Through Gentile Eyes: A Hundred Years of the Mormon in Fiction

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It’s a rare Latter-day Saint student who doesn’t sometime run into novels and dime-store fiction that have for their theme something to do with the Church and the “Mormons.”

It’s also a rare member of the Church who does not sometime meet someone who has read such novels and dime-store fiction and who says something like, “Well, I’m not interested in hearing anymore. You see, I’ve read all about you.”

Why do many nonmembers walk around with folk legends and folktales clouding their minds, causing them to express disinterest in learning about the Church—or prejudicing their minds so that anything learned is seen through a strange set of glasses? Where did such notions develop?

To help Latter-day Saint youth better understand how this all came about—and why such images have persisted—the following article has been written.

It is obvious that once you understand the situation you are much better prepared to answer your friend’s query—and much better prepared to show patience with persons who have only heard or read the folktales that continue to go from tongue to tongue and from age to age.

Humorous or horrifying, but generally false, the image of the Latter-day Saint nevertheless played a significant role in the popular literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We will look in vain for an accurate image of a Latter-day Saint in the fiction of this period in America (or Europe), and like the characters on television shoot-up shows, any relationship between fictional and historical Mormons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

What is found, then, in the works of writers from Mark Twain to Zane Grey is an image that, when examined from our perspective in the twentieth century, evokes chuckles and gasps, often simultaneously, as we laugh at the incongruities and groan at the distortions. Perhaps our greatest discomfort, however, arises from the fact that readers from Berlin to Boston and from St. Louis to London, generally accepted—and continue to accept—such falsehoods, usually to the detriment of missionary work.

Indeed, missionaries throughout Europe and the United States are still confronting occasional opposition from laymen and clergymen who have formed their opinions of the Church through reading about that “strange and perverse sect whose members call themselves saints” but who are, as portrayed in fiction, either bloodthirsty seducers or ridiculous bumpkins.

The concern of authors in the late nineteenth-early twentieth centuries was not so much with conveying the facts as it was with exciting the audience. Indeed, neither the writer not the reader seemed really concerned about the facts: thrills were the sought-for commodity. And on any market, Mormon villains were a real bargain.

In the first place, Latter-day Saints were, to most people, that different bunch of mysterious people who had secreted themselves in the fortress of the vast Rocky Mountains. As with the Abominable Snowman, almost everyone had heard of Salt Lake City and the Latter-day Saints, but no one really knew much about them. They were simply peculiar people, strange objects of considerable curiosity. People were interested in hearing and believing almost anything about them.

Furthermore, what people heard about the Mormons as they gossiped over the back fence or sat in the barbershop was often twisted and shaped to appeal to the popular appetite for the lurid and sensational: secret rites, priestly orders, blood atonement, polygamy, and white slavery.

It is therefore not surprising that the Latter-day Saint in fiction slipped easily into a stereotype of the popular villain. For the first hundred years or so of our history, most of the magazines and novels that appeared portrayed us either as sly, dark, and seductive missionaries who slinked around the cities of America and Europe, stealing wives and daughters, or as fat, boorish old bishops, plodding around Salt Lake City arranging for a new wife or a raid on a gentile wagon train, or both!

In an early story from Harper’s Weekly (1855) called “My Wife’s Tempter,” a suspicious husband overhears his wife talking to a mysterious visitor. The husband eavesdrops enough to learn that the visitor is trying to persuade his wife to leave her husband and family and to go with him to his “chief.” “You have no husband, woman,” the man argues. “The vow was annulled before it was made. Your husband in God yet awaits you. You will yet be blessed with the true spouse.” The wife finally agrees, and then leaves, sobbing. This allows the angry husband to approach the unsuspecting seducer:

“I rose and stepped silently into the open space in which he stood. His back was toward me. His arms were lifted high over his head with an exultant gesture, and I could see his profile as it slightly turned toward me, illuminated with a smile of scornful triumph.”

