This is another post from the Dialogue editorial board. Many of you know Matthew Bowman from Juvenile Instructor. He is a graduate student in History at Georgetown, and is the Associate Editor of Dialogue.
Related article at Dialogue
If there’s anything that, in comparison, might normalize polygamy to that vast majority of Americans for whom Mormons are but cultural curiosities, it’s probably blood atonement. I’ve earlier written in this space about the ways in which representations of Mormonism in HBO’s Big Love reflect a certain religious ethos on the part of the producers; the show is in a lot of ways a leap forward in the cultural normalization of Mormonism precisely because it is capable of imagining its Mormon (and by ‘Mormon’ I mean followers of Joseph Smith; this strikes me as a more useful definition of the term than any other) characters as basically normal people, who take their SUVs to the hardware store and have kids with part time jobs. And indeed, this normalization of people in previously exotic marriage relationships is in all likelihood the producers’ agenda. If their ratings are any indication, they may be succeeding; indeed, it appears that members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, can come into the very heart of their adversary, to the shadows of the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City, and garner sympathy. Religious freedom and all that.
And with that we turn to this Peggy Stack story in the Salt Lake Tribune about Ronnie Gardner, a murderer executed in Salt Lake City by firing squad in the early hours of June 18, headlined “Gardner’s date with the firing squad revives talk of Mormon blood atonement,” although I must say that it seems to be the nation’s religion reporters, rather than Gardner’s “date” (sheesh (yes, I know reporters aren’t generally responsible for their headlines)) that is reviving the talk. Indeed, Stack quotes former Utah legislator Sheryl Allen observing that said talk seems to have dwindled into nothing in the past twenty years. But as I wandered to and fro across the internet reading about Gardner in preparation for this very piece, my wariness dissolved into fascination; I came to find this incongruity amusing and telling. Oddly, as in the Tribune headline, it’s never really clear who is actually advocating, muttering about, interpreting Gardner’s execution in terms of, or otherwise insisting upon the continued relevancy of blood atonement. Gardner’s own shrugging “I guess it’s my Mormon heritage” justification for choosing the firing squad seems foggy; it feels like the sort of quotation that doesn’t quite prove a writer’s case, but remains the best one’s got. (Gardner, his own statements make clear, hardly has enough belief in anything Mormon to think that his death earned him atonement.)
Beyond that these stories repeatedly invoke the idea in the passive voice, with unclear referents, in tandem with vague generalizations about “most Mormons;” we zoom into detail only in particular historical cases. Allen’s conversations about blood atonement – as Stack pungently puts it – “percolated in quiet, backroom discussions;” Allen herself merely alludes to the doctrine’s defenders as “a couple of people in prominent places,” who seem to have since dissolved into the aether. Though it seems this issue comes up every time Utah has an execution, Stack presents us with the wacky scene of the murder trial of the non-Mormon Floyd Maestas, whose attorneys interrogated potential jurors about their belief in blood atonement, only, apparently, to find that none of them had much opinion about it. Furher: (emphasis added): “Blood atonement has played a role in books about the 1977 execution of Gary Gilmore.”
Kristen Moulton, in the Tribune:
“That belief in so-called “blood atonement” is thought to be at the root of Utah’s use of the firing squad.”
The Associated Press:
“Historians say the firing squad persisted in Utah long after the rest of the nation abandoned it because of the 19th century doctrine of the state’s predominant religion.”
Even academics like Martin Gardner seem to relish, in the way that one might relish a Cold War-era spy novel, the vague and ominous sense that there are hordes of potential blood atoners lurking in the shadows of the Wasatch range; Gardner (no relation) muses that while he was growing up “It was always around in the popular consciousness.” Apparently, what has persisted most about blood atonement is not its continued practice, nor even its ability to influence policy or anybody’s decision making; rather, what has stuck is its pleasingly creepy atmospherics.
Now, note this, from Zane Grey’s 1912 novel Riders of the Purple Sage, in which our hero, the Gentile cowboy Lassiter, warns our heroine, Jane, of the consequences her decision to leave Mormonism: “Jane, you’re watched. There’s no single move of yours except when you’re hid in your house, that ain’t seen by sharp eyes. The cottonwood grove’s full of creeping, crawling men. . . Jane it ain’t so much that these spies keep out of my way as me keepin’ out of theirs. They’re goin’ to try to kill me. That’s plain. . . Among many thousands of women you’re one who has bucked against your churchmen. They tried you out an’ failed of persuasion an’ finally of threats. You meet now the cold steel of a will as far from Christlike as the universe is wide.” (Grey, 1912, 172-4). And this, from Conan Doyle’s famous A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes story, when the heretic John Ferrier finds a mysterious note left on his bed after defying the will of Brigham Young (who has previously warned him that the Ferriers would should choose to be “blanched skeletons upon the Sierra Blanco than that you should put your weak wills against the orders of the Holy Four!”). On the note is written, “Twenty nine days are given you for amendment and then – ” The Ferriers are then haunted by mysterious Mormons (these are, in Conan Doyle’s phrase, “The Avenging Angels”) who watch their house from the shadows of the cottonwoods and presumably intend to kill the Ferriers unless their will be bent. Day after day, numbers continue to appear – painted on the ceiling, on the stones, on the door. It’s all wonderfully melodramatic and knuckle-whitening.
There’s any number of significant and interesting features in these two passages – from probably the two most famous works of turn of the century Mormon-focused melodrama. But what I want to note here is the same sense of looming, but also impersonal, fear and oppression; the portrayal of Mormon power as an utterly implacable and mysterious other – one that is barely even human, for after his visit from Young, John Ferrier never puts a face to his antagonists.
I’m not, of course, arguing that Peggy Fletcher Stack believes that the Mormons are like this; that there are secretive enforcers of blood atonement still roaming the Salt Lake Valley. Heavens, of course she doesn’t. Nor am I suggesting that she’s looking for a way to make the Mormons seem strange and threatening. She’s not doing that either. The impulse strikes me as much more benign than that, and indeed, far, far more literary than polemical. What I am saying is that, alas, we may be in the process of losing the melodramatics of the polygamists, for reasons I noted in the first paragraph. But the cultural footprints of Grey and Conan Doyle remain. We need the shadows of Ronnie Gardner’s chair so we can hide the Danites; we need the Danites, maybe, to preserve the West.
This form of polygamy – as a relatable lifestyle choice – is a depressing contrast to the other form; the tawdy and ugly version that Tom Green and Warren Jeffs got prosecuted for. Neither, really, serve the aesthetic impulse that I’ll discuss below. The first is too normal, the second too aggressively real.
Doyle, 1904, 103. I don’t know who the Holy Four are either.
 It’s worth noting, for instance, that in both cases the will of the Mormons involves marrying off a winsome maid as the ninety-odd wife of some decrepit Mormon elder. Thus, polygamy and the Mormon threat of violence are inextricably linked; indeed, they’re two manifestations of the same violation – death to her protectors, and sexual desecration of her purity.