“Uncle Sam’s Hotel”: The Utah Penitentiary
By Melvin L. Bashore
Where I first met you Brother,
Was in the Utah Pen.
Where I hope that you nor me,
Will never meet again. 1
Over eight hundred men were sentenced to terms in the United States Penitentiary at Salt Lake City. The dilapidated adobe prison, on a site later developed as Sugar House Park, was little changed from when it had been first put into operation in 1855. A twenty-foot-high adobe wall, four feet thick, enclosed the prison buildings and an acre of yard. Sentries armed with rifles manned catwalks ringing the exterior of the upper wall, and during inclement weather, they peered from turrets placed at opposite corners. On the west, near the heavy iron and wooden gates controlled by the turnkey, were a sentry box and reception room. Outside the walls, near the entrance, were outbuildings such as the kitchen, butcher shop, blacksmith shop, stables, women prisoners’ quarters, and warden’s office and home.
The facilities were insufficient for the inmate population that would mushroom with the confinement of the Mormons. One descendant of a polygamist contended that, “it would have taken ten penitentiaries to hold all the plural husbands in Utah.”2 Until the overcrowding forced the marshal to construct a three -tiered iron cell, the prisoners were housed in wood bunkhouses. At the peak of overpopulation in 1888, officials built three bunkhouses of two-by-sixes laid flat and spiked together for walls, floor, and ceiling. These provided an excellent breeding ground for bed bugs, a common Salt Lake pest in the best of households. Three-tier-high bunks, sleeping two in each, surrounded a small heating stove and an impossibly tiny center lounging area.
Partitioned off in one corner was a wooden box and water barrel cut in two, called the “dunnigan,” which served as a chamber pot for the men during the night. A few barred windows and ventilating shafts in the roof relieved the stuffiness. Other special residences within the yard were a hospital, solitary-confinement facility, insane-asylum cages, and two solitary “sweat boxes” used for extreme punishment. The other major structures adjoining each other were a bathroom, washhouse, and dining hall. The dining hall was rather breezily constructed, but as only fifteen minutes was allotted for eating, the caretakers did not feel the need for building anything too fancy. Several large tables ranged down the center of the room, and a rough deal board nailed to the wall ringed the perimeter of the room. A hundred at a sitting were accommodated in the spartan surroundings.3
In the beginning stages of the polygamy raids, a stigma was attached to being in the penitentiary; but as the resident clientele became predominantly Mormon, a sentence in the pen conferred honor and status. The prison community itself became a kind of social club, as many of the church, community, and business leaders were behind bars at one time or another. George Q. Cannon, hesitant at first about leaving the underground for a stint behind bars, gave himself up upon hearing about the conditions and experiences of a former inmate. After one week of prison, Cannon told a new arrival that he “would not miss it for anything.”4 Serving a prison sentence had all the aura and honor of a mission ; in fact, many inmates seemed to have kept journals only during those periods of their lives. They had considerable time on their hands to spend in writing. From these diaries, it is possible to reconstruct a fairly complete picture of life for the Mormon polygamists confined in the penitentiary.
The common bond of brotherhood in the Church and common sacrifice brought these men together in their trials. To a man, they believed their constitutional rights were being infringed upon. Even some non-Mormons acquainted with the circumstances and integrity of the accused did not look upon this across-the-board incarceration of the Mormons as containing any element of crime or moral disgrace.
One venerable pioneer who was sentenced for three months, plus the usual fine and costs, said, “Our incarceration was in fact an imprisonment for conscience sake, that being the position in which the law found us.” Most of the men thought it ridiculous to be put in prison for what they referred to as living with their wives and taking care of their children. An anecdote is told of two convicted polygamists conversing about this. One said he had been sent to the pen because he had stolen a lamb. The other countered with, “I did not steal a lamb. She was as anxious as I was and more so, also her father and mother, cousins and aunts.” One aged bishop joked with another silver-haired patriarch after a visit from one of his plural wives,”She was well worth coming to the pen for.”6
A term in the pen could be avoided by renouncing plural wives and families, dividing up the property among them, and promising to associate with only one wife and family. To some, this was a legal way out of love; bearing domestic and economic entanglements, but those who selected this option became social outcasts in the Mormon society. On a list of men on trial for polygamy, Nephi Bates merely noted “True” or “Failed” under the stand taken, signifying whether they had taken the Edmunds oath.7 Joseph Evans composed a ditty to keep the Saints in line: There’s a difference’ between a ‘Mormon’ and a Saint,
And I’ll tell you the reason why,
The Saint will go to the Penitentiary,
But the Mormon will sneak away.
