by Rebecca Bartholomew
[p.1]Stereotypes of Mormons do not at first seem to be limited. At least fifty novels, five histories, scores of short stories, hundreds of newspaper articles, and several per-year essays in each major American and European magazine kept Mormonism in the public mind between 1834 and 1900. True, the articles were contradictory in tone and conclusions, but two things help to simplify analysis of this literature: first, its content and quantity ebbed and flowed in discernible cycles; second, the massive wordage boiled down to a few themes.
Cycles of anti-Mormon publicity have been recognized by various historians. Sandra Myres, comparing anti-Mormon writing of the 1830s and 1840s to that of later decades, perceived it as “increasingly virulent,” especially during the 1850s when a wave of travel accounts and popular novels took up the Mormon theme.1 Gail Casterline noted that the literature of the 1870s brought a shift in approach from scorn to pity for polygamous wives.2
[p.2]Both observations could be further refined into four cycles described by Dennis Lythgoe.
(1) The earliest and most sustained cycle, characterized with few major exceptions by invective, was set in the 1840s following the Mormon wars in Missouri and Illinois and continued through the 1860s. Perhaps its bitterness was due to regional American roots. The proponents were often amateur authors of midwest sectarian attitude, hot with the reformist fire which characterized American letters before the Civil War.3
(2) By the 1870s cooler emotions prevailed in works of broader interest by writers less concerned with sectarian religion than with social reform. This change in the tenor of attitude may have been influenced by Mormon apostate writers Fanny Stenhouse and Ann Eliza Young whose autobiographies appeared in 1870 and 1872 and who personally did not fit the sensationalist mold of the depraved, mindless Mormon wife.
(3) The “humanitarianism” fermented into new militancy and brought in the 1880s passage of the Edmunds-Tucker anti-polygamy act, as well as serious consideration of a Constitutional amendment against bigamy and polygamy.
(4) By 1890, the reform nearly accomplished, considerable sentiment against Mormonism and Utah persisted so that two Mormon electees had to fight in the federal courts (one unsuccessfully) for seats they had already won in their districts.4
But a number of maverick pieces, and many cases of borrowing, clipping and enlarging over seventy-five years of anti-Mormon writing, blur the lines between cycles. For this reason we should consider the mass of Mormon-related literature as one body and analyze it primarily according to stereotypes: themes or ideas which repeated themselves in work after work between 1838 and 1888.
One feels sheepish attempting to catalog and analyze ideas [p.3]which were not logical. But since so much of the fanciful in such literature came to be accepted as fact, the content ought to be approached methodically. The method chosen here is mostly chronological: what did Victorians say about the origins of Mormon converts (geographic, socio-economic, family and marital, educational and cultural, religious and moral)? What did they imagine to be the circumstances and motives for peoples’ attachment to Mormonism, the rights and treatment of women within the Mormon branches, the Mormon emigration experience, and proselytes’ ultimate situation in Zion? This organization provides the structure for the remainder of this study.
Geographic Origins: Rude Foreigners
We find in the literature three theories as to where and from what classes Mormonism obtained its followers. The dominant theory was that Mormon converts came primarily from the industrial cities of Europe. One writer characterized Mormons as “Europeans of low class who greatly improved their lot in life by coming to Utah.”5 This assumption was an almost universal one among nineteenth-century reporters and indeed is accepted (possibly prematurely) as fact by many twentieth-century historians.
American John Beadle, author of those famous dime novels which were the equivalent of our century’s television sitcoms, had already written several Mormon romances when he abandoned fiction momentarily to produce Life in Utah: Mysteries and Crimes of Mormonism (Cincinnati, 1870). Here he created an indelible image of Mormons as socially inferior. Mormon men, he said, were “rude, discourteous and boorish” but very nearly justified in their boorishness by “the [Mormon] women themselves”: “Nearly all of them are of foreign birth, English, Welsh and Scandinavian, and of that class, too, among which men have never been accustomed to respect women very highly.” He continued, “Polygamy could never have been established in a purely American community,” implying that monogamy was the property of the United States [p.4]and that only un-American immigrants could produce such an aberration.
Other writers couched their cynicism in anti-immigrant, anti-masses, or anti-papist sentiment. Theodore Winthrop took a swipe at all three in John Brent. When his hero and narrator happens upon a caravan of Mormon immigrants, the sidekick notices that all the emigrants speak in the Lancashire dialect and represent the “poorest class of townspeople from the manufacturing towns.” “The Pope and Brigham Young are the rival bidders for such weaklings in the nineteenth century,” he concludes.
