Guest Post: Audrey Bastian, From Siamese Prison to Mormon Memory

By June 28, 2013

Note: This post is part of our international Mormonism month.  Audrey Bastian is a freelance writer and interpreter speaking Mandarin, Arabic and American Sign Language.  She lived in various countries in Asia eight years and received her masters degree in International Law and World Order from the University of Reading in England.  Her bachelors degree is in History with a minor in Arabic.  She won an honorable mention in 2006 in the Writer?s Digest 75th Annual Writing Competition for a memoir entitled, ?Japanese Carp?.  She currently owns her own business and resides in Washington, DC.

?…the King confined bro. [Trail] 71 days in a Siamese prison, 14 feet square, with 50 other prisoners, some were confined for debt others for stealing &c several ware put to the rack to draw out a fu [teekals (tikal money)]…?  –Elam Luddington April 1854

A day after Elam Luddington baptized his first and only convert in Siam, Captain James Trail, the King of Siam thrust the convert into a debtor?s prison without food.  The captain?s crime was misunderstanding a command and firing a salute from his ship in the rhodes of Singapore.  

With only one baptism, is it possible that Luddington?s apparent failure washed him from our collective Mormon memories?  Have we lost harrowing tales of Mormons in Asia in the 1850s because missionaries didn?t baptize and retain thousands?  Maybe we don?t remember Elder Luddington?s story for a more pedestrian reason.  Church leaders may have found his main missionary journal difficult to decipher not only due to the handwriting and misspellings but also its archaic Asian words and references.  Without a ready google search in the 1850s, only the limited books in the libraries of Great Salt Lake might illuminate the scale of Luddington?s peril.

Luckily Luddington did leave an account of British soldiers, ship wrecks, gilded pagodas, and a mutiny.  Fortunately his companion Levi Savage recorded his own missionary journeys multiple times exposing the story of their parting, something Luddington never mentioned.

Elder Elam Luddington looked over the precipice of a fading Asian order as he disembarked onto the shores of Southeast Asia.  The fault lines between the old and new hierarchies widened during his missionary tenure.  Four years after Luddington arrived, Indians would plant the initial seeds of an independence movement during the Sepoy Rebellion.  The Burmese were fighting their second of three losing wars against the colonizing British.  Just months later, Chinese would push one more time against the British for the Second Opium War.  These defining skirmishes imprinted Asian memory and defined our modern Asian reality.

Yet Mormon memory is reluctant to register a missionary whose story of survival not only changed him as a person but contributes to the larger context of those tumultuous times.  Luddington landed in Bangkok on April 6, 1854.  Ending nearly 150 years of isolation, the Siamese only just began welcoming missionaries and merchants to their homes and hinterland for the previous twenty years.  When we look beyond Elder Luddington?s abysmal baptismal record we unlock the dynamics between Euro-American missionaries and Asians.  Unique to Mormon missionaries, though, he traveled the region without ?purse or scrip? and still survived the turbulence of impending or ongoing wars.  His contributions to a broader history nuance our understanding of interactions between Asians and foreigners.

But if Mormons are not interested in Burmese struggle, not interested in the interpersonal bureaucracy of Thais and outsiders, and don?t care about the timing of his arrival in Hong Kong, still there is another compelling reason to thirst for the story of Elam Luddington.  Luddington was a man of adventure who like many, faced an uncertain ocean without money but found ways to overcome.  Elder Wilford Woodruff reflected on setting Elam Luddington apart for his mission,

In blessing br. Luddington I recollect that I was mouth, and I well remember that I could see nothing but seas, waves and storms.  The seas appeared to be heaped up and I knew that he was going to see storms and be exposed to troubles and dangers, but there was one thing that we did bless those brethren with, that I rejoice in, and that is that they should return home again.  (Remarks Elder Wilford Woodruff, Bowery, Sunday Morning, Sep 27, 1857 pg 246 newspaper clippings (Karen Bush Family Association).)

We all reach for home in our individual quests.  Some like Elam made that quest in a ship and nearly died.

Building on the work of Mormon/Asian historian, Lanier Britsch, and former mission president to Thailand and Brigham Young University professor, Michael Goodman, a narrative non-fiction book is in process to bring the tale to a wider audience.

You can follow the research and writing:


Twitter: @AudreyBastian

Official website:


Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Luddington’s story is fascinating. I’m certain it will interest a wide circle of readers beyond church members. I know I look forward to reading more.

    I met Audrey briefly at MHA in Layton and once home again I checked on the Mission Siam blog. I recommend it and thanks to Audrey for sharing.

    Comment by Susan W H — June 28, 2013 @ 1:12 pm

  2. How long was Captain Trail in jail? Did he ever emigrate to the U.S? Utah?

    Comment by Helen — June 28, 2013 @ 2:35 pm

  3. Luddington’s story reminds me of that of a mission of the Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson, who was also jailed for a long period (this time in Burma). I wonder how common it was to jail Christian missionaries of various stripes.

    Comment by Amanda — June 28, 2013 @ 2:45 pm

  4. Captain Trail was in prison roughly 2 1/2 months or 71 days. Here is the rest of the quote for those who are interested.

    Paraphrasing the first part, The King confined bro. T. 71 days in a Siamese prison…”There grones while under the torture drew tears from the eyes of bro Trail he canciled several debts & set them at liberty only 10 soles came out alive, the King never feeds his prisoners if they hav no friends to feed them they starve to death…”

    Did Captain Trail emigrate to US/Utah?

    This is a great question. Luddington himself doesn’t mention Trail emigrating and may have lost contact with him. I checked both the “Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel” and “Mormon Migration” databases and didn’t find Trail. If someone else knows something about it, please let me know.

