Utah History to Go
History Matters
The Salt Lake Tribune Arch
Saints Dealt Out Justice, Frontier-Style
Will Bagley
Published: 09/17/2000 Edition: Final Section: Utah Page: B1

Justice in the American West was different and no place was it stranger than in Territorial Utah. While vigilantes and criminals fought it out in much of the West, the struggle for justice in Utah was a battle between officers of the American Republic and Mormon leaders of the Kingdom of God. Having been run out of several states, the Latter-day Saints did not have a high opinion of American justice. They preferred to follow God's law and create their own to cover anything the Scriptures missed.

Early Mormons did not hold members of the legal profession in high esteem, either.Thomas Bullock thought one thing "wonderful" about Salt Lake City in 1847 was "no lawyers." Brigham Young, whose head was "not filled with law books and lawyers' tactics," called lawyers birds of prey and felt many of them were land sharks no better than highway robbers. (Unfortunately, the prophet eventually changed his mind. It was "wise and practicable," he said in conference in 1873, "for from one to five thousand of our young and middle-aged men to turn their attention to the study of law.")

The first Utah Legislature passed an act that said no one who hired a lawyer "in any court of the Territory shall be compelled by process of law to pay the counsel." There wasn't a big call for lawyers in Utah's early history since apparently no case came to trial until January 1851, when Great Salt Lake County convicted some transients for stealing. When frontiersman Howard Egan went up to greet fellow pioneer James Monroe at Cache Cave that fall, the situation changed. The two men stepped aside for what appeared to be a friendly talk, but at the end of the chat, Egan shot Monroe to death for seducing his wife.

Apostle George A. Smith launched a brief but interesting legal career as Egan's defense attorney. He argued it was "a principle of mountain common law that no man can seduce the wife of another without endangering his own life." The jury agreed with Smith's logic: "The man who seduces his neighbor's wife must die, and her nearest relative must kill him!" (France and Texas still follow this basic principle of "mountain common law," but Utah pretty much gave it up by the 1970s.)

As in much of Utah's pioneer history, polygamy played a major part in the controversy. Most Americans considered the practice an abomination, but to the Saints, it was God's law. Ironically, for decades there was no legislation that specifically outlawed polygamy in the United States. It was, however, against English common law. To solve the problem, the Utah Territorial Assembly in 1854 eliminated what historian David Bigler called the two standard foundations of American justice--legal precedence and English common law.The Mormons had a higher law in mind. As one Saint noted, it was God who gave him his wives, not Congress.

When federal authorities got serious about enforcing anti-polygamy statutes in the 1880s, the Mormons resisted by ignoring the law. When hauled before Judge Charles Zane, defendant George Brown Bailey's approach was typical. He admitted to illegal cohabitation and went off for six months at the territorial prison in Sugar House. Shortly after his release, Bailey was hauled before Judge Zane on the same charge. Since he refused to stop living with his wives, he got the same sentence. A few years later, Bailey, obviously hopelessly addicted to illegal cohabitation, was back before Zane. The judge pondered his predicament and growled at the prisoner, "Get the hell out of here!" At least, that's the story Aunt Bea told about great-grandpa.

For more on early Utah justice, see David L. Bigler's Forgotten Kingdom.

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