Ogden: The Underwriters of Salvation
in The Taming of the Frontier, 1925
The Overland Limited stops at Ogden for fifteen minutes. The tourist, a little dizzy from altitude but grateful for trees after miles of desert, rushes out to change his watch and see a Mormon. He passes through a station that is a deliberate triumph of hideousness and emerges at the foot of Twenty-fifth Street. Beyond him are the peaks, the Wasatch at more than their usual dignity, but in the foreground are only a double row of shacks far gone in disintegration, stretching upward in the direction of the hills. The gutters, advertised as sparkling with mountain water, are choked with offal. The citizenry who move along the sidewalks are habituated to the shanties, but the newcomer, who whether from east or west believes in a decent bluff of progress, is invariably appalled. What manner of folk, he wonders, what kind of Digger Indians, can suffer this daily assault upon the credo of Kiwanis? He thinks of the First National in Kokomo, or the Biltmore in Racine. He shudders. He hurries back to the train, pausing on the way to buy a bag of table salt from Great Salt Lake. That at least is up to date.
Robert Louis Stevenson, the one poet known to have passed through Ogden, faced these same shanties when they had withstood some forty fewer years of drouth. His only contribution to the booster-literature of the city was a note on the Chinese immigrants, who, he observed, displayed a far greater personal cleanliness than the natives.
Lest an Ogden spirit be offended, let me make amends. It is true that the one new building on Twenty-fifth Street since 1900 is the Pullman porters’ club. But let us take the tourist blindfolded through the city, past the Cornville Center palaces of the wealthy and the bungalow-warrens of the bourgeoisie, to Ogden Canyon. Past that, still blindfolded against the Keep Kool Kamps and the Dewdrop Inns, to some ridge whence he may see the joinsts and rafters of a continent, with the city insignificant on the plain. Here he will see Ogden as it is, an oasis, a garden in the desert, with the peaks splendid above it — lines that sweep they eye irresistibly onward, distances and colors that carry the breath with them, the mountains in which the gods of the Utes walked in the cool of the day. For majesty, he will be willing to forget the measles of the street.
Better still, let him arrive on one of the three or four midwinter days when the smoke has drifted westward and left the sky clean. Then, emerging in a heliotrope twilight, he will not see the shanties or the filth. The city is blotted out and there are only ridges deep in snow, saintly and whitened peaks with collars of mist half way down their slopes — mist slowly burning to its core of tourmaline, with sapphires winking at the edge. Night brings its erasure of hideousness, the good folk ride homeward in the world’s worst trolleys, and presently they are fed and stalled. But almost till the time they are abed, the eastern peaks, above their chasubles of mist, are luminous with a garnet flame that tints the snow against the night. Infinitely cold, the mist and the darkness; but warm the glow — a fire burning on the very hearth of heaven.
But do not conclude, because the city is resolute in shabbiness beneath the peaks, that it is leading a schism from the faiths of Rotary and Mr. Bok. Its hideousness, its squalor, are no protest against The Ladies’ Home Journal. Your Ogdenite, instead, sees his city as those dreams come true. He peoples these streets with the chaos of State and Madison, lines them with Wrigley Tewins, roofs them with elevateds. To him the Eccles Block is sixty stories high, and the constable at the corner, who is flapping a hand at three Fords and an Overland, is waving back six rows abreast of Packards as far as the traffic towers stretch toward the Chicago River.
Or, if not now, at least by tomorrow noon. An idealist, he sees the illusion in front of the fact of dirt and mediocrity. A dreamer, he dwells for ever in the city of his hopes. Besides, when you come down to it, he asks, turning his back on the Broom Hotel, what city its size? — etc. Follows a list of statistics from the Weber Club, of mines and sugar beets, of warehouses and factories, of jobbers and railroads and farms…. And so on — a small backwater American city, less immaculate than most, less energetic, less comfortable, but at one with its fellows in drowsiness, in safety.
Yet once, even the tourist must remember, once the frontier marched through Ogden with its chariots and its elephants. Once there were demigods and heroes. Once there was desire and splendor — something of courage and adventure, something of battle, life a hot throbbing in the veins. Where now there are culture clubs and chiropractors, there was a city shouting its male-ness to the peaks.
For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground, and tell sad stories of the death of Roughnecks.
Into the Mormon hegira of 1845-47 went much heroism, much genius, much suffering. And yet the Mormon was a prosaic fellow. His prophet had been martyred, he himself undertook the desert for religious freedom, he conquered the wilderness and, neighboring with the coyote, brought forth a state. And so on — the recital is familiar. Yet he did all this without humor and without imagination — did it with poverty-stricken realism, and above all with an intangible smugness, a bucolic megalomania, a self-righteousness which assured him that the Lord God Jehovah, whose hinder parts Moses and Joseph Smith had seen, watched over all his businesses and made them sound.
So for twenty years after their arrival in the desert, the Latter Day Saints practiced a religion of thrifty visions. They were such folk as would be attracted to such a religion. The Church, after settling all disputes that had racked Christendom for nineteen centuries, made its own contributions to theology. It taught a plurality of gods, and, later, the opportunity for any Mormon to become a god. It gave its pious swineherds the power to interpret visions, to speak in tongues, to recognize and cast out devils, to hold conversations with angels. It taught the imminent end of the world; baptism of the dead; the evil of tobacco and cocoa; the true nature of ectoplasm; and much other extravagant nonsense. And, of course, it taught polygamy.
