Mormon Thugs, Part 1 of 2

By March 11, 2015

You might remember the ?Thuggee cult? as the very bad guys in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), though there were some, uh? literary licenses taken with the religious practices. As understood by nineteenth-century Westerners, Thugs murdered hundreds of thousands of people in India from the 1300s to the 1800s—mostly by strangulation in furtherance of highway robbery—in fulfillment of religious duty. Today I sketch some ways Thugs figured in nineteenth-century rhetoric about Mormons. [1]

I found examples grouping Mormons and Thugs from the early 1850s to at least the 1900s. [2] Such texts tended towards the apocalyptic, asserting that if Mormonism were allowed to persist, ?[w]e cannot long exist as a nation? or ?civilization in the United States must soon come to an end.? [3]

Some authors compared Mormon and Thug violence directly. An 1857 article thought reports of Mormon violence fit ?a set of Thugs or Chinamen? but not ?a community in which the Anglo-Saxon element so largely predominates.? [4] Note that this article and one other associated Mormon and Thug violence before the Mountain Meadows Massacre. [5] The Massacre prompted even more strident comparisons: ?The Thugs of India were an inoffensive, moral, law-abiding people in comparison.? [6] Others followed suit. [7]

Polygamy and thuggee frequently appeared on lists of groups implied to be weird or extreme: ?? [W]hen Mr. Fleming tells me that he knows there is a God, and asks will I believe him, I remind him that the Pagan, the Buddhist, the Thug, and Mormon say the same thing.? [8] The point was not that Mormons and Thugs were like each other but that they were not like the reader. [9] A variation of the list emphasized evil rather than variety: ?If two such women had illustrated Mormonism or Thuggism, they would have made the one respectable and the other righteous in the eyes of many?.? [10] Others were less analytical: ?It does not matter about creed—creed never saved anybody yet. I say, it does not matter about the creed, but I?ll make a few exceptions. I?d rather not be a Thug in India, nor a Mormon in Utah.? [11]

One of the big questions of the late nineteenth century for American and the British was how to reconcile the broad ideal of freedom of conscience with the—usually narrower—demands of community standards. Many commentators used Mormonism and Thuggism as examples in such conversations, with most assuming that conscience could not protect either:

No matter how fanatically devoted the Thug may be to his religion, or how sincere the Mormon may be in professing his patriarchal polygamy, ?no sane, moral community can agree to legalize or to tolerate such organized systems of theoretical homicide, pollution, and iniquity. [12]

Other commentators put Mormons with Thugs but felt the point could not be assumed without argument. A key idea in many such formulations was that thuggee was more extreme than polygamy. One author wondered ?if those heathen? that practiced thuggee ?could come into such a religious belief, why may not the Mormon come to believe that concubinage ?is ordained of God???? [13] In other words, if people could accept the ?10,? why not the ?9?? [14]

With the implicit ranking, authors could use readers? aversion to thuggee to make a case against polygamy. They introduced thuggee as an example of an act that—self-evidently—should be suppressed despite its religious context and then, having demonstrated that the freedom of religion was not absolute, argued against Mormon freedom-of-religion claims. Such a strategy shifted the conversation from whether Mormons had a right to freedom of religion to whether polygamy conformed to community standards or whether a law could be constructed that would permit polygamy but not thuggee. As a rhetorical move, invoking Thugs associated Mormons with an abhorred group, focused on the demerits of polygamy (and away from Mormon victimhood), and threatened readers with the possibility of state-protected murder: ?We might as reasonably permit Thugism as Mormonism, so far as the latter claims toleration on the ground of being a religion.? [15]

The most prominent of such uses came at the US Supreme Court. Attorney General Charles Devens  argued in Reynolds vs US (1878) that if polygamy were allowed because it was religious and thus protected, ?a sect of East Indian Thugs? might commit murder with impunity, on the ground that it was sanctioned and enjoined by their system of religious belief.? [16] The Court agreed. [17] Twelve years later the Court again denied a religious right to polygamy, in part because: ?No doubt the Thugs of India imagined that their belief in the right of assassination was a religious belief; but their thinking so did not make it so.? [18]

Some authors used similar logic but lumped thuggee and polygamy into the same category. Then, with the necessity of suppressing polygamy and thuggee assumed, they argued that Catholic and Christian Scientist activities should also be restricted. [19]

In the next post I will look at Mormon reactions and the broader imperial context.