Some of this grew out the American fashion of disparaging the Old World and could not have set very well with a second set of theorists, British writers and those with British sympathies. Yet the trend was so prevalent that an independent-minded observer like Ellen Browning Scripps, founder of Scripps College but first a Californian who wrote travel letters from Europe in 1881-83, had to defend her praise of European social customs.6 Maria Ward (pseudonym for Cornelia Woodcock Ferris) was another Old World-apologist, although her intent was not objectivity but a need for literary contrast as a polemic device. Ward established the motif of an idealized British homeland, a woman discontented with the idyllic beauty of her surroundings, and Mormon opportunists who found her a sitting duck.7
[p.5]A third theory, a variation of the first, had Winthrop, Beadle, and Austin Ward (pseudonym for Benjamin G. Ferris) as proponents. It portrayed Mormons as an entirely separate stock: “a low-browed, stiff-haired, ignorant, and stolid race,” in Beadle’s words. Ward noted that all classes of English society were represented in Mormondom, even some “intelligent, refined” beings, but his most memorable observation was that the majority of Mormon women were of “uncouth shape and feature … more decidedly ugly than women of any age or country.”
This is the school to which Winthrop’s picaresque report on a Mormon emigrant caravan belongs: “A puny, withered set of beings,” he described them. Even their children were aged and wrinkled. Unlike Beadle and Ward, however, he was kind enough to attribute this to the harshness of conditions in England: the drudgery of shop (factory) life, of a day-to-day existence of all work and no play.
A report in DeBow’s Review, purported to be a direct observation by a member of the New Orleans Academy of Science, provides the most graphic expression of this theory. Although the report should have been authentic, New Orleans being a major way station second only to Liverpool along the Mormon immigration route, the treatise was of dubious validity. It assumed that all Mormons were either polygamist or polygamist offspring and constituted “a new race” distinguished by “yellow, sunken, cadaverous visage; greenish-colored eye; the thick protuberant lips, the low forehead; the light-yellowish hair, and the lank, jangular person.”8
One longs to know the seeds of such a report. Perhaps the three- to nine-week voyage actually left land-lubbing passengers green-faced. Or the correspondent may have encountered Mormons not as they disembarked but later, camping along the Mississippi River after the ravages of cholera had set in. Or perhaps there was no experiential basis, only the incipient yellow press. Whatever the inspiration, this and other highly-specific, seemingly-authentic word pictures helped create an unflattering image [p.6]which some readers accepted as reality. As late as the 1960s, Utahns of my acquaintance were still meeting people in the American Midwest who serio-comically quizzed them about Mormon physiological abnormalities.
Socio-Economic Origins: Women and Men of Small Property
Stereotypes about economic conditions contradict the new race theories. “Documentarist” Maria Ward personalized the idea that Mormons came from the British middle class with her storyline of the proselyte who abandons her “idolizing” and property-owning husband and “almost [breaks] the hearts” of her children to marry a Mormon. Austin’s counterpart to the foolish British wife was a male convert who becomes bishop of “Bricktown,” Utah. He is said to have been “a man of small property” in England until a Mormon tempter came into his Eden and teased him with glowing accounts of the New World and he became dissatisfied with the simple pleasures of home and emigrated. On the way, like the poor, foolish women of Mormondom, the man falls into want, discomfort, and disorganization.9
Other theorists were more or less realistic than the Wards. Robert Richards (pseudonym) claimed to have converted to Mormonism himself, and characterized most Mormon converts as “honest dupes like myself … day-labourers, weavers, carpenters, shoemakers, masons, shipwrights, sawyers, gun-makers, basket-makers.” They went to Utah expecting to find a spiritual and economic Zion and commonly returned home with shattered expectations.10
In novelist Mayne Reid’s The White Huntress, one of his romance novels in which the hero must choose between an earthy, dark-haired love and a more delicate, light-haired girl of his own ethnic background, the damsel is in distress because of the profligacy of her father. Made desperate by debt, he betrays her to the [p.7]horrible Stebbins, Mormon-Danite-polygamist, in whose hands she helplessly faces a fate worse than death.11
Joaquin Miller toyed with the same type in his novel, The Danites in the Sierras, which was made into a hit Broadway play and later, almost unrecognizably, into the movie “Paint Your Wagon.” Miller was a Californian with direct knowledge not only of the Mormon movement but of Pikers, or ’49-ers, some of whom had helped expel Mormons from Missouri and Illinois in 1846. Furthermore, Miller was a free-love advocate without the usual indignation toward polygamy. Thus the stereotype took on some new twists: his damsel and her brothers are educated, soon-to-be affluent, several cuts above Pikers in culture and intelligence. Miller deserves credit for verisimilitude rare in anti-Mormon literature and for characterization of a Mormon woman that very nearly pokes its shoulders above the mire of stereotype.12
Family Characteristics: Disagreeable Countenances
Most nineteenth-century writers equated Mormonism with polygamy. Clichés about polygamy ranged from the genuinely documentarist approach of Jules Remy and Richard Burton to dramatic (for the sake of circulation) reports sobered by reserved disapproval from Horace Greeley and William Hepworth Dixon, to the ludicrous accounts of the Wards. Among the less sensational was an account in Nation magazine which said, “Polygamy can only work when women are under delusion or constraint,” inferring that given a real choice Mormon women would slough off their shackles like new patriots. For fiction writer Robert Richards, who was relatively fair in portraying Mormon laborers as artisans [p.8]with hopes and skills but no place in the socially- and economically-petrified Old World,13 polygamy was “the chief lure” for sensual but not lustful lower-class immigrants “honored” by the prospect of an earthly kingdom with several wives and many children.
