carrying several thousand dollars in gold and letters endorsing them to the federal commanders; they were joined en route by Horace “Buck” Bucklin. Nobody quite knows the party’s intent for this rendezvous; several were merchants who had done a brisk trade with miners during the gold rush and they might have hoped to set up a profitable gambling or whoring operation that would soak up the soldiers’ wages.† To their captors, they explained their presence by saying only that they “wanted to see the country.” Whatever they were truly, Mormons saw them for enemy agents.

What befell them is quite borderline in terms of this here site‘s executions portfolio, but utterly blood-chilling. Though effected as brute assassinations in the field, those killed were overt prisoners of the territorial government whose fates had been deliberated and decreed by their captors. Bigler’s journal article summation of the evidence is our chief source in this; he draws heavily from unsuccessful 1877-1878 legal measures against the men’s surviving murderers.

Falling in with a Mormon wagon train for safety against Indian attacks, the Aiken party instead found itself disarmed and given to the custody of the Mormon militia at Box Elder (present-day Brigham City), then brought under guard to the territorial capital of Salt Lake City. Governor Young was fully aware of these potential spies in his custody.

Horace Bucklin made a successful — for now — appeal to Gov. Young for mercy as an innocent bystander. The five Californians were escorted 25 miles onward to Lehi, where John Chapman was suffered to winter. One of his four companions allegedly took his leave of Chapman with the words, “Goodbye, John. If you come this way and see our bones bleaching on the plains, bury them.” It was a prescient fear: the deaths of all these four men, and apparently Bucklin and Chapman too, were even at this moment being orchestrated by orders from the top.

History has not preserved for us the command in the governor’s own hand. But as Bigler puts it on circumstantial evidence, “an authority at Great Salt Lake made a considered decision to allow two of the men to remain at large over the winter and kill the other four. Such an authority could only have been Brigham Young.”

Recommended background: episode 116 of the Year Of Polygamy podcast. The Aiken Party is briefly touched on from about 38:20 but the entire episode is worth a go.

* All this land and more the Mormon settlers once aspired to incorporate as a mighty sovereignty destined to become a state called Deseret. That name lives on today in a Salt Lake City newspaper.

** Young’s proclamation gives a sense of his own power within Utah and the umbrage it would inspire of the federal government. (It’s quoted here by a legislator who grouses, “Caesar, when he crossed the Rubicon, made no higher assumption than Brigham Young when he declared war.”)

Therefore, I, Brigham Young, Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Territory of Utah, in the name of the people of the United States in the Territory of Utah, forbid —

First. All armed forces of every description from coming into this Territory, under any pretense whatever.

Second. That all the forces in said Territory hold themselves in readiness to march at a moment’s notice to repel any and all such invasion.

Third. Martial law is hereby declared to exist in this Territory from and after the publication of this proclamation; and no person shall be allowed to pass or repass into, or through, or from, this Territory, without a permit from the proper officer.

† The Aiken party did not have wagons full of merchandise, so any intended commercial operation they would have needed to realize on the spot.

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1857: Two members of the Aiken Party

Add comment November 25th, 2018 Headsman

The first “executions” meted out by Mormon captors to the Aiken or Aikin Party men who were attempting to cross the war-footing territory eastward from California took place on November 25, 1857, and were as clumsy as they were brutal.

Under the pretext of escorting them out of the state, Thomas Aiken, John Aiken, John “Colonel” Eichard, and Andrew Jackson “Honesty” Jones reached the small settlement of Salt Creek, Utah, on November 24. They had their least peaceful sleep there that night while their guides, acting on orders from the top of the state’s hierarchy, planned their murders.

Four toughs dispatched by Bishop Jacob Bigler slipped out of Nephi before dawn the next day. They’d ride on ahead, and later that evening “accidentally” meet the southbound Aiken men and their escorts, presenting themselves as a chance encounter on the trails to share a camp that night. These toughs plus the escorts gave the Mormons an 8-to-4 advantage on their prisoners, which was still only good enough to kill 2-of-4 when the time came:

David Bigler’s 2007 Western Historical Quarterly article, “The Aiken Party Executions and the Utah War, 1857-1858.”