The poor husband throws himself at the intruder. They wrestle, and the husband finally gets the upper hand when the villain slips over a precipice and dangles there, his life depending on his grip on a slim root that the husband immediately begins to saw at with his pocketknife. To save his life, the villain promises to confess; he is pulled up to safety where, with bowed head, he finally admits, “I am a Mormon.” The husband is shocked by the revelation that the man who has ruined his home is actually a Latter-day Saint missionary, and the story concludes on a tearful note with the husband putting his wife out of the house: “This is no longer your home. You have deceived me. You are a Mormon. I know all.” And with that the husband sends his wife off to live with her father. He ends his narrative,

“I live in the same village with my wife, and yet am a widower. She is very penitent, they say; yet I cannot bring myself to believe that anyone who has allowed the Mormon poison to enter his veins can ever be cured. People say that we will come together again, but I know better.”

It is not hard to imagine why, after reading a story like this, a well-read husband might irately slam the door when two young people come to his porch and cheerfully announce that they are missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Then there is the story of the polygamous Mormon. Literally hundreds of stories and novels recount fantastic tales of abduction, seduction, forced marriages, pursuits, and escapes. The husbands in these stories are seldom attractive. Consider, for instance, Elder Bungrod in the story “American Dead Sea Fruit” from The Overland Monthly of February, 1895. The polygamous Elder Bungrod is “squat-bodied, sluggish, gross. … [He] had a flat toadlike look as he sat lazily dropping forward with elbows on his knees and occasionally turning a pair of small reddish eyes about the landscape.”

When he sees that his wives are slowing down in their work, “a dark scowl wrinkled his grizzled animal face, and he got up and made his way toward the house, pouting as he went and crushing the clods and potato vines under his heavily booted feet.” In this story, as in almost all such accounts, there is a Beautiful Young Girl who has been (or is about to be) forced into marriage with the Evil Old Man. In this tale she is already married to him but not won over, so Elder Bungrod begins his nefarious pursuit:

“Don’t be skeered, little un; don’t yeh be skeered; and nobody won’t hurt yeh,” said the Elder, advancing, arms extended out with a maudlin expression of countenance.

“The young girl flattened herself against the wall with a look of dismay and horror in her eyes, and when his hands touched her she cried out wildly, and, slipping from him flew with swift feet out the door and down into the fields. With a stifled curse, Bungrod kicked the chairs out of his way and tramped after her. His heavy face had a greenish, congested cast, and his small eyes looked red and evil.”

The young heroines in these stories are usually saved from the clutches of the Latter-day Saints by fleeing, aided by the Handsome Young Gentile, who is either pursuing a lost sister or just passing through with his wagonload of freight. Or if the Handsome Young Gentile isn’t handy, an author may have his heroine leap from the walls of the temple into the Great Salt Lake and swim to safety (the lake must have been a great deal higher in those days!). Or, perhaps in the more “sophisticated” stories, one of the older but wiser and sympathetic wives helps the Poor Young Thing get away. In the case of Elder Bungrod, for example, one of the older wives steals a rowboat, and the story concludes after a nightlong chase over the whole length of Great Salt Lake, when, at the cost of her own life, the Honest Older Wife delivers the Poor Young Thing into the saving hands of the railroad construction gang at Corinne—that blissful gentile haven in the desert.

Of course, no catalogue of Mormon villains would be complete without the fictional Danites—that band of enforcers who see that the wishes of the “holy four,” or the bishop, or Brother Brigham (depending on which piece you are reading) are carried out. Hundreds and hundreds of literary corpses are strewn through the pages of fiction, wayward members who tried to escape from Salt Lake Valley, or antagonistic nonmembers who refused to give their dollars or daughters to the Church.

