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The Tabernacle under Attack, 1938

By: Ardis E. Parshall - December 07, 2009

January 16, 1938, seemed to be a routine Sunday on Temple Square. The Tabernacle Choir had given its “Music and the Spoken Word” broadcast over KSL Radio earlier in the day, and regular worship services were underway. At 2:00 p.m., almost 2,000 people were at a conference inside the Tabernacle. About 200 were attending a German-language service in the Assembly Hall. The ground was bare of snow, the lawns a wintry brown.

Shortly before 2:00, three men entered the Tabernacle and took seats in the gallery behind the Choir seats. They were 71-year-old George Odis (or Otis; 1866-1951), son of a French father and a Middle Eastern (perhaps Armenian) mother, perhaps born in Jerusalem, excommunicated from the Church in 1936; 67-year-old William Henry Wall (1870-1958), born in Louisiana and now of Provo, father of 13; and 57-year-old Paul Alma Millet (1880-1956) of Orem, father of 12, excommunicated a year earlier for apostasy, “slandering church authorities and spreading false propaganda.” The trio were well known among Tabernacle doorkeepers, having caused disturbances in meetings on at least two occasions, resulting in their arrest by police. When custodian Matthias Mertlich (1887-1969) saw them there, he ordered them to leave; they left, quietly.

They returned a few minutes later, this time accompanied by Archie Levon Millet (1908-1983), son of the older Millet, carrying large bundles as they approached a door on the west side of the Tabernacle. They were turned away from that door, reserved for Choir members, and directed by a doorkeeper who neither recognized them nor, apparently, thought there was anything odd about the large packages they were carrying, to go around to the south side of the building. As they circled the Tabernacle, however, another doorkeeper, 63-year-old Julius Lemperle thought he recognized them; suspicious, he followed them at a distance.

Denied entrance yet again by another doorkeeper who recognized them, the men unwrapped their bundles. Two of them proved to be three-gallon tanks of the kind used by gardeners to spray flowers – but these tanks, operated by hand pumps, were filled with gasoline. The two men not carrying tanks were armed with clubs, described variously as the handles of pick-axes, or the spokes of a wagon wheel.

The men began shouting scripture, declaring that their leader, George Odis, was “the Prophet of the Living God” and calling all Mormons to repentance. They sprayed gasoline on the walls of the tabernacle, attempting to get close enough to spray the wooden doors. But Julius Lemperle had by then reached them, and seizing Odis around the chest attempted to pin his arms. Odis, however, looked coldly into Lemperle’s eyes as he sprayed the man with gasoline, and then calmly lit a match. Lemperle’s head and arms went up in flames. He dropped Odis, then ran toward the bare lawn and dropped to the ground as Herman Neumann, president of the Germania Athletic Club, who was just leaving services in the Assembly Hall, threw his coat over the burning man to put out the flames.

Others among the bystanders – Don G. Lassig, Melvin G. Wright, Thomas Sommer – tackled the arsonists and subdued them, some of them receiving minor injuries as they did so. None of the 2,000 worshipers inside the building was aware at the time of what was occurring outside, nor of the danger they would have been in had not the doorkeepers prevented the men from entering.

Someone had called the police, and Motorcycle Officer Charles J. Larson, Detective David G. Johnson, and Patrolman Fred Kingston arrived. The youngest would-be arsonist, Archie Millet escaped (but turned himself in later that day); the police subdued and arrested the three older men. Julius Lamperle was given first aid in the baptistry under the Tabernacle’s west end, then taken to LDS Hospital where he spent a week having his burns treated. The Church paid his hospital bill, but he remained angered for the rest of his days that he did not receive a large insurance settlement – because, he said, the policy required him to have been inside the insured building in order to qualify. Still, he was proud that the entire Presiding Bishopric visited him in the hospital and congratulated him for having saved the Tabernacle (in his mind, according to his quirky autobiography published ten years later, single-handedly).

The men claimed that they had never intended to hurt anyone, nor to cause damage (!), but merely to get the attention of the Mormon people and force them to listen to a message given by Odis after his “personal talks with God.” I have not yet discovered what legal consequences were imposed on the arsonists, although I know that Odis, the ringleader, was confined in the Utah State Hospital until he died 13 years later; his body was given to the University of Utah’s medical school.

In the 1930s, and for years before and after, the position of Tabernacle doorkeeper was generally given to older men to supplement their income with a few dollars from the Church. They were neither trained security officers nor men with the strength of youth on their side. But in 1938, those doorkeepers, with help from bystanders, averted a disaster.

Photographs:

Left, top to bottom: George Odis, William Henry Hall, Paul Alma Millet, Archie Levon Millet
Right, top, Julius Lemperle; bottom, Julius Lemperle with burns and bandages



28 Comments »

  1. Absolutely riveting stuff, Ardis. I never cease to be amazed at the accounts you uncover from Church history!

    Comment by Alison — December 7, 2009 @ 10:36 am

  2. It sounds as if some German guy got a job as doorkeeper, and arranged for all his buddies to get work there too!

    Great story, Ardis! Why didn’t we learn this in Utah history in 7th Grade?

