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In Another Time
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Humorist Mined Mother Lode In Mormons and Their Foibles
Hal Schindler
Published: 09/17/1995 Category: Features Page: J1

It's time for a lighter look at Utah history; time to turn to Samuel Langhorne Clemens. His alter ego, Mark Twain, got an immense amount of mileage from Utah and the Mormons, using anecdotes about them in his lectures and books until he was all but buried in cash folks paid for such entertainment. Twain had a way with words, but more often than not he was disposed never to let the facts stand in the way of a good story.

In Roughing It, his account of travel through the West, for instance, he tells of an Indian attack on a mail coach in 1856 in which the stage driver and conductor perished:

"...and also all the passengers but one, it was supposed; but this must have been a mistake, for at different times afterward on the Pacific Coast I was personally acquainted with a hundred and thirty-three or four people who were wounded during that massacre, and barely escaped with their lives. There was no doubt of the truth of it. I had it from their own lips. One of these parties told me that he kept coming across arrow-heads in his system for nearly seven years after the massacre; and another of them told me he was stuck so literally full of arrows that after the Indians were gone and he could raise up and examine himself, he could not restrain his tears, for his clothes were completely ruined."

To set the record straight, Twain erred in the date. He can be forgiven because he was writing from a distance in time. Roughing It was published in 1871, and he may have been suffering from spasms of CRS ("Can't Remember Scat"). There was, indeed, such a mail coach massacre, but it was perpetrated by Sioux in November 1854. Three of the four passengers aboard were killed including the conductor, a fellow named John Jamison. The lone survivor, one Charles A. Kinkead, partner in Livingston & Kinkead Mercantile Company of Great Salt Lake City, was struck by half a dozen arrows, but recovered. The Indians rifled the mail pouches, tore open the letters and took $10,500 in gold from him--the company receipts--before vamoosing.

Twain took a liking to Jack Slade, the notorious Sweetwater Division superintendent for the Overland Stage. Well, it might not have been a liking, exactly, but Slade did provide the humorist with so much material Twain could scarcely not be beholden. That he relished writing about Slade the mankiller, Slade the desperado, Slade the most bloody, is evident in his earliest anecdotes concerning the gunman, whose mortal remains now lay buried in the Salt Lake City Cemetery.

Here is how Twain introduces Slade to his readers: "One day on the plains he had an angry dispute with one of his wagon-drivers, and both drew their revolvers. But the driver was the quicker artist, and had his weapon cocked first. So Slade said it was a pity to waste life on so small a matter, and proposed that the pistols be thrown on the ground and the quarrel settled by a fistfight. The unsuspecting driver agreed, and threw down his pistol--whereupon Slade laughed at his simplicity, and shot him dead!"

Violence was the rule in Slade's world, Twain insisted. And the author-lecturer reveled in stories about Slade's run-in with Jules Beni, the station-keeper who had treated him to the entire contents of a double-barrel shotgun. When Slade recovered and eventually trapped his nemesis, he tied him to a corral gate, and commenced to exact his revenge. Twain wades into the fray with quill poised: "In the morning Slade practiced on him with his revolver, nipping the flesh here and there, and occasionally clipping off a finger, while Jules begged him to kill him outright and put him out of his misery. Finally, Slade reloaded, and walking up close to his victim, made some characteristic remarks and then dispatched him. Slade detailed a party and assisted at the burial himself. But first he cut off the dead man's ears and put them in his vest pocket, where he carried them for some time with great satisfaction. That is the story as I have frequently heard it told and seen it in print in California newspapers. It is doubtless correct in all essential particulars."

So what would happen if Twain should meet the protagonist of his tales? He tells of stopping at a stage station for breakfast with "a half-savage, half-civilized company of armed and bearded mountaineers, ranchmen and station employees."

"The most gentlemanly appearing, quiet and affable officer we had yet found along the road in the Overland Company's service was the person who sat at the head of the table, at my elbow. Never youth stared and shivered as I did when I heard them call him SLADE!

Here was romance, and I sitting face to face with it!...looking upon it...touching it...hobnobbing with it, as it were! Here, right by my side, was the actual ogre who, in fights and brawls and various ways, had taken the lives of twenty-six human beings, or all men lied about him! I suppose I was the proudest stripling that ever traveled to see strange lands and wonderful people.

He was so friendly and so gentle-spoken that I warmed to him in spite of his awful history. . .The coffee ran out. At least it was reduced to one tin-cupful, and Slade was about to take it when he saw that my cup was empty. He politely offered to fill it, but although I wanted it, I politely declined. I was afraid he had not killed anybody that morning, and might be needing diversion.

"We left him with only twenty-six dead people to account for, and I felt a tranquil satisfaction in the thought that in so judiciously taking care of No.1 at that breakfast table I had pleasantly escaped being No. 27."

When he wasn't waxing melodramatic with gunslinging desperadoes the like of the inestimable Jack Slade, Twain the newspaperman-steamboat captain, tweaked the Mormons. Scarcely had he put Slade's station behind him, Twain rambled on about "taking supper with a Mormon 'Destroying Angel.'" Here was fodder for his cannon. Salvo upon salvo, who could ask for anything more?: "Destroying Angels as I understand it [he wrote], are Latter-Day Saints who are set apart by the church to conduct permanent disappearances of obnoxious citizens. I had heard a deal about these Mormon Destroying Angels and the dark and bloody deeds they had done, and when I entered this one's house I had my shudder all ready. But alas for all our romances, he was nothing but a loud, profane, offensive, old blackguard! He was murderous enough, possibly, to fill the bill of a Destroyer, but would you have any kind of an Angel devoid of dignity? Could you abide an Angel in an unclean shirt and no suspenders? Could you respect an Angel with a horse-laugh and a swagger like a buccaneer?"

