Criticism of Mormonism/Books/American Massacre/Chapter 13

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Response to claims made in Chapter 13: "Cedar City, April 7, 1859"

A FairMormon Analysis of: American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, a work by author: Sally Denton
Claim Evaluation
American Massacre
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Response to claims made in American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, "Chapter 13: Cedar City, April 7, 1859"

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Response to claim: 190 - According to "historian Polly Aird," the Parrish and Potter murders committed during the Mormon reformation were "the best documented case of killing for the sin of apostasy" and "involved the entire church reporting line from Brigham Young down"

The author(s) of American Massacre make(s) the following claim:

According to "historian Polly Aird," the Parrish and Potter murders committed during the Mormon reformation were "the best documented case of killing for the sin of apostasy" and "involved the entire church reporting line from Brigham Young down."

(Author's sources: Polly Aird, "Escape from Zion: The United States Army Escort of Mormon Apostates, 1859," Nevada Historical Society Quarterly 44/3 (Fall 2001): 196-237.)

FairMormon Response

Fact checking results: This claim contains mistakes and/or errors - The author has stated erroneous or incorrect information or misinterpreted their sources

Evidence indicated that Brigham Young had nothing to do with the murders.



Question: Were Brigham Young and the entire Church hierarchy responsible for the "Parrish-Potter" murders?

Parrish’s widow visited Brigham four months later, and reported he was unaware of events in Springville

It is claimed that Brigham Young and the entire Church hierarchy were responsible for the murder of two apostates, called the "Parrish-Potter" murders.

Local members may well have been responsible for the murder of Potter and Parrish. But, the account is remarkable not—as the some claim—because it was so emblematic of "blood atonement" or the murder of apostates, but because it was an anomaly.

As discussed here, violent crime and vigilantism in Utah was much less frequent than elsewhere in the Union, especially on the frontier.

There is likewise no evidence, beyond several testimonies taken two years after the murders that only suggest that the murders were orchestrated by the Church, that Brigham Young ordered or condoned the murder.[1] And, Bagley (and Denton who follows him) are wrong in claiming that local Mormons did nothing to bring the perpetrators to justice—they were indicted by a Mormon grand jury.

Polly Aird has written the most descriptive account[2] to date of the murder in Springville, Utah, of Mormon apostates William and “Beason” Parrish and spy “Duff” Potter. At the time, Aird found the evidence regarding Brigham Young’s foreknowledge of the crime conflicting enough to call for further analysis.[3] Witnesses reported a letter from Brigham Young being present at meetings where killing the Parrishes was plotted by the bishop of Springville, Aaron Johnson, and other local leaders. However, conspirators were told not report to higher authorities and William Parrish was threatened with death if he attempted to go to Brigham Young to appeal for recovery of illegally confiscated horses. Parrish’s widow visited Brigham four months later, and reported he was unaware of events in Springville. Young undercut the actions of the local perpetrators by arranging for some of the horses to be returned, but did not investigate much further.

Ardis Parshall discovered a copy of Brigham Young’s letter that set events in motion.[4] The contents exonerate Young from being an accessory before the fact.[5] Brigham warned that two non-Mormon ex-convicts (John Ambrose and Thomas Betts) might attempt steal livestock from a farm in Spanish Fork or somewhere else on their way to California. Brigham advised vigilance so that Bishop Johnson’s guards would avoid the mistake “of not locking the door until after the deed is stolen.” However if a theft “should occur we shall regret to hear a favorable report; we do not expect there would be any prosecutions for false imprisonment or tale bearers left for witnesses.” Young was essentially authorized extra-legal violence in the event that specific individuals were fleeing the territory with stolen livestock. Such a response was typical for such a serious crime in the western frontier and Brigham had presented his views on deterring theft in 1853.

William MacKinnon described the conditions Brigham Young labored under while trying to prevent a recurrence of Ambrose and Betts’s earlier crime spree.

