The Mormon Old Man of the Mountain

By December 19, 2014

One of my favorite hyperbolic descriptions of Brigham Young (??In the course of an unusually long life, he was never known to do a generous or unselfish action??) includes the line: ?If we search history for his prototypes, we find him a mixture of Mokanna, the veiled prophet of Kohrassan, and that terrible chief of the assassins, the Old Man of the Mountain.? [1] I recently wrote about the Mormon Mokanna; today I address the other half of the mix. In the mid- and late-nineteenth century, critics of Mormonism sometimes compared Mormons to the ?Old Man of the Mountain,? the leader of what Marco Polo and many since understood to be the fanatically dedicated and fantastically skilled Hashashin / ?Assassins.?

The Assassins were a group of Ismailis based in what is now Iran in the 1000s to 1200s. Europeans and Americans in the nineteenth century sometimes used ?Old Man of the Mountain? as a generic title of the leader of the Assassins or to indicate a particular one of the leaders, Rashid ad-Din Sinan or Hassan-i Sabbah.

In 1829 one Robert Southey had a fictional character say that ?America is in danger from religious fanaticism? and that ?An Old Man of the Mountain might find dupes and followers as readily as the All-friend Jemima [ie, Jemima Wilkinson]? and then use them to wreak havoc. [2] I found multiple instances where the whole paragraph was quoted, starting in 1829. [3] In 1843 Henry Caswall placed it before the title page of his exposé on Mormonism and then used it again in an 1851 description of Mormonism, averring that ?This anticipation has already been wonderfully fulfilled in all its parts.? [4] Note that Caswall, as Southey, conflated the attributes of Mohammed and The Old Man of the Mountain, so, whatever the parallels, we?re not talking about a precise or careful comparison. In addition to the instances cited, the Southey prediction shows up in connection with Mormons in 1843, 1861, 1873, and 1875. [5]

The trope of the Mormon prophet as an Old Man of the Mountain appeared in a variety of other contexts throughout the latter nineteenth century. An 1843 chronicler reported that Joseph Smith had, in Missouri, ?openly avowed his intention of propagating his religion by the sword.? Furthermore, Smith was ?not content with emulating Mohammed? but instead ?took a leaf out of the book of Hassan-ebn-Sabah, and like that ?old man of the mountain,? organized a body of sworn assassins, under the name of the ?Danite Band.?? [6]

Brigham Young was a frequent target. Sir Richard Burton wrote in 1861 that Young, was ?like the Old Man of the Mountain? in that he ?by holding up his hand could cause the death of any one within his reach.? [7] A railroad booster in 1872 argued that Mormon-controlled lands were ?very much like the establishment of the Old Man of the Mountain,? but that the coming of rails portended the end of Mormon domination. [8] An 1878 commentator on the ?Utah War? of the 1850s said that Mormon Danites ?had their prototypes under every aspect of despotism? including ?the assassins of the Old Man of the Mountain.? [9] A 1910 description of Brigham Young, based on an 1873 trip through Utah, asserted that ?the Old Man of the Mountain himself was not more faithfully or more bloodily served by his hashishin than was the Lion of the Lord by his band of bravos.? In particular, ?It was not conducive to long life to love a maid or wed a wife upon whom the eyes of one of the holy ones might have fallen.? [10]

The Mountain Meadows Massacre was so horrible that it ?broke? the metaphor: ?Even to the fanatical emissaries of the Old Man of the Mountain, that chief of assassins and murderers, such wholesale butchery was unknown?.? [11] Another commentator reversed the comparison, using Mormons to describe the development of the Assassins, who ?grew from a sect into a confederation of tribes? as the believers in Joe Smith are even now compacting themselves into the distinct Mormon population.? [12]

To be clear, comparisons to the Old Man of the Mountain were not unique to Mormonism. For example, in 1872, in a book entitled The Mormons and the Silver Mines, a British observer reported that Americans ?have felt their throat most uncomfortably clasped by this Old Man of the Mountain,? but the clasper was Roman Catholicism rather than Mormonism. [13]

American and European legends about The Old Man of the Mountain—with their imputations of mysticism, authoritarianism, fanaticism, and (possibly) supernatural skill—fit in easily with other Orientalist tropes of the nineteenth century. Applying the title to Mormon leaders fits in with other rhetorical ?orientalizations? of Mormons.

