Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Mountain Meadows Massacre

Blood Atonement and Other "Peculiar Institutions"

Lt John Gunnison
Lt John Gunnison
More than any other federal representative who spent any time in Utah, the actions of Lt. John Gunnison, a surveyor with the U.S. Army, led to what would later be called the Mountain Meadows massacre. Zachary Taylor sent Gunnison to Utah to perform the first survey of the new territory that had been surrendered by Mexico. He arrived in Salt Lake City with a small troop of men, but found a particularly hostile reception.

I hear from various sources that our survey is regarded with great jealousy, he wrote in his diary. And (I) have had the warning that secret means would be used to prevent any maps being made of the valley -- even that our lives are in danger.

Gunnison was a particularly strong diplomat who managed to convince Young that his purpose was not to survey the Mormon territory for the purpose of taking land, although  the surveyor reported later that the treatment he received from his hosts warmed only to mere rudeness by the time his mission was completed. Although Gunnisons survey would not directly correlate with the uprising and the massacre of the emigrants, upon his return to Washington, Gunnison wrote the first definitive scholarly study of the Mormon culture, and that did have an impact.

Prior to Gunnisons book, the only publications about Mormons were either libelous screeds or saccharine tomes of miseries about the sufferings of the Saints. These books featured graphic descriptions of violent oppression and sexual exploitation of women at the hands of debased Mormon elders, writes Eric A. Eliason in the journal Religion and American Culture. This literature bore such provocative titles as Mrs. A. G. Paddocks In the Toils: or, The Martyrs of the Latter Days, Metta Victoria Fullers Mormon Wives: A Narrative of Facts Stranger than Fiction, and Jennie Bartlett Switzers Elder Northfields Home; or, Sacrificed on the Mormon Altar, the Story of the Blighting Curse of Polygamy.

Instead, Gunnison presented a fair picture of life in Utah and a strong recommendation that the best way to deal with the Mormon problem was to leave the Saints alone. He firmly believed that the one thing that held the culture together was the persecution that followed the sect from state to state. If the government would leave the Saints to their own devices, Gunnison wrote, the zeal that bound the faithful together would quickly be watered down by the influx of new converts who had not suffered the persecutions of Missouri and Illinois, and by the inevitable Gentile population that was bound to emigrate to Utah.

What captured the attention of the Americans was Gunnisons description of two Mormon practices. These descriptions did little to improve the reputation of the sect with the Gentiles and led directly to Gunnisons murder three years after his book was published.

The first revelation from Gunnisons book the Mormon practice of polygamy, or as the Saints called it, celestial marriage. Polygamy   is perhaps what the Saints are best known for even to this day, although the concept has been rejected by the Church since before the turn of the 20th century. The concept of celestial marriage is based on the Mormon belief that women cannot enter eternal life unless they are brought there by a man, and that the more wives a man has as he enters the Kingdom of Heaven, the higher his stature will be. To Mormons, the idea represented everlasting life for as many people as possible in as good a fashion as possible. Unfortunately for the sect, the Gentiles could not move beyond the temporal fact that in Utah, a man could have as many wives as he could afford to sustain.

Besides the eternal blessings brought on by polygamy, the practice provided Brigham Young a particularly strong side benefit: as the Prophet and Seer, Young decided who among his people could practice celestial marriage. Because it was possible for a woman to be married on Earth to one man, but promised for eternity to another, it was not unusual for wives who were afraid that their husbands lack of faith or poor religious practices would prevent either of them from entering Heaven to be sealed for all eternity to another man. As a result, Young had a unique insight into the private lives of nearly every one of the Saints in Utah and could use the information and the privilege of polygamy to his advantage.

Gunnisons second revelation was equally disturbing to the Gentiles and only served to strengthen the distaste they felt for the Mormons. The belief in blood atonement is rooted in the Old Testament and, while not practiced to the same extent in each faith, is not unheard of in Christianity. Followers of Jesus Christ believe that he shed his blood to pay for the sins of humanity, and Joseph Smiths revelations built on this concept of ultimate sacrifice to repay a transgression. The Mormons believe that some deeds are so offensive to God a person can only be saved from eternal damnation by shedding their blood. The Mormon influence on modern Utah practices can still be seen as it pertains to blood atonement -- Utah is the only state in the nation that lets a condemned murderer choose death by firing squad to allow for the ultimate atonement for the ultimate crime.

But the Mormons took blood atonement even further. From the religions earliest days, Smith and Youngs secret police had been a band of men sworn to follow the orders of the Prophet with unquestioning loyalty. Known as the Danites, or the Avenging Angels, the men helped keep the faithful on the straight and narrow through threats and intimidation -- and should the sinner need salvation, the Danites were only too happy to help him atone.

The belief in blood atonement was frequently espoused from the Mormon pulpit. There are sins that men commit for which they cannot receive forgiveness in this world, or in that which is to come, preached Brigham Young on September 21, 1856. I know that when you hear my brethren telling about cutting people off from the earth that you consider it strong doctrine; but it is to save them, not to destroy them.

Fiery rhetoric like this only served to increase the Gentiles fear of the Saints. While Danites committed crimes against innocents, most of those crimes -- while inexcusable -- were committed by men whose motives were probably more in line with a sociopath than a Saint. In addition, many of the sermons were quoted out of context or incompletely, leading readers to draw erroneous conclusions that suited the authors purposes.

After the publication of Gunnisons book and other more inflammatory works by apostates, or fallen-away Mormons, nearly every murder in the Utah territory was blamed on blood atonement and the secret police sworn to obey Brigham Youngs orders without question. These Danites were more myth than reality, but the mere idea that they existed kept Mormons and Gentiles in Utah obedient to Youngs directives.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to this day denies claims that sinners were ever slain through Church-ordered blood atonement, but numerous claims have been made by various sources, some more reputable than others, that threats to the hierarchy were saved through their spilled blood.

In 1853, as a replacement for the first Gentile judges who had been run out of the territory in fear for their lives, Leonidas Shaver arrived in Salt Lake City and was initially accepted by and acceptable to the Mormons. It is reported in several works that at length a sudden quarrel occurred between him and Brigham Young... One night he retired in his usual health, and the next morning was found dead in his bed. The Church authorities ordered a thorough investigation, and the Coroners jury of Mormons decided that he died of some disease of the head, wrote newspaper reporter J.H. Beadle in his book Life in Utah (1870).    

While the Mormons asserted that Judge Shaver was an opium addict who died from withdrawal, the only witness who was ever examined by federal authorities claimed that he had been poisoned, adding that she had heard Brigham Young say: Judge Shaver knew too much, and he dare not allow him to leave the Territory.

In 1855, a trapper named Babbit encountered Brigham Young and a bodyguard near Salt Lake City. According to Babbits friends, the trapper tussled with Youngs bodyguard and was subsequently arrested in the city and held without charges or bail for several weeks. Shortly after his release, Babbit was headed east from Salt Lake City when he was set upon by English-speaking Indians and slain. When Young was advised of Babbits death, he responded with typical disinterest: He lived like a fool and died like a fool. When officers undertake to interfere with affairs that do not concern them, I will not be far off. He undertook to quarrel with me and soon after was killed by the Indians.

A year later, the Tobin party of emigrants led by a man who unsuccessfully courted Brigham Youngs daughter, Alice, was set upon by painted Mormons and managed to flee with their lives. The party reported that not a single arrow had been shot at them -- despite the common knowledge that the Utes and Paiutes in the area had no more than a half-dozen firearms among them. Several people in the party were wounded by bullets, however.


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