Nobody ever had a worse New Year's Eve than the Utah Territory's third governor, John W. Dawson.
Dawson, an Indiana lawyer and newspaper editor, had a tough time during the three December weeks he spent in Utah in 1861. In a speech to the Legislature, he called on Mormons to pay $26,982 in federal taxes to help fight the Civil War.
Brigham Young did not like the idea. First, the Feds would want the taxes and then "they will want us to send 1,000 men to the war." He would "see them in Hell before I will raise an army for them." The LDS prophet said that anyone who had been a newspaper editor for 15 years must be "a jackass."
After Dawson vetoed a popular scheme to win statehood for the Territory of Deseret, someone took five shots at a federal judge in front of the governor's rooms on Main Street. Local authorities laughed it off, but Dawson got the message.
On New Year's Eve, he boarded an eastbound stagecoach under "circumstances somewhat novel and puzzling." Dawson said his health "imperatively demanded" that he return home, but the Deseret News reported he left "in a state of mental derangement, or in other words, distressingly insane."
An LDS apostle charged that the governor had gotten in trouble "hunting a seamstress." Dawson allegedly propositioned a Mormon widow, who "drove him out of her house with a fire shovel," which, the News claimed, accounted for his mental state. An odd gang of rowdies fell in behind the stagecoach as it rumbled up Emigration Canyon to Mountain Dell.
"I was followed by a band of Danites [legendary Mormon vigilantes]," Dawson informed Abraham Lincoln. That night the crowd at the stage-coach station got drunk. After the governor discovered someone had stolen his valuable beaver robe, stage driver Wood Reynolds knocked him down. Lot Huntington and other thugs then inflicted serious violence on their victim. The gang wounded "my head badly in many places, kicking me in the loins and right breast until I was exhausted," Dawson wrote. Once the governor had been "viciously assaulted & beaten," and, according to some, castrated, the hoodlums carried "on their orgies for many hours in the night."
This vile attack upset Salt Lake City authorities and they ordered the perpetrators rounded up. The ruffians claimed the chief of police had ordered the assault, but within a month most of them were dead at the hands of either Orrin Porter Rockwell, at the time a deputy sheriff, or the Salt Lake City police.
"How long does the government intend to persist in foisting such characters upon us?" asked Brigham Young. "It is our purpose to no more endure the imposition of such men as . . . Governor Dawson."
Dawson said he felt the "misrepresentation calumny & unjustifiable invective" in the Deseret News was an attempt to justify his assault. Given the rough handling Dawson received, one might expect historians to give him a break, but most Utah chroniclers treat him as badly as the thugs did that New Year's Eve at Mountain Dell.
Ironically, being Utah's shortest serving governor was not John Dawson's greatest claim to fame. The battered politician returned to Indiana and spent his last 15 years as a pain-wracked invalid. He devoted his time to the study of local history, earning the title "the Herodotus of Fort Wayne."
Dawson published the first account of the adventures of John Chapman, an old friend who had spent 49 years wandering the frontier planting apple trees. Walt Disney eventually made Chapman famous, but it was John Dawson who created the American legend, "Johnny Appleseed."
Bagley is a Utah historian and author. David L. Bigler's "Forgotten Kingdom" described Governor Dawson's unhappy Utah adventure.