————

[1]  ?Brigham Young waxing greater in crime, as he grew in years, was at last stricken with death, just five months, to a day, after his faithful tool, Lee, was executed. His seventy-six years of life show nothing worthy of admiration, save his genius as a ruler, and his determined will. The first obtained for him the control over a low, ignorant and lawless people; the latter made him fearless in the exercise of any means, however desperate, that served to perpetuate his power or augment his wealth and influence. ¶ As an individual, he was coarse and beastly; a sensualist, a hypocrite, and a tyrant. His rule was founded in theft and trickery, and perpetuated by fraud and violence. In the course of an unusually long life, he was never known to do a generous or unselfish action, and it is safe to say that he did not possess a single disinterested friend; being incapable of knowing, or inspiring such a feeling as true friendship. ¶ If we search history for his prototypes, we find him a mixture of Mokanna, the veiled prophet of Kohrassan, and that terrible chief of the assassins, the Old Man of the Mountain. No danger could bend him from his purpose; no crime appalled him, and no treachery dismayed. Without a single virtue, he died as he had lived the [536] victim of his appetites; his fatal illness being brought on by eating an enormous mess of green corn and half-ripe peaches. So perished this prophet of treachery and assassination; this apostle of fraud and lust.? Frank Triplett, Conquering the Wilderness (Minneapolis: The Northwestern Publishing Company, 1883), 535-536.

[2] The speaker is ?Montesinos? and he is conversing with the ghost of Sir Thomas More; the title of the section is ?Part II. The Reformation.—Dissenters.—Methodists.? ?America is in danger from religious fanaticism. The government there not thinking it necessary to provide religious instruction for the people in any of the new States, the prevalence of superstition, and that, perhaps, in some wild and terrible shape, may be looked for as one likely consequence of this great and portentous omission. An Old Man of the Mountain might find dupes and followers as readily as the All-friend Jemima; and the next Aaron Burr who seeks to carve a kingdom for himself out of the overgrown territories of the Union, may discover that fanaticism is the most effective weapon with which ambition can arm itself; that the way [43] for both is prepared by that immorality which the want of religion naturally and necessarily induces, and that Camp Meetings may be very well directed to forward the designs of a Military Prophet. Were there another Mahommed to arise, there is no part of the world where he would find more scope, or fairer opportunity, than in that part of the Anglo-American Union into which the elder states continually discharge the restless part of their population, leaving Laws and Gospel to overtake it if they can, for in the march of modern civilization both are left behind.? Robert Southey, Sir Thomas More: or, Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society, volume 2 of 2 volumes (London: John Murray, 1829), 42-43.

[3] Robert Southey, as quoted in No author listed, Article III, review of Sir Thomas More: or, Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society (London: 1829), American Quarterly Review 6.9 (1829 Sep): 67 (55-72).

[4] Henry Caswall, The Prophet of the Nineteenth Century; or, the Rise, Progress, and Present State of the Mormons, or Latter-day Saints: To Which Is Appended an Analysis of the Book of Mormon (London: JGF&J Rivington, 1843), no page number, before title page. ?This anticipation has already been wonderfully fulfilled in all its parts. Were we inclined to follow the example of others, we might claim Southey as an actual prophet of the Church of England. The [333] above sentences were printed fourteen months previously to the appearance of the Book of Mormon, and while an American Mohammed was busily engaged in the preparation of his infamous imposture.? Henry Caswall, America and the American Church, 2nd edition (London: John and Charles Mozley, 1851), 332-333. Caswall discussed Mormons in the first edition (London: JG&F Rivington, 1839; p 322-323), but not nearly to the same extent and without reference to the Southey quote.

