To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here: To read an interview with the authors of the new biography of Pratt, click here. On May 13, 1857, LDS Apostle Parley P. Pratt was murdered near Van Buren, Ark., released early in the day by a judge who feared Pratt would be lynched. About 12 miles from the jail, Pratt was caught by a small posse led by Hector Hugle McLean, the still legally-married husband of Pratt’s polygamous wife, Eleanor McComb McLean Pratt. McLean stabbed Pratt three times in the chest, then returned and shot him in the neck. Mortally wounded, Pratt was lucid for more than an hour. According to Zealey Winn, a blacksmith whose home was near where Pratt was slain, said the 50-year-old apostle bore his testimony of his faith in the LDS Church and Joseph Smith and proclaimed himself a “martyr to the faith.”
To me, Parley P. Pratt is easily the most fascinating early LDS church leader. I’ve just finished-reading the first scholarly biography of Pratt, “Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism,” Oxford University Press, 2011, by Terryl L. Givens and Matthew J. Grow, and plan to review it for the Standard-Examiner. In this article, I want to focus on Pratt’s death. Not only was it a martyrdom (Pratt died for what he believed in) it was also largely a justifiable homicide in the mores of that time period. There was barely an effort to try McLean, and he was quickly exonerated. More so, many U.S. newspapers that covered Pratt’s murder lauded McLean for killing Pratt and one even suggested that President James Buchanan appoint McLean as territorial governor of Utah.
There’s no doubt that McLean was a brutal man. He was an alcoholic, a wife beater and falsely tried to have Eleanor committed to an insane asylum. But he was also a cuckold. Pratt had married his wife, Eleanor, after McLean — angry that his wife had been baptized LDS while Pratt was supervising the San Francisco missionary efforts — had taken the couple’s children and returned to New Orleans to his in-laws’ home. They were as angry at Eleanor’s conversion as her husband was.
Eleanor wasn’t the first plural wife Parley had married who wasn’t divorced from her husband, but she was the first whose husband — an immigrant from Scotland — was a believer in the extralegal tradition of a husband being allowed to kill his wife’s seducer. As the authors write, this “right” received sympathy all over the nation (even Utah had codified it as “mountain common law”) but it was especially strong in the southern United States. Passion, spur-of-the-moment murders by cuckolds were generally legal. Planned murders were considered crimes, but as Givens and Grow write, “…juries generally acquitted a husband even if he had obviously planned the killing.” And, “as a southerner, McLean was deeply influenced by notions of honor and manhood.”
Whether one agrees that Pratt had a right to marry Eleanor McLean, it’s clear that he made a serious error in judgment in taking on this wife. He had made an enemy who would take any opportunity to kill him. Had Pratt stayed in Utah, he likely would have been safe. But that was not Pratt’s style. He was a missionary, and in late 1856 he began a trek east on another LDS mission. Eleanor traveled part way with him, then detoured to New Orleans to her parents’ home. By design, she deceived them, claiming she was now a disbeliever in Mormonism. However, as soon as she was alone with the children, she took off for Utah without telling her family.
But more on that later: In December 1856, as Pratt was on his mission, the New Orleans Bulletin published a widely distributed feature article on the Pratt/McLean love triangle. Not surprisingly, Pratt was the villain. As Givens and Grow relate, the Bulletin wrote that “Eleanor intended to take her children to Utah, ‘to be thrust into the opening throat of the grim visaged and horrible monster, who sits midway upon the Rocky Mountains, lapping his repulsive jaws, and eager to devour new victims as they become entangled in his foul, his leprous coils.’”
Whew! As the authors relate, there’s little doubt that such rhetoric encouraged McLean to begin a cross country manhunt of Pratt, ostensibly to take him back to Missouri, where he was still officially a fugitive from justice.
By March 1857, Pratt was on the run, just avoiding being caught by McLean in St. Louis. However, by mid March, LDS leaders thought Pratt had escaped detection and assumed he would return to Utah. That was not Parley’s intention, though. Reckless, he decided to go south and try to help Eleanor — who was on the lam with her children — get to Utah with him. It was a fatal mistake. There was realistically little chance Eleanor could make it to Utah with her three children and Pratt, who was being hunted by McLean with the help of the feds and major newspapers, was a walking target the closer he got to McLean and the south. On May 6, McLean caught Eleanor, the children, and later Pratt, in Creek territory, west of Arkansas.
Eventually they were taken to Van Buren for trial. The cases against both Pratt and Eleanor were weak. They were charged with stealing Eleanor’s children’s clothes. In fact, although the crowds outside the courthouse at times advocated lynching Pratt and Eleanor, Judge John B. Ogden, after interviewing Eleanor, found himself more disgusted with McLean than the two defendants. Ogden believed Eleanor’s account that McLean’s drinking and wife-beating — not Mormonism — were responsible for his marital woes.
Later, in court, McLean drew his pistol and pointed it at Pratt. Bailiffs prevented him from shooting the LDS apostle. At this point, Ogden postponed court proceedings. Aware that Pratt could very well be lynched, Ogden dismissed charges and released Pratt in the pre-dawn hours, hoping he could escape. Pratt was offered a pistol and knife from Ogden but refused, saying, “Gentleman, I do not rely upon weapons of that kind. My trust is in my God.” A few hours later Parley P. Pratt was dead at the age of 50.
Givens and Grow write that Pratt had a foreboding he would never return alive from his last mission. He told his plural wife, Ann Agatha in August 1856, exactly that. Pratt and Eleanor, who traveled part way with him, certainly planned her attempt to get her children from Hector. Perhaps Pratt was thinking of how dangerous that attempt would be when he spoke with his wife. Pratt’s refusal to arm himself as he was released from Van Buren may indicate that he had already accepted his pending martyrdom. The LDS apostle was a man from Acts, ready to preach the Gospel to the most hostile crowds and be stoned as Stephen if the Lord saw fit to have it happen. It is ironic, though, that prior to his last mission, LDS Prophet Brigham Young promised Pratt “he would return to the Saints.” He never did. A monument marks the area where Pratt was murdered although his remains have not been recovered.
Notes: Eleanor McComb McLean Pratt returned to Utah and taught school until her death on Oct. 24, 1874. She remained a Latter-day Saint. In 1870, her youngest son joined her in Utah and taught at her school. I often wondered what happened to Hector McLean, who for a while boasted of his deeds in the press. I did a Google search of “Hector Hugle McLean” and within a few minutes I believe I tracked him down. By following a link — discovered at an anti-Mormon website — to the 1867 New Orleans parish death archives (Read) it reveals that a Hector Hugle McLean died on (ironically) Oct. 24, 1867 in New Orleans. The archive lists McLean as being only 30 when he died, but that is certainly an archival error. It’s possible that the death notice mistook McLean’s entrance into the United States as his birth date. McLean was born in 1816. The fact that one McLean son decided to visit his mother a couple of years after his dad’s death also seems reasonable. I’m convinced this is McLean, whose death remains unreported by virtually all accounts of Pratt’s life and murder. Despite the notoriety and even adulation that Hector McLean received for killing Pratt, today he maintains small part in a much bigger figure’s life story. Pratt’s great-great grandson, by the way, is Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.