Western history has long been enlivened by legends that Utah's pioneers employed a deadly band of avengers known as Danites to defend the Mormon kingdom. Tales of ruthless Avenging Angels carrying out the will of their prophet have spiced up Western literature from the first appearance of the Sherlock Holmes adventure A Study in Scarlet to the cowboys Zane Grey sent out to ride the purple sage.
As a formal internal security organization, the Danites existed for about six weeks in Missouri. Mormon historians insist lurid tales of Danite crime can't be proven, which is true. Danites or no, one dark night in March 1851 somebody blasted Brigham Young's little brother out of the saddle.
Lorenzo Dow Young left Great Salt Lake City one Sunday to tend his garden and sheep at what is today's South Jordan. Returning home after dark, he reached the bridge where North Temple now crosses the Jordan River. Here, reports said, "he was roughly hailed by four men" sent by Brigham Young to guard the bridge. "They were noisy and appeared to be more or less under the influence of strong drink."
Lorenzo turned his horse and asked, "What do you want?"
"Stop," responded one, "and we will let you know what we want."
Lorenzo was quite fond of the "noble animal" he was riding and these desperadoes appeared ready to steal it. He started off in a smart trot.
"I called to them to shoot," an apologetic guard wrote Brigham Young the next day, but "he did not stop." The guards began blazing away with everything they had. One of them recognized Lorenzo, but orders were orders and he fired, too.
The next minute, "the brother of the prophet was rolling in the mud," wrote overland emigrant Jotham Goodell. "He was not killed--a ball had broken his arm, which was the only injury he received." Lorenzo managed to ride to a farmhouse where a blessing miraculously stopped the blood pouring from a severed artery.
What was going on?
G.L. Turner, a traveler bound for California, had "contracted with Brigham Young to furnish timber and other materials for the public works, to the amount of some twenty thousand dollars." Turner worked until the Mormons suspended all cash payments to outsiders. He deemed it advisable to discontinue operations until he was paid the money due him.
An armed posse seized Turner's livestock and "every thing they could lay their hands on." He was obliged to make his escape as best he could and hid in nearby mountains. The Nauvoo Legion tracked Turner to Tooele Valley but only captured his dog.
The guards had been secretly stationed at the Jordan Bridge, apparently to solve the Turner problem. Turner escaped to California and Lorenzo Young's arm got better, so this odd story had a happy ending--except for the fate of a Mr. Armstrong, commander of the bumbling guards. Armstrong had a keg of moonshine from Moon's distillery in the First Ward, and he and his men had come under its influence sufficiently to make them unfit them for the duty they were sent to perform. One pioneer chronicler claimed "strong drink" proved Armstrong's ruin, and he allegedly hot-footed it back to Illinois in time to die at Alton Penitentiary less than a month after almost killing Lorenzo Young.
At least he didn't have to deal with the Danites.
Historian Will Bagley learned Turner's story from David L. Bigler's new book, A Winter with the Mormons: The 1852 Letters of Jotham Goodell.