Sometimes it was only a lone Destroying Angel, but more often it was a whole group that would be waiting for the unsuspecting hero or heroine as they attempt to escape their stonehearted captors. Zane Grey, Robert Louis Stevenson, Joaquin Miller, and a host of lesser-known writers have used the Danites, but perhaps the most well-known treatment is that of A. Conan Doyle in A Study of Scarlet:

“Its invisibility and the mystery which was attached to it, made this [Danite] organization doubly terrible. It appeared to be omniscient and omnipotent, and yet was neither seen nor heard. The man who held out against the Church vanished away, and none knew whither he had gone or what had befallen him. His wife and his children awaited him at home, but no father ever returned to tell them how he had fared at the hands of his secret judges. A rash word or a hasty act was followed by annihilation, and yet none knew what the nature might be of this terrible power which was suspended over them. No wonder that men went about in fear and trembling, and that even in the heart of the wilderness they dared not whisper the doubts which oppressed them. … At first this vague and terrible power was exercised only upon the recalcitrants who, having embraced the Mormon faith, wished afterwards to pervert or to abandon it. Soon, however, it took a wider range. The supply of adult women was running short, and polygamy without a female population on which to draw was a barren doctrine indeed. Strange rumours began to be bandied about—rumours of murdered immigrants and rifled camps in regions where Indians had never been seen. New women appeared in the harems of the elders—women who pined and wept, and bore upon their faces the traces of unextinguishable horror. Belated wanderers upon the mountains spoke of gangs of armed men, masked, stealthy, and noiseless, who flitted by them in the darkness. These tales and rumours took substance and shape, and were corroborated and recorroborated, until they resolved themselves into a definite name. To this day, in the lonely ranches of the West, the name of the Danite Band, or the Avenging Angels, is a sinister and an ill-omened one.”

We quote this long passage because Doyle’s description reads almost like a plot summary of the typical Mormon novel around the turn of the century.

Novel after story after novel came from the press, making literary hay by detailing in purple prose and melodramatic style the doings of the imaginary Danites. In fact, if there is a dominant trait in these early popular pieces, it is violence and bloodshed. Poisonings, stranglings, hangings, shootings are a part of almost every chapter, if not every page. Leonard Arrington and Jon Haupt counted the violent deaths in Boadicea, the Mormon Wife: Life Scenes in Utah, a typical novel of the genre, and found that “in the short space of ninety-seven pages, seventeen persons perish. Some are shot, others drowned, some beaten to death, others strangled, one poisoned, one hanged, one beaten with a whip handle, three crushed by a falling rafter, and one succumbs from a broken heart. In addition, there are assorted thrashings, attempted poisonings, successful abductions, and miscellaneous tortures.” (And some call television violent!)

One doesn’t have to read very far to find that such books are typical. A few titles are enough to reveal the trend: Saved at Last from among the Mormons; The Mormon Wife: A Life Story of the Sacrifices, Sorrows and Sufferings of Woman; Elder Northfield’s Home; Sacrificed on the Mormon Altar: A Story of the Blighting Curse of Polygamy. The list could go on and on and on and on.

And this image of the Mormon as a dastardly villain has spread to other countries as well as Great Britain and the United States. Perhaps the most representative of foreign authors who have exploited the Mormon fascination is Germany’s Karl May (1842–1912). May’s works have sold nearly twenty-six million copies in more than twenty cultural languages, including Volapük and Braille (but not English), and in his many western tales we consistently emerge as cunning, devilish villains (such as Elder Tobias Praisegod Burton).

Typically, Karl May’s Mormon is a missionary who smokes cigars, drinks heavily, and is a blasphemer. May was apparently drawing on the popular literature of his time, but whatever the source for his secondhand knowledge of the Saints, he succeeded in placing an image of Mormonism in the mind of nearly every young German who read or reads his works. Missionaries all over Europe still encounter adults and young people who reflect May’s view of the Latter-day Saints as an untrustworthy, often treacherous people, though there are cases where curiosity aroused by the works has led to conversion.

One of the difficulties we have as Latter-day Saints in considering the thousands of pages of subliterature is our own defensiveness. That is, we are most likely to accuse these writers of being the most vicious kind of Mormon haters, anxious to thwart the progress of the kingdom. For some that may be true, but for the most part these authors were simply working a well-known formula for fictional popularity.

