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Guest Post: Through Death Valley: The Mormons in Pulp Fiction, 1907

By: Glen Nelson - March 07, 2011

Glen Nelson is the director of Mormon Artists Group, a New York City-based “collective of creative artists.” A recent MAG newsletter (you can subscribe at their website) carried a cover image and Glen’s synopsis of a so-awful-it’s-wonderful plot of a 1907 play featuring Mormons and Danites and Indians and innocent young ladies. I asked Glen if I could share that with Keepa readers, and he agreed.

Through Death Valley; or The Mormon Peril, a play by Joseph Le Brandt, opened at the American Theater in New York City (at 260 W. 42nd St.) on October 7, 1907. It later played around the country and abroad. It opened in London in 1911.

At auction recently, I purchased a novelization of Through Death Valley, written by Olive Harper (a pseudonym of Helen Burrell Gibson D’Apery [1842-1915]). It was published by J.S. Ogilvie Publishing Company, New York in 1907. The cover lists the price as 25 cents. I paid more than that.

The title page promises “A moving story of Mormon life.” Curious for a CliffNotes summary? Saddle up.

“It was in Provo, Utah, that a man named Hamilton lived with his one wife and two daughters. He was a member of the Church; but as he was but a poor miner in search of a fortune, he was let alone. His adored wife and he lived most happily with their children, although poverty, bitter and cruel, kept them in debt and in need of many things. Still the faithful love they felt for each other made the lot of Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton an ideally happy one.” (p. 12)

The happy Hamiltons are contrasted with the menacing Danites. “When the dreaded name of the Danites is whispered in Utah, both the one who mentions it, and the listener, grow cold and pale with fear and terror. It means the death of the man or woman who incurs the displeasure of the Church. It means that the man or woman who hesitates about obeying the orders of the Church is marked for death, a swift and silent death, where none may see or know how it is accomplished save the Destroying Angels.” (p. 11)

In Provo, Elder Noah Claypool, a leader of the Danites, runs a general store with a saloon in back where “many a man had found greater misery than he sought to drown.” (p.13) All Church members in Provo are obliged to shop at Claypool’s store.

The mountains of Provo are mined for gold. “There were mines all through the mountains that hemmed in the valley, and much gold had been taken from them, and still was being found.” (pp. 14-15)

Claypool’s son Ike is mean to a little girl named Cahill which brings Gray Wolf, an Indian, to her rescue, “He heap big coward. Him frighten only little girls.” (p. 17) Gray Wolf is devoted to the child because her father Pat saved his life. Pat Cahill arrives and angrily insults Claypool. Pete, “a miserable Indian, one who was ready to commit any crime at the command of the Mormons for the sake of whiskey” (p. 21) agrees to punish Cahill.

Mrs. Hamilton is threatened by Claypool who warns her to tell her husband that he’s been missing too many Church meetings. Meanwhile, Jack, a young man that has been “enmeshed in the habit of drinking” (p. 29) by Claypool, gets into a fight and is rescued by Hamilton’s daughter, Bess, who is accosted by Ike Claypool, “Oh, mother, he tried to kiss me!” (p. 34)

Jack Barton arrives and intervenes, “If he tries to do so, it will be the last time he will ever try to kiss any one again on God’s earth.” (p.35) Claypool threatens the family with Danite retribution, when Mr. Hamilton enters and says he has struck it rich, “…showing a double handful of free gold in good-sized nuggets.” (p. 36) Hamilton, who is luckier than smart, celebrates while Claypool and his cronies plot against him. He says, “Do not forget the Church, and the duty you owe it, for if the Lord had not smiled upon your efforts, you would never have found the gold.” (pp. 36-7) Hamilton responds that the Church will have its portion, “I want every one to share in my good fortune.” (p. 37)

Claypool points out that Hamilton only has one wife. “But the teachings of the Prophet?” (p. 38) Hamilton refuses to become a polygamist. Jim, Jack’s older brother, tries to get Hamilton to leave with his family and accompany him to California, knowing that Hamilton is now a marked man, but Hamilton says that he has worked too long to give up now. Jim prepares to leave for California. Meanwhile, Claypool gives the order to have Hamilton killed.

