Monday, August 7, 2017

Getting the Facts to Show Through in Fiction

“The major problem is how John Willford evades U.S. Marshal Franks and his deputies for so long. He doesn’t do much to avoid them…A dedicated watch…would have nabbed him very early. It’s not adequately explained why the marshals are so incompetent that they can’t catch John Willford…”

Those words complete my evaluator’s list of problems with my resubmission of Fugitive Sheriff, prequel to Every Soul Is Free, in my intended three novels on the high mountain sheriffs Simms. The publisher invited me to resubmit if I could fix them.

Since the story is the sheriff’s struggle to hunt down his father’s killer while he is hunted for being a polygamist, “the major problem” is a shot to the heart.

“You don’t understand,” welled up as my first reaction.

Thousands of square miles housed a homogeneous community of co-religionists dedicated to protecting a small number of their own. Indeed, a small number of 19th Century Latter-Day Saints practiced polygamy. Only a fraction of them were arrested for their practice.

Having a quantitative bent that works a bit like a hammer with Mark Twain’s nail, I started trying to prove what I knew to be true. I worked through my proof and discovered the self-evident. The novelist’s tools are not numbers. The hunter being the hunted creates no compelling story if the reader does not feel, fear, and sense the reality lived by the hunted, even down to the reality that they never caught him. Yet, the need remained to prove what I knew to be true by instinct. Those facts needed to be pinned down, clear and explicit, to boil around in the creative process to help me evoke the reality Sheriff Simms lived.

Neither a historian nor one meaning to offend historians, for the novelist’s challenge alone is enough, I discovered a paucity of objective analysis and fact on this subject.

Polygamy in the 19th Century Latter-Day Saints Church (identifying itself as LDS with a gradual adoption of the pejorative, Mormon, until about 1880 by which time that identification became fully embraced, as I will use it from here on) was a practice of the Church leadership and the wealthy. For reasons secular as well as the beliefs of the Church, the leadership and the wealthy were (and are) a highly coincident group. This very visible elite group enabled and underscored the assertion that the fact of polygamy offended the moral sensibilities of the nation. The reality is that the “Americanization” of the Mormons came about as the result of the taking of property (including the disincorporation of the Church itself), not by the imprisonment of a vast number of polygamists.

From a novelist’s point of view, a seven-year reign of terror capped a twenty-eight-year siege that targeted few men and enjoyed little success. Before the howl of indignation drowns out this puny voice, the facts.

Size of Utah Territory

The vast land area claimed by the Territory of Deseret dwindled to an area in 1883 only slightly exceeding the state we now know. Using the current size, 84,899 square miles, Utah Territory would have ranked the 81st largest country in today’s list of 192. Of more precise interest to the story of the U.S. Marshals’ pursuit of Sheriff Simms, Summit County’s land area amounts to 95% the size of Delaware, 180% the size of Rhode Island. If you happen to be hunting, man or beast, in that vast area, remember they named it Summit County because it has 39 peaks over 12,000 feet. The Territory’s population then lived over 90% in the four contiguous counties in the valley (now 75%) and 3% lived in Summit County. (Now about 1% of the state.)

Population of the network

The exact population and demographics of Utah Territory resisted full discovery. The best I can do is fill in with estimates of what I cannot find. Search strings that turn up references to census records from the period, 1850-1890, result in search opportunities by name. Looking for statistics, not genealogy, I conclude census records may not have been abstracted until 1910. I found a cache of actual census records. Alas, the microfiche could not be deciphered and the data were not abstracted. I constructed the following table from hard sources and guesses:

Year H’holds Pop. M F LDS Non % Polyg
1847 4,000 3,980 20 0.5%
1850 11,380 6,046 5,334 11,323 57 0.5% 400
1860 40,273 20,255 20,018 39,870 403 1.0% 1,300
1870 86,336 44,121 42,215 84,609 1,727 2.0% 2,700
1880 20,864 143,963 74,509 69,454 129,539 14,424 10.02% 3,220
1883 25,815 178,121 92,081 86,040 145,784 32,337 18.15% 4,700

My point is not to claim authority, but to create data reliable enough to make observations about the dynamics of the Territory in 1883. However many U.S. Marshals (fifteen) and Deputy Marshals (ninety-one) served during the forty year period in question, they amounted to .1% (one-tenth of one percent) of the LDS population. Their probable allies, the non-LDS population, amounted to 10% of the total population. (I could not find a reliable breakout of deputy marshals, though I suspect the names I counted held six deputies and eighty-five special deputies. I know all the deputies were non-Mormon and I suspect the special deputies were all Jack Mormons or apostates for hire.)