[5] [a] In a review of Caswall?s The Prophet of the Nineteenth Century, the reviewer notes Caswall?s use of Southey and acceptance of Mormonism as the fulfillment of Southey?s prediction and provides the full Southey paragraph. No author listed, ?Notice of Books,? review of Henry Caswall, The Prophet of the Nineteenth Century; or, the Rise, Progress, and Present State of the Mormons, or Latter-day Saints: To Which Is Appended an Analysis of the Book of Mormon (London: JGF&J Rivington, 1843), British Critic and Quarterly Theological Review 33.66 (1843 Apr): 541 (538-553). [b] In an 1861 review of Burton that never explicitly mentions Burton?s reference to the Old Man of the Mountain (see later footnote): ?Captain Burton, on the contrary, makes no attempt to conceal his satisfaction at coming into contact with the fragments of much familiar Eastern life in the midst of what to him is the ?abomination of civilization.? Agreeing, probably, with the emphatic Southerner who said the other day, that ?if that accursed ?May Flower? had only come to grief, America might have been a great and nation,? he delights in the extravagant contrast which Mormonism presents to American institutions and sentiments, and will not permit that influence to be altogether a delusion which has trampled down the factitious pretensions of vulgar liberty, and restored some portion of the North-western world, however small, to his favourite relations of privilege and servitude. [¶] It was in 1829 that Mr. Southey in his ?Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society,? published that anticipation of some religious portent in America, which has been so remarkably verified. He stated his belief that?? [quotes or summarizes much of the Southey paragraph, then continues:] There are assuredly few more successful examples prophecy, and we are not surprised that any one should adopt and enlarge the main idea of it, and find where he can such similtudes [sic] and analogies. For our part, we see in Mormonism much rather a perverse and unnatural reproduction of Judaism than any reflection however remote of Islam. It is as if the course of Christianity had turned back into the muddiest waters of Talmudic superstition.? No author listed, Article VII, ?Burton?s City of the Saints,? review of The City of the Saints and across the Rocky Mountains to California by Richard F Burton (London: 1861), Voyage au Pays des Mormons by Jules Rémy, and A Journey to Great Salt Lake City by Jules Rémy and Julius Benrchley (Londong: 1861),  Edinburgh Review, or Critical Journal 115 (1862 Jan): 96 (94-107). [c] An author for the Ladies? Repository magazine in 1875, after quoting Southey, wrote that: ?We have lived long enough to see the poet?s prophecy measurably fulfilled in the development of Mormonism, which, intrenching itself in an isolated spot, has provoked admiration for the enthusiasm, but contempt for the credulity and ignorance, of its followers.? JW Mendenhall, ?The Mormon Problem,? The Ladies? Repository: A Monthly Periodical, Devoted to Literature, Arts, and Religion 35 (3rd Series, Vol 1, 1875 April): 306 (306-314). [d] In a note appended to a quotation of Thomas Marsh?s 1838 deposition against Joseph Smith: ?I have heard the Prophet say that he would yet tread down his enemies, and walk over their dead bodies; that if he was not let alone he would be a second Mohammed to this generation,* and that he would make it one gore of blood from the Rocky [90] Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean; that Mohammed, whose motto in treating for peace was ?the Alcoran or the Sword,? so should it be eventually with us, ?Joseph Smith or the Sword.?? The asterisk (*) leads to a footnote: ?It is somewhat singular that Robert Southey, the Poet Laureate of England, should, thirteen months before the organization of the Mormon Church, have in his ?Colloquies? put the following words into the mouth of Sir Thomas More: [quotes the Southey paragraph, which continues onto p 90]. A prediction as early fulfilled as this was would have made Joseph a great Prophet.? Thomas B Marsh, affidavit sworn before Henry Jacobs, 1838 Oct 24, Richmond, Missouri, as reprinted in 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), 89-90.

[6] ?Here [ie, Clay County, Missouri] Smith openly avowed his intention of propagating his religion by the sword; and not content with emulating Mohammed, he took a leaf out of the book of Hassan-ebn-Sabah, and like that ?old man of the mountain,? organized a body of sworn assassins, under the name of the ?Danite Band.?? No author listed, ?Mormonism; Or, New Mohammedanism in England and America,? The Dublin University Magazine 21.123 (1843 Mar): 295 (283-298).

[7] ?Such is His Excellency President Brigham Young, ?painter and glazier,? ?his earliest craft?prophet, revelator, translator and seer; the man who is revered as king or kaiser, pope or pontiff never was; who, like the Old Man of the Mountain, by holding up his hand could cause the death of any one within his reach; who governing as well as reigning, long stood up to fight with the sword of the Lord, and with his few hundred guerillas, against the then mighty power of the United States; who has outwitted all diplomacy opposed to him; and, finally, who made a treaty of peace with the President of the Great Republic as though he had wielded the combined power of France, Russia, and England.? Richard F Burton, The City of the Saints: And Across the Rocky Mountains to California (London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1861), 294. Quoted in part or in full in: Edward W Tullidge, History of Salt Lake City (Salt Lake City: Star Printing Co, 1886), 223, and, No author listed, ?Literary Notices,? review of Richard F Burton, The City of the Saints (Harper and Brothers), Harpers New Monthly Magazine 25.145 (1862 Jun): 114 (114-115).

