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The Death of Brigham Young: Occasion for Satire

The Death of Brigham Young: Occasion for Satire

NOT LONG BEFORE BRIGHAM YOUNGS DEATH ON August 29, 1877, he gave Mr. and Mrs. Frank Leslie and their entourage from the staff of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly a valued interview. "And if you put me in a book," said Brigham Young to the Leslies, "promise at least that you will print me as you have found me, and not as others have described me." Before the Leslies could record their impressions in print, the Mormon leader died. Mrs. Leslie's positive, even generous, account of their experience concluded by expressing regret that Brigham Young would never learn "how kindly and respectfully we remember him." She hoped the world would "deal as tenderly with his memory as we do, above his tomb let us inscribe: 'Judgment is Mine saith the Lord.' 

On the whole, however, the press was unwilling either to deal tenderly with Brigham Young's memory or to leave judgment to Deity. His death was seized upon by newspapers and illustrated weeklies as an occasion not for grief, not for the listing of accomplishments common in obituaries, not for measured evaluation, but for written and artistic satire. Humor and ridicule were the dominant tones in the public media's coverage of Young's death, which for a surprisingly long period of time remained a popular subject of journalists and their illustrator allies. The themes and variations played on this event tell something about public taste in the nineteenth century, the use of a celebrated individual in the process of stereotyping, and the power of the press. "The demise of Brigham Young has long been looked for," noted the Tuscarora, Nevada, Times. Wishful thinking had appeared in the Utah anti-Mormon press as early as 1874, three years before the event, when a cartoon in Enoch's Advocate, a short-lived underground newspaper, foresaw the death of Brigham Young as "A Solution of Many Problems. "Enoch" in the title of the newspaper and in the cartoon referred to the cooperative economic program then advocated by Brigham Young. The wooden shoes served as a mocking symbol of Mormon aspirations toward self-sufficiency. "Little Briggy" (Brigham Young, Jr.), "G. A. S." (George A. Smith), "Daniel" (D. H. Wells), "G. Q. Smoothbore" (George Q. Cannon), and "Horse and Hide" (Orson Hyde), prominent leaders of the Mormons, were pictured vying for the vacated leadership role.

When death actually came to the embattled leader, the media reaction included the following, not always consistent, comments: "The announcement of the death of the prophet—creates but little excitement" (San Francisco Report); "an event that will prove a sensation in almost every quarter of the globe" (Chicago Interocean); "a terribly earnest and sincere man" {Omaha Herald); "the prophet has no achievement worthy of note to perpetuate his pseudogreatness" {Eureka Republican); "say what we may, his success was wonderful" but "Utah was as corrupt as Sodom" {Indianapolis Sentinel). Since juxtaposing a lengthy list of accomplishments with various evil deeds might have seemed incongruous, the California Argonaut ascribed the accomplishments to innocent disciples and the iniquity to Brigham Young.

But whether he was perceived as "a man of mark" or a "spiritual Boss Tweed," many were anxious to speculate about the effect of his death. "Brigham Young was the backbone of Mormonism," according to the San Francisco Stock Exchange, "and the backbone being gone, necessarily there must be dissolution." By 1879, however, Leslie's Weekly observed: "Those who think Mormonism weakening are mistaken. In Brigham Young's palmiest days he could have done no more than has been done on this occasion."

Even the cause of death gave rise to several tongue-in-cheek postmortem diagnoses. "It is thought that Brigham Young ought to have recovered from his cholera morbus," said Argonaut, "but when it came to fighting with women, each one with a different kind of mustard plaster for her dear husband and a new kind of herb tea, it was too much for him. Every woman laid her plaster where there was room, and the prophet went down to his grave like a sandwich."!! The San Francisco Wasp proclaimed the cause to be eating "green corn and early peaches." On the back of a separately published print picturing Brigham Young's mourning wives exclaiming "Oh Brigham! How could you leave us?" Julia A. Moore's eight verses of doggerel on "The Death of Brigham Young" included:

Tis said that Brigham Young is dead, The man with nineteen wives; The greatest Mormon of the West Is dead, no more to rise. He left behind his nineteen wives Forsaken and forlorn; The papers state his death was caused By eating too much green corn.

As Other verses unfolded, the tone became more didactic, a distinguishing feature of the popular poetry of the period.!

