The Mormon Prophets
"A prophet is not without honor save in his own country."
To many of his neighbors in the drumlin country around Palmyra and Manchester in the restless l820s, Joe Smith was a lazy, dreamy young bumpkin, one of a shiftless tribe. To them his claims of convening with angels and receiving divine relevations were so much humbug.
They knew him as a gangling lad in a calico shirt and patched pants, with his yellow hair sticking through a hole in his dirty hat, a mystical sort of fellow, who was forever digging for buried treasure, peering into a magic stone and finding water in the earth with a twig-when, to their mind, he should have been toiling on his father's farm. They conceded Joe "had a way with him" and was a glib and convincing talker.
Today that same Joseph Smith is revered by nearly a million people in 30 lands as a divinely inspired prophet. Those fine thrifty people are popularly known as Mormons, and from the unlettered farm boy's visions of golden plates hidden in a drumlin's breast and from a handful of rustic disciples sprang the now mighty Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
The shambling youth grew into a tall, powerfully built man with a fine carriage, with dignity and poise, who would have been handsome except for his big beak of a nose. He founded a religion, he built cities, he swayed the political destinies of a state, he once aspired to the Presidency of the United States, he has been hailed by historians as a seer and a statesman, he laid the foundations for what scholars have termed "a nearly perfect piece of social mechanism" and at one time he commanded the largest armed force in the nation other than the Federal army.
Joseph the Prophet was one of the most controversial figures of his time, one of the best hated and the best loved. Now, 113 years after a mob with painted faces shot him to death in an Illinois jail, he remains an enigma in many ways. His story is one of the strangest in history.
No matter how crude his beginnings, how fantastic his claims, how shocking (to non Mormons) his possession of at least 28 wives, he cannot be dismissed as a shallow charlatan, as was the fashion in the 19th Century. Modern historians have taken a closer look at the founder of Mormonism and found considerable stature there, Smith developed high qualities of leadership and a breadth of vision that approached statesmanship. And nature endowed him with great magnetism.
While he drew most of his early following from the semi-literate and the backwoods, he also attracted to his banner such relatively cultivated men as Sidney Rigdon, the pulpit orator who knew four languages; Parley Pratt, the gifted proselytizing apostle, and his brother, Orson Pratt, philosopher and mathematician.
And the Saints were blessed that such a talented organizer and builder as the iron-willed Brigham Young fell under the spell of the Prophet in the early days. It was that onetime Mendon chairmaker who seized the mantle after Joseph was slain and who led his persecuted people across the plains and over the mountains to the Promised Land beside the Great Salt Lake, there to create a veritable empire.
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There were no portents in the heavens, no rumblings in the earth the frosty night of December 23, 1805 when a son was born to Joseph and Lucy Smith in a humble home at Sharon in the Vermont hills. They named the boy Joseph after his father. He was fourth in a family of nine, five boys and four girls.
The boy came of respectable old New England stock on both sides of the house. There also was a streak of mysticism in his heritage. His mother was the daughter of Solomon Mack, a veteran of the French and Indian War and of the Revolution, who put his adventures into a curious book and who in his old age saw visions and heard voices from another world.
Joseph and Lucy had no roots. They had joined no church and they moved from place to place in Vermont and New Hampshire without accumulating any of the world's goods along the way. In 1816, "the year there was no Summer," Smith gave up the unequal struggle with the Vermont climate and sterile soil and went West, looking for a new home in a newer country, like many another Yankee of the period.
Soon Lucy received word to pack up their brood and their belongings and join her husband in a place called Palmyra in the Genesee Country. It was a long trek by wagon and when Lucy and the children arrived in Palmyra, they had, exactly two cents. Joseph junior was then 10 years old.
Palmyra was no crossroads hamlet but a brisk town, one of the older settlements of the region, with 2,000 inhabitants and an assured place on the coming Erie Canal.
For two years the Smiths lived in the village and had a little shop on Main Street where Lucy made cakes and root beer and table covers of oilcloth which her husband and children peddled around town in a cart when they were not working at odd jobs.
The children went to the village school, as they had in Vermont. Stories that Joseph was illiterate were false. He could read, cipher and write a fair hand, although his formal schooling was indeed meager. A Palmyra contemporary said of him: "I never knew so ignorant a man with so great an imagination."
Around 1818 the family moved to 100 wild acres south of Palmyra in Manchester which was acquired from a land company with little, if any, down payment. There Joseph senior built a log house, which was replaced by a frame one around 1822 and there the family lived until 1828 when they were forced out for not keeping up their payments.
They raised few crops on their land. They chopped wood, made baskets, brooms and maple sugar which they traded for merchandise in the village stores. On holidays they peddled cakes and beer on the streets of Palmyra.
Although a Mormon writer once described the parents of the Prophet as "a pair of splendid Gypsies," the impressions of Orsamus Turner, who lived in Palmyra and was about young Joe's age were not flattering.
In his History of the Phelps and Gorham Purchase he recalled the senior Smith as "a great babbler, credulous, not especially industrious, a money digger, prone to the miraculous and withal a little given to difficulties with neighbors and petty law suits."
Lucy Smith was "a woman of strong and uncultivated intellect, artifice and cunning, imbued with illy regulated religious enthusiams."
As for young Joe, he was "lounging, idle (not to say vicious) and possessed of less than ordinary intellect. . . . He used to come into the village of Palmyra with little jags of wood from his backwoods home; sometimes patronizing a village grocery too freely (groceries sold spirits in those days); sometimes find an odd job to do. . . .
"But Joseph had a little ambition and some very laudable aspirations; the mother's intellect occasionally shone out in him feebly; especially when he used to help us solve some portentous questions of moral and political ethics in our juvenile debating club . . . and subsequently, after catching a spark of Methodism at the camp meeting away down in the woods on the Vienna road, he was a very passable exhorter."
Turner wrote those words in 1851, long after the debating club days, and at a time when Mormonism was a national issue. His account can hardly be accepted as objective for the rest of the chapter displays an intense hostility to Mormonism which is branded "the fraud and falsehood of Mormon Hill."
The Smiths were looked down upon by their more substantial neighbors for their money-digging activities. But digging for buried treasure was rather commonplace in that region and time. Tales of hidden fortunes spread through a credulous countryside and relics of the recently departed Indians, even of the French expedition against the Senecas in the 17th Century, were continually turning up.
Besides there is something mystical about that countryside on which those knob-like hillocks of glacial moraine, known to geologists as drumlins, some of fantastic shape, cast strange shadows.
In 1819 Joseph Smith Sr., while digging a well on a farm near Palmyra, came upon a whitish piece of quartz of a glassy surface, shaped like a human foot. Young Joseph, then 13, seized upon it and thereafter professed to see wondrous things, including coming events, in the magic "peepstone." Because, he said, its glare dazzled his eyes, he would place the stone in his hat and look at the ground through it in his search for buried treasure.
A wave of revivalism swept the region, channeling the visionary teen-aged boy's interest into the field of religion, as well as treasure hunting. Evangelists of various faiths ranged the countryside and made their tents ring with their threats of eternal damnation for the unsaved, while their converts rolled on the ground and contorted their bodies under the spell of hysterical ecstasy.
Upstate New York was fertile soil for the seeds of fanaticism. And the Palmyra-Manchester sector lay on what Carl Carmer has aptly called "a broad psychic highway, a thoroughfare of the occult." It was in the heartland of "the isms."
Only a few miles away, in the Finger Lakes country, Jemima Wilkinson, the Universal Friend, had planted her strange cult in the early time. The Shakers had their communistic colony on Sodus Bay. A few years later two young girls in nearby Hydesville were to tell of the mysterious rappings that spawned modern Spiritualism, and Millerites all over Western New York were to don their robes, ready to ascend to heaven on the hour their prophet had set for the end of the world.
While the revival frenzy was at its height, four of the Smith family joined the Presbyterians. Young Joseph leaned to the Methodists because he had attended their Sunday School but he held back from taking the final step.
When he wrote his "Own Story" as head of a powerful church, he set down his reasons:
"So great was the confusion and strife among the different denominations that it was impossible for a person so young as I was and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusions as to who was right and who was wrong."
Sorely perplexed, the youth came across a passage from the Book of James which read: "If any of you lack wisdom, let him asketh of God . . . and it shall be given him."
Then, Joseph relates, he went into the woods on the farm-the present Sacred Grove-to pray on a beautiful Spring day in 1820 and saw "two personages whose brightness and glory defy all description standing above me in the air." He asked the beings which of all the sects was right and was told he must join none of them, for all their creeds were "an abomination in His sight."
When the youth told a Methodist revivalist about his vision, the preacher treated it with contempt, saying it was "of the devil" and that "there were no such things as visions and revelations any more."
Joseph later wrote that the story "excited a great deal of prejudice against him among professors of religion" and was the cause of "great persecution of an obscure boy only 14 or 15 years old."
In the meantime the youth kept up his treasure hunting. One of the places he dug was a drumlin near his home, the highest elevation in the immediate area, a place where Indian relics had been unearthed.
Dawn was streaking the sky on the memorable morning of Sept. 22, 1823 when came the vision that is the keystone of the Mormon faith. As Joseph told the story, he was in his bed when a light brighter than noonday flooded the room and a splendid visitor in a white robe appeared before him.
It was the angel Moroni who told of a book written on golden plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent and the source from which they came. The angel told of two stones of silver bows, fastened to a breastplate. These were the Urim and Thummim, by which the inscription on the plates could be translated, even by one unversed in tongues.
These sacred relics, the angel said, lay in the west side of the same big drumlin in which Joseph had been recently digging. Then, Joseph relates, he dug in the spot and found the treasures under a great stone. As he was about to lift them out, the heavenly visitor appeared, saying: "Not yet, meet me here at this time each year for four years and I will tell you what to do."
Each year on the appointed day Joseph kept the tryst at the hill. On the 22d day of September in 1827, the angel delivered unto him the plates and the means of transcribing them.
