JOHNSON: Convicting the Mormons (2023)

Convicting the Mormons: The Mountain Meadows Massacre in American Culture by Janiece Johnson. The University of North Carolina Press, 2023. Paper, ISBN: 978-1-4696-7353-0. $29.95.


On September 11, 1857, a group of Mormons and Paiutes led by John D. Lee massacred members of an emigrant train – men, women, and children – at Mountain Meadows, Utah. On March 23, 1877, Lee was executed by firing squad at the site of the massacre, the only individual ever convicted for his role in the atrocity. Scholars have written at length about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and Convicting the Mormons does not offer another book-length account of the event. Rather, Janiece Johnson takes a very different and very welcome approach and analyzes what the massacre meant to people in the United States. Johnson, one of the editors of the two-volume Mountain Meadows Massacre Collected Legal Papers (University of Oklahoma Press, 2017), examines four specific tropes that appear in the narrative people developed about the Mormons and Mountain Meadows: savagery, repudiated civilization, relinquished manhood, and despotic theocracy. Studying how people perceived both the massacre and the Mormons, she writes, “enables a more complete understanding of why the Mountain Meadows Massacre became an effective stumbling block to full enfranchisement and acceptance of Latter-day Saints as Americans in a violent nineteenth century” (22).

Johnson begins by examining how savagery became an important element of the Mountain Meadows Massacre narrative. Many people, she notes, argued that the Mormons were more culpable than the Paiutes because Mormons “chose to repudiate civilization and revert toward savagery” (24). Some of the earliest accounts framed what occurred as a massacre perpetrated by Native Americans. John D. Lee and other Mormon participants did their best to place blame solely on the Paiutes. When the truth emerged, many people focused on Mormon savagery. Prosecutors frequently invoked this trope during Lee’s first trial, even as they sought a conviction from a jury composed mostly of Mormons. This strategy did not work and the trial ended in a hung jury. However, Johnson observes, prosecutors “utilized a powerful discourse that worked to further separate Mormonism from civilization in the eyes of many Americans” (50).

In the aftermath of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, people frequently indicted the Mormons as “white hell-hounds” (51) who had committed an atrocity “without parallel in human history” (51). This language, Johnson argues, reinforced people’s beliefs that Mormons were neither capable of civilization nor Americanization. Furthermore, the prosecutors in Lee’s trials, as well as the narrative people created about the massacre, emphasized “the non-Whiteness of the Mormons as a way of contesting their citizenship as they highlighted their sameness and their inherent duplicity” (53). Many massacres occurred in the nineteenth century, including the Bear River Massacre (1863), Sand Creek (1864), and Wounded Knee (1890). However, despite these and many other massacres and atrocities, “Mountain Meadows continued to be described as the most egregious or outrageous monstrosity ever to blight the land” (55). Indeed, for many people, Mountain Meadows “stood as a singular atrocity in the abundance of nineteenth-century American violence” (58).

In addition to depictions of the Mormons as savage hellhounds, Johnson also explores how people in the nineteenth century understood Mormon manhood. Mountain Meadows “proffered compelling evidence that Mormon men were unfit as American citizens because they had relinquished their manhood” (75). Indeed, many people saw Mormon men as, alternatively, lacking manhood or hypermanly. When they thought about Mountain Meadows, people often juxtaposed cowardly Mormon men who massacred women and children with the exemplary manhood of the emigrants who fought to defend the women and children in the emigrant train. People in the nineteenth century U.S. embraced multiple ideals of manhood, Johnson notes, but Mormons subverted both martial and restrained manhood. Furthermore, “the emphasis on the protection of women and children meant many Americans could only see Mormon failure” (96).

The prosecutors at Lee’s first trial aspired to make Mountain Meadows the downfall of Mormonism. To do this, they had to implicate Brigham Young in the massacre. Accusations against Young were almost completely absent in the early investigations. That said, it did not take long before people began linking Young to Mountain Meadows, mostly because of their beliefs about Young’s despotic and draconian power. Newspapers echoed the prosecutors in “whose indictments of Young and Mormonism increased in seriousness and frequency as the trial progressed” (103). Although the prosecution could not implicate Young or convict Lee in his first trial, they nonetheless ensured that Young’s alleged involvement became a key part of the Mountain Meadows narrative. Lee’s second trial was very different. For one, the jury was all Mormon, the trial was shorter and largely ignored by the national press, and U.S. Attorney Sumner Howard “explicitly stated his intention to leave the larger issues of the Mormon Question alone and focus on prosecuting Lee” (113). The guilty verdict by an all-Mormon captured the country’s attention, although some people, including Lee, believed the Mormon hierarchy conspired to make him the scapegoat. Lee’s execution “satiated very few individuals” (125). Unsubstantiated accounts continued to link Young to the massacre. Efforts to implicate other Latter-day Saints revealed that the desire to punish other Mormons for the massacre endured. Ultimately, Johnson concludes, tying Young to Mountain Meadows was “the prosecution’s most enduring success” (135).

The Mountain Meadows narrative continued to thrive well after Lee’s execution and Young’s death, but some anti-Mormon attitudes began to soften, or at least moderate. In the years following the U.S. Senate’s decision to seat Reed Smoot, “the American public was not suddenly wholeheartedly supportive of the Mormons, but many were now willing to reserve judgment” (142). However, alongside this trend, Johnson scrutinizes the resurgence of interest in Mountain Meadows in the twenty-first century. In 2002, for example, the New York Times featured a headline that would not have raised any eyebrows in the nineteenth century: “New Accusations that Brigham Young Himself Ordered an 1857 Massacre of Pioneers” (143-144). Mormons, she concludes, “are often seen as “a ‘moral minority’ on the one hand and viewed as hiding the potential to commit horrific atrocities on the other” (149).

Convicting the Mormons offers an engaging account of the narrative people in the nineteenth century created about the Mountain Meadows Massacre and how this narrative both drew on and influenced people’s perceptions of Mormons. Johnson demonstrates throughout the book that many people were more interested in condemning and indicting all Mormons, rather than punishing the perpetrators of the massacre. Thus, the desire to use Mountain Meadows to condemn and discredit all Mormons hampered efforts to secure justice for the victims of the massacre. Johnson’s assertion that the violence of the Latter-day Saints at Mountain Meadows needs to be considered alongside the long history of U.S. violence in the nineteenth century is a point that deserves additional attention by scholars, especially those of the Civil War era. Finally, given the prominence of LDS politicians, including, but not limited to, Mitt Romney, it is worthwhile to consider how people today, much as people did during the nineteenth century, continue to use Mountain Meadows as a way to demonize all Mormons. Anyone interested in Mormon history, nineteenth century U.S. history, and religious history, will find this book to be excellent reading.


Evan C. Rothera, the president of H-Net Humanities and Social Sciences Online, teaches history at the University of Arkansas—Fort Smith.

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