Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » What Was Burned in the Privy Vault?

What Was Burned in the Privy Vault?

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 18, 2008

A correspondent signing himself “Utah” wrote to the New York Times in March 1857 with a one-sided catalog of “treasonous events” by the Mormons against the United States. One of the recent actions “Utah” charged against the Mormons was this:

On the night of the 29th of December last [1856] the office of the Clerk of the United States Supreme Court, which was also the office of the United States Circuit Court, was broken open and robbed of all the records, books and papers of every kind, together with the libraries of Judge Stiles and T.S. Williams, containing some nine hundred volumes. These were all thrown into the vault of a privy in an adjoining yard, after which they were covered with straw, shingles and other combustibles, and the whole were burned and utterly destroyed. This was the first stab taken towards the breaking up of the United States Courts. The city authorities and Governor Young take not the least notice of the affair, while the citizens chuckle over it as a clever trick.

Ever since the morning of December 30, partisans have disagreed over what, if anything, was burned in that outhouse fire:

Judge W.W. Drummond, writing from San Francisco, claimed that the books and records of the Utah Supreme Court had been burned.

Mormon William I. Appleby, stationed in New York but visiting Washington, D.C. when Drummond’s report was received, “did not believe the Report, as I had letters from Utah up to January 6/57, and no mention was made or the least reference to it.” But he discovered others believed it, “and I further understood that the President and his Cabinet had the affairs of Utah under consideration.”

When the new Governor Alfred Cumming was installed in Salt Lake City at the end of the Utah War, one of the first orders of business was to show him the books and records belonging to the Supreme Court. All were in order, Cumming certified, although civilian correspondents and lawyers traveling with the army disputed that, claiming that many law books belonging to the Territorial Library had disappeared.

In more recent years, historians have either taken sides based on their estimation of witness credibility, or remained noncommital because the evidence was so contradictory: In 1960, Norman Furniss admitted that “there is considerable doubt as to what was burned in the privy that night.” In 2001 Will Bagley didn’t hesitate to say that “a mob seized the judge’s law library and papers, dumped them into an outhouse, and set it on fire.” In 2008 Bill MacKinnon diplomatically wrote that “what was destroyed, by whom, and why became one of the major incidents debated in connection with Mormon affairs before, during, and after the Utah War.”

Well …

I just hate having to say this, but Will, I admit you were right.

Look what I found in the retained rough draft of a letter sent by Brigham Young to a Washington correspondent. I’ve left it in its overstruck mode for you to have the fun of picking out what was inked over:

You will remember that Thos S. Williams was paid $500, by voluntary subscription, for books destroyed by fire, &c., in this City, and that Geo P. Styles also owned a share of said books. Styles has been authorized by his father here to receive such subscriptions as may be made towards paying his share in the aforesaid loss, but no one here knows what his claim is, nor what it ought to be when compared with his share of the books and the $500 paid to Williams. There is a disposition to voluntarily subscribe and pay to Styles’ father, as per the son’s order, his fair proportion of loss, in accordance with the settlement made with Williams, and to enable subscribers to do so, I wish you would learn from Geo. P. Styles the share he owned in the destroyed books, and whether he will forward to his father a full receipt to be by him delivered upon payment of an amount fairly proportioned to that paid to Williams. In other words, if Styles fairly owned 1/3 of said books, so far as I know subscribers would be willing to pay him, or his order, $166 66/100, upon receiving a receipt in full from him, or his agent, for all damage and loss sustained by him in the case in question.



  1. If I wanted to burn a bunch of books, I think I’d choose the middle of the intersection of South Temple and Main, rather than an enclosed privy vault. (Which, when I saw your post title, I thought referred to some secret safe where somebody kept private papers.)

    The street corner has much better air circulation, allowing for more rapid and total combustion.

    When you see those old newsreels from 1930s Nazi bookburnings, there are no privies in sight–they obviously knew how to do it right.

    Comment by Mark B. — June 18, 2008 @ 8:09 am

  2. You bring to mind one of my favorite points about all the charges of Danites, Mark B. — the Danites who are chasing the guys who are giving the newspaper interviews are the most inept of bad guys. Although the Danites are always mounted on swift steeds, they never quite catch up to the escaping hero who is usually on foot. The Danites fire round after round, but never seem to hit their quarry. The Danites chase the hero to the Utah border, but seem magically to be unable to pursue any further as the hero falls into the arms of the rescuing Indians or soldiers or emigrants who always seem to be just beyond the border. In other words, the Danites are as inefficient as the bumblers who build fires in privies.

    Nevertheless, they did build a fire, and books were burned. Maybe the original intent was not a fire, but the indignity of dumping the valuable books into the privy, then laughing at the lawyers who would have to root around in the filth to rescue their property.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 18, 2008 @ 8:33 am

  3. Yes, it does sound like an adolescent prank, rather than the first shot in the revolution.

    Comment by Mark B. — June 18, 2008 @ 8:46 am

  4. If they had wanted to make the books disgusting and filthy, wouldn’t they simply have left them in the hands of the lawyers?

    Comment by Ray — June 18, 2008 @ 10:30 am

  5. The title of this piece sounds like something that would be sung at Boy Scout camp. Definitely juvenile.

    Comment by Researcher — June 18, 2008 @ 10:35 am

  6. Ardis, you are probably aware that privies are rich archaeological sites. A friend of mine was an archaeologist for the church during much of the Nauvoo restoration, and delighted in showing me much of what was found in the old privy holes in Nauvoo back yards.

    Perhaps the Danites may have had an eye for future research, and the privy in question just needs to be found and excavated?

