Cephalopods 2 of 4: Devil Fish and Octopuses

By June 30, 2013

Last week I posted on the cuttlefish and a few weeks ago I posted on the upas tree. The upas post was prompted by a line from Edgar Folk: ?[Mormonism] is the Upas tree of our civilization, the octopus of our political life.? [1] Having treated the vegetable, I now turn to the animal.

The octopus has had a long career as a symbol. [2] Beginning in the late nineteenth century and persisting to the present, various factions have used the octopus to represent their (almost always) enemies (see images below and Vulgar Army). [3]

Octopus Examples composite 20130624b 650px

In the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century, one of the most common ways of describing Mormonism was as an octopus. [4] In fact, the phrase ?Mormon octopus? was ubiquitous to the point of functioning more like a name than a figure of speech. [5] In some instances the octopus metaphor appeared only indirectly: Mormonism had ?tentacles? but was not otherwise identified as a cephalopod. [6] The octopus and its metaphoric cousins were almost always pejorative: ?The intelligence of the United States and the religious consciousness of the Nation have long since branded Mormonism as an octopus, an enemy to the public welfare.? [7]

Alfred Henry Lewis?s famous 1911 article, ?The Viper on the Hearth,? illustrates the ubiquity and dominance of the octopus metaphor. The titular metaphor is a viper, there are nine viper images accompanying the twelve-page article, and the words ?octopus? and ?tentacle? are absent. However, the full-page main illustration is of church president Joseph F Smith as an octopus (bottom left in image below). [8]

ViperOnTheHearth composite small 650px

The ?octo? in ?octopus? means, of course, ?eight,? but octopuses, cuttlefish, and/or squids were often elided into an indistinct cephalopod, and many of the creatures below sport more or fewer tentacles and do not necessarily match any known species. An octopus was often called a ?devil fish,? but so were several other creatures, including the American angler (see image below). [9]

AmericanAngler Lophius americanus and octopus 650px

The example below, from 1908, illustrates some of the ways octopus imagery was used.

The Mormon church has often been likened to an octopus, which reaches its horrible feelers into every state in the Union, into Canada and Mexico, and even to the uttermost parts of the earth; which fascinates the ignorant and religious minded as a serpent fascinates a bird, and crushing them within its grasp, draws them to itself and feeds upon them.? [10]

At its most basic and most common, the metaphorical octopus is able to control many things at once. In this sense a Mormon octopus was like all the other trusts and monopolies depicted as octopuses. Note also the non-scientific attributes of the tentacles, the horror at the octopus as a monster, and the penchant for mixed, or at least closely stacked, metaphors.

FrederickOpper DestructiveMonster Puck 1884Feb13 v14n362p377 small 650px

The issue of control appeared again and again. Some polemicists asserted that Mormonism was a ?pernicious and destructive system which is well represented by the devil-fish with its gripping tentacles?; a ?monster octopus, which holds the spiritual, social and political lives of its adherents in its hands.? [11] The Frederick B Opper image above from Puck (1884) shows a poly-pus Mormonism holding a variety of entities captive. [12] A common motif, which I will address in a subsequent post (Part 4), was Mormon political control, illustrated by a Mormon octopus on a map with its tentacles wrapped around geographic locations. [13]

Another aspect of octopus imagery was the spiritual and physical dread it inspired. A 1900 piece spent three thousand words arguing that ?the Mormon church?is a veritable synagogue of Satan, an octopus with eight slimy tentacles?—which tentacles he labeled and discussed, one through eight. [14] As illustrated in the Puck image (1905) below, the Mormon octopus (center, top) was a creature of the dark, hiding in caves and fearing the metaphoric light of truth. [15] I will deal with the octopus?s emotional impact next week in Part 3.

KepplerU TheUnwelcomeLight Puck 56 1905Jan25 crop 650px

I did not find many instances of Mormons using octopuses: a standard ?corruption and crime like a repulsive octopus pushing its Briarean arms into every department of State?; two ironic criticisms of anti-Mormon literature; and a quoted criticism of multiple religious denominations in a small town as ?the octopus that is being put on the community.? [16]

In 1881 George Q Cannon used the octopus like other polemicists used the cuttlefish:

?It is said that when it wants to devour its victims, it ejects an inky substance that fills the whole water around so that it can the more easily capture its prey. It was something in this manner that the press and pulpit endeavored to stifle the truth and to destroy those who testified that they had received it.? [17]

Cephalopod imagery has appeared sporadically in Mormon discourse in the intervening decades, perhaps most famously (among Mormons) in 1929 when Apostle Orson F Whitney preached that wayward children would eventually feel ?the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them.?  More recently, Church President Thomas S Monson has made the octopus the victim in his discussions of spiritual maka-fekes. [18]


