W. Paul Reeve and Jeffrey D. Nichols
History Blazer, September 1995
On April 19, 1922, some 500 people gathered in Sandy to honor Gordon Stuart, a Salt Lake County deputy sheriff slain in the line of duty. Mourners were shocked, however, when the graveside ceremonies were interrupted by eight or nine Ku Klux Klansmen who appeared at the cemetery in the form of a human cross. Dressed in white robes and tall hooded caps tipped with red tassels, the group marched silently to the grave site and placed a cross of lilies with a banner that read “Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Salt Lake Chapter No. 1,” upon Stuart’s casket. The Klansmen then hurried to the edge of the cemetery where two automobiles with curtained windows and covered license plates whisked them away. It is uncertain whether Stuart was a fellow Klansman or if the group just wished to demonstrate their zeal for law and order by paying tribute to a fallen officer. Regardless, the event marked the first of several public appearances by the short-lived Ku Klux Klan of Utah.
The Klan first surfaced in Utah in 1921, growing out of a broader national swell in Klan membership due partly to strong nativist sentiments throughout America. In Utah initial organization came under a group of Salt Lake City businessmen desiring economic betterment through exclusive patronage by Klansmen of Klan-owned enterprises. Difficulties in recruitment and early opposition by community and Mormon church leaders dampened the Klan’s growth. By 1923 the Invisible Empire had managed to gain a small foothold in Salt Lake City and Ogden. During 1924–25, however, membership surged throughout the state primarily in response to a well organized national recruitment campaign.
Many Klan activities were clandestine, but there were occasional overt demonstrations usually directed toward racial and ethnic minorities. In Salt Lake City the Klan burned crosses on Ensign Peak and marched down Main Street, and in Magna Klansmen burned a cross in front of a Greek man’s store because he had married an American woman. In Helper the hooded vigilantes engaged in extortion and took over the town’s dance halls; and in Price in 1925 Klansmen lynched Robert Marshall, an itinerant black miner.
In the late 19th and 20th centuries extralegal summary execution was a widely used, if deplored, method of punishment for alleged criminals throughout the United States. Only four states have no recorded “lynchings.” One historian estimates that at least 12 lynchings have occurred in Utah. Robert Marshall, an African American, fits the profile of a typical lynching victim, both nationally and in Utah: nonwhite, transient, and accused of murdering a law-enforcement officer.
Marshall, an employee of the Utah Fuel Company at Castle Gate, had apparently feuded with company agent and town marshal J. Milton Burns. On June 15, 1925, Marshall “drew his time” (quit and received his last paycheck) and waited on a wagon bridge for Burns to make his rounds. At about 7:30 P.M. Burns approached Marshall, who reportedly pulled a gun and shot him five times. He died the following evening. Marshall hid in another worker’s shack until a sheriff’s posse captured him at about 9:00 A.M. on June 18.
News of Marshall’s capture traveled quickly, and by the time deputies arrived with the prisoner at the county courthouse in Price, a crowd had gathered. Local residents were incensed at “the nigger” who had apparently murdered Burns, a long-time resident and father of six. The crowd reportedly forced the posse out of the car and drove Marshall about three miles out of town, accompanied by about 100 other vehicles. On a farm between Price and Wellington some men in the crowd put a rope around Marshall’s neck and threw it over the limb of a cottonwood tree. He was yanked thirty-five feet into the air, where he dangled strangling for nine minutes and four seconds. Sheriff’s deputies then cut him down and put him in the car, but when he showed signs of life he was again seized and hanged, this time successfully.
The “unfortunate affair” had strong local support. The Price Sun noted that an observer would find that the “mob” consisted of “your neighbors, your friends, the tradespeople with whom you are wont to barter day by day, public employes [sic], folks prominent in church and social circles, and your real conception of a ‘mob’ might have undergone a radical turnover….No attempt at concealment was made by any member of the lynching party. . . . [there was] quite a sprinkling of women—the wives and mothers of the good folks of the town. And, too, there were even some children.” Photographs of the hanged man were reportedly sold door-to-door for 25 cents.
Governor George Dern, under pressure from the NAACP, condemned the lynching as “a crime and a disgrace” and asked District Attorney Fred. W. Keller to investigate. He eventually charged eleven men, including six members of the posse that captured Marshall, with first degree murder, but the over 100 witnesses called could not or would not positively identify the perpetrators, and all were freed. According to historian Larry R. Gerlach, “it was common knowledge that Burns and virtually all of the eleven men charged with the lynching were Klansmen.”
The lynching at Price and other threatening acts raised public awareness of Klan activities and eventually led to anti-mask ordinances in Ogden, Salt Lake City, and Logan. These laws proved highly effective, as by 1926 they either drove Klansmen underground or out of the organization altogether for fear of possible social, political, or business repercussions from public exposure. Nevertheless, the Klan remained active in Utah even into the 1930s, but its numbers were few and actions inconsequential in local affairs. By 1932 evidence of the Klan in Utah had disappeared and remained absent until 1979 when an apparently brief resurgence occurred in southwestern Salt Lake Valley.
Sources: Larry R. Gerlach, Blazing Crosses In Zion: The Ku Klux Klan in Utah (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1982); Dean L. May, Utah: A People’s History (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1987); Utah Fuel Company Records, Utah State Historical Society Library; Price Sun, June 19, 26, 1925.