A Rough Religion Rolling

“I am like a huge, rough stone rolling down from a high mountain; and the only polishing I get is when some corner gets rubbed off by coming in contact with something else, striking with accelerated force against religious bigotry…”
Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 5:401.


Hard to describe the joy I feel going from the Mountain Meadows Massacre memorial to discovering Book of Mormon action figures inside the LDS Church History Museum gift shop. I don’t know about you, but to me this signals major progress. One hundred and seventy years ago, a visit from the three Nephites meant you were about to be called on an errand from God, but now you can arrange a play date with their three-inch facsimiles, ziggurat playset sold separately. Mix and match your favorite prophets from Another Testament of Christ at your leisure.

Now some may argue such action figures brainwash susceptible little Saints’ minds or even reinforce ugly racial stereotypes, but if these kids grow up with a kindler, gentler form of Mormonism, one that has disfellowshipped much of its more eccentric doctrine, I tell ya that bodes well for all of us.

The Manacled Mormon

Usually Mormons are manacled to keep themselves from masturbating, but if Kirk Anderson is to be believed, he was kidnapped and manacled spread-eagle, as  a tabloid journalist delights in telling us repeatedly in Errol Morris’ eccentric new film, to a bed in a bed-and-breakfast in bucolic Devonshire. Joyce McKinney has specifically chosen the place for its fairy tale connotations and treated their lost weekend as her honeymoon, thinking she had succeeded finally in getting “Cult Kirk” back to Kirk 1.

McKinney certainly makes for a fascinating interview subject. A kind of grown-up version of JonBenet Ramsey; like Ramsey, she participated in child beauty pageants and talent shows. A dyed-in-the wool romantic with a tenuous grasp on reality, McKinney is all the more endearing because of  her story, including being eaten alive by rapacious tabloid journalists relying on dirty tricks right out of today’s News of the World headlines.  It’s a sympathetic portrait, if ultimately a sad one, since her romantic obsession with Anderson has relegated McKinney to a lifetime of loneliness.

Since we don’t have Kirk’s side of the story (he still lives in Salt Lake, was contacted but refused to participate), we’re treated to a pastiche of interviews from an ex-Mormon, here to fill us in on deep doctrine, two former tabloid reporters who covered the story, and the pilot she hired to fly her and her cohort to England in order to kidnap Anderson.

Ultimately, the film is about self-deception, the lengths people will go to maintain their delusions. Anderson is convincingly portrayed as a troubled soul who has to stick to his story of being kidnapped and raped lest he face far more damning eternal consequences including excommunication.

McKinney, too, is unable to be completely truthful with herself. For one, she continues to carry a torch for Anderson, developed agoraphobia and lived in exile for years on her parents’ property where she became something of a dog nut. In addition, she maintains her innocence and never quite comes clean on how she raised the money to fund her kidnapping jaunt.

Morris makes a strong case for the idea that many of her shenanigans, including her late-in-life resurrection in the tabloids for cloning her beloved former dog, Booger, is the result of her working as a dominatrix and call girl.

One of the recurring motifs is McKinney trying to tell her own story, but being stymied for various reasons for years. The film ends with her story still being a little murky, which is exactly why I liked it.

Seeing the film in Salt Lake was an added pleasure. The in-crowd got and laughed at all the Mormon references, including the significant and repeated use of clips from the anti-Mormon cartoon from J. Edward Decker’s hoaky pabulum, The God Makers.

Four stars and one of them is Kolob.

Two Gentleman of Beaver

Spent the night in Beaver, which is something I’ve always wanted to say.

In the morning, I headed over to the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers’ Museum, which takes up three floors and the basement of the old Beaver County Courthouse. When I say “morning” I really mean 11am as that’s when they open. I was hoping to finally see firsthand my fourth great grandmother’s sewing basket which according to family records and a photo I discovered recently was donated to the museum, but, no, the two women volunteers there had never heard of it. They were able to find the names of my ancestors in Monuments to Courage: A History of Beaver County, but I told them I already have that and, well, I was hoping to find new information. Nothing doing. Nice ladies. Friendly as all get-out, but no catalog of the antiquities on display. No catalog even of the photos. One woman apparently keeps all the information in her noggin but she was out today. Try back later in the week, I was told.

I did see a picture of the famous Field Social Hall on the wall near the entry and asked about it. They didn’t seem to know anything about it so I told them what little I knew. Thanks, they said, we’ve been trying to figure out what that was. Imagine!