[1] ?The whole system is a deification of lust, a glorification of sensualism, religious adultery, ecclesiastical prostitution, earthy, sensual, devilish. It is the Upas tree of our civilization, the octopus of our political life, a travesty on the name of religion, a foul blot on the escutcheon of Christianity, a ?hideous she monster,? as its name implies. It is un-Christian, un-American, a colossal fraud, a mammoth sham, a gigantic humbug, a huge farce, which would be comical if it were not so tragical in its results. It is nothing short of a shame and disgrace and an insult to any Christian community that it should rear its slimy head in that community.? Edgar E Folk, The Mormon Monster: or, The Story of Mormonism (Chicago: Fleming H Revell Co, 1900), 273. Folk is quoted and discussed in Patrick Mason, The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 102-106; Patrick Mason, ?The political irrelevance of anti-Mormonism,? Peculiar People at Patheos, 2012 Aug 22.

[2] See, for example, Hope B. Werness, ?Octopus,? The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in World Art (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006), 297-298; a discussion of octopus imagery at National Humanities Center; and Vulgar Army?s suggested reading list.

[3] Images, left to right:

  • No illustrator listed [there might be a credit at bottom left, but I can?t read it], promotional poster for The Octopus: A California Story by Frank Norris (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co, 1901), 1895-1911, image courtesy of the New York Public Library.
  • Albert Hahn, ?Stemt Rood!? [Vote Red!], poster (107 x 78.5 cm) published by the Sociaal-Democratische Arbeiderspartij [Social Democratic Workers? Party], Netherlands, 1918, courtesy of the International Institute of Social History. The image shows a male worker holding a pick-axe and struggling with an octopus. There is a burning city skyline in the background and the octopus is on a pile of human skulls. At top the poster says ?Stemt Rood!? [Vote Red!]; at bottom it says ?Kiest de Kandidaten der Soc. Dem. Arb. Partij? [Choose the candidate for the Soc. Dem. Work. Party (ie, Social Democratic Workers? Party)]; the octopus is labeled ?Kapitalisme? [Capitalism] and four of the tentacles are labeled, starting above the octopus and moving clockwise, ?Anarchie,? ?Hongersnood,? ?Levensmiddelenwoeker,? and ?Oorlogsleed? [Anarchy, Famine, Food-usury (/-exploitation /-price-gouging), and War-suffering]. Above the word ?der? is the artist?s name and the year, ?Hahn, ?18.?
  • FG Attwood, ?He Gathers Them In: A Pacific Sketch,? Life, 1885 Sep 24, cover. Grover Cleveland as an octopus pulls in what appear to be ships
  • JS Pughe, ?An English country seat and racing stable cost a lot of money — and he knows how to get it,? Puck 50:1286 (1901 Oct 23), centerfold, courtesy of the Library of Congress; higher resolution at the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University. The image shows Richard ?Boss? Croker as an octopus atop New York City Hall. The building flag says, ?N.Y. City Hall?; the placard on the front of the building says, ? ?For my own pocket all the time.? R.Croker.? The caption reads: ?An English country seat and racing stable cost a lot of money — and he knows how to get it.? The tentacles are labeled, starting at top right, clockwise: ?Building Dept.? (holding a building), ?Dock Dept.? (holding unidentified male), ?Ice Trust? (holding male with ice-tongs and block of ice), ?Blackmail? (holding an un-labeled female, a male labeled ?Gambler,? and a male labeled ?Saloon Keeper?), ?Tax Department? (holding an unidentified male in a top-hat), ?Fire Dept.? (holding a fireman)., ?Garbage Contract Job? (holding trash barrels), and ?Ramapo Job.?

For an introduction to octopus imagery, see Michelle Farran?s Vulgar Army blog. For examples of other religious octopuses see: Catholicism (HE Fowler, ?The Papal Octopus,? illustration in Jeremiah J Crowley, The Pope: Chief of White Slavers, High Priest of Intrigue (Aurora, MO: Menace Publishing Co, 1913), 430; ht: Vulgar Army); Scientology (Time 137:18 (1991 May 06), cover; ht: Vulgar Army); Loyola octopus (Calotte 1:12 (Paris, 1906 Nov 30), cover; comment).

I found one positive octopus metaphor (of the persuasion that when we do it, it?s good, but when they do it, it?s bad): ?The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union is an organization born in prayer and based solely on the principles Christ laid down nearly two thousand years ago. ? There are more than 40 definite lines by which this work is systemized and like the great Octopus which sends out many arms, these lines reach out to all climes and people, striving for the uplift of all and carrying the blessed Gospel of Christ, in righteousness and Christian Temperance.? No author listed, ?W. C. T. U. Work,? The Montgomery Tribune, Montgomery City, MO, 1909 May 07 Fri, p 8. Access provided by Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress.