Chorus: For his heart is right and his hopes are bright
As clear as the perfect day
He’ll build up the kingdom with all his might
And mind what the prophets say. 8
Men whose consciences would not allow them to give up their wives and families could expect a full penalty in the courts. A six-month sentence, $300 fine, and court costs were commonly levied against those convicted of unlawful cohabitation (u.c.). Convictions for polygamy were infrequent but brought penalties of up to eight years and $800 or more.
As the crusade to ferret out the territory’s polygamists mounted, normal family life was disrupted and Church business and occupations suffered. Life on the underground was so trying that being caught and arrested was accepted with almost a peaceful sigh of relief. Christopher Arthur tried to hide as long as he could, but when “the time came when all devices failed and the path of duty loomed up” that brought him to the pen, he pondered in a fellow inmate’s autograph album about how the prison wall fell down around him:
We met in Utah’s Pen
According to decree
I kept away as long
As God advised me.
When the time arrived
For you and I to come
God made the path so plain
For us to leave our home.9
Some men’s arrests came at the hands of their neighbors, and these men entered the pen with a feeling of bitterness. One prominent man was the victim of his business associate’s idea of equality and fairness. Having spent a term in the pen, he could not “brook the idea” of his partner escaping from a similar experience and so arranged for his arrest. 10
Most Mormons were embittered at the discrimination and discrepancy in sentencing shown by the judges. Men arrested for hideous and blatantly immoral crimes were let off with light sentences or reprimands. Judge John W. Judd, a former Tennesseean assigned to the First District Court in Provo, was prominent in these proceedings. He gave deliberate murderers light or suspended sentences but let the axe fall heavily on the Morrnons.11 Polygamist Reddick Allred was an exception. Allred explained, “When I was called up he said,”Where are you from, old man?” I said,”Ten” and he said “Tennessee” it being his native state he was amazed. While in the pen a man asked me how I happened to get so light a sentence. I said I was “a country cousin,” so he was light on me.12
Most men faced a half-year’s imprisonment and left their families in the care of neighbors. It was common for Mormon wards to stage a rousing farewell before the marshal or officer took a convicted man into custody. About seventy of Joseph Smith Black’s friends and family gathered at his house for a” sumptuous supper” on the eve of his departure. 13 Interestingly, Black “was sorry to be put in this position” of being sent to prison because he really didn’t want to “show defiance” to the law.14 When the Saints of Beaver came to bid John Lee Jones goodbye, each placed a dollar in silver in his hand as he climbed on the mail coach for the escorted trip north.15
Upon arrival at the penitentiary, the men were introduced to the routine they would face each day of their stay at “Uncle Sam’s Hotel.” After disembarking from “Black Bess,” the prison wagon, they were ushered through the double gates to the warden’s small reception office. Here they were summarily relieved of their shackles and handcuffs. What followed in this initiation was recorded by inmate James Kirkham in verse:
When at the Pen you do arrive
Our prison life l will now describe
The guards outside, you may think it rough
Invites you in to hold you up.
Your pockets are rifled with a willing hand
And everything is taken that is contraband
To the unsuspecting this may seem funny
But they never fail for your knife or money.
You then settle down on a long settee
While Mr. Jenny takes your pedigree
Eyes blue, complexion fair
A wart on nose, light sandy hair.
The crime committed is noted too
And the number of years you have to do. 16
After registration was finished, the men were either fed, if arriving after the general lockup, or escorted into the yard where the cry “fresh fish” greeted them. Next followed the question,”Are you white men, or Cohabs?” Fortunate we were the ones greeted by friends who had preceded them. Less pleasant were the experiences of Andrew Smith, a Salt Lake police officer, who was greeted with bow-wows, whoops, shouts, and yells of “Hang him!” and”Get the rope!” 17 These threats were carried out on John Aird, an employee at the city jail. He was strung up over the rafters of the dining room with his neck in a noose but was cut down when the sick joke got out of hand. It was six or seven days before he was able to swallow without suffering severe pains in his throat.
Rudger Clawson was the first lamb thrown to the wolves. Having lost the test case, he received a four-year sentence. As he entered the prison bunk room, sixty men gathered around”and stood gazing like wild beasts ready to pounce upon their prey and devour it.” 19 His initiation was that given all fresh arrivals on their first night behind bars.
