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The Trials and Deaths of John D. Lee and Brigham Young

I wanted to continue Ken Burns’ discussion of the aftermath of the Mountain Meadows as part of his series, The West (available on Netflix.) In Part 6, he discussed the trial of John D. Lee. At the beginning of part 6, he begins with this introduction.

By 1874, Washington had launched still another assault on the Mormons who had sought sanctuary in Utah. And the prophet who had brought them there would be forced to choose between saving his Church, or sacrificing his spiritual son.

Following several discussions about the Indians and federal officials, Burns turns to discuss Mormons a couple of decades after the massacre happened. The quotes below come from about the 50 minute mark of Part 6.

“I feel like a father with a great family of children around me in a winter storm, and I am looking with calmness, confidence, and patience for the clouds to break and the sun to shine, so that I can run out and say ‘Children come home.’ I am ready to kill the fatted calf and make a joyful feast to all who will come and partake.” (Brigham Young)

For 30 hard years, Brigham Young had attended to every detail of life in northern Utah where under his leadership, 150,000 Latter-day Saints had settled in his desert sanctuary. Young had tried to fashion a distinct society based on communal economics, polygamy, and one-party politics all run by the church. But now he felt besieged. Congress was once again trying to assert control over Utah. A new law gave federal courts, not Mormons, jurisdiction over criminal cases.

Stuart Udall, former Secretary of the Interior, “The federal officials in Utah really wanted to nail Brigham Young. They were trying to reduce his power over the people.”

Narrator, “One of the first actions of federal prosecutors was to arrest Young’s devoted follower, John D. Lee, and put him on trial for murder. Twenty years earlier, a group of unsuspecting emigrants travelling from Missouri and Arkansas had been attacked by a combined force of Paiute Indians and Mormon settlers at a place called Mountain Meadows.

John D. Lee had opposed the attack at first, but in the end he went along with it and more than a hundred men, women, and children had been slaughtered without mercy. It had been the darkest event in Mormon history.”

Udall, “John D. Lee was one of my great grandfathers, and he, until recent times was considered the leader who carried out the Mountain Meadows massacre. Actually he was about third in line in the chain of command of a militia that carried this out. He later then was sent to southern Utah in kind of out of the immediate arm of Brigham Young, but there was a father-son type relationship between those two men.”

Narrator, “For years Young tried to protect his protege from capture and prosecution for his role in the massacre sending him to exile in the Arizona wilderness near the Grand Canyon. It was a rough, solitary existence. Lee named his new home Lonely Dell. Prosecutors offered him money and leniency if he would implicate others in the killings. ”

“It is told around for a fact that I could tell great confessions and bring in Brigham Young and the heads of the church. But I will not be the means of bringing troubles on my people.  For this people is a misrepresented and cried down community. Yes the People scattered and peeled. And if at last they did rise up and shed the blood of their enemies, I won’t consent to give them up.” (John D. Lee)

When Lee’s trial began, orders went out that no Mormon should testify. The four gentiles on the jury found Lee guilty, but all eight Mormons held out for acquittal. Across the nation, the case became a symbol for everything Americans despised about the Mormonism. Pressures  mounted for the government to strip Brigham Young and the church of authority in Utah. A second trial was scheduled.

Udall, “I think a decision was made, well if we sacrifice Lee, maybe the pressures will go away, because at the second trial, the word was sent down to the Mormons that this had to be completed, and they should vote for conviction. He was singled out as the perpetrator, and Mormons even put it in their Sunday School lessons, which bothered my family for a long time, and he was in effect scape-goat.”

John D. Lee, seated on his coffin

Narrator, “This time, all the members of the jury were Mormons.  All voted to convict. No one else who took part in the massacre was ever brought to trial. Under Utah law, Lee was allowed to choose whether he was to be shot, hanged, or beheaded. He chose to face a firing squad. On March 23, 1877, John D. Lee was escorted to the site of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, seated on a coffin and photographed. He made arrangements for each of the two wives who remained true to him to get a copy of the picture. Then he spoke to the little crowd who had come to see him die.

I have but little to say this morning. Of course I feel that I am upon the brink of eternity. I feel as calm as a summer morn. I am ready to meet my Redeemer. I do not believe everything that is now being taught and practiced by Brigham Young. I do not care who hears it. I studied to make this man’s will my pleasure for 30 years. See now what I have come to this day. I have been sacrificed in a cowardly, dastardly manner.  What confidence can I have in such a man. I have none, and I don’t think my Father in Heaven has any.

Then Lee shook hands with his executioners, handed his hat and overcoat to a friend. His last words were to the firing squad. ‘Center my heart boys’, he said. ‘Don’t mangle my body.’

Lee lying in his coffin just after his execution

Five months later, Brigham Young was seized by terrible stomach pains. For days surrounded by his huge family, the patriarch floated in and out of consciousness. On August 29, he called out the name of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon faith, then Brigham Young, the man who had led his people to the West and shielded them from their enemies for three decades, died.

Even in death, he remained in charge. Following precise instructions left in his will, his remains were placed in a stone vault overlooking the magnificent city he had built in the desert. Now his followers would have to face the world without him.

“I can’t undertake to explain Brigham Young to your Atlantic citizens or expect for you to put him at his value. Your great men eastward are to me like your ivory and pearl handed table knives: more shiny than the inside of my watch case, but with only edge enough to slice bread and cheese and all alike by the dozen one with another. Brigham is the article that sells out west with us. Between a Roman cutlass and a beef butcher knife, the thing to cut up a deer, or cut down an enemy every bit as well.  You that judge men by the handle in the sheath, how can I make you know a good blade?” (Jedidiah M. Grant)

What are your thoughts?


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