In the realm of the absurd, there are Austin Ward’s Bricktown caricatures of older wives with “disagreeable countenances” and “coarse and disgusting” laughter. Younger wives had bruised faces, and not from husbandly abuse. The real-life Maria Ward (writing as Mrs. B. G. Ferris) portrayed the typical Mormon woman as “a coarse, blowzy, greasy specimen of womanhood who delighted in bullying other wives.”
Somewhere between the dignified and ludicrous fell the comment received by Zina Huntington Young, a wife of Brigham Young, at a women’s suffrage meeting in the East. According to Susa Young Gates, daughter of another of Brigham’s wives, the easterner looked at Zina, resplendent in sealskin cape, and concluded, “You don’t look depraved.”14
Literarily in a class by itself is Mark Twain’s satirical look at Mormon family life in his 1872 volume, Roughing It.15 Actually, [p.9]Twain was temperate in his ridicule of Mormon men. His Destroying Angel (Danite) is “murderous enough” but mostly just “devoid of dignity” in an unclean shirt, horse-laugh and swagger. Brigham Young is a benevolent monarch who coerces lesser Mormons into honoring business contracts with gentiles.16
Unfortunately, and as usual, Mormon women get the blunt end of Twain’s pen. His narration begins with mild, self-bemused curiosity:
We walked about the streets some … This was fairy land to us … land of enchantment, and goblins, and awful mystery. We felt a curiosity to ask every child how many mothers it had, and if it could tell them apart; and we experienced a thrill every time a dwelling-house door opened and shut as we passed, disclosing a glimpse of human heads and backs and shoulders–for we so longed to have a good satisfying look at a Mormon family in all its comprehensive ampleness …
The passage ends with the typical image of the uncouth, homely Mormon wife. Invited to an apostle’s home, Twain saw:
A lot of slatternly women [who] flitted hither and thither in a hurry, with coffeepots, plates of bread, and other appurtenances to supper, and these were said to be the wives of the Angel—or some of them, at least. And of course they were; for if they had been hired “help” they would not have let an angel … storm and swear at them as he did …
Finally, his oft-quoted conclusion:
Our stay in Salt Lake City amounted to only two days, and therefore we had no time to make the customary inquisition into the workings of polygamy and get up the usual statistics and deductions preparatory to calling the attention of the nation at large once more to the matter. I had the will to do it. With the gushing self-sufficiency of youth I was feverish to plunge in headlong and achieve a great reform here—until I saw the Mormon women. Then I was touched. My heart was wiser than my head. It warmed toward these poor, ungainly and pathetically “homely” creatures, and as I turned to hide the generous moisture in my eyes, I said, “No—the man that marries one of them has done an act of Christian charity which entitles him to the kindly applause of mankind, not their harsh censure—and the man that marries sixty of them has done a deed of open-handed generosity so sublime that the nations should stand uncovered in his presence and worship in silence.
Religious Origins: Murderers and Thieves
One finds very little in the anti-Mormon literature about religious origins of Mormon converts. Fanny Stenhouse wrote about her personal religious experiences before and after conversion and speculated on factors which predisposed others toward Mormonism, but I have chosen to include Fanny among Mormon rather than anti-Mormon voices.
On the other hand, a good deal was written and implied about the moral propensities of Mormon converts. So much was said on this subject, most of it derogatory, that John Greenleaf Whittier personally studied Mormons in Illinois to discover how much was true. He concluded that “the Mormons were not at all as their Missouri detractors pictured them,” but that the writers “were calling Mormons murderers and thieves so as to justify murdering and stealing from them.”17
Much of the wordage on the moral theme was obviously imaginative, along the line of John Beadle’s tale of the young Scot who supposedly came to Brigham Young asking the prophet to [p.11]marry him to his half-sister. Young solved the dilemma by marrying the girl to himself, only to discover that she was already “in a delicate condition.” Divorce and consent for the original union allowed the couple to raise three children together. But in the end the girl “saw the degradation of her position and left for the States.”18 This was the vein from which A. Conan Doyle drew in his first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet (London, 1887), in which the Mormon men, when they wanted wives, snatched them from non-Mormon caravans bound for Oregon and California.