Jim overhears Jack tell Bessie Hamilton that he loves her but must go with Jim to California. “Jim reeled as if struck by a bullet as he heard his brother say these words.” (p. 48) He does not hear her reply, that she can’t marry Jack because she secretly loves another (it’s Jim).

Claypool tells Bess that her father is in danger but will be spared if she marries him. He attacks her but Jim comes to the rescue. “I hate you, Jim Barton,” he sneers, “with a deadly hatred. You have threatened me once too often. You will never get out of Utah alive.” (p. 56) Bess is comforted by Jim and almost tells him that she loves him when word arrives that Mr. Hamilton is dead.

“Ten days later, Jim was standing at the head of a ravine and looking off toward the yellow alkali desert, and planning the way to get out of the hands of the Mormons.” (p. 62) He has the Hamilton girls, the Cahills, Jack, and Gray Wolf with him. His plan to is get to safety at the Grand Canyon and then return for Mrs. Hamilton. But Claypool is ahead of him, and he makes assignments to dispatch Jim’s party, one by one.

Ike’s shot at Jim goes wide, and Ike is captured. Ike tells them that Mrs. Hamilton will be set free if she signs the deed of the mine over to Claypool. Jack is shot. Bess dresses Jack’s wound and confesses that she loves his brother, Jim. Ike takes the rifle and shoots Jack. Claypool abducts the sisters.

“Don’t lose a minute Jim,” Jack says to his brother as he returns, “Bess—hands of them devils—they will take her back to Utah.” (p. 73) Jim promises to get her back for Jack to marry her. “… I’m done for, old boy, but it is you she loves – not me – you.” (p. 74) “…and with two or three gasping breaths, poor Jack was dead.” (p. 74) Jim swears revenge.

Crossing the Grand Canyon to the great desert beyond, Bess and her sister are dragged by their evil captors. “Across the terrible desert the strange mesas stood like the ruins of some giants houses, but except for a few cacti and mesquite bushes, there was no vegetation, nothing to relieve the monotony of the bare rocks and the naked desert below.” (p. 77)

A messenger arrives to tell Claypool that Mrs. Hamilton has been rescued and that they can never return to Provo. “There’s hell to pay down there. The United States troops are in charge and have confiscated all the Church property.” (p. 81) Claypool is a wanted man. The wicked band determines to set off for New Mexico.

Mrs. Hamilton arrives to Jim’s party. Gray Wolf senses danger, and says, “Gray Wolf have sharp eyes, and hear grass grow. Gray Wolf save his friends. He go, look, see.” (p. 86) They all see Ike Claypool lift Flossie (Bess’s younger sister) overhead and hurl her off the side of a cliff in the distance. Fortunately, the child is caught on a branch of a “scrubby tree” and is safe.

A week later, the Claypool gang is traveling through the desert of Death Valley, Bess in tow. As a thunderstorm gathers force, Jim approaches. The Danites tie Bess to a cactus and gag her to lure him into an ambush. She gets the gag loose and cries, “Down, Jim! Down for your life!” (p. 95)

“Jim, whose wits had been sharpened by life where every minute of his experience was more or less fraught with danger, dropped to the ground, just as all the men in ambush fired at him at once.” (p. 95) Bess implores Jim run, but he refuses to abandon her side, and he is captured. Ike raises his pistol to shoot Jim, when “a terrible flash of vivid lightning blinded him for a second…” (p. 97) and Jim knocks away the gun, grabs Ike’s knife and kills him “in memory of my brother” as Claypool watches from a distance. Jim is recaptured.

