Mormon apostle Pratt suffered a violent death at the hands of a cuckold

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.

This post also was published in Currents, the Standard-Examiner’s digital-only section on politics and culture. For more information on Currents, call 801-625-4400.


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16 Responses to Mormon apostle Pratt suffered a violent death at the hands of a cuckold

  1. Pete says:

    Excellent article. While I have yet to completely understand the spiritual laws behind polygamy, I do believe that the LDS church has suffered a great deal of unwarranted hostility because of this practice. These were basically good people who entered into a marriage covenant with God. Were there issues? Of course, but on the whole the stories that have been passed down for the last 130-150 years about these families have been more positive than not. We should never condem that which we do not understand. But then that is what bigotry is all about, isn’t it.

    • tom says:

      “on the whole the stories that have been passed down for the last 130-150 years about these families have been more positive than not”

      That all depends on where your getting the stories you have read Pete. If you broaden the scope of your reading you will find a whole lot of stories about polygamy that are not so positive, and a great deal of them come from the plural wives themselves.

      Great article by the way, I always very much enjoy Mr. Gibson’s well researched and written articles on Mormon history.

      I think the age old lesson here is – don’t be messin with a jealous drunks wife!

  2. Derrel Marksworth says:

    How is this anything but an affair and a kidnapping?

  3. Bob Becker says:

    Another chewy history piece. And one that triggered a few notions not specifically linked to the history, per se.

    For example, the so called unwritten rule regarding retaliating against someone who seduced a wife. All kinds of nasty assumptions built into that way of thinking, such as the presumption that if there was a seduction, it must necessarily have been the man who did the seducing, and not the woman. Or not both of them drawn equally to a mutual canoodling. Had to be the guy, preying on the weaker sex. Lot of that POV still around, I’m afraid.

    Then there’s this: 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.

    For those of a non-believing turn of mind, that seems like evidence for the non-efficacy of prayer. [Much like Gov. Perry's praying nearly four months ago when about 10% of Texas was suffering severe drought that god would end it and bring rain. Nearly four months later, something north of 80% of Texas suffers from severe drought and Perry is still prayin' up a storm --- but alas, a dry one.]

    And Doug suggests that Pratt may have had a premonition of his martyrdom. And that he more or less welcomed it? I remember, dimly, discussions in college among Catholics about martyrdom and whether the Jesuits, for example, going to Canadian Indian tribes to all but certain torture and death were seeking to become martyrs, and whether if they were, that was a sinful thing to do. Could the same be wondered about Pratt? If he knew danger was coming, so to speak, was he not obligated [on the general principle of preserve life] to take reasonable precautions to avoid martyrdom?

    I can understand churches, even nations, treating as saints [so to speak] those who lose their lives as collateral damage in pursuit of some higher and noble purpose. But to seek it? To court it? I don’t know….

    Mr. Pratt seems to have been a complex man. And given that the husband involved in this tale was by all accounts a sorry piece of work [a violent drunk], I don’t have much trouble believing Pratt considered what others thought a seduction to be instead a rescue.

    • Fred Barrett says:

      I do not think Mr Pratt had any doubt that had he taken the pistol his death would have been justified in the eyes of the law and those who administered it in Arkansas in those days.

      Mr. Pratt knew he had no choice but to place his trust in his God. There is no doubt that the individual who offered Mr. Pratt a pistol was most likely concerned over the public opinion of him not being willing to find the two defendants guilty by refusing to hold court proceedings. Isn’t this somewhat suspect because he knew that either way he chose he would fall into disfavor, especially, if he had held the proceedings without a jury and made the decision as to guilt or innocence. At least he had a conscience and refused to be the instrument of death but turned that over to Mr. Pratt himself along with his enemy.

      The history of the saints is very clear. They did not have many friends who would not sell them out to their enemies from the first moment that Joseph Smith Jr declared that he had beheld a vision of God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. From that point forward the demons were out to kill him and anyone who was converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They finally accomplished their goal in 1844 at Carthage, Illinois.

      One could add to the list of states, Arkansas that denied the saints their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

  4. Stephan Bennett says:

    I really do not think there is any right reason whatsoever under God to be banging another man’s wife, whether Mormon or no.

  5. Wayne Dequer says:

    There is clearly more than one way to look at this incident.

