Utah/Crime and violence

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Was 19th century Utah a hotbed of violence, murder, and lawlessness?


Critics charge that Utah was a hotbed of violence, murder, and lawlessness, and that this can be attributed to LDS doctrine and practices.

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here


This is not to say that there was not some violence in frontier Utah—of course there was, given the place and time. But, as one researcher noted:

the point here is not to claim that no vigilante crimes by angry Mormons protecting their interests ever occurred in territorial Utah. The point is that overattention to such activities obscures the fact that they were very rare compared to elsewhere in the West, where no concerted effort to undermine a popularly supported government was going on as in Utah [by the federal government versus the Mormons].[1]


Crime and violence

Critics charge that Utah was a hotbed of violence, murder, and lawlessness, and that this can be attributed to LDS doctrine and practices. (Click here for full article)

  • Castration in the 1800's
    Brief Summary: I have read about a group of men (LDS) that went around castrating immoral men (who were also LDS) with the express permission of local church leaders. These events supposedly happened during the Brigham Young's administration. It is claimed that Brigham was aware of and approved of this and may have given the order. What can you tell me about this? I read that missionaries who selected plural wives from female converts before allowing church leaders to select from them first were castrated. (Click here for full article)
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  • Crimes critics allege to have been "worthy of death" in the 1800's
    Brief Summary: Critics expand to idea of blood atonement to include a long list of crimes that were alleged to be "worthy of death." (Click here for full article)
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  • Aaron Dewitt letter
    Brief Summary: A letter from Aaron Dewitt is used by critics to highlight Utah's supposed "culture of violence" (Click here for full article)
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Question: Did Brigham Young create a 'culture of violence' in 19th century Utah with his incendiary speeches?

The available evidence shows that beyond a few well-publicized murders, Utah was a relatively murder- and violence-free community

Brigham Young is often accused of creating a 'culture of violence' with his incendiary speeches. That accusation would be hard to prove, given the comments below. He makes reference, in 1866, to a man who exhibited the garments to some non-members. Brigham's suggestions to the audience is interesting:

There is also a man down the street who tried to exhibit the endowments to a party who was here. You will see what becomes of that man. Do not touch him. He has forfeited every right and title to eternal life; but let him alone, and you will see by and by what will become of him. His heart will ache, and so will the heart of every apostate that fights against Zion; they will destroy themselves. It is a mistaken idea that God destroys people, or that the Saints wish to destroy them. It is not so.[2]

This claim is generally based on taking anti-Mormon accounts uncritically, and relying on anecdotal evidence. Winnowed to its kernel," writes historian Thomas Alexander, "Bagley's argument [like Abanes' and most other critics in this vein] rests on the proposition that Mormon Utah was a society of officially sanctioned and publicly practiced violence." But, does the data reflect this? Alexander continues:

Statistics of murders for the nineteenth century are difficult to come by, as I learned with the help of Kathryn Daynes and Craig Foster. The available evidence shows, however, that beyond a few well-publicized murders, we have every right to believe that compared with surrounding territories, Utah was a relatively murder- and violence-free community. Historians regularly cite such murders as the Potter-Parrish homicides of 1857 and the killing of J. King Robinson and S. Newton Brassfield in 1866 as evidence of Utah's violent character. Instead of making generalizations from juicy anecdotes, historians ought to use statistical and comparative methodology to interpret these events.

Although we do not have good statistics on murders for the nineteenth century, we do have statistics on lynchings. Unfortunately, the series begins in 1882 rather than in 1847. Lynching is defined as the taking of life by mob action without legal sanction. It does not include such things as murders committed in robberies or other such violent acts, but it would include murders perpetrated for such reasons as blood atonement. These statistics reveal that during the late nineteenth century Utah was one of the least violent of the American West's nineteen states and territories. With 7 lynchings—one of an African American—between 1882 and 1903, Utah had a better record than all the other jurisdictions except Minnesota (6) and Nevada (5). Montana (85), Colorado (65), New Mexico (34), Arizona (28), and even Iowa (16) exhibited a great deal more violence….

Although we lack a thorough comparative study of murders in Utah and other western areas, the available statistical information contradicts Bagley's [and the other critics'] impression of Utah society. The best evidence we have at this time is that Bagley is wrong when he insists that "what made Utah's violence unique in the West was that it occurred in a settled, well-organized community whose leaders publicly sanctioned doctrines of vengeance and ritual murder." In fact, barring further evidence to the contrary, the best evidence we have at this point is that Utah was one of the least violent jurisdictions in the western United States.[3]

Contemporary observers that were not writing hostile anti-Mormon polemics recognized the truth of this as well

This portrayal goes counter to the accounts of contemporary observers and the understanding of historians who have investigated the matter of crime in nineteenth-century Utah. In fact, if anything distinguished Deseret from elsewhere in the West, it was its reputation for well-established and fair courts (administered by LDS bishops) and a remarkably low level of violence—vigilante, criminal, or otherwise.[4]

Legal historian D. Michael Stewart underscored this when he remarked, "extralegal violence was rare compared to that found in other frontier communities."[5]

Non-member Franklin Buck described the difference between southern Utah and his own town of Pioche, Nevada in 1871:

In Pioche [Nevada] we have two courts, any number of sheriffs and police officers and a jail to force people to do what is right. There is a fight every day and a man killed about every week. About half the town is whisky shops and houses of ill fame. In these Mormon towns there are no courts, no prisons, no saloons, no bad women; but there is a large brick Church and they keep the Sabbath—a fine schoolhouse and all the children go to school. All difficulties between each other are settled by the Elders and the Bishop. Instead of every man trying to hang his neighbor, they all pull together. There is only one store on the co-operative plan and all own shares and it is really wonderful to see what fine towns and the wealth they have in this barren country. It shows what industry and economy will do when all work together....The Devil [i.e., the Mormons] is not as black as he is painted.[6]


  1. Eric A. Eliason, "Review of: Forgotten Kingdom: The Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847–1896," FARMS Review of Books 12/1 (2000): 95–112. off-site
  2. (1866) Journal of Discourses 11:262. Also in Deseret News 15:315.
  3. Thomas G. Alexander, "Review of Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows," Brigham Young University Studies 31 no. 1 (January 2003), 167–. Citation reads: "James Elbert Cutler, Lynch-Law: "An Investigation into the History of Lynching in the United States," (New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969), 180. On the lynching of an African-American, see Craig L. Foster, "Myth vs. Reality in the Burt Murder and Harvey Lynching," manuscript furnished by the author. I am indebted to Foster for sharing other material on lynching as well." Alexander is quoting from Bagley, Blood of the Prophets, 42.
  4. Eric A. Eliason, "Review of: Forgotten Kingdom: The Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847–1896," FARMS Review of Books 12/1 (2000): 95–112. off-site; citing Dale L. Morgan, The State of Deseret (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1987), 7—27.
  5. Eric A. Eliason, "Review of: Forgotten Kingdom: The Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847–1896," FARMS Review of Books 12/1 (2000): 95–112. off-site citing D. Michael Stewart, "The Legal History of Utah," in Utah History Encyclopedia, ed. Alan K. Powell (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1994), 323.
  6. Franklin A. Buck, A Yankee Trader in the Gold Rush: The Letters of Franklin A. Buck, comp. Katherine A. White (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1930), 234–36; cited by W. Paul Reeve and Ardis E. Parshall, "review of Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, by Will Bagley," Mormon Historical Studies (Spring 2003): 156.

Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims

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