Set in Stone, Fixed in Glass
by Nelson B. Wadsworth
THE MAX FLORENCE AFFAIR
“The Possibilities of Sensational Exhibits”
[p.355] When the Salt Lake Tribune hit the streets on Saturday morning, 16 September 1911, the headline story dropped a bombshell: “Photographs secretly taken of Mormon Temple’s interior; sent for sale to Church chief. President replies: ‘Church will not negotiate with thieves and blackmailers.’” Newspapers quickly sold out. Conversation on street corners, in businesses, and in homes was all about former Salt Lake City theater owner Max Florence, one of the key players in the exclusive Tribune story.
As the story broke, Florence was in New York City trying to sell “to the highest bidder” sixty-eight pictures taken clandestinely inside the temple. The Tribune informed readers: “It is said the pictures embrace flashlight photographs of the furnishings and adornments of every room in the magnificent edifice, together with reproductions of marriage records and minute books of many important meetings held by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and First Presidency, running back over a considerable period.”
Second counselor in the First Presidency John Henry Smith denied a demand for $100,000 had been made for the pictures. But he confirmed pictures of the interiors of many rooms existed and a letter had been written to the First [p.357] Presidency offering the views “for sale.” The article continued: “The announcement that an ‘outsider’ had gained access to the precincts of the Salt Lake Temple and had taken flashlight pictures of the magnificent paintings, altars, furnishings and other adornments of that most magnificent structure, into which no one but a devout Mormon is supposed to have set foot since the formal dedication of the building on April 6, 1893, has caused the greatest sensation in Mormon Church circles that has occurred in years.”
Over a period of days, fuller account of the bizarre tale of conspiracy began appearing in both Salt Lake City newspapers. A Swiss convert to Mormonism, Gilbert Ludwig Gerhart Bossard, had fallen out of favor with the church after [p.358] arriving in Salt Lake City and had sought to “get revenge.” Bossard befriended “an assistant gardener” at the temple, a compatriot named Gottlieb Wuthrach. Wuthrach had a key to the building because he maintained the floral arrangements and watered the plants. “It was Wuthrach who allowed his countryman ingress and egress to and from the sacred house,” the Tribune disclosed.
Theodore Bossard, father of the chief culprit, told the Tribune how his son had taken most of the pictures in broad daylight the previous June while the temple had been closed for cleaning and maintenance. Some of the pictures, he added, were taken at night by magnesium flashlight. According to the elder Bossard, his son and Max Florence had incorporated a company to market the pictures and expected to “sell them for hundreds and thousands of dollars.” The old man continued: “Gilbert and myself came to this country from Switzerland six years ago as converts of the Mormon Church. My son is now 21 years old. When he first arrived he was a Latter-day Saint in good standing. However, he soon fell away from the Church, and although he says he still believes that the Gospel is true, he says he thinks the administration of the business affairs of the Church is crooked. I don’t think he has done right in this thing, but he is a clever boy and don’t seem to care what I think.”1
Mormon president Joseph F. Smith had received a package from Florence in the mail containing eight enlargements of the photographs. According to Florence, the views in the package included “the beautiful gold oxen that hold up the baptizing tank in the basement and ended in the grand paradise room on the fifth floor…and then there was one taken from the roof just to show him [the Mormon prophet] we had been up there.” Florence had taken the pictures to New York for custom processing, packaged his letter and sample enlargements, and added the warning, “Important! Deliver to Addressee ONLY!” He had scrawled his return address in New York on the package. Then he waited. Undoubtedly, either personally or through a friend, he had already primed the Tribune for their front-page “exclusive story.”
President Smith wasted no time in responding. He wired a telegram to [p.359] Florence’s hotel in New York: “I will make no bargain with thieves and traffickers in stolen goods. I prefer to let the law deal with them.”2 Florence responded by wire: “I have done nothing against the law. You should consider me a most confidential friend for obtaining possession.”3
Meanwhile Florence was entertaining reporters in his room at the Imperial Hotel. The slender, forty-six-year-old Russian-Jewish immigrant sat back in a chair, chewed on an unlit cigar, and talked like a character from the motion pictures he once marketed for theaters throughout the West. One reporter asked Florence how much he considered the pictures worth. “I would rather burn them up in the gas light than accept anything so small as $100,000,” he responded. “That is the sum the Mormons say I blackmailed them for. I didn’t name that sum. It wouldn’t have been nearly big enough.”