[8] ?The results, again, of the Pacific Railway are utterly beyond human calculation, but are beginning to show themselves already, notably in the suppression of the Mormons, a most objectionable body, who were, to my own certain knowledge, doing an immense injury to idle young Americans. That place was to some, and I have heard it from their own lips, very much like the establishment of the Old Man of the Mountain, of which we may read in Marco Polo. Now that the railway has come within thirty miles of it, the nuisance has become too patent, and the United States have said inexorably that monogamy is to be the rule of their great future empire. The Mormons thought that they had got entirely beyond human reach. But no; traveling pioneers came and reported that a railway was possible; it was made, and the Mormons have no place on earth to fly to; the irrepressible [425] American is upon them, and they must submit or go. It is the same way in India; now intersected by railways, the irrepressible Briton is there, destroying old prejudices, introducing new ideas. East, west, south and north, the traveling nations are civilizing; while the untraveling [sic] ones, equally able, equally brave, seem to spend the most of their time in cutting one another?s throats.? Henry Kingsley, ?The Influence of Travel,? Tinsley?s Magazine 10 (1872 Feb): 66-67 (59-67). Reprinted as Henry Kingsley, ?The Influence of Travel,? Every Saturday: A Journal of Choice Reading 1.10 (1872 Mar 09): 259 (255-259); No author listed, credited to Tinsley?s Magazine, ?The Influence of Travel,? Transatlantic Magazine 5.28 (1872 Apr): 424-425 (418-425).

[9] ?Whether the immoralities charged against the Federal officials were true or not, their chief sin was the effort to punish the crimes of certain violent men, who in the name of religion had instituted a reign of terror over the Mormons themselves. The Danites, or Destroying Angels, were a secret organization, said to have originated with one Dr. Avard, in the Missouri troubles of 1838. They had their grips and passwords; and blind obedience to the Prophet was the sole article of their creed. They have had their prototypes under every aspect of despotism, such as the Kruptoi of Sparta, the stabbers of Dr. Francia, and the assassins of the Old Man of the Mountain. This secret police executed the bloody decrees of the church and the will of its president with merciless rigor, and hunted down Gentiles and apostate Saints under the combined influence of fanaticism, greed, and private vengeance.? William Preston Johnston, The Life of Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston: Embracing His Service in the Armies of the United States, the Republic of Texas, and the Confederate States (New York: D Appleton and Co, 1878), 200.

[10] ?The city sprang into existence as if by magic. Brigham Young was all-powerful, bearing a more undisputed mastery than king [615] or tsar or Kaiser. He was a law unto himself, and had his Vehmgericht, or rather was also a secret court unto himself. True there was no Folterkammer, no eiserne Jungfrau, but those old methods were out of date; the revolver and the bowie-knife were swifter and as sure; Jordan was the oubliette. There has been some attempt to deny the existence of the Danites or Destroying Angels who were Brigham Young?s executioners. That is futile, for the men, as I can testify, were as well known in Salt Lake City as the Prophet, and the Old Man of the Mountain himself was not more faithfully or more bloodily served by his hashishin than was the Lion of the Lord by his band of bravos. There were wholesale murders like the Mountain Meadow Massacre, but there were also other crimes, secret murders actuated by private spite, jealousy or lust, the stories of which are well known to those behind the scenes in Zion. It was not healthy for a man to incur the wrath of the Prophet or of the leading Saints. It was not conducive to long life to love a maid or wed a wife upon whom the eyes of one of the holy ones might have fallen.? Baron Redesdale [Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford], Memories, 9th edition, volume 2 of 2 volumes (London: Hutchinson & Co, 1916), 614-615.

[11] Note that Frank Triplett is the same author cited in the first paragraph. ?In all the annals of American crime there is nothing that approaches the action, which we are now about to relate, in infamy of conception, in baseness of motive, or in fiendish ferocity of execution. It is not the crime of an individual perpetrated upon an individual, but one involving a whole people in its commission and numbering its victims by the hundred. Conceived and ordered by [197] the church dignitaries and chief men, consummated by their soldiery and sanctioned by an entire people, its paralled [sic: parallel] cannot be found in the history of any civilized nation. Even to the fanatical emissaries of the Old Man of the Mountain, that chief of assassins and murderers, such wholesale butchery was unknown, and that so hideous a saturnalia of murder could occur within the borders of any country ruled by the Anglo-Norman race, almost surpasses belief.? Frank Triplett, History, Romance and Philosophy of Great American Crimes and Criminals? (New York: ND Thompson Publishing Co, 1885), 196-197. Immediately prior to the quoted paragraph Triplett uses a selection from Thomas Moore?s Lalla Rookh: ?Of that saintly murderous brood  / To carnage and to Koran given,  / Who think through unbelievers? blood  / Lies their directest path to heaven?  / And who will pause and kneel unshod,  / In the warm blood their hands have poured,  / To mutter o?er some text of God .? Note, however, that the quote comes from the last section of Lalla Rookh, ?The Fire Worshippers? (153), and not the Veiled Prophet section, which I discussed in the post about Mokanna.