After supper, the newcomers sat around the fire singing. “Each assassin had selected his man. At a signal from [Porter] Rockwell, [the] four men drew a bar of iron each from his sleeve and struck his victim on the head. Collett did not stun his man and was getting worsted. Rockwell fired across the camp fire and wounded the man in the back. Two escaped and got back to Salt Creek.”

We don’t actually know which two died at the camp and which two made it back to Salt Creek. Bigler suspects Thomas Aiken and John Eichard were the victims to die on the 25th; the editors of Mormon assassin Bill Hickman‘s confessional autobiography make it Thomas Aiken and Honesty Jones.

The doomed men were stopping at T. B. Foote’s, and some persons in the family afterwards testified to having heard the council that condemned them. The selected murderers, at 11 p.m., started from the Tithing House and got ahead of the Aikins, who did not start till dayhght. The latter reached the Sevier River, when Rockwell informed them they could find no other camp that day; they halted, when the other party approached and asked to camp with them, for which permission was granted. The weary men removed their arms and heavy clothing, and were soon lost in sleep — that sleep which for two of them was to have no waking on earth. All seemed fit for their damnable purpose, and yet the murderers hesitated. As near as can be determined, they still feared that all could not be done with perfect secrecy, and determined to use no firearms. With this view the escort and the party from Nephi attacked the sleeping men with clubs and the kingbolts of the wagons. Two died without a struggle.

As for the two survivors … that’s a tale for another day.

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1844: Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, lynched

1 comment June 27th, 2016 Headsman

Joseph Smith, the strange founder of America’s most successful home-grown religion, was lynched on this date in 1844 at the jail in Carthage, Illinois.

Mormonism today boasts some 15 million adherents but it all started in the 1820s when Smith, then an energetic young mystic in the revival hotbed of western New York, claimed to have been guided by an angel to plates engraved in a made-up language that only he could translate and only that one time because the plates disappeared back to angelic custody after Smith’s perusal. It will not be news to this site’s LDS readers that few outside the faith place this origin story on the near side of the laugh test, but then, it is the nature of religions to appear ridiculous to outsiders: Christ crucified is unto the Greeks foolishness.

Smith’s heretical story of America as the ancient zone of a literal “New Jerusalem” founded by Israelites with a theretofore unknown gift for transoceanic navigation was certainly a stumbling-block for Protestant American neighbors, who harried from state to state — a practically Biblical sojourn through the desert — the fast-growing community. It came to pass* that the young man’s implausible scripture struck a resonant chord for the young nation.

“It was a really powerful religion,” says John Dolan in an episode of the War Nerd podcast.** “It said, our people have always been here, America is the promised land, you’re at home here. And that meant so much to 19th century Americans.”

The strange new sect’s capacity for punching above its weight in the missionary game also unleashed violently hostile reactions, marrying to its settler theology a compelling lived experience of persecution. The march of the movement across the continent has an astonishing, can’t-make-this-up character — “full of stir and adventure” in Mark Twain’s words, so again a perfect fit for America.

A few books about Joseph Smith

Smith took his fledgling faith from its New York birthplace to Kirtland, Ohio — where he was fortunate to survive a tarring and feathering in 1832 — and then onward to Missouri where a dirty vigilante war led the governor to issue a notorious “extermination order”: “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace.” Scrabbling for a homeland and pursued by a Missouri treason charge (!) Smith ducked over the western border to Illinois and set up a Mormon town called Nauvoo.

The faith was barely a decade old and still struggling to find an equilibrium. While Smith fought the last battle by creating a gigantic militia to protect his flock from the sorts of military attacks it had faced in Missouri — which state still sought Smith’s head in the 1840s — he attained his martyrdom as the fallout of prosaic internal politics. Seeking to suppress schismatic Mormons, Smith in June 1844 ordered the destruction of their critical newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor.†

By now having worn out his welcome with yet another state, the unpopular Smith became the subject of an Illinois arrest warrant as a result of this lawless attack on his rivals. Expecting better treatment than Missouri would have offered him and angling to keep Mormons in an amicable relationship with neighbors, Smith this time chose to turn himself in to face trial for inciting a riot, along with his brother Hyrum Smith and two other Mormon leaders, Willard Richards and John Taylor.‡

But in this case, the law did not take its course.