[p.360] To a question about how much he would need to release some of the photographs to the newspapers, Florence replied. “Do you think I am a rube? If you see anything of the rube about me, I’ll take it off. I’m here for the cash. Now, if any newspaper printed my secret pictures they’d have to hire extra express wagons to haul them away. You’d have to pay me a lot of money and give me a share of the profits in the edition besides. Get me? I had a telephone call from a magazine this afternoon asking me if I had made any arrangements to sell the pictures. I said they were here to go to the highest bidder, be he Mormon, Jew or Gentile; I don’t care which.”4
Florence denied he had taken pictures of marriage records or minutes of meetings, because he discovered they were kept locked up outside of the temple. [p.361] He thought he could obtain information about the records, which could be incorporated in “a moving picture lecture” to be made from the still photographs.
Florence would not tell reporters how he had secured the temple views, even though the story was already circulating in the newspapers in Salt Lake City: “That’s my business. I got it done. I did not go in the Temple myself, but my money accomplished it. No guard helped in the least and no workman helped me. Say, I know that building from cellar to step just as well as the architect.” He also reacted angrily to the possibility of a suit against him: “I felt frisky today and I had a mind to wire to that Mormon prophet that if he made me any madder that I’d come back there and steal the angel Moroni off the main steeple. That shows how easy the Temple is for me. Now, it isn’t stealing goods to take pictures. You don’t take anything away only the camera you take in, and you leave [p.362] everything just as it was. So where is the larceny?”
In later interviews Florence did outline in detail how he had masterminded the picture-taking project. He told how Bossard had taken “a rapid lens camera” into the temple over a period of time, had even stacked up chairs to get views of some rooms, had photographed himself inside the temple during one of the “long time exposures,” and had used flashlights to get enough light at night in some instances. It had taken Bossard months to get the pictures, and, Florence admitted, “Not all of the 68 pictures were good.”
How much of Florence’s bravado with the press was linked to the truth is unclear. Clearly Florence was a man who liked a good show. And he was obviously enjoying center stage in this scandal. Florence was born in Shish, [p.363] Latvia, on 15 July 1865, to Russian-Jewish parents. He came to the United States with his brother at age nineteen and ended up in the mining town of Cripple Creek, Colorado. There he started his first business repairing broken chairs. He then worked as a bartender and finally married Celia Evans Parry, who had a daughter Ruth by a previous marriage. The Florences eventually moved to Salt Lake City, where Max acquired four motion picture theaters and eventually owned the Salt Lake Film Exchange, which distributed movies to theaters all over the intermountain area.
Florence was always a promoter. For example, he rented streetcars to travel through the city, picking up passengers and taking them to his theaters to view boxing and wrestling matches.5 However, he missed his biggest opportunity when a budding young movie producer from New York City looked him up and asked him to invest in a film studio somewhere in the West, possibly in Salt Lake City. Max turned him down. The man was Cecil B. DeMille, who eventually located his studio in Hollywood.
In an attempt to render the clandestine photographs worthless, President Smith coolly announced about a week after the story broke that the church would publish a book on Mormon temples within the year, and it would include photographs of temple interiors. Smith sent the following telegram to the mission president in New York: “Referring to temple pictures incident, you are hereby authorized to make public statement to the effect that in view of what has happened, it is our intention to publish in book form in the year future interior and exterior views of all our temples, giving full and accurate descriptions of the same. Also object and purposes for which temples are erected. Will gladly furnish first class views to magazines and moving picture people.”6
The Tribune subsequently printed an editorial which speculated, “The possibilities of sensational exhibits are very great.…The endowment ceremonies of the Church are pretty fully known, by reason especially of the testimony in the [U.S. Senator Reed] Smoot case, and it would be easy enough for Max [p.365] Florence to get up a representation, with lifelike figures in it, of the endowment ceremonies in connection with the rooms, the furniture and the furnishing of the Temple…which would likely attract large crowds.”7
It was at this point University of Utah professor James E. Talmage entered the fray. Talmage had written several books on Mormonism, including The Articles of Faith and Jesus the Christ. Apparently it was Talmage who suggested the authorized book of photos. Talmage was called into the office of the First Presidency on 21 September. It was Talmage’s birthday, and he recorded the day’s events in his diary:
