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From our exchanges: Murder Ballads of Mormondom

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 14, 2008

Olive Woolley Burt, “Murder Ballads of Mormondom,” Western Folklore 18:2 (April 1959), 141-156.

Olive Woolley Burt (1894-1981) used to be a very well-known name in Mormon, Utah, western, and American letters. She was a reporter or columnist both for the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News, studied at the University of Chicago and at Columbia, published fiction and non-fiction, for children and adults (from 1902, when she was just 8 years old, to 1979, when she was 85, she published something professionally every year except 1904), and contributed to church publications, like the Relief Society Magazine. Her book American Murder Ballads and Their Stories (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958) is the basis for this article.

Beginning with the briefest recounting of the Mormon immigrant past, she writes, “Each of these countries had behind it a long tradition of balladry, reaching back into the dim past when troubadours and minnesingers wandered over the land chanting their tales of war and love – and murder. It is not strange, then, that here in the New World these common folk put into song the events that shaped their lives and the emotions that animated their souls.” Mixed in with the “hymns of praise and religious fervor” were “the ballads of murder and massacre that recount not only the persecutions of the Saints but also the passions that moved them to person violence among themselves.”

What follows are histories of a number of events in Mormon history, accompanied by the poetry (or in some cases selections from ballads too long to incorporate in full) sung by or about the Mormons concerning those events.

First is a detailed retelling of the Haun’s Mill Massacre. “This massacre roused the Saints to a high pitch of anger that was exprssed in lectures, articles and verses – not only then, but for years afterward.” From the pen of Eliza R. Snow:


’Twas not enough for that infernal crew
to murder men, they shot them through and through!
Frantic with rage, they poured their moulten lead
Profusely on the dying and the dead! …

There lay the dead, and there the dying ones –
The night reverberated with their groans!
Night’s sable sadness mingling with the sound,
Spread a terrific hideousness around. …

Paired with this Missouri atrocity is a fragment she describes as “Credited to Parley P. Pratt is a song that used to be frequently sung, but which does not now appear in the Latter-day Saints’ hymnbooks. In part it went” –

Missouri, O, Missouri,
Like a whirlwind in its fury
Who without a judge or jury
Drove the Saints and spilled their blood.

Burt’s “history” of this fragment is itself an example of folklore, of one speaker borrowing from another and freely adapting until the truth has been lost. Beyond its attribution to Pratt (which I think may be unique to Burt), she repeats 10th- or 15th-hand reports of the song – I have found accounts in books published from 1852 to 2001, always claiming this is a Mormon hymn, often in words virtually identical to Burt’s, and never reproducing any more than these four lines. In reality, this is a poem by William W. Phelps, which never appeared in an LDS hymnbook to my knowledge, and is a bit of Phelps’s less-inspired doggerel about the completion of the Nauvoo Temple rather than a rehearsal of Missouri troubles. Called “The Cap-Stone,” it was published in Nauvoo in Times and Seasons 6;122 (1 August 1845), 991. Ironically, it is paired there with a poem that is an LDS hymn, and which Burt reproduces in this article, John Taylor’s “O Give Me Back My Prophet Dear.”

O give me back my Prophet dear
And Patriarch, O give them back,
The Saints of Latter days to cheer,
And lead them in the gospel track.
But Oh! they’re gone from my embrace,
From earthly scenes their spirits fled,
Two of the best of Adam’s race
Now lie entombed among the dead.

As ballads of the martyrdom, Burt also includes relevant verses from “Praise to the Man Who Communed with Jehovah,” and a verse sung in Logan in 1868, to the tune “We are Sowing, Daily Sowing”:

We are thinking, sadly thinking
Of that dark and gloomy day,
As the sun was slowly sinking
How the murdered Prophet lay.
Like the Saviour he was murdered
Just because he dared to say,
Men had lost the way to heaven
And God had shown him the way.

Missionary troubles are next described, including a detailed account of the murder of Parley P. Pratt. An Arkansas correspondent sent Burt this fragment “which he believes comes from a locally composed song about this affair.”

Just let this be a warning to wife-stealers,
Stay away!
You cannot come to Arkansas and steal another’s wife.
And if you dare to try it, you will surely have to pay,
Yes, you must pay most dearly with your life!

