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The Salt Lake Tribune Arch
No 'Flip' or 'Frick'—The Early Utahns Knew How to Cuss a Blue Streak
Will Bagley
Published: 09/29/2002 Edition: Final Section: Utah  Page: B2

Long before the invention of the speed trap, Utah's Territorial Legislature helped local officials bilk visitors to Zion. In January 1851, the Criminal Laws of the State of Deseret, Section 19, provided that anyone who swore "by the name of God, or Jesus Christ, in any manner using their names profanely," would be fined  or imprisoned.              

Since "frick" and "flip" pass for swearing in modern Utah, it's hard to appreciate that during the California Gold Rush, Mormons avoided blasphemy but garden-variety profanity was OK. Even Brigham Young complained the Elders of Israel would "rip, and curse, and swear, as bad as any pirates ever did."  

The prophet himself mixed strong language with low comedy in his sermons. His earthy and colorful speech charmed his followers but appalled outsiders.      

At a Mormon service in 1849, Joseph Hamelin found "more amusement is exhibited there than the play-house can furnish." Young "arose and went on in a string of blasphemy which would put a blush on a Five-Points bully." (Five Points was old New York's red-light district.) "He insulted every member of his church, cursed, swore, and used the most vulgar language. Every decent person must have been much disgusted."          

Young's vulgarity offended many Mormons. He had "package after package of letters, yes, a wheelbarrow load of them," asking him "to be careful how you speak." He was not impressed. Such letters made him "feel just like rubbing their noses with them. If I am not to have the privilege of speaking of Saint and sinner when I please," said the prophet, "tie up my mouth and let me go to the grave, for my work would be done."     

"Much has been said of the Mormon profanity, in the pulpit and out of it," one outsider noted. "But what is considered profanity by the world, is not thus considered with them."      

If they didn't take the Lord's name in vain, Utahns figured anything else was fair game. But visitors had to watch their step.           

The 1851 law didn't apply to Latter-day Saints. Presbyterian minister Jotham Goodell recalled: "Every where I went it was the same--profanity!profanity!!taking the name of God in vain." After the law passed, "a wonderful reformation took place" and most folks started showing the Deity proper respect.

But within a week, a sizeable number of outlanders "were at work on the public buildings, with a ball and chain attached to their limbs," Goodell noticed. "The amount of fines thus collected must have amounted to a considerable sum."  Since no Mormons were fined, "it looked for all the world just like a trap, set purposely, to catch emigrants."

In 1853 Thomas Flint saw Nephi officials fine a traveler $20 for letting his horses graze in a wheat field, threatening to double the fine "if he found fault or swore." Utah lawmen imposed fines "for every infraction of their regulations, real or fictitious--enforced by men with rifles on their shoulders, making their demands very emphatic."     

The Legislature also outlawed becoming "intoxicated so as to endanger the peace and quiet of the community" in 1852.      

While visiting Mound Fort near Ogden in April 1855, Thomas Oudercark, Alman Colvin and James Lloyd set out to see how many laws they could violate in one night. They got drunk and committed "a breach of the peace in disturbing the house of Marion Miller in the night and in using Obscene Language to Lydia Pontz and Sarah McGary and for pissing down their Chimney to put out their fire."

Will Bagley learned that historian George Hammond "perpetrated" the story of this dastardly crime for California Gov. Earl Warren in 1951.

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