Brigham Young was then beset by crushing personal, leadership, and health problems that would have sapped the patience and stamina, if not the judgment, of many leaders. Among Young's most obvious burdens were completing the faltering Reformation; recriminations over the large-scale loss of emigrant life among the Willie and Martin handcart companies; the unexpected death on December 1, 1856, of his second counselor Jedediah M. Grant, spearhead of the Reformation; a troubling rash of livestock thefts; a mysterious, debilitating illness that kept Young absent from church services for weeks; worries about the viability of restless Mormon colonies in San Bernardino and Carson Valley; anxiety over the launch of his ambitious, expensive Y.X. Carrying Company; congressional efforts to eradicate polygamy, truncate Utah's borders, repeal its organic act, and split the offices of Utah's governor and superintendent of Indian affairs; and a continuing deterioration in federal-Mormon relations that threatened both Utah's bid for statehood and Young's hold on the governorship.[6]

In targeting the Parrish family, Aaron Johnson convinced others that the letter gave him license to use extra-legal measures in widely different circumstances than those outlined by Brigham Young. Later in life Johnson defended Young from being complicit in murders, yet sometimes condoning or pardoning the abuse of criminals:

“How about Brigham Young, and his Danites, his Destroying Angels? Didn’t Brigham and his Angels kill a lot of men in Salt Lake City during the early days there?” I was asked. I replied “Brigham Young was not a murderer. He was a man a vision, one who did much to establish peace, and good order in Salt Lake City and elsewhere.” “Judgement to the line and righteousness to the plummet was his slogan.” Brigham Young had men around him who aided in ridding Salt Lake City of gamblers and desperados. “Your Mayor and police are doing the same here Nelson. You are trying to do as Brigham did, to have a clean town.”[7]


Response to claim: 190 - The author mentions the "execution-style killing of six California emigrants"

The author(s) of American Massacre make(s) the following claim:

The author mentions the "execution-style killing of six California emigrants."

(Author's sources: *No source provided.)

FairMormon Response

Fact checking results: This claim contains propaganda and/or spin - The author, or the author's source, is providing information or ideas in a slanted way in order to instill a particular attitude or response in the reader

Without a source or evidence, it is impossible to assess this claim. The burden of proof is on the author. Which immigrants? When? How killed?



Response to claim: 190 - The author mentions that "castration and murder of another apostate"

The author(s) of American Massacre make(s) the following claim:

The author mentions that "castration and murder of another apostate."

(Author's sources: *No source provided.)

FairMormon Response

Fact checking results: This claim contains mistakes and/or errors - The author has stated erroneous or incorrect information or misinterpreted their sources

The castration did occur, but it had nothing to do with the man being an aposate.



Question: Did Bishop Warren S. Snow forcibly castrate twenty-four-year-old Thomas Lewis?

Bishop Warren S. Snow and a group of men forcibly castrated twenty-four-year-old Thomas Lewis

Bishop Warren S. Snow forcibly castrated twenty-four-year-old Thomas Lewis. The popular story is that Lewis's alleged crime was wanting to marry a young woman that was desired by an older man as a plural wife. It is claimed that Brigham Young wrote in a letter his approval after the fact in 1857. The full story gives a somewhat different picture of these events.

Lewis was being transported to the penitentiary at the time that this event occurred

Lewis was not attacked simply for desiring a marriage. Samuel Pitchforth noted that the attack occurred at night as Lewis was being transported to the penitentiary for an unspecified crime. Pitchforth was the clerk of the Nephi Ward, who knew Bishop Snow well and wrote his account very shortly after the incident. John A. Peterson, in his December 1985 Master's Thesis, notes that "the sermons delivered in the Manti ward, the spirit of the times, the form of punishment itself and the record of Brigham's reaction to it make it clear that Lewis had committed a sexual crime." [8] The attack was aided by the individual who had been transporting Lewis to prison, and it appears to have been in retribution for the crime that Lewis committed. While being transported at night, Snow and his gang secretly intercepted Lewis and carried out the castration.

According to his biographer, Snow's life and experience had given him a "violent and vengeful world view," which helps in understanding his motivation to attack and maim Lewis.

Federal marshals and judges were aware of the Lewis incident, and sought Snow's capture. However, they were eventually instructed by political leaders in Washington to let the matter drop. It was a Gentile political decision not to prosecute Snow for his actions.[9]

Given that in the 19th century there was a common tendency for "frontier justice" to be carried out extra-legally, especially in the case of sexual crimes, its occurrence in areas far from central Church control is not particularly surprising. Castrated males were guilty of sexual assault or incest, not for competing for a woman's affections.

This event occurred during the Mormon Reformation, when inflammatory rhetoric called for harsh punishment for sin and crime

These events occurred during the Mormon Reformation, when inflammatory rhetoric called for harsh punishment for sin and crime. For Brigham the time for the actual implementation of such punishment had not yet actually arrived, and was primarily hyperbole designed to stir a sinful population to improvement. Some listeners like Snow took things literally.