The building is quite amazing, though, I have to say. And certainly worth a look the next time you’re in Beaver (there I go again). You can go right up behind the clock tower and see how it works. Also, there are actual jail cells in the basement, which apparently remained in use until the mid 70s. Even some cool jail-related graffiti, though one of the volunteers has helpfully erased the naughty bits. Down in the dungeon, there exists a permanent display to one of Beaver’s most infamous sons, Butch Cassidy.

I asked the helpful museum matron about Cassidy. She told me, Beaver has two sons, one famous, one infamous. The famous son, she said, was Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of television. A bronze statue of Philo resides on the western side of the courthouse. And, I was told, he grew up in the adjacent (relocated) log cabin.

Now here’s an interesting bit of trivia to reward your reading patience: every state has two busts (this thing is shot through with double entendre, isn’t it?) in statuary hall, Washington DC. Do you know who represents Utah? If you guessed Butch Cassidy and Philo T. Farnsworth you’re only half right. Philo is there, flanked by Utah’s first territorial governor, Brigham Young.

The Flim Flam Man

Finally got to check out the Utah Shakespeare Festival last night so crossing that off my “Puck”et list.

Hard to believe the festival is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year. Last time I tried to attend, I was still a teenager. Scored some free tickets at the last minute and hopped in a car with my g-friend and we tried to beat the clock, racing down I-15 like, well, like two teenagers. We didn’t make it. Must have been half way down to Cedar City before it finally dawned on us that there was no way in hell we ever would. Ah, impetuous youth. Shakespeare probably has a quote about that. How about this one?:

“Crabbed age and youth cannot live together:

Youth is full of pleasure, age is full of care;

Youth like summer morn, age like winter weather;

Youth like summer brave, age like winter bare.”

That’s another thing we didn’t have back then: the internet. But I digress.

So I had to choose between Romeo and Juliet and The Music Man. There were more (and better) seats for the latter and I’ve never seen it before, though I do remember perhaps catching part of a Matthew Broderick television adaptation years ago.

‘Twas an enjoyable night of theater. The crowd was ecstatic. Don’t think I’ve ever witnessed such an appreciative crowd before. Lots of memorable songs. I think my favorite was “Wells Fargo Wagon”:

O-ho the Wells Fargo Wagon is a-comin’ down the street,

Oh please let it be for me!

O-ho the Wells Fargo Wagon is a-comin’ down the street,

I wish, I wish I knew what it could be!

The story, if you don’t know it, is about a traveling salesman who goes by the nom de guerreProfessor Harry Hill.” Hill ends up conning the entire town into buying instruments and uniforms for a boys’ band that will never be. There’s a moment, late in the final act, after he’s been arrested, where he’s about to get tarred and feathered. Suddenly, and perhaps because I’ve spent the entire day looking at Mormon sites, I’m thinking, hey, this guy is Joseph Smith. Then in comes the boys’ band, marching down the aisles in their shining new uniforms.

Someone hands the phony professor the baton. What would you do? Play along, of course! Fake it till you make it. Harry Hill hams it up. The kids respond with what can only be called noise since they’ve never actually learned how to play their instruments, having been taught Harry Hill’s revolutionary new “think” system. They stink! But the townsfolk are none the wiser and end up embracing both Harry and his music.

Is it better to maintain your illusions at any cost so long as they keep you feeling elated?

Hey, this was just a night of light musical Americana so sorry to be so heavy handed. I probably should have tried to catch the matinee of The Glass Menagerie instead.

Blow out your candles, Laura.


Whither Goest Thou?

Mountain Meadows Massacre memorial

It seemed like an inspired idea: take a month off and travel from San Francisco to New York City, mostly by car, with pit-stops along the way at all of the major Mormon historical sites. Maybe even sell a couple of books along the way. Arrive in New York and take in the Tony Award winning musical, The Book of Mormon. This book, this book, this book can save your life!

The only fly in the ointment so far? The Mormons. Since they own and operate most of these historical sites, anyone who stops by for a tour can expect to be subjected to faith-promoting stories and, if yesterday is any evidence, these old men and women won’t let you alone without placing a copy of the Book of Mormon, bearing their testimony and exhorting you to read 3 Nephi.