During his brief stay in Great Salt Lake City, Twain had the opportunity of discovering "Valley Tan," a potent potable absorbed in some quantity by a fellow traveler named Bemis, who it seems had made one trip too many to the flagon from which this fiery liquid issued. The fact that Bemis had gone to bed with his boots on led Twain to fear that something he had eaten had not agreed with him. "But we knew afterward that it was something he had been drinking. It was the exclusive Mormon refresher, 'valley tan.' Valley tan (or, at least, one form of valley tan) is a kind of whisky, or first cousin to it; is of Mormon invention and manufactured only in Utah. Tradition says it is made of [imported] fire and brimstone. If I remember rightly, no public drinking saloons were allowed in the kingdom by Brigham Young, and no private drinking permitted among the faithful, except they confined themselves to 'valley tan.'"

As you can see, Twain was easily misled. During the period in which Twain, with his brother Orion Clemens, made their journey west in July 1861 and Twain's various peregrinations in Carson City and Virginia City, Nev., in 1862 plus his wanderings in the various mining centers of the West in 1864, Great Salt Lake City was occupied by remnants of Brig. Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston's Utah Expedition and later by troops of Brig. Gen. Patrick E. Connor's command. Which is to say there were saloons all over the place. In fact, Main Street south of 2nd South, was familiarly known as Whiskey Street after 1859. And Valley Tan certainly was not the refreshment of choice; Orrin Porter Rockwell called it liquid strychnine; other frontiersmen had more imaginative names for this paralyzing intoxicant.

Exaggerations aside, Twain had nothing but praise for the City of the Saints: "Next day we strolled about everywhere through the broad, straight level streets, and enjoyed the pleasant strangeness of a city of fifteen thousand inhabitants with no loafers perceptible in it; and no visible drunkards or noisy people; a limpid stream rippling and dancing through every street in place of a filthy gutter; block after block of trim dwellings, built of 'frame' and sunburned brick--a great thriving orchard and garden behind every one of them, apparently--branches from the street stream winding and sparkling among the garden beds and fruit trees--and a grand general air of neatness, repair, thrift and comfort, around and about and over the whole. And everywhere were workshops, factories and all manner of industries; and intent faces and busy hands were to be seen wherever one looked; and in one's ears was the ceaseless clink of hammers, the buzz of trade and the contented hum of drums and fly-wheels.

The armorial crest of my own State consisted of two dissolute bears holding up the head of a dead and gone cask between them and making the pertinent remark, 'United, We Stand--(hic)--Divided We Fall.' It was always too figurative for the author of this book. But the Mormon crest was easy. And it was simple, unostentatious and fitted like a glove. It was a representation of a Golden Beehive, with the bees all at work!"

Yes, Twain had stumbled on a mother lode of material. In the Mormons, he had discovered the perfect foil for his humor. Well, almost perfect. The U.S. Congress was high on his list of targets; he was once able to glean enough for a book and a lecture tour out of a day in the Senate gallery. "A perfect gold mine!," he exulted. Still, the Mormons proved his bona fides. And he loved the ruffians.

"It is a luscious country for thrilling evening stories about assassinations of intractable Gentiles. I cannot easily conceive of anything more cozy than the night in Salt Lake which we spent in a Gentile den, smoking pipes and listening to tales of how Burton galloped in among the pleading and defenseless "Morrisites" and shot them down, men and women, like so many dogs. And how Bill Hickman, a Destroying Angel, shot Drown and Arnold dead for bringing suit against him for a debt. And how Porter Rockwell did this and that dreadful thing. And how heedless people often come to Utah and make remarks about Brigham or polygamy, or some other sacred matter, and the very next morning at daylight such parties are sure to be found lying up some back alley, contentedly waiting for the hearse."

But say what you may about Mark Twain, he was never above making himself the butt of his own stories. Take the time he and Orion, newly appointed Secretary of Nevada, paid a "state visit" to the king--Brigham Young--himself. "He seemed a quiet, kindly, easy-mannered, dignified, self-possessed old gentleman of fifty-five or sixty, and had a gentle craft in his eye that probably belonged there. He was very simply dressed and was just taking off a straw hat when we entered. He talked about Utah, and the Indians, and Nevada, and general American matters and questions, with our Secretary and certain government officials who came with us. But he never paid any attention to me, notwithstanding I made several attempts to 'draw him out' on federal politics and his high-handed attitude toward Congress.

I thought some of the things I said were rather fine. But he merely looked around at me, at distant intervals, something as I have seen a benignant old cat look around to see which kitten was meddling with her tail. By and by I subsided into an indignant silence, and so sat until the end, hot and flushed, and execrating him in my heart for an ignorant savage. But he was calm. His conversation with those gentlemen flowed on as sweetly and peacefully and musically as any summer brook. When the audience was ended and we were retiring from the presence, he put his hand on my head, beamed down on me in an admiring way and said to my brother: 'Ah--your child, I presume. Boy, or girl?'"

That Brigham, what a card.

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