Much of the later moralizing was just name-calling. In 1895, five years after the church’s Manifesto which ostensibly stopped plural marriages among the vast majority of Mormons, The Congregationalist was still referring to “the Mormon ulcer.” And in 1900 Outlook‘s correspondent, after a cursory look at the state, wrote: “Sexual morality in Utah was much lower than in any other American communities I had visited, but a little higher than in Continental Europe. 19
Cultural Roots: Gullible Fishwives
Theodore Winthrop took apparent delight in portraying Mormon women as fishwives. While his masculine mail contractor is an honest, likable fellow in spite of his “lands and beeves and wives without number,” the principal wife is represented as a “dowdy” woman who speaks “in tones that she must have learned from a rattlesnake.” It is among such women that the hero meets the “high-bred” Ellen, and his first reaction is, “What a woman to meet in a Mormon caravan!” Ellen and her father, that rare miner with the soul of a gentleman, are “desolate souls in this forlorn environment.” Ellen especially is “worn and sad” not from frontier drudgery but from the quality of companionship.
Lower-class, low-class Mormon women were said by other writers to be usually gullible. John Beadle wrote, “Brigham Young tells the women … `If you see a dog run by the door with your [p.12]husband’s head in its mouth, say nothing until you have consulted with the bishop.”” Maria Ward, too, portrayed the women as less ugly than stupid. In her view Mormon preachers had difficult-to-resist charisma: “Beware of their arts. Enter not into the circle of their fascinations; their charms are like those of the serpent, and lead to the death of all that is holy and beautiful in this life …” An intelligent woman would see through such charms. “One scarcely knows whether to be amazed most at the profane profligacy of the leaders, or the superstitious credulity of their dupes.”20
The Ferris (a.k.a. Ward) family apparently found Mormon-bashing a lucrative field, publishing books under five different names. Benjamin Ferris, for a short time Utah territorial secretary and for a longer time husband of Cornelia, called Mormon wives “weak-minded.” Cornelia, in a work published under her real name, Mrs. Ferris, wrote snidely that Mormon women would “gulp down the most preposterous proposition, merely saying, perhaps, ‘Du tell’.”21
Robert Richards took a similar jab at his supposedly deceased wife whose powers of reasoning told her that a Mormon preacher “could not speak so very positively unless he knew he spoke the truth.” She is represented as having recanted her belief on her Nauvoo deathbed.
Such a body of supposed factual literature was a ready vein for the harem writers who used stereotypes as backdrop to imagined heroes and heroines. One of the first of the romancers was Orvilla Belisle, author of The Prophets, or Mormonism Unveiled (Philadelphia, 1855).22 Although her title suggested a factual treatment, neither the setting, characterization, nor plot is remotely accurate. The setting is Wales, the main character a Welsh chieftain, and the villain a Lady MacBethian chieftainess who drives the village to a Mormon doom. Some of Belisle’s images are particularly memorable, particularly her bewildered bird of a hero-[p.13]ine who falls for a dashing but false young Mormon elder who uses religion to beguile this Welsh girl. Mouthing scriptures, he is soon winding his fingers “among those wondrous curls … dropping them one by one off her wax-like shoulders.” With burning lips, he kisses her forehead, promising peace and a cherished position in his Mormon kingdom. Finally the bird, “bewildered, fascinated, but powerless,” sinks into the open arms of the fowler.
Women’s Status: Degradation
Some anti-Mormon works were no doubt inspired by a concern a for woman’s rights and station. Yet, Jane Austen-like, they did not question Christian society and its treatment of women but saw mistreatment only as the inevitable consequence of deviation from Christian standards. The wife who left her happy hearth and idolizing husband of course ended up “on the dump heap … abused shamefully” when the polygamous husband tired of her.23 The foreign-born women of Zion were of a class which tended towards ungodliness and invited neither respect nor honor.
There were more careful writers who still helped to feed the misconceptions. Horace Greeley commented that he never saw any evidence in Great Salt Lake City that a woman had an opinion or was listened to if she did. William Hepworth Dixon helped introduce the association of Mormonism with the oriental harem, an analogy widely made afterwards in cartoons and editorials: “[Mormon wives] are brought into the public room as children are with us; they come in for a moment, curtsey and shake hands; then drop out again, as though they felt themselves in company rather out of place. I have never seen this sort of shyness among grown women, except in a Syrian tent.”24 Although Greeley’s and Dixon’s comments were made in the spirit of honest inquiry, they were influenced by preconception and cursory examination which reinforced the image of the doltish Mormon wife.