Yesterday, I was in St. George. I learned recently that I’m related to Erastus Snow. He’s like a fourth great uncle. Since then I’ve read Maureen Whipple’s extraordinary novel, The Giant Joshua, about the hardships of polygamist wives during the founding of what was then known as the “Dixie Mission.” [Note: the word “Dixie” with all of its unsettling connotations is still prevelant here: e.g. Dixie College, with a big “D” (no, not for “Douche” on the side of a red rock mountain.) I was told it’s because most of the 300 original Mormon settlers were originally from the south and came here to grow cotton (some supposedly even had slaves).

So I went to see Brigham Young’s Winter Home, the St. George Temple (well, the visitor’s center), the Tabernacle (there’s a bronze bust of Erastus outside) and the Jacob Hamblin Home. Also stopped by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers’ Museum which has, among other artifacts, Erastus Snow’s Nauvoo Legion uniform. Great stuff, by and large. I learned some interesting tidbits about tick mattresses, rolling pins stored on top to flatten the mattress and kill bed bugs, and why Brigham’s house is painted green (they ordered white paint to paint the St. George Temple, constructed out of sandstone, but when they opened it, found out it was green and couldn’t return it). I also learned, according to one of the helpful missionary tour guides at the Jacob Hamblin Home, where the phrase “tying the knot” comes from: the box springs on old pioneer beds where intersecting lines of rope and you had to tie the knot tighter when it was a marriage bed. Interesting story, even if it’s just an old wives’ tale. But to get to these facts, I had to endure a lot of sermonizing.

On one hand, I can sort of understand this compulsion. If someone walks into a furniture store, you’re going to try to sell them a dinette set. On the other hand, just because you’re interested in history, doesn’t mean you should have to listen to these guys prattle on about the prophets and their supposed prognostications. And just try to stop one of these guys once they start winding up for the pitch. Damn near impossible. Nicest people on earth, though. So self-assured they come off as a little smug, but otherwise they’re like kindly, doting grandparents and since they’ve been “called to serve” in these places, they’re here to save souls first and foremost and their eyes glisten mischievously whenever they find out you’re “not a member.” Inform Lord Vader, our first catch of the day!

I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. I think it’s fantastic that the Mormons are interested in preserving the past and I applaud their efforts, including the not insignificant amount of money that probably goes into running and maintaining these sites (I was told that many of the sites in St. George, because of the heat, have to be repainted every ten years). However, I suspect at the same time, they are all-too-often whitewashing history, dumbing it down to the lowest common denominator and, in the process, leaving out any inconvenient truths in order to make everything in their worldview coalesce. It’s probably money well spent. Since they own the sites, they can attempt to make people believe whatever they want about them while brushing aside any apocrypha.  But should they do this?

Now I imagine there are a certain number of people–perhaps even the majority of their visitors–who already believe all this stuff lock stock and barrel. If that’s true, all the more reason, say I, to tone down the proselytizing efforts. I mean, really, why preach to the converted? As one of the old elders told me, these sites give contemporary church members much-needed perspective on how much our ancestors had to sacrifice in order to give us a better life. Okay. I get that. And, yes, they can believe an elementary school version of history with good guys and bad guys, if that’s what they want. But do they need to foist these beliefs on others?

As I left the Jacob Hamblin Home, I told the elder who was stationed there that I was heading to Mountain Meadows next and asked if he knew how to get there. “All the roads are well-marked,” he said, repeated nearly verbatim the line I’d heard from the elder who lead the tour at the Tabernacle (sounded suspiciously like a talking point, as I heard critique in the past about how difficult it is to find this place). Then he elaborated, said he’d never been there, had no desire to go, said it was awful what happened there, but (oh, oh, I thought, here we go, thought I), but, he could sort of understand it, given how Missourians had slaughtered our prophet, etc.

Well, I couldn’t wait to see who they had proselytizing at the Mountain Meadows Massacre memorial site. I thought, even for the Mormons, it’s going to be difficult to spin the brutal murder of 157 settlers from Arkansas (including women and children–and after they’d surrendered) into a faith-promoting story.

Imagine my surprise when I got to the memorial site to find it completely deserted. How refreshing. I was left, at last, to my own thoughts, able to reach my own conclusions about this difficult chapter in American and Mormon history.

But give it another one hundred years. These Mormons are nothing if not patient. They already own the land and they’ve constructed the official memorial on the site, dedicated by Ezra Taft Benson on September 11, 1999, a kind of awkward mea culpa. Soon enough, I’m sure there will be a missionary quonset out there with a referral card (featuring a pristine photo of the rock pile) and some elders wet behind the ears asking people where they’re from, eager to place a Book of Mormon.