Examples of negative, not-Mormon-related octopuses includes: ?An octopus which we don?t like is the League for Medical Freedom.? No author listed, credited to Collier?s Weekly, 1911 May 06, as reprinted in No author listed, ?Editorial Notes,? The Journal of the Indiana State Medical Association 4:6 (Fort Wayne, IN, 1911 Jun 15): 277 (275-279). ?There is no danger of a great religious octopus coming and eating us up.? Alfred Thom, as quoted in James H Lindsay, Report of the Proceedings and Debates of the Constitutional Convention, State of Virginia. Held in the City of Richmond June 12, 1901 to June 26, 1902, Volume 1 (Richmond: Hermitage, 1906), 781. For context, see Thomas E Buckley, ??A Great Religious Octopus?: Church and State at Virginia’s Constitutional Convention, 1901-1902,? Church History 72:2 (2003 Jun): 333-360. ?The Louisiana lottery, a national scourge, many have affirmed, has come to stay, but the Devil Fish of the Gulf, pierced by the fatal weapons of the National Supreme Court, is in the agonies of retreat or dissolution.? No author listed [Joseph Cook], ?Boston Monday Lectures, Season of 1892, Prelude IV, Rumselling at the World?s Fair,? Our Day 10:57 (1892 Sep): (644-655).

[4] I have performed no quantitative analyses to support the idea that the octopus was one of the ?most common? anti-Mormon metaphors, but, anecdotally, octopuses are all over the place. I easily found many examples with almost no effort (I stopped collecting them because I had more than enough to illustrate my points). Also: many of the references use the phrase ?Mormon octopus? as if it were so common as to not need explanation or commentary (see below), and the Mormon octopus appears in high-profile instances (also see below). My study covers 1820 to 1930, though, in practice, I found no explicit Mormon octopus imagery before the 1870s (though I did find a ?tentacle? in 1860) and very little past 1925. One may find Mormon octopuses in polemical discourse up to the present, but the heyday was in the five decades surrounding 1900.

Various authors have examined the prevalence of the octopus and the polemical relationships among metaphorical octopuses, anti-Mormonism, and anti-trust campaigns. For examples: Kathleen Flake, The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2003), 148-153; Patrick Mason, The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 102-106; Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-century America, paperback edition, (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992), 213-216; Konden R Smith, ?The Reed Smoot Hearings and the Theology of Politics: Perceiving an ?American? Identity,? Journal of Mormon History 35:3 (2009 Summer): 127-128 (118-162); T Edgar Lyon, ?Religious Activities and Development in Utah, 1847-1910,? Utah Historical Quarterly 35:4 (1967 Fall): 304 (292-306); Jonathan H Moyer, ?Dancing with the Devil: the Making of the Republican/Mormon Pact,? Ph.D. dissertation, University of Utah, 2009 Aug.

[5] In multiple instances the ?Mormon octopus? appears without explanation or context. ?It is a pity every voter could not read this book, that public sentiment might be incited against this octopus of Mormonism.—Norwich Bulletin.? No author listed, attributed to the Norwich Bulletin, as quoted in a publicity blurb for A Mormon Wife, 3rd edition, by Grace Wilbur Trout,  (Chicago: Van-American Press, 1912 [1st ed 1896]), ?Appendix: Press Comments,? 102. ?Driven by the shameless open domination of politics by the hierarchy of the Mormon octopus?, an earnest determined body of citizens crowded Grant Theater in Salt Lake City?to make a stand for political liberty and form a new party which cannot be controlled by apostles of Mormondom.? ME James, ?A Great Uprising,? Home Mission Monthly 19:2 (1904 Dec): 37 (37-39). ?[Mrs. Andrews] is clearly still absorbed in the great struggle with the octopus of Mormonism, to which she has devoted her life?.? Grace Coleman Lathrop, ?The Twenty-Second Annual Meeting,? The Twenty-Second Annual Report of the Woman?s American Baptist Home Mission Society, with the Report of the Annual Meeting, held in the Clarendon Street Baptist Church, Boston, Mass., May 2 and 3, 1900 (Boston: SG Robinson, 1900), 20 (13-21). ?I have tried to concentrate our efforts along the line of this work and the fight against the ?Mormon Octopus.?? Mrs. Isaac Morton, ?Report of the Committee on the Welfare of Women and Children,? Appendix 1 in Proceedings of the Twenty-second Continental Congress of the Daughters of the American Revolution (Washington DC, 1913 Apr 14-19), 847. ?From Maryland, by Senator Rayner, 2,176 protests: ?May the women keep on with this grand work,? says the protest, and ?not only until Smoot is expelled or resigns, but until the octopus of Mormonism has been driven from our beloved land.? No author listed (Washington, DC, Jun 05), ?Smoot Protests; What the Various States Say in Petition,? Lewiston Morning Tribune, Lewiston, ID, 1906 Jun 17, p 6. Piece with no mention of octopus except in title: Winifred Graham, ?Octopus of Utah; Shall English Girls Be the Slaves of Mormons?; Widespread Net,? clipping of unidentified newspaper (possibly Daily Express) at Church History Library, under author Winifred Graham Cory; call number, M274.2 O21 1922; with handwritten date, 1922 Jan 10; and visible page number, 7. ??to only tell the simple truth about the infamous octopus of Utah. By truth we have progressed thus far, and by truth we will conquer and place the glorious stars and stripes above the bloody flag of the church.? Edward F Munn (Hooper, Utah, 1890 Jan 18), a letter to the editor printed as ?A Living Participant in the Morrisite Massacre Replies to Charles Ellis,? Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake City, 1890 Jan 26, p 7. ?It [Idaho] has a Democratic Senator who has advertised everywhere that Idaho is in the grip of the Mormon octopus, and that its political and social life are dominated by a criminal hierarchy of polygamists.? No author listed, ?Idaho at Washington,? Morning Oregonian, Portland, OR, 1905 Sep 20, p 8. ?Almost any day now the Mormon question is liable to break out in the Senate. With the trial of Judge Swayne out of the way, the question would likely be ventilated, for there are a score of Senators who have nice little speeches to make upon the so-called Mormon octopus.? No author listed, ?Smoot is to Leave Senate; Will Not Be Permitted to Serve Term,? The Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake City, UT, 1905 Feb 12, p 1.