It just happened that Mormons as subject matter fit the formula very well. Knowing little or nothing of the Latter-day Saints themselves, the writers felt relatively free to invent and imagine anything that might catch the public attention. And it did!

It is much easier to appreciate this fact if we glance at the other side of this literary coin and consider the comic image of the Saints where humor has replaced the horror.

As with the writer of fiction, the success of the popular humorist has always depended on his ability to gauge the mood and attitude of his audience. Artemus Ward, who was really Charles Farrar Browne (1834–1867), was a master at assessing the funny bone tickle point. His writings and lectures, printed in Among the Mormons (1865), reflect the delight that the average citizen in the nineteenth century took in jesting about the eccentricities inherent in “the Mormon problem,” though it must remain a question as to what extent the people shaped the humorists’ attitudes and to what extent the humorists’ lectures and writings shaped the attitudes of the people.

In 1863 Artemus Ward was hesitant about going among the Mormons because some years before, in one of his consciously misspelled pieces, he had called Salt Lake City a “2nd Soddum and Germorer, inhabited by as theavin’ & onprincipled a set or retchis as ever drew Breth in eny spot on the Globe.” But the Saints forgave him his trespass, and he enjoyed a visit of several weeks in what his British companion, Edward P. Hingston, called the Latter-day Saint “Mecca—their Jerusalem—their Holy City.” The visit enabled Ward to comment on two favorite Mormon topics: Brigham Young and polygamy.

In his visit with President Young, whom he describes as “an active, iron man, with a clear sharp eye. A man of consummate shrewdness—of great executive ability,” Ward notes, as would Twain, that Brigham Young’s power in Utah “is quite as absolute as that of any living sovereign, yet he uses it with such consummate shrewdness that his people are passionately devoted to him.” He then nudges President Young by stating that although Joseph Smith “used to have his little Revelation almost every day—sometimes two before dinner,” President Young “only takes one once in awhile,” a bit of humor that while somewhat distasteful to Latter-day Saints, then and now, clearly indicates the irreverence with which the non-Mormons looked upon the principle of continuing revelation.

Polygamy was, of course, that which interested non-Mormon readers most, and Ward comments that in attending the theater, “It is an odd sight to see a jovial old Mormon file down the parquette aisle with ten or twenty robust wives at his heels.” He comments further that on one occasion, when The Lady of Lyons was playing in the Salt Lake Theater, one aged brother, finding offensive the remarks of an impassioned and slobbering leading man to his fair damsel, “arose and went out with his twenty-four wives, angrily stating that he wouldn’t sit and see a play where a man made such a cussed fuss over one woman.

Ward, who was delighted at being called “Brother Ward,” went to a ball and relates that Brother Brigham “is more industrious than graceful as a dancer,” and that Heber C. Kimball, he was told, “is a loose and reckless dancer, and that many a lily-white toe has felt the crushing weight of his cowhide monitors.”

Collectively, “these things,” remarks Ward, “make a Mormon ball more spicy than a Gentile one.” It must be kept in mind that many of Ward’s readers and listeners considered dancing a sin, and thus would have found it ludicrous that so-called Saints would indulge in such immorality.

Ward lightly probes the problem as to whether Latter-day Saint women were happy or not, but gives it up, concluding with a puzzled “They were like other women as far as my observation extended.” He delighted in recounting such incidents as this:

“I had a man pointed out to me who married an entire family. He had originally intended to marry Jane, but Jane did not want to leave her widowed mother. The other three sisters were not in the matrimonial market for the same reason; so this gallant man married the whole crowd, including the girl’s grandmother, who had lost all her teeth, and had to be fed with a spoon. The family were in indigent circumstances, and they could not but congratulate themselves on securing a wealthy husband. It seemed to affect the grandmother deeply, for the first words she said on reaching her new home, were: ‘Now, thank God! I shall have my gruel reg’lar!’”