One doubts that literate people swallowed whole the sensationalist pulp. But, as I have pointed out, some more literate treatments distorted the truth just as severely if in a more pal-[p.14]atable way. Reporters assigned to cover the trek of Johnston’s army to Utah sometimes sent back copy more wishful than accurate. For instance, Littell’s Living Age printed with sublime presumption, “Had Johnston’s Army come in [that first winter], Brigham Young would have lost half his wives within a month.”25 Other correspondents thought they perceived an unheard-of yet timid trend among Utah women toward “inquiring and thinking for themselves,” or that younger Mormon women felt a new-found shame “because of their degraded status in the eyes of the world.”26
If a new wave of free-thinking, anti-polygamist women emerged in Utah in 1858, it had submerged by the 1880s when federal laws put high pressure on polygamist families and brought about an end to the practice of plural marriage. At three different times—1869, 1878, 1886—ladies rallied throughout Utah territory to let the world know that they were loyal to their husbands and faith. Some signed petitions, others sang hymns and attended caucuses, a few wrote letters to officials. Perhaps a silent majority stayed home, but (as the rare observer recognized) clearly few were clamoring to be free.27
[p.15]It is difficult to talk about characteristics of Mormon women without including their men. By some writers men were portrayed as drunken, abusive husbands, by others as kidnappers and white-slave-procurers. A few found them lecherous, bearded old patriarchs “who continued marrying young girls as long as they were able to hobble about.”28
Novelist Mayne Reid’s men were “Yankee foxes … vulgar, brutal and cunning.” California poet Joaquin Miller’s Danites were hawk-nosed, with a bookishness terrifying to the rough, uneducated Pikers. Late in the century Fanny and Robert L. Stevenson spoofed all the above by redesigning the Mormon terrorist as a lovelorn oaf and the damsel a liberated woman capable of defending herself against almost anyone.29
It is significant that men were allowed comprehensible if not admirable motives. Female converts were almost never credited with intelligence or will to think. With almost universal sexism, both male and female writers of the day characterized Mormon women as ignorant and naive. Sometimes the women were seen as victims, more often as fools, rarely as ambitious spiritualists, never as adults capable of knowledgeably choosing a life course. Sexism must paradoxically be admitted as one of the prominent forces in the creation of nineteenth-century anti-polygamist literature, and among the most guilty were female journalists writing in defense of womanhood.
The Conversion Experience: Seduction
By now the variations on the stereotypes are pretty warmed-over. Robert Richards, in The Californian Crusoe, gave a little more detail than usual to “modest property owner” by having the man, prior to hearing of Mormonism, fall to schisms in the Church of England. In this way Richards came closer to the truth about some proselytes’ backgrounds than most. He also has an entire congregation convert in a few preaching services in one locality, another resemblance to actual events in the very early history of the British mission.
[p.16]According to Richards, Mormon proselyting appealed to its listeners’ idealism. One elder promised his audience a holy city in Nauvoo, picturing America’s rivers as “groaning with the weight of emigrants borne on the face of the water to the beautiful city of rest.” Richards recreated the alleged actual sermon by an Elder Smart: “Cast off your traditions and your superstitions. By the hundreds and by the thousands in the Old World and the New, mankind are hearing and obeying the glad tidings of salvation.” This does not sound too far-fetched, although a real Mormon elder would not have tended to use society or the opinions of men as his authorities. The type of listener attracted to Mormonism was more susceptible to scriptural allusions than to social enthusiasm.
Other conversion images are on the order of Belisle’s seduction scene, flavored not by sermons pretended or real (these would have been boring) but by drama: villains and heroines.
The Mormon Emigration: Abduction
Theodore Winthrop provided the most vivid if fanciful image of a Mormon emigrant caravan. Unlike most Mormon novels, the leader of Winthrop’s emigrants does not hold his caravaners in subjection through brutality. They are there because “what has England done for them?” Indeed, the emigrant leader is not even the villain. Instead it is the lecherous old Sizzum, a sort of renegade elder with Danite tendencies who rides into the caravan and kidnaps the aquiline Ellen. Yet Sizzum became the stereotype of the Mormon emigration leader.
It is a Sizzum-like Mormon who kidnaps the southern damsel in Mayne Reid’s novel, skirting her across the plains with the hero in pursuit. This was how fiction said Mormonism obtained its female followers. If a Mormon woman wasn’t a dolt, she was a hostage.
One is hard put to find a realistic or even semi-realistic treatment of the Mormon emigration. One of the few came from Charles Dickens, who was at the Liverpool docks as a company of Mormons (mostly Welsh, mostly women) departed for New Orleans. Dickens wrote, “Had I not known that the passengers were [p.17]Mormons, I might have called them, in their degree the pick and flower of England.”30
The Mormon Holy Land: No Virgins in Zion
If a Mormon woman were fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to reach Zion, her old terror of abductors and deceivers was replaced by a new one. Ward called Nauvoo, Illinois, an early Mormon gathering site, “a Victorian nightmare of broken families and broken hearts.”31 Mayne Reid was writing during the Nauvoo period when he penned, “There are no virgins in Zion, only wedlock loveless and unholy.”32
Promised a holy city, Robert Richards’s Californian Crusoe finds Illinois reality disillusioning. His wife’s last words to her husband are “that horrible, horrible prophet.” Crusoe pens a fictional interview with the second mate on a ship back to Liverpool. The mate reportedly says: “they have taken lots of LDS people from Liverpool to America, happy and full of confidence, but on the homeward trip to Liverpool were scores of LDS people having tried being LDS and now hate the very name.” The Californian Crusoe, Beadle’s Scotswoman, Reid’s and Winthrop’s and the Stevensons’ damsels together created the view of Zion as a prison of unhappy souls and the trail east as crowded with Mormons clamoring to get back to the homeland.
