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,
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!”
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.