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thoughts on John D. Lee as Scapegoat
Paul S. Furr, Ph.d with Verne R. Lee
the course of history, assigning responsibility, i.e., finding a
scapegoat for catastrophes which have befallen humanity, is well
documented. Winston Churchill, having knowledge of U-boat activity
in the path of the Lusatania insisted on prosecuting its captain,
William Turner, for its sinking. Churchill failed to warn
the Lusitania in time. Some have suggested that Churchills
failure to warn Captain Turner was on purpose, thinking that the
sinking of the Lusitania would draw the U.S. into the war (WWII).
Husband E. Kimmel was court-martialed for his culpability in the
loss of the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl harbor on December 7, 1941;
yet some historical sources say that President Roosevelt knew the
date of the attack beforehand. The Chief of naval Operations, Admiral
Stark, insisted on a policy of onsite culpability. Thus Admiral
Kimmel (as well as General Short) was court-martialed for the affair.
And so it goes.
what seems to be a similar case, John Doyle Lee was the only person
tried and executed for the murder of more than 120 pioneer emigrants
in a remote southern Utah valley known as Mountain Meadows. In September
1857, a wagon train from Arkansas, while passing through southern
Utah, was attacked by a combined force of Paiute Indians and 52
or more members of the Iron County militia. The militia members
were all local Mormon settlers. This event in history became known
as the Mountain Meadows Massacre. There were only 17 survivors (some
say 18), all children under the age of six.
years later, John Doyle Lee, one of the Mormon participants, was
executed by firing squad for his participation in the slaughter.
Other Mormons including the instigators, though indicted, were never
brought to trial.
never denied his involvement in the massacre. Whether he actually
killed anyone though, has never been established. He denied it,
but not from trying. He states that his gun misfired, wounding one
of the other participants. For his part in the affair, Lee was arrested
and twice tried in a court of law.
first trial was characterized by an attempt on the part of the prosecution
to implicate Brigham Young and other church leaders in ordering the
jury was composed of eight Mormons and four gentiles. In the end,
the jury foreman, a non-Mormon, voted with all eight Mormons for
acquittal. Three other jurors, though wavering, held out for conviction.
The final tally was 9 to 3 for acquittal.
judge declared a hung jury and, as reported in the newspapers
jury was released and the case continued for another time.
months later, a second jury was impaneled. It was clearly evident
shortly after the trial began, that there was a change in attitude
on the part of the prosecution. No church appointed attorneys now
sat in Lees defense, as in the first trial. Statements by
Brigham Young and Apostle George A. Smith, which were not allowed
into evidence at the first trial were now accepted. The prosecution
released other suspects who had been indicted, so when the case
went to court, John D. Lee stood alone.
District Attorney, Sumner Howard, announced in his opening remarks
that Brigham Young and other church leaders would not be prosecuted.
The charge against the accused would be murder in the first degree.
change in strategy brought severe criticism from former Deputy District
Attorney, Robert N. Baskin, who helped prosecute Lee in the first
trial. Baskin insisted that Attorney Howard had entered into an
agreement with the LDS Church whereby Lee might be convicted and
suffer the death penalty if charges against all other suspects would
be withdrawn. The prosecution intended to show that Lee was the
leader in the massacre and that he killed no less than three people.
trial proceeded briskly. The first trial, with few witnesses willing
to testify, and that only reluctantly, went on for two weeks. In
this, the second trial, they seemed to appear from every direction
and went willingly into every avenue the prosecutors led them, testifying
to things they had seen and things they had not seen, but it was
devastating for the defendant.
the fifth day it appeared to many observers, that the die had been
conviction is considered sure, because the jury (which is composed
of Mormons) have to choose between convicting Lee according to
the evidence, or saddle the crime upon the church. Lees
counsel have made no defense whatsoever
Tribune Sept. 19, 1876
trial was over on the sixth day. At about noon Wednesday, September
20th, the jury was sequestered. 3½ hours later they returned
with the verdict, guilty-of-murder in the first degree. The fact
that Lee had become the scapegoat for the massacre was clearly evident.