On the afternoon of June 27, 1844, a mob of 200 armed men stormed the jail in Carthage where the Mormons were held, meeting only token resistance. (Indeed, many of the force assigned to guard the Mormons joined the attackers instead.) They gunned down Hyrum Smith on the spot and drove Joseph Smith — firing back all the while — to a window where a fusillade knocked him out of the second story. His body was shot up and mutilated; one of the numerous accounts of those moments even has it that the corpse was propped up for a summary firing squad “execution.”

Whatever else one could say of Joseph Smith, he forged a community that survived its founder’s death, and is thriving still nearly two centuries on. With Smith’s passing, leadership of the Mormons fell to Brigham Young, who brought the Mormons out of Illinois for their destiny in Utah.

* Smith — or the angel Moroni, if you like — amusingly abuses the portentous clause “it came to pass” in the Book of Mormon, repeating it in about one-fifth of the tome’s verses.

** Also recommended: Dolan’s article on Joseph Smith as an outstanding product of an era of “text-finding” — his spuriously “ancient” book offering pious Americans their greatest desideratum, a national link to God’s Biblical chosen people much like James MacPherson‘s forged Ossian epic thrilled the patriotic fancies of Scots discomfitingly swallowed up into Great Britain.

† The Expositor published only one single issue: the June 7, 1844 edition that caused its immediate suppression and eventually Smith’s death.

‡ Both Richards and Taylor survived the mob attack on Carthage Jail. Taylor in 1880 succeeded Brigham Young as president of the church.

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1903: Peter Mortensen, divinely accused

2 comments November 20th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1903, Peter Mortensen was shot over a lumber bill.

The evidence against Peter Mortensen was circumstantial: a moonlight witness, some unexplained cash, and a perceived insufficiency of vigor in insisting upon his innocence when suspicion fell upon him.

Though this much sounds pretty speculative, Mortensen’s very direct pecuniary interest in Hay’s death was harder to wave away. Mortensen, a Salt Lake contractor, owed money to George Ernest Romney’s* Pacific Lumber company. On the evening of December 16, 1901, he summoned Romney’s employee James R. Hay — who was also Mortensen’s friend, neighbor, and fellow-teacher at a Mormon Sunday school — to pay up.

Hay never made it home.

The next day, Mortensen had a receipt for the payment in Hay’s hand, and Hay had a cashless grave and a bullet hole in his head. Rarely have means, motive, and opportunity converged so exactly.

Public sentiment against Mortensen was so overwhelming** that selecting an impartial-ish jury proceeded at a weeks-long crawl as Mortensen’s attorney met prospect after prospect by bluntly asking whether they had formed an opinion as to his man’s guilt. Prospect after prospect confirmed that they had done. By the end, the court had been reduced to issuing “open venires” bypassing the regular jury summons process and authorizing anyone handy to be inducted into the jury pool. Deputies scoured Salt Lake City like press gangs, hunting for possible jurymen.

In all, the court dismissed some 600 prospective jurors for bias (which was quite a lot for the time), and ran through $4,500 in that process alone (likewise).

Those finally seated had to weigh, along with the more conventional indicia of guilt, the inflammatory witness testimony of James Hay’s father … who said he didn’t just have a pretty strong suspicion about the defendant, but that he actually knew Mortensen did it. “God revealed it to me,” the elder Hay said with “tears streaming down his cheeks” according to a report in the Idaho Daily Statesman of June 6, 1902.

He appeared to me by the Holy Ghost and put the words of His Spirit into my mouth. I had to utter them, for I knew they were true. I cannot and will not deny it here, neither will I deny it when I meet my God on the last day.

This is not the only manifestation I received. On Tuesday noon I saw the trail of blood leading from the railroad tracks to where my son-in-law was buried. I saw it in a vision just as plainly as when I afterwards visited the spot.

Again, this is judicial testimony in an American courtroom in the 20th century.

