Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Startling Stories

Startling Stories

By: Ardis E. Parshall - February 22, 2010

You’re no doubt familiar with Brigham Young’s disgust with the novels read by young people. He said that novels were lies made to look as much like truth as possible, and that “our young women and boys read these lies until they get perfectly restless in their feelings.”

[M]any of our young women just hope and pray, if they ever thought of prayer, “I do wish some villain would come along and break open my room and steal me and carry me off; I want to be stolen, I want to be carried away, I want to be lost with the Indians, I want to be shipwrecked and to go through some terrible scene, so that I can experience what this beloved lady has experienced whom I have been reading about. Oh, how affecting! And they read with the tears running down their cheeks, until their books become perfectly wet, and they do so wish that somebody or other would come and steal and carry them off.

“If I had the dictation of a society,” he said, “all this would stop … I would have every person learning something useful.” [“Discourse,” 23 July 1873]

“Learning something useful” … hmm … like the usefulness of this article from 18 January 1873 Juvenile Instructor?

The Rack

We are going to tell you something in this number about the rack – one of the most terrible instruments of torture ever invented, or used by man to make his fellow man mourn. You see that the outline of this instrument, represented in the picture, is something like a door frame. A short distance from each end of the frame is a movable roller which is turned by means of a lever in the hands of the torturers or executioners. On each of the rollers two ropes are fastened, the other ends of which are tied round the wrists and ankles of the condemned. This forces him to lie down, and he is then ready for the torture, which is caused by turning the rollers, each turn straining the joints and limbs of the sufferer, and causing an increase of agony.

The rack has been invented for a long period of time, but by whom we can not tell you; we do not think the inventor’s name is known, and if it were it would not be likely to be honored much, for only the benefactors of men are deserving of men’s honor and respect. We do not believe that this abominable instrument is used anywhere in the world now; it used to be a good deal in some of the nations of southern Europe to put criminals to death. One was made in England in the reign of Henry the Sixth, in the 15th century. It is now to be seen in the tower of London. The most terrible instance of the execution of a criminal on the rack is that of Ravillac, the man who killed Henry the Fourth of France while the latter was riding in his carriage in the streets of Paris. This murder was committed in the year 1610, the murderer sticking a knife into the king’s heart. For this crime he was condemned to death by the rack, accompanied by the most brutal and savage tortures that, perhaps, any man ever endured. In his right hand was fastened the knife with which he did the murder, both hand and knife being then burned in a slow fire. After this, pieces of flesh were torn from the tenderest parts of his body with red hot pincers, and into the wounds thus made, melted lead, oil, pitch and rosin were poured. The victim, being a very strong man, was enabled to bear all this and still live. His body was then bound to the rack, which was so made that it could be worked by horses, and four of these animals being attached to it, they were whipped in opposite directions, until the body of Ravillac was torn asunder. Could anything be more horrible? The crime which he had committed was of a diabolical character, but the punishment awarded was what might have been expected only from the very worst kind of savages, and not from a great civilized nation. But the France of the 17th century and the France of the 19th are happily very different in these respects, and if a modern Ravillac should assassinate ten kings, public sentiment to-day, among any civilized people in the world would prevent him being subjected to torture beyond that of a speedy death by hanging or decapitation.

The article contrasts the use of the rack in religious wars through the centuries with the teachings of the Prince of Peace and concludes,

True, the rack has disappeared, but the hate felt for Truth, pure and undefiled, by the adherents of the bogus Christianity which has so long cursed the world, still lives and is as vigorous as ever; and its influence will cause the righteous to suffer more or less, until the time when the Prince of Peace shall be Lord of all men’s hearts, and the principles He taught shall be universally honored and practiced.

Then there was this story from the same publication – a magazine for children – in its 25 April 1874 issue:

A Baby Tomb in China

What a sad scene! How sorrowful these poor women appear! And well they may; for though the heathen religion in which they are brought up does not teach them the wickedness of what they are doing, yet they have hearts and feelings like mothers of other nations, and it is a terrible thing to part with their children in such a way. You, who are brought up under the teachings of the gospel, will perhaps scarcely believe it, when we tell you that these are Chinese mothers, who, after a custom carried out to an immense extent in that country, are murdering their little infant daughters by putting them alive through the holes in the wall of the tomb, that they may drop down into the pit which it covers, never more to come out.

