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For some crimes, there are no mitigating circumstances
on July 19, 2001
In September 1857, over 100 emigrants, including many women and children, were brutally ambushed and murdered in a peaceful meadow in southern Utah. Wise' thesis is that these murders were orchestrated and directed by Brigham Young, who was the prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS, or Mormon) as well as the territorial governor at the time.
Growing up in the LDS Church, I'd been taught that the Massacre was the dirty work of local Indians, that the LDS Church had nothing to do with it, and that accusations of complicity by Brigham Young were nothing but filthy lies by the Church's enemies. [See, for example, Essentials in Church History, Joseph Fielding Smith, 1950, pages 418-422]. Basically, the LDS response has been: "We didn't do it. The Indians did it. But if we had done it, we'd have had a really good reason because those gentiles were so evil."
Wise, though, has the upper hand in this debate. He has clearly demonstrated his thesis with far more references to verifiable history than anything I've ever seen offered by the Church. Wise begins by dispelling LDS propaganda to the effect that the train consisted of "Missouri Wild Cats," who intimidated the Mormons until they felt moved to murder. Appendix A lists the people in the Fancher train, which consisted mostly of prosperous families from Arkansas, including many women and children. Latter chapters also provide convincing evidence that the Fancher train was denied the opportunity to purchase supplies in Utah because of anti-Gentile sentiment that had been fanned by Brigham Young in advance of a US Army sent to re-establish law and order in the Utah territory. He also shows (through eye-witness historical accounts) that the Fancher train had originally planned to take the northern route, but were persuaded by Mormon leaders to take the Southern route, ostensibly to facilitate the ambush and murder by LDS members in Southern Utah.
To understand the massacre at Mountain Meadows you must first understand the origin of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the violence that engulfed it's early years. This background information consumes over 1/3 of Wise' book. The author begins by describing Joseph Smith as a gold digger that hired out with local farmers to help them find buried treasure by looking at special "seer" stones. Joseph's boyhood was one of abject poverty, and get-rich schemes were an important part of his early life. Eventually this led him to create the Book of Mormon (see "Quest for the Gold Plates," by Stan Larson) and organize the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The early history of the Church was fraught with violence by both Gentiles and Mormons. On the whole, I think Wise does a balanced job of describing how and why the violence existed, and why it involved Mormons more than most other new religions of the time. These reasons include exclusionary LDS theology, the practice of polygamy and polyandry by Church leaders, sermons that "consecrated" to the Saints the land and other wealth of their Gentile "enemies," and the habit of stripping apostates of their property, and subjecting them to physical abuse and sometimes murder. Eventually Mormon apostates had enough of it and setup a printing press to describe what was going on within the Church. Smith had the press destroyed, and the resulting train of events led to his arrest, and eventual murder while in prison.
With Smith's death, Brigham Young took control of the Church and led the Saints to Utah, where he held it in firm control as both Prophet and territorial governor. Wise describes a Utah under the theocratic rule of a ruthless man who didn't hesitate to have the Danites, Young's band of assassins, murder anyone who got in the way. Wise includes many historical (though anecdotal) accounts of such murders, as well as the no-longer-practiced doctrine of "Blood Atonement," whereby apostates and certain other sinners were required to have their throats slit to atone for their sins. He also explains how early versions of the LDS temple endowment included an oath to avenge Smith's murder. This is important in understanding the motive behind the massacre at mountain meadows.
It was under these conditions that the Fancher train wandered into Utah. Wise describes the process of the massacre in detail. One of the surprises for me was how the massacre happened over an extended period of several days. The initial ambush, led by John D. Lee (Brigham Young's adopted son) and several other Mormons dressed as Indians, killed six or seven men of the Fancher party. The emigrants immediately brought their wagons into a circle, and setup fortifications. The resulting stalemate lasted for several days until the emigrants, driven by thirst, sent two men to Cedar City (a Mormon establishment) to ask for help. Instead of help, though, William Stewart, a local Mormon High Priest, shot and killed one of them. The emigrants also sent two of their party west for help, but these were hunted down and murdered by a group lead by LDS missionary Ira Hatch. Eventually the Mormons promised the emigrants a truce, but while the defenseless rag-tag group was being led from their fortification, the Mormons and Indians fell upon them, murdering everyone in the party except about 18 children.
This isn't the end of the story, though. Wise goes on to explain the resulting investigation, as well as the obstruction of justice and destruction of evidence employed by Brigham Young to help him and his conspirators evade the law. Wise is to be commended for his telling of this barbaric act. If you have any interest in LDS history, or history of the Wild West, I think this book belongs on your shelf.