The fact that it appeared — and that the trial court refused a defense demand to instruct the jury not to consider supernatural visions in the light of real evidence — formed the central argument of Mortensen’s appeal. In the end, Utah’s Supreme Court refused to vacate the sentence. Still, the weird appearance of “divine revelation evidence” in a Utah courtroom led the Mormon patriarch Joseph F. Smith to issue a finding distancing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints from any embarrassing mummery:

[N]o member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should, for one moment, regard such testimony as admissible in a court of law, and to make the case perfectly clear it may be further stated that such evidence would not be permissible even in a Church court, where rules of evidence, though not so technical, are founded largely upon the same principles that govern the rules of evidence in a court of law. Any attempt, therefore, to make it appear that such evidence is in keeping with the tenets of the “Mormon” faith is wholly unjustified

About six weeks before Mortensen’s execution, a prison break took place at the penitentiary. It’s been given out latterly that the arrogant Mortensen was so unpopular even with his fellow-prisoners that they intentionally left him stuck in his cell. 1903 press accounts appear to indicate otherwise — that he was not the only convict left stuck in his cell, and that Mortensen’s particular rum luck wasn’t a social lack but a digital one: somebody dropped the necessary set of keys. Either way, there was no way out, and neither when Utah’s governor interviewed Mortensen personally to see about his mercy application. Never mind his popularity with prisoners; Mortensen’s continued insistence on innocence while pleading for his life was the real diplomatic failure.

Mortensen selected shooting rather than hanging as his method of death, and went to it “firm as a rock.” He left only a last statement repeating his vociferous and widely disbelieved denial of Hay’s murder.

To the world I want to say and swear by the heavens above, by the earth beneath, and by all I hold near and dear to me on this earth, that I am not guilty of that cowardly murder of my dearest friend. I ask therefore no man’s pardon for aught that I may have done in life. I am confident that my life is an example to most people. I lay no claim — please strike out the last two words — I do not say that I am better or more worthy of respect of the world than the average man, but I have done my duty to my father and mother, my brothers and sister, and to other near relatives. I have done my absolute duty toward my wife and my five little babies. May God keep and care for those sweet darlings.


Salt Lake Telegram, Nov. 20, 1903.

* Yes, those Romneys. George Ernest Romney‘s significantly younger first cousin George Wilcken Romney became Governor of Michigan, and was in turn the father of the 2012 Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney. The mutual grandfather of George E. and George W. designed the St. George Tabernacle.

** Even Mortensen’s wife thought him guilty, for he had gone out that fatal evening of the 16th with Hay, and returned an hour later “deathly pale.” However, while God’s hearsay to Mr. Hay was available in open court, Mrs. Mortensen’s evidence was not: Utah law prohibited wives testifying against their husbands.

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1942: Helmuth Huebener, Mormon anti-Nazi

3 comments October 27th, 2012 Headsman


Poster announces Helmut Hubener’s execution.

On this date in 1942, 17-year-old Helmuth Hübener was executed at Plotzensee Prison for listening to the BBC.

Huebener was a Mormon youth with the political perspicacity to abhor fascism from a very young age: the former Boy Scout (Mormons really take to scouting) ditched the Hitler Youth after Kristallnacht, which happened when Huebener was only 10 years old.

As Germany forged ahead towards worse horrors in the years, conscientious people of all ages had moral dilemmas to resolve. Mormons in Nazi Germany weren’t persecuted per se and to keep it that way that small community generally kept its head judiciously down.

Not Huebener.

Horrified by the privations of their Jewish neighbors, Huebener with fellow Mormon teens Karl-Heinz Schnibbe and Rudi Wobbe began illegally listening to foreign radio broadcasts and using the material to compose anti-fascist pamphlets for distribution around Hamburg.

Themes like Germany’s coming defeat (a Huebener circle favorite) never went over well with the authorities; a 1939 law decreed that “Whoever willfully distributes the broadcasts of foreign stations which are designed to endanger the strength of resistance of the German people will, in particularly severe cases, be punished with death.”

Huebener’s friends, aged 18 and 16, were judged only sufficiently severe for hard labor sentences; both survived the war but have since died. Huebener as the ringleader got the death penalty. (The local Mormon congregation expediently excommunicated him, a judgment later reversed from church headquarters in Salt Lake City.) And clearly Huebener was failing to “support the troops”, in the present-day parlance: his own older brother Gerhard had been drafted into the Wehrmacht and was away at the front.

“My Father in heaven knows that I have done nothing wrong,” young Helmuth wrote shortly before his beheading. “I know that God lives and He will be the proper judge of this matter.”

The Latter-Day Saints church, not usually thought of as a hive of anti-authority activity, has only gradually warmed up to celebrating its appealing young resistance martyr.

In addition to a number of books, Huebener is the subject of the documentary Truth & Conviction as well as the forthcoming feature film Truth & Treason.