The murder of missionary Joseph Standing is represented by an Orson F. Whitney poem carved on his tombstone:


Our brother rests beneath his native sod,
His murderers are in the hands of God.
Weep, weep for them, not him whose silent dust
Here waits the resurrection of the just.

Burt tells the story of the Cane Creek Massacre, and the ballad about it, written by James H. Hart, the church’s general emigration agent for a number of years, actually focuses on the local members killed rather than only on the missionaries:


The boys had lived in peace upon the farm,
A mother’s care had shielded them from harm;
They had but recently obeyed the truth,
But loved it with the ardent love of youth.

They saw the brave and much loved elders fall,
Nor feared the mobbers nor the rifle ball;
The conflict was unequal, but they stood,
Unterrified among the scenes of blood.

So was their mother shot by coward hand,
And law dishonored in the cursed band.
And in defense of those so basely killed,
Their youthful blood was on the hearthstone spilled.

On the other side, Burt presents ballads where Mormons themselves are the killers, or rumored to be such. There’s Porter Rockwell:

Old Port Rockwell has work to do.
So he saddles his sorrel and rides away;
And those who are watching wonder who
Will be a widow at break of day.
The waiting wife in the candle light,
Starts up as she hears a wild hoof-beat,
Then shrinks in terror as down the night
Comes the wailing of Port’s dread war cry, “Wheat!”

Wheat!
She looks at her babes and tries to pray,
For she knows she’s a widow, and orphans are they. …

and Mountain Meadows (Burt includes quite a lengthy account of it):

Come all you sons of liberty,
Unto my song give ear;
‘Tis of a bloody massacre
You presently shall hear.

In splendor on the mountains
Some thirty wagons came,
They were awaited by a wicked band,
Oh, Utah, where’s thy shame! …

Both men and women, young and old,
a-rolling in their gore;
And such an awful sight and scene
Was ne’er beheld before! …

This life will soon be over,
And another one’s coming on;
And the perpetrators of this deed,
Must suffer for their wrong.

Two local (southern) Utah murders are also memorialized in ballads collected by Burt. Both of these speak of the ordinary human passions that affect Mormons as well as Gentiles – one a dispute over water rights –

In Kanab they will always remember
This twenty-fourth of July,
For this year there’s no celebration,
No band plays and no pennants fly.

The speeches they give at the Church house,
Do not boast of our brave Pioneers;
There’s no shouting, no dancing, no picnic,
But there’s sorrow and mourning and tears.

For two of the town’s best men are lying
In their coffins awaiting the earth,
(Line illegible where paper was folded)
There’s no room in our hearts now for mirth.

It happened because of hot anger,
A quarrel about their water right;
William Roundy accused Dan Seegmiller
Of stealing his turn in the night. …

– and one the murder of a young pregnant girl by the boy who refused to marry her.

Mary Steavens she had disappeared
And nobody knew where;
Her mother was so worried,
Her face was lined with care.
The neighbors said, “We’ll go and look
Up Gordon Hollow way,”
For Mary was seen walking there
Upon that April day. …

Mary said the law would force him
To give their child his name;
And when he couldn’t change her mind
He played his well-planned game.
He’d brought a shot gun with him,
And he walked slow in the track,
And when he was well behind her,
He shot her in the back. …

Now there was no gainsaying
This confession – it rang true.
So Alvin was convicted,
It was all the court could do.
And now he lies in prison,
As many a youth has done,
Who tried to avoid his duty
By the use of a shot gun.

Burt draws no conclusions, makes no comparisons or contrasts to other traditions, simply records the existence of these poems within the history and culture of Mormondom.



20 Comments »

  1. These are fascinating, Ardis. Absolutely fascinating.

    Comment by Ray — June 14, 2008 @ 9:37 am

  2. The Three D’s (an LDS folk group back in the 60s) used to sing “Praise to the Man” with the following lines (IIRC):

    Long shall his blood
    Which was shed by assassins
    Stain Illinois
    While the earth lauds his fame.

    I don’t know if that was the original lyric or their own improvisation; it’s certainly a bit more blunt.

    As I recall, the D’s also used to sing a folk ballad about Joseph Smith’s unmarked grave, but I can’t recall either the tune or the lyrics. I suspect that digging up some Three D’s records might prove an interesting view into Mormon folks songs that survived into the mid-20th century.

