The Mormon Cancer, 1 of 2: Mountain Meadows Massacre

By August 11, 2013

Over the past few months I have posted on figures of speech involving Mormonism. To the Mormon Octopus, Robot, Hydra, and Upas Tree I now add ?the Mormon cancer.? [1] Like so many of the negative characterizations of Mormonism, we begin our tour of Mormon cancers with John C Bennett, who, in 1842 wrote:

Nothing short of an excision of the cancer of Mormonism will effect a cure of that absorbing delusion, and the strong arm of military power must perform the operation at the edge of the sword, point of the bayonet, and mouth of the cannon. [2]

Bennett uses a fully-developed surgical metaphor: Mormonism is a ?cancer? in the present-day sense of a malignant tumor and the surgical ?operation? to remove it is military action. The ?cure? part of the metaphor is, I think, the most important for interpreting the Mormon reaction to cancer metaphors. As I will suggest below and next week, into the 1900s Mormons—not without cause—understood cancer metaphors as calls for organized violence against them. 

Short version: cancer metaphors appeared in a (non-Mormon) speech and two editorials (Mormon, reacting to speech) in the weeks before the Mountain Meadows Massacre and in at least two (non-Mormon) editorials/reports thereafter.

Long version: The Mormon cancer metaphor appeared again in 1857. Stephen A Douglas, who, up till then, was generally considered a friend/not-enemy to Mormonism by both Mormons and non-Mormons, gave a speech (1857 June 12) at Springfield, Illinois. According to the (non-Mormon) Missouri Republican (St Louis, 1857 Jun 18), in a discussion of the ?situation? in Utah, Douglas proposed a formal, thorough investigation, then:

When the authentic evidence shall arrive, if it shall establish the facts which are believed to exist, it will become the duty of Congress to apply the knife and cut out this loathsome, disgusting ulcer. (Applause.) No temporizing policy—no half way measures will then answer. [3]

Through the nineteenth century ?cancer? and ?ulcer? could be used as synonyms. [4] Fifteen years after the fact (1873) Thomas Stenhouse, who had been a Mormon editorialist, recollected thinking that Douglas was playing the audience-pleasing politician but leaving himself room maneuver with the ?if.? [5] Other Mormon organs took a much dimmer view. The (Mormon) Western Standard reported a different, more detailed version of the speech (San Francisco, 1857 Jul 24, ?Pioneer Day? [6]):

Let us have these facts in an official shape before the President and Congress, and the country will soon learn that, in the performance of the high and solemn duty devolving upon the Executive and Congress, there will be no vacillating or hesitating policy. It will be as prompt as the peal that follows the flash?as stern and unyielding as death. Should such a state of things actually exist as we are led to infer from the reports?and such information comes in an official shape?the knife must be applied to this pestiferous, disgusting cancer which is gnawing into the very vitals of the body politic. It must be cut out by the roots, and seared over by the red hot iron of stern and unflinching law. [7]

The accompanying comments, presumably by editor George Q Cannon, turned the cancer/surgical language against past anti-Mormon mobs:

Oh, that we had had such a President and such a Congress, as he assures us we now have, that would have been ?as prompt as the peal that follows the flash—as stern and unyielding as death? in applying the knife to the pestiferous, disgusting cancer which gnawed into the very vitals of our liberties in years that are past! Then the murderers of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, and numerous other victims, male and female, would not have gone unwhipt of justice, and the innocent blood of those good men and women would not now be crying from the ground to the Lord for vengeance on those characters. [8]

A little more than a month after Cannon?s report, the Deseret News responded—vehemently—to Douglas (1857 Sep 02), including a gloss of the ?loathsome, disgusting ulcer? line as ?recommending the extermination? of Mormons. [9]

The following week Mormons in southern Utah murdered approximately 120 non-Mormon California-bound emigrants in what became known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

Cancer metaphors also appeared in the Massacre?s aftermath. A few weeks afterwards, when the news had reached California, a California newspaper editorialized:

What shall the government do? Continue to pursue the temporising policy which has permitted the growth of this at first insignificant and diminutive community into a powerful legion of armed men, daily growing stronger and better prepared to resist us? — or shall not a determined effort be made to root out this social cancer? [10]

The editorial goes on to insist, like Douglas, on an investigation and waiting for ?the most indubitable proofs,? but the tone and gist supposes Mormon guilt and the inevitability of violence: ?the sooner the war is commenced the better.? Also note the phrase ?temporising policy,? which appears both in the Douglas speech and the California paper and might suggest an influence.