In the meantime most of Palmyra had hooted at Joseph's tales of visions and angels-if they paid any attention at all to this mystical fellow. In 1825 the Prophet was glad to leave the area to do some money digging along the New York-Pennsylvania line.
A visitor to Palmyra, Josiah Stowel of Afton, Chenango County, had met Smith and told him of a hidden silver mine along the Susquehanna River at Harmony (now Oakland), Pa. He persuaded Joseph, his father and others to join in digging for the lost treasure which, according to frontier legend, had been buried long ago by Spanish pirates who had come up the river.
The gold diggers boarded at the home of a bearded, stem farmer named Isaac Hale. One of his nine children was a quiet, dark faced girl with hazel eyes. Emma was her name and she and Joseph fell in love. Isaac Hale did not fancy this dreamy peepstone seer as a son-in-law. So on January 18, 1827, the couple eloped in a sleigh and drove to Afton where they were married. She was 21 and he was 20.
Emma Smith was a practical, sensible woman who wanted Joseph to quit his treasure hunting and dreams and settle down to farming. She was never much impressed with his prophecies nor his greatness, even when in later years she reigned as first lady of his harem. After Joseph's death she did not join the Mormon hegira to Utah but remained in Nauvoo where she kept a boarding house.
Joseph and his bride were at his father's home when the Golden Book was turned over to him at the Sacred Hill. The Prophet told how he wrapped the plates, the stone spectacles and the breastplate in a cloth, took them to the attic of the Smith home where he locked them in a stout chest. He forbade members of the family to look at them under penalty of sudden death from on high.
Tales spread through the drumlin country that Joe Smith had found a great treasure in the hill where he and others had so often dug. The Prophet hinted of great revelations and a new religion. Only his own family and a prosperous farmer of the neighborhood, one Martin Harris, believed his tales. Harris offered financial backing should Joseph wish to publish his revelations. The farmer was something of a fanatic who had embraced several religious beliefs but also he doubtless saw a chance to make some money.
Strangers began surging around the Smith home and fearing his treasure would be stolen, Joseph took the Golden Book to Emma's old home in Pennsylvania. His wife and Martin Harris, his earthly "angel," accompanied him.
In Harmony the work of translating the "reformed Egyptian" characters on the plates began, with Joseph as translater and Emma as his first scribe. The wife was never allowed to see the covered plates and a blanket was stretched across the room between her and her husband who, looking through the magic glasses, dictated the words she wrote down.
Then Martin Harris took up the work of scribe. For two months the slow task continued. The Prophet allowed Harris to take the first 116 pages of the book back to Palmyra to show his wife. That lady, suspicious of Smith and the whole business, and fearing her husband would lose his farm in backing the venture, either lost or destroyed them. That news made the Prophet frantic. Then he decided to skip the missing pages and go on with the translation without them.
Harris in later years was to recall that the Prophet "drank too much" while translating. And in his "Own Story," Smith guardedly admitted to youthful indiscretions in these words:
"I frequently fell into many foolish errors and displayed the weakness of youth . . . which, I am sorry to say, led me into divers temptations offensive in the sight of God."
In April, 1828 a new translator arrived. He was Oliver Cowdery, a school teacher who had boarded with Smith's parents. He was a swifter writer than Harris had been and the work was speeded up. David Whitmer of Fayette, Seneca County, came to watch the translation, was convinced of the divine origin of the revelations and invited Joseph, his wife and the scribe to complete the work in his farm home.
In the late Spring of 1829 the 275,000 word manuscript was finally finished. The faithful Martin Harris began the quest for a publisher. He met a flat rejection from Thurlow Weed, the future Whig boss of New York State, then editor of the Anti-Masonic Enquirer in Rochester. In his memoirs Weed wrote:
"It seemed such a jumble of unintelligible absurdities that we refused the work, advising him (Harris) riot to mortgage his farm and beggar his family."
But Harris was still under the Prophet's spell and found a publisher in E. B. Grandin of the Wayne Sentinel at Palmyra. After some 50 righteous townspeople signed a petition urging a boycott of the book which it declared spurious, the publisher demanded from Harris $3,000 cash for printing 5,000 copies. When Harris hesitated, Joseph came up with a divine "revelation," ordering him to finance the publication. Whereupon Harris mortgaged his farm and his wife left him.
John H. Gilbert, a printer, recalled that the Book of Mormon was printed on a hand press, 16 pages at a time, and that the proof was read by Cowdery, Harris and Hyrum Smith, brother of the Prophet. Joseph appeared in the Sentinel office only twice during the printing. The original manuscript was described as being almost devoid of punctuation and full of grammatical errors. These were smoothed out in later editions.
The first edition listed Joseph Smith, Jr., as author and proprietor. In later ones he was "translator." In the second edition appears the solemn attestation of three witnesses, Cowdery, David Whitmer and Martin Harris that they had seen the golden plates. In time eight other witnesses were added-four more Whitmers, a Whitmer connection and three Smiths.
The Book of Mormon went on sale March 26, 1830. On April 2 the Rochester Daily Advertiser printed the first review of the volume:
"The Book of Mormon has been placed in our hands. A viler imposition was never practiced. It is an evidence of fraud, blasphemy and credulity, shocking both to Christians and to moralists. The author and proprietor is Joseph Smith, Jr., a fellow who by some hocus pocus acquired such influence over a wealthy farmer of Wayne County that he later mortgaged his farm for $3,000 which he paid for printing and binding . . . the blasphemous book."
What was in this Book of Mormon? A mass of legends, a host of Biblical references and phrases, some predictions and a few moral teachings. It shrewdly touched on the current agitation over Masonry, the rural hostility to the Catholic Church and dwelt on the popular belief that the American Indians were derived from one of the lost tribes of Israel.
The "history" in the book is fantastic. To nonbelievers it is a manifestation of the great imaginative powers vested in farm boy Joe Smith.
The Book of Mormon relates that after the confusion of tongues at the Tower of Babel, the peoples scattered. The followers of Jared, set out on the great ocean in barges and landed on the shores of America. On the Hill Cumorrah (the same drumlin of Joseph's visions), 600 years before Christ they encountered an enemy and each host destroyed the other.
The history of the lost colony was found by a tribe of Israelities under Lehi. This group multiplied and prospered and split into two nations with Nephi and Laman as leaders. The Nephites were civilized. The Lamanites were barbarians and the immediate progenitors of the American Indian. A mighty civil war ended when both armies annihilated the other, again on the lonely hill along the Palmyra-Manchester road.
In that battle only Moroni, son of Mormon, the historian of the Nephites who had begun the record on the golden plates, survived. He completed the history and he was the bright being who appeared in a flood of light in the Smith bedroom and who four years later delivered the Gold Bible to Joseph the Prophet.
Supplementing the acid comment of Thurlow Weed and the Rochester Advertiser on the Book of Mormon is Mark Twain's later characterization of it as "chloroform in print." Mark did not so much object to its "absurdities." He detested its dullness.
Nevertheless the new book and the new religion it spawned got considerable attention-and beyond the region of its nativity. Palmyra remained hostile and skeptical. The Smiths went to Harmony where Joseph tried farming for a while. Then they went to live with the loyal Whitmers.
In the Whitmer log cabin on a dirt road that leads off the present Route 96, two miles south of Waterloo, in the town of Fayette, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was formally organized on April 6, 1830 with six members, Joseph and his two brothers, Hyrum and Samuel H. Smith, Oliver Cowdery and David and Peter Whitmer.
This followed a miraculous appearance of the angel in a grove near the Whitmer cabin where the Prophet, Harris, Cowdery and David Whitmer knelt in prayer. They were the Four Witnesses whose statement appeared in the second printing of the Mormon Bible.
They claimed the being came in a brilliant light and stood besides a stone table on which were the stone spectacles, the breastplate, the sword of Laman and the golden leaves which the angel turned as he declared they had been translated by the gift and power of God and told the witnesses to bear that testimony to the world. Later on eight other witnesses declared they, too, had seen the plates and their statement appeared in later editions of the book. Some of the witnesses left the church, among them the two early scribes, Cowdery and Harris, but to the end they maintained they had seen the spectacle in the woods.
What became of the plates? Joseph Smith said the same Messenger who had delivered them to him came to get them in the year 1829.
In a month the new church had 40 members, most of them from Broome and Chenango Counties. But other localities were not so friendly. In Palmyra the Prophet was denied use of the village hall and creditors besieged members of the Smith family.
The Prophet often was to encounter mob violence. His first such experience came in 1830 in Colesville, Broome County, where he was conducting an evangelism campaign. He began baptizing his converts in a creek and built a dam for the rites, as the stream was low. Hostile residents tore down the dam. When the Mormons rebuilt it, they were mobbed and beaten up.
Among his converts about that time were Joseph Knight and his son, Newel, who lived near Nineveh. When Smith "cast out the devil" from Newel, who had fallen on the floor in some kind of a fit and the word got around, the Prophet was arrested on a charge akin to sorcery-that he had "used his priestly powers on credulous men to get their property away from them." He was acquitted after trial in Chenango County.
But another warrant was served upon him and he was hustled across the Broome County line to answer a charge of claiming supernatural powers. The countryside was aroused against him and in a peace justice court at 2 o'clock in the morning, many witnesses testified against the money digger who had become the exponent of a new religion. Again Joseph Smith was acquitted but he was ordered to "get out of Broome County and stay out." He did just that.
His early converts were few and none of them important until Parley P. Pratt, who had been a Campbellite preacher in Ohio, came to Western New York. He heard of the new religion and hastened to refute it. But after hearing Joseph Smith preach, he became a convert and one of the leaders of the Mormon church. He baptized his scholarly younger brother, Orson, and they were valuable acquisitions for the Prophet.
While Parley Pratt was on his way to Missouri on an evangelistic mission among the Indians, he stopped in Kirtland, Ohio where Sidney Rigdon, a former associate in the Campbellite or Disciples movement, had set up a small communistic colony.
