Mormonism as a Upas Tree

By May 28, 2013 I signed up for today?s slot in the Many Images of Mormonism series, I told Crissy I would write about Mormonism as a figurative octopus, but I was distracted by Edgar E Folk (1900): ?[Mormonism] is the Upas tree of our civilization, the octopus of our political life.? [1] I know what an octopus is, but what is a upas tree, and does civilization need one?

The short version: The upas (/’yoo-puss/) tree grows from Southeast Asia to Australia; its bark produces poisonous chemicals. In the nineteenth century the upas had a widely-known folkloric and literary life as the source of an air-borne poison potent and far-reaching enough to rival present-day nuclear weapons. References to the upas appeared in a variety of political and literary contexts, including criticism of slavery and of Mormonism. In some contexts identifying something as a upas tree merely suggested that the thing was undesirable. More developed versions of the metaphor implied that the target was so dangerous / evil that compromise was impossible and the whole ?tree? must be removed at the roots. By the early-to-mid-1900s upas / Mormon metaphors seem to have disappeared, partially due to the Mormon achievement of ?respectability? and partially because a more scientific understanding of the upas had penetrated popular culture.

The long version: The upas (/’yoo-puss/) tree or bohun upas (Javanese: ?poison tree?) is the Antiaris toxicaria, a flowering tropical tree with edible fruit and poisonous latex. The image at right shows a mature specimen in Ipoh City (ie, Upas City), Malaysia. [2] The upas seems to have first come to the attention of Europeans in the early 1300s. Its reputation grew fantastically thereafter. [3]

Erasmus Darwin wrote an influential poem and description:

?There is a poison-tree in the island of Java, which is said by its effluvia to have depopulated the country for 12 or 14 miles round the place of its growth. It is called, in the Malayan language, Bohun-Upas; with the juice of it the most poisonous arrows are prepared; and to gain this, the condemned criminals are sent to the tree with proper direction both to get the juice and to secure themselves from the malignant exhalations of the tree; and are pardoned if they bring back a certain quantity of the poison. But by the registers there kept, not one in four are said to return. Not only animals of all kinds, both quadrupeds, fish, and birds, but all kinds of vegetables also are destroyed by the effluvia of the noxious tree; so that, in a district of 12 or 14 miles around it, the face of the earth is quite barren and rocky, intermixed only with the skeletons of men and animals, affording a scene of melancholy beyond what poets have described or painters delineated.? [4]

The illustration below (1845) shows the general idea. [5]

JI BohonUpas1845 orig

I would have sworn I had never heard of a upas tree, but it shows up in works by people I have heard of and even read. In fact, the upas tree was a standard literary trope of the nineteenth century with references in politics, novels, music, many poems, and art (see image below). [6]

Mormons used upas metaphors. The earliest instance I have found comes from Dan Jones in an 1847 letter describing an anti-Mormon lecture as ?impregnating the moral atmosphere with a stench as fatal to truth and holiness, as the poisonous breath of the Upas Tree is to those who inhale it!? [7] Other instances appeared in sermons and periodicals. [8]

In response to ?The Cane Creek Massacre,? James H Hart wrote a poem, that lays partial responsibility for the deaths ?on so-called Christians? with ?their wicked schemes of special legislation,? claiming that  ??Heroic measures? from their Upas tree, / Have thus with blood matured in Tennessee.? [9] Orson F Whitney also used upas imagery in his poems Elias: An Epic of the Ages (1904, [10]) and Love and the Light: An Idyl of the Westland (1918, [11]). In Love and the Light, Whitney explicated ?upas vapor? in a footnote, which suggests that the upas?s cultural cachet had waned. [12]

DanbyF TheUpasTree 1820 collections d vam d ac d uk

Critics used upas metaphors to denigrate Mormonism. Sometimes the upas appears in as a stand-in for great evil: ?[Mormonism] is the Upas tree of our civilization.? [13] I found two instances in this vein of non-Brighamite Mormons associating the upas tree with the Brighamites? polygamy. [14]

In many instances, the polemicists used a more-developed metaphor, discussing roots and branches and fruits. ?It [the Mormon priesthood] is like the deadly Upas tree, it destroys all life beneath its shade.? [15] ?Can any creature breathe under the Upas tree of Mormonism and not lose all sense of honor, virtue, purity and justice?? [16] For more elaborate example:

?God forbid that we should ever desecrate these pages with illiberal or sectarian views of any kind, but if the words of the Great Teacher, ?By their fruits ye shall know them? suggest to us aught, we cannot close our eyes to the fact that the fruits of the death-giving exhalations of the Upas tree of Mormonism, as scattered abroad in practice as well as in precept, by leaders and followers, are licentiousness, robbery and murder, and which are evidently doing their work: and the end is not yet.? [17]

The most strident version of the Mormon / upas metaphor employed eliminationist rhetoric. If Mormonism were as bad as the folkloric upas tree, then no rational compromise were possible: Mormonism must be destroyed: ?Who, after reading the story of woman’s wrongs and woman’s shame, will not fervently wish that the iniquitous system which now flourishes in Utah, like a deadly upas tree, may soon be blotted out of existence?? [18] In an influential deployment of the metaphor Joseph Cook said:

?The President of the United States [RB Hayes], in a message published this morning, says that there is, in his opinion, reason for taking the right of suffrage away from those who violate the laws against polygamy in Utah. Do that one thing, and you strike at the root of the Upas tree which is now shedding down its poison on a territory larger than New England?. Strike where President Hayes tells you to let the axe fall, and this Upas tree, which now is the curse of the whole Basin region, will drop as a compost-heap, and give you there, ultimately, purity and wealth.? [19]

Three decades later, BH Roberts cited Cook?s speech as evidence of the strong anti-Mormon feeling and connected it (and others like it) causally to the murder of missionary Joseph Standing. [20]

Most of the references to the upas I have found seem to use it merely as a dangerous plant. The fact that it came from Asia, however, opened up the possibility of an Orientalist application, which Congressman J Randolph Tucker use in arguments preceding the passage of the Edmonds-Tucker Act:

?With monogamy we are in the lead of progress in the twentieth century of the Christian era. Introduce polygamy and we turn back the dial of our destiny—we obliterate the Christian era, and turn from the light and glory of to-day to the gloom and barbarism of two thousand years ago! That social condition is an Asiatic exotic! ours, a plant of European American growth. They are as diverse and incompatible as light and darkness They cannot co-exist, they must be divorced, or one or the other must be extirpated. [60] The upas tree of polygamy is death to a modern Christian society or to a modern Christian commonwealth.? [21]

To be clear, the upas metaphor is not unique to Mormonism; I found multiple other comparisons. [22] The upas metaphors I found most frequently, however, equated slavery with a upas tree. [23] One particularly oft-quoted instance came from an Andrew Thomson in 1830: ?Why, Sir, slavery is the very Upas tree of the moral world, beneath whose pestiferous shade all intellect languishes, and all virtue dies.? [24] A upas tree also appeared as the frontispiece and organizing metaphor of a collection of anti-slavery tracts in 1853 (see image below). [25]

JI UpasTreeOfSlavery1853 500kStrokesForFreedom

I don?t have any direct evidence, but it is possible that some anti-Mormons sought to harness some of the political and moral authority of the anti-slavery campaign for use against Mormons by appropriating an abolitionist trope. At any rate, the shared upas imagery is consistent with polygamy?s place as one of the ?twin relics of barbarism.?

One of the interesting features of the upas trope is that most of the examples I?ve cited in this post came after scientifically reliable descriptions of the upas were published in popular literature. Some even commented on the fact. [26]

I have two closing thoughts. First: a few years ago, in discussing Mormons as Bluebeards, I wrote: ?So far as I know, however, no one compared Mormons to vicious flowers.? It appears I was in error.

Second: on behalf of all legatees of alliterative Old English, I say to the nineteenth-century Anglophone polemicists: How did you miss ?Utah Upas??


[1] Edgar E Folk, The Mormon Monster: or, The Story of Mormonism (Chicago: Fleming H Revell Co, 1900), p 273.

[2] Image from Jerry Francis, ?Should We Be Ashamed of This Garden?? Ipoh Echo, Issue 120, 2011 May 16, p 14.

[3] Willis connects reports from Friari Odoric (1330s) and John Mandeville (1360s), Rumphius (1680s), and NP [JN] Foersch (1783) to the development of upas lore. He also assumes that the Bausor tree from the Hortus Santitatis (1491) is a upas tree. By the late 1700s the upas?s reputation had grown and it reached its apex under the pen of one NP [actually JN] Foersch in 1783. RJ Willis, The History of Allelopathy (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2007), 94-96.

