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Some thoughts on John D. Lee as Scapegoat
Paul S. Furr, Ph.d with Verne R. Lee

During 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 it’s sinking. Churchill failed to warn the Lusitania in time. Some have suggested that Churchill’s failure to warn Captain Turner was on purpose, thinking that the sinking of the Lusitania would draw the U.S. into the war (WWII).

Admiral 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.

In 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.

Twenty 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.

Lee 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.

The first trial was characterized by an attempt on the part of the prosecution to implicate Brigham Young and other church leaders in ordering the massacre.

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.

The judge declared a hung jury and, as reported in the newspapers…The jury was released and the case continued for another time.

Twelve 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 Lee’s 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.

U.S. 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.

This 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.

The 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.

By the fifth day it appeared to many observers, that the die had been cast.

Lees 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. Lee’s counsel have made no defense whatsoever… Salt Lake Tribune Sept. 19, 1876

The 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.

Before dying, he would have had good reason to ask himself the question, “Why me?”

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 report.

The 2nd Church investigation
Interestingly enough, a week and a half later on August 17th, Smith conducted a second investigation.

What 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.

He 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 were present…”.

Had 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.

But why would Smith attach any church member’s 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?

Major John M. Higbee was ranking officer and field commander of the detachment at the meadows. Should not the report have read, “Major John M. Higbee…and a few white men were present” at the massacre?

Could the fact that Higbee was Isaac C. Haight’s son-in-law have anything to do with his name being withheld as the on-site commander?

After his report of the first meeting why did Smith see the need, just days later, for a second meeting.

Could 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.

The 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?

Somebody 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 responsible.

It 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.

During Smith’s 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.

That 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.

Isaac 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. Smith.

Smith who held the rank of Brigadier General, was commander of all military forces in southern Utah, of which the Iron County Militia was just a part.

It 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?

Smith’s 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.

Colonel Dame had been absolved in the second meeting and Smith, who held the rank of Brigadier General in the Militia, couldn’t or wouldn’t 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.

So, who is left but, Farmer to The Indians John D. Lee and, unfortunately for him, he wasn’t at the meeting when the final report was made.

It was worded, … 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.

And thus, the name of John D. Lee became closely associated with the Mountain Meadows massacre, and led ultimately to his execution.

His death did not suppress the continuing stream of sensational stories and accusations against Mormon church leaders flowing from the anti-Mormon press.

The 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.

Could 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?

In 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 he says, “…of aiding in correction of error concerning these speculations.”

In the Introduction he tells his audience:

Over 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 Lee’s execution in 1877]. Wherever the servants of God have gone to preach the gospel, the Mountain Meadows massacre has been thrown into their teeth.

The church’s 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.

The thesis was “…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.

But what of the theme of our study, “Why Me?” Certain aspects of the treatment of John D. Lee remain unanswered.

In 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:

1) 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 Lee’s confession?”
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 discussion.

We 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, for, “…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.

To 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.

In pondering this, one might consider a family tradition known by many Lee descendants. It goes like this:

Some time before the execution of John D. Lee, President Young was visiting in St. George. Some of Lee’s 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.
John’s answer was: “No, I don’t think so. Brother Brigham will not outlast me six months in this life and we’ll deal with it when we’re both on the other side.”

Less than six months after Lee’s 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 been resolved.

When you and I have joined others in that happy place, if we haven’t 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.