In a dustup down on the border of Salt Lake and Utah counties, restaurants are battling over the right to the name of one of Utah's most colorful historical characters, Orrin Porter Rockwell, the legendary "Danite" whom biographer and Salt Lake Tribune legend Harold Schindler immortalized as Man of God, Son of Thunder.
Porter's Place, a restaurant that had been a Lehi landmark since the 1970s, is suing start-up watering hole Porter Rockwell's in Murray for trampling on its trademark. Given the number of practitioners of what early Rockwell biographers called "holy murder," it is a shame the rest of Utah's legendary Danites get so little attention. (Mark Twain described Danites as "Latter-Day Saints who are set apart by the Church to conduct permanent disappearances of obnoxious citizens.")
However fearsome the reputation of Port, "the Mormon Samson," the gang affectionately called "Brigham's Be'hoys" included characters who make Rockwell look like a Boy Scout.
Consider, for example, the career of "Brigham's Destroying Angel," the notorious Bill Hickman, whose ghostwritten autobiography called him "the Danite Chief of Utah." One noted historian called him "a ruffian with the temperament of a rattlesnake," but Hickman's devoted descendants insist he was not the mad serial killer described in his memoir, simply a misunderstood attorney.
Utah families tend to revere their ancestors, but a man didn't win a reputation as a "human hyena" on the American frontier for being a choir boy. Descendants might upgrade old Bill's legend if they opened a steakhouse named Hickman's.
Then there's Ephraim Hanks, who allegedly "blood atoned" his fair share of misfits in Old Deseret. Like Rockwell, Hanks was an innkeeper, and he ran a popular stage station at Mountain Dell. Along with many early Utahns, "Hanks was a very heavy drinker," as Howard Blackburn told Charles Kelly in 1946, "but an exceedingly hardy pioneer."
Utah's third governor, John Dawson, sought refuge at Eph's inn on New Years Eve in 1862. After only two weeks on the job, Dawson fled the territory in fear of his life. He was attacked at Mountain Dell by "a gang of bullies" and beaten, kicked and according to several accounts, "half emasculated."
Restaurateurs down Point of the Mountain way might learn a lesson from Schindler, who called on his hefty experiences as a Tribune police reporter to write the life of Porter Rockwell, which critics hail as the definitive biography of the man.
Not long after the University of Utah Press published its second edition of Schindler's biography in 1983, a pretender published a cheap imitation in New York, although the book contained almost nothing new.
Tall and lank, Schindler's physical appearance and presence was about as imposing as Port's. His clueless competitor had the nerve to visit Schindler one afternoon at The Tribune, and he left the meeting ashen-faced, looking like he had seen, well, the business-end of one of Porter Rockwell's sawed-off Colt revolvers.
Historian Will Bagley collaborated with Schindler on an updated edition of Dale Morgan's West from Fort Bridger and is now working on a secret-but-definitive writing project on Porter Rockwell.