As the Latter-day Saint population increased and a camaraderie developed between the”cohabs” and the “toughs,” the initiations changed. A “fresh fish” could be welcomed into the prison brotherhood by making a speech, singing, boxing, performing outlandish gymnastics, or getting tossed up in a blanket. Peter Barson, perched on a high bunk bed, gave his audience such a treat of gibberish that, as a stump speech, it was unanimously accepted as sufficient to install him in good standing.20
Lorenzo Snow offered to sing the only song he knew, all five hundred verses of it. He was accepted in full membership by the men, who gratefully declined to hear it because of the lateness of the hour.21
When C. C. Anderson, a Jack-Mormon, refused to do anything, the men “ding bumped him against the old iron door.” 22 He took little time to reconsider and rendered a song. The association of inmates was determined to have the rules obeyed.
The first night in prison was understandably a trying ordeal. Prisoners were locked up in a dark, unfamiliar place among strangers. Bedding was not provided and either had to be brought in or borrowed from fellow inmates. Thomas Kirby not only failed to bring bedding but also found more prisoners than there were bunks. He spent his first night on a hard dirt floor without any covers.23 Ralph Smith had to sleep on the floor, too, and found himself a target for the men’s spitting.24 George Q. Cannon came well equipped with a hammock – to the merriment and air stirring, laid and perspired all night, arose at 12:15 and sat by the Iron gate for half an hour to cool off, as the perspiration stood in beads on my neck, and it seemed as though I could scarcely get my breath. 31
The smoking in the confinement of the cells was distasteful to the Mormons. It took a few hours after the last pipe had been laid down before the air cleared. It was especially hard on John Lee Jones, who recorded that on his first night, he fortified himself with a silent prayer to strengthen his body against the tobacco fumes. His impressions on being admitted into the bunkhouse equaled his foreboding. “Oh! the awful scene that met my eyes. I could perceive dark ugly visiages in human shape each one was sucking a dirty Pipe the smoak darkened the cell till you could scarcely distinguish anything inside. The dense clouds of smoke emitted from the pipes turned my heart sick. We looked around or rather groped our way to one corner of the cell where we found an empty dirty bunk with some straw in it and torn or tattered bed tick. One of the inmates informed us that was our bunk to sleep in.”
Jones made it through the night and survived the prison ordeal. Upon his release, he was able to say that he was glad he ”was considered worthy to be one of the number that was imprisoned.”32 The most bothersome hindrance to a good night’s rest was the pesky bedbugs. One man suggested renaming his bunkhouse the “Bug house.”33 Clawson said, “A man could write his name with the blood of bugs by pressing his finger against them as they crawled along the wall. Newly whitewashed walls soon told an awful tale of blood and carnage.”34 George Lambert had heard about the miserable bug conditions and came prepared to do battle with an oilcloth and dusting powder. 35 Harvey Cluff believed he had made his bed in the nest of a perfect “bedbug incubator.” He wrote that the “spaces between the plank could not be any more cosily arranged for their propagation.” He theorized that this was a form of tithing the government collected in return for board and room given to the”naughty polygamists.”36
The nightly raid of the bugs was met with stubborn resistance by the men. The bugs attacked James Kirkham in one final rampage on the eve of his release. He records that, “Such a night I shall never forget we spent the whole of the time fighting bed bugs. We killed by actual count 249.”37 In airing out his bed in the morning, George Wood “picked and scraped off 225 bugs so you may know we have something to do at night.” 38 When Marshal Frank Dyer brought the grand jury out to see the prison, he told them that there were fourteen thousand bedbugs living there. Levi Savage remarked that he”thought he had come far short of the number.”39 The bugs, lice, and other vermin combined forces to make nights miserable for the men.
Soon after their arrival, new inmates were required to visit the tailor and the barber. The tailor measured them and issued each man a previously worn outfit that was in stock and came close to fitting. One inmate noted that After the suit of clothes, came two pair socks, one pair shoes, and a hat, and two suits of underclothes. I began to think Uncle Sam was a pretty good chap after all, after locking me behind two sets of iron bars, paying guards to watch me night and day, furnishing a free board, and then to give me so many new articles of clothing. It was something I never had been used to, but under the circumstances I took everything that was given me.40
The men were issued striped pants and a short coat, in what they called the “seymore cut “- that is, “See more of the seat of a fellow’s britches than coat.”41 Sometimes the shock of seeing a man in prison garb was more than a wife could stand. One of William Foster’s wives fainted when she saw him in his striped suit. 42
Many aged men balked at having their well-cultivated beards shaved. Shaving rules changed at the whim of wardens. For several years, men over fifty were exempt from this shearing, but it later became a universal regulation. Even then, there were excuses and ways of avoiding the weekly razor. Trusties with jobs taking them outside the walls were able to keep their beards. Others postponed the inevitable by claiming they had a sore jaw. Hiram B. Clawson approached the prison doctor with a five dollar gold piece hidden away under his thumb, and said: “Doctor, I’m afraid that if my moustache is shaved off it will be detrimental to my health.” “What is your trouble, Mr. Clawson?” inquired the doctor. “Why,” replied the man as he took the doctor’s hand into which the gold piece slipped, “there is a weakness in my throat.”