[4] Erasmus Darwin, The Poetical Works of Erasmus Darwin, in 3 volumes, Volume 2: The Loves of the Plants (London: J Johnson, 1806), p 143-144 (note to Canto 3, line 238); note that the upas is discussed at length in various notes in the book. For a partial discussion of E Darwin?s influence on the development of upas lore, see Richard F. Gustafson, ?The Upas Tree: Pushkin and Erasmus Darwin,? PMLA 75:1 (1960 Mar): 101-109.

[5] ?Bohon Upas, der javanische Giftbaum? [Bohon Upas, the Javanese Poison Tree], frontispiece image in Die Mystères des grünen Tisches oder der europäische Bohon Upas? (1845).

[6] The image is of The Upas, or Poison-Tree, in the Island of Java, oil on canvas, by Francis Danby, 1820. Authors who used upas imagery include Dickens, Byron, Robert E Howard, HP Lovecraft, Erasmus Darwin, Melville, Wodehouse, Pushkin (later set to music by Arensky), and—probably most familiarly to present-day survivors in US high schools—Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre (1847), when Rochester (SPOILER ALERT) explains to Jane why he hid his first wife: ?Concealing the mad-woman’s neighbourhood from you, however, was something like covering a child with a cloak and laying it down near a upas-tree: that demon?s vicinage is poisoned, and always was.? My favorite is Belloc (1899): U for the Upas Tree that casts a blight / On those that pull their sisters? hair, and fight. Less famous works include Florence L Barclay, The Upas Tree (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1912; Some posthumous editions give the title as The Upas Tree: A Christmas Story for All the Year) and  Fred M. White, ?The Purple Terror,? The Strand Magazine, September 1898 [Short story including a violently carnivorous tree: ?No doubt these were a form of upas tree?.?

[7] ?Dear President Spencer,–Having but just retreated for a few hours from the battle-ground, while my guns are cooling for another broadside, I will report to you the progress of the war. [¶] The rumbling of the thunders which echoed in the distant hills, when you had those placards, has increased as they neared, and thickened as they lowered, until surcharged with the electric fluid of both hemispheres; they have exploded like the concussion of tornadoes, and deluged the town of Dowlais and vicinity, impregnating the moral atmosphere with a stench as fatal to truth and holiness, as the poisonous breath of the Upas Tree is to those who inhale it!? [?he goes on to describe the lecture.] Dan Jones, ?Letter to Elder Orson Spencer,? dated 1847 Sep 29, at Merthyr Tydfil, reprinted in The Latter-day Saints? Millennial Star 9:20 (1847 Oct 15):318-319. See also a transcription and background on Welsh mission efforts at Letter to Orson Spencer at Welsh Mormon History.

[8] Jedediah Grant, in General Conference in 1854 Oct said that ?the breath of that person who rejects my God is like the upas tree to me?it is poisonous.? Jedediah M. Grant, Address delivered at the General Conference, in the Tabernacle, Great Salt Lake City, 1854 Oct 07. Reported by G. D. Watt. Journal of Discourses 2:73 (71-74). An 1873 article in the Woman?s Exponent by ?Mary? said of alcohol consumption that ?The beastly habit becomes a deadly Upas tree, blasting every good principle and virtue in them, sinking them beneath the level of the brute creation.? Attributed to ?Mary, in Woman?s Exponent,? ?Intemperance,? as reprinted in The Latter-day Saints? Millennial Star 35:23 (1873 Jun 10 Tue): 366 (365-366).

[9] Excerpt from James H Hart, ?The Cane Creek Massacre,? from an unidentified newspaper, reprinted in Olive W Burt, American Murder Ballads and their Stories (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), p 113-114 and Olive W Burt, ?Murder Ballads of Mormondom,? Western Folklore 18:2 (1959 Apr): 147 (141?156). ht: Bruce Crow, ?Poems about the Cane Creek Massacre,? Amateur Mormon Historian, 2009 Apr 08 Wed, with an even earlier nod to Ardis Parshall, ?From Our Exchanges: Murder Ballads of Mormondom,? Keepapitchinin, 2008 Jun 14.

No small responsibility will rest
On so-called Christians, who have madly pressed
Their wicked schemes of special legislation
Alike disgraceful to the age and nation.
?Heroic measures? from their Upas tree,
Have thus with blood matured in Tennessee;
Whose martyrs rank with prophets, priests and sages,
Who died for God and Truth in former ages.