It was from these romances and the press that Arthur Conan Doyle, with no direct knowledge of Mormons, hit upon the unfortunate British damsel and the Danite as characters for A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes mystery. He imagined a Utah located in an alkaline basin where no birds chirp but coyotes skulk and buzzards flap dully.
His Mormon caravan is driven by grave, hard-lipped men; [p.18]meek, pale-faced women; ragged, dusty children—in contrast to a British child discovered on a hillside who, though abandoned and starving, is plump, snowy-toothed, and white-stockinged. Among such people it is “a dangerous matter to express an unorthodox opinion.”33
Austin Ward reinforced the ugly image of Utah and the idea that women were kept there in degradation and bondage through his depiction of a fictional Mormon community. Ward’s Bricktown wives are of several types: the shopgirl now ensconced in a Mormon harem and rapidly becoming disillusioned; the middle wife whose mind is becoming an irredeemable vacuum; and the elder wife/myrmidon, as ambitious as Belisle’s chieftainess, harnessing her husband’s younger concubines for the sake of glory in some eventual heavenly realm. All Bricktown citizens live in filth and squalor, eat off wooden boxes, go without food two out of every three days, and do not bother to edit windows or doors into their hovels.
Even Fanny Stenhouse, who had been a missionary’s wife in an unsympathetic land, in the end turned her hand against her former colleagues with exaggerations such as: “One thing I am certain of; if … horrible deeds were ever perpetrated within those walls, there remains no living witness to testify of them.”34
Fanny refers to rites performed in the Endowment House—a large log structure used until the Salt Lake temple was completed for sacred ordinances including marriages, baptisms for deceased ancestors, and “endowments” for the living. While an entire genre of folklore has arisen around Mormon temple rites, there is no [p.19]evidence that disemboweling, murders, human sacrifices, or erotic ceremonies took place in the Endowment House, as Fanny insinuates here.
Mark Twain’s humorous comments on Salt Lake City contradicted those of Austin Ward and others in most respects. His Mormon capital has broad, level streets; pure streams; “no visible drunkards or noisy people”; block after block of neat homes with plush orchards and gardens; and “a general air of neatness, repair, thrift and comfort.”
Even in jest he comes close to the truth when he hit upon the source of at least some sensationalist reports about closed Mormon society: those pleasant, cigar-filled talks in the back rooms of gentile homes and offices where are told “thrilling evening stories about assassinations of intractable Gentiles … how heedless people often come to Utah and make remarks about Brigham, or polygamy, or some other sacred matter, and the very next morning at daylight such parties are sure to be found lying up some back alley, contentedly waiting for the hearse.”35
We also have Metta Victoria Victor who under the subtitle A Narrative of Facts Stranger than Fiction outdid even Maria and Austin Ward. Mormon women, she said, were “modern vermin perpetuating their kind in the disgusting ratio of other loathsome creatures.”36
Her judgment represented extreme anti-Mormonism, more intense than most of the invective of the 1840s and 1850s. The 1870s and 1880s brought a different, more reasonable kind of myth-making. Yet Victor reminds us that, as reluctant as the modern student may be to take seriously Mormon or anti-Mormon literature of a century ago, much of it was in earnest, and deadly enough that it helped inspire the dispatch of between one-third and one-half of the American army sent to Utah to oversee a population thought [p.20]to be in utter rebellion against the United States. A decade after Johnston’s army marched on Utah, popular lecturer Kate Field claimed she knew personally of a Utah woman who was disemboweled–with her young sons looking on—for speaking about the temple rites!37
A Puzzling Voice
Among Victorians who more or less declined to stereotype the Mormons, Fanny Stenhouse’s voice is unique. Her autobiography, published in the United States in 1870 with a preface by Harriet Beecher Stowe, reads mostly as an open, pained introspection into her twenty years as a Mormon wife.38 When she speaks with personal knowledge about her conversion, her romance with the intellectual young Elder Stenhouse, her experiences in the St. Helier’s Branch where “things were had in common,” her saucy insider tales of life in Salt Lake City are funny, intelligent, occasionally poignant.
Indeed, to a modern reader her long personal struggle to reconcile “womanly feelings” with desire toward husband and church are more damning of polygamy and patriarchal authority than any diatribe. After ten years in Utah her husband, by then an influential newspaper editor, succumbed to pressure to take an extra wife, and Fanny tried to accept the inevitable. By her account, many times she knelt by her bed as her husband slept, praying to the Lord to “subdue my rebellious heart.”