With a knowing smile the doctor said:”Mr. Clawson, I’m sure your health would be much impaired if your moustache were removed. I shall, therefore, give strict instructions that you be not shaved.” He was the one and only prisoner who moved among his fellows with a fine moustache that was the envy of all. 43 Ezra T. Clark offered the barber $300 to let him keep his beard, but the barber said he would not be bribed for even five hundred.44
Some who had not shaved in over twenty-five years found their own children shrinking back in fear from these seeming strangers. One balding polygamist who boasted a “luxuriant” beard that he hadn’t shaved in over twenty years submitted to the barber’s scissors. He wrote that the barber tied a string around the prized beard”as near to the roots as practicable and slashed into it with a huge pair of scissors.” At his request, the barber wrapped it in a piece of paper so he could save it in his trunk. He didn’t complain because, as he noted,”it would have made no difference.”45 Another shorn patriarch was chided about his improved looks, saying that it would enable him to attract two or three young girls as wives when he got out.46 J. M. Paxton tried to laugh at the sad state of affairs to keep from crying with the others. He wrote:
Then on your upper lip
The mower makes a dash,
And you are fired out
Without a bit of ‘tache;…
Oh give me back my mustache,
It makes me feel so queer,
1 often try to curl it,
But find it is not here.
It reminds me of a story,
I hardly like to tell,
My darling used to curl it,
And she always did it well.
And then with arms about my neck,
She took a kiss for pay
And other lips besides my own
Had moustache on that day.47
The loss of beards and mustaches was a real humiliation to these Mormon patriarchs. A visible symbol they had lost their freedom.
The novelty of prison life soon wore off amid the humdrum of daily routine. The prisoners were required to bathe weekly in the summer and once every two weeks in cold weather. John Adams described the accommodations in the bathroom, “Two can bathe at once as there are two bathtubs with a curtain between so one is not exposed while bathing.”48 James M. Paxton was overjoyed with delight in writing about his first prison bath, “Rub, rub, scrub, scrub, scrub, splash, splash, in the tub, tub, tub practicing music.”49
Events of each day were regulated by the ringing of bells at set times, but the men had a great deal of leisure time. Many of them even joined in the gambling, dice throwing, and card playing. Lorenzo Snow was disturbed about the ways in which many of the brethren wasted time.50
The men were discouraged by the prison fare and found the dining room filthy, with lice sometimes crawling on the tables. Before mealtime, conversation was prohibited and the noise and confusion attending the meals was “simply bewildering.” Very often it all ended in a fight. The leftovers from each meal were gathered up and fed to the penitentiary pigs that, Clawson said,”in their manner of eating, were about as genteel as some of Utah’s convicts.”51
The prison menu offered little variety except on holidays when gifts of food were brought in from the outside. Most of the food served was raised by the trustees. Prisoners assigned as waiters picked up the prepared food at the gate, served it, washed dishes, and generally kept the dining room clean. The typical menu consisted of soup, bread, tea, and coffee. Codfish was served on Friday and beans on Sunday. J. M. Paxton observed that, “beans are beaner here.”52 Occasionally, the men had mush or hash. The passage of time was marked by the weekly offering of bean s, one week being called a bean. J. M. Paxton noted,”Part of a month is called a but so a sentence of 2 months and part of a month would be called two months and a but or 10 or 12 beans.”53 The same fare was usually served for both breakfast and dinner. The only difference the men could discern between the two meals was that the potatoes at dinner were usually less soggy, not having been soaked all night in water. A few vegetables enlivened the soup a bit, but the
prisoners thought it so inconceivably weak and tasteless as to be “only a few degrees removed from water.” 54 The water, brought by bucket from Parley’s Creek, was often muddy and unfit to drink. Complaints and protests against stale meat and maggoty soup brought sporadic improvements. The bread was the single menu item that was universally acclaimed. Despite their complaints, most of the men left the leisurely life of the prison heavier in weight than when they had entered. 55
Gifts from friends and relatives on the outside enlivened the diet of Utah’s prisoners and enhanced their intake of calories. Christopher Arthur had “plenty of sugar, splendid jam & jelly, some cheese, and egg for breakfast every morning,” thanks to two kindly benefactors on the outside. 56 Belle Harris Nelson accumulated a real store of delicacies, likely because of her unique situation of being the first woman imprisoned and the compassion it stirred within the hearts of her Mormon sisters. At one time, she had on hand “canned pears, arengs, sammen, oysters, sardines, pickles, butter, sugar, or lemon candy, nuts, crackers and cake.” 57