Such preposterous stories were commonly passed among nonmembers, who delighted in imagining the situations that could arise when a man was “blessed” with a goodly number of wives. Feeling guilty that he could not report any real iniquities in the system that he had observed, Ward concludes that “I have shown the silver lining of this great social Cloud. That back of this silver lining the Cloud must be thick and black, I feel quite sure.”

Later in the book he presents a “condensed novel,” A Mormon Romance—Reginald Gloverson, in four chapters and eight pages. Reginald Gloverson, who has twenty wives, delivers a farewell speech to his family as he departs on a trip across the plains. In the speech he assures them that he will dream of his wives, of “you, Emily, with your mild blue eyes; and you, Henrietta, with your splendid black hair; and you, Nelly, with your hair so brightly, beautifully golden,” and on and on, concluding, less confidently, with Susan, “with your—with your—that is to say, Susan, with your—and the other thirteen of you, each so good and beautiful.” Of course, the wives answer in chorus. Reginald dies and the wives argue about who was his favorite and about which place each will have in the funeral procession. A decent two years later another elder comes to the home and, speaking to all collectively, proposes marriage to the twenty widows, who he will add to his present twenty-five wives. Ward becomes confused with the problem of tenses at the end and concludes that “writing Mormon romances is confusing to the intellect.”

Mark Twain (1835–1910), America’s most popular humorist, was heavily influenced by Artemus Ward, and when he published Roughing It (1872), which includes a thoroughly fictionalized account of his two-day stay in Salt Lake City in 1861, he selected the same basic focal points for his humorous exploitation of the Mormons—Brigham Young, polygamy, and, of course, the Destroying Angels or Danites.

The Destroying Angels myth had already begun to spread during Artemus Ward’s short career, but with the publicity given the Saints after events surrounding the Utah War of 1857, the myth proliferated, and Twain, his finger ever on America’s pulse, transformed it into humor. Prior to entering Salt Lake City, he remarks that his stage stopped at a station run by a Destroying Angel, whom he defined as a Latter-day Saint “set apart by the Church to conduct permanent disappearances of obnoxious citizens.”

Twain wrote that he had “heard a deal about these Mormon Destroying Angels and the dark and bloody deeds they had done,” and he had his shudder ready. But he was unimpressed by the man, who turned out to be “nothing but a loud, profane, offensive old blackguard!” Twain plays on the “angel” aspect of the title and asserts that no one can abide “an Angel in an unclean shirt and no suspenders,” an Angel “with a horse-laugh and a swagger like a buccaneer.”

On entering the “stronghold of the prophets,” Twain enjoyed staring at “every creature [he] took to be a Mormon.” He was impressed by the clean, pleasant atmosphere of the city, and reports that he heard Salt Lake was so healthy that “there was only one physician in the place and he was arrested every week regularly and held to answer under the vagrant act for having ‘no visible means of support.’”

Then Twain describes, with an eye single to humor, his visit to Brigham Young, a man who was “quiet, kindly, easy-mannered, dignified, [and] self-possessed,” who had “a gentle craft in his eye that probably belonged there.” Twain says he kept trying to draw out President Young on government, politics, and Congress, but the President ignored him, and Twain “subsided into an indignant silence.” At the end of the interview, claims Twain, Brigham “put his hand on [Twain’s] head, beamed down on [him] in an admiring way and said to [Twain’s] brother: ‘Ah—your child, I presume? Boy or girl?’” An excellent rejoinder—even if it isn’t true.

With Twain, as with Ward, polygamy was central to his branch of humor. Not willing to tell the stories as a firsthand account, Twain puts the tales about Brigham Young and polygamy into the mouths of gentile friends, particularly one named Johnson, who tells of the “carnage” of breakfast at the Young home, of calling the roll, and then relates a fantastic story of President Young’s giving a breastpin to his favorite wife, whom he calls “No. 6 … as her other name has escaped me for the moment.” The gift brings, one by one and two by two, all of his wives crowding into his office in jealous frenzy to plea for a similar breastpin. Says Brigham Young, “You see what a life I lead.” The breastpin was “only worth twenty-five dollars … but its ultimate cost was inevitably bound to be a good deal more. … For I have wives all over this territory of Utah. I have dozens of wives whose numbers even I do not know without looking in the family Bible. … And, mark you, every solitary one of them will hear of this wretched breastpin, and every last one of them will have one or die. No. 6’s breastpin will cost me twenty-five hundred dollars before I see the end of it.”