He himself realized, shortly after the trial commenced that his
fate had been sealed; that the verdict had been determined before
the trial ever began. When he became convinced of this, against
strong advice from his attorneys, he instructed them to offer no
defense. He was executed March 23, 1877.
dying, he would have had good reason to ask himself the question,
Less than a year after the massacre, an official church investigation
took place. It was conducted by Apostle George A. Smith. The meeting
concluded (August 6, 1858) with the finding that the massacre was
an Indian affair and it was characterized as such in the preliminary
2nd Church investigation
Interestingly enough, a week and a half later on August 17th, Smith
conducted a second investigation.
is critical to our discussion here is the fact that at the first
meeting John D. Lee was invited to participate and he was present.
did not appear at the second as he was not invited and knew nothing
about it. The conclusion from this meeting was much the same as
the first, referring still to the massacre as an Indian affair,
but with one added twist: John D. Lee and a few white men
Lee participated in the meeting, he would never have allowed his
name alone to be attached to the report. But it was included while
no other Mormon is mentioned. His name, without reference to any
role he may have played, now became officially associated
with the massacre.
why would Smith attach any church members name to the massacre
without some explanation? Was he under pressure from local residents,
or some higher authority to identify Mormon participants? Were any
of the Mormon militiamen who participated in the massacre interviewed
during the investigations?
John M. Higbee was ranking officer and field commander of the detachment
at the meadows. Should not the report have read, Major John
and a few white men were present at the massacre?
the fact that Higbee was Isaac C. Haights son-in-law have
anything to do with his name being withheld as the on-site commander?
his report of the first meeting why did Smith see the need, just
days later, for a second meeting.
some of those sworn to secrecy have inadvertently revealed bits
of information resulting in questions about involvement of the Iron
County militia? It is incredible to think that residents of southern
Utah were completely ignorant of some of these questions. They knew
that their fathers, sons and brothers had been mobilized as members
of the Iron County Militia for some purpose. The fact that they
were absent from their homes and farms for several days certainly
did not go unnoticed.
carnage scattered about at Mountain Meadows did not go unnoticed
either. Note further, that Mormon families took the surviving children
into their homes. Are we to assume that these children never talked
about what they had seen happen to their fathers and mothers and
what they otherwise experienced? Are we to assume that none of the
50 plus militiamen who participated in the massacre ever spoke of
it to close friends and relatives?
talked, because feelings involving church leaders in southern Utah
soon began to surface and foment. New Mormon settlers moving into
the territory in the months and years following the massacre, knew
nothing of the pact of secrecy made by those who participated, but
they heard rumors and wanted to know what had happened and who was
seems there was pressure enough from church members on church authorities,
to make some admission of Mormon participation by naming at least
one white participant in order to explain the mobilization of the
Iron County Militia and its presence at the meadows.
Smiths second 1858 investigation, Colonel William H. Dame,
the commanding officer who ordered the militia to the Meadows, was
able somehow to clear himself, but only after four hours of intense
discussion behind closed doors.
he was quick to order protection for subsequent wagon trains passing
through southern Utah was a factor in his favor. Just days after
the Baker-Fancher disaster, another caravan was confronted by Indians,
some of whom had been at the Mountain Meadows. This time however,
thanks to Colonel Dame, Mormon guides intervened. There was no loss
of life although most of the cattle were taken.
C. Haight, would have been second in line to shoulder the blame.
But Haight refused to go down without a fight, he threatened to
put the saddle on the right horse, meaning George A.
who held the rank of Brigadier General, was commander of all military
forces in southern Utah, of which the Iron County Militia was just
was he who spread the word to settlers in the southern section of
the territory, that 2,500 soldiers of the U. S. Army were marching
on Utah under orders of the President of the United States. The
Mormons believed the soldiers were bent on destroying them and breaking
up Mormonism. Smith had subsequently gone through the settlements
delivering his blood chilling message and giving vitriolic speeches
against the government, encouraging and enhancing a wartime mood
among the settlers, preparing them for the worst by adding fuel
to an already smoldering situation. So who to blame?
strategy of reporting the massacre, which seems to have been conceived
sometime between the first and second 1858 investigations, could
be interpreted as a diversion of attention from himself.
Dame had been absolved in the second meeting and Smith, who held
the rank of Brigadier General in the Militia, couldnt or wouldnt
accuse Lieutenant Colonel Haight, for fear that Haight would implicate
him in the affair. Neither Dame nor Haight would put the onus on
the field officer and commander on site, Major John M. Higbee, who
was junior in command to both of them.
who is left but, Farmer to The Indians John D. Lee and, unfortunately
for him, he wasnt at the meeting when the final report was
John D. Lee and a few other white men were
on the ground during a portion of the combat, but for what purpose
or how they conducted themselves or whether indeed they were there
at all, I have not learned.
thus, the name of John D. Lee became closely associated with the
Mountain Meadows massacre, and led ultimately to his execution.
death did not suppress the continuing stream of sensational stories
and accusations against Mormon church leaders flowing from the anti-Mormon
names of George A. Smith, William H. Dame, Isaac Haight and others,
especially Brigham Young, continued to spill forth in articles from
local and national newspapers and magazines. And the saints throughout
the territory who read these articles and heard whispered stories
from their own circle of brethren and sisters continued to wonder
where the truth lay.