    Great post, Ardis, as always. ..bruce..

    Comment by bfwebster — June 14, 2008 @ 12:11 pm

  3. Bruce, the Three D’s attended school with my father. Just a random bit of trivia proving how small the Church can be.

    Comment by Ray — June 14, 2008 @ 12:26 pm

  4. Thanks, Ray.

    Bruce, you’ve quoted the original lyric to Praise to the Man. One of these days Real Soon Now I’m going to review an article narrating one family’s experience with the kinder-and-gentler-ing of some of those early hymns. They could be brutal!

    I think the one about Joseph Smith’s grave is the one written by his son David, that starts:

    There’s an unknown grave in a lonely spot
    And the form that it covers shall ne’er be forgot.
    Where the wild something-something
    And the something-something-something,
    There’s a snowy white flow’r o’er the unknown grave.

    Now I’ll have to find that myself or have it gnawing on my memory for the next few days.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 14, 2008 @ 4:44 pm

  5. I’m fascinated that this was published when it was. A while back when I was mulling around the stacks at the UW, I came across the Utah Humanities Review, which was soon renamed Western Humanities Review. I was surprised at some of the good stuff in there. I guess it was a bit of hubris to think that everything good in Mormon history was written in my lifetime.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 14, 2008 @ 7:22 pm

  6. No kidding, J. Austin Fife and Wayland Hand were publishing some good stuff on Mormon folklore way back when.

    Ardis, it goes

    There’s an unknown grave in a lonely spot
    But the form that it covers shall ne’er be forgot.
    There the heaven tree spreads
    And the tall locusts wave
    Their snow white flowers o’er the unknown grave.

    (I’ve still got this. In fact, I think I may reprint this review over at the JI.)

    Comment by matt b — June 14, 2008 @ 7:41 pm

  7. Just a comment on the last two songs. The two men, William Roundy and Dan Seegmiller, had been good friends, but a dispute over water (imagine that in the west!) slowly undermined their friendship. One (I think it was Seegmiller) caught the other in the act of diverting water and shot him. He then rode home where he took his own life. I also think it occured in Upper Kanab, now known as Alton.

    The second murder occured in Orderville, Utah. It’s the story of Alvin Heaton and Mary Stevens. Mary was a 15 year-old girl who found herself pregnant by Alvin. She expected him to do the right thing and marry her quickly before anybody was the wiser. Alvin was from a prominent family in the area and evidently thought otherwise. He killed her in a field and ran away. He was later found out when the sheriff noted the distinctive way the boy ran and compared his gait to the tracks found at the scene.

    Comment by Yet Another John — June 14, 2008 @ 8:10 pm

  8. J., I had the same reaction when I started looking through the really old (well, older than me. Okay, really old) journals. They’re usually written in a dated style, and the citations often leave much to be desired, but they’re also very often interesting and fresh because they address topics that are out of fashion and not being done to death by current scholars.

    matt b, thank you! I’ve got the words in my old home-study seminary folksong book but that’s still packed away since my move to SLC. That’s a review that would be worth reprinting.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 14, 2008 @ 8:16 pm

  9. Yet Another John — Did you just happen to know those tales, or did you look them up before commenting? I ask because I’m intrigued that they could still be known in such accurate detail (your brief account matches what Burt wrote about the Roundy-Seegmiller, and what I know from independent research on the Heaton-Stevens affair) this long after the fact. There have certainly been water-rights murders and abandoned-woman murders in the century since then, yet these first ones are still remembered.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 14, 2008 @ 8:27 pm

  10. Cap-stone is a strange little poem, in part because John Taylor allowed Phelps to publish it semi-anonymously on the back of Voice of Truth, the political ghostwritten pieces from the early 1840s. It seems to have been Phelps’s way of putting his tattoo on the broader pamphlet. It’s certainly possible it was mostly Phelps’s strong personality that placed it there, but its placement on such an important devotional to the prophet (at the time, anyway) is potentially of some relevance.

    This thread reminds me of the stories about the Brothers Grimm, the brutal lives they recorded. Or even “ring around the roses” as a bizarre dirge.

    Comment by smb — June 14, 2008 @ 8:31 pm

  11. Olive’s book – but not this one – showed up on the recommended reading list for the MIA in 1958. I thought that was interesting, once I read her bio, because she seemed like a fascinating Mormon scholar I’d (regretfully) never heard of.