Response to claim: 190 - The author mentions "blood atonement killings by Danite Porter Rockwell"

The author(s) of American Massacre make(s) the following claim:

The author mentions "blood atonement killings by Danite Porter Rockwell."

(Author's sources: *No source provided.)

FairMormon Response

Fact checking results: This claim contains propaganda and/or spin - The author, or the author's source, is providing information or ideas in a slanted way in order to instill a particular attitude or response in the reader

The author provides no evidence of these supposed "blood atonement killings" by Porter Rockwell.



Gospel Topics: "At the Latter-day Saint settlement of Far West, some leaders and members organized a paramilitary group known as the Danites"

"Peace and Violence among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints," Gospel Topics on LDS.org:

At the Latter-day Saint settlement of Far West, some leaders and members organized a paramilitary group known as the Danites, whose objective was to defend the community against dissident and excommunicated Latter-day Saints as well as other Missourians. Historians generally concur that Joseph Smith approved of the Danites but that he probably was not briefed on all their plans and likely did not sanction the full range of their activities. Danites intimidated Church dissenters and other Missourians; for instance, they warned some dissenters to leave Caldwell County. During the fall of 1838, as tensions escalated during what is now known as the Mormon Missouri War, the Danites were apparently absorbed into militias largely composed of Latter-day Saints. These militias clashed with their Missouri opponents, leading to a few fatalities on both sides. In addition, Mormon vigilantes, including many Danites, raided two towns believed to be centers of anti-Mormon activity, burning homes and stealing goods.22 Though the existence of the Danites was short-lived, it resulted in a longstanding and much-embellished myth about a secret society of Mormon vigilantes.[10]


Question: Did Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon support the formation of a vigilante band called the Danites?

The Danites are sometimes confused with the “Armies of Israel,” which was the official defensive organization that was tasked with defending the Saints

The Danites were a brotherhood of church members that formed in Far West, Missouri in mid-1838. By this point in time, the Saints had experienced serious persecution, having been driven out of Kirtland by apostates, and driven out of Jackson County by mobs. Sidney Rigdon was publicly preaching that the Saints would not tolerate any more persecution, and that both apostates and mobs would be put on notice. The Danite organization took root within this highly charged and defensive environment.

The Danites are sometimes confused with the “Armies of Israel,” which was the official defensive organization that was tasked with defending the Saints, and which was supported by Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon. This is complicated by the fact that members of the Danite organization also served in the “Armies of Israel.”

Although Joseph Smith was aware of the intent of the Danites to cleanse the Church of "evil," he rejected the illegal activities of the Danite band

Regardless of their original motives, the Danites ultimately were led astray by their leader, Sampson Avard. Avard attempted to blame Joseph Smith in order to save himself. Joseph, however, clearly repudiated both the organization and Avard.


Question: When was the Danite band formed and why?

Sidney Rigdon gave a speech against dissenters on 17 June 1838 in Far West known as the "Salt Sermon"

Rigdon's speech was directly targeted at dissenters within the Church, and strongly implied that they should leave.

Leland H. Gentry,

The first official encouragement given to removing these "dissenters" from Caldwell County came in the form of a speech given by Sidney Rigdon on Sunday, 17 June 1838. Familiarly known in church history annals as the "Salt Sermon," Rigdon's address remains one of the controversial events of the period.[11]

Gentry notes John Corrill's description of the sermon,

President Rigdon delivered from the pulpit what I call the "Salt Sermon;" 'If the salt hath lost its savour, it is thenceforth good for nothing but to be cast out and trodden under the feet of men,' was his text; and although he did not call names in his sermon, yet it was plainly understood that he meant the dissenters or those who had denied the faith. He indirectly accused some of them with crime.[12]

The Danites appear to have been formally created about the time that Sidney Rigdon gave his “Salt Sermon” in Far West

The Danites were led by Dr. Sampson Avard, and the group appears to have been formally formed about the time that Sidney Rigdon gave his “Salt Sermon” in Far West, in which he gave apostates an ultimatum to get out or suffer consequences.[11] According to Avard, the original purpose of the band was to “drive from the county of Caldwell all that dissented from the Mormon church.”[13]:25 Once the dissenters had left the country, the Danites turned their attention to defending the Saints from mobs.


Question: Is it true that the Danites were pledged to “plunder, lie, and even kill if deemed necessary?"