[p.366] Sept. 21, 1911. Forty-nine years old today. Had interview with the First Presidency, and was appointed by them to special work, viz. the preparation of the manuscript for a booklet on temples and temple work. A few days ago, specifically on the 16th int. the Salt Lake Tribune announced under sensational headlines that pictures of the interior of the temple in this city had been secured by men who had surreptitiously gained entrance to the building, and that the parties having the pictures so obtained were then in New York negotiating for the sale of same to theaters or “moving pictures” houses for public exhibition. It was further stated that a first offer had been made to the Church officials, and that $100,000 would be considered a fair basis of sale. The Deseret News on the evening of the 16th confirmed the main facts of the report and published the seven pictures received by the President of the Church from the conspirators and would-be blackmailers. The pictures are bromide enlargements of prior negatives, evidently made in haste, showing some of the temple rooms during the summer cleaning period. The authorities have since announced that pictures of the temple interior will be made, and that copies of same may be obtained by reputable publishers and other reliable parties, and further that it is the intention of the Presidency to publish a book on the subject of temples and temple work embodying such pictures.8
The next day Talmage received a letter from the First Presidency, confirming his appointment to prepare the book. The letter read: “Your communication of the 18th inst. suggesting the publication of a booklet dealing with temples in general and with modern temples, was considered at our Council meeting yesterday, resulting in an action favoring your suggestion; also, in an action appointing you to prepare the manuscript in the suggested booklet, the same to be revised by a committee to be appointed by ourselves for that purpose.” The letter was signed by Joseph F. Smith, Anthon H. Lund, and John Henry Smith. A note was appended: “We have arranged with Bro. Ralph Savage to take the interior views of the Salt Lake Temple, and we would like you to supervise the work.”
[p.369] Talmage spent the next few weeks inside the temple with Savage, son of the late photographer, C. R. Savage. Together the two men, both Mormons, photographed the temple from top to bottom. They took views of the rooms, offices, corridors, focusing on the intricate details and art work of the handsomely-furnished building.9
Talmage also spent a great deal of time alone in the temple, contemplating how he would research and organize his writing. Then he went to his office and dictated notes and text to a stenographer.10 On 5 December 1911 he was ready to present his first five chapters to the church committee. He wrote in his diary: “Met with a committee convened by President Joseph F. Smith, and read the first five chapters of the prospective publication on Temple. The committee was in session from 10 a.m. to 1:20 p.m., and again from 3 to 5:20 p.m. Following are the names of those present: Pres. Smith, Apostles F. M. Lyman, Hyrum Smith, C. W. Penrose, O. F. Whitney, and Joseph F. Smith Jr. and Elders J. M. Sjodahl and D. M. McAllister. The last two are authors of pamphlets on temple subjects.” Two days after reading the first five chapters of his book to the church committee, Talmage was called to be a member of the Council of Twelve Apostles.
During the fall while Talmage was working on the book, Bossard and Wuthrach joined Florence in New York, and together they attempted with little success to market their temple pictures. All the while Florence was reporting that a sale was imminent. “I have so many propositions from prominent people here that I really don’t know which one to decide on,” he told the Tribune correspondent. But by 7 October the Deseret News was reporting that Florence “has failed to find anyone willing to bite.” The report continued: “He now talks of consolidating his interests with those of the anti-Mormon preacher, Hans Freece, and going out on the road with him, without any cash backer. The best opinion here is that the two would form an amusing duet.”
By 13 November the pictures were still not sold, but Florence had rented the Bijou Theater in Manhattan, and he and Bossard were planning the first [p.370] matinee of a “sensational expose.” Florence had had the temple negatives converted into glass lantern slides by A. J. Chapham Co. A correspondent for the Deseret News filed by telegraph his report of the premier performance: “Saturday in the Bijou theater in this city, Max Florence and Gilbert [Gisbert] Bossard opened an engagement at a matinee, the ‘entertainment’ afforded being a lecture on the Temple in Salt Lake and related subjects, pictures being used to illustrate the lecture. The show is advertised in such a way that shocks even the least refined.”
According to the report, New York newspapers had refused to carry stories about the show’s opening and had even turned down Florence’s advertising. The correspondent claimed he made the second member of the audience at its beginning. As the show continued, six more patrons entered the theater. The dispatch continued: “The photographs used to illustrate the show were the ones which had been published in the Deseret News and several others which were pronounced fakes, some being drawn by local newspaper cartoonists and [among] others the infamous Jarman pictures. In his lecture Bossard said that he crawled through underground tunnels to enter the building.…Bossard’s lecture, admittedly, was written by New York ministers who have taken part for a number of years in anything and everything that seemed to be anti-Mormon in its aspect, but Bossard’s delivery was absolutely unintelligible and for Sunday’s shows he was supplanted by a professional lecturer who could speak English. The whole affair was a dismal failure and it is expected that another day will see the close of the affair.”11
In one of those ironies of history, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was in New York City while Florence was preparing his lantern slide show. Only two days before Florence’s premier, the choir sang before a packed house in Madison Square Garden. Members of the choir were hosted by Broadway actress Maude Adams, a native Utahn, and banqueted at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Stories about the choir’s performance and Florence’s upcoming lantern slide and lecture show appeared side by side in the Salt Lake Tribune.