[6] In the nineteenth century, in some few cases, ?tentacles? seems to have functioned as a ?dead metaphor? (or whatever one calls a metaphor that is still understood but no longer calls to mind the original comparison). I don?t think that is what is happening here. ?Mormonism is a growing power antagonistic to the government of the United States; a false, degrading religion, daily spreading out its tentacles and taking a new grasp upon the life of communities all through the States.? M Katharine Jones Bennett, ?What Mormonism Is,? The Assembly Herald 11:10 (1905 Oct): 518 (516-518); ?There, too, challenging us still, tightening its grip and extending its tentacles, Mormonism presents the most difficult problem in all our work.? Henry L Morehouse, ?Seventy-five Years? work of the American Baptist Home Mission Society,? Baptist Home Mission Monthly 29:6 (1907 June): 220 (219-225); ?It is a small thing that my father was a California forty-niner, who later was inveigled into Mormonism and the Utah Territory, and afterwards escaped at the risk of his life from the tentacles of Brigham Young, and made his way to the effete East, even to Boston.? HC Vernon, ?A Burton Episode,? The Midland Monthly 10:4 (1898 Oct): 369 (369-373); ?Brigham [Young]?would announce at conference time?that brother so and so was called to go on a mission to settle in San Pete Valley, or somewhere else?. In this way Mormonism spread its tentacles in all directions and rapidly possessed the land.? Marcus E Jones, ?Utah,? in Executive Document 6, Part 2: Treasury Department Report on the Internal Commerce of the United States for the Year 1890, Part 2 of Commerce and Navigation?, SG Brock, ed, volume 24 of The Executive Documents of the House of Representatives for the Second Session of the Fifty-First Congress, 1890-?91, 38 vols, (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1891), 844 (841-954); [the fictional Reverend Zitterel to his congregation]: ??And let me tell you that while folks are fussing about what they call ‘economics’ and ‘socialism’ and ‘science’ and a lot of things that are nothing in the world but a disguise for atheism, the Old Satan is busy spreading his secret net and tentacles out there in Utah, under his guise of Joe Smith or Brigham Young or whoever their leaders happen to be today?.? Sinclair Lewis, Main Street (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1920), 330.

[7] Claude M Severance, as quoted in ?Church Goers Aroused over Mormons? Work,? no author listed, New York Times, 1901 Jun 24.

[8] JFSmith as Octopus ViperOnTheHearth 445 cropAlfred Henry Lewis, ?The Viper on the Hearth,? Cosmopolitan Magazine 50:4 (1911 Mar): 439-450. The caption of the octopus image is: ?Smith, aside from being in constant wireless communication with the Almighty, is ?trustee in trust? for the whole wealth of the church, ? which, through its investments in banks, railroads, mines, smelters, and tariff-protected industries, is pushing toward a money domination of the country.? No illustrator listed for the image.

