Discover more from Histories
Ushered into 'the presence', 1870
An interview with a notable leader
He received me quite cordially, and I took a rapid mental photograph of one of the most remarkable men of this generation. He is in his seventieth year, but looks at least five years younger…
Last week I introduced William Perry Fogg, an American adventurer whose travels and writings clearly fed into Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. (I also embarked upon and completed an oddball Phileas Fogg-style voyage of my own.)
Fogg’s 1870 journey to Japan, China, India and the Middle East began with him crossing the United States – which in itself was quite a journey. Although the real Mr Fogg (1826–1909) was primarily a businessman, and a pillar of society in Cleveland, Ohio, he was also the editor and co-proprietor of one of the newspapers his travel letters were published in, the Cleveland Herald, and he showed a reporter’s instinct for his stories – including setting up an interview in advance with a fascinating and prominent figure of his age. That was the second president of the Mormons, Brigham Young (1801–77).1 Fogg was clearly no great fan of the Mormons, as we shall see, but also took an interest in the people he met.
His journey westward took him through Chicago and St Louis and thence by the Kansas Pacific Railway towards California via Denver. Between Kansas City and Denver, he writes, “the stations on the road are few and far between, being rarely dignified by names, and distinguished only by numbers. But exactly where the plains end and the desert begins is difficult to tell… A few weeks ago a large herd of buffalo crossing the track compelled the engineer to stop his train. Antelopes are almost constantly in sight from the cars, and fall an easy pray to the hunter.” He is entertained by prairie dogs popping out of their holes, if startled that they were the key ingredient of the ‘rabbit stew’ he was give. On through Cheyenne, and his route joins the Union Pacific Railroad, but he stops off in Utah and diverts along Brigham’s new 36-mile road to Salt Lake City:
…we here branch off, and, soon after dark, find ourselves in the midst of Mormondom at a hotel which has one landlord and three landladies. Which one of the latter attend to the culinary department I cannot say, but she deserves the credit of giving us the best supper of tender steak and fresh brook trout that we have tasted for weeks. We notice that the landlord has a sad, downcast look, which, under other circumstances, would excite our sympathy and compassion.
He then heads to a Mormon theatre in the dark (“gaslight being here unknown”), “with a view to see the audience rather than the play”. He is perhaps almost prurient in his fascination with polygamy, delighted to discover two of Young’s wives (out of 17 Fogg learns of, although apparently in his lifetime he had over 50), a son and “a dozen or more of his daughters” are in the audience, but he praise the acting. “A survey of the audience convinced me that the female portion were decidedly superior in intelligence and refinement of manners and dress to the males,” he notes, before heading back: “I picked my way through the mud back to the hotel without the slightest feeling of danger, for the streets of Salt Lake are safer in the darkest night than are those of most cities of half its size.” (This first letter about his travels was written in Salt Lake City on 26th October 1870.)
The next day he explores properly by daylight, and is clearly impressed by the Mormons’ taming of the desert to create a “very attractive” city of around 25,000 people. There he visits the Tabernacle:
…an immense building, oval in form, 250 feet long by 150 wide; the roof of wood, and self-supporting, being 80 feet in height. From the outside it has the appearance of an immense dish-cover. The audience room one of the largest in the world, will seat by measurement 13,000 people. It contains an organ built entirely by Mormon mechanics that is second in size only to that in Boston Music Hall… my conductor says that the ordinary congregation on Sunday is from 8,000 to 10,000 people…
When he enters into an argument with his English-born guide over polygamy, the latter takes no offence and shows firm conviction; Fogg clearly prefers the architecture to the theology. And so to the focus of his visit…2
27th October 1870
At twelve o’clock I called, by appointment, on President Brigham Young. His houses and grounds occupy two ten-acre squares, enclosed on all sides by a wall ten feet high. Two long buildings, one surmounted by a bee hive, the other having a large stone lion over the porch, could be seen within the enclosure. They are connected by a row of offices, into which the gate opened from the street. Sending in my card, I was soon ushered into “the presence.” He received me quite cordially, and I took a rapid mental photograph of one of the most remarkable men of this generation. He is in his seventieth year, but looks at least five years younger; about five feet ten inches in height, portly in form, florid in complexion, with small gray eyes set far apart, sandy whiskers closely trimmed, abundant hair, false teeth, which makes his mouth seem prominent, somewhat carelessly dressed, wearing a black over- coat, with a red handkerchief tied loosely around his neck outside his coat a quiet, self-possessed air and manner, as of a man conscious of his power,—such was the inventory I took of the man who is to-day a more absolute ruler of 120,000 people than any potentate, prince or president in the civilized world.
