“I will go to hell before I will land naked”: The Demise of Enemies and God’s Vengeance

By February 13, 2008

 

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.[1] 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.

____________

[1]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.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins From the Archives Memory


Comments

  1. Wow, that is all I can say. I am amazed at the vivid detail the G.A. Smith uses in this story. I wonder where he got all this information…

    This reminds me of all the didactic sermons used by the early Puritans when referring to those were were not as valiant.

    Comment by Ben — February 7, 2008 @ 12:06 pm

  2. Ben, I agree the amount of detail is amazing. Even if the Mormons had heard of the drowning of some Missourians, the degree of specificity in the dialog is a bit to crisp for my taste. I think that you’re right that this is a variation of an older trope, with a Mormon twist.

    Comment by David G. — February 7, 2008 @ 12:12 pm

  3. Loved it, David — and thanks for giving this a slug that made it past the filters.

    What do you want to bet that the moment Huckabee or McCain or [insert your least favorite non-Romney candidate] fails, somebody will blog in all seriousness about some particular goof as being divine intervention followed by just retribution? That seems to be just the way some of us are!

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — February 13, 2008 @ 1:37 pm

  4. Ardis, I can definitely see that happening. As we’re still in a relatively marginalized position in American society, interpreting “some particular goof” by our “enemies” as God’s vengeance will be a means by which we can negotiate our position.

    Comment by David G. — February 13, 2008 @ 1:43 pm

  5. Great stuff, thanks for posting this.

    Ben, I expect a full report on the development of the story sometime this year (or next) at a folklore conference.

    Comment by Christopher — February 13, 2008 @ 1:52 pm

  6. Chris, I’ll see what I can do….

    Comment by Ben — February 13, 2008 @ 3:05 pm

  7. How many people still cherish their copies of The Fate of the Persecutors because they think it’s true (or if it isn’t, it should be)? Way too many I fear. Excellent post David.

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 13, 2008 @ 3:20 pm

  8. One of my favorite parts of Oaks and Hill’s Carthage Conspiracy is where they debunk The Fate of the Persecutors. There’s also a Dialogue article on this that I’ve been meaning to read.

    Comment by David G. — February 13, 2008 @ 3:23 pm

  9. The January 15, 1846, issue of Times and Seasons features a less vivid version of the same story. (The belle is not mentioned, for example.)

    BTW, I’ve read an account of Owens’ death in Mexico (alluded to by G.A. Smith).

    Comment by Justin — February 13, 2008 @ 3:32 pm

  10. Thanks, Justin, for the headsup on the T&S article. I’ll check it out.

    Did the account of Owens’ death come from a Mormon source?

    Comment by David G. — February 13, 2008 @ 3:53 pm

  11. [T]he Jackson mob to the number of about fifteen, with Samuel C. Owens and James Campbell at their head, started for Independence, Jackson county, to raise an army sufficient to meet me, before I could get into Clay county. Campbell swore, as he adjusted his pistols in his holsters, “The Eagles and Turkey Buzzards shall eat my flesh if I do not fix Joe. Smith and his army so that their skins will not hold shucks, before two days are passed.”
    They went to the ferry and undertook to cross the Missouri river, after dusk, and the angel of God saw fit to sink the boat, about the middle of the river, and seven out of twelve that attempted to cross, were drowned. Thus suddenly, and justly went they to their own place by water. Campbell was among the missing. He floated down the river some four or five miles, and lodged upon a pile of drift wood, where the Eagles, Buzzards, Ravans, Crows and wild animals ate his flesh from his bones, to fullfil his own words, and left him a horrible looking skeleton of God’s vengeance: which was discovered, about three weeks after by one Mr. Purtle.
    Owens saved his life only, after floating four miles down the stream, where he lodged upon an island, “swam off naked about day light, borrowed a mantle to hide his shame, and slipped home rather shy of the vengeance of God.” (“History of Joseph Smith,” Times and Seasons, January 15, 1846, 1090-91; HC 2:99-100)

    Now I’m curious to see if it is in earlier sources. Zion’s Camp is not even mentioned in Pratt’s or Rigdon’s pamphlets.

    Comment by David G. — February 13, 2008 @ 4:09 pm

  12. Did the account of Owens’ death come from a Mormon source?

    Yes, it did. Here’s a late account (see p. 3).

    Comment by Justin — February 13, 2008 @ 4:31 pm

  13. “How many people still cherish their copies of The Fate of the Persecutors because they think it’s true (or if it isn’t, it should be)”

    There is a grad student at the U doing a collective biography of the “Persecutors” titled “Respected Assassins.” She is presenting at MHA.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 14, 2008 @ 12:30 am

  14. I look at the persecutors in terms of curses of putrefaction in my corpse chapter. it’s actually a pretty long and fascinating tradition. i’ll try to catch the grad student’s talk. what is her name? has anyone been out to that fabled grave in Peoa? is it worth the trip?

    Comment by smb — February 14, 2008 @ 10:02 am

  15. smb, what do you think of Drew Gilpin Faust’s new book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War ? I haven’t read it yet, but when I saw it I thought of your project on death culture. I also recently received notice from Cornell UP that Mark Schantz’s Awaiting the Heavenly Country: The Civil War and America’s Culture of Death will be coming out soon.

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 14, 2008 @ 10:06 am

  16. I also thought of Sam’s work when I heard about Faust’s new book.

    I was doing a little reading this morning in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and found that the last section of the book is entitled “God’s Punishment upon Some of the Persecutors of His People in Mary’s Reign.” It then relates the terrible demise of enemies and God’s vengeance. So Mormonism’s vengeance discourse was not sui generis, and I expect Sam’s chapter will show plenty of cultural precedents.

    Comment by David G. — February 14, 2008 @ 10:41 am

  17. “i’ll try to catch the grad student’s talk. what is her name?”
    Debbie Marsh. She first argues that the Fate of the Prosecutors book got a lot of the mob names wrong. She goes with Sheriff Backenstos’s list and then traces their lives through a variety of successful business/political careers. The Carthage Mob, she says, fits well within the antebellum vigilante groups who were the respected members of the community trying to preserve or restore order. They were not frontier rabble in other words who died terrible deaths for their deed, but went on to be elected to offices and lead respectable lives.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 14, 2008 @ 4:09 pm

  18. Oops. Should be Fate of the Persecutors, although some prosecutors perhaps deserve a similar fate.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 14, 2008 @ 4:10 pm

  19. Yeah, I use Foxe (a major work from the Puritans through the Civil War for Protestants). The tradition dates back to Lactantius at least, and is often recycled in a variety of forms.

    Faust is quite readable. She does a reasonable job of describing antebellum death culture (“good” death following Victorian historians; Aries calls it “beautiful” death; I think I want to militate for “holy” death). She then describes the stresses and strains of the Civil War on that death culture. Since I’m not a student of Civil War or postbellum culture particularly, I’m not able to assess the historiographic relevance of her proposal that the strain of death and lost and mutilated corpses helped to create a tradition of sacrifice and suffering in the postbellum republic. The part of her work relevant to the antebellum period is more a recital of others’ work than a new contribution, but that’s not what she was after.

    Comment by smb — February 14, 2008 @ 9:05 pm

  20. Thanks for the summary of Faust’s book. I may take a look at it if I ever get some spare time.

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 14, 2008 @ 9:52 pm

  21. […] as a persecuted people has been the topic of numerous posts by JI’s own David G. (see here, here, and here for examples).  David’s research suggests that this discourse on persecution […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » “The Accent of Conviction and Sincere Belief”: Travel Writers & Mormon Discourse on Persecution — March 3, 2008 @ 2:58 pm


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