President Young then complains of the cost of large families, of papa’s watches to play with, and of washing bills. Concludes Brigham:

“My friend, take an old man’s advice and don’t encumber yourself with a large family—mind, I tell you, don’t do it. In a small family, and in a small family only, you will find that comfort and that peace of mind which are the best at last of the blessings this world is able to afford us, and for the lack of which no accumulation of wealth, and no acquisition of fame, power, and greatness can ever compensate us. Take my word for it, ten or eleven wives is all you need—never go over it.”

In chapter fourteen of Roughing It, Twain tells of his desire to play the usual role of the eastern visitor and collect facts and statistics for a book that would expose the evils of polygamy. But, Twain continues, that was before he 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.’”

Such jests at the expense of Latter-day Saints were popular in parlor or saloon.

Twain then takes up church theology itself, specifically the Book of Mormon, which he calls “chloroform in print,” and insists that if the phrase “and it came to pass” were omitted from the book, Joseph Smith’s “bible would have been only a pamphlet.” Mark Twain’s analysis of the Book of Mormon, laden with error after error, demonstrates to the knowledgeable Latter-day Saint that Twain probably read the book like a college student reads his university catalogue.

But Twain’s analysis, weak and stumbling as it is, gave nineteenth and early twentieth century readers what they wanted—another hook on which to hang their vaguely grounded denunciations of the Latter-day Saints, even though few of them realized Mark Twain would be just as apt to (and would) take similar pokes at the Holy Bible, the United States government, and even, verily verily, at them, for Artemus Ward and Mark Twain were out to entertain and amuse. They knew that the whole human race, regardless of its beliefs and politics, was open to ridicule for shared foibles, but they also knew that their audience was comprised of the fickle majority, a majority that, for a fleeting time, found the Latter-day Saints to be a truly peculiar people.

We could go on and on citing instances of buffoonery and villainy at the expense of Latter-day Saints, but it seems clear, we hope, that the Mormon emerged in late nineteenth and early twentieth century fiction as a murderer or a seducer (or an infelicitous blend of the most evil qualities of both).

This image, alternating with an image shaped by humorous jabs at polygamy, Brigham Young, and “the Destroying Angels,” made the Mormon a sensational, if seldom very literary, figure. But the sad truth is that the influence of this kind of image was and is perhaps more far-reaching than we might suspect. One can’t help but wonder what effect the reading of such stuff might have had on the presidents and senators and governors and militia men—and their wives—who played a central role in the shaping of Church history—or the effect that such stuff has had, and continues to have, on that factory worker in Detroit and that steel worker in Linz, Austria, who say through tight lips and flinty smile on closing the door on today’s missionaries, “No thanks. You see, I’ve read all about you!”

[illustration] An “at peace with the world, neatly uniformed, well-fed, clean-shaven, pleasant to look upon” gentile captain and an “unshaven, hollow-cheeked, gaunt, roughly dressed” Mormon, “a thing that had been hunted and was now under ban,” talking to the same young lady from The Lions of the Lord.

[illustration] In Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, this girl, working for “Mormon rustlers,” is shot by a gentile.

[illustration] It didn’t take much to pique the curiosity of readers interested in the early Saints, as this book cover from a 1902 publication attests.

[illustration] Maggie (far right), stretching with relief because she is trading the “cribbed narrowness of a meager, unsatisfied existence” in an Old World city for the “untrammelled life of the great West,” is a character in a book called By Order of the Prophet.

[illustration] A pen and ink drawing of an early Latter-day Saint missionary from the book Under the Covenant.

[photo] The Saints didn’t enjoy a very favorable press in 1881, and new books often carried letters from “notables” about the “Mormon situation.”