So much absurdity has been preached about this last doctrine, the only one associated with Mormonism in the public mind, that the facts have been obscured. In Utah polygamy was practiced on an extensive scale only by Brigham Young, and a god third of his concubines were purely honorary, veterans of the hegira, widows of the prophet Joseph, or similarly decrepit alumnae who were awarded a fraction of his name as a sort of decoration. Only a few of the nobility practiced it at all, and they did so with not wholly unanimous felicity. Heber Kimball remarked, with a sincerity that touches the heart, that if God ever set a curse on him, it was wives.
The truth is that polygamy was established to justify certain deplorable impulses of the prophet Joseph. The vigorous nature of Brigham Young was adapted to the opportunity thus created, and these precedents fastened the doctrine on the Church as the commandment of God, let him follow who might. The institution was breaking down of its own weight when the national government, by attacking it and rousing the always violent martyr-complex of the Mormons, prolonged it beyond its time. And the reason for its decline, as we shall see, was the one reason whose cogency the Mormon Church has ever recognized. It was an economic mistake. It didn’t pay.
For Brigham Young had left Nauvoo with a religion, but had established the State of Deseret with a commercial system. Here they were, in a great Salt Lake City during these twenty years, planted on a desert, creating wealth, unhampered by interference. Mr. Werner has recently declared that Brigham’s genius for organization and finance entitles him to rank among the greatest minds of his century. At his death his private estate, built up from nothing, was worth three million, and while he was amassing this, he laid the foundations on which the Mormon Church has become the greatest financial power in the intermountain west. Such a man deserves mention with the Belmonts and the Goulds of his time. What Brigham might have done, given stockyards or railroads or steel plants, only those who know most about him are able to imagine.
While he lived, Brigham Young was Utah; it follows that, during the first two decades of Salt Lake, he was the city. Fortunately, though the head of the most colorless of American heresies, Brigham was a man of color and power. In the midst of thousands of fanatics who had virtues in abundance but never a jot of imagination, he was one who easily caught fire. In a creed where any communicant of humor must have laughed himself into apostasy, he had humor — was the one Mormon in all the history of Mormonism who could laugh.
Above all, he was energy. And the frontier, the frontier that stirs the heart, was only energy. Day by day he was driving more surely the stakes of Zion. Nor did he forget that a prophet deserves well of the church he is giving an inside track to heaven. The statutes of the early Territorial legislatures are confined almost exclusively to granting Brigham Young the gtimber-rights of this canyon, the water-rights of that, the sawmill privileges here, the toll-gate privilege there. He builds houses, stores, bridges; he sells dry goods, flour, horses; he directs a theater; he invents apartments; he establishes a university. When the Territory is surveyed and opened to homesteads, he builds a house on wheels which his pensioners set down where four section corners meet, and thus files on government by wholesale. He has a finger in the invention of an alphabet, a purely Mormon language based on the one spoken in heaven and designed to crowd out the Gentile tongues on earth. He creates a Mormon currency, the “wooden money” of later Gentile sneers, and perhaps the one legal tender of all history based on the promises of Almighty God. He publishes a newspapers. He even organizes a sect of communists, who deed over to him as trustees in trust, the last run of their possession — deeds conveying to him chickens and beds and underwear are onthe records of Weber and Salt Lake counties. And all businesses in the valley have him as an active or a silent partner — banks and barrooms, freight-companies and the mills that manufacture the holy union-suits of the faithful.
In the midst of all this activity, he is watching over the souls of his Saints — and is a little troubled by them. Week by week he is thundering at them in the Tabernacle, roaring a diapason of wrath and praise, promising them triumph over the Gentiles or God-damning them as loafers. For the prophet had dwelt too long among the Gentiles and had acquired a certain vocabulary. In the “Journal of Discourses” these sermons are printed today, no less vigorous for being foul-mouthed, no less productive of piety for being Rabelaisian. Brigham, simply, could not express himself in other ways. Here before him was a crowd of Saints, honest men but so inferior to him that he seemed godlike, mulish and dull, incapable of seeing their own best interests, slow to see anything at all. He would, he said, infinitely rather kill a man than suffer him to lose his soul. On occasion, no doubt, he had the execution performed, but for the most part, swearing sufficed.
For, in these meetings, you must remember, this bearded man was not merely Brigham Young the glazier and the millionaire, but was Brigham Young the seer and revelator, the vicegerent of God, whose words came down from heaven. Faces, ten thousand at a time, looked up at this little man, and saw what Christ had seen on the morning of Resurrection. … This frontier Moses made annual processions across his domain. The cavalcade, with banners and outriders and bodyguard, with Amelia or perhaps several of the less favored wives, struck out across the territory. Everywhere children were scoured and ruffled and drilled to decorum. Young girls threw flowers — the blossoms of desert plants or the more cherished hollyhocks of the dooryard — beneath the wheels of the chariot, and sang their pious doggerels to this little man, who held one hand beneath his flatulence and nodded as he fancied God would nod. And old men and women hobbled back home, happy that they had lived another year to witness the passage of the holy one.