In the neighborhood of the large cities of China, towers or tombs of this kind are provided to receive the bodies of the poor little girls, whom their parents do not think it worth while to rear. Thousands and tens of thousands, there is every reason to fear, are thus destroyed every year. The parents often think that a female infant will cost them more than she will ever be worth to them; and thus, to save the expense of bringing her up, they quietly take her to one of these tombs, and leave her there to die. and a most terrible death it surely must be!

How loudly do facts such as these show the necessity of the gospel being restored to the earth in these days! How it speaks of the goodness of God in doing so. By and by this gospel will be preached in China; then these poor, ignorant, sinful mothers will have the privilege of obeying its laws. They will learn to value their little ones, and, instead of killing them, they will nurse and cherish them and instruct them in the laws of God, and teach them all things that are good. What a happy day it will be when the people of China and of all other nations worship the true and living God and seek to serve Him.

And don’t overlook this gem from the 13 November 1875 issue:

The Shark

Sharks are sometimes twenty or thirty feet long – fierce, hungry creatures, with terrible jaws, lips like leather, and six rows of sharp, white teeth, ready to tear up any poor sailor who may happen to fall overboard; so we may fancy what rejoicing there is on board when Mr. Shark is made prisoner, and hauled up on deck by his cruel mouth. But the men have to look out, or he will bite off legs and arms if he gets a chance of a snap, even after he has been made prisoner.

There are many dreadful stories told about these fierce creatures. In some parts of the world they are worshiped. In olden times on the Sandwich Islands the natives idolized the shark, fed it regularly and would not have it injured if they could prevent it. Ignorant people in other parts of the world have entertained the same ideas respecting sharks. Sailors have a great dread of them, and are very superstitious respecting them. If there be a sick man on board the ship, and a shark is seen to follow the ship, as they sometimes do, day after day, they conclude that the man is doomed to die, and that the shark is only swimming behind them to obtain his body as prey. When they haul one aboard, as we see them doing in the engraving, they sometimes treat the shark very cruelly, cutting him to pieces with hatchets. They have been known to cut out the eyes of a shark and turn him adrift, thus leaving him to a darkened and miserable existence. They hate them terribly. At one time at Port Royal, in the West Indies, the sailors would sometimes slip overboard from English ships of war and swim ashore to desert. To prevent this, a shark of extraordinary dimensions was fed by order of the admiral on purpose to prevent the men from deserting. If a man attempted to go over the side and swim to the shore, the shark was sure to catch him. It is not long since that we read of a sloop-of-war having capsized near the east coast of Cuba, where the sharks are very numerous. The men hung about the wreck till the sharks collected and began to fight for their prey. The first man bitten was the lieutenant, whose leg was taken off above the knee. He still encouraged his crew, but was soon afterwards torn to pieces. No less than thirty-three of these people were dragged off, one by one, and devoured by the sharks. The remaining few were rescued by an American vessel.

Sweet dreams, little children. Maybe one day The Friend will print useful stories like this!



  1. What a fascinating example of the “dictation” powers that Brigham Young did not have. Even within the LDS community.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — February 22, 2010 @ 7:49 am

  2. Well, that made my stomach turn!

    Comment by Eric Boysen — February 22, 2010 @ 8:10 am

  3. Wow. Just wow.

    Comment by Hunter — February 22, 2010 @ 8:53 am

  4. Well, at least these were not fiction.

    Comment by Eric Boysen — February 22, 2010 @ 9:11 am

  5. So … you fathers of little girls aren’t going to be reading “Baby Tomb” for a bedtime story anytime soon, I take it?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 22, 2010 @ 9:37 am

  6. Umm, wow. Who was the editor who let these stories slip onto the presses? I guess they were intended to encourage the youth to be good? In any case, recounting the horrors of the rack is too much!

    Comment by Clark — February 22, 2010 @ 9:43 am

  7. Ardis: What a stretch. (Couldn’t resist.)

    Comment by Steve C. — February 22, 2010 @ 9:49 am

  8. These were published while George Q. Cannon was editor (proprietor, really, it was more a private enterprise magazine than a church organ at this point).

