Tomorrow (September 11, 2008) is another anniversary of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the traitorous murders of 120 men, woman and children led by Mormons in southern Utah in 1857. This year a couple of new books about the Massacre have been published. One is House of Mourning: A Biocultural History of the Mountain Meadows Massacre by forensic anthropologist Shannon Novak.
Ms. Novak’s book is quite different from the others I’ve seen. Rather than spend a great deal of time on the Massacre itself, Ms. Novak looks more intently at the greater American context in which the ill-fated wagon train of emigrants left Arkansas for a new life in the west. Having been privileged to study the bones of twenty-eight Massacre victims, bones that were accidentally unearthed in August of 1999, Ms. Novak approaches her understanding of the Mountain Meadows Massacre from an entirely different perspective than that of a literary (non-scientific) historian. Many details from House of Mourning are worthy of mention, and perhaps they will appear here at Mormon Coffee sometime in the future. But for today, I’ll present just one aspect of Ms. Novak’s research.
In the chapter titled “Constitution,” Ms. Novak wrote:
“Many traditional accounts of Mountain Meadows have claimed that the Arkansas emigrants were, in some sense, diseased. Some two weeks after he participated in the massacre, John D. Lee described the victims as syphilitic: ‘Many of the men & women was ro[tten?] with the pox before they were hurt by the Indians’… Soon it was reported in the Los Angeles Star… that William H. Dame, colonel of the [LDS] Iron County militia, had examined the bodies of the Arkansans and determined that all the women were prostitutes. As Bagley… points out, such stories seem to have been transmitted to reporters by William Matthews, a leading Mormon official in California, as part of a ‘systematic defamation of the murdered emigrants.’
“This conclusion is no doubt correct. To understand such defamation, however, we must consider what it meant to be ‘diseased.'” (page 88, source citations in the original replaced here with ellipses)
After explaining multiple types of diseases common in Antebellum America and the health of the Arkansas victims as evidenced by their remains, Ms. Novak turned to a discussion of syphilis and it’s “endemic” status “within any nineteenth-century population center” (107). She wrote:
“The remains at Mountain Meadows, however, tell a different story. In the study sample of at least 28 massacre victims, there was no evidence of lesions that would be consistent with a diagnosis of venereal or congenital syphilis. Once again we are struck by the apparent vigor of this population.
“These findings are in sharp contrast to claims that were made in the immediate aftermath of the massacre… Though the skeletal evidence from the mass grave at Mountain Meadows cannot decisively refute the claims of Lee, Dame, and others, it casts doubt on the image of an emigrant party that was ‘rotten with pox,’ as Lee put it…
“For the sake of argument, however, let us grant the possibility that the victims bodies might have been examined for evidence of the disease and other abnormalities. How would anyone have been able to tell that they were infected with syphilis? Unless the victims were in the advanced stages of the disease, only a close examination of their genitalia would have revealed any symptoms. Needless to say, none of the newspaper accounts or journal entries provides details about how such a procedure was conducted. It is known that the bodies were stripped of their clothing soon after the massacre. So the possibility remains that the perpetrators, under the guise of medical examination, committed a final outrage on the killing field.” (107-108)
To place the charge of “defamation” into a proper context, Ms. Novak continued:
“Perpetrators of the massacre seem to have been justifying an especially ‘bad outcome’ for the Arkansas emigrants. In their version of events the emigrants themselves bore responsibility for their deaths. Such reasoning allowed even children to be viewed as morally corrupt…
“Thus, in the case of Mountain Meadows, to insinuate that parents were afflicted with disease—especially one such as syphilis—was to comment on the character, or future character, of their offspring. It was especially offensive to claim, as Dame was purported to do, that ‘all the women were prostitutes.’ Because an infant was ‘dependent upon the state of the mother’s blood from the moment of conception till weaned from the breast,’ emotional states such as anger, sexual desire, or envy ‘could potentially injure the nursling by contaminating its milk’… Such logic allowed the perpetrators of the massacre to deny the innocence even of the surviving children [aged 9 months to 6 years). Thus, on September 29, 1857, Wilford Woodruff wrote in his journal… ‘Brother [John D.] Lee said that He did not think there was a drop of innocent Blood in their Camp for he had too of their Children in his house & he Could not get but one to kneel down in prayer time & the other would laugh at her for doing it & they would sware like pirat[e]s.'” (108-109)
So it went, in the aftermath of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, that the Mormon leadership, who ordered and carried out this horrendous crime, justified the brutal murders of 40 men, 30 women, and 53 children passing through Mormon country on their hopeful way to a new life.