The westbound stage groaned and clattered down the "utterly abominable" Emigration Canyon road just as the hot summer twilight was deepening into night over the Great Salt Lake Valley. Among the several passengers who squirmed from the coach to set an uncertain booted foot to Salt Lake City's dusty Main Street that July evening in 1859 was a lanky, cherub-faced individual wearing a rumpled, road-weary white linen suit under a long white duster. A white hat of plain felt completed his outfit.
He was tall, perhaps 5 feet 10 1/2. A large domed head accentuated his bookish countenance. Contemporaries insisted his blue eyes lacked sparkle and his critics complained he had no graces; his voice was high and shrill enough to inflict discomfort. He peered through spectacles large and round that clung for safety to the ears and gave him an owl-like look "much appreciated by sketch artists."
This unprepossessing California-bound traveler with carpetbag in hand was Horace Greeley, editor of the prestigious New York Tribune, the most prominent journalist in America and perhaps the most influential newspaperman of his time, James Gordon Bennett of The New York Herald notwithstanding. Greeley was on the final leg of a remarkable journey that would take him from New York to San Francisco by rail and stagecoach to "see for himself" this vast country and chronicle his experiences in a series of dispatches along the way.
Horace Greeley, at forty-eight, was following his own advice: To "go West, young man." He had ended his latest letter, dated July 11, 1859, by informing Tribune readers that "Salt Lake City wears a pleasant aspect to the emigrant or traveler, weary, dusty, and browned with a thousand miles of jolting, fording, camping, through the scorched and naked American desert." Then, after another page of descriptive reporting, he closed with, "But of the Mormons and Mormonism, I propose to speak only after studying them; to which end I remain here several days longer." What he did not reveal was that he hoped to write firsthand about the Mormons of Utah--by interviewing their leader, Brigham Young.
The New York editor was successful--through the good offices of his Mormon friend in Washington, D.C., Dr. John M. Bernhisel, Utah's delegate to Congress--in gaining an appointment with the celebrated church leader and colonizer. And while Greeley may not have realized it at the time, his account of that session would make journalism history. The interview was quoted extensively in its day and later mentioned in various histories, literary collections and texts, but because of its length would be edited in one way or another. It is published here in full, precisely as it appeared in the columns of the New York Tribune August 20, 1859. Greeley's questions covered a wide range of subjects from Christianity and Mormonism to slavery, the use of tithing money, the Church's notorious reputation and polygamy.
Being a forerunner was nothing new to this Ichabod Crane of the newspaper world. Greeley had made wearing white linen suits, long duster coats and white felt toppers a personal trademark--along with an ever-present, slightly bowed whalebone-ribbed umbrella. Horace Greeley, if nothing else, was a sight to behold. A decade earlier, while serving briefly as a fill-in congressman, Greeley had occasion to write Bayard Taylor, an enterprising New York Tribune reporter, urging him to prepare a weekly political column and "sign your own initials or some distinguishing mark at the bottom. I want everyone connected with the Tribune to become known to the public as doing what he does." This is seen by historians as the first encouragement by a newspaper editor to members of his staff to create "byline" journalism. Greeley himself would sign his editorials "H.G."
Everything about Horace Greeley was controversial, including the famous remark: "Go West, young man, go West!" attributed to him in 1853, while in fact he was paraphrasing an Indiana editor's expression of 1851. But it is just as true that if others used the phrase before Greeley, no one heard it. And when Greeley said it, the whole country listened, and thousands acted on it.
His influence as a public voice was enormous, and his conversation with Brigham Young received global attention. The Mormons had, the year before, been granted amnesty by President James Buchanan for their actions against Brig. General Albert Sidney Johnston's expedition in the "Utah War." The Latter-day Saints were always good newspaper copy.
James Gordon Bennett, the muckraking editor of the rival New York Herald, was more than just a competitor; he was Greeley's nemesis. Both men were giants of journalism in their day. And while Greeley's two-hour talk with Brigham Young is generally conceded to be the first published formal newspaper interview, the ever-innovative Bennett had an earlier claim to that honor because of his interrogation of a prostitute and madam, Rosina Townsend, while covering the sensational Ellen Jewett murder case in 1836.
The interview with Young took place in the company of several leading church figures, including Bernhisel, Heber C. Kimball, Daniel H. Wells, Albert Carrington, Elias Smith and others, two of Brigham's oldest sons among them. To keep the question-and-answer dialogue flowing, Greeley did not attempt to transcribe the conversation, but jotted hasty notes and relied on his remarkable memory for the rest. His handwriting, while crystal-clear to its creator, was the bane of journalism and had for some years been a standing joke within the craft.
Several of his biographers have generously described his penmanship as "notoriously undecipherable" and extended their deepest sympathies to The Tribune's typographers responsible for making sense of the "frightful scrawl." Greeley's sentences had the appearance of words chasing themselves uphill. One of the newspaper's correspondents, Albert D. Richardson, who later would himself write a book about a Western tour, found it necessary to include a facsimile page of his boss's notes to prove the point, along with his reaction to having witnessed Greeley writing aboard a pitching stagecoach during a rainstorm: "As the air was damp and chill--and the vehicle shaken with wind, I fancy The Tribune's printers will find Mr. Greeley's manuscript even less legible than usual."
But beyond his quaint appearance, his standoffishness, the shrill voice that irritated even the most ardent listeners, and his propensity for being the enfant terrible of editorial pages, Horace Greeley was, once and forever, a crackerjack newspaperman. And because of that, the most striking element of his Brigham Young exclusive can be found in the concluding paragraph of his now-famous Dispatch XXI from Salt Lake City, in which he offers his thoughts on the interview.
Especially noteworthy, in light of 1990s issues, was Greeley's perceptiveness and his ability to get to the heart of a story. The journalist remarked to the church leader as their conversation drew to a close his disappointment with Mormonism's "degradation (or, if you please, the restriction) of Woman to the single office of child-bearing and its accessories." It was a point no editor, newspaper, journal or public figure pounced on or reacted to. Greeley almost casually had fired off a telling shot--that went all but unnoticed by his readers. Here is what he wrote: "I have not observed a sign in the streets, an advertisement in the journals, of this Mormon metropolis, whereby a woman proposes to do anything whatever. No Mormon has ever cited to me his wife's or any woman's opinion on any subject; no Mormon woman has been introduced or has spoken to me; and, though I have been asked to visit Mormons in their houses, no one has spoken of his wife (or wives) desiring to see me, or his desiring to make her (or their) acquaintance, or voluntarily indicated the existence of such being or beings." That, Greeley concluded, was polygamy in essence. "Let any such system become established and prevalent, and Woman will soon be confined to the harem."