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 22, 2010 @ 9:56 am

  9. Yikes!

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 22, 2010 @ 10:18 am

  10. These were incredibly useful articles. If I were a young boy in the 1870s, here is what I would have learned from reading them:

    1) How to build a rack of my very own (squirrels beware). Also, I don’t want to go to France.
    2) I don’t want to go to China.
    3) I don’t want to go to Cuba or the West Indies. I don’t even want to ever board a ship.

    It almost has a vibe of “the world is scary; stay in Zion.”

    Even so, I don’t believe I will read these to my darlings at bedtime, Ardis!

    Comment by Ben Pratt — February 22, 2010 @ 10:36 am

  11. No one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition!

    Reminds me of the rather more violent and frightening original versions of the old European fairy tales, which didn’t usually have happy endings. Kind of “Scared Straight”, 19th Century versions.

    Was it President Packer who famously said “not all truths are of the same value?”

    On the other hand, would the New Era get better readership if it devoted more page space to zombies and, ahem, Vampires??

    Comment by kevinf — February 22, 2010 @ 11:38 am

  12. Ben,

    Had I been a young boy in the 1870’s, I probably would have had a much different reaction.

    1. I’d love to go to France! They have squirrels there too, don’t they? And guillotines?
    2. Maybe not China.
    3. I’d love to go sailing, especially to Cuba!

    You have to know that my Dad was in the habit of following fire engines and ambulances with Mom, my two brothers and I in the car. Saw a few cool fires that way. Also, my secret desire is to be a Stormchaser in Oklahoma. My wife wants no part of it.

    Comment by kevinf — February 22, 2010 @ 11:54 am

  13. Kevin: Awesome.

    Comment by Ben Pratt — February 22, 2010 @ 12:15 pm

  14. I really enjoyed Pres. Young’s assessment of Romantic/Gothic popular fiction. Re vampires, things ain’t changed much.

    Comment by Stephen Taylor — February 22, 2010 @ 12:22 pm

  15. Um, maybe I’m not understanding the morals of these tales properly. They came off a little “Thank God we’re His chosen people– not like these absolutely stupid, cut-rate savages” to my sensibilities. Not that Mormons cornered the market on racist paternalism! Or bad literature for children. I vote for the Arabian Nights (and Grimm). But I guess it’s against the rules to mix entertainment value with gore 😉

    Comment by Moniker Challenged — February 22, 2010 @ 1:17 pm

  16. By the way, I’m guessing they dabbled in peaceful arts such as horticulture, bird watching, naturalism, and apothecary tricks as well, right?

    Comment by Moniker Challenged — February 22, 2010 @ 1:21 pm

  17. Oh, sure. It’s not like there was a steady diet of this kind of stuff. The articles are mostly church-related, and the general interest articles like these are supposed to be carry quite a broad sampling of topics.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 22, 2010 @ 1:26 pm

  18. Life was a lot more brutal then, and children saw much more of that side of life than today’s children ever will. (unless in gaming, and we all know that’s not real). I expect children then probably found those tales thrilling, although I must admit, a tad bizarre for a church publication!

    Comment by Anne (U.K) — February 22, 2010 @ 3:27 pm

  19. Fascinating! I think it’s important to be occasionally confronted with a bit of unpleasantness to learn from the past and avoid living in a fragile white-washed worldview.

    And we’re not the only ones to include a little secular learning in a religious publication.

    Comment by Eliezer — February 22, 2010 @ 10:29 pm

  20. The dime novel and penny dreadful of Brigham Young’s day made strong use of negative Mormon caricatures. Using the search words ~ dime novels Mormon ~ found several sites discussing that genre of fiction. Here is one that may explain why Pres. Young was upset.

    and from a review at
    Zane Grey, Riders of the Purple Sage

    The other remarkable thing about the book is its attitude toward the Mormon religion. The hero is an avowed “killer of Mormons”. The LDS church is depicted as essentially brutal and tyrannical. This, I suppose, reflects a prejudice of the time, but I wonder how present-day members of that church regard this novel.

    Comment by Glenn Smith — February 23, 2010 @ 5:05 pm

Leave a comment

RSS feed for comments on this post.
TrackBack URI