The link is to Mormon Magazine Miscellany, which has a better scan, rather than to the scan of Cosmopolitan. Note that Lewis does not use the word ?octopus? or its synonym; he does discuss trusts at some length. Flake, in Politics of American Religious Identity (p 150), used the image: ?Fear that the Mormons exercised monopolistic power over private and public domains had long dominated negative perceptions of the church. They would not stop with the end of the Smoot hearings, as demonstrated in this 1911 illustration for a series of anti-Mormon articles in Cosmopolitan. Here the octopus church is depicted with tentacles locked around the U.S. Congress and ?The Home? as well as mining, farming, school, and railroads, by which means a temple cult is supported by amassed wealth.?

[9] The image on left is an  unidentified octopus; on right is  Lophius americanus, known as an ?American angler or an American goosefish. According to Wikipedia, in present-day usage, ?devil fish? most commonly indicates a type of eagle ray (Mobula mobular) or two closely-related Australian fishes (Paraplesiops meleagris and P. bleekeri). Less commonly or historically, ?devil fish? could also indicate a manta ray (Manta birostris), a type of venomous fish (Inimicus didactylus), an octopus, a gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus), or a Jenny Haniver (a dried ray or skate carcass modified to look like a cryptid). Wikipedia does not mention it, but ?devil fish? could also be an American Angler.

Some examples of devilfish confusion: ?An Indian woman, bathing in the sound near Victoria, Vancouver?s Island, was seized by an octopus, or devil fish, and carried to the bottom, where she was found next day.? No author listed, ?Minor Items,? The Cultivator and Country Gentleman, Luther H Tucker and Gilbert M Tucker, eds, Albany, NY, 1877 Oct 04, p 641; ?In the water near here, they fish for squid (devil-fish) with the queerest contrivance?.? Helen Hood McCandless, ?Hawaii, the Cross-roads of the Pacific: A Trip to America?s Half-way House to the Orient,? The World?s Work 13:5 (New York, 1907 Mar): 8624 (8611-8628); ?The common name of the American Angler, so called from its hideous form. It is also known by the names of Sea-devil, Fishing-frog, Bellows-fish, Goose-fish, Monk-fish, and others.—Storer?s Fishes of Mass.? John Russell Bartlett, ?Devil Fish,? Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms: A Glossary of Words and Phrases Usually Regarded as Peculiar to the United States (New York: Bartlett and Welford, 1848), 113; entry unchanged in 2nd edition (Boston: Little, Brown and Co, 1859), 119; ?A popular name for the American Angler a fish of hideous appearance. The true devil-fish is the Southern Sting-Ray. ?? John S Farmer, ed, ?Devil, Devil-Fish,? Americanisms—Old and New (London: Thomas Poulter & Sons, 1889), 199.

[10] Marian Bonsall, The Tragedy of the Mormon Woman (Minneapolis, MN: The Housekeeper Corporation, 1908), 28.

[11] No author listed, ?The Growing West,? Baptist Home Mission Monthly 29:3 (1907 Mar): 80 (79-80); Sherman H Doyle, Presbyterian Home Missions: An Account of the Home Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A. (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work, 1902), 150. Doyle devotes a whole chapter to Mormonism: Chapter 5, ?The Mormons,? 139-165. ?The Mormon leaders have developed a theocracy fatal to virtue and liberty. It has wound its coils like an octopus around both the family and the state, and would have crushed both if it had had the power.? John Fletcher Hurst, Short History of the Christian Church (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1893), 588. ??Christian missionaries are laboring in? Utah?, and quite a number have been led back and rescued out of the clutches of the Mormon octopus?.? George Henry Trabert, Church History for the People (Reading, PA: Pilger Publishing House, 1897), 393. ?Like a large octopus, the Mormon ?Church? of Utah is stretching out its slimy tentacles over land and sea, and drawing under its evil control converts, chiefly young women, from twenty different countries.? No author listed, credited to World-Wide Missionary News, as reprinted in ?Church News and Comment,? The Lutheran Witness 32:9 (St Louis, MO, 1913 Apr 24): 70 (69-71).

[12] Frederick B Opper, ?How long will this destructive monster be allowed to live?? from four-part centerfold panel by Joseph F Keppler, Frederick B Opper, Bernhard Gillam, and Friedrich Graetz, ?A Desperate Attempt to Solve the Mormon Question,? Puck 14:362 (1884 Feb 13): 376-377. The victims are, starting bottom center and moving clockwise, Uncle Sam, S.J.T, Public School System, YMCA, Catholic Church, Benjamin Butler, US Capitol, Justice, John Kelly, Ireland, a New York dive, (left to right): Cyrus West Field (with coat tails), William Henry Vanderbilt, Jason ?Jay? Gould (far right, head down), the Independent New Party, and Public Opinion. The gesturing figure at bottom left is the artist, Frederick B Opper, who is asking the question in the caption: ?How long will this destructive monster be allowed to live??

