Mormon Turtles 2: Thomas Nast and the Catholic Crocodile

By February 18, 2015

A few weeks ago we looked at how the Salt Lake Tabernacle was frequently invoked as a symbol for Mormonism in the 1880s and then at descriptions of the Salt Lake Tabernacle as turtle-shaped. This week we combine the two to imagine a symbol that might have been. First, however, we?re going to talk about anti-Catholic crocodiles.

In the British magazine Punch in 1851 one John Leech published ?Remarkable Crocodile Found in Ireland,? which shows a Catholic official on all fours and made to appear as a crocodile, with the robe forming the tail and the miter forming the mouth. [1]

LeechJ RemarkableCrocodileFoundInIreland Punch 1851Sep06 v21n529p102

From Napoleon?s 1798 invasion of Egypt throughout the expansion and strengthening of the British Empire—especially in Africa, India, and Australia—crocodiles figured prominently in Anglophone travelogues and reports ?from abroad.? According to Mary Elizabeth Leighton and Lisa Surridge, in literary or polemic contexts crocodiles could represent hypocrisy, unrestrained appetite (possibly extending to cannibalism), the Other (especially the ?Oriental?), deviant sexuality, racial inferiority or primitivism, and/or treachery. [2] As an anti-Catholic symbol in the latter Nineteenth Century, whether in British or American discussions of (usually Irish) Catholics, crocodiles could invoke all of these attributes simultaneously.

According to John Adler, Leech?s 1851 illustration gave Thomas Nast the idea of associating Roman Catholicism in the United States with crocodiles. [3] Nast used Catholic priestly-crocodiles in one of his most famous illustrations, ?The American River Ganges,? originally published in 1871, and again, slightly modified, in 1875. Both images are shown below, with the 1871 image on the left (see footnote for link to further comment). [4]

 NastT AmericanRiverGanges1 HarpersWeekly 1871Sep30 v15n770p916  NastT AmericanRiverGanges2 HarpersWeekly 1875May08 v19n958p384

For our purposes, the important points are that Nast and others—and with the popularity of Harper?s Weekly, probably a great many others—recognized crocodiles as an anti-Catholic symbol of Roman Catholicism and recognized reptiles in general as symbols for othering, particularly of the Orientalist sort.

Nast used such symbolism in an undated, unpublished cartoon showing a Catholic crocodile and a Mormon turtle—shaped like the Salt Lake Tabernacle and labeled as such—attacking what appears to be the US capitol. [5]

NastT ReligiousLibertyIsGuaranteed ForeignReptiles Unpub grayscale HiRes

As far as I know, the image was never published in the nineteenth century. Nast did, however, publish a Mormon turtle in 1886. [6]

NastT HeThinksHisShellWillProtectHim HarpersWeekly 1886Jan09 PrtScrn c800px

As before, the image is of a turtle in the shape of the Salt Lake Tabernacle, with ?Mormon Religion? and ?Tabernacle? written on the side. This turtle has a significantly less aggressive posture, has a few teeth but no beak, and has a smooth tail. It also has an unkempt beard, is mostly bald, and what head hair it does have is unruly. The turtle is oriented toward a body of water, which could suggest that it is about to enter the water, which implies hiding and sneakiness. However, since the caption reads, ?He thinks his shell will protect him,? I think the intended posture is non-concern rather than hiding. In my idiosyncratic, subjective opinion, this turtle does a great job of ridiculing the Otherness, alleged gerontocracy, and alleged creepiness of 1880s Mormonism.

And that?s it. So far as I can tell, Nast is the only artist or commentator to take the Salt Lake Tabernacle and turn it into a giant, malevolent turtle with Orientalist undertones representing Mormonism. As noted, many people thought the Salt Lake Tabernacle looked like a turtle and some cartoonists used the Tabernacle as the central piece of visual Mormonism, but if hordes of evil turtles are promulgating Mormon villainy in some nineteenth-century newspaper somewhere, I haven?t found them.



[1] John Leech, ?Remarkable Crocodile Found in Ireland,? drawing, Punch 21.529 (1851 Sep 06): 102. Note that the illustrator?s name and the date come from Adler (see below).

[2] Mary Elizabeth Leighton and Lisa Surridge, ?The Empire Bites Back: The Racialized Crocodile of the Nineteenth Century,? in Victorian Animal Dreams: Representations of Animals in Victorian Literature and Culture, edited by Deborah Denenholz Morse and Martin A Danahay (Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing, 2007), 249-270.

[3] John Adler with Draper Hill, Doomed by Cartoon: How Cartoonist Thomas Nast and the New York Times Brought Down Boss Tweed and His Ring of Thieves (New York: Morgan James Publishing, 2008), 30.

[4] Thomas Nast, ?The American River Ganges,? full-page illustration, Harper?s Weekly 15.770 (1871 Sep 30): 916. Thomas Nast, ?The American River Ganges,? full-page illustration, Harper?s Weekly 19.958 (1875 May 08 Sat): 384. For commentary and description of the differences, see Robert C Kennedy, ?The American River Ganges,? in ?Cartoon of the Day? at

[5] Thomas Nast, ?Religious Liberty Is Guaranteed, But Can We Allow Foreign Reptiles to Crawl All Over US?? unpublished pen and ink drawing, created between 1860-1902, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. On the left is a crocodile with ?Roman Church? written along its side. Between the words ?Roman? and ?Church? there are symbols representing the papacy: a papal tiara/triregnum with two crossed keys representing the keys given to St Peter. On the right side of the dome there is a large, beaked turtle-like creature with a spike-finned tail. It is labeled ?Mormon Church? in large letters and in much smaller, less bright, letters, ?Tabernacle.? The lower portion of the turtle?s shell has pillars and doors like the Salt Lake Tabernacle. Both animals are on the dome of what appears to be the US capitol. They are gnawing/snapping at the base of a statue. The statue base reads, ?At the very feet of liberty.? The dome reads, ?Religious Liberty is Guaranteed But can we allow foreign reptiles to crawl all over U S?? The capitalized ?U S? suggests both ?us? and ?United States.?

[6] Thomas Nast, ?He Thinks His Shell Will Protect Him,? Harper?s Weekly 30.1516 (1886 Jan 09): 31.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Edje: the hero we need that we don’t deserve.

    Number 5 is my favorite political cartoon of all time.

    Comment by J Stuart — February 18, 2015 @ 8:37 am

  2. This is awesome, as always, Edje. Your posts are always among my very favorites. While I am thrilled you post them here, I do hope you eventually expand all of this analysis in a published article or book.

    Comment by Christopher — February 18, 2015 @ 12:12 pm

  3. Dude! Vintage Edje.

    Comment by WVS — February 18, 2015 @ 2:41 pm

  4. Thanks, J Stuart, Christopher, and WVS.

    Christopher: I am working on articles. Progress is slow and painful. Thanks for the encouragement.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — February 18, 2015 @ 2:54 pm

  5. Evil turtles? What creativity! (Both yours and the cartoonists.)

    Comment by Amy T — February 18, 2015 @ 6:44 pm

  6. Thanks, Amy T.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — February 18, 2015 @ 7:52 pm


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