[12] ?The claim to interpret writings, admitted as sacred, by an internal and transforming light, gave to the sect the appellation of ?Batenians,? professors of the inner or secret doctrines. And, as it has mostly happened, this claim led its makers farther and farther from the plain sense of their documentary guide, the Koran, insomuch that towards the middle of the twelfth century all external observances of Mohammedan rites, and many of the special prohibitions of the Mohammedan law had been entirely swept away among those sectaries. This Hassan es Sabah was the original Sheick-el-Jebel, or Old Man of the Mountain, receiving this title from the circumstance of having fixed his residence and the head-quarters of his sect in the lofty rock-fort of Almoot (the Castle of Death), situated near Kaswin, in Persia. From Irak to the Lebanon, thence to the mountains of Tripoli, the association spread and grew from a sect into a confederation of tribes, much as the followers of Goroo Govindh grew from mere sectaries into the Sikh nation, or as the believers in Joe Smith are even now compacting themselves into the distinct Mormon population.? Whitworth Porter, ?History of the Knights of Malta,? excerpt from A History of the Knights of Malta, or the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem (London: Longman, 1858), Dublin University Magazine 56.333 (1860 Sep): 381 (368-384).

[13] ?As to the Americans proper, I was impressed with one fact?their determination no longer to be under the political thraldom of a foreign priesthood. I was again and again assured that Americans had now become sensible that that power was more to be dreaded than any other, and that a religious war was imminent. They have felt their throat most uncomfortably clasped by this Old Man of the Mountain, and they meant to shake him off right away.? James Bonwick, The Mormons and the Silver Mines (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1872), 416.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Gotta love those accusations of tyranny and despotism and eating green corn all in the same breathless stream of horrified purple prose.

    Since we are just a few days past the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre, I have a hard time giving much benefit of the doubt to those with vapors over the MMM, unless the writers can be shown to have expressed similar sentiments about other contemporaneous American massacres. Otherwise, it’s pure racial hypocrisy.

    And my reactions to this content out of the way, what a great exploration of the Old Man of the Mountain. I’m sure I’ve read that quote many a time, but didn’t realize that meant the Hashishin. It’s undoubtedly a stretch to draw a straight or even curved line between this and later rumors of Mormons and marijuana, but could the two things originate from similar concerns about Mormon culture?

    Comment by Amy T — December 19, 2014 @ 8:24 am

  2. Amy T: The green corn gets me every time.

    I don’t know about the similarities between Assassin hashish and Mormon marijuana. We could make a case that both are an example of the same phenomenon of othering, ie, once we decide that a group is a pernicious “them,” the barriers of credibility get lowered and, further, when a group is perceived as dangerous and as spreading, the tendency to point to “cheating” (magic, drugs, money) increases because it (partially) explains why the other is “winning” while simultaneously impeaching the win (ie, they didn’t really convince the voters, they just snowed them with expensive propaganda; their soldiers aren’t really braver than ours, they’re just high; etc.)

    On the other hand, drugs were so much more of the (nineteenth-century European version of the) Assassin legend than they have ever been for Mormon legends—at least as far as I know—that I am dubious of putting the two ideas together in any serious way.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — December 19, 2014 @ 11:44 am

  3. Fascination information, Edje. Thanks for posting it. If I did come across Old Man of the Mountain in the past, I missed the significance.

    Mormons and Silver Mines is also new to me, so have added it to my Google Play. Now back to check out the rest of your footnotes.

    Comment by Susan W H — December 19, 2014 @ 1:09 pm

  4. Thanks very much, Susah WH.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — December 19, 2014 @ 6:35 pm

  5. This is awesome. Thanks, Edje.

    Comment by J Stuart — December 19, 2014 @ 7:18 pm

  6. I read this with great interest, Edje. Thanks for your work!

    Comment by Barbara — December 20, 2014 @ 9:02 am

  7. Thanks, J Stuart and Barbara.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — December 20, 2014 @ 2:35 pm


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