The ulcer metaphor also appeared in an 1859 Army report about conditions in Utah, datelined at Mountain Meadows:

The expenses of the army in Utah, past, and to come, (figure that,) the massacre at the Mountain Meadows, the unnumbered other crimes which have been, and will yet be committed by this community, are but preliminary gusts of the whirlwinds our government has reaped, and is yet to reap, for the wind it has sown in permitting the Mormons ever to gain foothold within our borders.

They are an ulcer upon the body politic—an ulcer which needs more than cautery 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 proves 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.? [11]

In not-really-a-conclusion: cancer metaphors appeared in a speech and two editorials in the weeks before the Massacre and in two editorials/reports thereafter. I am not prepared to make any specific, causal claims about the cancer/ulcer metaphor in connection with the Massacre or the ?Utah War,? but the metaphor was ?in the mix? of texts contributing and reacting to perceptions and misperceptions.


[1] I?ve been casually collecting instances of ?Mormon disease? for a few years now, but John F?s discussion of disease metaphors and eliminationist rhetoric in a post at BCC a few months ago bumped the idea up in my queue. The Mormon cancers I found mixed in with Mormon octopuses pushed the post all the way to the front. I?ll do two posts. Below I?ll discuss ?the cancer? in the 1840s and 50s, focusing on its connection to the Mountain Meadows Massacre; next week I?ll look at the metaphor in relation to the Civil War, Mormon narratives of persecution, and the Mormon octopus.

[2] 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.

[3] Stephen Arnold Douglas, speech at Springfield, IL, 1857 Jun 12, as reported in ?The Remarks of Hon. Stephen Arnold Douglas, Delivered in the State House at Springfield, Illinois, on the 12th June, 1857,? Daily Missouri Republican, St Louis, MO, 1857 Jun 18, as transcribed by Dale R Broadhurst. A very slightly different version appeared in pamphlet form later that year: ?When the authentic evidence shall arrive, if it shall establish the facts which are believed to exist, it will become the duty of Congress to apply the knife and cut out this loathsome, disgusting ulcer. (Applause.) No temporizing policy—no half-way measure will then answer.? Stephen Arnold Douglas, speech at Springfield, IL, 1857 Jun 12, as reported in Remarks of Hon. Stephen A. Douglas, on Kansas, Utah, and the Dred Scott Decision, Delivered at Springfield, Illinois, June 12th, 1857, pamphlet, 15 pages (Chicago: Daily Times Book and Job Office, 1857), 12-13.

[4] As a medical word, a ?cancer? in the nineteenth century could still be a generic, non- or slow-healing sore or ulcer but as the century progressed the present-day definition of a ?cancer? as a malignant neoplasm or tumor became entrenched. Both versions appear in discourse about Mormonism.

[5] ?In the spring of 1856 Senator Douglas delivered a great speech at Springfield, Illinois. It was the announcement of his platform before the assembling of the conventions that were to nominate the successor of President Pierce. In that speech the senator characterized Mormonism as ?the loathsome ulcer ?of the body politic? and recommended the free use of the scalpel as the only remedy in the hands of the nation. The Author well remembers that speech and its effect upon the Mormons. He was then engaged as assistant editor of The Mormon, a weekly paper published in New York city. His first impulse was to notice the speech, but a careful examination of it rendered the expediency of such a course very doubtful. There were so many ?ifs? and so often ?should it be,? that it was at last concluded to leave it alone, for the senator might after all have only said what he did from the necessity of sailing with the popular tide against the Mormons, while at the same time he might in the Senate demand evidence of the criminality of the Mormons before any action was taken against them. Brigham alone could determine what course, if any, should be adopted in respect to the Springfield speech. [¶] Before long the Deseret News, Brigham?s official organ, presented to the world a reply to Senator Douglas. The priesthood?s phials of wrath were poured out without stint or mercy upon the head of their quondam friend and defender. All the good that he had ever done was in a moment forgotten, and all their obligations were in an instant cancelled for ever. An irreconcilable breach was made, and the spirit of prophecy was rampant. ?? 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 and Co, 1873), 347-348. Note that Stenhouse seems to have the date wrong. I am, of course, willing to be corrected, but I have thus far been unable to identify an 1856 speech by Douglas that fits Stenhouse?s description of it. For now I am proceeding under the assumption that Stenhouse meant the 1857 Jun 12 speech. Note, also, that Stenhouse is responding to Mormon apologetic use of the speech and Douglas?s failed presidential bid as an evidence of Joseph Smith?s prophetic ability.