The prisoners were entrusted with some work in exchange for privileges and better food and as a means of relieving the tedium. An accounting in 1887, when the prison population was 101, less than half capacity, noted the following jobs, “four gardeners, four with the stock and pigs, Two teamsters, Three bakers, one tending the poultry, one tailor, one carpenter, one butcher, one painter, one book keeper, two waiters for the wardens family, Eight cooks.” 58 A poem composed by Elijah Box, which he recited at a New Year’s party, mentions the method best employed to get noticed for being appointed to an outside job:
Get up! get up!’tis time I tell,
In crusty tones, exclaimed a bell,
Unbuckle your bunks, cell doors unfold ;
Prepare to do what you are told,
Your breakfast eat and dinner also,
Work on the pump or shovel snow,
And that without being in a pit,
Or in the”box,” you’ll freeze or sweat,
Whether Tough or Cohab you’re in the toil,
And it’s all the same to Mr. Doyle;
You’ll all be trustees if you do well
So says Utah’s Penitentiary bell. 59
Because so many regular criminals appointed to outside jobs were escaping, the warden began replacing criminal trustees with Mormons. Under the most favorable circumstances for escape, the Mormon prisoners invariably “clung to the prison” with a remarkable tenacity. Lorenzo Snow reportedly told a U.S. prison inspector that, “if those walls were to fall down there is not A cohab here that would leave.” 60 As a result of this admirable record, those with outside jobs were permitted to come and go at will, unaccompanied by guards. Harry Payne, a polygamist trustee, mentioned that many times he was sent alone to Salt Lake City to work at various jobs”but was always back for supper.” 61 At one point, after a group escape by non polygamists, Marshal Dyer mounted the wall and angrily threatened that he would kill every man in the yard who would not prevent injury to the guards during escape attempts. In addition, he announced that if a fire were to break out in a bunkhouse, he would consider it an escape ploy and would not unlock the door. After this threat, jailbreaks decreased. Clawson attributed this change and a reformation in prison discipline to the presence of the Mormons. He said their example exerted a powerful restraining influence that astonished prison officials.62
Relationships between the cohabs and the toughs were strained at times, but for the most part, it was a peaceful coexistence. A gentleman visiting the prison asked Marshal Dyer if the two classes of prisoners were mixed with each other. The marshal replied that intermingling was permitted so the Mormons could preach to the other prisoners. Actually, religious subjects were barred from the frequent nightly speeches and programs in the bunkhouses, but missionary work inevitably took place. George C. Wood lent out Church books and preached repentance to individual criminals on many occasions. At least once he served as a peacemaker in the bunkhouse. When he found two of the criminals quarreling, he took his violin “and commenced sawing and scraping so they could not hear each other, which stopped their racket.” He told them he would quit if they would.63 Teancum Pratt was surprised to discover that the criminals looked”just like ordinary men.”64 Clawson listened to many of their stories and”according to their representation, they were all innocent.” He was “astounded to see so many innocent men wearing the convict’ s garb.”65
One instance when the criminals banded together in their denunciation of the Mormons was at the execution of Fred Hopt. He had friends among the prisoners who claimed that a Mormon court had condemned him, and threats were made against the Mormons prior to Hopt’s execution by firing squad. On the day of the execution, the prisoners were locked in their cells with blankets nailed over all the doors and windows facing the square. A pall of gloom hung over the prison after he was shot. Hopt’s last words to Warden Brown disturbed the official. Hopt warned him that he would send a hailstorm within forty-eight hours after his death if he found that there was a hereafter. The promised storm came within the prescribed time, and some of the hailstones measured two and one-half inches in circumference.66
Thievery cropped up occasionally, so the Mormons stationed one of their own men in the bunkhouse to guard their possessions during meal times. One item that proved too much temptation for the criminals was some alcohol sent into one of the Mormons. Rudger Clawson relates that one of the brethren, who, though possessed of an excellent appetite, was naturally thin. It seemed utterly impossible for him to put on flesh. One day he accosted the prison physician and said to him, “Doctor, I’m seriously in need of a tonic, something that will build me up and impart greater strength than I now enjoy.” Answering, the Doctor said, “Well, what kind of tonic do you think would help you ?” The brother replied:”A little good brandy.” “Very well, I will prescribe a little brandy for your health,” said the accommodating doctor. A few days later the brother was called to the gate and received a small flask of brandy, which he carried unwrapped in his hand. Walking into the dining room he put the liquid into his cupboard and securely locked the cupboard door. He then returned to the “yard,” with a broad smile on his face, feeling he now had the means of tuning up his system. However, his movements with the exposed brandy had been carefully noted by some of the” toughs” from the time he left the gate until he reached his cupboard and retired. Immediately thereafter the cupboard was ripped open and the liquor disappeared. When the brother later discovered his loss, which under the restrictions of that period seemed almost unbearable, he wept.