Pratt showed Rigdon a copy of the Mormon Bible and the latter was so impressed that he became a convert to Mormonism and soon was on his way East to meet Joseph Smith.
The accession of Sidney Rigdon to the ranks added prestige to the young struggling church. Other than the Pratts he was the first convert of learning or distinction. Rigdon had been called the finest pulpit orator of the Western Reserve and had held pastorates in his native Pittsburgh and in Ohio.
Back of the facade of bearded dignity and impressive oratory was an emotional and visionary man given to melodramatic outbursts, a fanatic on temperance and Sabbath observance. He became an intimate of the Prophet, his advisor on theological matters.
Rigdon may have had some idea of taking over the leadership in the early days. It was a vain hope. Smith may have stood in some awe of Rigdon's superior erudition at first but he quickly took the measure of the man and the Prophet, far the stronger character, always kept the bearded preacher in his place.
Some historians have held that Rigdon was the real author of the Book of Mormon, that he had made secret visits to Palmyra before 1830. That school of thought maintained it could not have been the work of the semi-literate Smith.
They base their belief on the story that Rigdon, while employed in a Pittsburgh printing office, copied the manuscript of a historical romance written by a Solomon Spaulding, advancing the then widely-held theory that the American Indians were descended from a lost tribe of Israel; that later Rigdon incorporated the Spaulding story into the Book of Mormon.
However, there is no definite proof that Rigdon ever was in Palmyra or ever met Joseph Smith until after the Mormon Bible was published. To his dying day Rigdon insisted that he had never seen the book until Parley Pratt handed him one in Ohio, months after its publication. And could a man as literate as Sidney Rigdon ever have written a manuscript so poorly done that it drew the scorn even of small town typesetters?
In Western New York, Rigdon joined Smith and other Mormons in seeking converts. Their meetings in little backwoods schoolhouses won more followers than in the larger communities. Significantly, few joined in the Prophet's own neighborhood.
Finally Rigdon persuaded Smith to move the small Western New York band to Kirtland, Ohio, there to merge with the 150 in the colony the bearded orator had established.
In January of 1831 the Prophet set out in a sleigh for the new Zion with his wife, Rigdon and Edward Partridge. About 50 Western New York Saints followed them. The new church had hardly been a grand success in the land of its nativity.
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In the West there were years of glory, mixed with gloom. The communistic sort of state in Kirtland flourished. The Mormons established their own bank, printed their own currency. When the bank crashed, the Prophet had to invoke all his prestige and exert all his charm to face down a revolt of his people.
That was only a temporary setback. Joseph grew in stature and his band increased. Missionaries went to far places, in pairs as in the Bible times, and brought in many converts.
An elaborate system of government was set up with Joseph as president and under him the powerful 12 apostles of the church. There also were councils, priests, elders and deacons. Joseph made his own father a patriarch of the church and, like Napoleon Bonaparte, rewarded his brothers with high office.
But the Saints were surrounded by hostile neighbors. Rumors spread in the Western Reserve that the Mormons practiced polygamy and that their Prophet 5et the example. Although it was not until 1843 that Joseph Smith formally announced the revelation that authorized "plural marriages," there is evidence that he practiced it years before. This, despite the claims of the splinter church, the Reorganized Latter Day Saints, founded by Joseph's son, that the Prophet never taught or practiced polygamy. The Utah church admits that Joseph had 27 wives besides Emma Hale. Probably the figure is higher.
Ohio gentiles tarred and feathered Joseph and he made the most of his martyrdom. But he began seeking a new Zion and many of the Mormons moved to Missouri. Their two colonies there were disrupted by raids and boycotts and in 1839 the Saints moved to Illinois, where on the banks of the Mississippi, they founded a city which they named Nauvoo.
The Prophet was glad to get out of antagonistic Missouri where he, Rigdon and the latter's son-in-law, George Robinson, had been thrust into prison. They escaped by bribing a guard. While they were in jail, practical, resourceful Vermont-born and Western New York-bred Brigham Young ran the colony. He had risen to a high place among the apostles and was utterly loyal to Smith.
At first Illinois was friendly. Nauvoo represented the high tide of Joseph Smith's career. A city of 250 houses sprang up. Then came a stone temple, a hotel, factories, a large community farm. More than 1,000 converts from England, recruited largely by Parley Pratt and Young, augmented the population.
The Whigs and the Democrats of Illinois courted the big Mormon vote and a rising Democratic politician named Stephen A. Douglas, who as a boy had attended the Academy in Canandaigua near Palmyra, took special pains to make friends with the Prophet.
Joseph Smith began to make pronouncements on national affairs. He predicted that only civil war would resolve the slavery issue and he advocated purchase of the slaves by the government through sale of public lands. And in 1844 the man who had been scorned in Palmyra as a mystical yokel announced his candidacy for the Presidency of the United States. He was dead when the voters chose James K. Polk over Henry Clay.
A secret police force called the Danites had been organized within the church, largely by Rigdon. Then came the formation of the Nauvoo Legion, a military group authorized and armed by the state of Illinois and commanded by Joseph Smith as a lieutenant general.
Joseph, who loved pomp and circumstance for all his democratic ways, made a splendid figure when, astride a black stallion and glittering in gold braid, epaulets and a plumed hat, he reviewed the marching columns of his Legionaires.
But forces were gathering against him from without and within. His "plural marriage" system not only had antagonized the Illinois gentiles but also alienated many of his disciples, including the powerful Sidney Rigdon.
The editor of the Nauvoo Expositor rebelled and boldly attacked Smith and his practices in his newspaper. Faced with serious rebellion in the ranks, the Prophet ordered the Expositor's presses wrecked and all copies of the offending edition burned. That high-handed act stirred the state whose leaders feared the growing political power of the Mormons. While Joseph declared martial law in Nauvoo and his Legion mobilized, Governor Ford called out the state militia and declared the Mormon leaders must face charges of riot in the state courts.
After an abortive attempt at flight to the Far West, Joseph and his brother, Hyrum, along with members of the Nauvoo Common Council, surrendered. All were released on bail except the Smiths who were kept in Carthage jail on a new charge of treason, based on Joseph's declaring martial law in Nauvoo in defiance of the authority of the state.
The Governor promised the jailed Mormons protection and disbanded the militia. Joseph, fearing for his life, gave an aide an order to the Legion to come and rescue him. The order never was delivered.
On the sultry afternoon of June 27, 1844, as Joseph and Hyrum sat in their cell with two Mormons who had been allowed to visit them, they heard the sound of marching feet in the street, then shouts and shots at the door of the jail.
It was not the Nauvoo Legion come to deliver them. Instead it was a mob of men with hideously painted faces, the "disbanded" militiamen. They broke down the door and began shooting into the Mormons' cell room.
Joseph grabbed a six shooter and Hyrum a pistol, arms which had been smuggled into the jail. The two visitors were unarmed. Strangely, both escaped unscarred.
Valiantly Hyrum and Joseph returned the fire. Hyrum fell first, mortally wounded. When his ammunition was used up, Joseph sprang to a window. A ball from the door caught him in the back and he pitched slowly forward out of the window. As he fell to the ground, many bullets pierced his powerful body.
Eight thousand Mormons gathered to mourn their Prophet. A cowardly mob had given the church a martyr. In the heavy hearts of the Saints burned the question: Who will lead us now that Joseph has gone?
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The answer to their problem was in New England, traveling from town to town in quest of converts. He was a medium-built man of 45, strong featured, with small, steady eyes, smooth shaven in those days and without his later paunch.
Now that Hyrum Smith was dead, Brigham Young was top man among the Twelve Apostles of the church and the logical heir to the throne. As fast as stage and train could carry him, he hastened to Nauvoo.
A determined rival had beaten him to the scene. From his exile in Pittsburgh, Sidney Rigdon also had rushed to the city of Zion. He planned to stampede the people by his oratory and claim the leadership by virtue of his early association with the Prophet.
But he dallied too long. Young and other Apostles arrived in time to thwart any oratorical coup and when the Saints gathered in the Sacred Grove, both men addressed the multitude.
Rigdon spoke first. Dismayed by the appearance of Young, he lacked his oldtime fire and even the elements were against him, for the howl of the wind all but drowned out his voice.
Then the masterful Brigham Young mounted the platform. Bellowing above the roaring gale, he held his audience. Shrewdly he asked no honors for himself. He urged the people to let the Twelve Apostles choose the new leader under the rules of the church. He carried the day.
Of course, as Apostle No. 1, Young had the inside track. He was duly voted the successor to Joseph Smith. When Rigdon threatened a schism, the new leader excommunicated him. The bearded preacher set up a rival church and a newspaper in Pittsburgh but the venture flopped. Sidney Rigdon quietly lived out the last 30 years of his life in the Western New York village of Friendship where he died in 1876, the forgotten man of the Saints. He died firm in the Mormon faith.
Both the new leader and his predecessor were native Vermonters who spent their early years in Upstate New York. Both came from impoverished homes and both were exceedingly ambitious. There the resemblances cease.
Smith was a vain, theatrical visionary. Young was a solid, practical business man. Smith was easy-going. Young was autocratic. Smith inspired affection. Young was respected. Smith was elusive. Young was a rock.
M. R. Werner in Ins biography of Brigham Young wrote that "the early life of the Mormon Moses is shrouded in the commonplace."
He was born on June 1, 1801 in Whitingham, Vt., the ninth child of John Young, a veteran of the Revolution, and Nabby Howe. The family was wretchedly poor.
When Brigham was three years old, the Youngs moved to Sherbourne, Chenango County, New York, and worked various farms in that area until 1811, when they moved to Aurelius, Cayuga County. That was their home for the next 18 years.
Brigham went to work on farms at an early age and had only 11 days of formal schooling. His mother died when he was 14. His father, who could be jovial on occasion, was a strict moralist and keeper of the holy Sabbath. Possibly it was because of the repressions of his boyhood that when Brigham Young became ruler of a church, he encouraged dancing, music and plays.
