Despite protests over the Pratt murder, Utah also allowed cuckolds to kill seducers

(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here) The murder of Mormon apostle Parley P. Pratt, slain by the husband of a woman Pratt had taken as a plural wife, was national news in 1857. Most media sympathized with the killer, cuckold Hector McLean, who literally chased Pratt across much of the country before catching him and killing the LDS leader in Arkansas. The small Mormon media defended Pratt, pointing out that McLean was a drunk and wife-beater long estranged from his wife.

However, defenders of Pratt also, not surprisingly, criticized the motives of murderer Hector McLean, who was never legally punished. The strongest published condemnation of McLean came from the wife who abandoned him for Pratt, Eleanor McComb Pratt. One argument was that to kill Pratt, or to spend a long time seeking Pratt and finally murdering him, was the work of a brutal, godless man consumed by thoughts of revenge, hate and killing.

There is a certain irony to the Utah Mormons’ outrage over Pratt’s murder by the cuckold McLean, though. Through the latter half of the 19th century in Utah, cuckolds who murdered seducers of wives were routinely found not guilty of murder, and in fact applauded by the Utah media. Historian Kenneth L. Cannon II has written an interesting history “Mountain Common Law: The Extralegal Punishment of Seducers in early Utah,” published in the fall 1983 issue of Utah Historical Quarterly. Two early cases researched by Cannon are interesting. In 1851, Manti resident Madison Hambleton discovered his wife was having an affair with Dr. John Vaughan. After learning of the affair, one Sunday Hambleton spent hours at his Mormon church meetings, then sought out Dr. Vaughan, and then shot and killed him. He immediately surrendered and was taken to Great Salt Lake City. At the court of inquiry, Hambleton was represented by Mormon prophet Brigham Young! Writes Cannon, “The supreme court of the territory heard the case and acquitted Hambleton. Those in attendance enthusiastically voiced their approval of the court decision.”

Defenders of Hambleton may have argued that he killed Vaughan in a fit of passion upon learning of the adultery. I have no idea if that is true but it was an argument for adultery-related murders of that era. However, a more publicized case of a cuckold murdering a seducer could not claim “heat of passion” as a defense. Also in 1851, Mormon leader Howard Egan, returning to the Salt Lake Valley after guiding gold miners to California, discovered his first of three wives, Tamson, had been unfaithful with a man named James Monroe. Indeed, Tamson had given birth to a child by Monroe. Monroe, aware that Egan would want to kill him, fled the area. Egan pursued Monroe, and around the territorial border, found him with a wagon train and killed him. As Cannon recounts, a church investigation cleared Egan. At his civil trial, “Egan’s defense was handled by W.W. Phelps, a prominent Mormon, and George A. Smith, a Mormon apostle.”

During final arguments, Smith’s words are important, as Cannon writes, “they display the sentiments of Mormon Utah society at the time.” Smith was blunt and to the point. Criticizing English law, that applied only civil damages to adultery, Smith said, “The principle, the only one, that beats and throbs through the hearts of the entire inhabitants of this territory, is simply this: The man who seduces his neighbor’s wife must die, and her nearest relative must kill him!” It took the jury only 15 minutes to acquit Egan of a murder, that not unlike McLean’s of Pratt, was clearly premeditated.

Later in his article, Cannon posits that acquittals of cases where men killed seducers of their wives and daughters may have been grounded in efforts to protect wives, mothers and daughters from seducers in rural areas. Also, it’s likely many Utah territory residents were dissatisfied with penalties for seductions, which ranged from one to 20 years, plus fines, for a crime that was difficult to prove. Cannon notes that there was no evidence that Egan’s wife, Tamson, resisted Monroe’s sexual advances. Utah Mormons, Cannon adds, heavily publicized the Egan murder case, perhaps as a warning to outsiders to stay away from Mormon women?

Back to the Pratt murder by McLean. Patrick Q. Mason, writing in the excellent book of essays, “Parley P. Pratt and the Making of Mormonism,” 2011, The Arthur H. Clark Company, notes the power of cultural context of “honor.” Honor “is a communally constructed characteristic, as opposed to virtue or integrity.” As a result, a father or husband lost his “honor” among the community if a wife or daughter was seduced. Legal remedies might imprison or fine the seducer, but they did nothing to restore honor to the father or cuckold. To regain honor, the offended man had to murder the seducer. That law doomed Pratt, no matter his religious motivations or the evidence that McLean was a brutal, drunken wife-beater. As the Hambleton and Egan cases show, Utah shared traits of the honor’s cultural context.

Utah’s commitment to “mountain common law” would last for decades, long after Pratt’s similar murder in 1857. As mentioned, the media usually agreed with the harsh punishment. After a the seducer of a restaurant owner’s daughter was shot by father William Hughes, the Deseret Evening News publshed this approbation, writes Cannon: “… Public opinion in these mountains declares that a man who seduces a woman ought to pay the penalty with his life; and her nearest of kindred should bring him to account.”

“Mountain common law” as a legal remedy was first challenged by the anti-Mormon Salt Lake Tribune, probably due more to antipathy to the church than a real commitment to legal reform. However, as Utah, and the LDS Church leadership, sought better relations with the “gentile” world, mountain common law, as in other parts of the nation, started a slow, consistent fade legally. By 1888, the Utah Supreme Court reject the arguments of a cuckold convicted of killing his wife’s seducer because the killer, Wilford H. Halliday, had waited 24 hours before murdering the seducer. The “Egan rule” no longer applied.