The warden instituted a vigorous investigation, but no trace of the missing tonic could be found other than the compelling evidence furnished by the uncertain walk of two”toughs” who were later sent to the “sweat box” for theft.67
Toughs and cohabs mingled daily in a variety of recreations and amusements. To pass the time, the men busied themselves manufacturing articles such as hair bridles, riding whips, place mats, gilded picture frames, baby rattles, fancy wood boxes, fish nets, and wood carvings. These articles were sometimes raffled off, which provided the inmates with an income to send to their families or to use to purchase supplementary food. The men kept a pet deer and a magpie. They weeded and cared for a fine flower garden. Prisoners with musical talent were welcome additions to the glee clubs, choirs, and bands that varied in quality with the coming and going of inmates. Sometimes the prisoners formed in a line for a grand march around the yard to the strains of the prison band.
In the evenings, the band provided dancing music. The gentlemen were distinguished by wearing hats; the “lady” partners went unchallenged. In the enthusiasm and frivolity of the moment, George Wood said that he would often mistakenly “swing the wrong ladie, supposing her to be the right one as we were wonderfully tangled at times.”68 The aged men amazed many as they hopped about in a jig, polka, waltz, or quadrille. Some of the dancers sporte d rather heavy “jewelry.” One of the forms of punishment for disobeying prison rules was to wear a twenty-five pound ball and chain, called by the prisoners “the slug.” The partner of one wearing this extravagant “jewelry” was compelled to carry the heavy piece as they glided around the dance floor.69
There were other entertainments. Special programs were organized on the eve of each man’s departure, with speeches, singing, and poetry recitations. Football, baseball, boxing, pitching quits, and an exercise class engaged the most actively. On one occasion, ten contestants trained for two or three weeks for an hour-long footrace about the yard. Side bets were placed, and the winner claimed the $5 first prize after sixty-three laps, computed to be nine miles. The spectators urged their favorites on by dashing water on them and running alongside while waving palm-leaf fans to keep them cool. 70
Hiram B. Clawson “learned by bitter experience that the best way to annihilate time was not to think or ponder over it.”71 Observing the holidays helped to break the monotony, and committees prepared special programs for most of the major holidays. Clawson’s committee for the Fourth of July in 1886 solicited contributions from city merchants such as ZCMI, Woolley, Young, and Hartley, and the LDS Church’s president’s office. Large amounts of food were furnished, courtesy of these and other townsfolk: also pound ham, a whole cheese, 360 lemons, 75 pounds of cake, 75 fruit pies, a keg of pickles, 300 buns, 75 pounds of candy and nuts, 16 gallons of ice cream, 80 gallons of lemonade, and 2 quarts of whiskey as a jolly additive for the lemonade. Two days later, the prisoners were still making merry with this delectable gift. 72
The morning of July 4 was devoted to a patriotic and musical program, including an appearance by the Salt Lake Eighth Ward choir. Friends and relatives of the prisoners were admitted into the yard on a general pass, courtesy of the marshal. In the afternoon, prisoners engaged in a sack race, wheelbarrow race, and various foot races, all rewarded with money prizes. They spent the evening locked in the bunkhouses with more songs, speeches, and recitations until the guard rapped on the door at nine o’clock for silence. Similar festivities prevailed on Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Pioneer Day. Prisoners also observed Easter, Decoration Day, and St. Patrick’s Day and exchanged valentines with each other in February. On Christmas in 1888, the inmates enjoyed a sumptuous dinner of stuffed roast turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, stewed apples, boiled ham, baked sweet potatoes, potato salad, jelly cake, fritters, pie, pudding, chocolate, and coffee.73 Clearly, these celebrations did much to raise morale.