[10] Orson Ferguson Whitney, Elias: An Epic of the Ages, revised ed (1914), p 49 (line 1435, Canto VI, stanza 4); gives the publisher as The Knickerbocker Press, New York, but I don?t see any such indication in the book itself. The foreword states that the original edition was published in 1904. The cited stanzas were included in Brigham H Roberts, New Witnesses for God, Part 2, Volume 3 (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1909), 337.

Race upon race has perished in its pride, [1426]
And nations lustrous as the lights of heaven
Have sinned and sunk, in reckless suicide,
Upon this soil, since that dread word was given.
Realms battle-rent and regions tempest-riven; [1430]
The wrath-swept land for ages desolate;
A wretched remnant blasted, crust, and driven
Forth by the furies of revengeful fate;
Till wonder asks in vain, What of their former state?
Wouldst know the cause, the upas-tree that bore
The blight of desolation? ‘Tis a theme
To melt Earth’s heart, and move all Heaven to pour
With sorrow’s heaving flood, as when supreme
O’er fallen Lucifer, the generous stream
Of grief half quenched the joy of victory. [1440]

[11] Orson Ferguson Whitney, Love and the Light: An Idyl of the Westland (Salt Lake City: Joseph F Smith, Trustee-in-Trust, 1918), p 60 (Canto 5, stanza 4).

Ay, the sadness born of darkness,
 Spirit darkness, thick, o?erwhelming,
 Though it come not in a moment,
 Nor with thunderous tone and threatening,
 But with stealthy step, insidious
 As the blighting upas vapor,
 Creeping o?er its slumbering victim,
 Breathing death, the soul?s destruction.

[12] Fn 40: ?Upas Vapor (p. 60). The Upas tree, originally from Java, was once supposed to be poisonous, its exhalations fatal to both animal and vegetable life. But this supposition is now known to be false, specimens of the tree having been cultivated in British hot-houses and botanic gardens, with no ill-effects. The ?Upas tree? phrase has often been used as a figure to denote something morally pernicious.?

[13] As quoted in the first paragraph of this post: Edgar E Folk, The Mormon Monster: or, The Story of Mormonism (Chicago: Fleming H Revell Co, 1900), p 273. Folk opens his book with ?There are several plague spots upon our national body politic. One of these is the saloon, which is the upas tree of our civilization, the greatest curse which could befall a people. [¶] But one of the most terrible of the plague spots is what is known as Mormonism.? (p 1, first page of actual text). RF Burton used the upas ironically in describing the impact of the discovery of gold on Mormon settlements: ?Carson Valley, which was settled by Colonel Reece in 1852, and colonized in 1855 by 500 Mormons, was soon cleared of Saints by the influx of prospectors and diggers, and the other El Dorados drew off much [288] Gentile population, which was an incalculable boon to the Mormons. They thus rid themselves of the ?thriving lawyers, gamblers, prostitutes, criminals and desperadoes, loafers and drunkards,? who made New Jerusalem a carnival of horrors. The scene is now shifted to Denver and Carson Cities, where rape and robbery, intoxication and shooting are attributed to their true causes, the gathering together of a lawless and excited crowd, not to the ?baleful shade of that deadly Upas Tree, Mormonism.?? Richard Francis Burton, The City of the Saints, and Across the Rocky Mountains to California (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1862), p 287-288. It seems that Burton is quoting someone—?baleful shade??—but I have not identified a source.