“I’ll say we got knives here as well as the boys in San Pete,” he had shouted last Sunday in the Tabernacle, referring to the irremediable humiliation of a young man who had looked too often on a maiden designed for his bishop. “Get out your knives, boys.” The Saints hearkened. This was the prophet of God, the practitioner of polygamy, telling them that they must not commit adultery.
What Brigham aimed at was a commonwealth of Saints, wherein all labored for a common end, where the will of God and the prophets was law, and where the United States was a foreign power. For twenty years that was what he achieved. Now and then, some Saint’s voice was raised against the despotism: there was thunder in the Tabernacle and a repentance or an exile. Sometimes, it must be remembered, there was even a corpse. The Mormons of to-day call the Danites a myth; no doubt they were, but there was Porter Rockwell, there was Bill Hickman, there was John D. Lee; the last, deserted by his church after the massacre it had directed, was shot beside his coffin.
Gentiles came to the valley, forewarned. Sometimes they set up their stores, sometimes offered merchandise below the prices of the Saints. Soon neat signboards appeared above the doors of the faithful — the all-seeing eye of God, sacred in Mormon symbolism, and above it “Holiness to the Lord.” And men loitered about. A Saint, approaching the Gentile store, felt a tap on his shoulder. “Brother Brigham favors the Jones establishment,” he was told. The Gentile came to terms. When he didn’t, when his tribe increased so far that it was cutting the ground from under the Church stores — for a bargain is a bargain even under the all-seeing eye — Brigham organized a chain, the Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution, which has grown into one of the largest of the Church’s immense properties — and licked the Gentiles once more.
Governor, judge, and marshal — one by one they beat out their precedents and sovereignties against the little bearded man. They had from him smiles when he wanted to bestow them, but more often contumely. Cut-throats he called them, and embezzlers, and lick-spittles, and all opprobrious things. Every Sunday saw him in the Tabernacle reviling the governor, pouring out on him unimaginable abuse. Always he won. Arrested, his own courts gave him habeas corpus. Denounced, he replied in kind. Ordered to submit to the United States, he declared by proclamation that the territory was his to do with as he willed. Governor gave way to governor, all gladly, some made laughing-stocks, some disgraced. If their own foolhardiness did not betray them, it was always possible to trap them in a trumped-up brothel and so be rid of them.
In Utah there was no power but Brigham. He was superior to the United States, not only by virtue of his agency from God, but actually by power of arms. So, when the United States sent an army against him, he outgeneralled the brilliant Albert Sidney Johnson, burned his baggage, holed him up in winter quarters outside the Territory, and treated as an equal with the United States. The expedition, which cost the government some seven million dollars, added almost that much wealth, by auction and the spoils of war, to the victorious Church. … But it was Brigham at his darkest hour. Boasting to his followers that he would deliver Zion, he found out what it was to doubt in secret. The terms of peace allowed the troops to save their faces by marching through Salt Lake City and to build a camp some forty miles beyond.
The Mormons had reason enough for their hatred of the United States, their prophecies against it, and their oaths of disaffection. If they had always met the government with treason, the government had always betrayed them. The tropps coming through Salt Lake City, who knew but they might have orders to shoot down all who got in their way, and generally to lay waste the Jerusalem the Saints had built up with their sweat in the desert? …
That day the quickstep echoed through empty streets. No one was in sight, beyond an occasional Gentile waving his hat at a corner. The Mormon women and children were miles away, with their pottery and their blankets, and most of the men were with them. There, too, was Brigham in his chariot. Here and there about the city a Mormon was hidden, ready if need be to light the faggots that were piled behind the doors. Brigham, in valedictory, would bring the city down on the heads of its despoilers.
For once this low-comedy prophet reached dramatic heights. Silent in his chariot, miles away from his Jerusalem, holding up his paunch with an arm, he was planning out his course if the city must be burned. Between the Mormons and the Americans must be war forever — as he had known for years even before the prophet Joseph collapsed over the windowsill at Carthage jail. O longer would he delude himself with hope of peace. He would lead his Church on a second flight, this time to the Canyon of the Colorado, to the badlands where an army could never penetrate. There he would conduct the feud without mercy forevermore — Mormon against American, to the death, while an ounce of powder remained to the faithful.
The tragic heights subsided. The city, of course, was not burned. The wives came back and the Sunday rhapsodies continued. Soon the troops were called back to a more extensive battlefield and not even a pretense of authority was kept over Brigham. As for the deathless feud — that, too, has been buried by the years, and for the best of Mormon reasons. It was useless extravagance. It didn’t pay.
The colony at Ogden, thirty-five miles to the north, had been founded by divine command. Brigham thumbed through his tithing-lists, selected those who suited his purposes, and sent them off to plant another stake at Zion. So, during these years, Ogden was a scattering of log and adobe huts, well off the main currents of the frontier.