Viewed in somewhat more dynamic terms, there were 10 people to warn a pursued cohab or polyg for every one (1) likely to tip a marshal. Of course, it bears acknowledging this was about money. An unknown number of (practicing) LDS were prepared to betray their brethren for money. Assuming these paid informants (I thought of using an inflammatory word, like Judases) were neither female nor children nor polygamous (not a perfect assumption, I grant), it is impossible to know how many were on the take. The Utah-born novelist in me, however, tells me that for every three of these informants, two took the U.S. Government money and either provided misinformation or told the target the marshals were on the way or both.

How widespread this offense to moral sensibility?

My perception from the scholarly treatises on polygamy I found is that the favored phrase is "polygamy was practiced by thousands." To my ear, that phrase creates the impression of very widespread predominance. I calculate that the outside number was 4,500 and the most likely number was under 4,000. I acknowledge that is in the thousands, but it does not strike me as so widespread as “by the thousands” means to imply.

The table creates a somewhat false sense of precision based on the authoritative data for every estimate, but what is surely true is that upwards of 3,000 polygamists had two wives, maybe 900 had three, and perhaps 600 had four or more. There is ample data about the ages of marriage, both female and male, and the number of children, none of it relevant to my story, and I surmise all driven by (and to my mind proving) the adage “polygamy as a doctrine provided an excuse for old men to marry young women.”

For purposes of my novel, what we see is that a mobile man with two wives proves a difficult target: he is one among four-and-half thousand, of whom fifteen hundred are much more visible and much less mobile.

1883 Total 15% 20%
Male HH in Utah 25,298
Male Mormon HH in Utah 22,764
Monogamous 19,349 18,211
Polygamous 3,415 4,553
2 Wives 68% 2,322 3,096
3 Wives 20% 683 911
4 + wives 12% 410 546

Of course, I know my data are off, but a confirmed Bayesian, I believe they are better than nothing.  (I am just trying to get at the “truth” for my novel, not compete in the historian’s world.) And, there is a double-edged sword: the lower the number of polygamists, the higher the percentage, below, shown to have been caught. Remember my exciting story is about not being caught!

The U.S. Marshals and the Courts

After the first one, 1850-1855, every U.S. Marshal appointed by the President of the United States for the Utah Territory, fourteen through 1896, was not LDS (non-Mormon, although for a few there is dispute over whether that equated to anti-Mormon.)

The Courts were a little more complicated, but the Federal judges were all non-Mormon. After the Edmunds Act of 1882, appointments to the Utah courts were controlled by the Utah Commission (not by election) and they were also non-Mormon.

Bringing the moral offenders to heel

In that forty-one-year period, from among the “thousands of polygamists” who possibly did number 4,500, nobody was arrested until 1884 and two marshals arrested everybody:

Year Total Grand Total
1884 3 3
1885 82 85
1886 60 145
1886 127 272
1887 245 517
1888 367 884
1889 161 1045

(1886 split shows the “productivity” of the most “successful” marshal.)

The relevance to my novel extends only through 1887, but for this blog one notes Wilford Woodruff’s Manifesto that was to lead to Utah statehood was issued in 1890. After that the issue of polygamy, from a U.S. Marshal point of view, was moot. Apparently 1890, before the Manifesto, saw few or no arrests for cohabitation or polygamy, either because the LDS Church had already been disincorporated or because the newly appointed U.S. Marshal Parsons immediately involved himself in a series of charges and scandals mostly of a sexual nature.

The triumph of moral sensibility

The table above shows that the U.S. Marshal in place in 1887 and 1888 succeeded in arresting about 10% of the polygamous males available to arrest. In fact, the cumulative total amounted to 23% or more of the available men to arrest. While that falls far short of everyone or even half of everyone, this reign of terror was real and many families fled to Mexico. In my imagining, it must certainly have been an oppressive environment. Even the President of the Church went underground in the small town of Kaysville (where seventy-three years later I graduated from high school.) Nevertheless, a man’s and a family’s obligation was not to get caught. The U.S. Government knew that and only the power of the pocket book brought about the triumph of moral sensibility.

The Church was disincorporated. All of its property was escheated to the Federal Government, under the receivership of the U.S.. Marshal (for which he requested a fee of $25,000 and was awarded $10,000, $663,000/265,000 today.)

Capitulation led to compassion. The Church re-incorporated and ultimately Congress gave it back the property. Ultimately, polygamy stopped being practiced among the Mormon faithful.


The conclusion is the same as the introduction. This is fiction, not history. My obligation is to make the reader, in this case the all-important evaluator, sense both the harassment of the pursuer, the obligation not to be caught of the pursued, and the infinite possibility of evasion that created the environment in which my sheriff lived.

E-mail Edward Massey with comments, author of 2014 Gold Quill winner, Every Soul Is Free and Amazon ABNA 2009 Quarter-finalist, Telluride Promise.

1 comment:

  1. Edward has reminded us to always "follow the money trail." thanks!