Early in life the lessons of thrift were thrust upon him. The Youngs had so little of anything. It is no wonder that the President of the Saints continually preached against extravagance.
Brigham learned the joint trades of carpenter, house painter and glazier. Owners of houses still standing in Central and Western New York today proudly say, in the "Washington slept here" tradition, that "Brigham Young helped build this house."
At the time he was plying his trades, he attracted little attention. Pioneers remembered him as serious-minded, industrious, money-sharp in the Yankee fashion, whose only vice was an occasional swear word, a habit he never fully conquered. When things were slack in the building trades, he worked for farmers, in the harvest for 75 cents a day and chopping wood in the Winter, to be paid in corn at the rate of 75 cents a bushel.
The first of his 27 wives was a gentle, blond, Aurelius girl, Miriam Works, whom he married in 1824. They had two daughters, Elizabeth and Vilate. In the Spring of 1829 Brigham and Miriam joined his father who had settled in Mendon, Monroe County. The house in which they lived is now part of the big frame dwelling on the Mendon-Ionia Road at the intersection of Cheese Factory Road, There is a local tradition that Brigham Young built it.
Brigham was one of the first glaziers in that rich and rolling countryside. He also made baskets and chairs in a little shop along a spring-fed trout brook near his home. In the Historical Museum at Canandaigua is a well-made, splint-bottomed chair said to have been made in that shop.
There's a tale that Young conveyed the water of the brook through a duct of hollow logs to an overshot wheel of his own manufacture. He hitched one end of a cross-cut saw to his water wheel and, seated on a stump, he held the other end and watched the water cut up the lumber.
About the time Joseph Smith was communing with angels less than 15 miles away, Young was working in the off season on a farm in the town of Canandaigua. But the two never met until some years later in Kirtland, Ohio.
Although his family were strong Methodists, Brigham had kept aloof from all sects until in his twenty-second year he finally joined the Methodist church. He was not particularly active in the church and was wont to attend meetings of other denominations. He was independent minded and had a distaste for the emotional excesses of the current revivals.
In 1830, Samuel Harrison Smith, brother of the Prophet, came to the Mendon region selling Mormon bibles. After he had failed to sell one to Brigham's brother-in-law, the Rev. John P. Green of Livonia, he gave the copy to the preacher's wife. She passed it on to her brother Phineas, who became a Mormon convert.
Phineas gave the book to Brigham who became immediately interested. He was convinced that this was the one true faith. Also he may have been sharp enough to discern possible profit and glory for himself in a new enterprise.
He moved with cautious deliberation, With his best friend, Heber Kimball, a potter who lived nearby and who was to become a power in the Mormon church, he drove in a sleigh to Bradford County, Pennsylvania, to visit a branch of the new church. Then he journeyed to Canada to consult his older brother, Joseph, who was preaching Methodism there.
In March of 1832 the brothers returned to Western New York and on April 30 Brigham Young was baptized into the Saints in the creek that powered his shop. He recalled later: "I was ordained an elder before my clothes were dry." He was then 30 years old.
A few months later Young and Heber Kimball journeyed to Kirtland to meet the Prophet. They found him chopping wood. They knelt in prayer and Brother Brigham demonstrated his "gift of tongues." Smith was much impressed.
As long as the Prophet lived, Brigham Young was his loyal supporter. He defended Smith against dissenters, sometimes by force, and he straightened out the Saints' chaotic finances. His rise to the inner circle was slow-but inevitable.
After meeting the Prophet, Young hurried back to Mendon where his wife was dying of tuberculosis. Miriam Works Young expired on Sept. 8, 1832 in the Mormon faith. She is buried in the little cemetery on a hill beside the Boughton Hill Road near the Youngs' old home. Recently the church placed a substantial, modern, but simple monument at her grave. Although it is in a far corner of the graveyard of the pioneers, it stands out among the ancient white stones, some of them tilted, some of them flat on the ground.
Young left Mendon without redeeming a note he had given to a farmer promising to repay a loan of $39 in bushel baskets at $1 a piece. Years later a messenger came from Salt Lake City and took up the note.
On his return to Kirtland with his two motherless daughters, Young plied his several trades for a while. In 1834 he married Mary Ann Angel. He became one of the church's most effective missionaries. He campaigned in New York, New England and Canada with great success and on one trip to England he won 8,000 converts among the working people in the cities. Young was a vigorous and convincing speaker who used no frills. True to his Yankee blood, he induced many of his converts to contribute to the church.
After the assassination of the Prophet, the Mormons' position at Nauvoo became precarious. Mobs raided the town, killed some Mormons and burned some houses. Brigham Young, the new leader, saw he must move his people to some isolated place in the West. Illinois officialdom put pressure on him and he agreed to leave in the Spring of 1846.
He did not wait until Spring. In February he led 2,000 followers across the Mississippi to winter quarters in Iowa. When a gentile mob raided Nauvoo, it found the place deserted.
In 1848 a French communist, Etienne Cabet, took it over for his society. The colony was short lived. Fire ravaged the temple which Young had pushed to completion and wind completed its destruction.
In the Spring of 1846 Young led an advance guard of 148 Saints in search of a new home in the far West. That pilgrimage, an epic in courage and fortitude, is familiar history.
When they came upon a lonesome plain, shadowed by snow-capped mountains, with an expanse of take glimmering in the distance, Brigham Young halted the caravan and exclaimed: "This is the place." In later years he told of an angel that appeared on a hill bidding him to "stay here."
He stayed there. The Mormon Moses had led his people out of bondage into the Promised Land and there he ruled them for many years.
There he laid out Salt Lake City, founded the state of Deseret, organized a vast co-operative, married many women, ruled his people with an iron hand, defied their enemies-a virtual dictator, a consummate administrator and financier.
He has been called America's foremost colonizer. He made the desert bloom like the rose. Concentrating on the soil, he discouraged Mormon participation in mining and all speculative enterprises. He imported trees, plants, seeds and live stock. "Plow deep and plant alfalfa" was his motto.
Eternally he preached industry and thrift. But he was no austere despot. He wanted his people to enjoy the theater, dancing and music. He, unlike Joseph Smith, indulged in few revelations. Always he was the hard-headed Yankee.
Brigham Young died on August 29, 1877 at the age of 76. The jack of many trades, who in his Western New York youth had worked as a harvest hand for 75 cents a day, left an estate of more than one and one half million dollars.
On a barren hill at his Vermont birthplace stands a marker of native marble bearing this remarkable inscription:
Brigham Young. Born on this spot 1801. A man of much courage and superb equipment.
His real monument is the city with its six-towered temple beside the Great Salt Lake and the state he built, one that has given the nation some notable statesmen and leaders in many fields.
There are many Mormon shrines in Western New York. The white farm house at Fayette which in the l860s replaced the Whitmer log cabin so rich in the early history of the faith was acquired in 1927 by the Utah church. The farm, which has many visitors, is operated by a Mormon family under direction of headquarters in Salt Lake City.
The farm house where the boy Joseph saw his visions was acquired by the church in 1905. The sturdy, two-story building with peaked gables, is painted a gleaming white and is trimly kept. It is on a side road but there are many markers. Living in the 135-year-old dwelling is a missionary who tells visitors the story of the Prophet. The Mormons I have met in this region are wholesome, courteous, hard-working, admirable people.
Across the road is the Sacred Grove. The 150 acre farm owned by the Mormons is worked by local farmers and yields far larger crops than in the time of the Smiths. A mile or so away is the farm that Martin Harris mortgaged to pay for the printing of the Book of Mormon. That also is the property of the Saints.
And atop the nearby Hill Cumorah on the well traveled Palmyra-Manchester Road the bronze figure of the angel Moroni with upraised hand towers over the countryside. It was dedicated in 1936 as a national shrine of the church.
There on five nights of a Summer week each year the Saints present a pageant, "America's Witnesses for Christ," which portrays the principal events in the Book of Mormon, It is tops in American religious pageantry.
Atop the Sacred Hill trumpets sing majestically. Darkness falls on thousands in the bleachers at the loot of the hill. Multi-colored lights play on niches in the hillside where figures in robes and ancient garb re-enact the Mormon story.
Resonant voices that echo across the flatlands narrate the major events. With thunder peal and lightning flashes the Lamanites again battle the Nephites on the ageless hill.
The pageant is more than impressive. It is awe inspiring and superbly done. You leave Mormon Hill, full of wonder at this mighty church that was born here so strangely so long ago.
The Martyr and the Masons
William Morgan was hardly the stuff of which martyrs are made. He was an obscure stonemason-bricklayer, glib, shifty, something of a tippler, a blowhard in his cups, eternally in debt, literate, with a gift for turning a phrase, but no scholar.
Yet the mysterious disappearance of this nonentity after his abduction from Canandaigua jail on a September night in 1826 plunged the East into turmoil, set brother against brother, drove Masonic lodges into hiding and spawned a national political party that polled a quarter of a million votes in one election.
The man who threatened to publish the secrets of Free Masonry was the first Western New Yorker ever "taken for a ride." Did he ride down the Ridge Road in a curtained carriage to his death in the Niagara River? Did murder still his tongue and pen?
Many thought so in 1826. Many believe so today. But no man can say for sure just how or when or where William Morgan died.
His life before he turned up in the Genesee Country is shrouded in contradictions. He was born in Culpepper County, Virginia, some say on Aug. 7, 1774. Little is known of his antecedents or boyhood. He is said to have served in the War of 1812 and to have been a captain under General Andrew Jackson at the battle of New Orleans. That claim is disputed by Masonic historians.
In the Fall of 1819 Morgan married Lucinda Pendleton blond and attractive daughter of a respected Methodist minister in Richmond, Va. Morgan took his bride to York (Toronto) Canada where he was employed in a brewery. Some say he owned the brewery. At any rate it burned down and Morgan was out of a job.
So he fell back on his trade as a mason-bricklayer and the year 1823 found him working on the building of the Aqueduct in Rochester which carried the Erie Canal across the Genesee. Later he worked on other jobs in Rochester, Batavia and LeRoy. At one time he lived in West Main Street near the Bull's Head in Rochester.
