Vengeance on God’s enemies has been a key theme in Latter-day Saint collective memory of persecution. This, I believe, in part reflects the uneven power relations that structured Mormon contact with other Americans. Since the Latter-day Saints ultimately lacked the power to punish their persecutors, Mormons interpreted the demise of their enemies as the hand of God. Sometimes these narrations of demise involved a bit of humor. The following account of the deaths and humiliations of several Missouri mobbers in 1834, when Zion’s Camp was huddled in the Baptist church during the rain storm, is taken from a speech given by George A. Smith in 1854. I am not aware of this story being told prior to this time (update: see comments 9 and 11 below), but it subsequently entered into Mormon narratives of persecution. A form of it appeared in Parley P. Pratt’s 1874 autobiography (p. 125) and C. C. A. Christensen chose to portray this scene in his Mormon Panorama during the 1880s, included above. A good project for Mormon folklorist would be to trace the development of this story (hint, hint, Ben).
In the history of our persecutions there have arisen a great many anecdotes; but one will perhaps serve to illustrate the condition in which I wish to see every man that raises in these mountains the hand of oppression upon the innocent. I wish to see such men rigged out with the same honors and comforts as was the honorable Samuel C. Owen, Commander-in-Chief of the Jackson County mob. He, with eleven men, was engaged at a mass meeting, to raise a mob to drive the Saints from Clay County. This was in the year 1834, in the month of June. They had made speeches, and done everything to raise the indignation of the people against the Saints. In the evening, himself, James Campbell, and nine others, commenced to cross the Missouri river on their way home again; and the Lord, or some accident, knocked a hole in the bottom of the boat. When they discovered it, says Commander Owen to the company on the ferry boat, “We must strip to the bone, or we shall all perish.” Mr. Campbell replied, “I will go to hell before I will land naked.” He had his choice, and went to the bottom. Owen stripped himself of every article of clothing, and commenced floating down the river. After making several attempts he finally landed on the Jackson side of the river, after a swim of about fourteen miles. He rested some time, being perfectly exhausted, and then started into the nettles, which grow very thick and to a great height, in the Missouri bottoms, and which was his only possible chance in making from the river to the settlements. He had to walk four miles through the nettles, which took him the remainder of the night, and when he got through the nettles, he came to a road, and saw a young lady approaching on horseback, who was the belle of Jackson County. In this miserable condition he laid himself behind a log, so that she could not see him. When she arrived opposite the log, he says, “Madam, I am Samuel C. Owen, the Commander-in-Chief of the mob against the Mormons; I wish you to send some men from the next house with clothing, for I am naked.” The lady in her philanthropy dismounted, and left him a light shawl and a certain unmentionable under garment, and passed on. So His Excellency Samuel C. Owen, who was afterwards killed in Mexico by foolishly exposing himself, contrary to orders, took up his line of march for the town, in the shawl and petticoat uniform, after his expedition against the “Mormons.”
My young friends, have the goodness to use every man so, who comes into your country to mob and oppress the innocent; and LADIES, DON’T LEND HIM ANY CLOTHING.
George A. Smith, “Reminiscences of the Jackson County Mob, the Evacuation of Nauvoo, and the Settlement of Great Salt Lake City,” July 24, 1854, Journal of Discourses, 2: 24.