[14] In response to an article by a ?Judge Derham?: ?But to the assertion, it is found in the last sentence of the second paragraph, which reads, (speaking of Salt Lake City), ?And we could but feel pained at the thought that this beautiful spot was poisoned by the upas tree of Mormonism.? Justice to myself, as well as to those of like faith with myself, demands that the professor should be corrected in regard to the assertion that the beautiful spot was poisoned by the upas tree of Mormonism. If he had said that it was poisoned by the upas tree of polygamy, or Brighamism, this article would not have been penned by me, for it is self-evident that all who inhale the pestilential breath of polygamy, die as to morality, and we might say every principle of virtue, almost, and are dead spiritually, and might as well be physicially [sic], for what good they do only that while there is life, there may be a space left for repentance.? [?skip two paragraphs and quote from Jacob 2 in the Book of Mormon?] ?Do those who teach and practice polygamy believe in the teachings of that book? Verily, no! They are not Mormons therefore, and polygamy is not the upas tree of Mormonism, but something as foreign to its teachings, as light is to darkness, as virtue to vice, as an angel in the realms of glory to one in the regions of despair.? Signed ?Justice,? ?From the Knox County (Ill.) Democrat,? The True Latter Day Saints? Herald 19 (no 9, 1872 May 01, Plano, IL): 267-268, responding to an article identified as ?Way Side Notes? by ?Judge Derham? in the Knox County Democrat, 1872 Jan 18. Upon the arrival of Brighamite missionaries in St John, Kansas, JS Weeks, second counselor to Bickerton: ?many honest people shun us as they would the ?Upas tree? or the ?black plague,? for fear that we are part of the same church, which has so long been conspicuous because of their belief in and practice of polygamy.? JS Weeks, ?A Letter,? St. John County Capital, 1887 Jun 24, p 4, as quoted in Gary R Entz, ?The Bickertonites: Schism and Reunion in a Restoration Church, 1880-1905,? Journal of Mormon History 32:3 (Fall 2006): 23 (1-44).

[15] SL Gillespie, ?The Mormon Priesthood,? in The Situation in Utah: The Discussions of the Christian Convention Held in Salt Lake City, April, 1888 (Salt Lake City: Parsons, Kendall, & Co, 1888), 17.

[16] Jeannette RH Walworth, The Bar-Sinister: A Mormon Study (Rahway, NJ: Mershon Co, 1900 [1885]), 339.

[17] ?Editor?s Table,? Hutchings? California Magazine 3:11 (1859 May): 528 (526-528). ?But the element that is the tap-root of this upas-tree, and that gives live to every branch and leaf of the system, is its disloyalty.? JM Coyner, ?Disloyalty of Mormons, and Education in Utah,? as reported in JC Hartzell ed, Christian Educators in Council: Sixty Addresses by American Educators, with Historical Notes upon the National Education Assembly, Held at Ocean Grove, N.J., August 9-12, 1883 (New York: Phillips & Hunt, 1883), p 136 (136-138). ??I am now prepared to offer comments that will belt, as with a machete, the deadly “Upas tree” of Mormonism.? R.B. Neal, (Grayson, KY), ??Smithianity:? Or, Mormonism Refuted by Mormons,? Christian Standard, Cincinnati, 1900 Feb 10 (vol 36, no 6), as transcribed at Uncle Dale?s Readings in Early Mormon History, ?Newspapers of Ohio; Misc. Ohio Newspapers; 1900-1909 articles.? ?How rapid and remarkable is the growth of evil! Fifty years ago, among the fertile vales of Western New York, the absurd and ridiculous pretence of a Divine Mission, was made by an ignorant and obscure young man — made at the outset, with no other view than to gull the credulous. From this silly claim, as a root, has grown this Upas-like tree, spreading its branches far and wide and sending its malarial influence throughout [362] the world. Ignorance, Superstition, Fanaticism — men’s evil passions and propensities — have been the food which has fed it to its present dangerous proportions. What will check or destroy it?? Thomas Gregg, The Prophet of Palmyra (New York: JB Alden, 1890), p 361-362.

[18] ?Among the Mormons: Interesting Interviews with Mormon Wives and Maidens; Joseph Smith a Polygamist; How He and His Chief Elder Kept Extra Wives on the Sly; One Who Would be an Only Wife; Cosy Chat with Some Young Daughters of Brigham Young; What they do When ?Pa? is Away,? World, New York, 1869 Nov 25, p 1-2, vol 10 no 2323.

[19] By ?influential? I mean ?I saw it quoted multiple times as I scrolled through Google Books.? Joseph Cook, ?The New Birth: A Scientific Necessity,? in Monday Lectures (London: RD Dickinson, 1880), 60. ?The very foundation of Mormonism is barbaric, its teachings are poisonous weeds, and if allowed to grow will ruin the whole nation. No man would hesitate a moment to have a poisonous limb cut off to save his life, and here is a cancer that destroys the peaceful and happy American home, that eats into the very flesh of the family and its purity, and such an Upas tree we should cover with the mantle of charity[?], no, never. It cannot, it will not be done.? Proceedings of the MW Grand Lodge of Ancient, Free and Accepted Masons of Utah, Fifteenth Annual Communication, Held January 19th and 20th, 1886 (Salt Lake City: Tribune Printing and Publishing Co, 1886), 152.

