At the turn of the century, Florence made a splash in Salt Lake City as a movie entrepreneur. At one point, he owned practically every theater in Salt Lake City.
But when he turned to attempted blackmail - trying to coerce LDS Church officials to pay huge sums to recover pirated photographs of the interior of the Salt Lake Temple - his fortunes took a sharp turn for the worse.The flamboyant Florence thought he had church leaders over a barrel when he sent a letter from New York City to President Joseph F. Smith, informing him that he had 68 pictures of the temple, "every nook and cranny from basement to steeples." He suggested that the church might want to enter into an agreement to buy the photos to keep them out of the hands of church enemies.
Florence assumed that traditional LDS regard for the sacredness of temples would prompt church leaders to knuckle under immediately and rush to meet his demands.
He was disappointed. Although the church remained sensitive to the heavy anti-LDS publicity of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, President Smith's reply was terse and to the point: "I will make no bargain with thieves and traffickers in stolen goods."
A bristling Florence, when he got that word, threatened a slander suit, but never filed one.
Florence had sent a sample of eight photographs to assure the church leader that the photos were genuine. Ensconced in a room at the Imperial Hotel in New York, puffing a cigar and hosting the local news media, the 46-year-old Russian emigrant waited for the money to start rolling in. If the church would not pay, he felt assured he could market the photos to magazines, postcard publishers or lecturers as ammunition in the then-popular quest to defame the Mormons.
The amount of $100,000 was bandied about by the newspapers, but Florence didn't name a price in his letter to the church leader.
He was, however, confident that he was about to get rich. "I'm here for the cash," he told a New York reporter, " . . . (the pictures) are to go to the highest bidder, be he Mormon, Jew or Gentile, I don't care which." He then launched into a spiel suggesting that the pictures were so sensational that a newspaper willing to print them would have to hire extra wagons to haul their papers, so popular would they be.
"The erroneous idea that none but members of the Church have ever been admitted to the temple is a fallacy," the Deseret News noted in extensive coverage of the blackmail attempt.
For instance, more than 600 non-Mormons had been specifically invited to tour all areas of the temple prior to dedication ceremonies on April 5, 1893. Although temple rites have always been held in high reverence and confidentiality by eligible church members, each succeeding temple has been open to the public before being dedicated.
Even in Florence's time, a brochure, "The Great Temple," describing the building inside and out was being handed to thousands of Temple Square visitors.
Florence obviously had miscalculated how "secret and sensational" his photos of the temple's rooms and furnishings would be. The News, in fact, published all eight of the photos sent to President Smith, along with a reproduction of the envelope in which Florence had mailed them.
The Salt Lake Tribune reported that Florence's materials included records of polygamous marriages that took place after the ban on such marriages, as well as minutes of meetings of the church hierarchy, but that report was false.
For several days, the Florence matter made good newspaper copy in Utah. The Deseret News, naturally, took the viewpoint of its owner, the LDS Church. It depicted Florence as a man well known in the community "especially to the police and in saloon circles." He had operated skating rinks and "other attractions of questionable character," including a saloon where "men and women congregated nightly in drunken debauches," the newspaper said.
The paper didn't mention that for several years, Florence had been a respectable businessman, king of the movie industry in Salt Lake City. Apparently, competition put him into a bind and he soon lost most of his theaters and had huge debts he couldn't pay.
He did, in fact, have a police record and his wife once sought a divorce, alleging infidelity, but she later withdrew the petition.
Over the next few days, the story of how Florence had come by the temple photos unfolded.
Gisbert Bossard, a Mormon convert from Switzerland, had become disaffected from the leaders of the church, although he claimed still to be a believer. He was ripe when Florence sought an ally for a money-making scheme.
Bossard persuaded an assistant temple gardener, Gottlieb Wuth-rach, to help him gain access to the temple. Bossard took most of the pictures at night, using a powder flash, but he also took advantage of the annual closing of the temple for refurbishing to take some daylight photos.
At the height of the hubbub, Bossard's father told news reporters in an interview that his son had planned for several years to try to get unauthorized pictures of the temple and that he expected to be able to sell them for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
When a financially strapped Florence learned that Bossard, a former employee in one of his theaters, had the pictures, the two joined forces. Florence was confident that if the church wouldn't buy them, they could be marketed to other interested outlets.
Church leaders decided to take the offensive. They wired New York church officials that they should announce that the church intended to publish a book containing accurate information about all the existing temples, including interior and exterior photographs.
Only days later church author James E. Talmage was appointed to write such a book. In September 1913, "The House of the Lord" was published.
Frustrated in his efforts to blackmail church leaders, Florence tried other avenues to make a profit from his photos.
" is still in New York hunting for a buyer for his temple pictures, but up to date, it is said, he has failed to find anyone willing to bite," the Oct. 7, 1911 Deseret News reported.
Finally Florence and Bossard decided to create their own show, to be presented at New York's Bijou Theatre. They hung posters promising an expose of a practice "worse than white slave traffic!! Facts hard to get from followers of the Prophet Joseph Smith."
The News sent a reporter to cover the opening performance. He wrote: "At Saturday's show, when the time to begin arrived, there were only two persons in the audience, one of whom was the News correspondent. During the progress of the lecture, six other persons entered the house, making an audience of eight, all told. . . . Bossard's delivery was absolutely unintelligible and for Sunday's shows he was supplanted by a professional lecturer who could speak English. . . . The whole affair was a dismal failure and it is expected that another day will see the close of the show."
Close it did and Florence disappeared from the public spotlight for several years, next popping up as an illegal liquor transporter. He was convicted twice for illegal liquor trafficking and in May 1918 was sentenced to three months in the Salt Lake County jail for these activities.
During the trial, Florence's attorney attempted a subtle bribe, suggesting that any amount of fine would be paid "by a friend," provided no jail time was required. The judge responded by changing the proposed jail time from 30 days to three months.
Whether Florence actually served the time is not known. On Nov. 26, 1932, local newspapers ran terse, obscure obituaries noting his death. The checkered career of an imaginative Utah schemer was over.