In anti-Mormon literature’s ‘golden age,’ even phrenology, or the Mormon skull, was examined

(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here.) Terryl L. Givens’ “The Viper of the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy” (Oxford University Press) is perhaps the best work detailing how the evolution of an inexpensive press — and a consistent popular yen for scandal — led to a “golden age” in “anti-” books in religion, notably literature that attacked the Catholics and the Mormons. As Givens explains, the public taste was not geared to theological debates, so these literary attacks on Catholicism, and to an extent Mormonism, were political in nature. The faiths were cast as acting contrary to U.S. patriotism or various ideals. Both faiths were also guilty of crimes of the salacious sort, usually against women. “Danites,” the Mormon defense group that assisted Joseph Smith, were also features in many of the books, usually as a paramilitary group that assisted Brigham Young and other Mormons in murder, kidnapping, or activities against the U.S. government.

There is no end to the fascinating library of anti-Mormon literature — from long Victorian-type novels, to action serials, to detective works, to western novellas. Frankly, the output was ubiquitous. Givens provides a list of titles, “The Courage of Captain Plum,” “The Mormoness; or, the Trials of Mary Maverick,” “Elder Northfield’s Home, “The Mormon Prophet and His Harem” … and many, many more. It’s a fascinating genre, and the majority of these books can be accessed and read on the Internet. The term “Harem” is significant. In his book, Givens argues that “Orientalism,” the effort by Western persons to define Middle East or Asian culture — was a prominent feature in anti-Mormonism of the 19th century. For example, the word “harem” to describe Young or other polygamists, and the use of “Danites” to prop up the leader of the “harem.” In one novel, the antagonist is referred to as the “Attila of the Mormon Kingdom.” (While a polygamous lifestyle can be applied to Middle Eastern culture, as Givens notes, the analogy falls apart as life in Utah and within Mormon polygamy is studied. One example — divorce for a Mormon women in Utah was easy to achieve.)

Like the “sinister china-man” of nativist literature, Mormon men were alleged in many of the literature of having the mystic talents to mesmerize or hypnotize their victims, usually female, with an intense glare. Givens relates one piece of literature that allows the dastardly Mormon men to even hypnotize the fathers of the girls cast into polygamy.

The section in Givens’ book on the how the pseudoscience of phrenology factored into anti-Mormonism was fascinating primarily because it required a deliberate disassociation of the U.S. and British roots of most members of the young, 19th century Mormon faith. It’s an extension of “Orientalism,” applying a sinister tinge to the unpopular Utah-based religion.

A paper was presented at the New Orleans Academy of Sciences in 1861 titled, “Effects and Tendencies of Mormon Polygamy in the Territory of Utah.” In Givens’ book, we read the findings of U.S. Army assistant surgeon Roberts Bartholow, who argues that a “new race” is being created in Utah.

Bartholow writes: “… there is, nevertheless, and expression of countenance and style of feature, which may be styled the Mormon expression and style; an expression compounded of sensuality, cunning, suspicion, and a smirking self-conceit. The yellow, sunken, cadaverous visage; the greenish-colored eyes; the thick protuberant lips; the low forehead; the light, yellowish hair, and the lank, angular person, constitute an appearance so characteristic of the new race, the production of the polygamy, as to distinguish them at a glance. …

Such pseudoscience dissipated somewhat after the railroad linked Utah with the rest of the nation, and visitors to Salt Lake City failed to see the “differences” that Bartholow noted. Depictions of Mormon countenances were left to satires, such as Mark Twain’s riffs on Mormon women in “Roughing It,” or to Oscar Wilde, who as Givens notes, said of Mormons, “They are … very, very ugly.”

Yet, the condescension and bigotry that allowed phrenology a place at the table in anti-Mormonism is not completely gone. Later in “Vipers …,” Givens notes with contempt this claim by acclaimed Harold Bloom, who Givens writes, had “learned to tell the difference between certain Mormons and most Gentiles at first sight.” Bloom, Givens adds, noted “something organized about the expressions on many Mormon faces as they go by in the street.”

Givens’ book is well worth reading for those interested in the cultural perceptions of Mormonism as well as the growth of the press, as well as books and novels, in the 19th century. It can be purchased here. Even as technological changes moved much of the propaganda and exploitation press to other venues — film, the Internet, cable TV “reality” series and documentaries — what makes these “exposes” of Catholicism, Mormonism, or any other currently unpopular “-isms” is the public’s fascination with that which is considered criminal, anti-social or at odds with American values. The arguments, be they religious or some other topic, are less important than the “sizzle” which sells the steak, which allows the consumer to be properly outraged, titilated or most important, allowed to feel superior to a subject and persons they know virtually nothing about.