The Danites drive stakes into the ground and tie Jim’s spread limbs to them. Pete grabs a rattlesnake to torture Jim. Bess is hysterical. Claypool says that if she agrees to marry him, Bess can go free. Over Jim’s cries, Bess agrees. Claypool gives Bess to Pete who says, “You mine, pale-face beauty—Pete’s squaw.” (p. 103)

The Danites rebel and draw lots for Bess. Jim’s cries are drowned out by the roaring thunder of the storm. They bring the rattlesnake and tie it to another stake in the rocks. Claypool says, “Now die! Die with that snake’s poison running like fire through your veins, with your head throbbing, your body swelling to burst, your eyes starting from their sockets; and for consolation think of your sweetheart in Rattlesnake Pete’s arms!” (pp. 109-10) Jim is left alone with the snake getting closer. Suddenly, Jim hears Gray Wolf’s cry. He appears and shoots the rattlesnake as it raises its head to strike.

Ten days later, and the fleeing villains (and Bess) are wandering lost and dying in the desert. The group argues about a plan of action. One of the men, Bill, grabs the canteen and gives the last drops of water to Bess, who can no longer stand. Pete kicks her repeatedly. Gray Wolf appears, and he kills Pete.

The next morning, Bess is recovered by her family, but the others are engaged in a shoot-out. The villains have more ammunition, but finally, Claypool raises a flag of truce. “Be careful, Jim – he snake in grass,” says Gray Wolf. Claypool enters the camp, tries to make a deal, and then sees they have no more bullets. He tries to shoot, but Jim grabs him by the throat.

And then, United States soldiers enter, and they grab Claypool and his men. Bess saves Bill, noting his kindness. He tells Jim, “Thank you, pard, and I want to tell you that you are getting an angel of purity and goodness in that gal. She is worthy the best man that ever trod this earth.” (p. 124) Meanwhile, Claypool escapes and stands above them, his gun pointed at Jim. “Suddenly Bess pointed above and screamed: ‘Jim!’ and all turned to see Noah above them. Gray Wolf, who had crept up behind him, threw his arm up as he fired. Jim waited for no orders, but seizing Jasper’s gun, fired, and all had the satisfaction of seeing Noah throw up his arms and plunge headlong into the canyon.” (p. 124)

The novel ends immediately, “‘Bess, Bess, come to me!’ shouted Jim, and the proudest man in the world might have envied Jim his joy, and Bess her sense of safety.” (p. 124)

Well, I didn’t say it was a subtle book. But it was a hit in 1907.



4 Comments »

  1. In Provo, Elder Noah Claypool, a leader of the Danites, runs a general store with a saloon in back where “many a man had found greater misery than he sought to drown.”

    No wonder Pres. Grant emphasized the Word of Wisdom so much. He was secretly trying to rid the church of Danites!

    I enjoyed this.

    Comment by Clark — March 7, 2011 @ 9:46 am

  2. Good find, Glen. I’m reminded of the similarly over the top story involving Danites, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s first published Sherlock Holmes story in 1887, A Study in Scarlet. Doyle obviously had a more enduring literary legacy than le Brandt and Harper/D’Apery. Has Oliver Stone or Michael Bay shown any interest in the movie rights?

    Comment by kevinf — March 7, 2011 @ 2:38 pm

  3. […] Through Death Valley: The Mormons in Pulp Fiction, 1907 (Glen Nelson, Keepapitchinin). About a 1907 play featuring Mormons, Danites, and Indians. […]

    Pingback by This Week in Mormon Literature, March 11, 2011 | Dawning of a Brighter Day — March 11, 2011 @ 11:04 am

  4. .

    When Floyd Gottfredson (Mormon) took over the Mickey Mouse comic strips in 1929, the first story was a Death Valley story. It’s on my mind because it’s being reprinted in a fancy edition by Fantagraphics in May.

    Gottfredson’s supposed to be terrific, but I’ve never read him. I’m getting an ARC though so I’m excited to make the conversation.

    Comment by Th. — March 11, 2011 @ 9:17 pm

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