A few books about Helmuth Huebener

Three Against Hitler and When Truth Was Treason were written by Huebener’s un-executed confederates.

Novels inspired by Helmuth Huebener

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1877: John D. Lee, for the Mountain Meadows Massacre

1 comment March 23rd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1877, Mormon leader John D. Lee was shot at the site of (and for the crime of instigating) the Mountain Meadows Massacre 20 years before.

As the only person ever prosecuted for this dreadful affair, which saw 120 California-bound settlers slaughtered by a Mormon militia, Lee “was allowed … to carry to his grave Mormondom’s guilt for this horrible and barbaric act.” (Jan Shipps)

On this anniversary of Lee’s death, Executed Today interviews author Judith Freeman, whose historical novel Red Water tells Lee’s story through the eyes of three of his 19 wives.

You grew up Mormon — what brought you to this story? I gather that it wasn’t exactly daily discourse in your youth.

I found a copy of Juanita Brooks‘ book The Mountain Meadows Massacre in a used bookstore in Port Townsend, Washington, read it and was captivated by this story.

Growing up in northern Utah, I’d only heard vague, shadowy references to the massacre. It was the dirty little secret buried in the Mormon past — except for those people in Southern Utah who lived with that story as part of every generation’s experience and shame. I felt I had to write a novel about it, in part to try and understand this question: How do you get basically good people, like those Mormon settlers, to commit such evil?

You paint a picture of John Lee through the eyes of three of his wives. What kind of man was he — and how representative of the Mormon hierarchy would that be?

I think Lee was first and foremost a brilliant pioneer and survivalist and also a big blowhard, the kind of guy who would talk your head off — affable and a bit boring when it came to promoting his own virtues and experiences. He was self-aggrandizing, he’d do anything to make a buck, he had problems with the truth. He was a suck-up to Brigham Young who became his substitute father and then betrayed him.

He wasn’t entirely trustworthy because he put his own interests before all else. He could also be incredibly generous and kind, helpful to others. He wanted people to like him though they often didn’t, and he had an ingratiating quality. He was an orphan, with an orphan’s life-long neediness. In many ways I think he was good to his wives and cared deeply about his family — all sixty something kids and 19 wives. He was an amazingly talented man, skilled at many trades and businesses.

Was he representative of the Mormon Hierarchy? I don’t know. In some ways yes but I sense he was more sycophantic than some, and had a more amusing character than others, but what they all had in common was an absolute deference to church authority. I think I might have enjoyed meeting John D. Lee, he might have been more lively and fun than Brigham Young who strikes me as a misogynist and a brittle, cold man.

What about the women — three very different characters. What’s the sense you got of life for these women as pioneers, living in a polygamous family? How did they relate to one another, and how did the massacre and the execution of John Lee change their situation?

The women were also amazingly inventive as pioneers, strong, tough, formidable women though how can you generalize about 19 different personalities? Some liked each other and some couldn’t stand each other and the good thing was that Lee was a small industry and many of his wives had their own farms so they weren’t required to live on top of each other. He understood the “kitchen thing” when it comes to women, and said he wanted every one of his wives to have her own stove. The Lee family/families were devastated by his execution. His families were left penniless and destroyed, treated very cruelly, the women dispersed and shunned, the children shamed, and this shame was carried for generations.

To what extent is polygamy in the back story of the Mountain Meadows Massacre? What, for that matter, was the massacre really “about” in your judgment?

Polygamy had a small role to play in the massacre. The practice of polygamy, outlawed by the United States, was a part of what disturbed Washington and caused the federal government to send troops to Utah, which scared the Mormon populace into committing violent acts. One must remember that they had been the victims of violence and massacre, and fear turned in their minds.

What the massacre was really about, in my judgment, was the struggle for power in Utah. Would Brigham Young and the Mormon hierarchy control the territory and be masters of their own destiny, or would the federal government impose control of the “fiefdom”? The massacre came out of the idea the Indians could be made to carry out an attack and then the government would be forced to realize that if the Mormons were not allowed to control the territory and “their” natives, terrible things could happen. But the whole thing got out of control and took on a terrible life of its own.