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11 Responses to Despite protests over the Pratt murder, Utah also allowed cuckolds to kill seducers

  1. tom says:

    The early Mormon attitude on this is very much like the modern day 11th Century Muslim fundamentalists! A guy, his wife and his son were just convicted over in California last month for an “honor” killing of his 20 something daughter because she took up with a man they did not approve of.

    I think this is a situation that is also not necessarily from the 1800′s Utah. I remember a case from about 1964 – in Ogden – where my next door neighbor, who was separated from his wife at the time, broke in to her house in the middle of the night and shot the guy she was in bed with. The guy was able to run out of the house and the neighbor shot him again for good measure. Although the wife’s paramour was not killed, he was critically wounded. The Ogden Police refused to arrest or charge the shooter – because it was acceptable to shoot a man you caught in the act with your wife – even though they were separated at the time.
    A few months later he was back in the house with the wife and abusing her like nothing ever happened.

  2. PolishandProud says:

    So a man was “called” to practice polygamy, even if it meant taking a woman who was already married, but if the husband came after him the church approved the revenge killing. Is that it? If so how long before the church denies this ever happened?

  3. Wayne Dequer says:

    Didn’t you just cover much of this topic on August 30, 2011?

    I have a similar comment. 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. McLean was merely exercising his common law rights to kill Pratt.

    However, it is still 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.

    Still interesting history.

    • Doug says:

      Wayne, I was interested to learn recently that mountain common law was accepted legal precedent in mid 19th century Utah and that its principles had been endorsed by George A. Smith. That sort of prompted this post. Also, I confess that Parley P. Pratt is my favorite historical figure of Mormonism.

  4. Myth Buster says:

    Interesting spin. How does Cuckold apply to McClean, seduced by the adulterer Parley Pratt? A Cuckolk is tolerant of an adulterous wife; he set out to kill Parley and Mitt likely ha not forgotten or forgiven.
    Brigham Young ordered the killing of the Fancher Baker Party as Vengeance for this saying “Vengeance is mine and I have take a little”; he pulled the Cross down from the memorial site as he said those words.
    Gov Liman Boggs felt Mormons needed to be expelled or exterminated; signing Extermination Order 44.
    Miles Romney was run out of St John’s AZ for perjury; people wanted to deal with him with a gun and a rope.
    Mitt’s father born in Mexico was run out by the Revolution; sing the Mexican Government was a nice touch too; How does that sort of thing happen? Mitt is not eligible to be President and he is the 4th generation sworn to exact Vengeance on this Nation and the Gentile Race.
    Someone please tell him there is only 1 Race of humans on Earth; this nonsense if getting rediculous.

  5. Bob Becker says:

    What I find interesting in all of these cases is the bland assumption that the women involved had no will of their own, no ability to choose or not choose to sleep with someone not their spouse, that all choice was entirely in the hands of the men involved. The women were apparently presumed to be entirely passive. All the decisions were made by the men and the women were presumed it seems helpless to resist.

    • ScottH says:

      Cultures of honor tended to develop in areas where much (or all) of a man’s property could readily be stolen or destroyed by another and where government was incapable of or unwilling to adequately protect a man’s property. A man that failed to exact justice against an offender was not a man at all. Violence and vigilantism were common in these cultures.

      In cultures of honor, women and children were considered to require the protection of a man, since it was thought that they were incapable of self support. Their personal agency was not a primary concern.

      If a man that was responsible for a woman or child failed to properly control that person, his honor was at stake. Being under a man’s ‘protection’ meant that the dependent was something akin to property, albeit, with somewhat higher status.

      This also meant that adult males carried a much higher level of responsibility than women or children. Thus, an adulterer was far more culpable than an adultress. The cheated husband would take care of her at home (after punishing her lover).

      It is appropriate to consider the ways in which our modern sentiments are an improvement over cultures of honor. However, we must also recognize that members of those cultures were as much bound by those cultures’ social constraints as we are by the social constraints of our culture.

      If we are to understand these people at all, we need to see them as trying to do their best to work within the parameters a culture that they could only marginally change individually. It may be self satisfying to climb on a high horse and view these people as hopelessly corrupt rubes, but that will not lead to better understanding.

      Besides, we have no idea how we would have individually behaved had we ended up in one of those cultures.

      • Steve says:

        Scott, it’s fine to try to understand why people do bad things, for example, the motives for murder. The culture milieu that causes fundamentalist Muslims to beat, stone, or splash acid in someone’s eyes is interesting too. It’s well to be aware of its underpinnings and history.

        But if you are suggesting that understanding should lead to any level of acceptance or toleration I disagree. The brutality that can be Sharia Law is beastly and wrong no matter its foundation. Mountain Common Law was wrong in the nineteenth century just as it is wrong now.

        Well and good to understand. Wrong to fail to condemn.

  6. Preston says:

    I’m not sure if you’re aware, Doug, but the transcript of G.A. Smith’s court defense is part of the first issue of the Journals of Discourses. It would appear the church’s leadership very much wanted to send a warning; in any case, it wanted the incident’s outcome publicized. It was quite an eye-opener when I started reading the JDs about 15 years ago; I appreciate the more comprehensive history here.

  7. Pingback: 13 March 2012 | MormonVoices

  8. Doug S says:

    I wonder if Brigham Young’s belief in the doctrine of blood atonement (and its popularity among early Mormons in general) fed into the idea that an adulterer not only deserved to be killed, but needed to.

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