But this personal account is mixed with malinformed narratives of political events of which she could only have been a third-hand witness at best. It was the old ambivalence. The majority of Mormon women were not, as Stenhouse chose to believe, in company with her in a slow-born distaste for the Mormon faith. Yet she undeniably shared some of their feelings and experiences. [p.21]Should her autobiography be included among the one hundred life histories or placed with the anti-Mormon tale-tellers of this chapter? Because she was so long associated with Mormonism, and because her report was, overall, at least a cut above other self-acclaimed authentic studies, I include her with the voices of Mormon women—though she may well turn over in her grave at my decision.
Fiction Becomes Fact
In some of the works mentioned Mormon themes were used humorously, with sophistication, while in many others they were used soberly, even stupidly. Several forces were operating. Documentarists were religious and secular journalists who, with varying scruples, aimed for at least a facsimile of realism in their studies. William Mulder has noted that Mormonism was once a national pastime, the sect a subject of routine commentary in the dailies, weeklies, and monthlies of the last century. It was these recurring reports that provided the grains of truth around which the romancers wove their stories and through which public curiosity was kept alive. Some of the documentarists were reformers and politicos who encouraged or catered to mass preference for exaggeration and hysteria, addressing “the Mormon question” for its marketability.
Then there were the harem writers—romance novelists who borrowed rumors from hearsay, the daily press, and superficial observation which they turned into literary archetype. Most of these were hack writers using such titles as Saved From the Mormons, Apples of Sodom, and The Little Gentile: A Desert Romance of Captive and Exile, but some were of more formidable reputation, including Francis Marryat, Mayne Reid, Joaquin Miller, and A. Conan Doyle.39
Finally there were the literati who laughed at but nevertheless courted the public preference for entertainment, if in a saner and more circumspect manner. There were few sympathetic treat-[p.22]ments of Mormonism, none reaching the broad audiences of the virulent works, so that almost nothing was published to counteract the sensationalism.
Critical attitudes varied. Writers such as Jules Remy, Sarah Wood Kane, Phil Robinson, and others realized that Mormon women were not generally abused nor were they clamoring to be free. But according to Gail Casterline, “the depravity view dominated.” If not weary and repressed, Mormon women were mentally deficient and lacked the higher instincts. The domestic novel popularized the plot of the genteel girl (or man) from an eastern or European city who was somehow lured out West to face ultimate disillusionment and escape to freedom or … death.40 The fact is that most real-life converts to Mormonism were working-class women—shopgirls, factory workers, home pieceworkers.
Somehow the fiction of Mormon elders luring young women to their harems braided with real Mormon demographics until in the 1880s there were serious press reports of Mormon missionaries abducting young women off the streets of Liverpool, London, and Paris! Exactly how this transmutation of reality took place is not the subject of this book, only that it did occur. The novels, romances, short stories, plays, and poems accumulated into the force of fact in the public mind so that as people watched or heard of the one-half percent of their countryfolk converting to Mormonism they interpreted this reality through the eye of romance-inspired fiction.41
The stereotyping process was not simple, for the romancers and journalists were aided by the clergy, embittered spouses, [p.23]disillusioned converts, and the undeniable fact of spiritual wifery and accompanying abuse and neglect. How did the Mormon myth affect Victorian life, culture, and politics? At the very least, writes Casterline, it “drew attention to the reality of polygamy, which by implication was a direct threat to all women of America.”42 Maria Ward’s expose, with its thirty-four-plus supposedly-factual instances of sadism in polygamist families, “familiarized an image of suffering Mormon womanhood.” The romancers further embellished this image, creating “a true sense of fear” in their readers. Emotionalism dominated public thinking, public rhetoric, and public decision-making of the day. It was not analogous to a modern public enjoying a horror novel; it was a case of mass libel and quiet but prolonged mass hysteria.
British Mormon women endured along with their American sisters the bad press which plagued them during the first century. One result is that, while we know who Utah women were because they spoke for themselves, we still do not know much about British Mormon women. Were they seduced by handsome, ardent, hypocritical Mormon elders; girls with weak minds who, once on the lawless frontier, sank into primitivism? Were they naive married ladies, easily duped into slavery to one or another two-faced Danite? Did they represent the rude life of London and Manchester, seeking their level in a decadent, unsavory subculture? How many of them actually became plural wives, and did they turn into Lady MacBeths, domineering and brainwashing sister-wives?
If they weren’t the above, who were they, the roughly 60,000 British women who gave up reputation for a disreputable religion? What classes did they represent, and what had been their childhood experiences and upbringings? Why and how did they attach themselves to Mormonism? What took place in the little British Mormon branches? What was the relationship of convert to elder, female to male, member to priesthood leader? How much input, if any, did women have in the way the British church operated? What were the characters of the missionaries who converted and led them to America?
Why did British Mormon women emigrate in such numbers—at least 25,000 of them? In what numbers did they become disenchanted with the faith and at what stage of their pilgrimage? Were they happy or unhappy or—what?—ten, twenty years after arriving in Zion?
