Isaac Russell, New York Times journalist, PR specialist for the Mormon Church

(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here) At this year’s Mormon History Association conference in Calgary, two contributors, Michael Harold Paulos and Kenneth L. Cannon II, continued an annual practice of producing a keepsake booklet for attendees. This year’s booklet provided an abridgement of the Reed Smoot U.S. Senate hearings from Feb. 20, 1907, as well as a short feature on essays and correspondence provided by newspaperman Isaac Russell, both a Mormon and leading journalist in the first 20 years of the 20th century. In the booklet, the authors recount how Russell used his influence to recruit former President Theodore Roosevelt to harshly criticize a much publicized “magazine crusade” against the Mormon Church.

As the authors mention, Russell, whose jobs included a stint at the New York Times, was frustrated enough to write letters to magazines such as “Pearson’s,” “McClure’s,” and “Everybody’s,” who engaged in muckraking against the Mormons. In 1911, Russell, in what proved to be a brilliant public relations stroke, recruited the still very popular former President Theodore Roosevelt to criticize the muckrakers. In a long letter to Roosevelt, Russell claimed that the attacks against Mormonism in the magazines, which largely dealt with allegations of polygamy and theological power, originated from older stories, promoted by the anti-Mormon Salt Lake Tribune, which had circulated the accusations that Roosevelt — while president — backed Sen. Reed Smoot’s continued tenure in the Senate in exchange for the Mormons delivering the electoral votes of Utah, Idaho and Wyoming to Republicans in 1908.

Russell’s letter, carefully crafted, was designed to strike nerves within Roosevelt that were still boiling. The former president had always been angered by the allegations that he had bartered Smoot’s tenure for votes. For Roosevelt, Smoot not being a polygamist was enough for him to stay in the Senate. He was not convinced by charges from the Salt Lake Tribune and others that Smoot would be a puppet for Mormon President Joseph F. Smith while in the Senate.

To add pepper to Roosevelt’s anger, Russell reminded the former president that the current round of muckraking against Mormons in 1911 derived largely from charges made by Frank J. Cannon, who edited the Salt Lake Tribune when the corruption charges against Roosevelt were aired. At the time, Cannon, an excommunicated Mormon from a very prominent church family, was the leading critic of Utah, Joseph F. Smith and the Mormon Church. His series of charges in “Everybody’s” magazine would become a best-selling book and later he would make a fortune as a traveling anti-Mormon lecturer.

Roosevelt was no fan of Cannon, so placement of his name worked well for Russell’s purposes. The former president penned two letters to Russell. One was eventually published, as a letter to Russell, in “Collier’s Weekly” magazine, edited by Russell’s “good friend and sometimes-mentor, Norman Hapgood,” quotes the keepsake.

In the letter, Roosevelt, fervently and with outrage denies the accusations made in the muckraking pieces, calls the writers slanderers and also writes, “The accusation is not merely false, but so ludicrous that it is difficult to discuss it seriously. Of course, it is always possible to find creatures vile enough to make accusations of this kind. The important thing to remember is that the men who give currency to this charge, whether editors of magazines or the presidents of colleges, show themselves in their turn unfit for association with decent men when they secure the repetition and encouragement of such scandals, which they perfectly well know to be false.”

In an explanatory note after Roosevelt’s letter, Russell was able to get some digs in at the Salt Lake Tribune, which he accused of being run by a small group of persons feeding defamatory information about the Mormons to muckraking magazines across the country.

It was a brilliant feat of public relations produced by Russell, a very public limited approval of the Mormons by a popular former president and a public slap in the face to major magazines as well as to Cannon and other opponents of Russell’s church. As the authors of the keepsake write, it wasn’t all true. “Although Reed Smoot worried that Colonel Roosevelt would turn on the Mormons if he knew the truth about the continuation of polygamy, almost all other church leaders embraced” the Roosevelt letter.

The reaction from the muckrakers were less cordial. In Collier’s Weekly,” Harvey J. O’Higgins, who co-wrote Cannon’s anti-Mormon book, “Under the Prophet in Utah,” wrote a response to Roosevelt. It includes, “The machinery and discipline of the Mormon Church make the most perfect and autocratic church control of which we have any exact record. Because of this perfection of control, the new polygamy has been successfully hidden for these many years,” wrote O’Higgins.

With Roosevelt as an ally, however, Russell, and the Mormons had scored a battle victory over their adversaries. Church leaders were so pleased with Russell’s contacts and influence that he became, as the authors put it, a “secret press bureau” for the LDS Church in New York City, all while a full-time reporter for the New York Times. The keepsake provides examples of Russell’s Mormon press duties, including a couple of letters to his own newspaper, the Times, that he ghosted under the names of Eastern States LDS Mission presidents Ben E. Rich and Walter P. Monson.

In 1915, Russell received a personal letter from Joseph F. Smith, where the prophet tells Russell, “It is my sincere desire that you should continue as you are doing in defense of the truth and justice and the honor of your people, and always remember from whence you came while mingling with men who know not the truth but are given to following the customs and sins of the world.”

What a fascinating bit of history. Paulos and Cannon merit credit for bringing these candid tales, warts and all, of history, theology, journalism, spin and otherwise to interested readers.

The booklet keepsake, “Mormonism and the Politics of the Progressive Era,” is privately published by DMT Publishing, Salt Lake City. Copies are being provided to university libraries in Utah and other parts of the nation as well as to the LDS Church Historical Department.

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6 Responses to Isaac Russell, New York Times journalist, PR specialist for the Mormon Church

  1. Mark Sparkman says:

    Thanks again for your contributions to my knowledge of Utah history, Doug. I’m currently reading “The River of Doubt–Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey” by Candice Millard. I recommend it.

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  3. Bob Becker says:

    Interesting bit of LDS history. Especially the TR connection.

    TR’s been drawing historians’ attention of late. I’m reading the recently published The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan. Title’s a bit overdone, but it’s the story of the greatest wildfire in American history, and TR and the creation of the national forests, western politics, political corruption, bravery on the ground…. and it’s lack. Very interesting read, and given this match dry season in the same western forests, timely. Good story, well told, but then, it’s kind of hard to tell a tale with TR as a central character and not have it be interesting. Thomas Beer in The Mauve Decade called him “an apprentice harlequin,” which wasn’t far off the mark at least as far as his style was concerned. Someone quipped that when TR attended a wedding, he wanted to be the bride and when he attended a funeral, he wanted to be the corpse. But at the center of things, no matter what.. He was immensely popular in his day, which popularity Russel clearly understood and exploited.

    Teddy was also one hell of a leader, which quality seems to be woefully thin upon the ground in DC these days.

    Good column.

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  5. Doug Gibson says:

    Thanks, I’ll check that book out.

  6. Doug Gibson says:

    Another TR book I’ll put on a list to read.

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