Sampson Avard began retaliation against those who persecuted the Saints, including stealing and plundering

After the dissenters left Far West, Avard, took the idea of defending the Saints one step further by including retaliation against those who persecuted the Saints. Thus, the Danites began operating as a vigilante group outside the law. This, unfortunately, included stealing and plundering from those who stole and plundered from the Saints.[11]:4 The Danites believed that if they consecrated plundered goods to the Church, that they would be protected in battle.[11]:9 The group held secret meetings, with special signs used to identify themselves to one another.


Question: How were the activities of the Danite band exposed?

Sampson Avard was eventually brought to trial, and he blamed Joseph Smith for the Danite's activities

Much of the information that we have about the Danite organization comes from the document describing the criminal court of inquiry held against church leaders in Richmond, Missouri on November 12, 1838. When the group’s activities were exposed and church leaders brought to trial, Avard became a primary witness for the prosecution, and laid the blame for the Danites at the feet of Joseph Smith. Avard claimed that he had been acting under the direction of the First Presidency.[11]:7

Several witnesses indicated that Avard indicated that he would lie in order to incriminate the Church, and it is apparent that he testified in order to save himself.[13][14] Avard even produced a “Danite Constitution” for the court, despite the fact that nobody else in the organization had ever heard of it or seen it until that time.[11]:11-12

Joseph Smith rejected the Danite band and referred to them as a "secret combination"

Joseph Smith referred to the Danites as a “secret combination.”[15] Referring to Avard’s testimony before the judge, B.H. Roberts states,

This lecture of the doctor's revealed for the first time the true intent of his designs, and the brethren he had duped suddenly had their eyes opened, and they at once revolted and manfully rejected his teachings. Avard saw that he had played and lost, so he said they had better let the matter drop where it was. As soon as Avard's villainy was brought to the knowledge of the president of The Church he was promptly excommunicated, and was afterwards found making an effort to become friends with the mob, and conspiring against The Church. This is the history of the Danite band, "which", says the Prophet Joseph, "died almost before it had an existence."[16]

Sampson Avard had a reputation for not being trustworthy

There is clear consensus among both Mormon and non-Mormon early sources that Sampson Avard was not trustworthy.[11] Additionally, there is a well-documented case of Avard attempting to do what he was eventually accused of doing with the Danites: taking advantage of inefficient and ambiguous lines of communication and authority to establish his own command.

In his biography of John Taylor, B.H. Roberts recorded an incident wherein Avard tried take over the Church in Canada by feigning authority from Joseph Smith, when he in fact did not have any.[17] For many years this account was not supported by any first-hand accounts, but recently this incident has been confirmed by an account in the journal of Joseph Horne, a member of the Church who rode with Avard up to Canada and witnessed the attempt to take over the Church there.[18]


Question: Did the Danite band persist even after they were exposed?

Legends of “Danites” persisted for many years as the Saints moved to Nauvoo and later to Utah

Legends of “Danites” persisted for many years as the Saints moved to Nauvoo and later to Utah. The mysterious “Danites” have served as villains in fictional stories such as the first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet. Danites are sometimes associated with the Mountain Meadows Massacre, since one of the principal protagonists of that unfortunate event, John D. Lee, was himself once a member of the Danites in Missouri. With the help of imaginative writers, the mysterious “Danites” took on the status of an “urban legend” as a shadowy, mysterious vigilante group which enforced the will of church leaders by practicing blood atonement on those who opposed them. Brigham Young gave his opinion of such rumors during a conference talk on April 7, 1867 when he said:

Is there war in our religion? No; neither war nor bloodshed. Yet our enemies cry out "bloodshed," and "oh, what dreadful men these Mormons are, and those Danites! how they slay and kill!" Such is all nonsense and folly in the extreme. The wicked slay the wicked, and they will lay it on the Saints.[19]


Response to claim: 193 - The author claims that there was a "burgeoning traffic of apostates now fleeing Zion" because of the Mountain Meadows affair and that this was "the largest emigration up to that time, overshadowing even the California gold rush of 1852"

The author(s) of American Massacre make(s) the following claim:

The author claims that there was a "burgeoning traffic of apostates now fleeing Zion" because of the Mountain Meadows affair and that this was "the largest emigration up to that time, overshadowing even the California gold rush of 1852."

(Author's sources: *Aird, 197.)

FairMormon Response

Fact checking results: This claim contains propaganda and/or spin - The author, or the author's source, is providing information or ideas in a slanted way in order to instill a particular attitude or response in the reader

There is no historical support for an exodus of people leaving Utah that even comes close to comparing to the California gold rush.