There is much that is pathetic in the scene of these earnest Mormons going out to plough their alkali fields and bring down water from the hills in the name of God. There is more that is side-splitting. For, when you meditate on the piety of this persecuted breed, on this religion that led thousands across the desert, remember of what ingredients that faith was made. Equal parts of smugness, ignorance, and superstition is the formula. Remember that the God of this Israel was a person very much in the likeness of Brigham Young, a fat old man with a bad temper, who used abominable English, who had begotten mankind by actual sexual congress with a polygamous harem of she-gods, and who had undertaken to deliver the earth into the hands of his anointed.
That is where the earthly humor of Mormonism enters. These simple folk, who ploughed the desert under and out of alkali brought forth bread, these tired, almost dehumanized men was Chosen People. They walked their furrows by day and lay down in their shanties by night confident that they were building brick by brick the new Jerusalem whence some day God and Joseph Smith and Brigham Young should direct the universe. These fences of cedar were really the bastions of a new earth. These poplar barns were the granaries of the Lord, incrusted with pearls. These trickles of white water — were they not piped from the four rivers of Paradise?
The frontier passed them by, thirty-five miles to the southward. Through Salt Lake City went the pageantry of the American folk-wandering. Through Salt Lake City streamed the Forty-Niners, hellbent for California, with their washbowls on their knees. They swarmed their hour about Brigham’s boulevards, bartered their luxuries for staples at extortionate rates, and hurried on. The Church made a good thing of them, as it had of the Mexican War before them. In their wake came the Overland Mail, with its Concord stages thundering into town behind a dozen mules, captained by men of a grandeur not to be equalled off the deck of a Mississippi packet. Follwed the second great mining stampede, to Virginia City this time, and another wave of violent men, swaggering their male-ness down avenues dedicated to God and God’s dollars. After that, the pony express, following the stage-route, a venture that bankrupted itsw backers but gave the West its
[Plate: Salt Lake City, Utah Territory, in 1857, lithograph]
most colorful legend — a legend of galloping hoofs, foamy flanks, and the halloo of a rider who was swallowed up by dust or darkness as soon as he was seen.
All this energy, all this restlessness and aspiration, streamed through Salt Lake City, under the eyes of Brigham who saw in it the end of his isolation, perhaps, but also an immediate source of profit. Ogden passed it by. Ogden was a settlement of pious Mormons who tilled their fields and obeyed the prophet, who looked at the mountains but saw the meadows of Jerusalem.
And then word came that the Pacific Railroad was not disposed to adopt the prophet’s suggestion. “Why,” said the engineers, “should we build over an extra divide merely to get to Salt Lake City when we can follow a water-level route through Weber Canyon?” And Weber Canyon debouched a mile or so from Ogden. Then suddenly there was a freight-line from Zion, and a little later came the surveyors from east and from the west. Then a new goldfield, poised on the present boundary between Idaho and Wyoming, opened up. An adventurous Gentile made a trail to it, shortened its line of supplies two hundred miles, and the first affluence Ogden had ever seen began.
There were two streets — then three, then four. Saloons came, bringing progress — bright lights, tablecloths, store shirts, flowered vests, the etiquette of the Colt. The miners came, and scarlet women; such women as Ogden had never seen. Women with laces and silks, with rouge and rice powder. Women who were all that Mr. Service has declared their Alaskan sisters to be, but who brought civilization to this cowpath settlement. Women who, it may be, troubled the souls of their Mormon sisters. For Mark Twain, looking impartially at the evidence, has said that a man who married one Mormon woman was a hero and a man who married a dozen of them was a large-scale benefactor of the human race.
Strange sights by day in the streets that had seen nothing more extraordinary than a drove of pigs. Ox teams by the dozen plodding ahead of a freighter’s wagon with seven-foot wheels and a bullwhacker snaking his whip above their ears. Mules singly or in tandem packed with the outfits of prospectors, their owners trudging in their dust. Gamblers, settlers, bartenders, Mexicans, Chinks, remittance men. And by night what sounds! In the saloons, the roar of good men singing, the fellowship of males, the debate of a hundred disputants at once, each one an authority. Above them the seduction of fiddles where the women consorted with their prey. In the streets, strayed revelers taking the long way home, the clop-clop of horses as belated ones arrived, the the click of dice, sometimes the voice of the Colt. … It was a little different from discussions as to the true nature of Satan’s fur, or from the hymns with which the Mormon dances had begun. Sin had come to Ogden.
And now descended on Ogden the Hartigans and the McCarthys and the Flahertys. Through the mouth of Weber Canyon, racing against its ten-mile day and the Chinks of the C.P., the Union Pacific burst like a spring flood. Now came Hell on Wheels to Mormonry.
Not long did it pause, this mobile terminal, but never again would righteousness be quite the same. The Irish roared and sang and hammered, like happy devils assaulting the earth, and laid their steel and passed on. On to Corrine they went, on to Promontory Point, and met the Chinks and sniped at them from behind ties or seized them bodily, when the scientific spirit was strong, and took them apart. Those last eighty miles of railroad building, both companies roaring for land and fame, were a romancer’s dream of strength and trickery and violence. They ended; dignitaries came to drive their golden spike; and the Central Pacific built on into Ogden any way, in the hope that it could swindle the government of fifty thousand acres more. And the Irishmen all came back.