Could they read? Did they know what was being written about them? Did they never speak for themselves? Wasn’t there a British Patty Sessions (a New England convert whose lifelong diaries have been widely read and cited by Mormon historians)? What did they think of themselves, of British society, of priesthood doctrine and custom?
Twentieth-century American folk singer Burl Ives sings a folksong with these lyrics: “That’s about the size … / where you put your eyes … / that’s about the size of it …” We know what their detractors chose to see. Where did the women themselves put their eyes?
1. Sandra L. Myres, Westering Women and the Frontier Experience, 1800-1915 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1982), 87.
7. Maria Ward’s book, Female Life Among the Mormons (New York: J .C. Derby, and London: C. H. Clarke, 1855), was the most-read of all Mormon commentaries. It went through several English editions between 1855 and 1880 and was reprinted in five languages. Maria’s real name was Cornelia Woodcock Ferris or Mrs. Benjamin G. Ferris.
Within a year or two after the appearance of Female Life, a companion volume by Maria and Austin Ward—supposedly her nephew but probably her husband—depicted The Husband in Utah; or, Sights and Scenes Among the Mormons (New York: Derby and Jackson, London: James Blackwood, 1857). Another 1857 volume entitled Male Life Among the Mormons, or The Husband in Utah lists Artemus Ward as author, and one of humorist Charles Farrar Browne’s popular lecture sketches was, “Among the Mormons.” Male Life appeared during Browne’s early career, while he was still writing for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Wars and Browne were the same person.
12. Joaquin Miller (pseud. for Cincinnatus H. Miller), First Families in the Sierras (London: G. Routledge and sons, 1875), revised as The Danites in the Sierras (N.p.: Jansen, McClurg & Co., 1881). For analysis of the “Mormon” writings of Marryat, Reid, Winthrop, Miller, and A. Conan Doyle, see Rebecca F. Cornwall and Leonard J. Arrington, “Perpetuation of a Myth: Mormon Danites in Five Western Novels, 1840-90,” Brigham Young University Studies 23 (Spring 1983). “Piker” referred to Pike County, Missouri, residents who joined the Gold Rush of 1848 and later.
15. Mark Twain (pseud. for Samuel Langhorne Clemens), Roughing It (Hartford, CT: American Publishing Co., 1872). I will consider Twain in depth not only because of his enormous influence in Britain but because his treatment of Mormons put the lie to the more blatant untruths circulating in his time. One way to discover just what the stereotypes were is to study Twain’s satire of them.
16. Young does not come off so well in a version of the Mountain Meadows massacre by Catherine Van Valkenburg Waite. See Mrs. C. V. Waite, Adventures in the Far West (Chicago: by the author, 1882). Possibly anticipating criticism for appearing too soft on the Mormons, Twain appended Waite’s piece to at least one edition of Roughing It.
25. From an 1858 issue, cited by Lythgoe, 27. In 1857 U.S. president James Buchanan, responding to complaints that Mormons were in a state of civil rebellion, sent a large force to invade the territory. This campaign was known as the Utah Expedition and more popularly as the “Utah War.” A brief but helpful explanation of the Utah Expedition is found in Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), 164-69.
30. From The Uncommercial Traveller (London: Chapman and Hall, 1865), as cited by Richard L. Jensen, “The British Gathering to Zion,” in V. Ben Bloxham et al., eds., Truth Will Prevail: The Rise of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the British Isles, 1837-1987 (Cambridge: University Press, 1987) 186; and Richard L. Evans, A Century of Mormonism in Great Britain (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1936).
33. Arthur Conan Coyle, A Study in Scarlet (London: Ward, Lock & Co., 1858). Charles Higham believes he has found the immediate inspiration for Scarlet: a news report in the London Times published 20 March 1879, just before Doyle began his novel, titled, “The Last Struggle of the Mormons.” See Higham, Adventures of Conan Doyle (New York: Norton, 1976), 71-72.
34. I use both an early edition and the 1971 facsimle edition: Mrs. T. B. H. (Fanny) Stenhouse, Tell It All: The Story of a Life’s Experience (Cincinnati: Queen City Publishing Co., 1874); and T. B. H. Stenhouse, Tell It All: The Tyranny of Mormonism, Or An Englishwoman in Utah (New York: Travellers Classic [Praeger Publishers], 1971).
41. One-half percent may be fanciful thinking myself. But another researcher, in stating that Great Britain humiliatingly lost the equivalent of its entire population in the migrations between the Napoleonic and first world wars, lists the 1821 British population as 21 million (Wilbur S. Shepperson, “The Place of the Mormons in the Religious Emigration of Great Britain, 1840-60,” Utah Historical Quarterly 20 : 207-18). Several encyclopedias give the 1851 population of Great Britain as about the same, 21 million. Assuming Mormon baptisms totalled 125,000 (as discussed in the next chapter), .006 percent of Britons became Mormons while about half that many emigrated.