Field, Vanderbilt, and Gould were prominent businessmen, commonly known as ?robber barons.? Benjamin Butler was governor of Massachusetts until one month before publication of the image. John Kelly was a New York City politician and a boss of Tammany Hall. S.J.T. seems to have been a recurring comedic character in Puck; for example:

?We are sorry that George Eliot has married Mr. Cross. There is an Aged Person, weary of the snares and vanities of this wicked world, who might have found in her society the charm of sympathetic communion and unity of tastes. Now he will have to plunge once more into the giddy whirl of political existence, to keep his melancholy thoughts from dwelling on what might have been. G. E., if it is not too late, address S. J. T., Gramercy Park, N. Y.? (No author listed, ?Puckerings,? Puck 7:169 (1880 Jun 02): 221.

I do not know why the various victims were chosen. Many (Catholic Church, Kelly, Field, Vanderbilt, Gould) were often depicted in Puck as being monopolistic and like an octopus themselves.

[13] The following three examples illustrate concern over control of Utah and the nation. ?As a result of such absolute political despotism, the Mormon Church now controls Utah completely, virtually controls Idaho, Wyoming and Arizona and is aiming for the balance of power in other States in the West. President Woodruff declared that men of to-day would live to see every State west of the Mississippi River under Mormon control. And then this octopus will reach out its long, slimy tentacles to grasp hold of the Eastern and Southern States, using its favorite method of holding and wielding the balance of power. And finally it will seek to lay its foul hand even upon the White House. I have mentioned before the fact, which is not generally known, that in 1844 Joseph Smith was a candidate for the Presidency against Polk and Clay, and Mormon elders were [283] sent over the country to electioneer for him. He was not elected, one reason being that he was killed before the election came off. But if the Mormon program could be carried out, what is to prevent a Mormon from occupying the White House some day? That such will ever be the case I do not believe, but the fault will be not with the Mormons, but with the American people. And yet the best time to crush despotism is in its incipiency.? Edgar E Folk, The Mormon Monster: or, The Story of Mormonism (Chicago: Fleming H Revell Co, 1900), 282-283. ?Most important of all would be the political redemption of Utah. This, it would seem, could be accomplished by encouraging the influx of Gentile population—by guiding thither educated immigrants from foreign shores and homeseekers of our own land. In the course of two decades the Mormon ascendancy would be destroyed; existing laws, which are ample, could be enforced; and the great octopus, shorn of its political power, would be obliged to assume its proper station among the ranting sects that come and go and are forgotten—dead sea fruit of ashes, which reason at last will scatter to the winds.? George Seibel, The Mormon Saints: The Story of Joseph Smith, His Golden Bible, and the Church He Founded (Pittsburgh: Lessing Co, 1919), 102.  ?we should by our influence upon our legislators, see that the octopus of Mormonism does not anchor its tenticles [sic] into our national life, through our national congress.? Frances B Hamlin, ?Report of Chaplain General,? in ?Fifteenth Continental Congress of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution,? held in Washington, DC, 1906 Apr 16-21, as reported in American Monthly Magazine 28:6 (1906 Jun): 706 (705-707).

[14] No author listed, ?Latter  Day  Saints; Rev. Dr. Dixon Says Mormonism Is an Octopus,? The Portsmouth Herald 16:4662, Porstmouth, NH, 1900 Jan 08 Mon.

[15] Udo J Keppler, ?The Unwelcome Light? Puck 56:1456 (1905 Jan 25), centerfold; (higher-resolution image here). Puck illuminates a cave with a floodlight (labeled ?The Press?). There are mushrooms in the foreground. Various figures flee the light, including unlabeled snakes, frogs, lizards, and bats. The figures are, from left to right, Charles H. Dietrich, an octopus labeled ?Mormonism? (above Dietrich?s head), Joseph R. Burton, J. Edward Addicks, Samuel W. Pennypacker, dressed as a court jester and shielding himself with a paper labeled ?Press Gag Law,?  NY State Senator Thomas F. Grady shielding himself with the ?AntiCartoon Bill,? a roll of paper, an oven, and an oil pot, anthropomorphized and labeled, respectively, ?paper trust,? ?gas trust,? and ?oil trust,? a man running in the foreground, holding a paper labeled ?R.R. Rebates,? and an unidentified man next to the ?oil trust.?

