(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here) In the Winter 2013 “Journal of Mormon History,” there’s an interesting article from Robert H. Briggs, a lawyer and historian from California. “A Seething Cauldron of Controversy: The First Trial of John D. Lee, 1875,” reminds us that lawyer’s spin and arguments designed more to convince the public than the jury box are not recent inventions; such practices were popular 138 years ago in cases argued in locations as obscure as Beaver, Utah.
Lee, an “adopted”child of the Mormon prophet Brigham Young, was the only person on trial for the Mountain Meadows Massacre, which occurred in 1857. The crime was horrific; women, children and families slaughtered by men who had promised the victims safety. Other than the practice of polygamy, it was the main source of national hatred and disgust for the latter 19th century Mormons of Utah.
Yet, as the first trial approached, the prosecution was well aware that a conviction of Lee was going to be impossible to obtain. The majority of the jurors would be Utah Mormons, and they would acquit Lee, who still enjoyed Young’s support and was consequently seen by most Utah Mormons as a symbol of the federal government’s persecution of their faith.
As Briggs relates in his article, “Knowing the power of the federal onslaught that was to descend upon Mormon Utah in the 1880s, it is surprising to consider just how weak, frustrated, and marginalized the Liberals (anti-Mormons) felt in the mid-1870s.” The only success so far for the anti-Mormons had been preventing Utah from becoming a state. In terms of amending the territory’s leadership, state capitol, state constitution, state boundaries, taking away Mormons’ property, and so on, most had been failures. As Briggs relates, some reasons were overzealous crusading officials, including a judge, who were recalled by federal officials, and a split between the Utah Liberals themselves over how to combat polygamy.
With that track record, it was no surprise that so much time had passed before a trial for the Mountain Meadows Massacre, or that the one scapegoat to be tried, Lee, was unlikely to be convicted. As Briggs notes, the one insider prosecution witness was former LDS Bishop Philip Klingensmith, once of Cedar City. While he had insider knowledge of the massacre, he had long been hounded out of the Mormon Church, and was considered a traitor by Utah Mormons.
Instead of winning a conviction being the prosecution’s chief objective, Briggs notes that the architects of the Lee prosecution, William C. Carey, U.S. Attorney in Utah Territory, and his assistant prosecutor, Robert N. Baskin, de-emphasized the usual focus of a trial — “the guilt or innocence of the accused” — for a broader initiative that focused on the actions of militia commands stretching throughout Utah. The initial target, opines Briggs, was George A. Smith, a counselor in the church’s First Presidency as well as an apostle. As Briggs notes, “If they could implicate Smith, it would be but a short step to implicate Brigham Young himself.”
History records that neither Smith nor Young ever paid a legal price for the Mountain Meadows Massacre, but it wasn’t for lack of effort by Carey and Baskin, two fervent “Liberal” anti-Mormons of that period. Both prosecutors were fully aware of the national interest in the Lee trial, and they argued their case with an eye toward the press coverage that accusations would garner. Baskin even had the good fortune to be lodging with Frederic Lockley, editor of the Mormon-hostile Salt Lake Tribune, who covered the trial.
As Briggs writes, “They (Carey and Baskin) foresaw the political capital they would gain if the evidence revealed the horrors of the massacre, even if the jury failed to convict Lee. The proceeding, as they conceived of it, would be a political show trial. The prosecutors’ specific strategy was to make the Lee trial into a referendum on the tyranny and corruption of the Mormon hierarchy and the fanaticism of its deluded followers.”
And the newspapers rewarded the prosecution for its effort. Here are some news articles accounts from the trial: “Mountain Meadows — The Sickening Story Coming Out … Hints as to the Real Criminal,” Decatur (Ill.) Daily Republican; “If those Mormon witnesses keep telling the truth about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, old Brigham Young may have occasion to wish he had died naturally, when he was sick last winter,” Steubenville (Ohio) Daily Herald; The Morning Oregonian, of Portland, Ore., had banner coverage of Klingensmith’s testimony. The trial gained media steam as it continued.
Baskin’s summary argument for the prosecution was a masterpiece of rhetoric. He ignored the shaky evidence that while Lee was certainly at the massacre, it was by no means proven he was the leader, and instead attacked every male member of the Mormon Church as lacking the manhood to stand up and do what was right. Baskin was arguing that Mormon men were not free agents and would do whatever their church leaders told them to do.
As Briggs recounts, “Later Baskin asked rhetorically why none of the militiamen involved in the massacre had prevented or even protested the killings. Answering his own question, Baskin argued that it was because ‘when they became a member of the (Mormon) Church … they laid down their manhood; they laid down their individuality.”
He was right, of course, but how could the eight Mormon men on the jury accept that rebuke? By voting to acquit, of course.
But an acquittal had been neutralized by the prosecution’s successful media strategy. The winner of John D. Lee’s first trial was the prosecution, with its attack on the Mormon hierarchy in which the massacre had occurred.
It can be argued that the first trial not only sealed Lee’s fate, it paved the way for the taming of the Mormon polygamous empire in Utah by the federal government. A year later, Lee was executed. Abandoned by Brigham Young, without the implied protection of Utah’s leaders, he was quickly convicted and condemned. Not long afterward, Brigham Young died. His successor, John Taylor, spent much of his tenure as Mormon prophet hiding from law enforcement. In little more than 15 years, the LDS Church, facing financial ruin, would make its first renunciation of polygamy with The Manifesto, signed by then-prophet Wilford W. Woodruff.
There were of course many other reasons for the Utah Mormon Church’s slow subjection to the federal government during the last half of the 19th century, but Briggs’ interesting account of the first Lee trial provides evidence that a significant media salvo on the Mormon leaders was accomplished in a Beaver courthouse during July and August of 1875. In the court of public opinion, the Mormons were the big losers.