The toughest problem Brigham Young bequeathed his successors was the legacy of the murders at Mountain Meadows. "That bloody tragedy has been the chief stock-in-trade for penny-a-liners, and press and pulpit who have gloated in turns by chorus over the sickening details," LDS President John Taylor protested.
John D. Lee had been executed for the crime, but his first trial convinced most Americans he acted on orders from Salt Lake City. Taylor rightly felt it was not fair to blame the Mormon people for the 1857 atrocity, but the story remained a millstone around the neck of the LDS Church.
For years, Mormon leaders continued a long-standing policy of silence about the massacre. "The more you stir this pile of [manure]," Brigham Young said, using a stronger word, "the worse it stinks."
By the early 1880s, it was clear that ignoring the issue would not make it go away. "Wherever the servants of God have gone to preach the gospel," the Deseret News complained, "the Mountain Meadow massacre has been thrown in their teeth."
Apostle Franklin D. Richards began working on the problem in 1882, gathering "material in vindication of Prest. B. Young & the Church against perpetrating the Mountain Meadow Massacre."
Former deputy marshal Aaron Farr provided a deposition charging John D. Lee had lied about the crime in 1857. The affidavit "not being what it should be at first writing," Richards "corrected and completed" it.
The church decided to meet the challenge head-on and selected a feisty English convert, Charles Penrose, to defend the dead prophet. As editor of the Deseret News, Penrose was an able writer and a brilliant orator, and the First Presidency put the resources of the Church Historian's Office at his disposal. No Mormon had tackled the difficult task of creating a believable account of the murders that didn't blame American Indians. As historian Juanita Brooks wrote, Penrose's job was "to clear the name of Brigham Young from any implications of guilt," but vindicating the man who was governor, Indian superintendent and commander-in-chief of the Utah militia in 1857 was a tall order.
Penrose presented his conclusions to a standing-room-only audience at Salt Lake City's Twelfth Ward in October 1884. Given the challenge, Penrose succeeded brilliantly. He provided an explanation of the crime that reassured loyal Latter-day Saints and even convinced most historians. "Brigham Young's name stands today clear from the guilt which malignant people have tried to fasten upon it," Penrose concluded. "Truth is mighty and will prevail." The LDS Church published his sermon as the first official explanation of the crime.
Historians now know Penrose only used documents that supported his sometimes-contradictory arguments. His claim that Young knew nothing about Mormon involvement in the murders until 1870 was weak since Mission President Jacob Hamblin had testified he told Young all about the massacre by 1858. Despite its problems, the Penrose defense worked for generations. Good historians know there is no such thing as the last word, since the past has new revelations for every generation.
History never stops, and the documents Penrose ignored eventually surfaced. As Mae West said, history is a fascinating subject. There are many ways to interpret the past, and for insight on any particular subject, the more women and men who look at it the better. The new official account due next year, which will include suppressed participant accounts and perhaps the minutes of the Mormon apostles, should shed light on this "awful tale."
Penrose may be out of date, but he got one thing right: Truth is mighty.
Historian Will Bagley's book on Mountain Meadows is expected to appear this August.