Responding to rumors of suicide, the San Francisco Wasp chided an unknown source for speculating that death was selfinduced. Using a play on words to embellish its rebuttal, the Wasp declared, "Certain Mormon dissenters are now claiming that Brigham Young committed suicide. It may have been dissentery [sic], after all, but it would be far dissenter [sic] to let the old fellow rest in his grave. No matter what the manner of his taking off was, such take-offs as these are odious. "

One of the favorite themes was the plight of Young's widows. Joseph Keppler's famous illustration of mourning wives in a huge multiple marriage bed so captured the fancy of the public that Puck sold separate copies of the illustration about as fast as they could be printed.  While some considered the drawing "irreverent and in execrable taste," others justified it on grounds that "nothing is or should be sacred to the humorists. He had his duty to his craft.'' A less known illustration from England, patterned after the Keppler version, showed numbered baby cribs at the base of the widow's bed and in general projected a ludicrous image of Mormonism.

Brief satirical fillers appeared on the same theme, as, for example: "no surviving wife of the late head of the Mormon church can claim sympathy on the ground of being a lone widow." Although such publicity offended some Mormons, evident from a Provoan's letter to the San Francisco Wasp, editors continued to squeeze every ounce of sensation out of the event. Fourteen years later, writers were still getting mileage out of the poor widows theme:

The wives of Brigham still assert As they have always sung, That though he died an aged man, He always was quite young.

As late as 1892 Chip Bellew recalled the event for Life in a cartoon with a scene of weeping widows, children, and animals literally flooding the gravesite with tears.22

The mockery continued on other fronts. "Brigham Young was an aesthetic," noted Texas Siftings, "and, in death, his friends have not failed to minister to the passion of his life. Some broken dishes, an old broom, a dead cat, and other articles of bric-a-brac now adorn his grave." With a slightly different tactic. Puck contrived another situation. "Well, if he wants a tomb-stone," says Mrs. Young number 10, "let that proud, stuck-up Belinda Jane Young get him one—It's as much her business as it is mine."

Some writers and illustrators speculated on Brigham Young's postmortal disposition. Even before his death the anti-Mormon Enoch's Advocate, conceding for purposes of humor that some of his Mormon predecessors may have earned an eternal reward, pictured them trying in vain to lift Brigham Young to heaven. A cartoon in Puck showed Theresa Tietjens, the renowned German soprano, who also died in 1877, being admitted through the gates of heaven while Brigham Young, suffering the agony of fire and brimstone, laments, "Well this is hard. There's St. Peter letting that actress, Titiens [sic], in up there, and here am I, a full-blooded apostle, roasting away at a terrible rate!" Conversely, a popular verse in the San Francisco Wasp, which showed a willingness to allow Brigham Young by Saint Peter, really intended to poke fun at women:

Saint Peter sat by the pearly gates Twirling his golden keys; For most of the crowd went the other way, And the old man took his ease.

But a wary spirit was soon described Of an aspect mild and worn, And as he rapped out a timid knock, Old Gabriel blew his horn.

"Who's there?" asked Pete "Only Brigham Young" Said the man with a humble grin.

"Nineteen wives," mused Pete, "Well, you've had your hell. I guess we may let you in!"

One of the more fruitful topics raised by Brigham Young's death was the issue of succession. Two questions attracted mock-serious journalistic attention: Who should succeed Brigham Young as the head of his numerous family? And who should succeed to the leadership of the Mormons? A cartoon by Bisbee addressed the first matter by showing a vacant chair at a dinner table surrounded by a vast array of children and widows. The caption declared: "A Family Conundrum (Brigham's) Who Will Take His Place." Puck nominated as Young's successor to both roles none other than the Protestant divine Henry Ward Beecher, then notorious for the scandal raised when one of his parishioners accused him of adultery. Juxtaposing these two public figures had the effect of ridiculing

what the illustrator, Joseph Keppler, regarded as two religious humbugs, Beecherism and Mormonism. Other newspapers and illustrated weeklies exploited the same theme from every conceivable angle.

In England, illustrators irreverently placed "Brigham Young's Successors" either on their way to or already in the ubiquitous, multiple marriage bed. Separately published prints, one of which drew its caption from the comic song, "He Can't Forget the Days When He Was Young," could be purchased in color or black and white at the nominal charge of one or two pence each.

For Mormons, Brigham Young's death in the press was more protracted and painful than the real thing. Long after his death he continued to appear, visually and verbally. For example, nearly two years after the funeral Frederick Keller, artist for the San Francisco Wasp, portrayed a horned Brigham Young, shrouded in white linen and alive as ever, appearing more prominent than his successor, John Taylor.

In 1887 a new wrinkle developed in the pages of the San Francisco Wasp: "It is now sought to beguile the credulous, ignorant mind of the Mormon crowd in Utah and to invite their lagging zeal to a new heat by the announcement that the great prophet simply departed the territory but did not take sail for the Stygian shore, and has now returned to the scene of his earthly triumphs. " NO such claims were put forth by Mormons, but the story was too good for the Wasp illustrator to pass up. Senator Edmunds of Vermont (sponsor of anti-Mormon legislation) is shown "Unearthing the Mormon Fraud, the skeletal remains of Brigham Young, which exposed the rumor and by extension the pretensions of Mormonism.