A large party of Mormons, painted and tricked out as Indians, overtook the train of emigrant wagons some three hundred miles south of Salt Lake City, and made an attack. But the emigrants threw up earthworks, made fortresses of their wagons and defended themselves gallantly and successfully for five days! Your Missouri or Arkansas gentleman is not much afraid of the sort of scurvy apologies for “Indians” which the southern part of Utah affords. He would stand up and fight five hundred of them.

At the end of the five days the Mormons tried military strategy. They retired to the upper end of the “Meadows,” resumed civilized apparel, washed off their paint, and then, heavily armed, drove down in wagons to the beleaguered emigrants, bearing a flag of truce! When the emigrants saw white men coming they threw down their guns and welcomed them with cheer after cheer! And, all unconscious of the poetry of it, no doubt, they lifted a little child aloft, dressed in white, in answer to the flag of truce!

The leaders of the timely white “deliverers” were President Haight and Bishop John D. Lee, of the Mormon Church. Mr. Cradlebaugh, who served a term as a Federal Judge in Utah and afterward was sent to Congress from Nevada, tells in a speech delivered in Congress how these leaders next proceeded:

They professed to be on good terms with the Indians, and represented them as being very mad. They also proposed to intercede and settle the matter with the Indians. After several hours parley they, having (apparently) visited the Indians, gave the ultimatum of the savages; which was, that the emigrants should march out of their camp, leaving everything behind them, even their guns. It was promised by the Mormon bishops that they would bring a force and guard the emigrants back to the settlements. The terms were agreed to, the emigrants being desirous of saving the lives of their families. The Mormons retired, and subsequently appeared with thirty or forty armed men. The emigrants were marched out, the women and children in front and the men behind, the Mormon guard being in the rear. When they had marched in this way about a mile, at a given signal the slaughter commenced. The men were almost all shot down at the first fire from the guard. Two only escaped, who fled to the desert, and were followed one hundred and fifty miles before they were overtaken and slaughtered. The women and children ran on, two or three hundred yards further, when they were overtaken and with the aid of the Indians they were slaughtered. Seventeen individuals only, of all the emigrant party, were spared, and they were little children, the eldest of them being only seven years old. Thus, on the 10th day of September, 1857, was consummated one of the most cruel, cowardly and bloody murders known in our history.

Mark Twain, Roughing It

John Lee: murderer, scapegoat, or both? How did he come to be prosecuted at all, and how to be the only one prosecuted?

John D. Lee was both murderer and scapegoat. He was bold and careless enough to hang around the area after the massacre, and to prosper from his various businesses and appear almost indifferent to what had happened — perhaps he thought he had the protection of the church authorities who continued to insist the Indians had committed this atrocity. A lot of others who’d participated in the massacre left the area, driven out by fear and shame. But Lee hung on.

John D. Lee, seated beside his coffin just before his execution.

How he was thrown to the wolves by the church authorities is a long story, as is the story of his two trials. He was the easiest person to scapegoat. He took the bullet for his church, and I think the authorities felt that they could put the affair behind them once he was dead, and they did for a very long time, until brave little Juanita Brooks wrote her book in the 1950s and was the first to tell the truth: the Mormons did it.

Does the Mormon church have some unfinished reckoning here? If so — why, after all these years?

Who cares what I think? But in my opinion, of course they do. They need to stop saying it was a “local” affair, carried out by some “local” renegade fanatics in southern Utah. The whole situation that led to the massacre was put into motion by people high up in the church, but I doubt very much they’ll ever go there and admit that. Too many lawyers, too much money, too impossible to admit culpability of prophets, seers, revelators.

Finally, I just want to say that after writing Red Water and thinking about this massacre for the five years it took to research and write the book, this is what I came to believe about how you get good people to do bad things.

You need to get three things going: First, you have to make people afraid and use that fear to manipulate them (think of 9/11). Second, you need get people to obey some greater force or consciousness other than their own — the Mormons had a principle of Perfect Obedience where you were required to subject yourself to the authority of the priesthood and church elders, but this idea could as well be inculcated in the concept of patriotism, or military duty. The point is, you subdue your own conscience in favor of deferment to an outside force. Third, you make people think their system is better than the other guy’s, that you’re doing God’s will, that your sense of right is greater than theirs. If you can make people think they are doing God’s will, you can get them to do anything. Get these three things going, and you can get good people to commit great evil.

On this day..

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