Another boost to spirits was visiting day, usually scheduled for Thursdays and sometimes additionally on Sundays. Passes secured from the marshal in advance permitted a half-hour visit under the watchful supervision of a guard. Visiting days were not always pleasant, especially for Teancum Pratt who had many relatives living in the valley but who was visited only once by two sisters. 74 On the other hand, William Grant recorded” I had 64 visits from 86 different persons” during his second term.75
Following an all-too-short visit, departing relatives usually mounted the prison wall for a last look at their loved one. Until a rule prohibited staring at visitors on the wall, the men congregated in the yard and shared several pairs of binoculars. Lorenzo Snow noted that it was “not uncommon, to see women come upon the walls, stand a few moments gazing down upon the imprisoned inmates, then quickly depart with eyes overflowing with tears.” He recalled that one woman “when looking from the walls, and first seeing her husband dressed like a convict, fainted away, and had to be cared for by the Warden.”76 One day, a class of Sunday School children from Salt Lake City appeared on the wall. They showered bouquets of flowers down on the men while the prison band serenaded them. Cohabs and toughs alike wept with tears of joy. 77
The aged polygamists proved to be an attraction for tourists and dignitaries who included the prison on their itinerary of sights to see when visiting Salt Lake City. John Adams noted that “many strangers from the east and west came inside the walls to look at the prisoners.”78 In 1888, Julia Ward Howe, the celebrated woman’s club and suffrage leader, visited the penitentiary while in the city to give a lecture. In addressing the assembled prisoners, she offered them encouragement and urged them to depart as “better, wiser men.”79 Kate Field, the celebrated popular lecturer, visited the penitentiary during her month-long stay in Utah in 1887.80 From afar, the prison was pointed out to Rudyard Kipling while undertaking a tour of Salt Lake City. Two years after his visit, he wrote an essay about the Mormons and described the prison as a “cool and restful brown stone building” where Mormon polygamists were sent “to consider [their] sins.”81
Once a month, during the mandatory afternoon Sunday service, the Latter-day Saint prisoners were permitted to listen to a general gospel sermon by one of their own people. On the other three Sundays, local Protestant ministers did the preaching. On Sunday mornings, the Mormons held their own priesthood and Sunday School sessions. 82 The summer heat frequently kept the visiting preachers away. This situation did not disappoint the cohabs, who generally disagreed with the sectarian interpretations they variously described as “fried broth” and”poor food for a hungry man.”83
The non-Mormon inmates were also critical of some of the preachers. George H. Taylor wrote of a visiting Methodist preacher, “He was the poorest stick that I ever heard & the Cons has had a deal of fun in mimicking him & quoting his sayings.”84 Before Sunday meetings were moved into the dining hall, prisoners assembled in the yard and the minister preached from the wall. ln one incident related by Rudger Clawson, the prisoners enthusiastically united in sending their prayers heavenward:
The services were somewhat noted for the lengthy prayers offered up to the Throne of Grace, at which times the guard, who stood near the preacher with his head bent forward and eyes closed, appeared to be perfectly oblivious to all that was going on in the yard below. Here it seemed was a rare opportunity to utilize this devotional exercise as a means of escape, and Biddlecome seized it. He smuggled three large iron hooks into the yard, which he afterwards tied together, the prongs pointing out from a common center. This peculiar combination was attached to the end of a rope made from a blanket, and the preparations were completed. Biddlecome quietly withdrew from the crowd, and, making his way to the other end of the yard, displayed the utmost activity in his efforts to scale the walls. He hurled the triple headed hook into the air. lt cleared the wall but fell
short. He threw it again, and again it fell short but the third time, it dropped below the parapet, and, in being drawn up, grappled it firmly. With renewed hope, Biddlecome grasped the rope tightly and began to ascend, but the loss of time was fatal to him. The prayer had already ended, the guard looked up and, taking in the situation at a glance, leveled his gun on Biddle come, who was half way up the wall, with a stern command to “halt.” The unhappy convict dropped to the ground exhausted, and was soon after loaded with chains.85
Thoughts of home and family claimed the waking moments of the cohabs. Charles A. Terry composed a song while yearning for his first wife, Maggie:
Oh, I’m lonely to think of thee, Maggie,
My thoughts no one can tell,
They are gone now to thee, my dear Maggie,
While sitting in this cell. 86