In 1825 he was admitted to membership in a chapter of the Royal Arch Masons in LeRoy where he moved that year. Previously he had been admitted to Wells Lodge in Rochester as a visitor, vouched for by an employer. Search by Masonic historians of the records of American and Canadian lodges fail to show any previous Masonic affiliation.
Morgan's break with the order is said to have originated when he failed to obtain expected work on a lodge building in LeRoy. Then in 1826 he signed a petition for membership in a Royal Arch Masons chapter being formed in Batavia. He had moved to that village from Rochester with his wife and two young children.
Masonic officials, seeing Morgan's name on the paper and knowing his reputation as a loose talker in taverns and a "dead beat," were disturbed and ordered his name on the petition smudged out with ink. When Morgan appeared at a meeting of the chapter and was turned away, he was incensed and determined to get even with the fraternity.
He conceived the idea of getting his revenge, and at the same time make some money, by publishing the secrets of the order. He was joined in this enterprise by David C. Miller, publisher of the Republican-Advocate at Batavia. They took into partnership Russell Dyer, a butcher at whose home Morgan had boarded in Rochester. Morgan was to write the expose. Miller was to print it and the other was to provide needed funds and share in the profits.
Earlier in 1826, Dyer had asked Thurlow Weed, a young, burly, politically minded and then unknown editor and part owner of the Telegraph, a Rochester weekly, to print the expose. Weed, who was to play a stellar role in the drama known as the Morgan Affair, turned down the work because his partner, Robert Martin, was a Free Mason.
David Miller, who had received the first degree in the order, had no compunctions. He boldly announced in his newspaper the forthcoming hook revealing the secrets of the first three degrees of Masonry.
The threat aroused many fanatical members of the fraternity in Western New York. At first they sought to dissuade Morgan and Miller from the threatened publication. When that tack failed, they took other steps. On Aug. 9, 1826, this item appeared in the Canandaigua Messenger:
"If a man calling himself William Morgan should introduce himself on the community, they (sic) should be on their guard, particularly the Masonic fraternity. Morgan was in the village on May last and his conduct here and elsewhere calls forth this note . . . Morgan is considered a swindler and a dangerous man."
Then one David Johns of Kingston, Ont., appeared in Western New York. He worked his way into the confidence of the three partners in the expose scheme, spent three weeks in Batavia and by spending about $30 got hold of part of the Morgan manuscript. He turned it over to Rochester Masons, who sent it to sessions of the Grand Lodge then convening in New York with the Grand Master, Governor De Witt Clinton, presiding. That body ordered the script returned to its owner. The responsible Masonic leaders of the state believed that if the matter were ignored, the storm would ride itself out.
Their overwrought brethren close to the scene Upstate, however, were determined to halt publication of the Morgan book-without official sanction. They aimed to separate Morgan and Miller so that the author could furnish no more copy and to get hold of the manuscript in Miller's possession and of the sheets already printed.
Both Morgan and Miller were prosecuted for debts. Both raised bail and kept their freedom. But on the week end of August 19 when Morgan was again seized for debt, he was jailed and his home was searched. A delegation visited him in his cell and sought to dissuade him from bringing out his book. He won release on bail. As the date set for publication neared, events reached a boiling point on the Batavia front.
On the night of September 8, a mob of some 50 men, many of them from out of town, gathered in Batavia. There was talk of raiding Miller's printing office. The editor had been warned and he and his staff were armed and ready. There was no attack.
Two nights later an attempt was made to burn the building housing Miller's shop Teamsters, asleep in their wagons across the way, put out the flames by dashing barrels of rain water on the building. Balls of cotton and straw, saturated with turpentine, were found under an outer stairway. The lives of 16 persons asleep in the structure had been periled by the arsonists.
On the morning of Sept. 11 William Morgan walked out of his home on Walnut Street in Batavia and straight into history. His wife and two small children never saw him alive again. He was wearing a blue frock coat, waistcoat and trousers, his wife remembered in later tragic days.
This might be a good time to take a look at this man who is soon to wear the martyr's halo. A picture of William Morgan reveals a rather scholarly looking chap, with his spectacles pushed back on a forehead whose height is accentuated by his baldness. The face is amiable and the chin is weak. People always noted something sly and furtive about Morgan. He could be suave and plausible. He was gregarious and convivial. Liquor loosed his uncautious tongue.
A letter Morgan wrote to his young wife indicates a streak of selfish callousness in his nature. While he was working in Batavia and his family was still in Rochester, his wife wrote him about the desperate illness of their daughter Harriet. The child later died. Morgan never saw her alive again. In his answer to Lucinda's letter, he sharply asked her not to write him so often because it was expensive. In those days the recipient of mail had to pay the postage.
Getting back to that morning of September 11 in Batavia, Morgan, while in Donald's tavern, was served with a warrant charging theft of a shirt and a cravat from a Canandaigua tavernkeeper. When told the charge, Morgan laughed and said the articles were merely borrowed. He was taken under guard 50 miles to Canandaigua to face the obviously trumped-up charge of failing to return a shirt and a necktie.
In Canandaigua the charge was dismissed after examination and Morgan was discharged. He was immediately rearrested, this time for a $2.69 debt owed another Canandaigua innkeeper. Morgan's borrowing habits were his downfall. On the new count Morgan confessed judgment and offered the coat he was wearing as payment. The offer was refused and Morgan was lodged in Ontario County jail.
His enemies had him where they wanted him, safely away from Miller's printing press.
No sooner had the jail door shut on Morgan than great activity was manifested in certain quarters, it was brought out in court rooms in a later year. Loton Lawson, a six-foot-farmer, rode through the night to tell some Rochester men that Morgan was jailed. On Sept. 12 there arrived in Canandaigua by stage coach from Rochester Burrage Smith, a grocer, and John Whitney, a stonecutter. They went into a huddle with James Gillis of Victor. The grapevine went into action over a wide area.
It was the hour of 9 and the moon was shining brightly on Sept. 12 when the wife of the jailer delivered William Morgan into the keeping of his "friend" Lawson who paid the debt.
As Morgan left the relative security of the jail, a group of men seized the "liberated" author-stonemason. The cry of "Murder!" was heard. Morgan's hat fell off, one of the men picked it up. Another rapped with his cane on a well curb and a carriage with yellow running gear, drawn by a pair of grays, appeared. Morgan and several of his captors got into the carriage with the drawn curtains which was driven swiftly down the road to Rochester.
The "ride" of William Morgan 115 miles across Western New York had begun. According to a mass of testimony given at the several trials in the wake of his disappearance, this was the course the strange journey took:
The hired carriage with a Canandaigua liveryman, a non Mason not implicated in the plot, on the box, made stops at Victor and Pittsford. It rumbled into the village of Rochester before dawn. Outriders on horseback had gone ahead.
In a woods near Hanford's Landing on the Genesee the tired and sweating horses were replaced by a fresh team from the livery of a Rochester man who was a Mason. A plain carriage supplanted the yellow vehicle. The curtains remained drawn.
All through the stifling September day the carriage rolled Westward along the wave-built road called the Ridge. Fresh horses were waiting at Clarkson, Gaines, Ridgeway and at Wright's Corners tavern, where men were waiting and bright lights shone. There the carriage was driven into a barn while Morgan's captors ate, with Eli Bruce, sheriff of Niagara County, joining the party. Perhaps they untied the bonds from the hands of the silent figure slumped in the carriage and gave him food and drink before the strange journey was resumed.
It was midnight when the carriage reached Lewiston where the Ridge ends on the banks of the Niagara. A new team and carriage took off toward Fort Niagara. There was a halt at a graveyard and William Morgan was taken from the carriage and placed in the empty magazine of the historic fort. No troops had been stationed at Niagara for months.
The key to the magazine was in the hands of a ferryman named Edward Giddins. Giddins at the time was a Free Mason. He later renounced the order and although, because he was an avowed atheist, he was not allowed to testify at the subsequent trials, he published some sensational details about Morgan's stay at the fort.
Giddins said that on the night of Sept. 13 Morgan was brought to him "bound, hoodwinked and under guard," that he rowed the prisoner and three other men across the Niagara to Niagara Falls, Ont.; that after a conference in that village the party returned to the fort and Morgan was put back into the magazine. Giddins maintained that Canadian Masons who were to take Morgan off the hands of his captors backed down. It has been brought out that Morgan was agreeable to an exile in Canada.
Giddins wrote that he fed the prisoner and tried to effect his release; that on the 17th he went to York, Ont., leaving the key to the magazine with Elisha Adams, and that when Giddins returned on the 21st, the magazine was empty. No one professed to know what had become of Morgan.
At the time of Morgan's detention at the fort, Royal Arch Masons were holding installation ceremonies in Lewiston, with members present from all over Western New York. The brothers know the man who had threatened to betray the secrets of the fraternity was a captive nearby. It was testified later that some of them visited the prisoner, that once he became noisy and "had to be quieted" and that there were consultations and heated arguments about what to do with him, now that the plan of Canadian exile had fallen through.
The tumult and the shouting of the Masonic conclave died away, the masters and the commanders departed and quiet fell over the Niagara frontier-a quiet soon to be broken by the insistent cry raised by many voices and still echoing after 131 years:
"What became of William Morgan?"
Most deeply concerned in September of 1826 was a young mother in Batavia. Lucinda Morgan learned of her husband's arrest when he failed to return for breakfast in the house on Walnut Street. She set out for Canandaigua with her two-months-old baby in her arms, armed with a part of the book manuscript through which she hoped to effect Morgan's release. She was offered money for the paper but refused to turn it over unless she could see her husband. At that moment he was a prisoner in the magazine at Fort Niagara.
