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Brigham Young’s mailbag

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 11, 2008

“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.



9 Comments »

  1. The title alone got me giddy.

    I seem to remember talk a counterfeiters in Winter Quarters and the trek west, though I can’t remember if they were just allegations.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 11, 2008 @ 9:31 am

  2. Makes you wonder what sort of mail GBH received or TSM gets!

    Comment by JM — June 11, 2008 @ 9:36 am

  3. Very enjoyable read. How would one peruse the Bosh box?

    Comment by BHodges — June 11, 2008 @ 10:12 am

  4. I read a fascinating book a few months ago — Thomas J. Craughwell, Stealing Lincoln’s Body (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2007) — about a bungled attempt to steal Lincoln’s body from his Springfield, Ill. mausoleum and hold it for ransom. The motive was tied to counterfeiting, and the book gives a lengthy account of the history of American counterfeiting, which in the generation before the Civil War centered on the Mississippi River Valley. I am not well enough versed in pre-Utah LDS history to say anything authoritatively, but the regional context of counterfeiting could explain why charges of counterfeiting were so prevalent against us — with something like 50% of banknotes in circulation being forgeries, Mormons almost certainly passed bad money, but could have been entirely ignorant of what they were doing and innocent of having manufactured it. I do know of a case of counterfeiting of financial documents in Utah a few months after the Utah War, and I may blog about that sometime, but I’m not aware of any credible evidence of Mormon-created bogus at Nauvoo or Winter Quarters.

    JM — Wouldn’t you just love an afternoon to sort through the modern “Bosh!” piles!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 11, 2008 @ 10:24 am

  5. BHodges, BY’s incoming correspondence (tens of thousands of items) is divided by year, and within each year is arranged alphabetically by name of letterwriter. I don’t know whether the clerks of the 1860s filed all the “Bosh!” together in one place, but today I know it takes some time and handle-cranking to search the dozens of reels of microfilm for these nuggets. Most of the letters are more serious, more important, but it’s delightful to run across one of these for occasional comic relief.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 11, 2008 @ 10:27 am

  6. Slightly off topic, but your first paragraph, quoting a popular song, reminded me of Randy Newman’s song, The Beehive State, from about 1970, later covered by the Doobie Brothers on their first album:

    The Beehive State

    “Since you’re the delegate from Kansas
    Will you kindly take the floor
    And tell us what Kansas is thinking
    And what is Kansas for?”

    “Well Kansas is for the farmer
    We stand behind the little man
    And we need a firehouse in Topeka
    So help us if you can”

    “I see the gentleman from Utah
    Our friendly Beehive State
    How can we help you, Utah?
    How can we make you great?”

    “Well, we got to irrigate our deserts
    We’ve got to get some things to grow
    And we got to tell this country about Utah
    `Cause nobody seems to know”

    Comment by kevinf — June 11, 2008 @ 2:06 pm

  7. Ha! Hadn’t heard that one, kevinf, thanks.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 11, 2008 @ 2:10 pm

  8. “Bosh!” – That’s awesome.

    It’s amazing what people assumed – and still assume.

    Frankly, I don’t want to see some of the mail that Pres. Monson gets. My mom was a secretary in Pres. McKay’s office, working for Claire Middlemiss, for a little over a year while my dad served his mission. One of her duties was to open his mail from unknown sources and funnel it to the appropriate person, since much of what was addressed to the Prophet actually needed to go elsewhere.

    She said that this often was inspirational, as she got to read correspondences from members regarding their spiritual experiences, but it also often was horrifying – as she had to read the vitriol and bile that anti-Mormon writers spewed in their letters. She said some of the things contained in those letters were beyond disgusting – truly vile and evil things.

    Comment by Ray — June 11, 2008 @ 5:19 pm

  9. Hmm fascinating stuff. Especially the offers to be a plural wife, too funny.

    I love this kind of stuff Ardis it is great.

    Comment by Jon W. — June 11, 2008 @ 6:27 pm

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