Lee have taken the bullet for many others who were in fact, more
responsible than he? Such talk gave rise to increasing numbers of
questions. How could worthy members of the church become embroiled
in such a horrible affair and who participated besides John D. Lee.
Were some of them higher in authority. If this was a military operation,
who was the commander? Who gave the order?
an effort to answer such questions and put an end to them, the church
launched a program to define its position. Charles W. Penrose was
assigned the task. With this in mind, he gave a lengthy address
October 26th, 1884 in the Twelfth Ward assembly hall, for the purpose
of aiding in correction of error concerning
the Introduction he tells his audience:
and over again, the Mountain Meadows massacre has been charged
to the Mormon Church and particulary to its former
President [Note: Brigham Young died a few months following Lees
execution in 1877]. Wherever the servants of God have gone to
preach the gospel, the Mountain Meadows massacre has been thrown
into their teeth.
churchs official position is laid out in this speech. It became
the nucleus of how the story of the Mountain Meadows masssacre would
be handled, and continued as such well into the twentieth century.
The Indians, led by John D. Lee were the perpetrators.
Leave it at that and it will eventually
go away. And it was left at that until a courageous southern
Utah scholar almost a century later, brought forth a superbly documented,
in depth study of the event and a few years later, a biography of
John D. Lee himself, which gives a compelling story of his life,
and of his complete devotion to his chosen religion, putting his
involvement in the massacre into proper perspective.
what of the theme of our study, Why Me? Certain aspects
of the treatment of John D. Lee remain unanswered.
an article entitled The Trials of John D. Lee, written in 1978,
the following questions were asked: Was John D. Lee really
guilty? Was he made the scapegoat? Was he betrayed by the leaders
of the church? The answer to these questions lies somewhere in another
layer of questions:
Why did Lee not take the witness stand in his own defense?
2) Why was there an abundance of witnesses at the second trial,
whereas scarcely a year earlier, none could be found?
3) Why did the salaried attorneys for the church, Sutherland and
Bates, abandon the case after the first trial?
4) Why were the others named in the indictment not prosecuted?
5) Why did District Attorney Howard not object to the all-Mormon
jury in the second trial?
6) Was the work edited by W. W. Bishop a true account of Lees
There are other questions which could be added to the list, but
an accurate response to those above would go far in our understanding
and confidence in replying to the question: Why me?
As a result of Juanita Brooks research into the Mountain Meadows
massacre and the efforts of the Lee Family Organization, questions
and observations such as those above reached the office of the First
Presidency and eventually the matter was put on their agenda for
are not privy to details of their findings, but we do know that
whatever it was, it was favorable to John D. Lee and his descendants,
On April 20, 1961, the First Presidency and Council
of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints met jointly and, it was the action of the council,
after considering all the facts available that authorization be
given for the reinstatement to membership and former blessings to
John D. Lee. Word was sent out to members of the family
and on May 8 and 9, the necessary ordinances were performed in the
Salt Lake Temple. A complete record is in the files of the Latter-day
Saints Genealogical Society.
most members of the Church of LDS church, this action by the First
Presidency and Quorum of Twelve makes inconsequential, the question,
Why Me?, moving it into the realm of an academic query;
something one would like to know the full story and truth of in
detail, but not likely to happen.
pondering this, one might consider a family tradition known by many
Lee descendants. It
goes like this:
time before the execution of John D. Lee, President Young was
visiting in St. George. Some of Lees friends at that time
suggested that before he die, Lee might want to meet with the
President and iron out any misunderstandings they may have had.
Johns answer was: No, I dont think so. Brother
Brigham will not outlast me six months in this life and well
deal with it when were both on the other side.
than six months after Lees execution, Brigham Young passed
away and their meeting beyond the veil, if they were to have had
one, has long past. Any differences they may have had have long
you and I have joined others in that happy place, if we havent
yet reached a resolution in our mind about all of this, and if it
continues to have significance, we will surely have it all explained
to us and made clear at that time.