Meanwhile, on Sept. 12, there was action again on the Batavia front. Publisher Miller was arrested and, escorted by a club-bearing mob, was taken in a carriage to Stafford, where he was hustled into the Masonic lodge room and threatened unless he gave up the Morgan script. He refused and was taken before a magistrate in LeRoy, accompanied by his foes and an equally large and swiftly mobilized company of his friends. He was discharged. On the way back to Batavia his friends foiled an attempt to seize him again. For their part in the affair, three Masons later were convicted of false imprisonment, riot and assault and served short jail terms.
As the days passed without any word of the missing Morgan, ugly rumors of foul play spread through Western New York and set off a blaze of indignation.
A big mass meeting in Batavia set the ball rolling. Committees were organized to investigate the disappearance of Morgan. Masonry was assailed from the pulpit and the platform and in the press.
A whole fraternity, with thousands of members, was under fire for the lawless, unsanctioned actions of a handful of Upstate zealots. It has been revealed that only 69 men took part in the plot and actual kidnaping of Morgan. Their plan was well organized and superbly executed. It backfired only when the Canadian Masons balked at taking the captive.
Mixed emotions fanned the fires of Anti-Masonry. Many, especially farmers and mechanics, envied the fraternal exclusiveness and power of the Masons. The upper crust and the holders of high public office in any community were likely to be Free Masons. And there were those who resented and distrusted any oath-bound order.
There also were many who were honestly shocked over the brazen seizure of an American citizen, whatever the cause, and they demanded that the guilty be brought to justice.
A small third group of Anti-Masons was made up of shrewd, main-chance politicians who saw an opportunity to make political capital out of the agitation. One such was Thurlow Weed, the Rochester editor, the same one who had refused to print Joseph Smith's Book of Mormon and to have anything to do with William Morgan's expose of Masonry. He went with the Rochester committee to the Niagara frontier and convinced that there had been foul play, campaigned in his newspaper for a thorough investigation. Weed was to become the spearhead of the movement and to use as it as a springboard to state and national political power.
Amid the turmoil the first edition of Morgan's book came off David Miller's press. It bore the formidable title of Illustrations of Masonry By one of the Fraternity who Has Devoted 30 Years to the Subject. At least 12 editions were brought out in Rochester in 1827. The book first sold for $1; then the price was successively cut to 50 cents, to 25 cents and finally to a dime. The expose was anti-climactic. The public was far more interested in Morgan's fate than in his revelations of secret grips and passwords.
The year 1827 brought mounting tension over the Morgan affair. Crowds braved the January drifts to pack the Canandaigua court room where four men went on trial for the snatching of Morgan from the county jail. They were Loton Lawson, Nicholas G. Chesebro, master of the Canandaigua Masonic lodge; Col. Edward Sawyer and John Sheldon. All were convicted and got off with short jail terms.
John Whitney and Burrage Smith fled the state. Whitney later came back for trial. Smith died. Adams, to whom Giddins had turned over the key to the Niagara magazine, was found hiding in the Vermont mountains. Other conspirators and some key witnesses vanished. Some of those who got to court used a now familiar subterfuge. They declined to testify "on the ground it might incriminate me."
"The infected district," centering in Monroe, Genesee, Ontario, and Niagara Counties, seethed with an excitement only to be equalled by the agitation over slavery. Families split over Masonry. Neighbor was arrayed against neighbor.
Masonic lodges surrendered their charters or met in secret. Free Masons were left off county and town nominating tickets. Masonry became the prime political issue. Some of the slates which proscribed Masons took the name of Anti-Masonic and heralded the rise of a new political party in America.
High Mason De Witt Clinton, Governor of New York, offered rewards for the kidnapers of Morgan and he removed Niagara County Sheriff Bruce from office. The Grand Lodge of the fraternity formally disavowed any knowledge or approval of the affair.
In the midst of a savage election campaign, on Oct. 7, 1827, the decomposed body of a man was washed up on the shore of Lake Ontario near the mouth of Oak Orchard Creek. The presence of double teeth on the lower jaw and the size and general description of the body led to the report that it was that of William Morgan.
Thurlow Weed and his Anti-Masonic cohorts hurried to the scene, with a description of the clothing Morgan had worn given them by his wife. To their chagrin, a coroner's inquest ruled that the body was not of Morgan. The man washed up by the lake had whiskers. Morgan was smooth shaven. The body was that of a man not as bald as Morgan. The stranger was buried near the lake but his clothing was held by the coroner for possible future identification.
Weed instigated a second inquest. The body was exhumed and Mrs. Morgan identified it as that of her husband. The Anti-Masonic committee had it taken to Batavia where it was exhibited on the lawn of James Brisbane's residence. A public funeral was held with Mrs. Morgan and David Miller as chief mourners.
Enemies of Weed noted that the exhumed body when exhibited lacked the hair and whiskers so prominent at the first inquest. They charged that the editor had pulled out the whiskers and hair from the corpse. They also attributed to Weed the famous phrase that was to haunt him the rest of his career: "It's a good enough Morgan until after the election." Weed always claimed the words were torn out of context from a conversation with a Masonic lawyer who asked: "What are you going to do for a Morgan now?" and that Weed had answered: "This man is a good enough Morgan until you produce the man that was killed."
A third inquest was called when the widow of a Timothy Munro, a Canadian, questioned the Morgan identification. On Sept. 26 her husband had drowned in the river opposite Fort Niagara despite the efforts of a companion to rescue him after their boat overturned. The widow's description of the clothing worn by her husband, even to darns in the socks, and mending of the trousers, tallied so closely with the clothing on the man previously identified as William Morgan, that the coroner's jury ruled that the body yielded by Lake Ontario was that of Munro.
That settled one phase of the affair. No murder indictment could be returned in the death of William Morgan. There was no corpus delecti, no proof of death. There is none to this day.
Soon after the third inquest Lucinda Morgan married George W. Harris of Batavia, a silversmith who had been active in the Anti-Masonic movement. They went West with the Mormon hegira and Lucinda turned up in a later year as one of the plural wives of the prophet Joseph Smith.
In the Fall of 1827 the Anti-Masonic tickets won in "the infected district." The next February at an encampment in Le Roy Knights Templar voted to disclose all the secrets of the order, including 12 degrees beyond those revealed by Morgan's book. They were published in July. In February Weed had established his Anti-Masonic Enquirer in Rochester. The editor had formidable allies now, men of such stature as James and William Wadsworth of Geneseo; Francis Granger, the Canandaigua patrician; the ever-crusading Myron Holley; an ambitious young red-haired lawyer from Auburn, William Henry Seward, and another ambitious young lawyer, a bland Buffalo politician named Millard Fillmore.
In the national election which brought victory to Andrew Jackson, a Free Mason, over John Quincy Adams, no friend of the order, Adams carried Western New York. The Democrats under Van Buren also won in the state. The Anti-Masonic strength was concentrated in the area West of Cayuga Bridge, where several members of the new group won seats in the Legislature.
Repeated memorials from Anti-Masonic committees resulted in the appointment in 1828 of a special legislative investigating committee, with the independent-minded and indefatigable John C. Spencer of Canandaigua as chief counsel.
After two years, Spencer reported to Governor Throop that:
"There is evidence that communications were had previous to Sept. 10, 1826 between members of the fraternity in Batavia and their brethren in Rochester, respecting means to be adopted to suppress the manuscript of William Morgan to prevent his threatened publication.
"From all the information I have received, I am persuaded that the death of Morgan (of which little doubt is generally entertained) was not contemplated until he was brought back from Canada."
Spencer added some damning comment on the actions of individual Masons. He told the Governor that "from the members of the Masonic fraternity. . . no assistance whatever has been received although the occasions demanding it have been frequent.
"With but few exceptions, witnesses who still belonged to the institution have been reluctant in their attendance at court and apparently indisposed to testify. Difficulties which have never occurred in any other prosecution have been met at every step.
"Witnesses have been secreted; they have been sent off into Canada and into different states of the Union. They have been apprised of processes being issued to compel their attendance and have been thereby enabled to evade the summons. These occurrences have been so numerous and various as to forbid the belief they are the result of individual effort alone and they have evinced the concert of many agents as to indicate an extensive combination to screen from punishment those charged with participation in the offenses against William Morgan.
"No evidence, however, has come to my knowledge that the members of the Masonic institution generally have been engaged in such combination."
At the time of the report 12 indictments were pending in Niagara County, two in Monroe, two in Ontario and four in Genesee. Sheriff Bruce was convicted of conspiracy in the abduction and served two years and two months in jail. John Whitney was jailed for one year and three months. A few others got light jail terms. There were also deadlocked juries and acquittals.
Orsamus Turner wrote two excellent histories-one about the Phelps and Gorham Purchase, the other the Holland Land Purchase. But in neither book is a line about the most exciting event of the l820s, other than the opening of the Erie Canal. There is a good reason why Turner never wrote about the Morgan affair. He was in it up to his neck.
Turner, then a Lockport editor, was charged with conspiracy in the Morgan case. He admitted he had gone to Canada in an attempt to find a farm where Morgan could be placed in exchange for surrender of his manuscript. He served 30 days in jail. When he was called as a witness in the Lockport trial of Ezekiel Jewett, who was in charge of Fort Niagara at the time of Morgan's disappearance, Turner refused to answer any questions. In today's journalese, he "took the Fifth," on "the ground of self incrimination." Incidentally Jewett was acquitted.
During the time of many trials, a flood of Anti-Masonic propaganda was unloosed, including an Anti-Masonic Almanac gotten out by the apostate Free Mason Giddins who was barred from testifying in court because he was an atheist. Giddins claimed he had been offered a fantastic price for his property if he would move to Canada.
Anti Masonry was spreading far beyond the district of its origin. Particularly the movement gained strength in New England and in Pennsylvania where a leader arose in Thaddeus Stevens, who was later to become Radical boss of Congress and the Nemesis of Andrew Johnson. A national Anti-Masonic meeting in Philadelphia in 1830 drew, delegates from 11 states. Of the 112 self-elected delegates, 11 were seceding Masons.
In 1829 Thurlow Weed had been elected to the Assembly from Monroe County, his first public office, on the Anti-Masonic ticket, Shortly he moved to Albany where he established an Anti-Masonic paper. There were at that time 35 such organs in the state. In Albany Weed began his steady climb to the heights of political power.