Letters from home were read, reread, and shared with others. In quiet corners of the yard, bowed heads shielded tears coursed down the cheeks of men separated from their wives and children. Joseph Black said, “We try to read but cannot connect sentences and forget the preceding line. We try to write and forget how to spell and finally after making a complete failure lay it all to one side.”87 Plural wives, sharing in misfortune, drew close to each other at home for solace and comfort. In some instances, the forced separation had a lasting effect in improving marriage and family relationships after the husband was released. 88 However, some men seemed only to miss a wife’s domestic helpfulness. One man tersely noted, “Had to clean up, missed the old girl.”89 New news of births and deaths were deeply felt by the imprisoned men. George Kirkham‘s wife wrote asking him to send her a name for their newborn daughter. 90 John Lee Jones received a letter from one of his neighbors bearing the sad news that his three-month-old son had died, a child Jones had never seen.91
For him and many others, time passed slowly. Behind bars longer than most, Clawson said that”one day so nearly resembles another in every particular as almost to create confusion in the mind. One long, tedious, never-ending day. A living death.” 92 Another echoed his sentiments: At morning I long for the evening. At evening I long for the day.93
After spending just less than a month in prison, James M. Paxton wrote in his journal,”want to get out and can’t and that is hell.”94 Another inmate passed the time by counting the bolts in the iron door of his cell and”found that they numbered 336.”95 When the time finally arrived for release, the prisoners philosophically looked back on their months without liberty as a valued experience. Even as many returning LDS missionaries proclaim, James Bywater said of his three years in the penitentiary that they were the best of his entire eighty-one years.96 Those checking out after breakfast were given send-offs by the men. Outside the gates, friends and relatives waited. Some were met by choirs and bands. The stumbling block of imprisonment had been met triumphantly, and the heroes were welcomed home. Homecomings were sweet for long separated loved ones. Harvey Cluff entered the gate leading to his front door, above which was suspended a large sign proclaiming, “Welcome Home” in large letters.97 James Kirkham was greeted in song by the ward choir and the clamor of the city hall curfew bell as he disembarked at the depot. 98 James H. Nelson was asked to speak at the Weber Stake quarterly conference in the Ogden Tabernacle.99 ln the eyes of the faithful, these polygamists were deemed honorable for not deserting their families, for keeping God’s law, and for being true to their religion and conscience.
As can be imagined, the issuance of the Manifesto was confusing to these imprisoned polygamists. They believed their eternal reward hinged on marrying more than one wife, and they were willing to defend that conviction by leaving their families and livelihoods and by donning prison stripes. The commitment of these polygamists to their beliefs was profound. Joseph Smith Black wrote of his imprisonment that he was, “conscious of being guilty of no crime and rather than break the covenants which I had made before God…and forsake my family and those I love so dearly, I would rather bid them the last farewell and spend the rest of my life in prison.” 100 After serving his second prison term, James Bywater candidly expressed his feelings about the Manifesto:”I was very sorry at the issuing of the Manifesto, I did not like it. There seemed to me to be too much man in it and too little of God.” He said,”Many plural wives shed tears over it.” 101 After the issuance of the Manifesto, Church leaders began negotiating with President Benjamin Harrison, “to let up on prosecuting the polygamists.” Harrison agreed to”let up on the raid on the cohabs” if the Mormons would”divide on party lines, and those in the pen would promise to obey the law.”
At that time, there were only sixteen polygamists in the penitentiary. Apostle Francis M. Lyman visited the penitentiary and “called all the cohabs together.” He asked them to sign a document giving their promise that they would obey the law. Such an action raised serious questions in the minds of these polygamists. Charles A Terry said, “Brother Lyman, I am here because I would not promise to obey the law.” He said,”Well, things have taken a different turn and if you don’t believe what I tell you is right, I will stand between you and God, and take the consequences. If you don’t sign, you will put a clog in the wheel of our progress as Latter-day Saints.” Terry asked him if this meant they had to give up their wives. “No,” he replied,” Do not worry, we have fixed it up all right, and you are not asked to obey the law for ever in the future, and you can’t break it until you get out anyway.” 102
Under these conditions, Terry and the cohabs signed the document. Thereupon, they were pardoned. As per the agreement, there was a general letup in the persecution of the polygamists. Those polygamists who were caught and charged received lighter prison sentences than before.
As the Church tried to deflect attention from the practice of polygamy, less fanfare was accorded those who were sent to prison. William Grant “felt very much hurt” that his bishop neither invited him to speak at church nor asked for his report.103 Upon release from his first prison term, Grant had been showered with gifts and honored at numerous church and community meetings. He had been a prisoner for conscience’s sake, but his sacrifice was a visible reminder of a “giving in” and “knuckling under” that the issuance of the Manifesto heralded. Plural marriage, a candle the Mormon faithful had kept lit behind prison bars, flickered for a while before finally being officially extinguished – and with it, an interesting segment in U.S. prison history.Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in