Utah/Crime and violence/Castration in the 1800's

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Castration as a punishment among 19th century Mormons

Summary: I have read about a group of men (LDS) that went around castrating immoral men (who were also LDS) with the express permission of local church leaders. These events supposedly happened during the Brigham Young's administration. It is claimed that Brigham was aware of and approved of this and may have given the order. What can you tell me about this? I read that missionaries who selected plural wives from female converts before allowing church leaders to select from them first were castrated.

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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." [1] 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.[2]

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.


Question: Was Thomas Lewis castrated because he wanted to marry a young woman who was desired by an older man as a plural wife?

The claim comes from a notoriously unreliable source, which gets many other details of the castration incident wrong as well

There is no evidence to support this. The claim comes from a notoriously unreliable source, Mormonism unveiled; or, The life and confessions of the late Mormon bishop, John D. Lee, whose author claimed that the incident was the result of a fight over a girl between Snow and Lewis, and that the castration occurred occurred before the entire congregation, after which Snow "allegedly took the portion severed from his victim and hung it up on a nail on the Manti ward house wall so that it could be seen by all who visited the house afterwards." [3] This is not a correct description of the incident, which actually occurred at night and involved a group of men intercepting Lewis as he was being transported to Salt Lake City.

The bishop did NOT castrate a young man because he would not give up his fiancé to another man as a plural wife

The rumor that Lewis was being punished for competing against an older polygamist is likely false. Lewis was being transported to the penitentiary in Salt Lake City at the time that he was attacked. He was not attacked simply for desiring a marriage. While being transported at night, Bishop Snow and his gang secretly intercepted Lewis and carried out the castration.

Brigham Young once advised a young woman to marry a single young man despite her parents wishes that she marry an older polygamist

Leonard Arrington gives another example where Brigham Young advised a young woman to marry a single, young man instead of a older polygamist. Arrington says,

Many letters were addressed to Brigham asking his approval for a marriage, whether plural or single. One young woman asked whether she should marry an older man as a plural wife or a younger man closer to her own age as his first wife. Brigham recommended that she should marry the younger man, cautioning her to maintain her womanly reserve in any case-that should the young man "not reciprocate your feelings and wishes in this matter, of course your good judgement and natural womanly feelings will at once suggest to you the impropriety of urging the subject." [4]


Question: Was the castration of Thomas Lewis approved by Brigham Young?

Brigham did not think Snow did what was right, but felt he was “trying to do right” and that he should be sustained in his calling as Bishop

Brigham and other Church leaders did not approve the action taken by the local members. Joseph Young (Brigham's brother) of the Presidents of the Seventy later learned about the incident and was incensed and “entirely disapproved” of it.[5] When Brigham Young heard about Lewis' crime and the punishment, he reiterated his stance that the time for such measures was still in the future, and not to be implemented in the here-and-now.

Brigham did not think Snow did what was right, but felt he was “trying to do right” and that he should be sustained in his calling as Bishop.

Brigham declined Bishop Snow's request to write a letter to members in Sanpete county to explain his action

Snow wanted Brigham to write a letter to members in Sanpete county to explain his action. Brigham declined to do, indicating that that would make matters worse. “Just let the matter drop, and say no more about it and it will soon die away amongst the people,” Brigham counseled.


Question: Other than the story of Thomas Lewis, are there other accounts of men being castrated by Mormons in the 1850s?

One other event from journals in 1859 reports an unnamed bishop supposedly castrating someone because they wanted to marry their girlfriend

One other event from journals in 1859 reports an unnamed bishop supposedly castrating someone because they wanted to marry their girlfriend. Snow is named by one source in the 1859 account; given Brigham's reaction to the first event, it seems unlikely that Snow would do the same thing again.

His inclusion in an account of the second event may well be due to conflation, which may demonstrate how unusual such events were. It may be that rumor and frontier "urban legend" confused the Snow story with the passage of time.

As a presiding Bishop, Snow became increasingly unpopular with members in his area, and by 1860 was accused of malfeasance with tithing funds. Snow admitted to mismanagement, but denied any attempt to willfully defraud the Church. (The same patience for Snow's weaknesses was also manifested in this case; he was forgiven by his congregation and the general authorities, even while they still insisted that he bore responsibility for his mismanagement.)

The Lewis affair was much talked about among Snow's critics in 1860; it may be that the rumor mill was already in motion by 1859.[6]

There are no names given for the 1859 "event," and it is not known if this was just rumor, or who the participant(s) and victim were.

Hosea Stout's diary describes Henry Jones being castrated by several persons "disguised as Indians" after dragging him "out of bed with a whore"

There is an account in Hosea Stout's diary which reads:

Saturday 27 Feb. 1858: "This evening several persons disguised as Indians entered Henry Jones' house and dragged him out of bed with a whore and castrated him by a square & close amputation."

Jones was later killed, and the anti-Mormon newspaper Valley Tan printed an affidavit from Nathaniel Case claiming that Jones' bishop had plotted his death with several other members.[7] If true, Jones was not attacked for trying to marry someone, but for adultery with a prostitute. Reportedly, the murder of Jones and his mother sprang from accusations of incest.[8]

There is no evidence linking the attack on Jones to anyone but local members. Joseph Hancock was found guilty of second degree murder in 1890.[9]


To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Notes

  1. 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)."
  2. John A. Peterson, "Warren Stone Snow, a man in between: the biography of a Mormon defender," Master's Thesis, BYU (1985), 112.
  3. John A. Peterson, "Warren Stone Snow, a man in between: the biography of a Mormon defender," Master's Thesis, BYU (1985) 203-2-4 n17.
  4. Leonard J Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses, p. 315, citing "Brigham Young to Miss A. B. C.," 9 April 1862, Letterbook 6:196.
  5. John A. Peterson, "Warren Stone Snow, a man in between: the biography of a Mormon defender," Master's Thesis, BYU (1985) 114.
  6. Peterson, 126–133.
  7. Nathaniel Case, affidavit of 9 April 1859, sworn before John Cradlebaugh, Judge of Second Judicial District, Utah, USA. See The Valley Tan (19 April 1859).
  8. Richard H. Cracroft, "review of Orrin Porter Rockwell: Man of God, Son of Thunder by Harold Schindler," Brigham Young University Studies 24 no. 3 (1984), 389.
  9. Andrew Jenson, LDS Church Chronology: 1805–1914 (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 1914), entry for 22 March 1890. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)