From the Archives: “A most important mission” in the Yuma Territorial Prison

By November 15, 2007

In 1884, William Jordan Flake, Mormon pioneer and co-founder of Snowflake, Arizona, was charged with unlawful cohabitation.  Because he pleaded guilty to the charge, he was sentenced to six months in the Yuma Territorial Prison (as opposed to other Arizona polygamists who fought the charges and were consequently sentenced to three and-a-half years in the Detroit House of Corrections in Michigan).[1]

Flake’s oldest son, Charles Love Flake, was serving a mission in the Southern States at the time of his father’s imprisonment.  During his mission, Charles received the following letter from Apostle Francis Lyman regarding his father’s state in the Yuma Prison, which he copied into his journal.

Today Bro. <Layton> and I spent five hours in the Prison with your father and Bro. Skowson.  They are in the best of spirits. Have abundant of good food. Dont have to work only as they please. I never saw either of them look better in health and they have the freedom of the Prison Yard, and wear their garments, and their coats, and are not shaved, neither face nor head as is usual in other cases. Their treatment is good in every particular.  They have a little money and can purchase anything they choose.  Have plenty of reading matter and all the time they choose to read.  Your father is becoming quite a letter writer.  Our visit will no doubt, do them good. We laid our hands upon them and belssed them, and the Spirit of the Lord is with them abundantly. Their terms of imprisonment will close on the 5ht of June before the weather gets down to its hotest. I hope no effort will be made to collect their fines.  The Brethren keep strictly the word of wisdom, and attend their prayers.  They will do much towards preaching the Gospel by precept whenever the opportunity offers and by example always.  You have no need to be troubled on your fathers account for one moment. He is on a most important mission, which will bring him more credit and renown than any other 6 months of his life.  The eyes of the whole Church are upon him, and he is remembered in all our prayers as much so as the Presidency of the Church and the Lord takes notice of his life and integrity.  Adversity it is that tries men’s souls.[2]

When William Flake was released from prison and returned home to his family in Snowflake, Charles (who has been home from his mission just over a month) commented that “[Father] spent his six months to the day and I never saw him looking or feeling better.  It makes me proud of him to see how firm he is to the principles of the Gospel and how willing to suffer for it.”[3]  The discourse used by Apostle Lyman in describing William Flake’s prison term as “a most important mission” and reassuring the younger Flake that “the Lord takes notice of his [father’s] life and integrity” suggests that Mormons in the late 19th-century carried on earlier traditions of viewing persecution as “the ultimate sign of chosenness.”  However, the fact that many Latter-day Saints attempted to avoid federal prosecution for polygamy suggests that they no longer “yearned to be persecuted as had been their brethren,” as in earlier times.

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[1] The Detroit House of Correction, built in 1861 in Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan, served as an available destination for convicted misdemeanants and felons from throughout the nation.  One reason for accepting federal prisoners was the common belief of the time that effective reform of inmates required keeping them in the same place for a long period of time.  In the late 19th century, the Detroit House was recognized as a model facility for rehabilitation of criminals and held “preeminence among the prisons of its class” (E.C. Wines and Theodore W. Dwight, Report on the Prisons and Reformatories of the United States and Canada (Albany: Van Benthuysen & Sons, 1867), 339. The Mormons referred to the Detroit House as an “American Siberia,” a phrase possibly coined by John Taylor.  For more information on the Mormon prisoners sent to Detroit, see B. Carmon Hardy, “The American Siberia:  Mormon Prisoners in Detroit in the 1880s,” Michigan History (Lansing Michigan Department of State, 1966), vol. 50, pp. 197-210; and Paul W. Keve, “Building A Better Prison:  The First Three Decades of the Detroit House of Correction,” Michigan Historical Review (Mt. Pleasant, Michigan: Central Michigan University) Vol. 25, no. 2, Fall 1999.

[2] Charles Love Flake, Diary, 1881-1892; Feb. 3, 1885. (L. Tom Perry Special Collections, HBLL Library, Brigham Young University. 

[3] Charles Love Flake, Diary, 1881-1892; June 14, 1885.


Comments

  1. Chris: I agree that there is continuity between the persecution discourse of the early period (Missouri, Illinois, early Utah) and the polygamy raids. One striking difference though is the lack of vengeance talk in the later period. After the Mormons were expelled from Missouri, talking about God’s vengeance saturated nearly every persecution narrative. That emphasis is lacking in the 1880s in sermons by church leaders, partly due to anti-Mormon accusations that Mormons took vengeance oaths and had Avenging Angels. Church leaders in the 1880s would often advise members not to have a spirit of vengeance in their hearts (see JD 22:138-39; 23:285-86; 24:222-23; 25:273-75).

    Comment by David Grua — November 15, 2007 @ 12:27 pm

  2. Though less public, the Q12 and FP did respond to the persecutions in the 1880’s with by cursing their foes. I imagine that it could be classified as God’s vengeance.

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 15, 2007 @ 1:15 pm

  3. J.: You’re right. I was looking at public discourse, and my guess is that you’re looking at private or insider discourse. Let me add that there are instances of invoking the language of Rev. 6:9-11 in sermons relating to missionary martyrs in the South during the 1880s. But in terms of the polygamy persecutions, vengeance is noticably absent from public discourse.

    Comment by David Grua — November 15, 2007 @ 1:29 pm

  4. Yep. I agree.

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 15, 2007 @ 1:43 pm

  5. One private reaction that comes to mind is Wilford Woodruff’s “Wilderness Revelation.” Can’t get more condemning than that, even if it is in private.

    Comment by Ben — November 15, 2007 @ 3:47 pm


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