I think at my next stop, I will tell the missionaries I’m from Provo just so they don’t urge me to read 3 Nephi.

Old Mormon Fort


Contrary to what Barry Levinson would have you believe, Las Vegas wasn’t founded by Bugsy Seigel. It was founded by a group of Mormons sent out to colonize the west by Brigham Young in 1855.

It would be nearly 100 years until Mormons fell in love with slot machines and a few years after that before they decided to make Mesquite the Mormon Vegas since it required less driving.

But back to the fort. Little remains of the original structure. There is a nice museum there, just a few miles north of the strip.

Also features some groovy remnants from the Neon Boneyard which, if I’m not mistaken, would be a great name for a band.

I decided to become a Friend of the Fort (also a good name for a band) in order to get the cool map of the Mormon westward migration, since in the next month, Brother Funk and I will basically be following that map in reverse, from Salt Lake to Palmyra and all points in between.

Ellen Lee Sims Jakeman Sanders (aka “Ellen L. Jakeman”)


7 Mar 1859 – 5 Feb 1937

Ellen, my second great grandmother on my mother’s mother’s side, was born in Beaver, Utah, the daughter of John Percival Lee and Eliza Foscue Lee.

In 1876, at the age of 17, Ellen married Elias Sims. The couple had one daughter, Ivy Pearl Sims, before divorcing.

Ellen then married James Thomas Jakeman in 1878 and became the mother of three daughters and two sons.

In 1888, Ellen began writing and publishing short stories and poems in various literary journals in Utah, including Western Galaxy Magazine, the Young Woman’s Journal and the Juvenile Instructor. Her work also appeared in The Relief Society Magazine as well as in Provo and Salt Lake newspapers. Her published works include a serialized novel and a book-length poem. She also appears in the Local and National Poets of America, published out of Chicago in 1892.

Ellen was a member of the Utah Women’s Press Club and president of the Sanpete County Woman’s Suffrage Association.

A strong advocate of suffrage and equal pay for women, she became, in 1896, the first female to be elected to the office of Utah County Treasurer. Ellen was an excellent speaker and a peripatetic traveler; she received invitations throughout Utah County to relate her experiences traveling in both California and Mexico.

Ellen and James eventually divorced and, on 15 Oct 1909, at age 50, Ellen married one last time to Martin Franklin Sanders in Fairview, Sanpete, Utah. Martin was her son-in-law, Joseph LeRoy Sanders’, younger brother. Ellen and Joseph ran a cattle business in Arizona, a business she chronicled in one of her published pieces.

Martin was a businessman whose work took him to Mexico, where Ellen often traveled with him. The couple eventually separated but never divorced. Ellen eventually moved back to Beaver so she could look after her aged and infirm mother, Eliza.

Ellen died in Salt Lake at the age of 77 on 5 Feb 1937.

James Thomas Jakeman


28 Aug 1853 – 14 May 1921

James, my second great grandfather on my mother’s mother’s side, was born in Leeds, Yorkshire, England, one of ten children born to James and Ann Field Jakeman.

James’ father owned a needle factory. When his mother, Ann, was just nineteen, she married her first husband, Joseph Such. They became the parents of two children, the first, passing away soon after birth and the second they named Joseph Field. In 1829, her husband passed away and Joseph Jr. tells how, at age four, he started working in a needle factory, at the side of his mother, who taught him to sort the different-sized needles. The boss evidently liked her work: Ann married the factory owner, James Jakeman on 13 Nov 1833.

In 1856, Ann was baptized by Mormon missionaries in Britain and, on 4 Jun 1863, she and her family boarded the Amazon for passage to America. The Amazon arrived in New York City on 18 Jul 1863 and the family set out from there to Florence, Kansas, where they joined the Daniel D. McArthur Company, which consisted of 500 individuals and 75 wagons. The company arrived in Utah on 3 Oct 1863. James was just nine years old when he made the journey and walked across the plains.

James became a newspaperman. He printed and published some of the first newspapers in Juab, Sevier and Sanpete Counties, including the weekly Nephi Ensign, The Home Sentinel and The Sevier Valley Echo. James also wrote and published a book entitled “Daughters of the Utah Pioneers and their Mothers”.