[p.371] By the first of the year, a public rift had developed between Florence and Bossard over “principles and business matters.” Bossard wired the Salt Lake Tribune after a story appeared speculating that Bossard and Florence were ready to “repent” of their trespassing in the Salt Lake Temple: “Last Friday’s article in the Tribune noted. Florence did not desert me. He returned today from Canada. The disagreement between us was caused through a difference of opinion about principles and business matters. Am neither distressed nor lonely, and still have a few friends. The idea of securing the temple pictures was my own, revealed to me through sincere prayers. I am not grieved for photographing the interior of the temple, but am disgusted with the methods of handling the photographs. I am for principle. Florence is for money. Florence has a deal pending for the pictures but I am refusing my consent, which is necessary to the completion of the deal.”
Florence also wired a message to the Tribune: “Just arrived from Canada. Did not abandon Elder Bossard, nor leave him destitute. Am not on the repenting list as Bossard appears to be. Schemes have not yet failed. Have offers which will pay many times the investment. I alone expect to be company. Had Elder Bossard consented to past plans, it would have resulted in a big financial success. It will anyway succeed in purchasing Elder Bossard’s interest. His spiritual ideal would not get him any money.”12
A few weeks after this exchange in the papers, a surprising letter of repentance arrived from Bossard in President Joseph F. Smith’s mail: “You will no doubt be surprised to receive a line from the undersigned; but I feel it my duty to apologize and ask your forgiveness for the unjust attacks I made upon [p.374] you. The latest developments have shown me that every member should thank God that the leadership of the church is in the hands of such men like you. I searched for truth, and I found it, which makes me a strong supporter of your policy and the gospel. It means that the case of Paul has itself repeated once more in history. My first act will consist of turning the temple photos over to you, without charge. Mr. Florence will leave Monday for Salt Lake and turn everything over to the church. I sent Bishop Perry, 16th Ward, Salt Lake City, a letter, in which I explain everything in detail.”13
Florence did return to Utah but whether he returned the pictures to Smith is unknown.14 Within a few months, the church published Talmage’s book on temples, The House of the Lord. The book carried two subtitles: A Study of Holy Sanctuaries Ancient and Modern and Including Forty-six Plates Illustrative of Modern Temples. The 336-page book not only contained the interior vies by Ralph Savage but also exteriors by a variety of Utah photographers, some of them non-Mormons. These included photos by S. T. Whitakker of Ogden, James W. and Harry Shipler of Salt Lake City, Charles Ellis Johnson of Salt Lake City, Jesse W. Tye of St. George, and the West Coast Art Company of Los Angeles.
As promised, the church’s temple pictures were published in a variety of public outlets. They were copyrighted and the church controlled distribution, but they were made available to those who wanted to “legitimately” publicize the LDS view of temples and their purposes. One interesting publication was a series of postcards produced in 1912 by the Souvenir Novelty Company of Salt Lake City “by permission of Jos. F. Smith, trustee in trust for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1912. All rights reserved.”15
Max Florence was financially strapped by the time he returned to Utah from New York in 1911. He finally got back on his feet again during Prohibition, when he began to make and market illegal liquor. In addition to his other schemes, Florence and his wife had for a long time run a restaurant near the Union Pacific Railroad station in Salt Lake City. Florence also had an express truck, which he used to pick up packages from the railroad and make [p.376] deliveries. The restaurant became Florence’s headquarters for both moonshining and bootlegging.
The day before Christmas in 1918 Florence and seven other men were arrested for conspiracy to transport contraband liquor. He was eventually convicted and spent one year of a three-year sentence in prison. During his incarceration he worked as an orderly for a prison doctor and for the first time in his life went to school, finally learning to read and write.16 When released he sold his home in Salt Lake City, moved to Farmington, purchased a new piece of land and an elegant home, and picked up his moonshining and bootlegging. Eventually as Prohibition faded, so did Florence’s health. He was diagnosed with cancer and died on 26 November 1932.17
5. Family photo album, Bernard W. Thomas, Farmington, Utah. This album contains views of Max Florence’s “Booster cars,” which took passengers to shows at the Elite and other Florence theaters. A step-granddaughter of Florence, Karla Thomas Clawson, and an active Mormon, commented in the following way on these clippings in March 1991: “I know what Max was doing. Before we judge him too harshly, we should analyze where he was coming from. As I see it, he was putting on a pretty big show. You must remember he was in the theater business, His family was in theatrics, and in New York he was on center stage in the performance of his life.”