[20] ?Scarcely less radical than Rev. Talmage was the Rev. Joseph Cook; who in Boston, as the former in Brooklyn, vented his bitter spleen against the Church of the Latter-day Saints, calling upon his hearers to ?strike at the Upas tree? which was then ?shedding down its poison on a territory larger than New England.? ?Strike,? said he, ?where President Hayes tells you to let the ax fall. [i. e. take away the political power of the sect which encourages and sustains? [sic] polygamy, and govern the territory by a commission], and this Upas tree which now is the curse of the whole Basin region, will drop as  a compost heap, and give you there, ultimately, purity and wealth.? [¶] One of the incidents which grew out of this very wide-spread and bitter anti-Mormon crusade in the United States was the killing of Elder Joseph Standing near Varnal station, Whitfield county, in the state of Georgia, on the 21st of July, 1879.? BH Roberts, ?History of the Mormon Church,? Chapter 115, Americana Illustrated 10 (no 2, 1915 Feb): 147 (116-177). Robert?s footnote to Cook?s speech says: ?Christian Advocate, quoted in Deseret News?Weekly?of Dec. 24, 1879; and the Cincinnati Times (Id.)?

[21] J Randolph Tucker, as quoted in RW Sloan, The Great Contest: The Chief Advocates of Anti-Mormon Measures Reviewed by their Speeches in the House of Representatives, January 12, 1887, on the Bill Reported by J. Randolph Tucker as a Substitute for Senator Edmund?s Bill against the Mormon Church (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Co, 1887), p 59-60.

[22] Examples of other comparisons include vaccines, gambling, alcohol, naturopathic conceptions of disease, the progress of science and the raising of hens, religious politics in Ireland, Chinese immigration, and English colonialism. ?The Vaccine Upas Tree,? The Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Lantern slide, early 1900s; Henry Lindlahr, ?The Upas Tree of Disease,? front-piece illustration of Nature Cure: Philosophy & Practice Based on the Unity of Disease & Cure, 2 ed (Chicago: Nature Cure Publishing Co, 1914); ?Bohon Upas, der javanische Giftbaum? [Bohon Upas, the Javanese Poison Tree], front-piece image in Die Mystères des grünen Tisches oder der europäische Bohon Upas? (1845); Mrs. Sigourney, ?The Upas Tree,? in JG Adams and EH Chapin, eds, The Fountain: A Temperance Gift (Boston: George W Briggs, 1847), 99; Edgar W Nye on the progress of science (?How Evolution Evolves,? 46) and the raising of hens (?The Average Hen,? 167) in Remarks by Bill Nye (Chicago: FT Neely, 1891); Gerald Fitzgibbon, A Banded Ministry and the Upas Tree (Dublin: Hodges, Foster, and Co, 1873) [a pamphlet protesting the Emancipation Act in Ireland; the upas metaphor appears in earnest on page 54]; Russell A Alger, ?Message of Russell A. Alger, Retiring Governor, to the Michigan Legislature, January 6, 1887,? in Joint Documents of the State of Michigan for the Year 1886, Volume 1 of 4 (Lansing: Thorp & Godfrey, 1887), 23 (1-23).

The English Colonialism reference is interesting because, besides coming from RW Emerson via RB Hayes?s diary, it uses the upas as an example of a far-reaching and dominant system rather than as a blight. ?But the fault of England, if she has one, is, her success is material. She has no mysticism, no faith, no soaring. The Americans have more versatility, adaptedness; they are the people of the future. England is “mortgaged” to the past. But what a fate is hers! Like the upas tree she has struck her roots, by her colonies, in India, Australia, and America, into the four quarters of the globe, establishing her laws, extending her language and her race wide as the waters and the earth.? Rutherford B Hayes, in a diary entry for 1850 May 27 Mon, summarizing or responding to a lecture by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Diary and Letters of Rutherford Birchard Hayes, Nineteenth President of the United States, Volume 1, 1834-1860, Charles Richard Williams, ed, (Columbus: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1922), p 306.

