“Who’d ever think that Utah would stir the world so much? Who’d ever think the Mormons’d be widely known as such? I hardly dare to scribble, or such a subject touch, for all are talking of Utah.”
Mormons were fully aware of their prominence in the national press, as these lines from a popular folk song attest; they also knew that the more outlandish the report, the more the public was apt to believe it. Historians find ample proof of such public gullibility in Brigham Young’s incoming correspondence.
There was, for instance, a widely reported claim that Brigham Young was fabulously wealthy, his fortune built by squeezing tithing from legions of brainwashed Mormons. Easterners must have believed he was stupid as well as wealthy, because so many wrote to tell Young that they were ready to join his church as soon as he sent them cash for travel expenses. These thinly disguised confidence schemes usually went unanswered, but when one man asked how to get to Utah once the money was sent, Young told him to go to the Mississippi River and turn west.
Perhaps Americans at a distance could be excused for believing ridiculous press accounts, but how are we to explain the tax assessor who calculated the value of all Utah’s products for 1868, figured one-tenth as the tithing Young must surely have exacted, and sent a tax bill holding Young liable for that amount in personal income?
Another topic guaranteed to sell newspapers was the legendary number of Young’s wives. One incoming letter purported to be from a woman, “beautiful in form and feature,” who desired to “become one of your own dear wives.” As inducements for marriage, the St. Louis writer claimed to have inherited a fortune, to be an accomplished musician and – surely important in a plural wife – “not inclined to jealousy.” At a word from Young, she would “come to marry you in your blessed city, as quick as limb, steam, and horse can carry me.”
While the writer of that letter surely hoped for nothing more than a reply to flaunt for laughs, other writers had more substantial rewards in mind. There is, for example, the letter from Memphis, Tennessee, from “a Gambler by profession,” who wrote that “I fully understand my business.” He sought information on the prospects for a gambling venture in Salt Lake City and generously asked the Mormon leader, “would you like to be a silent partner?”
But surely the man with the most elaborate plan was the forger who wrote from a New York City bookstore, offering a stock of the most perfectly counterfeited American currency any criminal could hope to purchase – “I guarantee we can make a fortune easily, rapidly and in perfect safety.” While he ordinarily sold his paper at the rate of $100 bogus for $10 genuine, in lots no smaller than $1000, he offered a special introductory plan to Young of $250 bogus for $10 genuine, with the balance due only after Young had successfully passed the counterfeit. Young could send his order by mail, or, better yet, come to New York and pick it up in person. The forger, who appealed to Young as a fellow Mason, did require payment in advance, however: “Money must pass between us so that you may be as deep in the mud as I am in the mire.”
Not only did Young not take advantage of the generous offer of this New York entrepreneur, he ignored the man’s solemn injunction to “destroy this letter.” It remains to this day in the Mormon leader’s papers, filed with similar offers typically marked with a notation of “Bosh!”
For good or ill, “all are talking of Utah” still, with some of those discussing us in the 21st century having no saner, more realistic picture of us than those of the 19th century.