    Comment by Mark B. — December 7, 2009 @ 11:04 am

  3. Thanks, Alison, I thought this one was kind of fun … in a morbid way.

    Gee, Mark, I don’t know! (But this is a weird thing. There is no mention of it in the Church News, and the Journal History includes only a single article, without any of the bad guys indexed. It’s like they tried to keep it quiet.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 7, 2009 @ 11:09 am

  4. Wow, a riveting story.

    Not to be too flip, but I have really wonder about these arsonists. OK, so they might have truly believed that God was speaking to this man, Odis, but what kind of a God did they think it was who would command them to take down the LDS Church by . . . [wait for it] . . . spraying gasoline onto the doors of the Tabernacle? I mean, c’mon. I think in 2009 this is what we would call HOLY WAR FAIL.

    Still, not to make light, I understand that the matter was no joke, especially to the burn victim, Lemperle, as well as to the Church in relation to the property damage. And I have to think that these types of attacks and plots (even the thwarted/averted ones) have to also take a toll on the nerves of the leaders of the Church, too. (Remember Howard W. Hunter getting assaulted during his talk at BYU?)

    Comment by Hunter — December 7, 2009 @ 11:54 am

  5. holy cow! Those bumbling idiots could have actually lit up the tabernacle.

    Comment by Dan — December 7, 2009 @ 1:09 pm

  6. Ardis, when you find these gems, in the Library, or wherever, do you ever gasp aloud? I just wonder, cos I often do when I read these, and there’s no-one to hear me!

    Comment by Anne (U.K) — December 7, 2009 @ 1:18 pm

  7. Wow. That’s quite a story, with an amazing cast of characters.

    they had never intended to hurt anyone, nor to cause damage (!), but merely to get the attention of the Mormon people and force them to listen to a message given by Odis after his “personal talks with God.”

    I can’t imagine what they thought the citizens of Utah would do after they heard this message. Convert en masse to Odis’ point of view? They demonstrated a rather striking lack of foresight.

    Comment by Researcher — December 7, 2009 @ 1:20 pm

  8. I can see why the Church would want to keep this quiet. There is no shortage of people who want to do the church harm. Why give them ideas.

    Of course, I could just be paranoid.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — December 7, 2009 @ 1:25 pm

  9. Researcher,

    In all likelihood, Otis had one plan in his head and another he told his followers. He told them what ever it took to get them to agree to the idea. And they believed him. Someone with the ability to spray a “man with gasoline, and then calmly [light] a match” would have no problem lying to get his followers to do what he wants them to do.

    Ardis,

    I seem to recall another cult like following in Utah around the same time described in Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom. It ended in violence too. I don’t have the book with me, (I’m in Michigan this week) or I would look it up.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — December 7, 2009 @ 1:39 pm

  10. Wow, that’s a chilling story.

    Comment by Justin — December 7, 2009 @ 2:02 pm

  11. Yikes!

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 7, 2009 @ 2:40 pm

  12. Amazing story! It is interesting that such an event could be downplayed the way it was. I don’t think that would happen today.

    Comment by Steve C. — December 7, 2009 @ 2:50 pm

  13. Steve C. said, “I don’t think [downplaying such an event] would happen today.”

    Yeah, today there would likely be a video of it on Youtube!

    Comment by Hunter — December 7, 2009 @ 3:00 pm

  14. So, did Lemperle keep his testimony, or were the bad feelings generated by the insurance bureaucracy overwhelm it?

    About the “single-handedly” saving the tabernacle: If Lemperle hadn’t stepped in when he did, would anyone else have been able to stop the doors from being lit?

    It could have been worse. If the “bad guys had been armed with guns or knives instead of clubs, or Molotov cocktails instead of weed sprayers with gasoline….

    In any case, hurray for another unsong hero that would have remained unknown except for this blog!

    Comment by Clark — December 7, 2009 @ 3:13 pm

  15. Now it would be tweeted across the world almost instantly:

    “Apost8s shouting outside SLC tabernacle”

    “OMHeck they R spraying gasoline on the ‘nacle #SLCfire”

    Comment by Ben Pratt — December 7, 2009 @ 3:14 pm

  16. Just wow. Who knew? An amazing find.

    Comment by kevinf — December 7, 2009 @ 3:29 pm

  17. I’m lovin’ your reactions — thanks! I’m not quite up-to-date enough to think automatically about Youtube and Twitter, but it did occur to me that today somebody would have snapped some cell phone pictures, at least. It feels odd not to have pictures of SOME kind, anyway.

    Lemperle was an odd little guy, to judge from his autobiography. He was still a faithful member of the church ten years after this event, despite his grumpiness, so I don’t think his failure to win an insurance settlement shook his testimony. In may just be that having something to complain about meant more to him than having the money — he was that curmudgeonly.