[23] For examples: James Shaw, Twelve Years in America: Being Observations on the Country, the People, Institutions and Religion? (London: Hamilton, Adams, and Co, 1867), 103. No author listed, The Problem of the Age: or, The Abolition of American Slavery Considered in a Physical and Moral Aspect (London: Houlston & Stoneman, 1853), 29. See two examples in Jenna Marie Gibbs, ?Performing the Temple of Liberty: Slavery, Rights, and Revolution in Transatlantic Theatricality (1760s-1830s),? dissertation University of California, Los Angeles, 2008, p 460. Iain Alexander Whyte, ?Destroying the Upas Tree: The Role of Scottish Churches and People in the Abolition of Black Slavery, 1756-1838,? dissertation, University of Edinburgh, 2005. Albion W. Tourgee, ?The Negro?s View of the Race Problem,? address delivered 1890 June 06 and printed in First Mohonk Conference on the Negro Question, held at Lake Mohonk, Ulster County, New York, June 4, 5, 6, 1890, Isabel C. Barrows, ed. (Boston: George H Ellis, 1890), p 112.

[24] ?Why, Sir, slavery is the very Upas tree of the moral world, beneath whose pestiferous shade all intellect languishes, and all virtue dies. (Reiterated cheering). And if you would get quit of the evil, you must go more thoroughly and effectually to work than you can ever do by any or by all of those palliatives, which are included under the term ?mitigation.? The foul sepulcher must be taken away. The cup of oppression must be dashed to pieces on the ground. The pestiferous tree must be cut down and eradicated; it must be, root and branch of it, cast into the consuming fire, and its ashes scattered to the four winds of heaven. (Loud and long continued cheering). It is thus that you must deal with slavery. You must annihilate it,—annihilate it now, —and annihilate it for ever.? Andrew Thomson, Substance of the Speech Delivered at the Meeting of the Edinburgh Society for the Abolition of Slavery on October 19, 1830 (Edinburgh: William Whyte, 1830), 14.

[25] Wilson Armistead, Five Hundred Thousand Strokes for Freedom: A Series of Anti-Slavery Tracts, of which Half a Million Are Now First Issued by the Friends of the Negro (London: W & F Cash, 1853), frontispiece illustration.

[26] I?ve misplaced the reference. Paraphrasing: the tree?s poison might have been fantastical, but the moral threat from (Islam and Catholicism, IIRC) is all too real. For a discussion of some possible reasons for the upas?s poetic staying power, see Ashton Nichols, ?The Anxiety of Species: Toward a Romantic Natural History,? The Wordsworth Circle 28:3 (1997): 130-36.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Love it, Edje!

    Some more entries for your catalog:

    Reporting on the return to England of a one-time convert who had emigrated as far as St. Louis, seduced his wife?s sister, then abandoned his family in a foreign land among strangers, the Millennial Star of 1 September1851 cautioned, ?Let the Saints take warning, and be not deceived by lies spoken in hypocrisy; shun the society of those who thus disgrace their species; their presence is as the Upas tree, their breath is pestilential, and the poison of asps is under their tongues.?

    The New Orleans Bulletin, in an article reprinted in The Mormon, 14 March 1857 (and in other newspapers in New York, Ohio, and Missouri, and probably elsewhere), moralizes on the events leading up to the murder of Parley P. Pratt: ?Possibly our readers may be interested in it ? especially if they should ever in the mutations of the future, be thrown within the valley where the Upas sheds its poison and reveals the ghastly carcasses which strew the ground, they may perhaps be enabled to turn it to a practical use.?

    George A. Smith writing to Orson Hyde on 13 March 1864 debated [rhetorically] the extension of hospitality to Gentile outsiders: ?Is it proper for us under such circumstances to open our houses for boarding to those who desire nothing better than to instil the poison of asps or the Upas, and thereby destroy those principles of truth which all our life long we have labored to disseminate??

    The New York World of 25 November 1871 described Bill Hickman (?Brigham Young?s Janissary? ? what a vocabulary they presumed of their readers!): ?He looks swinish in his habits of person ? as foul in body as vile in heart. This walking sprout of poison upas grew up in Missouri, was a clerk, then school teacher, and calls the law his profession. May the law render unto him good for evil and lead him to justice, though he abandoned law!?

    Joseph F. Smith counseled a church member on 25 March 1890: ?Above all things void that most deadly of sins, sexual impurity, for that is like the fatal Upas to all who come under its blighting and damning effects.?