[16] I will discuss the Mormon response to octopus maps in a later post. Briareus was a hekatonkheir, a hundred-armed figure from archaic Greek mythology. ??there are thousands of high-minded and honorable men today who, on account of trickery, hypocrisy, dishonesty and crime stand aloof from the filthy pool of politics. They have seen honor, truth, integrity and virtue trampled under foot, they have seen corruption and crime like a repulsive octopus pushing its Briarean arms into every department of State; they have seen corruption and crime like a deadly simoom permeating every department of the body politic, and debauching and corrupting the nation, and they have shrunk from the disgusting contact.? John Taylor, speech in, Salt Lake City, 1882 Oct 08 Sun, reported by John Irvine, Journal of Discourses 23:266-267 (257-270). A simoom is a particular type of very strong, hot, dusty wind in the Sahara and surrounding regions. Besides the irony, the 1918 effort also seems to have been something of a straw-man argument. ?But how shallow is the study of Mormonism which concludes that it can be swerved from its ideals by mere political circumvention! When a Mormon gentleman was refused his seat in the House of Representatives, the average minister no doubt rubbed his hands and chuckled at the crushing blow that had been dealt to Mormonism. What a piece of inane fatuity! It affected the health of the ?octopus? no more than would the plucking of a leaf affect a tree. The real injury in such a case would be to the liberty and integrity of our beloved country.? Nels Lars Nelson, Scientific Aspects of Mormonism, Or, Religion in Terms of Life (Chicago: Hillison and Etten Co, 1918), 309. BH Roberts used octopus in a similarly ironic manner in a 1903 speech. I will discuss the speech in more detail in the next post. Brigham H Roberts, address delivered at the Young Ladies? Mutual Improvement Association Annual Conference, 1903 May 31, in the Salt Lake City Tabernacle, as printed in Brigham H Roberts, ?How?? Defense of the Faith and the Saints, vol 1 (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1907), 126-128, 131, 132.

?We need not go so far afield as China or any other place to see the octopus that is being put on the community in the name of Christianity. Take any little town in Northern Ontario and you will see from four to half-a-dozen churches, none of them self-supporting and probably never will be, eking out a spasmodic existence in an attempt to proselytize one another.? No author listed, credited to ?a Canadian paper,? no title, The Latter-day Saints? Millennial Star 63:22 (1901 May 30 Thu): 361-362.

[17] Cannon was describing press opposition to Joseph Smith; he prefaced the quoted statement with, ?There are certain fabulous attributes incorrectly ascribed to the creature called the octopus?or devil-fish.? Note that in Cannon?s formulation, unlike the cuttlefish examples, the octopus is a deceptive predator rather than cowardly prey. Note also that Cannon?s usage is seemingly unique; I have not noticed any other pro- or anti-Mormon octopus images that focused on the octopuses deception. George Q. Cannon, sermon delivered at General Conference, Salt Lake City, 1881 Apr 03 Sun Afternoon, reported by George F Gibbs, Journal of Discourses 23:117 (114-123). Jonathan H Moyer used Cannon?s speech in discussing later depictions of Mormonism: ?Cartoons lampooned the Mormons and warned of their dangerous designs. One depicted the church as a grotesque [p 200] octopus?a euphemism for a monopolistic ?trust,? its amorphous body astride Utah with its tentacles slinking toward Washington D.C. Prominent churchman George Q. Cannon had once denounced newspapers as little better than octopi: lacking a backbone and squirting out a cloud of ink to disguise their designs and capture unsuspecting prey. Now the Mormon?s metaphor was turned against his church. [fn 58: New York Journal and Advertiser, 4 Jan 1899; Journal of Discourses 23:117; 3 April 1881. Ministers denounced the church as an ?octopus? referring to its similarity to the trusts (New York Journal and Advertiser 25 Dec 1898).]? Jonathan H Moyer, ?Dancing with the Devil: the Making of the Republican/Mormon Pact,? Ph.D. dissertation, University of Utah, 2009 Aug, p 199-200.

[18] ?The Prophet Joseph Smith declared—and he never taught more comforting doctrine—that the eternal sealings of faithful parents and the divine promises made to them for valiant service in the Cause of Truth, would save not only themselves, but likewise their posterity. Though some of the sheep may wander, the eye of the Shepherd is upon them, and sooner or later they will feel the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them and drawing them back to the fold. Either in this life or in the life to come, they will return. They will have to pay their debt to justice; they will suffer for their sins; and may tread a thorny path; but if it leads them at last, like the penitent Prodigal, to a loving and forgiving father?s heart and home, the painful experience will not have been in vain. Pray for your careless and disobedient children; hold on to them with your faith. Hope on, trust on, till you see the salvation of God.? Orson F Whitney, speech given 1929 Apr 07, as reported in Conference Report (1929 Apr): 110 (109-115).