[1] After the Old Man of the Mountain post Ardis Parshall sent me an example that referred to the Old Man and to Thugs, which prompted me to look for Thugs. I have written about Mormon/India comparisons before but focused on suttee rather than thuggee. Since suttee at least theoretically depended on the choice of the victim, it made, in some aspects, a better analogy to Mormon polygamy than thuggee. I have not worked through an analysis yet, so don?t know whether there is a noticeable pattern in the choice of thuggee over suttee as the comparison in conversations about Mormons.

[2] The grouping was not particular to Mormonism, though: I easily found examples of Thuggism used to characterize the Irish and Catholics (and heaven help the Irish Catholics). Note, also, that in the latter nineteenth century lower-case ?thugs? were beginning to menace the upright but etymologically-unaware citizenry of the Anglosphere.

[3] AG Vermilye, ?The Bible in the Common Schools,? The Christian World 23.3 (1872 Mar): 75-76 (-81).  No author listed, ?The Mormons at Home,? Frank Leslie?s New Family Magazine 2.3 (1858 Mar): 232 (225-235).

[4] The author eventually concluded: ?Here the theory of Thuggism is completed. The ?Children of Dan? are the hired assassins of this modern Old Man of the Mountain.? No author listed, ?The United States Government and the Mormons,? Manchester Times, Manchester, England, 1857 May 02; transcript prepared and provided by Ardis Parshall.

[5] No author listed, review of The Prophets; or Mormonism Unveiled (Philadelphia: Smith) and Female Life Among the Mormons by ?the Wife of a Mormon Elder recently from Utah? (New York: Derley), The Athanæum: Journal of English and Foreign Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts 1458 (1855 Oct 06 Sat, London): 1148 (1147-1148).

[6] ?They are an ulcer upon the body politic. An ulcer which it needs more than cutlery to cure. It must have excision, complete and thorough extirpation, before we can ever hope for safety or tranquility. This is no rhetorical phrase made by a flourish of the pen, but is really what will prove to be an earnest and stubborn fact. This brotherhood may be contemplated from any point of view, and but one conclusion can be arrived at concerning it. The Thugs of India were an inoffensive, moral, law-abiding people in comparison.? James Henry Carleton, report from report from James Henry Carleton to WW Mckall (Assistant Adjutant-General, San Francisco), 1859 May 25, included in ?McGrorty vs. Hooper,? 40th Congress, 2nd session, House of Representatives, House Report 79 (1868, Volume 2, serial 1358 [previously assigned as 1352]), 40 (26-40). Reprinted in Digest of Election Cases: Cases of Contested Election in the House of Representatives from 1865 to 1871, Inclusive, 41st Congress, 2nd session, House of Representatives, Miscellaneous Document 152 (1870, Volume 4), 249 (238-249; case of McGrorty vs. Hooper, 211-281). Later reprinted and distributed as a stand-alone document as James Henry Carleton, Special Report of the Mountain Meadow Massacre (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1902), 17 [United States House of Representatives, 57th Congress, 1st session, House Document 605 (1902, Serial 4377), 17].

Another oft-cited example came from ?Argus? in 1871: ?In order to understand this matter, it will be necessary for the reader, first, to mentally segregate Utah geographically from the United States — to consider it as absolutely a foreign State and nation, with a civilization such as existed thirty-five hundred years ago, and a religion as antagonistic to Christianity as Moslemism itself, including within its creed a tenet more cruel and bloody than the Thuggism of India.? ?Argus,? open letter to Brigham Young, 1871 Aug 17, Salt Lake City, in ?History of Mormonism,? Weekly Reporter, Corinne, UT, 1871 Aug 19 Sat. I have not located a scan of the original newspaper; transcriptions vary in identifying the source as the ?Weekly? or the ?Daily? Reporter and whether ?Corinne? or ?Utah? is in the name. ?Argus? was later identified as Charles W Wandell. The cited text was quoted in Thomas BH Stenhouse, The Rocky Mountain Saints: A Full and Complete History of the Mormons, from the First Vision of Joseph Smith to the Last Courtship of Brigham Young (New York: D Appleton, 1873), 453.