    Ignoring the Manifesto, the Boston Traveler of 29 May 1891was confident that thoughtful people ?will not be long in reaching the conclusion that the Upas tree of polygamy must be destroyed root and branch.?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 28, 2013 @ 8:18 am

  2. Thanks, Ardis. The additional references add some nuance to the ways in which the upas was used.

    Also, I agree about the presumed vocabulary of readers: those 19C newspaper chaps really pandered to the base elements with their sensational content, but the level of language and rhetoric is sometimes pretty intense.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — May 28, 2013 @ 8:59 am

  3. This doesn’t have a Mormon connection, but I thought I’d mention it just for the cultural background:

    Pushkin, Russia’s most celebrated poet, wrote a famous poem on the Upas Tree in 1828. The poem is a protest against tyranny, brought on by the criminal charges Pushkin was facing for his poetry.

    Comment by Bryan Catanzaro — May 28, 2013 @ 12:17 pm

  4. This is AWESOME, Edje… I hadn’t really marked the Upas tree image in my own work, but I’m definitely on the lookout now! Thank you!

    Comment by Cristine — May 28, 2013 @ 1:37 pm

  5. This is SO much fun!

    Comment by Amanda HK — May 28, 2013 @ 1:57 pm

  6. Fascinating. I read Harts poem, but never thought to look up what an Upas Tree was.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — May 28, 2013 @ 2:43 pm

  7. Brilliant. Well done, as always.

    Comment by Ben P — May 28, 2013 @ 7:05 pm

  8. Thanks for the comments.

    Bryan: good call on Pushkin. Are familiar with the Arensky scoring of the poem? I looked for a free recording but could not find one. Also: the non-Mormon-ness doesn’t matter. Part of the point is that the folkloric upas was practically ubiquitous. You could allude to it without having to explain what it was.

    Amanda and Cristine: At the risk of shameless self promotion… in 2009 I wrote several posts like this one (Mormons as Bluebeard, Mormos, Flies, Lice, Crickets, Cows, etc.).

    Thanks, Bruce and Ben.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — May 28, 2013 @ 9:58 pm

  9. Fabulous contribution to the series, Edje. Well done again!

    Comment by Nate R. — May 29, 2013 @ 7:54 am

  10. Bravo. And once again, Edje hits it out of the ballpark.

    I’ve read some of that, including Jane Eyre (funny spoiler alert, by the way) and never noticed the Upas tree. Funny the things that we can skip over in our reading without understanding.

    Comment by Amy T — May 29, 2013 @ 9:10 am

  11. Edje, the shameless self-promotion has been marked. I’ll definitely be looking up those 2009 posts. Thanks again!

    Comment by Cristine — May 29, 2013 @ 11:11 am

  12. Here’s a video of the Arensky scoring. Arensky evidently skipped the third and fifth stanzas, if you’re trying to follow along.

    Comment by Bryan Catanzaro — May 29, 2013 @ 3:42 pm

  13. Thanks, Nate, Amy, Cristine, and Bryan.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — May 29, 2013 @ 11:52 pm

  14. I found an earlier Mormon usage of the Upas. John C Bennett in a letter to Joseph Smith, discussing Mormon grievances in Missouri:

    ??once that noble bird of Jove, our grand national emblem, soared aloft, bearing in her proud beak the words ?Liberty and Law,? and that man that had the temerity to ruffle her feathers was made to feel the power of her talons; but a wily archer came, and with his venomed arrow dipped in Upas? richest sap, shot the flowing label from the Eagle?s bill??

    John C Bennett, letter to Joseph Smith, Nauvoo, Illinois, 1842 Mar 08, as reprinted in ?Correspondence,? Times and Seasons 3:10 (Nauvoo, IL, 1842 Mar 15): 725 (723-725).

    Comment by Edje Jeter — June 15, 2013 @ 10:44 am

  15. […] few weeks ago I posted on the upas tree. That post was prompted by a line from Edgar Folk: ?[Mormonism] is the Upas tree of our […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Cephalopods 2 of 4: Devil Fish and Octopuses — June 30, 2013 @ 12:02 am

  16. For completeness, another Bennett usage:

    Writing about Joseph Smith… ?Though his touch be as deadly as that of the Bohon Upas, I will tear the ermine of sanctity from the shoulders of His Pontifical Holiness, and dim the glory of his mitred head.?

    John Cook Bennett, letter to James Gordon Bennett, 1842 Aug 27, New York, as printed in John Cook Bennett, The History of the Saints: Or, An Exposé of Joe Smith and Mormonism (Boston: Leland & Whiting, 1842), 151.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — July 6, 2013 @ 1:03 am


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