Apostle and then President Spencer W Kimball used the octopus in the more traditional sense of a gripping monster to describe addiction, unchastity in general, and adultery in particular. More recently (2006; also 1968) President Thomas S Monson inverted the image, making the octopus the victim, and urged listeners to avoid metaphoric maka-fekes (Tongan octopus lures). Monson (1993) also quoted a letter from one George Watson, ?My plan worked perfectly, except that she was not annoyed at being late, and I made as much impact as a damp squid.? Less formally, Mormon Culture Region slang in the 1970s identified a recently returned missionary as ?an octopus with a testimony? due to a propensity for ?making out.?

?John was an inveterate chain smoker. ? And then in more sober moments, he would become pensive and say, ?I know it is bad, but it has hold of me like an octopus. Someday I’ll conquer it.? Yes, someday! But the days sped into years?.? Spencer W Kimball, ?Hidden Wedges,? Conference Report (1966 Apr): 70-75; ?Unchastity is the great demon of the day. Like an octopus, it fastens its tentacles upon one.? Spencer W Kimball, Faith Precedes the Miracle (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1972), 162, as quoted in Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2006), 185; ?There are many tragedies affecting spouses, children, and loved ones. Even though these ?affairs? begin near-innocently, like an octopus the tentacles move gradually to strangle.? Spencer W. Kimball, ?Spouses and None Else,? Conference Report (1962 Oct): 55-60. The octopus line is repeated in The Miracle of Forgiveness (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969), Ch 17, and Faith Precedes the Miracle (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1972), 146. Thomas S Monson, ?True to the Faith,? Ensign 36:5 (2006 May): 18 (18-21); Monson had used the story previously: Thomas S Monson, ?The Miracle of the Friendly Islands,? Conference Report (1968 Oct): 79-82. Thomas S Monson, ?Search and Rescue,? Ensign (1993 May): 48. ?A returned missionary is a ?reactivated makeout,? ?an octopus with a testimony.?? William A Wilson, ?On Being Human: The Folklore of Mormon Missionaries,? Utah State University Faculty Honor Lectures, 1981 Apr 12, Paper 60. Also: ??throw off the tentacles of the octopus of debt?? [snippet only], The Latter-day Saints? Millennial Star 83 (1921): 93. [discussing Armenians] ??Russia, the dreaded octopus of modern nations.? GO, ?The Turkish Mission,? The Latter-day Saints? Millennial Star 47:3 (1885 Jan 19 Mon): 43 (43-44).

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. FTW. This is fantastic stuff, Edje. Reminds me of how Frank Norris used the octopus to describe capitalism in his novels at the turn of the 20th century.

    Comment by Ben P — June 30, 2013 @ 7:18 am

  2. Wonderful! Probably the best post anywhere in at least six months. Bravo.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 30, 2013 @ 7:52 am

  3. Edje, these posts are phenomenal. Love them!

    Comment by J Stuart — June 30, 2013 @ 4:18 pm

  4. Amazing stuff, Edje.

    Comment by WVS — June 30, 2013 @ 5:28 pm

  5. Edje nails it again! I think S. Taysom needs to be sure to use that image of JFS in his forthcoming book.

    Comment by Nate R. — June 30, 2013 @ 6:09 pm

  6. I was all set to ask about Whitney’s tentacles of providence until I read that final bit. Solid stuff Edje. So when did octopi lose their degeneracy? Around here, they are one of the favorite attractions for divers.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 30, 2013 @ 10:31 pm

  7. Thanks, Ben, Ardis, J Stuart, WVS, Nate, and J Stapley.

    Stapley: best guess, short answer, for when the octopus stopped being a horrifying monster: the 1920s.

    Cosmpolitan?s JF-Smith-topus (1911) was on the declining edge of Mormon octopuses. Whitney?s ?divine tentacles? (1929) serves, I think, as evidence that the octopus?s hold on the popular imagination had already waned. ?The Call of Cthulhu? (HP Lovecraft, 1928) and works like the now much less famous ?The Octopus Cycle? (I Lester and F Pratt, 1928; text, cover art, comment) signaled, I think, a shift away from degenerate terror octopuses toward entertainment and pulp fiction octopuses, which became voluminous by the 1940s. Better, less-histrionic nature reporting also helped. By the 1960s there were World Octopus Wrestling Championships in your neighborhood.

    The rise and partial fall of the octopus?s emotional potency is the topic of post 4.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — June 30, 2013 @ 11:54 pm

  8. […] Folk?s book was cited in Part 2. The book had what look like tentacles along the spine (image courtesy of confettibooks). Folk […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Cephalopods 4 of 4: The Nineteenth-Century Octopus — July 14, 2013 @ 12:01 am

  9. […] the past few months I have posted on figures of speech involving Mormonism. To the Mormon Octopus, Robot, Hydra, and Upas Tree I now add ?the Mormon cancer.? [1] Like so many of the negative […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » The Mormon Cancer, 1 of 2: Mountain Meadows Massacre — August 11, 2013 @ 5:01 am


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