For Ogden was now a railroad town. Those who had swung picks, fought Indians, and sniped at Chinks, would now undertake to keep the U.P.’s cars on its tracks. A race of men, these. For the most part Union veterans, they were old before their youth was done; their arms were like the girders of the bridges they built; and they, who had tamed spring rivers and battened rails across the spine of a continent, were afraid of neither God nor devil. Still less were they afraid of men who were anointed to hold converse with both.
It was Porter Rockwell who learned as much soon after the first roundhouse was built at Ogden — Porter Rockwell, mysterious emissary of Brigham, who, if he performed one-tenth of the murders attributed to him had disposed of more Gentiles than Brigham had married wives. Bearded and very hard was Porter Rockwell, a man to set strong men wailing in their dreams, a man who had publicly allowed that the temple union-suit he wore, blessed by Brigham, would turn any bullet ever fired by Gentile. He was strolling down Spring Street one day, newly come form mysteries of retribution, and he was listening to the earth quake in terror of his passing. Appeared now one twisted Flannigan, deplorably gone in drink. “Are ye Port Rockwell?” the half-size Irishman demanded. The strong right arm of Brigham nodded. “Then by God, y’are the man whose underwear will turn bullets, and I’m called of God to put it to proof. ‘Tis a revelation, y’understand, to speak accordin’ to Mormon.”
In something less than a second Porter Rockwell was on his knees in Ogden’s dust, and had swallowed five inches of steel barrel. For ten minutes the railroader marched round him, dictating enormous obscenities about Brigham Young for his victim to acclaim, and then marched him off down the street for exhibition, the Colt prodding his pants.
Ogden was frontier. From Salt Lake Brigham built his railroad, the Utah Central, to connect with the U.P., and from Ogden northward into his Idaho dominions as the Utah Northern. One landboom after another rocketed city lots. The land agent came, and with him both fortune and bankruptcy. Northward the freighters sent their cavalcades, long files of wagons under the white-gold cloud of dust, creaking of axles and grunt of oxen, oaths and laughter — the strain and vigor of life.
Came too, not only Bret Harte’s gambler, but his aristocratic cousin, the confidence man, of derringer and long-tailed coat, who worked the passenger trains and fleeced his traveling companions at faro or sold them mountain peaks or rivers or franchises to build ferries in the desert. The good and the great came, to see what the railroad was doing in the waste places. And now that other symbol of the west began to come — the cowboy making his long drive northward from Texas, his face hidden in his bandana, his lungs choked with alkali. Ogden was as far west as the Long Trail ever came, as far west as the dionysiac joy of the buckaroo ever set the peaks echoing.
One and all they made their way from bar to bar but ended at the Chapman House. French Pete, other and true name unknown, was the civilizing influence that turned many a man toward the arts. Here is a menu of French Pete’s, preserved to this smaller age. Turtle soup, crackers; mountain trout, Columbia river salmon, oysters San Francisco; antelope steak, shoulder of venison, beef Chicago; breasts of sage hen, prairie chicken in cream, quail, mourning doves, Canada goose; southern yams in candy, peas, celery, watercress, potatoes O’Brien; hot biscuits, cornpone; honey, watermelon, peaches and cream. The little slip indicates that one was expected, not to make a choice from this ecstasy, but to down it all from the first to the last. The other side is an equally heroic list; cocktails named after railroad presidents, Indian chiefs, and mining camps; punches, cordials, highballs, fizzes, rickies, Juleps; it ends, “Irish whiskey, fifteen cents a glass.” And one line reads, “Champagne: California, $1.00. Imported, $2.00.” A pint? No, a half-gallon.
To the Chapman House came the mining and railroad millionaires, the English cattle-barons, actors and singers making continental tours, and more than one princeling from Graustark or beyond. The register, if it could be recovered, would be a miniature history of the frontier. Perhaps most curious of its names would be the curtly signed “Bill.” This was Rattlesnake Bill, who came for some weeks twice or thrice a year, to eat the savories of French Pete, and to sit for hours on the upper veranda, smoking, chatting, looking down at Fifth Street or out at the shadows deepening on the peaks.
Innumerable legends cluster about this man of the white sombrero above the long black curls. No one ever ventured to ask his name. No one knew whence came the money that clad and housed him so magnificently. One heard that he was a Mason sent to murder Mormons, that he owned a secret bonanza surpassing the Comstock Lode, that he was successively all the desperadoes who plundered the mines and the mail, that he was the illegitimate son of a British prince and once a month received an order on the royal exchequer. He had killed, one understood, his dozen; he had led men on desperate piracies beyond the hills; he had said to men in New York, in China, or in London, “Do this,” and it was done.
But there he sat, smoking cigars that were never bought in Ogden, telling stories to the Chapman children, and bowing to men and women who counted his nod an accolade. Once a year he contributed to Catholic, Mormon and Protestant Churches; and at Christmas time all railroad men on duty and all wayfarers fed at his expense on French Pete’s cooking. He died one night in the Chapman House, of an apoplexy. No papers were found in his buffalo trunk. But there were books there: Childe Harold, a Shakespeare, several originals of Voltaire, and a volume of strange devices which pious Saints believed to be the original of the Book of Mormon, which would have made Bill the angel Moroni. But it proved to be only a sixteenth century Odyssey, whose ex libris had been obliterated.