Response to claim: 200 - Paiute chiefs said that they were not there at the beginning of the massacre and only became involved "under written orders from Brigham Young"

The author(s) of American Massacre make(s) the following claim:

Paiute chiefs said that they were not there at the beginning of the massacre and only became involved "under written orders from Brigham Young."

(Author's sources: U.S. House of Representatives, Utah and the Mormons, 17.)

FairMormon Response

Fact checking results: This claim is a falsehood - The author has disseminated false information

Paiute chiefs would have been unable to read any letter from Brigham Young, even if such had existed. [20]



Notes

  1. Sally Denton, American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, (Secker & Warburg, 2003), 190. quoting Polly Aird, "Escape from Zion: The United States Army Escort of Mormon Apostates, 1859," Nevada Historical Society Quarterly 44/3 (Fall 2001) :202. Aird notes, based on the testimonies taken by John Cradlebaugh, that "[s]everal testimonies taken two years after the murders suggest the direction of the plot [of the Parrish murders] involved the entire church reporting line from Brigham Young down to Aaron Johnson, bishop of Springville."
  2. Polly Aird, "'You Nasty Apostates, Clear Out': Reasons for Disaffection in the Late 1850s," Journal of Mormon History 30 (Fall 2004): 129–207 off-site
  3. Aird p. 191
  4. Ardis Parshall, ˜'Pursue, Retake & Punish': The 1857 Santa Clara Ambush," Utah Historical Quarterly 73 (1): 64-86 off-site
  5. Brigham Young to Aaron Johnson, Feb. 3, 1857, CR 1234 1, Box 3, Letterpress Copybook Volume 3, Pages 345-363in Selected Collections from the Archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2 vols., DVD (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, [Dec. 2002],
  6. William MacKinnon, “‘Lonely Bones’: Leadership and Utah War Violence.” Journal of Mormon History 33 (Spring 2007): 121–78 off-site
  7. Paul H. Peterson, "The Mormon Reformation," PhD Dissertation, Brigham Young University, 1980, 176–199 citing Aaron Johnson Autobiography p. 95-96
  8. John A. Peterson, "Warren Stone Snow, a man in between: the biography of a Mormon defender," Master's Thesis, BYU (1985), 115; citing Samuel Pitchforth Diary of Samuel Pitchforth 1857-1868,typescript CHD. The author notes that "no minutes of any civil or church trial for Thomas Lewis' crime have been found but Pitchforth makes it clear that Lewis was under arrest and on the way to the city salt lake city to be taken to the penetentiionary (sic)."
  9. John A. Peterson, "Warren Stone Snow, a man in between: the biography of a Mormon defender," Master's Thesis, BYU (1985), 112.
  10. "Peace and Violence among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints," Gospel Topics on LDS.org (May 2014)
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 11.5 11.6 Leland H. Gentry, ""The Danite Band of 1838"," Brigham Young University Studies 14 no. 4 (1974). 423. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "gentry" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "gentry" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "gentry" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "gentry" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "gentry" defined multiple times with different content
  12. John Corrill, A Brief History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Commonly Called Mormons) (1839), 31. Cited in Gentry, "The Danite Band", 423.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Document Containing the Correspondence, Orders &c. in Relation to the Disturbances with the Mormons; And the Evidence Given Before the Hon. Austin A. King, Judge of the Fifth Judicial Circuit of the State of Missouri, at the Court-House in Richmond, in a Criminal Court of Inquiry, Begun November 12, 1838, on the Trial of Joseph Smith, Jr., and Others, for High Treason and Other Crimes Against the State., (1841) U.S. Government Printing Office.
  14. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 3:209–210. Volume 3 link
  15. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 3:179. Volume 3 link
  16. B.H. Roberts, The Missouri Persecutions, 1900, p. 220
  17. B.H. Roberts, The Life of John Taylor (Salt Lake City, Bookcraft, 1963), 43-44.
  18. The Journal of Joseph Horne, Jr., 1858-1861: Including His Life Summary. LDS archives, 7. Horne’s account is also cited in Corwin L. Nimer, "Treachery and False Swearing in Missouri: The Rise and Fall of Sampson Avard," Mormon Historical Studies 5, no. 2 (Fall 2004): 37-60.
  19. Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 12:30.
  20. Robert D. Crockett, "The Denton Debacle (Review of: American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857)," FARMS Review 16/1 (2004): 135–148. off-site