[7] References to Thugs appeared frequently in descriptions of Mormon Missouri or early Utah. No author listed [?from the Special Correspondent of the New-York Times?], Camp Scott, Bridger?s Fort, UT, 1858 Jun 12, ?Interesting from Utah,? New York Times, New York, 1858 Jul 08 Thu, p 1, 8. No author listed, ?Letter from Utah Territory,? American Presbyterian, Philadelphia, 1864 Nov 03 Thu. John Cradlebaugh, in a speech before the US Senate, 1863, as quoted in TW Curtis, ?Mormonism in a New Light,? The Index 5.11 [old series 16.768] (1884 Sep 11): 126 (126-127). CC Goodwin, ?The Mormon Situation,? Harper?s New Monthly Magazine 63.377 (1881 Oct): 760 (756-763). RG McNiece, ?Exposition on Mormonism,? attributed to Presbyterian Review (1881 Apr), in Hand-Book on Mormonism, pamphlet (Salt Lake City: Hand Book Publishing Co, 1882), 33. JV Coombs, Religious Delusions: A Psychic Study (Cincinnati: The Standard Publishing Co, 1904), 46.

[8] George Jacob Holyoake, ?Mr. Holyoake?s Reply to Mr. Fleming?s Second Letter,? The Reasoner and Theological Examiner 11.10 [269] (1851 Jul 16): 145 (144-145).

[9] EO Haven, ?The American System of Education,? Transactions of the Eighth Annual Session of the Michigan State Teachers? Association Held at Pontiac, August 16th, 17th and 18th, 1859 (Ann Arbor: Michigan State Teachers? Association, 1859), 43. William Pratt Breed, Man Responsible for His Belief (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1860), 4-5. Maurus Jokai [Mór Jókai], Black Diamonds: A Novel, translated from Hungarian by Frances A Gerard [aka Geraldine Fitzgerald], (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1896 [Fekete gyémántok, 1870]), 135. ?Newman,? as quoted in George Gilfillan, Sketches Literary and Theological: Selections from an Unpublished MS. of the Late George Gilfillan, edited by Frank Henderson (Edinburgh: David Douglass, 1881), 143. L[ouis] A[loisius] Lambert, Notes on Ingersoll, 6th edition (Buffalo, NY: Buffalo Catholic Publication Company, 1884), 165-166. Maurice H Harris, ?What Different Religions Owe to One Another,? Addresses Before the New York State Conference of Religion 5.4 (1907 Oct): 7. No author listed, ?Jottings,? The Journal of Education 30 (1908 Apr): 252. GK Chesterton, ?The Moral Philosophy of Meredith,? as reprinted from Contemporary Review [96 (1909 Jul): 23-29] in The Living Age 44.3397 [7th series, vol 44; from beginning, vol 261] (1909 Aug 14): 426 (423-427); quoted in No author listed [Edward J Wheeler, editor; Leonard D Abbott, Alexander Harvey, and George S Viereck, associate editors], ?The Burning Convictions of Meredith,? Current Literature 43.4 (1909 Oct): 414 (413-415). Robert Louis Stevenson, personal notebook, as quoted in Sidney Dark, Robert Louis Stevenson (New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1971 [London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1931]), 51. John Ordronaux, ?History and Philosophy of Medical Jurisprudence,? American Journal of Insanity 25 (1868 Oct): 203 (173-212).

[10] No author listed, review of Erma?s Engagement (?By the Author of ?Blanche Seymour?,? London: Tinsley Brothers) The Saturday Review 35.899 (1873 Jan 18): 94 (93-94). See also: Goldwin Smith, Rational Religion, and the Rationalistic Objections of the Bampton Lectures for 1858 (Oxford: JL Wheeler, 1861), 34. Woods Hutchinson, The Gospel According to Darwin (Chicago: Open Court Publishing Co, 1898), 93-94. No author listed, Article VIII, ?The Fall of the French Empire,? Dublin Review 15.30 [new series] (1870 Oct): 489 (479-495).