    One way, is McLean a alcoholic and wife beater, who tried to have his wife falsely tried to have his wife committed to an insane asylum. My memory is Parley Pratt tried to intervene at this point to calm the situation. When this failed McLean kidnapped their children and deserted his wife. What was she to do? It seem possible that Parley Pratt at this point took Eleanor as a plural wife to provide for and protect her.

    Another viewpoint could be that Parley Pratt was romantically interested in Eleanor from the beginning and maneuvered the situation so her husband would desert her. Then he and Eleanor conspired to steal the McLean children.

    However, it is notable that non-Mormon judge in Arkansas, in spite of the common law tradition, was sympathetic to Eleanor and Parley Pratt and tried to help them get away.

    Interesting history.

  6. Sam says:

    Jesus never acknowledged, condoned, commanded or otherwise recognized polygamy nor polyandry. The New testament highly acknowledges and favors monogamy and fidelity. That is really where the rubber meets the road because Pratt purported himself to represent Jesus Christ as one of his “Apostles”. McLean, a terrible drunkard abusive husband? Perhaps it is all absolutely true, BUT no matter his justification, Pratt married a woman whom he was fully aware had a living husband. Jesus said, “By their fruits, you will know them.”

    • Fred Barrett says:

      You are right, “Jesus never acknowledged, condoned, commanded or otherwise recognized polygamy nor polyandry” you must add to this polygyny. He did recognized plural marriage, by latter-day revelation. For a person to make statement such as this is maybe taking authority they do not have.

    • Kris says:

      Have you ever read the Old Testament?

  7. Erick says:

    I don’t know how you paint the matter as anything other than an affair, notwithstanding (like so many real life examples) that the ethical considerations of the matter are obscured by the Character McClean. Whether it was justified is really at this point a matter of personal conjecture. Under the circumstances I don’t personally have much of a problem with it (“it” being Pratt’s romantic involvement with an otherwise married woman). Still I do struggle to get my mind around this story and the theological implications of Mormonism in the context of the sanctity of Marriage, and how this was just pious Pratt excercising his “faith”.

    Where things get fuzzy for me is when we try and press the matter farther by making Pratt into a “martyr”. We try and argue that he was killed for his testimony, when that is just not the case. Any connection of his murder to his testimony or rank within Mormonism appear as only superficial arguments to camoflage the fact that he was murdered over a woman. Mormonism is simply incidental to the fact that he angered McClean by “stealing his wife” (regardless of whether that act was “justified”) and insulting a man’s honor under the alleged frontier code of ethics, as per the article.

    • Sam says:

      Amen to most of that, Erick. (I have a big problem with Pratt calling himself an “Apostle of Jesus Christ” and then getting with some guy’s wife.) But yes, it is the theological implications that are at stake here; Not whether McLean was a good man or bad man. These considerations serve but only to obscure the real issues and cause good LDS to stumble as they then have to loosen the definition of what is a true “martyr”. Another example of Mormonism’s redefining of terms. But let’s make no mistake; Parley Pratt’s death has nothing whatever to do with him “giving his life for the Cause”. He could more easily have recued the woman, without marrying her. This LDS business called polygamy and polyandry was so entirely ungodly, the manner in which it was played out; And by so-called “Apostles” and “Prophets” no less. Deplorable.

  8. Pingback: Interview with the authors of new Parley P. Pratt biography | The Political Surf

  9. Mary Ellen Elggren says:

    If you view marriage only through the context of sexual attraction and fulfillment, which is usually an essential element in monogamist marriage, then I can understand many of the gut reactions above. It does, however, show a lack of understanding of plural marriage as practiced by the early Mormons.

    One of the requirements of plural marriage for the men was respect for the women in their families. Any kind of abuse was not tolerated and sexual contact was at the discretion of the woman.

    Many women entered plural marriage for the sole purpose of being sealed into the covenant and gaining the protection and benefit of being in a functional and organized family. Assuming that Eleanor McComb McLean married Parley Pratt for sexual reasons may be entirely incorrect. It seems clear that she truly was in desperate need of protection, not only from an abusive husband, but also from her own family who would be party to the kidnapping of her children. The fact that the judge in the case, after talking to Eleanor and Parley, sided with their plight, says a whole lot.

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