    Comment by jeans — June 14, 2008 @ 9:43 pm

  12. Ardis,

    I live in Kane County. I remember hearing those things talked about when I was a kid, then later found out more about them. I think I read about them in A History of Kane County, 1870-1970, but it might have been elsewhere. I remember that I found out a little more about the Roundy incident from a friend of mine that lives in Glendale who is a Roundy.

    Comment by Yet Another John — June 14, 2008 @ 10:00 pm

  13. jeans, I remember that great post of yours: In 1958, she had just published the luridly titled American Murder Ballads and Their Stories with Oxford University Press. Strangely, that one doesn’t appear on the MIA reading list. Well, maybe if they had known she would produce a Mormon version … [g]

    Awesome, YAJ — the transmission of folklore right before your eyes, whether or not you were aware of that as a kid. (And I do mean “folklore” in the sense of a tale that grips the imagination of the people, not as something untrue or unreliable. Your short telling of both stories was highly accurate, not embroidered in the transmission.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 14, 2008 @ 10:12 pm

  14. smb, I missed your comment earlier. Ever since I learned what “ring around the roses” was really saying, I have enjoyed playing it with kids I babysat. Now we’ve joined in, uh, “plaguing” readers who don’t know.

    I didn’t know about Cap-Stone being in Voice of Truth. Sometime I’ll have to do a post about Phelps. It’s hard to believe that the same mind produced some of our greatest hymns and some of the worst drivel I’ve come across. Brigham Young even junked some of his offerings as “scurrilous.” I think Phelps was insane by the end of his life, and may always have been teetering on the edge, with his madness sometimes generating beautiful poetry.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 14, 2008 @ 10:18 pm

  15. I think early Phelps is absolutely crucial to understanding earliest Mormonism. Later Phelps is fairly odd–I’ve often thought Phelps would have done best if the Millennium had arrived by 1845. I really like the guy, and if I had time, I think I would do a biography of him.

    Comment by smb — June 15, 2008 @ 1:56 pm

  16. jeans,Olive Burt was a delightful person besides being a writer and a scholar. When I was young, she edited a section in the Deseret News called “The Newsette.” Children under the ages of fourteen submitted stories, poems, articles, and art work, which she judged and awarded points. Each year in the spring (I think) she held a program in one of the movie theaters, where the top contributers were featured and honored. Then, everyone went to Liberty Park for more activities and refreshments. I was one of the top “honorees” one year and several years later, I spent some time with her in her home in Salt Lake. I was always fascinated to see shelves and shelves of books, and books on tables and chairs. She always gave me a book or two when I left her home.

    Comment by Maurine — June 15, 2008 @ 11:15 pm

  17. Ardis, I know this is late, but I thought I’d post it anyway. You asked earlier where I’d got my info on the Seegmiller/Roundy murder/suicide. I just was going through some old scouting stuff and ran onto a collection of Southern Utah News articles written by a local long-time scouter, amateur historian, explorer, etc. This collection was self-published by his family after his death. The guy lived in Alton for years and had family connections there long before that. One of his articles dealt with the incident we were talking about. I’m not sure where he got his info, hearsay or otherwise, but his version is basically the same, except I had it backwards: Roundy shot Seegmiller and then took his own life. Anyway if you’re interested in the article, let me know.

    Comment by Yet Another John — June 19, 2008 @ 5:40 pm

  18. YAJohn — there’s no statute of limitations on murder ballads, er, comments. I’ve got a couple of reliable histories of the incident so won’t ask for that — thanks for offering. You might look through the rest of the collection and see if there is something especially quirky and not apt to be known to people who aren’t from that area. I always appreciate tips to new stories.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 19, 2008 @ 5:45 pm

  19. Since there is no statute of limitations on comments (your words, not mine), I’ll bite. I remember reading this last June, but at the time didn’t know about the Cane Creek Massacre (I had started my blog just a week earlier). Now, of course it hits me in the face. Do you have a copy of Burt’s Book? (I saw a signed copy online for $250) I’d love to know more about the ballad’s origins.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — April 2, 2009 @ 1:06 pm

  20. /slaps forehead/ I had completely forgotten this, Bruce! Of course. I’ll get the full ballad for you, and see what she might have said about its origins.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 2, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

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