[11] Mahala B Chaddock, letter to editor [AL Root], Vermont, IL, 1887 Dec 08, as printed in ?The Quakers,? Gleanings in Bee Culture 16.1 (1888 Jan 01): 19 (18-19; response: 19-20).

[12] The ellipses replace ?or how thoroughly convinced the Carolinian divine may be of the scripturalness of his ?domestic institution.?? The inclusion of slavery in such a list is, in my survey, rare. No author listed, ?Law and Liberty in Relation to Temperance,? Article IV, review of HJ Berlin, article on Liberty in The People?s Friend (Amsterdam: 1859) and John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (London: 1859), in Meliora: A Quarterly Review of Social Science in its Ethical, Economical, Political, and Ameliorative Aspects 2.8 (1860): 351 (339-354). See also: Alexander Hamilton Sands, Recreations of a Southern Barrister (Philadelphia: JB Lippincott, 1859), 72-73. John Johnson, ?The Outlook of Toleration,? The American Church Review 45.156 (1885 Jan): 145 (124-175). No author listed, review of ?Memoir of Alexander M?Leod, D. D.? The Reformed Presbyterian 20.11 [New Series, 2.2] (1856 Apr): 54 (50-59).

[13] Author listed as ?Carleton? [quotes in original; Charles Carleton Coffin], ?Round the World Sketches,? Boston Daily Journal, Boston, MA, 1869 Jan 23.

[14] Another author made the ranking explicit but reached a different conclusion than most of the authors cited herein: ?It is easy to introduce a dangerous practice into the administration of the law in moments of excitement, but the consequence may be felt for years, and even whole generations afterwards. Of course, if we regard the suppression of Mormon polygamy as the absolute moral duty of the Government, we should be ready to face any risk in suppressing it. We do not, however, believe that there is any abstract right in the matter on the side of either suppression or toleration. Polygamy is repugnant to the moral feelings of Christian civilization, but it is not an evil, like Thuggism, that must be eradicated by force. We yield to none in our abhorrence of the practice, but many abhorrent things have to be endured in politics and in social life.? Bryan J Clinche, ?The Mormon Question and the United States Government,? The American Catholic Quarterly Review 9.34 (1884 Apr): 283 (271-285).

[15] No author listed, ?Our Policy towards the Mormons,? Public Ledger, Philadelphia, 1856 Oct 17 Fri. See also: No author listed, [JK Wellman, editor], ?Monthly Record of Current Events,? Wellman?s Miscellany 4.4 (1871 Oct): 199 (197-199). No author listed, ?The Outlook,? The Christian Union 45.14 (1892 Apr 02): 631 (629-632).

[16] No author listed, Washington, 1878 Nov 14, ?Is Polygamy a Crime?; Arguments in the United States Supreme Court in the Case of a Convicted Mormon,? New York Times, New York, NY, 1878 Nov 15, p 4, column 7.

[17] The majority opinion used similar examples as Devens (widow immolation, human sacrifice) but did not mention Thugs by name. Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (1878), 166.

[18] Late Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints v. United States, 136 U.S. 1 (1890), 49-50. See also Davis v. Beason, 133 U.S. 333 (1890), 342-343, which reaches a similar conclusion as Late Corporation and quotes Reynolds on p 343-344, including the examples of human sacrifice.

[19] No author listed, ?The Romish Confessional: Is It Properly Entitled to Privilege?? The American And Foreign Christian Union 7.3 (1856 Mar): 68 (65-71). Samuel Weed Barnum, Romanism as It Is: An Exposition of the Roman Catholic System, for the Use of the American People (Hartford, CT: Connecticut Publishing Co, 1877), 790. No author listed, ?Prussia and the Vatican,? Macmillan?s Magazine 31.183 (1875 Jan): 266 (261-280). John B Huber, ?Christian Science from a Physician?s Point of View,? Appletons? Popular Science Monthly 55 (1899 Oct): 765-766 (755-766).

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks, Edje. Who knew the extent of metaphors that existed to talk about Mormons?!

    Comment by Saskia — March 11, 2015 @ 12:10 pm

  2. Thanks, Saskia.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — March 12, 2015 @ 11:07 am


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