[6] I am willing to be corrected, but my preliminary analysis suggests that the Western Standard and Missouri Republican reports are merely garbled versions of the same speech. Multiple accounts of speeches are, of course, commonplace, especially before the advent of sound recording. There might also be other mismatches, such as a difference between the printed and the oral versions of the speech. If the two Douglas quotes do refer to the same speech, the interesting part (for present purposes) is that ?loathsome, disgusting ulcer? and ?pestiferous, disgusting cancer? replace each other. As noted earlier, ?cancer? and ?ulcer? could be used as synonyms through most of the nineteenth century. The Western Standard version goes further, though, and makes clear that the ?cancer? is spreading and consuming. (I?ll discuss the two versions more in a later post.)

[7] No author listed [George Quayle Cannon, editor], ?Senator Douglas.—?Mormon Problem?,? 1857 Jul 24, as reprinted in Writings from the ?Western Standard? Published in San Francisco, California (Liverpool: George Q Cannon, 1864), 487 (487-491).

[8] No author listed [George Quayle Cannon, editor], ?Senator Douglas.—?Mormon Problem?,? 1857 Jul 24, as reprinted in Writings from the ?Western Standard? Published in San Francisco, California (Liverpool: George Q Cannon, 1864), 488 (487-491). Cannon?s quote and response were reprinted in No author listed, credited to the Western Standard, ?Proposed Solution of the Mormon Problem,? The Latter-day Saints? Millennial Star 19.41 (1857 Oct 10 Sat): 653-655.

[9] ?After giving another stab under cover of an ?if?, and after advancing his opinion of the duty of the President toward Utah ?under this (his) view of the subject,? he then whips into the ranks of the dogs who are howling for our extermination and, in order that all politicians might know that he was a dog with them, barks as follows:— ¶ [quotes Douglas as above, ?When the authentic? loathsome, disgusting ulcer? will then answer?] ¶ In three short paragraphs, two of which contain ?ifs? of precisely the same character, a Senator is found, under one ?if?, advocating the old English colonial policy of officering a people at the point of the bayonet, and in the next breath, and under the same character of ?if?, recommending the extermination of that people. Who cannot see that reason and mercy have left him, (if he ever had any,) in his mad and wickedly truckling career after popularity and office?? Note that the response was relatively long and that the ?ulcer? quote did not have a prominent position within the article. No author listed (Albert Carrington, editor), ?Comments upon ?The Remarks of Hon. Stephen Arnold Douglas, Delivered in the State House at Springfield, Illinois, on the 12th of June, 1857;? and Printed in the Missouri Republican of June 18,? Deseret News, Salt Lake City, UT, 1857 Sep 02 Wed, p 205 (204-205, 208 [edition p 4-5, 8]).

[10] No author listed, ?The Mormon Murderers,? Daily Alta California 9.190, San Francisco, CA, 1857 Oct 28 Wed. The editorial continues: ?The seven hundred men, now on their way to Utah, will, we firmly believe, be not only resisted, but successfully resisted, and we shall expect to hear, simultaneously, of their arrival and their defeat or flight. There are ten thousand fighting men at Salt Lake, well provided with arms and ammunition, and inspired by that spirit of religious fanaticism which, in all ages, has made men ready to fight with a desperate determination, such as we can be aroused to by no other feeling — not even love of country. The route, between Salt Lake and the borders of California, must be protected by a large body of troops, who must not be permitted to remain stationed merely at certain points, but who should act as a patrol, constantly on the move. This must be done, or overland emigrants to California will be murdered and robbed continually.