I told him I was about to go abroad, and as I expected frequently to be asked about Utah and the Mormons, I wished to take with me some more positive knowledge of the community than I had been able to gather from books or newspaper accounts. He glanced at me rather sharply, surmising perhaps that I was “interviewing” him as a newspaper correspondent, and said that he was glad that the Pacific railroad had opened Utah to intelligent travelers. He and his people had been cruelly misrepresented, and he referred with some bitterness to the speech of Senator Cragin of New Hampshire, which I had mentioned as my native State, said it was a tissue of lies; “but,” he said, with a malicious twinkle in his eyes, “he is not re-elected to the Senate.” This remark surprised me, for I knew Mr. Cragin was re-elected last June, but I did not undeceive him. “All we ask is to be let alone. Congress had been very unfair in not admitting Utah as a State, and in legislating against our institutions.”
There is where the shoe pinches, thought I. In answer to my enquiry whether Utah as a State would be Republican or Democratic, he said, “that depends upon which party does us justice.” He spoke of the wonderful prospeiity of his people, driven into the wilderness with nothing but their strong arms, they had in little more than twenty years converted a Sahara-like desert into well cultivated farms, producing larger crops to the acre than any eastern state. Neither Utah nor Salt Lake City owed any public debt. He referred to the “Cullom bill,” passed at the last session, making polygamy a crime, and providing for the appointment of jurors who shall all be “Gentiles.” I ventured to inquire whether he thought that law could be enforced. But he was too shrewd to be caught, and was non-committal on that point. I complimented him on being the heart and brains of his community, and that to his good management they were indebted for their wonderful prosperity, and asked if, in the course of nature, he should be taken away, could any other man carry his people forward as he had done. He replied with energy, “We are God's chosen people; I am his servant; He will never permit me to be removed until in His own good time He has provided another to take my place.”
After spending an hour I rose to leave and apologized for having occupied so much of his time while others were waiting to see him. He walked with me to the door of the outer office, shook my hand warmly at parting and wished me a pleasant journey and a safe return. He said, “Come and see us again after you have been round the world.”
As I walked down the street, I glanced at the buildings inside the wall which contained the prophet’s harem, and thought, this is all fair on the outside, but within is rottenness and corruption. Is Brigham a sincere and honest enthusiast, or a corrupt and sensuous knave? His cold gray eyes and calm, unimpassioned manner do not indicate the fanatic; nor do the lines about his mouth, or his face generally seem that of a gross sensualist. I can understand now why he is so popular, or rather so worshipped among his followers, He can read human nature and can adapt himself to and make a favorable impression upon any one with whom he comes in contact.
I stepped into a store to buy some stereoscopic views, and picking up one of Brigham, I remarked that he is a good looking man. “Yes,” said the artist with fervor, “and he is just as good as he looks.”
The solution of this Mormon problem is puzzling wiser heads than mine, but the end is not far distant. In the course of human events Brigham cannot live much longer. The mantle of the prophet cannot fall upon any other living Mormon. I trust no event will occur to precipitate a collision between the government and this people while he lives. When he dies the bubble will burst. The Pacific railroads and the opening of new mines are drawing crowds to Utah. The Gentile population is increasing much faster than the Mormon, and in ten years Mormonism, or its accursed feature, polygamy, will be a thing of the past.
Today many Mormons prefer to be called the Latter-day Saints, but it’s a complex subject and there are multiple branches of Mormonism even today.