In “Viper …,”  Givens quotes Catholic sociologist Thomas F. O’Dea’s wry observation that “‘The Book of Mormon’ has not been universally considered by its critics as one of those books that must be read in order to have an opinion of it.”


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16 Responses to In anti-Mormon literature’s ‘golden age,’ even phrenology, or the Mormon skull, was examined

  1. Wayne Dequer says:

    I especially enjoyed your Thomas O’Dea quote. While attending UC Santa Barbara in 1970, I researched all articles about Mormons in the New York Times and in Harper’s Weekly from early 1856 to mid 1858, for a paper on opinions on the Mormons and the Utah War. While a few of the stories have disappeared, 90%+ are still in circulation in the 21st century. Thanks for your article.

  2. Bob Becker says:

    Let us not forget Zane Grey’s “Riders of the Purple Sage” (1912), which more or less pioneered the pot-boiler western novel and whose villains were leering LDS religious leaders lusting after unwilling women.

    On phrenology and allied pseudo-sciences applied to groups of people, Stephen J. Gould’s “The Mis-measure if Man” is very good.

  3. David Naas says:

    About those hypnotic eyes… I have seen an excerpt from an old silent movie in which “The Mormon” enters a couple’s home without knocking, and fixes his mesmerizing stare on the wife – for what heinous purpose, only Brigham Young would know :) .

    • Doug Gibson says:

      That silent film may be “Trapped By the Mormons,” David. I had an opportunity to see that film about 20 years ago at The Tower in SLC.

    • Duwayne Anderson says:

      When you mention “mesmerizing stare” it reminded me of the character “Satan” in the Mormon temple ritual who glares out into the audience (I think he pointed his finger, too) and solemnly declares that anyone who doesn’t live up to the covenants they make will be under His power.

      The facial grimaces, vocal tone, and penetrating glare of the actor were terrific. It’s been years since I’ve been to the temple. Do they still have that part in the play that’s acted out during the temple endowment?

  4. Tom says:

    Great stuff Doug – keep em coming.

    Reminds me of when I was a young soldier in the late fifties and early sixties stationed in Georgia and Kentucky. On several occasions, when people learned I was a Mormon boy from Utah, they would inquire about my horns! They were serious! Some even wanted to feel my head to see if I had residual stumps where the horns might have been cut off.

    All of this old folklore about Mormons is actually pretty funny and only points out how ignorant lots of people can really be about any perceived differences in beliefs. I mean anyone who has been around us Mormons very long knows that the only physical anomaly we have in common is our pointed heads, which coincidentally helps keep our tin hats on straight.

    • Doug Gibson says:

      That’s certainly an interesting anecdote from your days in the service, Tom. Thanks for sharing it.

  5. Justin says:

    The LDS church has been attacked by Anti-Mormon doctrine for years. One who is sincere and truly reads, will see that Anti-Mormon doctrine misquotes leaders of the church and spreads lies. One must study and be open to truth to realize that the LDS church is true. If you believe everything you hear from anti-Mormons then the church will look evil. That is a tool of Satan to draw people away from the true church. Only the sincere at heart will study and realize the truth.

    • bolok says:

      Justin said: “One must study and be open to truth to realize that the LDS church is true.”

      Of course not ‘all’ truth; just the force fed truth from the ‘brethren’. A sincere search of ‘all’ facts will lead one to the understanding that the LDS church is a fraud that’s driven by money and power. If you need a tip-off point take a look at the history and writings of Ann Eliza Young… or continue to bury your head in the sand while spouting worthless axioms.

  6. Adam says:

    All religions have an “anti-” something associated with them. Whether it is Mormon, Catholic, Baptist, etc., there will always be a group to contradict their teachings. It is your faith in your religion which will allow you to have peace in your life. How we tolerate and respect each other’s religion is what will allow our society to live in harmony. The freedoms given to us by our forefathers allow us to practice that religion peacefully. No, I am not some treehugging hippie. I am just someone who understands that it isn’t my place to judge anyone.

  7. Puff Perney says:

    As an agnostic, I have enjoyed studying (among others) the history of the LDS church and specifically its founder Joseph Smith. Since Mormonism is a recent invention, the research is easy and supports my personal religious thesis that: “People will believe anything, especially if born in to it.”.

  8. Samuel says:

    Really Puff? An invention huh? Was the Protestant Reformation an invention? Seriously? Pretty weak argument. And by the way I am a Mormon,my church was not “invented”as you state. While the Mormon church is different in some ways from the Jewish faith,we share some things in common with them,and other churches. We all worship a real God,in spite of if people like you,or anyone who thinks like that,would refer to Mormonism as an invention. It is a valid church and Im sorry but there isnt anything you can do about it. So I guess whether yo like that fact or not Puff,you will have to deal with it. Might want to come up with a better argument next time.

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