August 2003

Jessa Crispin

nonfiction

American Massacre by Sally Denton

I distinctly remember the Mormon section of our high school American History class. It lasted approximately ten minutes. In the 19th century, there was a guy, and he started a religion, and so he moved his people across the United States where they kept getting into fights and had to keep moving along. Then he died. Then someone else took over and they moved to Utah. Oh, and they marry lots of women.

Sally Denton’s American Massacre attempts to fill in some of the gaps, but it’s obvious where her biases lie. There are many anti-Mormon books that would agree with her, and many books released by the Church of Latter Day Saints that would try to convince you of the opposite, but there aren’t many even headed histories of the church. In Denton’s book, Joseph Smith is a greedy bastard, Brigham Young is a liar and a thief, John D. Lee is a mass murderer, and the entire religion is based on either a hallucination or a fabrication. Whether any of this is true, it makes for some great reading.

Regardless of who started it, the history of the Church of LDS is a bloody one. The focus of the book is a slaughter of 120 men, women, and children in the Utah territory, the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857. A group of Mormons were eventually tried for the crime, but it could never be proven the Brigham Young, head of the church at that time, was involved. Denton systematically lays out the history of the religion, concentrating on its periods of violence, in order to make a case against the church’s authorities.

Joseph Smith, who founded the religion, organized a group of men called the “Danites,” based on the biblical prophecy of Daniel about the end of the world. This group of men was later called the “Avenging Angels,” and they practiced what is known as blood atonement. According to Denton, “In such a killing of higher purpose, the victim’s blood must be spilled into the earth in order for his spirit to ascend into heaven, the murderer in effect providing the victim with eternal salvation by slitting his throat.” Many Mormons now deny the existence of blood atonement, but the diaries and letters of many followers seem to suggest otherwise. Most of the bloodiest stories in the book are taken from the diary of John D. Lee, one of the highest Danites and the man who took nearly all of the blame for the massacre.

The justification for such violence is that the Mormons were persecuted wherever they went, but Denton blames the church for that. She portrays the settlers as violent, taking over cities, refusing to do business with “Gentiles” as they called the nonbelievers, voting in bloc to elect those friendly to their cause, and basically being bad neighbors. It seems that the citizens had to kick the Mormons out in order to save their cities. During a scuffle in Missouri—during an election, officials attempted to keep them from voting—a riot ensued. Governor Boggs issued “extermination orders” and seventeen men and boys were killed by state militiamen, which is known as the Hauns Hill Massacre. Smith was arrested for his participation and encouragement of the riot, but he was killed by a mob of “Gentiles” before he stood trial. The Mormons were then forced out of other homes until they eventually settled in Utah under the reign of Brigham Young. The stories of their persecution were used as excuses for the blood atonement and for the growing chasm between Utah and the rest of the country.

While all of this build up can begin to read like a textbook—this was done in this year, which led to this happening, which caused this—the writing picks up in part two and beyond. Denton follows the trail of the Fancher train settlers, the richest wagon train in history up to that point, while also recording the growing unrest in Utah. Young stirred up hostilities between the church and the federal government with his sermons. The Utah settlements traded with passing groups of settlers, but once the federal government announced they were sending in troops to deal with the “Mormon problem,” Mormons were forbidden from providing food or provisions to outsiders. When the Fancher party reached Utah, low on food and exhausted, they were turned away from every house. They were then lured to Mountain Meadows where their cattle could graze and they could rest for several weeks with promises of supplies. Instead, only 15 children were spared from the group of 120 to 140 people.

This is where the book gets tricky. The account of the slaughter comes primarily from two sources, the confession of a Mormon involved in the slaughter and the diaries of John D. Lee, the man who was convicted of being the ringleader. Lee claims he following orders, but there is no convincing proof from who those orders came. Two lower officials were blamed but escaped prosecution, and there is no evidence the Young had any direct involvement. There is also no convincing evidence, however, that he definitely did not. Denton would really like the reader to believe that the order came from Young, based on the fact that letters Young claimed he sent to prevent the act were “lost.” Why would the group led by Lee need direct orders not to slaughter the Fancher train unless there was already a standing order to do so? But with such scant evidence, Denton’s insistence that Young had to be involved seems unfair. It should have been left open ended, but Denton insists until the very end of the book that Young’s involvement is the only explanation for what happened that day. She even implicates the governor of Utah for forbidding any study of the incident when the mass grave was uncovered in 1999.

After you get past the history of the church, the book reads as quickly as any thriller. But because of the author’s bias, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend the book. It’s a fascinating look at this part of American history, but one wishes it were more firmly edited. It’s frustrating for the reader to be dragged to places they shouldn’t be by the author, and it detracts from the work as a whole.

American Massacre by Sally Denton
Knopf
ISBN 0375412085
336 Pages