    There were others who jumped in to control the arsonists, and even if the doors had been sprayed and lit I suppose the flames could have been beaten out before they had a chance to take real hold — I don’t think it’s a case of the building would have been destroyed without Lemperle. But he was the one who was there, the first to take action, and the one who suffered the consequences of that bravery, so he deserves all the credit he claims. He did it, even if others might have been able to do it.

    Anne, I don’t think I gasp, but I suspect I get a goofy grin when I realize I’m on to something that will make a good story. This one started Friday when I skimmed through a 1968 magazine article on the history of the Tabernacle that devoted a whole five or six lines to this event and, incidentally, created the impression that Lemperle had been one of the baddies. If nothing else, I’m glad to have the opportunity to correct that misunderstanding.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 7, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

  18. I’m just amazed that the insurance company would find a loophole out of paying. (gasp, gasp!)

    Comment by Steve C. — December 7, 2009 @ 4:17 pm

  19. Yeah, Steve, what are the odds??!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 7, 2009 @ 4:53 pm

  20. A trivial but fun item I found tonight just before the library closed.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 7, 2009 @ 5:48 pm

  21. About the “single-handedly” saving the tabernacle: If Lemperle hadn’t stepped in when he did, would anyone else have been able to stop the doors from being lit?

    lighting the doors might not have threatened the building, but it could surely have caused a great deal of injury as 2,000 people tried to get out of the building they thought was on fire.

    very interesting story!

    Comment by ellen — December 7, 2009 @ 8:15 pm

  22. My first bishop was an Archie Millet, a nice guy and tomato breeder extraodinaire. You had me worried for a second. Did my sweet bishop have a murky past? But wait! 1908-1983: not a match. I so appreciate your inclusion of a minor character’s birth and death dates. :)

    Comment by Jami — December 7, 2009 @ 8:47 pm

  23. ellen, yeah, the panic would have been as bad as, or worse, than the fire. Even though the Tabernacle was protected by automatic sprinklers — which the church did display to reporters at the time of this incident — and even with all those exits on all sides of the Tabernacle, you have to wonder how people might have reacted to the sight of fire.

    Jami, you made the search for those dates worthwhile! (I try to include them because it helps anchor me to know how the characters fit into the chronology.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 7, 2009 @ 8:58 pm

  24. And by the way, if any descendant of any of the men involved reads this and wants to tell us something about Grandpa to (partially) redeem his reputation, you’re very welcome to do so. Nobody should be judged entirely by the worst thing he ever did.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 7, 2009 @ 9:00 pm

  25. Wow! this story is just incredible! I’ve lived in SLC my whole life, and the Tabernacle is such an integral part of my life, and yet I have NEVER heard about this event. And you used such riveting storytelling!

    ~~~~~~~~

    The Church now has a large-scale security detail on equal footing with FBI/secret service. Many dangerous security issues still happen, but none of us will ever know about them. The very fact that we can feel secure, and assume that these things would never happen today is just a testament to how well they perform their jobs.

    This does not just apply to the Church. It applies to governments, and large corportations with high security risk. Our family were victims of a robbery while at Disneyland four ago. That day, we got to see a whole new side of the Magic Kingdom! The Disney security officer assigned to us took such good care of us. He shared all kinds of interesting stories and insight with us while we were having to trapse all around filing reports and logging info with lost-and-found, etc. During our process we were taken “backstage” where we had to give a formal police report. We discovered they have their own police station, fire station, and hospital onsite. They are a very self-contained city (DL even has their own zip code). There are cameras absolutely everywhere. Everything and everyone is being monitored 24/7. However, they manage to make it all invisible. I asked him what the greatest threat to Disneyland was. What they were most worried about? He was really candid. He stated that their greatest threat is not from an ouside source. Rather, it would be someone on the inside – a disgruntled or mentally ill employee, or a former employee – someone with access and inside knowledge of how to cause the most damage. The same holds true for government, business, and the church. Our greatest threat of destruction always comes from within. Both physically, and spiritually.

    Comment by MoSop — December 8, 2009 @ 3:15 pm

  26. Paul Alma Millett is my great grandfather! I have never heard this story,my family were keepers of secrets. I had already come to the conclusion that he was mentally ill and this just confirms it. Too bad he dragged his own son into the mess. He was a peddler,spent time in Southern Utah with outlaws and was a religious fanatic. Poor grandma what an embarrassment he must have been to her and the family. She divorced him in her old age.

    Comment by Mucky — February 24, 2012 @ 10:33 pm

  27. Mucky, I’m sorry it wasn’t a more pleasant story for you to discover, but if it helps you piece together a better understanding of your family history, well, then, I guess it has its uses.

    Thanks for commenting.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 24, 2012 @ 10:54 pm

  28. I too am a great grandson of Paul alma millet. I would just like to say thanks for sharing this story. I remember as a little kid that my parents and grandparents did not let anybody talk about great grandfather or uncle Archie. I shared this with my brother and he had no idea that our great grandfather was involved in such activities. I do not understand why nobody would share what g.gpa Paul did to get ex’d. Thanks for the story, you answered some of the questions that I have always wondered about.
    Sam

    Comment by Sam — January 17, 2013 @ 11:09 pm

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