At 4:00 a.m. on a July Sunday forty-eight years ago, state troopers and the National Guard started rolling into Short Creek, Arizona. Behind them came photographers and journalists to document "Operation Seagull," Arizona Governor Howard Pyle's crusade to stamp out "the wicked theory that every maturing girl child should be forced into the bondage of multiple wifehood with men of all ages." Busloads of social workers and deputy sheriffs followed the troops to deal with the carnage of Pyle's assault. Lawmen found the people of Short Creek singing hymns at the schoolhouse. As the raiders deployed, polygamous families ran up the American flag and broke into "God Bless America."
In Phoenix, the governor took to the airwaves to announce to the people of Arizona the start of his "momentous police action." The large-scale raid obviously was no secret, but the state's $50,000 appropriation for "grasshopper control" was netting a different sort of Mormon ironclad. Utah officials had declined to participate in Pyle's polygamous putsch, having been advised by a bright, young U.S. attorney named Scott Matheson it was a hopeless case. Even FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had told Utah's Governor J. Bracken Lee not to pick up this particular hot potato. But Pyle said he "didn't make a single move that we didn't clear with the Council of the Twelve," the apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Since Short Creek was located on the edge of the isolated "Arizona Strip," near the Utah border, Pyle's campaign was only getting started during the week it took social workers to sort out which children went where. The badly outnumbered husbands of the town were hauled to the Mojave County seat 425 miles away. The raid became an embarrassing war that dragged on for years before the families of Short Creek reunited.
Pyle was regarded as a cheap politician grabbing for headlines at the expense of innocent families. Salt Lake City's Deseret News stalwartly supported his courageous attack, but virtually every other paper in the U.S. ridiculed his "assault on evil."At the first opportunity, voters gave him the boot. Short Creek finished Pyle's political career.
Poor Howard. If he had taken five minutes to study the history of polygamy in the United States, he would have learned that, as they say in the Arizona Strip, "that prosecution dog don't hunt." When the First Presidency of the LDS Church petitioned the U.S. government to grant polygamists clemency in December 1891, it pointed out that "hundreds endured arrest, trial, fine and imprisonment" before they "put aside something which all their lives they have believed to be a sacred principle."
During the thirty-year war over 19th-century polygamy, "the immeasurable suffering borne by the faithful people, no language can describe." Only the confiscation of church property and a revelation--not relentless prosecution--made most Mormons give up polygamy.
Others had revelations of their own, and they refused to "put aside" the sacred principle. They believed in polygamy as firmly as their pioneer ancestors. Prosecuting a polygamy case today only provides polygamists with a splendid chance to embarrass Utah and battle for their religious rights. Any prosecutor who dreams of riding the polygamy tiger to greater political glory ought to ponder the wreckage of Pyle's political career.
Historian Bagley recommends that those who seek more details on the Short Creek raid read Martha Sontag Bradley's book, Kidnapped from That Land: The Government Raids on the Short Creek Polygamists