Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » An Act of Mormon-on-Mormon Violence: The Whitecapping of William Birdsall

An Act of Mormon-on-Mormon Violence: The Whitecapping of William Birdsall

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 01, 2011

Below is my current column in the Salt Lake Tribune. I’m posting it here to add some Mormon commentary.

The Birdsall family arrived in Utah and converted to Mormonism (the reverse of the usual order) when William, featured in this story, was just 6 years old; he was baptized as a child just as all his playmates were. Although there was a break in the early 20th century, when William’s father Isaac testified against the Church in the Senate hearings concerning Reed Smoot, there is every reason to believe the Birdsalls were sincere Mormons, fully accepted in the Mormon communities of Joseph and Monroe in Sevier County, at the time of this incident. All members of the family had received their patriarchal blessings, with William’s sister Cora serving as the patriarch’s scribe. The children attended the Sevier Stake Academy. The family was sealed in the Manti Temple in 1890. Cora served as a counselor in the ward Relief Society, leaving the land she was homesteading and moving into a rented room in town in order to be more accessible for serving, including nursing, the sisters of the ward.

Monroe, the setting for this story, was and is a Mormon agricultural village. All of the others named in this article were LDS, members of the same ward as the Birdsalls, although I can’t vouch for the activity level or religious sentiment of anyone in 1898. The woman on whose behalf, supposedly, the men committed the actions narrated here was a Mormon.

Yet for some reason unknown to me — pure hellishness? personal animosity? — these young Mormon men got drunk following a community theatrical performance and, egged on by one man, allowed themselves to commit a violent act and threaten the life of a member of their own ward, in the name of protecting the virtue or avenging the honor of a Mormon home. Nor were they alone — other men in the community, some too drunk to make it all the way to the Mortensen farm, followed at a distance, eager to watch the “fun.”

Four men stumbled drunkenly through the darkness, their path lit by flashes from a dark lantern. When they reached the Thomas Mortensen farm outside of Monroe, Utah, they paused to tie handkerchiefs across their faces, then loudly called for William Birdsall.

Birdsall, 23, stepped out of the barn where he had been finishing late chores. The masked men seized him and slipped a rope around his neck. As Birdsall struggled, they beat his face and threw him to the ground. Hearing the commotion, Sarah Ann Mortensen, 26, stepped onto her porch and screamed. One of the men, his voice slurred, told her to go back to her children “and be a true woman.” Then they pulled Birdsall to his feet and began running. He had no choice but to run as well lest he be choked by the rope around his neck.

Birdsall, born in Nebraska to a Quaker father and German mother, had been only 5 the summer his family joined friends for a tour of the West. Although the railroad had been completed years before, their group traveled leisurely by covered wagon. When they reached Utah, the Birdsalls wanted to call on a cousin before traveling on to California. By the time the Birdsalls found their cousin in Sevier County, it was too late to travel west that year.

The Birdsalls stayed in Utah, eventually converting to Mormonism and taking up a farm in Monroe. By 1898 they were well integrated into the community. One daughter married the Mormon presiding elder in nearby Marysvale. Another daughter served as a counselor in the Monroe Relief Society. And when Thomas Mortensen went to work in Nevada’s De La Mar mines, it was William Birdsall he asked to live in his barn, do his chores, and watch out for his wife and daughters.

For unknown reasons, however, some in the community disliked the young man. Monroe Town Marshal Lyman Collings, 37, was especially antagonistic, spreading gossip that Birdsall took liberties with Mrs. Mortensen, making her chop her own stove wood while he, Birdsall, took money sent by her husband to buy whisky and dance tickets.

On the evening of Feb. 25, 1898,some of Monroe’s men gathered at the saloon after a town social. As the drinking progressed, talk turned to Birdsall. Collings said someone should drive him out of town; when others agreed, Collings encouraged them to follow through with what may at first have been idle talk. Eventually Ben Hoopes, Ammon Hunt, Al Winn and Andrew Brown collected a rope and lantern from Hoopes’ barbershop, then headed toward the Mortensen farm.

Birdsall struggled to stay on his feet as he was jerked across fields and through a canal. When he stumbled, his attackers dragged him until he was choked nearly to unconsciousness, then pulled him upright and ran again, all the while cursing and telling him to leave Monroe or be hanged. Finally they released him, his neck raw and swollen, his eyes blackened. Birdsall headed over the mountain that night to find refuge with his sister in Marysvale.

Word of the “whitecapping” spread quickly, but no action was taken for weeks. Eventually, citizens who believed Birdsall was a moral, industrious young man prevailed upon law officers to investigate.