James met Ellen Lee, a Mormon suffragist and writer and my second great grandmother, and the two were married in 1878. The couple had four children: Howard Lee, Cora Ellen and Gladys Annette, my great grandmother, who was born on 2 Jun 1886. They divorced and James remarried in 1900.

At the age of 67, on Saturday, May 7 1921, James was struck and killed by an automobile at the intersection of second south and main in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah.

John Percival Lee


26 Apr 1824 – 9 Apr 1907

John, my third great grandfather on my mother’s mother’s side, was born in Lincoln County, Tennessee to John Lee and Margaret Dundey. John’s father was a merchant who sold goods in a market stall which he leased in Fayetteville, Arkansas. John received a good education and became a school teacher, teaching first in the new Mormon settlement of San Bernadino. In 1857, the Mormon prophet Brigham Young called the Mormon colonists back to Utah. The Lee family then chose to settle in Beaver, Utah and purchased a large ranch called Hawthorne Dell, where they raised cattle. The money to buy the ranch and the cattle purportedly came from an inheritance Eliza received from her brother, Frederick, who was involved in the slave trade. John also taught school in Beaver. He was a large, fleshy man and his pupils nicknamed him “Pumkin Lee”, so he was soon called that by everyone. One of his pupils said “He taught by the rule of the hickory stick. He never spared the rod. One first looked around the room each morning was to see how many switches were piled in the corner to help our educational advancement that day. There were always plenty!” In Oct 1866, the family ranch was brazenly attacked by Indians who drove off the family cattle and attempted to burn their house down. One of their ranch hands, Joseph Lillywhite, was injured in an exchange of gunfire and John shot and killed several Indians during the skirmish that ensued. Two of the young children escaped the compound and ran eight miles to town in order to get the help necessary to eventually end the siege. The family never completely recovered financially from the attack. In 1867, John went on a southern states Mormon mission. In 1868, he entered into plural marriage by taking a second wife, Margaret Stuart Pope Hunter, a first cousin of Eliza, his first wife. For a few years thereafter, he lived primarily with Margaret, right next door to Eliza. By 1880, John was estranged from both of his wives and the census shows him living alone. In 1886, John married another woman, Altamiah Sophia Billingsley, and the two moved to Thatcher, Arizona the following year, where John remained until his death at age 82.

Eliza Ann Foscue Lee


23 Sep 1829 – 9 Mar 1920

Eliza Ann Foscue Lee was born in Tallahassee, Florida, the sixth child of Benjamin Foscue and Eliza Skurlock. Her mother died in childbirth while having her. Benjamin named the child Eliza after her dead mother and gave her to the care of Mrs. Harriet Skurlock Pope, one of her mother’s sisters. When she was two, she came back to live with her father and his new wife, but only for a short time. Benjamin was a Primitive Baptist and would travel all over the south as a preacher. Benjamin’s uncle, Amos Foscue, and his wife, Elizabeth, daughter of William Foscue and Sallie Smith, being childless, begged for the little Eliza and took her home to live with them, where she remained throughout the Seminole war. In 1838, Eliza was separated from her aunt and uncle as her father brought her back to Coosa County, Alabama, to once again live with him. Eliza was just 15, when she met and married John Percival Lee on 18 Feb 1844. Their oldest child, Sara Lucinda Lee (aka Lu Dalton, a famous Mormon feminist writer and poet) was born in Coosa, Alabama on 9 Feb 1847. The family then moved to Texas where they gave birth to their second daughter, Ann Eliza Lee in Dewitt on 11 Jan 1849. In that same year, a Mormon missionary by the name of Preston Thomas was sent from Salt Lake to Texas with orders from Brigham Young to get Lyman Wight and his splinter religious colony known as Zodiac back into the Mormon fold. Lyman and his followers refused to come to Utah but, while in Texas, Preston did bring John and Eliza into the Mormon church. They were baptized on 1 Aug 1849. The winter of 1849 found the Lee family camping in Council Bluffs, Pottawatomie County, Iowa, preparing for the journey to Utah. They left the following summer and traveled to Utah as part of the Benjamin Hawkins Company, which consisted of 150 wagons, arriving on 9 Sept 1850. They didn’t stay in Utah for long, however. In 1851, they joined Amasa Lyman and 500 other early Mormon settlers and traveled further west to California, helping to settle the area that is now known as San Bernadino.