Crime Meets Punishment: An Excerpt from “Convicting the Mormons”

The following is an excerpt from Convicting the Mormons: The Mountain Meadows Massacre in American Culture by Janiece Johnson which is available wherever books are sold.

This book is fantastic!

Elizabeth Fenton, University of Vermont

Johnson’s authorial voice and absolute command of the primary sources make this book an indispensable resource for historians examining the aftermath and American cultural perception of Mountain Meadows.

Patrick Mason, Utah State University

Crime Meets Punishment

Leaving under the cover of darkness on an early spring night in 1877, a federal marshal brought John D. Lee over a hundred rough and ragged miles to a remote desert mountain valley in southern Territorial Utah. This was the plaintive spot where Lee had committed his crime twenty years earlier and now a U.S. Army detachment waited for him there. After a restless journey facing a double-barreled shotgun and a Methodist minister, Lee broke the “monotonous silence” and confessed that he killed “five emigrants possibly six.” He begged the marshal to just shoot him and end the insufferable suspense.

Perhaps the federal prosecutors’ plan was beginning to work. They had hoped that the chosen place could accomplish what they had been unsuccessful at doing: eliciting remorse and finally producing a “true” confession from Lee. It seemed that they would accept nothing less than a confession directly implicating Brigham Young, leader of the Latter-day Saints.

The site was carefully chosen so that Lee might relive the crime he committed there two decades before. On a now notorious 11 September in 1857, a local Latter-day Saint militia recruited Native Americans to help attack an emigrant company from Arkansas as it prepared to cross the desert—initially the Indians were to do the particularly “dirty work” of killing women and children. The Latter-day Saint militia with their Indian confederates slaughtered 120 members of that company in the Mountain Meadows valley—the same valley where Lee now stood. After years of minimal action, federal prosecutors indicted John D. Lee in 1874 for his participation in what had become known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Lee’s first trial ended with a hung jury in 1875. The following summer, a second trial convicted him and a federal judge sentenced him to death.

After years of minimal action, federal prosecutors indicted John D. Lee in 1874 for his participation in what had become known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

The morning after his arrival to the Meadows was bright and dry as John D. Lee quietly stumbled his way to punishment. The word had gotten out. Though kept away from the immediate place of execution, a few hundred people gathered at a distance to watch his final moments. A court reporter stood ready to record his last words in shorthand. The U.S. attorney, marshal, and a minister gathered with Lee in a final bid for clemency if he would implicate Brigham Young. He offered the names of a few others, but not the Latter-day Saint prophet. The reverend steadied him as Lee walked to the place appointed. There the wearied old man shed his overcoat, sat on the edge of his coffin, and gazed out at the valley. As Lee waited to hear his final judgment, he asked the photographer who was present to capture the event to send his wives copies of his final photograph. Five recently deputized assistant marshals gathered in preparation for the expected execution, hidden from the onlookers’ sight by two wagons draped in blankets.

Lee gave his final words from the edge of his coffin, indicting Young for offering him as a sacrifice to satiate the federal desire for punishment but not implicating Young in the crime. The Methodist minister offered a prayer before five bullets cracked toward Lee, shredding his chest and quickly killing him before lodging themselves in the grass beyond the coffin. The photographer documented the scene as the court reporter climbed the telegraph pole and the execution account began to work its way around the world. The “Mormon Menace” and “Butcher of Mountain Meadows” was dead. The state had extracted its punishment. Yet would it expiate the Mormon sin at Mountain Meadows? Would Lee’s execution fulfill the American desire for punishment?

Janiece Johnson is lecturer at Brigham Young University.