Near the Chapman House was Gentile Kate’s brothel, incomparably the leader of its kind. Kate was herself a respected part of the business life of the town, a speculator in real estate. the most liberal customer of the stores; she was, too, an unofficial great lady. When a railroad dignitary or a visiting Cabinet member was to be banqueted, she was always bidden to provide conversation and fine raiment above the reach of Ogden. No one was ever swindled at her establishment; no one was ever disorderly there, twice. A person of dignity was Gentile Kate, and of more than a little wit. But her annoyance was Mormons — perhaps because she disliked their colorlessness, perhaps because she felt that their multiple marriages were sabotage against her profession, perhaps because she had knowledge of certain patriarchs and bishops who, by day, denounced her in their meeting-houses. Doing almost a bank’s business in loans and mortgages, she never lent a penny to a Mormon; and the one unladylike expression in her vocabulary coupled a vivid genealogy with the name of Joseph Smith.
Early in her career, Brigham Young died of overeating, and soon there was an auction of his effects. O late years he had taken to parading the streets of Salt Lake in a new carriage — a barouche made for him in the East. One sees the picture: Brigham at his portliest, at his most benignant, leaning back in the wine-colored cushins, one arm bracing his paunch, his eyes straying over the multitudes who uncovered and bowed their heads as the right hand of God went by. An equipage of splendor, behind gray stallions, on one side the all-seeing eye, carved and glistening, [page 49] on the other side the beehive of Deseret, and on the rear the angel Moroni ascending to heaven from audience with Joseph Smith. But only a carriage, after all.
The Utah Central, one day, bore it up to Ogden. Next day, behind the same gray stallions, bearing the same ignia of Mormonry, it rolled up and down the streets of Ogden, and haughty in its cushions was Gentile Kate.
Meanwhile, following the Irish, other people were settling in Ogden, putting up their stores shipping their freight to the multitudes of little towns that had germinated in the railroads’ wake. Much money was being made in Ogden — and this, as it was Gentile money, gravelled the Mormon’s souls. Now begins the last protracted struggle between the faithful and the damned. As always, it gave the Mormon more than his native color. Unmolested, he is only a fanatic worshiping outrageous gods; but fighting the Gentile, he is laved with all the high-lights of martyrdom and sanctity and desperation. Brigham Young was dead, but behind the figureheads of the presidency was George Q. Cannon, who was scarcely less a general.
Politics had served the Church well in Illinois; perhaps the Mormon ability to cast ten thousand votes as one might help out now. For a dozen years the battle waged unequally — centered, of course, in Ogden where alone the Gentiles might make a stand. The town began to glow. Its somnolent avenues to-day bear no hint that they have witnessed emotions no less intense than those that followed Bloody Mary about her realm. They were for the most part bloodless, but were no less bitter; only, the Irish kept them on the comic side. Your Mormon, battling at Armageddon for his dollar, is no light-headed man; he regards levity as the sin against the Holy Ghost; his god, as the god of this world, centers his interest in cash, wherefore to be else than solemn is to risk hell. But the Irish, who had created and obliterated the frontier, were less awed.
A merry decade it was, these ten years of the People’s Party and the Liberal Party — ten years of plot and counterplot, of stuffed ballot boxes and bribed judges, of scandals built to order and set off at the right moment; of broken heads, of oratory and defiance. From Mormon pulpits streamed curses that had for their model the chapters of Deuteronomy which raise cursing to an art. From Irish bar-rooms streamed the laughter of men. Sometimes a Gentile Machiavelli was set upon by night in an alley and his head was bashed. Sometimes one was bought outright or another caught with the goods. In the last case he would be tried by a Mormon jury before a Mormon judge, with his comrades — who wasted no sympathy on a man who could get caught — swearing him into centuries of prison.
Sometimes a madness would come upon the Irish, and they would go out for entertainment. Bishop Jones, hurrying to priesthod meeting, would find himself captive to a dozen brawlers who would, perhaps, drag him to the new steam laundry, strip him, and immerse him in a vat of soap with lewed parodies of the Temple ordinances. Did he believe Brigham Young had taken to wife Semiramis and Cleopatra and the Queen of Sheba? Down with him into the suds! Did he expect to beget souls in heaven? Let the soap cover him! And so on till the bishop, recanting Mormonism, precept by precept, emerged a bishop of the black mass.
They went forth to battle, these Irish, but they always died. Till one November the auguries pointed the other way and the Irish swaggered down the middle of the streets. Election day saw two machines perfected. One by one, in the outlying districts where no Gentiles lived, the Mormons filed in, voting for themselves, for their wives, their children, their great grandparents, and the legions they had taken to wife in celestial marriage. A Gentile election-judge nodded jovially and called them by their first names. All day long till the polls closed. Then, out of nowhere, came rigs galloping; hard men descended on the polls, lifted the ballot box, and disappeared with the Gentile judge. Down the Weber and Ogden rivers flowed stream of ballots sanctified by the Lord’s chosen.