    Comment by kevinf — June 18, 2008 @ 10:56 am

  7. Ray, no comment (but a grin). I actually have friends who are lawyers, now that I blog and don’t work in law offices.

    Researcher, I deputize you to find some irreverent Boy Scouts (um, that’s probably redundant) to write the words to a new campfire song.

    kevinf, yeah, that’s it! I knew there was a noble purpose to the Danites, and I think you’ve finally fingered it!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 18, 2008 @ 11:00 am

  8. How very exciting to find such a clearly smoking gun for a vexatious question. Maybe now we’ll speak of finding “the smoking privy” instead of “the smoking gun.”

    The bumbling Danites sound like a minor version of the Black “threat” in the late- and post-Reconstruction South: according to trustworthy reports, scores of the most ferocious, fearsome, armed-to-the-teeth, hail-of-bullet-throwing, former-union-soldier Blacks would be thwarted from their “certain” intent to rape and pillage among the Whites by a handful of Whites with shotguns, who miraculously survived the hail with no injuries, living to tell the tale and murder several Blacks in “retribution” later that evening.

    Comment by Edje — June 18, 2008 @ 11:19 am

  9. I remember one young scout who chose to put his head in the privy vault for 5 minutes rather than eat some horrid concoction we had cooked up for the rookies. All in the name of initiation.

    Bad as the smell was, it didn’t have the possibility of killing one, which the stew might have. We had no idea of the toxicity of the stuff we put into it.

    Luckily, nobody died.

    Comment by Mark B. — June 18, 2008 @ 1:06 pm

  10. What’s burning in the vault,
    Under the privy seat . . .

    Not a boy scout, but irreverent about things that are not worthy of reverence, there are my first two lines. To be sung to the tune of “We Sail the Ocean Blue” aka “Who’s on the Lord’s Side.”


    What’s that ablaze in the old privy vault?
    Scenes from my childhood come swiftly to mind,

    Tune: The Old Oaken Bucket, aka “Do What is Right”.

    Rhymes for “mind” offer some good possibilities–especially “wind.” Yeah, the sound’s not there, but it looks right. And the gross comedic possibilities are terrific.

    Comment by Mark B. — June 18, 2008 @ 1:14 pm

  11. “Yes, it’s easy for him to claim that Brigham did it — but has he found ‘a smoking privy’ yet?” /snicker/ I’m so proud of Keepa’s contribution to the culture …

    Researcher, call off the search for the Boy Scouts. I think we’ve found our own Poet Laureate. Or somethin’.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 18, 2008 @ 1:55 pm

  12. Yeah. I’ve had my dose of culture for the day. Thanks, Mark B.

    Comment by Researcher — June 18, 2008 @ 2:36 pm

  13. Glad to oblige, ma’am.

    But, hold your praise until I post a few more verses of my best Edgar A. Guest/James Whitcomb Riley imitations.

    Comment by Mark B. — June 18, 2008 @ 2:40 pm

  14. Great post but sorry to be dense. Could you point out to me where the BY letter says “a mob seized the judge’s law library and papers, dumped them into an outhouse, and set it on fire”?

    In the strikethrough (perhaps I just can’t read it properly because of the format) it appears that two individuals would be compensated for books destroyed by fire. Is there some intuitive step that I’m failing to make that ties the allegations by “Utah” in the New York Times to the strikethrough in the BY letter?

    Comment by john f. — June 19, 2008 @ 4:47 am

  15. That was a little convulated, sorry. Let me try to state it more clearly.

    Is the assumption here that because BY mentions a settlement amount offered to TS Williams for books destroyed by fire, and that some of the settlement would go to Stiles’s son if they can determine what share of the books were owned, that therefore it is true that Mormons burned the judge’s books?

    I’m open to the idea that some Mormons might have burned or damaged the judge’s law library. I’m just not seeing how the strikethrough provides the missing link. I suppose the logic is that offering settlement money for burned or damaged books is an expression of guilt? That’s fair enough — I just thought it would be worth it to make that explicit.

    Comment by john f. — June 19, 2008 @ 4:52 am

  16. john f. — Part of the historical dispute has been whether any books were burned at all. Gentiles claimed that a valuable private law library and public court records were destroyed; it was shown very early that the court records were safe, which called into question whether the rest of the story had any truth or was merely another exaggerated tale of lawlessness in Utah.

    This paragraph shows that books *were* burned, that they were worth a considerable amount, that the destruction was not accidental (else “volunteers” would not have been called on to repay Stiles and Williams — they were both relatively wealthy, so this is not like taking up a charitable collection for a poor family who has lost everything in a house fire), and that Brigham Young took an executive role in settling the matter (which suggests at least some degree of Mormon involvement, because BY did not normally get involved in private disputes between Gentiles — it’s not like this was an official gubernatorial action).

    What it does *not* show is that Brigham Young or any other specific individual was involved in the riot (or however else you want to characterize the incident), or what the motive for the riot was, or that other claims of Mormon lawlessness were true, or that Drummond could tell the truth about anything to save his life.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 19, 2008 @ 6:47 am

  17. “or that Drummond could tell the truth about anything to save his life.”

    Now that is as appropriate an ending to a comment as I have ever read.

    Comment by Ray — June 19, 2008 @ 8:14 am

  18. It’s handy that we have a few such complete villains with utterly no redeeming qualities, isn’t it, Ray? Anytime someone catches us with less than clean hands, we can always say, “yeah, but what about HIM?”

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 19, 2008 @ 8:49 am

  19. Great find, Ardis.

    Comment by David G. — June 22, 2008 @ 10:39 pm

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