9. These photographers are on file in the LDS historical department archives, Salt Lake City (hereafter LDS archives), but I obtained copies of most of them from Elizabeth Winters of Salt Lake City, daughter of paint manufacturer John F. Bennett. Bennett, who had an [p.377] intense interest in Utah’s photographic heritage, had the church’s views in a leather-bound volume.
16. Criminal File No. 5537, U.S. District Court, Utah Division, now in the National Archives, Rocky Mountain Region, Denver, Colorado. Florence and six other defendants were charged with two counts of conspiracy to violate the Webb-Kenyon Act of Congress, “to-wit…willfully and unlawfully and feloniously to take, steal and carry away with intent to convert to their own use…about 150 cases of Hill & Hill brand whiskey” which was being shipped interstate. Florence and another defendant, Ray Grant Middaugh, were convicted by a twelve-man jury in Judge Tilman D. Johnson’s court in Salt Lake City on 14 May 1919. A subsequent appeal was denied by the Circuit Court of Appeals on 6 September 1920. Florence was remanded to the custody of the warden at Levenworth on 13 November 1920. Florence’s step grandson, Bernard W. Thomas, recalls Max served only one year before being released on good behavior.
17. While researching this chapter, I visited Bernard W. Thomas, Florence’s step-grandson who lives in Farmington, Utah. According to Thomas, Florence was a man greatly misunderstood, “a man with a huge generosity who was liked by everyone who knew him.” He added, “All I know is that he always treated me right and provided for his family, at least until near the end when he became sick.” Of Florence’s moonshining, Thomas recalled, “He was very careful who he sold to. There were a lot of prominent people who came here to deal with Max. He always told me, ‘You don’t see anything. You don’t know anything. You don’t remember anything.’” Thomas added, “He was very proud of the clean, pure, alcoholic beverages he made. He was very careful how he made it, and his reputation for quality was widely known in Utah.” Of his final illness, Thomas commented, “Making good whiskey was about the only thing he knew how to do. When he couldn’t do that anymore, he had nothing.”
As I finished my interview with Thomas, I asked if he knew what happened to the pictures of the Salt Lake temple Florence had tried to sell in New York City. “I have no idea,” Thomas [p.378] told me. “They were probably lost or destroyed a long time ago.”
Thomas’s wife, Juanita, then stopped me as I was leaving. “I think you might want to talk to Gordon Van Fleet, the man who eventually bought the old Florence home,” she said. “I remember him telling me once he had found something in the house that might prove interesting.”
She called Van Fleet, and I arrived at the old Florence home in Farmington a few minutes later. Van Fleet told me that in 1929 he had helped Florence build boxes in which to market his cherries. Van Fleet had bought the house years later. After Florence died the house had been sold at a sheriff’s auction for $5,100. On Christmas Eve 1944, a fire broke out in an upper bedroom, and the home burned almost to the ground. Van Fleet bought the fire-damaged home and surrounding property, including the cherry orchard, for $5,000 the following May. Van Fleet had a bumper cherry crop the first year and made enough money to remodel the home, which had been left open to the snow and weather since the fire the year before.
“We were tearing out the floor. That’s when we found them,” Van Fleet remembered, pulling an oblong wooden box from a nearby shelf in his living room. “They were obviously concealed. You never would have noticed them unless you tore out the floor. Someone would have had to crawl back in there and hidden them. They were against the rock wall in the corner.”
In the box was a portion of the lantern slides from the ill-fated New York City show. They included several views taken inside the temple. The slides were clearly inferior in quality to those taken by Ralph Savage. Ironically one of the colored postcard reproductions made from the Savage photograph of the baptismal font resting on the backs of twelve oxen was found in the same box.
When the sensational story on the clandestine temple pictures was making the front pages, Florence eventually admitted he never personally went inside the temple. It was Bossard, he said, who got inside with his camera. But vicariously he did: his step-granddaughter and step-great-granddaughter, both avid genealogists and faithful believers in the efficacy of Mormon temple work performed in behalf of the dead, saw to that.