?The evidence of emigrants, which we gave in yesterday’s issue, has been sent to Washington. The government will, we suppose, of course investigate the whole matter, and we hope, upon being satisfied of the facts, immediate and determined action will be taken. We are satisfied that the Mormon traitors must be rooted out of our territory, fully and finally — that this must be the policy of our government, sooner or later, and that the sooner the war is commenced the better. Still, the government would not be authorized in acting, until they have received the most indubitable proofs of the treacherous, murderous conduct of the Mormons.?

[11] James Henry Carleton [Brevet Major; Captain in the First Dragoons], report to WW Mackall [Major; Assistant Adjutant General, San Francisco], dated 1859 May 25, Camp at Mountain Meadows, Utah Territory, as printed in ?McGrorty vs. Hooper,? submitted by Chanler, 1868 Jul 09, part of the ?Digest of Election Cases,? Miscellaneous Document 152 in Miscellaneous Documents of the House of Representatives for the Second Session of the Forty-first Congress, 1869-1870, Volume 4, (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1870), 249 (238-249). Reprinted as James Henry Carleton, Special Report of the Mountain Meadow Massacre, Document 605, House of Representatives, 57th Congress, Session 1 (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1902), 17.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. I’m sure you noticed this in Lundwall (my paraphrase): “Numerous diarists recorded instances of ‘the Mormon curse,’ a rotting of the flesh that struck down the men who had lifted their hands against the prophet.” Different context, I understand.

    Comment by Alex Beam — August 11, 2013 @ 7:29 am

  2. As you note, I think a bit of this is lost on those of us habituated to modern medicine, for whom cancer is mostly unseen. It may be painful, and it may cause serious symptoms (including mortality), but rarely is it visible (except perhaps in the treatment). For the folks in the nineteenth century, skin and breast cancers often developed ulcers and associated necrosis.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 11, 2013 @ 12:31 pm

  3. Alex: actually, I had not. I’ve only been casually collecting refs and I had not even considered looking at Lundwall (_Fate of the Persecutors…_, I presume?). Thanks for the hint.

    Stapley: Amen.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — August 11, 2013 @ 1:02 pm

  4. Fascinating, Edje. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — August 11, 2013 @ 2:40 pm

  5. Interesting, Edje. I’ll eagerly await part 2.

    Judge Jacob Boreman also uses ulcer in his 2nd District Grand Jury Charge in September 1874. Though investigating Mountain Meadows is one of the tasks he places on the Grand Jury, there he uses ulcer in relation to polygamy. Additionally, in his analogy, the ulcer is also contagious. Is cancer contagious in the 19th c?

    Comment by jjohnson — August 12, 2013 @ 12:23 pm

  6. Christopher: Thanks.

    JJohnson: I haven’t counted, but I see many refs to both a cancer/ulcer of Mormonism and a cancer/ulcer of polygamy.

    I’ll have to chase down the Boreman cite. I can’t think of a ref to a “contagious” cancer in the 21C sense but don’t know the medical or cultural lit well enough to rule it out with confidence. That said, there are many refs to spreading cancer. In the more developed metaphors, Mormonism/polygamy is a cancer “on the body politic” and it is spreading to different parts of that “body.” So, in one sense, the metaphorical cancer is “contagious” in that it spreads from person to person, but that is on the image side of the metaphor; on the object side the cancer is spreading on one body.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — August 12, 2013 @ 2:04 pm

  7. Wow, Edje.

    Comment by WVS — August 13, 2013 @ 9:16 am

  8. Thanks, WVS.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — August 13, 2013 @ 7:09 pm

  9. […] week I wrote about ?the Mormon cancer? in connection with the Mountain Meadows Massacre. This week I want to look at how the metaphor fared from the 1870s to the 1920s. The take-home […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » The Mormon Cancer, 2 of 2: Republican Virtue and the Civil War — August 18, 2013 @ 5:01 am


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