A variant of this resurrection rumor can be traced conclusively to an anonymous non-Mormon author. On March 26, 1887, the Argonaut published "Resurrection of Brigham Young." Corroborated by no primary source—including the anti-Mormons in Utah who would have been delighted to report such an event had there been any evidence for it—the story was nothing more than a piece of imaginative writing, though some readers may have taken it seriously. According to the article, a New York businessman on his way through Salt Lake City to California visited a former employee who had joined the Mormons. The zealous Mormon persuaded the New Yorker to attend a "secret" meeting of "from fifteen to twenty thousand" Mormons on Mount Nebo, near Nephi, Utah, where the personage of Brigham Young was to appear. During the meeting. Mormon church president John Taylor announced that those assembled were about to witness "the most marvelous miracle since the resurrection of the Savior"—the return of the resurrected Brigham Young. When Brigham Young not only appeared in person but spoke, the crowd was electrified.

Meanwhile, the clever New Yorker saw through the hoax. The wily Mormon leaders had duped their gullible followers with the aid of an optical device known as "Peppers Ghost," an invention that projected to an unsuspecting audience the image of a person concealed below a platform. The reflection of the person was cast off a sheet of transparent glass. The New Yorker just happened to have brought an air pistol. Pointing the muzzle through one of the buttonholes in his clothing to elude discovery, he fired the weapon, shattered the glass, and thus revealed the designs of the crafty Mormons. The tall tale was alive and well in America.

More than a quarter of a century after his death, Brigham Young's posthumous longevity received another boost. The occasion was the discussion of a monument at Brigham Young's birthplace. John Kendrick Bangs, editor of Life, wrote the following "The Father of His Country":

Let his praises loud be sung! Raise a shaft to Brigham Young. Let it pierce the spreading blue. Rising high and pointing true. Heralding the virtues of Him who was so full of love He'd enough and some to spare For the old maid everywhere. Mortal who could faithful be Not to one but sixty-three. One who reckoned up his sons Not by numbers but by tons. Foe whatever might betide To all racial suicide. Rescue from oblivion's dust Founder of the Nuptial Trust! Ready ever to caress, And relieve the loneliness Of the empty-hearted maid, Of the sore neglected jade. Master hand of husbandry, At the altar ever be. Father of a wondrous band— Babies spread on every hand. Sure preserver of the race, Fountain head of populace- Let the lofty monolith To this King of Kin and Kith On a firm foundation rise Till it penetrate the skies; Then this fair inscription place Large upon its granite base!

No American personality's death, before or since, has attracted media coverage quite like Brigham Young's. True, others have attracted as much or more immediate notice, especially if, as with Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, the death was sudden and unexpected. But what other American provoked by his death a reaction mainly of comic ridicule? And whose death was clung to so tenaciously by the press for several years after the event? How is the dubious "popularity" of Young's demise to be explained? We have two suggestions. First, the public antipathy toward the Mormons did not subside in 1877. Quite the contrary. It reached a fever pitch during the years extending from 1878 to the 1890s, especially during the so-called Raid. Mormons continued to be an object of interest and usually of scorn. Yet no personality symbolized Mormonism and polygamy in the public view quite like Brigham Young. Just as the anti-Catholic media aimed their aspersions at the pope, just as kings and presidents become the personification of their countries, so Brigham Young was the natural target of journalists and illustrators treating the Mormons. Three decades of media exposure had given Young firm title as the most easily recognizable symbol of Mormonism. He would not be easy to replace.

Second, the death of the Mormon leader, unlike most deaths, ironically made available a fresh bit of humor. The bringing together of death (usually thought of with sorrow) and Brigham Young (already a comic, stock figure by virtue of prior media conditioning) created a sense of incongruity. The possibility of portraying multiple wives—in bed, mourning, etc.—assured instant interest in the audience. Since the universe of humor had a distinctly limited range of laugh-producing situations it was too much to expect that journalists and illustrators would pass by one that seemed both ludicrous and refreshingly different. In the nineteenth century more than now the protective womb of the culture sanctioned, even encouraged, making fun of unpopular ethnic, religious, and racial groups.

The press was reluctant to part with Brigham Young as a subject. "In some respects," noted Puck in 1884, "it would be awkward if Mormonism were wiped out. When times were dull many newspaper editors would be minus a subject. " Not wishing to be so deprived, they played on the theme in general and specifically on Young's death for many years. In the process they contributed to the stereotyping of Mormonism as a religion and of Brigham Young as a person, which has hampered understanding even to the present. But producing genuine understanding has never been the forte or indeed even the intention of graphic or verbal satire.

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