    What I think is also interesting is that if we only focus on the fact Luddington’s only convert was thrust in a Siamese prison, we might miss the powerful impact that experience might have had on Luddington’s perceptions of the King and Siam as a whole. What does that tell us about the Siamese? What does it say that 40 people died in that prison during those 2 1/2 months? I presume that many if not all 40 of those people were native Siamese. Do we have many stories of Westerners in prison in Siam?

    Does this story help us get a more nuanced angle on what was happening in Siam in the mid 1800s? Western reports of Siam during this period were often positive or dismissive. This story shows the power of the King in a very intimate way.

    Comment by Audrey Bastian — June 28, 2013 @ 3:00 pm

  5. Amanda, Very interesting. I will look into that.

    Comment by Audrey Bastian — June 28, 2013 @ 3:01 pm

  6. Another quick note: I think this story also demonstrates the power of the King in Siam in 1854. He was protecting his people from Western intrusion.

    Comment by Audrey Bastian — June 28, 2013 @ 3:09 pm

  7. Your points about paying attention to the “abysmal” baptism records are important. I feel too often we interpret signs of success (such as with high baptism numbers in certain regions) as being a marker of change whereas low or high baptism rates do reveal a lot about interactions between cultures.

    I am also interested in learning about Elam Luddington’s missionary experience comparison of to others understandings of the missionary experience in the 19th century.

    Comment by NatalieR — June 28, 2013 @ 7:17 pm

  8. Very interesting.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — June 28, 2013 @ 11:24 pm

  9. When is the book going to be published? Or where is it in process?

    Comment by Brig — June 28, 2013 @ 11:33 pm

  10. Very cool. Thanks Audrey.

    Comment by jjohnson — June 29, 2013 @ 5:11 am

  11. Very interesting.

    Comment by Max — June 29, 2013 @ 8:47 am

  12. Brig,
    As to your question: Where is the book in progress?

    The foundational research is mostly done. The first chapter is almost complete and the second chapter is well under way. There is an outline for the entire book already. A professional published narrative non-fiction writer critiqued it twice here in Washington DC. A published fiction writer also critiqued it here as well. I currently receive weekly feedback from another writer. Others are giving me feedback where they have expertise.

    A note about narrative non-fiction:

    Narrative non-fiction is lots of fun. Not a quote or an adjective can be fiction but it needs to read somewhat like fiction. Using fiction techniques to arrange a non-fiction piece can be tricky. Sometimes it takes me a week or more to write a sentence because not only do I need to know what happened, I need to know what it looked like, smelled like, sounded like, etc.

    The process is a bit slow but very interesting. I hope to get lots of feedback as I go along from the experts in their fields related to my project. As you may notice, my website is full of reports on the narrative research that I am doing along with the scholarly. For example I recently wrote a post about how much time it took to go from Elam’s ward to the tabernacle. We actually walked and clocked it so that it would be an accurate narrative account rather a guess.

    I appreciate this opportunity to write a piece on this blog.

    Comment by Audrey Bastian — June 29, 2013 @ 9:28 am

  13. Audrey, have you seen “Nearly Everything Imaginable.” It has a lot of information about the day-to-day lives of Mormon settlers and might help with the some of the texture that you are trying to provide in your book.

    Comment by Amanda — June 29, 2013 @ 9:35 am

  14. Thank you Amanda. This is exactly the kind of lead I need.

    Comment by Audrey Bastian — June 29, 2013 @ 9:59 am

  15. Very interesting piece. It’s clear that you are looking at the topic from many different angles! I’m curious about your outline — how many chapters are focused on Luddington’s observations as a window into Siam/Asia vs. how many are focused more on Mormonism and how it was being spread to other countries? I look forward to reading more!

    Comment by llcall — June 29, 2013 @ 5:05 pm

  16. llcall,

    I appreciate this question and it is a difficult question to answer. If I am reading your question correctly, it seems you are interested in knowing what the overall thesis or direction the book is taking at this point. And really there are two sides of this as you point out. The book could be more focused on Asian history and using Luddington’s story as a window into those dynamics. Or the book could focus more on the Mormon aspect of being in Asia as a missionary.

    Although I am Mormon, my life focus and educational background has been in Asian history including speaking the languages, living and working there, or with Asians here in the United States. This is a new angle for me to come back into my own Mormon history and tackle a story that is a mixture of both.

    The ultimate goal for me is to tell a powerful story of a man who goes on a quest and then believes he has failed. His people even think he has failed. But I want to use the years of training, language, and living in Asia to squeeze out every detail possible about the people he met and give them life and a voice. Just looking at Elam Luddington’s journal isn’t enough I believe. We have to know the dynamics of what was happening in those countries well enough to understand that his descriptions are only the very first blush of what he actually witnessed.

    The interplay between what he thought he saw and what he actually saw is for me, breathtaking.

    My goal is to show that interplay well. If people then read lessons into the story, it will be there own. I want to tell the story as honestly as I can.

    There are some great pieces, though, that are telling the story of Mormon missionaries’ affect on the countries to which they proselyte. A new piece came out about New Zealand that won an award at the MHA conference. I think those points are also very interesting to take into account.

    Comment by Audrey Bastian — June 29, 2013 @ 10:19 pm

  17. […] I was recently honored with an opportunity to guest post for the Juvenile Instructor.  For the full transcript of the post click here: “From Siamese Prison to Mormon Memory”. […]

    Pingback by Q&A with the Author | Mormons — July 1, 2013 @ 10:19 am


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