In September of 1831 the diverse elements that made up the newly-foaled Anti-Masonic party assembled in Baltimore to pick a candidate for President of the United States, Theirs was the first third party in national history and the first one to hold a nominating convention and to issue a platform of principles. Hitherto candidates have been named in Congressional caucus.
John Quincy Adams seemed the logical nominee but the delegates wanted a new face. Clay's membership in the Masons ruled him out. Richard Rush pulled out. So a compromise choice was found in William Wirt of Virginia, a distinguished former attorney general of the United States and once a Free Mason. Nominated for the vice presidency was Amos Ellmaker of Pennsylvania.
In the national election the Anti-Masonic ticket won the seven electoral votes of Vermont, rolling up a popular vote in the nation of 255,000. Jackson, Democrat, polled 687,000 and Clay, National Republican, 530,000. The Democrats swept New York, Astute politicians, Weed among them, saw the new party would be short-lived. The editor and rising boss manipulated his following into the new Whig fold. He had found Anti Masonry a handy tool in building a political machine. When it was no longer useful, he blandly dropped it.
By 1836 the third party had generally collapsed. In its brief whirl it had dealt Masonry a stunning blow. The number of Masonic lodges in New York State had dwindled in 1836 to 75 from 360 in 1826, and their membership was down from 22,000 to 4,000. As one historian admirably phrased it, "in time a chastened Free Masonry, keeping quietly to its ancient landmarks, recovered its health and membership."
Time wiped out most of the bitterness engendered by the Morgan affair-but not all of it.
Fifty-six years after William Morgan vanished, more than 1,000 persons assembled in the old Batavia Cemetery on Harvester Avenue to dedicate a granite monument 60 feet high. The shaft was surmounted by the figure of a man with his hand on his heart as if pleading for justice.
That figure represented William Morgan and the monument was erected by the National Christian Association Opposed to All Secret Societies through contributions from Canada and 26 states of the Union. Elder David Bernard of Warsaw, author of a blistering Anti-Masonic volume which bared the secrets of the Royal Arch Masons in the 1830s, is credited with fathering the Association.
The dedication highlighted a three-day Anti-Masonic convention in the Batavia Opera House. The exercises in the cemetery opened with the singing of a hymn which wound up with this stanza:
The lofty Morgan monument stands in a corner of the old cemetery where sleep the oldtime rulers of Batavia, the Ellicotts, the Richmonds, the Carys and the rest. The years and soot from the harvester plant across the street and the nearby New York Central tracks have stained it but the inscriptions on it are clear.
On the South side of the monument one reads:
SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF
A NATIVE OF VIRGINIA, A CAPTAIN IN THE WAR OF 1812, A RESPECTABLE CITIZEN OF BATAVIA AND A MARTYR TO THE FREEDOM OF WRITING, PRINTING AND SPEAKING THE TRUTH, HE WAS ABDUCTED FROM NEAR THIS SPOT IN THE YEAR 1826 BY FREE MASONS AND MURDERED FOR REVEALING THE SECRETS OF THEIR ORDER
THE BANE OF OUR CIVIL INSTITUTIONS IS TO BE FOUND IN MASONRY, ALREADY POWERFUL AND DAILY BECOMING MORE SO. I OWE TO MY COUNTRY AN EXPOSURE OF ITS DANGERS-CAPT. WM. MORGAN
ERECTED BY VOLUNTEER CONTRIBUTIONS FROM OVER 2,000 PERSONS RESIDING IN CANADA, ONTARIO, AND TWENTY-SIX OF THE UNITED STATES AND TERRITORIES
THE COURT RECORDS OF GENESEE COUNTY AND FILES OF THE BATAVIA ADVOCATE KEPT IN THE RECORDER'S OFFICE CONTAIN THE HISTORY OF THE EVENTS THAT CAUSED THE ERECTION OF THIS MONUMENT
Thurlow Weed was invited to attend the dedication ceremonies but declined because of his feeble health. In 1882 he was 83 years old. Within two months after the Batavia exercises he was dead.
Weed sent a letter to the National Christian Association at the time. It included the report of a startling confession made a half century earlier, Substantially the same account appears in his autobiography, The Life of Thurlow Weed, which was edited by his daughter Harriet and published the year after her father's death. The old political boss wrote his memoirs at intervals over the last dozen years of his life.
In both his autobiography and his letter to the N.C.A., Weed told how one evening in 1831 he invited three men to sup at his home. His guests were Col. Simeon B. Jewett of Clarkson, Major Samuel Barton of Lewiston and John Whitney of Rochester. During the conversation, Weed related, Barton said to Whitney: "Come, John, make a clean breast of it." Jewett interposed: "Free your mind."
Whitney's statement as reported by Weed in his Life follows:
"When our friends in Canada refused to take care of Morgan, the Lewiston people sent word to Rochester that he could not be kept much longer in the fort and that we must come to Lewiston immediately."
(Weed then related that Whitney, who had been with Morgan from the time he was taken out of the jail at Canandaigua until he was placed in the magazine, returned to Lewiston.)
"Simultaneously the installation of an encampment of Knights Templar drew together at Lewiston a large number of friends, of many of whom the question of what was to be done with Morgan was asked. . . . No one seemed willing to act or advise.
"In the evening, however, after we had been 'called from labor to refreshment,' Col. William King asked me to step into another room where I found Mr. Howard of Buffalo, Mr. Chubbuck of Lewiston and Mr. Garside of Youngstown. Colonel King said there was a carriage at the door ready to drive us to the fort . . . (we) were driven hastily away.
"As we proceeded, King said he had received instructions from the highest authority to deal with Morgan according to his deserts and that having confidence in their courage and fidelity he had chosen them as his assistants.
"On reaching the magazine they informed Morgan that the arrangements had been completed for his removal to the interior of Canada, where he would be settled on a farm and that his family would follow them.
"With this assurance he walked with them from the fort to the ferry where a rowboat awaited them. The boat was then rowed in a diagonal direction to the place where the Niagara River is lost in Lake Ontario.
"Here, either shore being two miles distant, a rope was wound several times around Morgan's body at either end of which a large weight was attached. Up to that time Morgan had conversed . . . about his new home and the probability of being joined by his family; but when he saw the rope and the use to be made of it, he struggled desperately and held firmly with one hand to the gunwale of the boat. Garside detached it but as he did so Morgan caught Garside's thumb in his mouth and bit off the first joint.
"The boat was rowed back to the ferry house where the party landed, observed only by the old soldier Adams who had made the boat ready for them and who accompanied them to the carriage which stood in the road a few rods from the ferry. . . ."
Weed related that he assured Whitney he would not use the narrative against him and that he next saw Whitney in 1860 at the Republican national convention in Chicago. At that time, he stated, Whitney sought out the political boss and wanted to talk about "the old affair."
Weed had only a hurried conversation with Whitney, who stated his willingness, according to Weed's account, of signing a written statement of Morgan's fate, to be sealed for future use, However, Weed was so engrossed in the convention battles, he wrote, that nothing was done about it at the time. Then in 1869 he wrote Whitney urging him to "give the world an authentic history of the transaction." Otherwise, Weed wrote, "the last scene in the act must forever remain unwritten."
Three months later the letter was returned to Weed through the dead letter office. John Whitney had died a few weeks before.
The purported "confession" was never signed. We have only Weed's word that it was ever made. No court would ever admit it. Officially and legally, the question still echoes down the years, unanswered:
"What became of William Morgan?"
In the after years reports kept cropping up that he was alive. Men swore they had seen him in Smyrna in Asia Minor selling provisions to ships; that he was with a tribe of Indians; that after being shipwrecked in the Caribbean he settled and raised a family on an island of British Honduras. The last tale was revived as late as 1950.
Like Banquo's, the troubled ghost of William Morgan would not down.
Controversy swirled about Myron Holley all his life, This Connecticut Yankee who came to the Genesee Country in his youth was a nonconformist, a crusader, a reformer, But even in the thickest of the fray, he never lost his temper or his manners. He was ever the scholar and the gentleman, courtly and imperturbable, the "Happy Warrior" of the frontier.
He fought in many camps-always with a zeal approaching fanaticism. He was a moving spirit in promoting and building the Erie Canal. He was a national figure in the Anti-Masonic and Abolitionist movements. He has been called the father of the Liberty Party, the first anti-slavery group to take its case to the nation at the polls.
In religion he was a liberal who abhorred the "hell fire" dogmas of his day and conducted his own services. At the onset of a promising law career, he quit the profession rather than defend a court-assigned client he believed to be guilty.
He loved children, books, flowers and all growing things. He hated injustice. He befriended the lowly and the downtrodden.
Myron Holley was one of the rare personalities of his time. Yet today he is virtually a forgotten man. His memory is preserved only in the name of a canal town in Orleans County and a few Holley Streets in Western New York.
He was born in Salisbury, Conn., in the Housatonic Valley on April 29, 1779 of English stock. His great-grand-father had been an early settler in the colony. His father, Luther Holley, a self-educated man, had acquired sufficient means to send his three sons to college.
Myron went to Williams College, where he graduated in 1799, and to the law school at New Haven. He studied law in Cooperstown, N. Y. and practiced briefly in his home town.
He was 24 years old when in 1803 he came to the frontier town of Canandaigua to hang out his shingle. Eloquent, well-educated, handsome, he seemed destined for a brilliant career in the law.
That career ended with his very first case in Ontario County. The story is that Holley was assigned by the court to defend a man indicted for murder. The young lawyer, after visiting the accused in his cell, was convinced of his guilt. He withdrew from the case and never again appeared in any court. There were those who scoffed at such high mindedness.
In 1804 Myron Holley married Sally House, a frontier belle, He was 25 and she was 18. They were to have six sons and six daughters. The young husband bought a book store in the village and soon became the leading bookseller of the region. He was a man of extensive reading and versed in the classics. He and his Sally lived in an unpretentious house on the stately Main Street that makes Canandaigua so distinctive today. His family, his books, his garden-they were the center of his life in those early years.
