Utah/Crime and violence/Castration in the 1800's
This page is based on an answer to a question submitted to the FAIR web site, or a frequently asked question.
- 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.
The castrated males were guilty of sexual assault or incest, not merely competing for a woman's affections.
Despite these sexual crimes or perversions, Brigham and other Church leaders did not approve the action taken by the local members.
Critics try to use these as an example of a "tip of the iceberg," problem, implying that many such extra-legal castrations occurred in Utah, and that the Church or its doctrines or leaders are somehow to blame. Such a characterization is unfair.
Given that in the 19th century there was a common tendency among non-Mormons for "frontier justice" to be carried out extra-legally, especially in the case of sexual crimes, its occurrence in areas far from central Church control on one or two occasions is not particularly surprising.
Critics (often relying on D. Michael's Quinn's treatment) have over-simplified and sensationalized this event. Critics claim that Bishop Warren S. Snow forcibly castrated twenty-four-year-old Thomas Lewis, whose “crime” was wanting to marry a young woman that was desired by an older man as a plural wife. Critics also claim that Brigham Young wrote in a letter his approval after the fact in 1857.
The full story gives a somewhat different picture of these events. Warren Snow's biographer explains the matter thusly:
- These events occurred during the Mormon Reformation, when inflammatory rhetoric called for harsh punishment for sin and crime. For Brigham the time for the actual implementation of such punishment was not yet, and partly hyperbole designed to stir a sinful population to improvement. Some listeners like Snow took things literally.
- The rumor that Lewis was being punished for competing against an older polygamist is likely false. Kathryn Daynes gives another example where Brigham Young advised a young woman to marry a single, young man against her parents wishes that she marry a older polygamist. 
- Even if there is an element of truth in point #2, Lewis was being transported to the penitentiary for a sexual crime. He was not attacked simply for desiring a marriage.
- While being transported at night, Snow and his gang secretly intercepted Lewis and carried out the castration.
- Joseph Young (Brigham's brother) of the Presidents of the Seventy later learned about the incident and was incensed and “entirely disapproved” of it.
- When Brigham Young heard about Lewis' sex crime and the punishment, he reiterated his stance that the time for such measures was still in the future, and not to be implemented in the here-and-now.
- Brigham did not think Warren Snow did what was right, but felt Warren was “trying to do right” and that he should be sustained in his calling as Bishop.
- Warren wanted Brigham to write a letter to members in Sanpete county to explain Warren’s action. Brigham declined to do, indicating that that would make matters worse. “Just let the matter drop, and say no more about it and it will soon die away amongst the people,” Brigham counseled.
- Snow's life and experience had given him a "violent and vengeful world view," which helps in understanding his motivation to attack and maim Lewis.
- Federal marshals and judges were aware of the Lewis incident, and sought Snow's capture. However, they were eventually instructed by political leaders in Washington to let the matter drop. It was a Gentile political decision not to prosecute Snow for his actions.
A second such event?
One other event from journals in 1859 reports an unnamed bishop supposedly castrating someone because they wanted to marry their girlfriend. Snow is named by one source in the 1859 account; given Brigham's reaction to the first event, it seems unlikely that Snow would do the same thing again.
His inclusion in an account of the second event may well be due to conflation, which may demonstrate how unusual such events were. It may be that rumor and frontier "urban legend" confused the Snow story with the passage of time.
As a presiding Bishop, Snow became increasingly unpopular with members in his area, and by 1860 was accused of malfeasance with tithing funds. Snow admitted to mismanagement, but denied any attempt to willfully defraud the Church. (The same patience for Snow's weaknesses was also manifested in this case; he was forgiven by his congregation and the general authorities, even while they still insisted that he bore responsibility for his mismanagement.)
The Lewis affair was much talked about among Snow's critics in 1860; it may be that the rumor mill was already in motion by 1859.
There are no names given for the 1859 "event," and it is not known if this was just rumor, or who the participant(s) and victim were.
Hosea Stout diary
There is an account in Hosea Stout's diary which reads:
- Saturday 27 Feb. 1858: "This evening several persons disguised as Indians entered Henry Jones' house and dragged him out of bed with a whore and castrated him by a square & close amputation."
Jones was later killed, and the anti-Mormon newspaper Valley Tan printed an affidavit from Nathaniel Case claiming that Jones' bishop had plotted his death with several other members. If true, Jones was not attacked for trying to marry someone, but for adultery with a prostitute. Reportedly, the murder of Jones and his mother sprang from accusations of incest.
There is no evidence linking the attack on Jones to anyone but local members. Joseph Hancock was found guilty of second degree murder in 1890.
- [note] John A. Peterson, "Warren Stone Snow, a man in between : the biography of a Mormon defender," Master's Thesis, BYU (1985) 112–122. off-site
- [note] Peterson, 126–133.
- [note] Nathaniel Case, affidavit of 9 April 1859, sworn before John Cradlebaugh, Judge of Second Judicial District, Utah, USA. See The Valley Tan (19 April 1859).
- [note] Richard H. Cracroft, "review of Orrin Porter Rockwell: Man of God, Son of Thunder by Harold Schindler," Brigham Young University Studies 24 no. 3 (1984), 389.
- [note] Andrew Jenson, LDS Church Chronology: 1805–1914 (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 1914), entry for 22 March 1890. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)