Word had reached the Liberal headquarters that special trains had come up from Salt Lake City and that the Mormons were voting all the names on the tombstones. Headquarters grinned and consulted watches. A special arrived from as far north as the Idaho line — and northward there were only Mormons. The upper floor of the city hall filled with a reserve to be called into action ten minutes before the polls closed. A Gentile leader made to go up the stairs. No less a man than Porter Rockwell, now again, and soon to die, tapped him on the shoulder.
“My orders,” Porter said, “is to shoot anybody that goes up them stairs.”
The Gentile nodded and beckoned two deputy marshals who happened, very casually, to be standing nearby. “Your orders,” he informed them, “is to shoot anybody that comes down them stairs.”
An hour before the polls closed all the locomotives in the railroad yards began to whistle. Two specials roared in from Echo, Wasatch, Evanston, and points east. How many Irish clambered down from cars and roofs and tenders history does not estimate. But they streamed uptown and began to vote. They voted the payrolls of the U.P., the registers of the Chapman House and the Broom Hotel, the tax-lists of Evanston, and every other document that bore names. Then, reversing first and last names, they voted again. …
That night the planets knew that Gentile Ogden was delivered from the oppressor’s heel. How much firework was burned, how much firewater drunk, it is a melancholy business to calculate. The peaks gave back shriekings until dawn. And at dawn a cowboy who had been making his first visit to Ogden was discovered setting up a sign on a hill some miles from the city.
“Ogden City,” the sign read. “Ogden City. Hotter than Hell and the Hottest Place This Side of Hell.”
About this time, too, the Mormons achieved their last moment of dignity. Persistently they had agitated Statehood, to remove the congressional supervision exercised under the Territory. Persistently their hamstringing of governors and their practice of polygamy had stood in their way. The Liberal victory pricked them to greater efforts, but coincidently, the propaganda of Gentile sects became effective and the Edmunds-Tucker bill, the first anti-polygamy measure with teeth, passed Congress. At once the Mormons found themselves helpless, once more martyrs, once more hunted, once more without civil rights. Church property was confiscated, all who practiced polygamy were placed without the law, and all who would not disavow it were disfranchised. The government had them where the hair was short.
For a moment, then, the familiar Mormon frenzy of martyrdom. Mass-meetings of women all over the Territory resolved their ardor for polygamy — a phenomenon to be explained not so much by a woman’s preference for one-tenth of a superior man to a whole lout, as by the priesthood’s Mohammedan domination over its women. Mormon leaders, with a price on their heads, disappeared into the desert. In Ogden there was secret traffic by night, riders going out from son in control to father in hiding, other riders following them to head off pursuit. The pulpits flamed with their old-time hatred of the United States.
A moment of tragedy, a moment when God seemed to be testing his chosen with the fire that had tried their fathers, a moment that seemed bound to repeat the catastrophe of Nauvoo, when the Church, without leaders, money or supplies, was driven out the face the desert. Only this time there was not even a desert; Israel could not isolate itself from Babylon, but must be scattered piecemeal and destroyed, all for the purest motive man ever defended, for religious faith. So there was peering into darkness, heartbreak, resolution, and despair. … The last downstage tableau of the Saints.
But only for a moment. The stuff of Mormonry had grown both weaker and wiser. Remember Brigham, fulminating his defiance of government, stationing men with torches in his forsaken city, resolved to lead his Church to the Canyon of the Colorado and there fight the United States unto the end. Mormonry had changed: it oculd onot contemplate the destruction of a dogma without shudders, but the loss of property was something else. It recalled that when Brigham had opposed the Gentiles with force he had often been menaced and sometimes licked, whereas no one in history had ever beaten him in a business deal. …
It is recorded that those in authority who favored trial by battle were looked on by the rest with a certain wild impatience, as men who had not penetrated the symbolism of God’s truth. So presently polygamy was repealed, not by revelation but by declaration of inexpediency, and except for old fogies tottering with their harems to the grave, it is now obsolete.
It is a doctrine still, now made intricate with years of rationalization, but it is taught the young Saints as an ordinance to be practiced hereafter in those days to come when all men are made perfect. when the Saints dwell like gods with their grandfathers and their grandsons, when Brigham and Joseph come back with their wives and take their proper stations somewhere between the first and second members of the Trinity. The latest President of Israel treats those suspected of believing too currently in plural marriage with the ferocity his predecessors reserved for rival revelations. He is right. Any effort to bring polygamy from the hereafter to the now is bad business. It doesn’t pay. And, in the end, for Mormonry, there is no other test for truth.
So vanished the last energy of Utah, of Salt Lake City and of Ogden. Why should Israel longer fight Gentiles with politics? Why should it longer retain beliefs which meant a money loss? Why should it indulge itself with martyrdom, the most extravagant of all waste? After all, the father’s house held many mansions and the victory promised the Saints could be worked out in the most formidable of them the counting-house.
