Writer-historians left no stone unturned in telling the rest of the story of the Mountain Meadows Massacre
Authors Richard Turley and Barbara Jones Brown devoted more than 2 decades worth of research and writing to tell the aftermath of the Mountain Meadows Massacre
Fourteen years, 100 drafts, 180,000 words and many nightmares later, Richard E. Turley Jr. and Barbara Jones Brown finally have a Memorial Day weekend to themselves. The book they’ve been researching and writing, and re-researching and rewriting, is out of their hands, set in print. They couldn’t fiddle with the manuscript — and heaven knows there’s been plenty of fiddling — anymore if they tried.
The Mountain Meadows Massacre is off their shoulders.
This weekend is the official release date for “Vengeance is Mine; The Mountain Meadows Massacre and its Aftermath,” published by the venerable Oxford University Press and available at a bookstore or an Amazon link near you.
In the wake of the many previous accounts of the massacre itself — prominent among them Juanita Brooks’ seminal “Mountain Meadows Massacre” in 1950, Will Bagley’s “Blood of the Prophets” in 2004 and the treatise Brown edited and Turley wrote with coauthors Ronald W. Walker and Glen M. Leonard, “Massacre at Mountain Meadows,” in 2008 — this book tells the rest of the story. If the MMM wasn’t already the most documented murder in western U.S. history, it might be now.
Brown and Turley are fine writers, but they are historians first. They didn’t spend the last 14 years gazing out the window, stuck in writer’s block. They spent it pouring over mountains of journals, newspaper articles, trial transcripts and other historical records, personally traveling to virtually every place mentioned in the book for authenticity’s sake, and over-writing like they were getting paid by the word (they weren’t).
The first draft they submitted exceeded their 170,000-word limit by 90,000 words (that’s an entire Grisham novel). They trimmed 80,000 of them, but it took years to do it; it was like asking them to choose between their children.
The writer-historians had unfettered access to the archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the religion of all the massacre perpetrators, as well as the focal point for their behavior. Turley and Brown are both Latter-day Saints, but lest you think “apologists,” read the book.
Says Turley, “We didn’t know what the end was going to be from the beginning; we entered with the attitude of let the chips fall where they may, no matter who they hit.”
Spoiler alert: their account absolves Brigham Young of ordering the massacre. Their historical evidence overwhelmingly shows just the opposite: that he sent a letter instructing southern Utah’s top leader to let the emigrants besieged at the Meadows “go in peace.”
But the picture painted of the territory of Utah’s early days doesn’t absolve the church president of fostering an extreme us-versus-them environment. He had his reasons. An army — a U.S. Army — was on its way to occupy Utah Territory and put down a rebellion the Latter-day Saints didn’t see as a rebellion. But Young’s resistance strategies led to a cattle-raid gone awry, and his violent rhetoric contributed to zealous southern Utah leaders belief that a violent cover up was the answer, ultimately deciding to murder more than 100 emigrant witnesses in cold blood.
“People in positions of power need to be very careful of what they say,” says Brown —something, she points out, that is as true today as it was then. In any age, there’s no telling what a president’s most rabid and myopic followers might do if they think they have a green light.
Will the history disturb readers? The authors hope so. It disturbed them. “That’s really the appropriate response to an atrocity as horrific as this,” Brown says. “It gave us nightmares,” says Turley. “It has an emotional impact when you visualize these things over and over in your mind until you can’t distinguish what you’ve visualized and what you’ve actually witnessed.”
The narrative begins with the 1857 massacre and ends with the execution of one massacre perpetrator, John D. Lee, in 1877. In between is an extremely detailed, contextual record of Utah’s pre-statehood history, with cameo appearances by the likes of Samuel Clemens, John Wesley Powell and Sam Houston. The massacre influenced that history significantly, and not in a good way.
Through their own quotes, via their letters and journals, the massacre’s participants, though most escaped justice in their lifetimes, end up convicting themselves in the book. Although no one confesses. Viewed nearly 200 years later, that’s the most unsettling vibe: men justifying of what amounted to cold-blooded murder.
“I think they couldn’t face the psychological reality of what they’d done so they had to rationalize,” says Turley, “and in many cases the rationalizing meant blaming it on someone else.
“One of the great lessons I hope people will take from this is asking themselves in the mirror, ‘what would I do under similar circumstances?’ In our polarized world where people have a tendency to very quickly move to extremism, can we be honest with ourselves and ask, ‘do I do that? Am I judging people wrongly to the point that I reach a frustration with them that I might even want to harm them somehow?’”
It’s both appropriate and comforting, says Brown, for the book’s release to coincide with Memorial Day weekend. “A big reason why we’ve done this is for the victims,” she says, “making sure their story is told, making sure it’s clear it wasn’t their fault, that they did not deserve what happened to them, making sure they’re not forgotten.”
After 14 years working on their opus in the trenches, out of sight, Brown smiles, “it’s a huge relief to not just be talking to each other about it; but finally to be able to share the book with the world.”
Says Turley, “Look, no one alive today is responsible for this atrocity, but we’re all responsible for how we deal with it. Can we come to terms with it and be able to say we’re sorry for it and move on?”