His public career began in 1810 when he was elected clerk of the then vast Ontario County, an office he held for four years. During the War of 1812 when refugees from the devastated Niagara Frontier poured into the Genesee Country, he was one of a committee that raised money and provisions for them.
In 1816 he was elected to the Assembly and became an early advocate of the Erie Canal project. At a mass meeting in Canandaigua in 1817, he was chosen to draw up the resolutions supporting the proposal. At most gatherings, the task of drafting the resolutions fell to Myron Holley because of his skill with words.
In the Legislature he fought beside De Witt Clinton, then in the Senate, to get the canal project under way. He was a member of the state canal commission and its treasurer from 1816 to 1824. That body in 1816-17 made a survey of the route and presented estimates of its cost.
Digging began on July 4. 1817 at Rome, The project became stalled and Holley had much to do with getting dirt to flying again in 1819. He gave a report urging resumption of the work and cited some of the new mechanical devices in use-a new type wheel barrow, a stump puller and a windlass contraption that would fell great trees. After inspecting a canal in Massachusetts which had wooden abutments, he insisted on stone for the Erie Canal.
For eight years he threw himself with all his fervor and energy into the work of completing the Clinton Ditch. He spurred and cajoled lagging contractors. He bought a home in Lyons to be near the canal. He rode on horseback from place to place; he slept in verminous shacks, in backwoods inns. He cast up his involved accounts by candlelight. He personally ministered to Irish diggers stricken with malaria in the Montezuma marshes and with his own hands buried a Negro victim of the cholera in Lyons after others shunned the task. In later years aging roughly-clad men would come to Myron Holley's home to reminisce about canal-digging days.
When he made his final accounting of the two and one-half millions in public funds he had handled as canal treasurer, there was a deficit of $30,000. Half of that amount was in outstanding notes he himself had signed to keep the work going. Holley asked that the state allow him the $30,000 discrepancy as a commission. He pointed out that he had served without extra compensation; that he had disbursed large sums in small bills to contractors over a wide area; that an accounting bureau on wheels and on horseback presents certain risks.
It was a dark hour in Myron Holley's life. The enemies of Clinton and of the canal with glee seized upon the deficit, Holley's claim was disallowed, he was held accountable for the shortage and forced to make over his Lyons property, appraised at $18,000, to the state.
Holley fought hard for restoration of his property and clearing of his name. The Clintonians rallied to him and an investigation absolved him of appropriating a single dollar to his own use. In 1828 the state restored his property to him. But the scandal had blasted his public career. For the rest of his life, his enemies raised the cry of "defaulter" whenever he stood in their path.
Although those who knew him never questioned his integrity, Myron Holley had been guilty of some very slipshod bookkeeping in the canal affair.
After the loss of his home in Lyons, he bought a stone cottage on Phelps Street in the village and there he raised flowers, vegetables and fruit. He helped organize at Geneva in 1828 a Domestic Horticultural Society. Earlier that year he had sadly attended the last rites for his staunch friend, Governor Clinton, stricken with a heart attack in Albany.
Holley was living quietly at Lyons when a new cause challenged his crusading spirit. It was the uproar in the wake of the disappearance of William Morgan which spawned the Anti-Masonic party.
Holley was not a Mason but many of his friends, including De Witt Clinton, were. So was his son-in.law, Graham Chapin, a future Congressman. Holley joined the Anti-Masonic movement after studying the evidence. It outraged his sense of justice that the kidnapers of Morgan had not been punished and lie felt that powerful forces were thwarting the investigation.
When Anti-Masons of the state met in Albany in 1829. Holley was chosen to draft the platform. He wrote a spirited message to the people of the state which declared that "the peace of this community has been extensively disturbed and the domestic security of its citizens openly violated and the life of one of them, without doubt, feloniously destroyed." The manifesto condemned "the failure of the regularly constituted authorities to bring the guilty to justice."
As a delegate to a national Anti-Masonic convention in Philadelphia in 1830, again the hand of Holley was strong in the platform making.
All through the decade-long Anti-Masonic furor, Myron Holley was in the thick of the fray. ln 1831 he established a weekly paper, the Lyons Countryman, a vigorous Anti-Masonic organ which supported the new party's Presidential candidate, William Wirt, in 1832. After three profitless years, the Countryman suspended publication.
In 1833 Holley was the Anti-Masonic candidate for the Assembly. The opposition dragged out the old canal scandal, yelled "defaulter" and he was decisively beaten.
The next year the Anti-Masons of Connecticut called upon him to edit their paper, The Free Elector, in Hartford. He remained in his home state for a year. By that time the Anti-Masonic party was as dead as its members believed Morgan was-and Holley went back to Lyons and the stone house.
Early in 1835 he sold his Lyons property and bought 120 acres at Carthage, three miles North of Rochester, on the East bank of the Genesee at the Ridge Road. There he built a comfortable home, surrounded it with trees and gardens and called it Rose Ridge.
When Myron Holley told his friends he had come to Rochester "to settle down," they laughed. It was not in that stormy petrel's nature ever to settle down anywhere.
Soon he flung himself, heart and soul, into a new cause-that of the abolition of slavery.
It was a speech by Henry Clay that set him off. Opposing the right of petition for abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, Clay flayed "the ultra Abolitionists who have discarded moral suasion for the ballot box," and asserted that "200 years of legislation have sanctioned and sanctified Negro slaves as property." That last statement had the effect on Holley that a red flag has on a bull.
Burning with indignation, he was off on a lecture tour of Western New York, fighting for settlement of the abolition issue at the polls. That split the Abolitionist ranks, for the followers of William Lloyd Garrison were all for "moral suasion." Holley ignored the rift. The Whigs offered him a nomination for Congress-if he would keep quiet on the slavery issue. He rejected it with scorn.
He appeared at an Ohio anti-slavery convention in 1839 to plead in vain for the immediate nomination of a national ticket, his prime objective. He was instrumental in the calling of the convention in Warsaw late in 1839 which nominated James G. Birney for President. Birney declined because the convention was not a national gathering. But the framework for the Liberty Party had been hewn and the architect was Myron Holley.
The Liberty Party was formally organized at a national gathering in Albany on April 1, 1840. (Some called it the All Fools Convention.) Holley was the author of much of the platform which called for the immediate abolition of slavery in the United States. Birney was nominated for President, with Thomas Earle as his running mate.
Holley took the stump for the ticket in 1840, the year that saw the Whig general, William Henry Harrison of "Log Cabin and Hard Cider" fame victorious over the Democrat, Martin Van Buren. The Liberty Party polled only 1,000 votes out of more than 2,400,000 cast. But the spark had been struck-and on a national scale. Holley and his comrades took heart.
In 1840 Holley made a great sacrifice for the cause. He sold his beloved Rose Ridge, paid his debts and put the $400 he had left into the abolitionist paper he had founded, the Rochester Freeman. He went to live in a rented house in Johnson Street and championed the cause of freedom with voice and pen until he died.
Early in 1841 while on a stumping tour in the West, he wrote home of "a severe pain in the chest." On March 4, 1841, just as the bells were ringing and the cannon firing for the inaugural of President Harrison, Myron Holley died in the house on Johnson Street. He was only 62.
Probably his chief claim to historical fame is the part he played in founding the Liberty Party. That blazed a trail for the Underground Railroad and the eventual national division over a great moral issue.
But it is the little things that his neighbors in Canandaigua, Lyons and Rochester remembered about the gentle iconoclast. Before he sold Rose Ridge, he peddled produce in a light wagon from door to door in Rochester. One lady commented that "he sold peas and early potatoes, asparagus and tomatoes in the morning with as much grace as he delivered lectures in the evening."
Presumably he was raised in the Unitarian faith in New England but he found no churches of that liberal demonination on the frontier. There is a record that he joined the Congregationalists at Canandaigua, but his daughter, Sally, recalled that she "had never seen father at a church service," except the ones he conducted himself.
When revivalists entered the class room of Miss Thurston's School at Lyons, which his Sally attended, began cathecizing the pupils and conducting prayers, he gave vent to a wrathful protest on these grounds: 1. It was an abuse of prayer. 2. It was an abuse of religion. 3. It was "an immoral infringement of my rights," as he was paying for his daughter's education which was interfered with by the revivalists.
When Lyons was upset over the "sin" of dancing, he commented: "It is as natural for young people to like to dance as it is for the apple trees to blossom in the Spring."
He worshipped no fierce, vengeful Jehovah but a God of love. He abominated such dogmas as miracles, atonement by blood, original sin and eternal damnation.
He expounded his beliefs to his friends and neighbors in simple services held in the parlor of his home in Lyons. When he found there was no liberal or Unitarian preaching in Rochester, he conducted Sunday meetings in the Court House and in the district schoolhouse at Carthage. His audiences included elegant people, drunkards and outcasts. He was called upon to officiate at funerals of those who had belonged to no church and had neither friends nor money.
He was an early riser and he never smoked nor drank. His daughter, Sally, followed in his reformist footsteps and after the Civil War taught in a Negro school in Virginia.
A granite shaft marks his grave in Rochester's Mount Hope Cemetery. It was paid for by popular subscription-a penny apiece from members of the Liberty Party. It was intended that any balance over the sum needed for the monument was to go to Holley's family. There was no balance. Instead there was a deficit and it is said that Gerrit Smith of Peterboro, the arch abolitionist who in a later year helped finance John Brown's mad venture, supplied the deficit.
It was Gerrit Smith who delivered the eulogy at the dedication of the monument on June 13, 1844, attended by 6,000 people. Smith also is credited with writing the inscription on Myron Holley's tomb:
"The Liberty Party of the United States of America have erected this monument to the memory of Myron Holley, the friend of the slave and the most effective, as well as one of the very earliest of the party."
The monument also bears a shorter, simpler tribute:
"He trusted in God and loved his neighbor."
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