And so it was. Mormon organization, a priesthood whose function is ambivalent, a communistic system directed by a tight oligarchy, the religious force harnessed to economic machines — all these have, in thirty years, brought Israel into its kingdom. Your Mormon dwells in peace and brotherly love with his Gentile neighbor, for intolerance and warfare lost money — they didn’t pay. He fights no more political or social battles — they wasted money in the old days. In 1917, instead of Brigham’s vilification of the government as of 1861, and his prayers for the success of the South, the Church oversubscribed its Liberty Loan quotas and outdid New England in hatred of the Teuton. For patriotism pays.
The Mormon has done well. There are no Mormon poor. The Church looks after its own. The “peculiar people” have a stranglehold on the wealth of the intermountain region. God’s promises have been certified. The underwriters of salvation have made good. Even the religion tends toward Rotary: you must dig through many layers of rationalism and defense before you get at the awkward gods, the taboos, and the ignorance at the core. For color of history or of person, for individuality and all such strange, un-Mormon impulses — these, too, do not pay.
That is why the tourist, singling out his Mormon bishop for identification, is most likely to pick out the high-church rector of St. Luke’s. That is why the real Mormon bishop looks like a bank-director; he is one. That is why to-day a Mormon is indistinguishable from a Gentile in Ogden. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has come into its own; it has inherited the promised land, the promised power, the promised glory. It has won its battle; it has tamed its cities; it has delivered its enemies into slavery.
In all things. … Only, of course, victory carries with it its own sequelae. Mormonry, let it be said, once more, is a religion of this earth, a deification of produce and merchandise and high interest. And naturally it has reaped in kind. The Ogden of to-day, we have noticed, is hideous, intolerably. The life that goes on behind its dingy walls is no less so. No less so in Salt Lake City or in the uttermost parts of the State.
The bishop of an Ogden ward — “ward” is the appropriate Mormon term for parish — was presenting to his church a picture which one of his flock had painted to the glory of his people. Save for the halo round Brigham’s head, the smear might have been torn from a billboard advertising Camels. And wholesome awe was in the bishop’s voice.
“Brother Sorenson tells me,” said Bishop Jorgenson, “that the materials in this painting cost him less than six dollars. If he had not wanted to give it over to the Church, he could have sold it for fifty dollars. That, by brethren, is how it pays to get an education for the glory of your Church.” The congregation sang its hymn of praise. A young priest in the back row sighed, and surreptitiously putting on his shoes went to the table to bless and distribute the sacrament. …
The mountains all about, one would think, ought to bring something of splendor into the lives of those who live among them, something of poignancy, of beauty. Here about the Chosen People are extravagance and excess of beauty — why, then, has it never worked its way into their hearts? Well, the Church was first enlisted and has ever since been increased from the bankrupt fringe, from the very dregs of foreign and domestic society. Neither artists nor their patrons floruish among such folk. And then, a man who can believe in the pathological god of Joseph Smith and who must worship him after the mercantile manner of Brigham Young, such a man has little understanding of beauty or refinement and no patience with them. They do not pay.
Talent, by biological aberration, does sometimes arise here in in Ogden. A child is born with a voice, with a gift for the stage, the violin, or the brush. The Church is kind to him. However modest his circumstances, he is sent to conservatories or to dramatic schools or wherever else training may be had for him. And in due time he is brought back to drill the faithful in singing “O, My Father,” or to teach their children how to paint sago lilies in their sketches of the prophet Joseph talking to the angel Moroni. I do not deny that the Mormons have an art. They have the most apalling art this side of the Australian bush (where they now proselyte), and it is practiced for the glory of the Church as was the art that reared the cathedrals of France. Cooperative competition for the glory of the Church and the profit of its rulers is the Mormon formula. So the child who can recite “The Village Blacksmith” gets a point for his ward in the monthly standing; his sister, by setting a stanza of Eliza Snow’s doggerel to something resembling music, may get five points for the ward, thereby equalling Annie Christopherson, of the next ward, who during the week invented a new way of making cake without eggs.
And, asks the bishop, is there any other worthy kind of art? Does any other art make us better Mormons? Does it make us more efficient? Does it add to the stature of the Church?
So the Mormons have dwelt their eight years among the mountains and never seen them. And, because they have won their battle, they have kept the Gentiles from seeing them as well. … Down the streets of Ogden to-day go the Mormon Buicks and the Gentile Fords, equally intent on the matter at hand. No dominant energy is apparent. The frontier is buried deep beneath this crumbling asphalt. By day or night there is no dust of mules teams no roar of miners’ chorus or shout of Irish going forth against the Chink or the Mormon. Even the transietn color of the tourist flees away.
Why not? Since frontiers must fall Ogden could not be Hell on Wheels for ever. Not even its ghosts will walk for it but emigrate westward to Hollywood where at times they lift another squalid art to moments of insight. And if Ogden is not an American city, if it will not bustle or erupt, if it is dingy and penurious and sleeping — why, for that too it has a recompense. It is an outpost of the New Jerusalem, concentrated on the things that pay.
Wherefore some day all cities will bend their heads in its direction while the skies open to sudden thunder and St. Brigham and St. Joseph Smith Jun., sharing between them Helen of Troy and all dead, aphrodisiac ladies, come down to chain the devil and populate the earth with Mormon robots.
[First published in The Taming of the Frontier,
“by ten authors,” edited by Duncan Aikman;
New York, Minton, Balch & Company, 1925]