Hoopes, Hunt, Winn, Brown and one other were indicted for rioting and maintaining an unlawful assemblage, and they went to trial in May. The jury found the four men guilty, acquitting the fifth. Before passing sentence, Judge Homer McCarty lectured the men concerning their crime and for calling their wives to perjure themselves by providing false alibis. He called Collings “the real criminal,” and said he “should be wearing stripes in the penitentiary.” McCarty, who had known the defendants since childhood, imposed as severe a penalty as the law allowed: a$50 fine ($25 for Hoopes, who had not perjured his wife), but no jail time.

Birdsall, however, had had enough of Monroe, and never returned.

The sister to whom William ran for refuge was my great-grandmother. No hint of this story survives in family lore, though; every detail comes from newspapers and court records.

Almost nothing is known of William’s life after this point. One branch of the family claims that William was killed in a shootout with police near a Las Vegas hospital in 1923 or 1925, but absolutely no trace of such an incident can be found in Las Vegas records — at this point I don’t believe the tale, and report it only to say I don’t believe it, in case some family member finds this account.



  1. This sounds so much like something from the Southern States mission. Is this an indication of the times regardless of where it happened?

    Comment by Bruce Crow — August 1, 2011 @ 9:01 am

  2. I guess Wilford Woodruff was not as staunch about the Word of Wisdom as was Brother Brigham?

    Comment by Rameumptom — August 1, 2011 @ 10:01 am

  3. I suppose so, Bruce. I mean, there’s violence in every era and every place, but this does seem to have that post-Civil War flavor, doesn’t it?

    Or, small town cowboys were as apt to get drunk in order to be big men then as they ever were, Rameumptom.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 1, 2011 @ 10:06 am

  4. I wonder what happened to the men who participated.

    Comment by Steve — August 1, 2011 @ 10:11 am

  5. I kind of hoped that by putting their names in the paper, it would shame some descendant into defending grandpa by telling me what had happened later, all the wonderful things he had done, so either he *couldn’t* have done what I said or else he deserved to be forgiven for it. Nothing yet.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 1, 2011 @ 12:14 pm

  6. Lyman Collings, according to the census records, was listed as a farmer in Monroe in 1900, suggesting he no longer served as the marshal. The 1930 census shows him having retired and moved to Wendell, Idaho, not far from Twin Falls, where he died a few years later.

    No offense to the Collings family, but I suspect that a drunken marshal who gets up a gang of vigilantes at night to threaten a lynching, is not a very good marshal. Collings had also served as the town marshal of Pima, Arizona, where he had moved with his parents in about 1879 for a couple of years.

    Comment by kevinf — August 1, 2011 @ 12:15 pm

  7. The descendants of Richard and Emma Collings, Lyman’s parents, have a family website. They note the birth of Lyman, a few other short references, but otherwise a blank page about him and his family. He did marry, have a couple of children, but a quick google search reveals little of anything else about him.

    Comment by kevinf — August 1, 2011 @ 12:19 pm

  8. Ardis,

    What is the origin of the term “whitecapping”?

    Comment by Steve — August 1, 2011 @ 1:21 pm

  9. I had the same question as Steve. What’s the answer, Ardis? : )

    Comment by Mark B. — August 1, 2011 @ 1:41 pm

  10. Think Ku Klux Klan and their headgear. The term comes from the wearing of hoods or other disguises, by nightriders whose main purpose is to intimidate.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 1, 2011 @ 2:41 pm

  11. My editor had the same question, by the way!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 1, 2011 @ 2:42 pm

  12. And kevinf, I think you should break the news to the Collings family. Take notes and report back!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 1, 2011 @ 2:45 pm

  13. A search of Utah Digital Newspaper website indicates that another whitecapping incident occurred a few months later in nearby Aurora. The victim of second incident was a 40-year old man that lived with his mother. It’s pure speculation on my part, but I wonder if both victims might have been homosexual. It might explain the reluctance of community and the families to assign a motive to the attacks.

    Comment by Seldom — August 2, 2011 @ 1:26 pm

  14. I know of no good reason for such speculation, Seldom. Might as well speculate that William Birdsall had been stealing the Mortensen chickens, or that the Aurora victim had committed incest with his mother, or that either or both of them were suspected of arson but without enough proof to prosecute. It’s unfair to attach a speculative stigma to someone’s name without evidence.

    In Birdsall’s case, one of the whitecappers’ explicit justifications for their action was an accusation of intimacy with Mrs. Mortensen, which would be odd if he were suspected of homosexuality.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 2, 2011 @ 1:38 pm

  15. Note: This post originally dated this incident as 1893 (and in fact was “correcting” the Tribune version that dated it as 1898). As Justin pointed out in private email, all the contemporary news reports *are* 1898.

    Pay no attention to the woman behind the curtain, the one whose red eyes are held open by toothpicks after too many straight hours of staring at a computer screen.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 2, 2011 @ 2:39 pm

  16. I am glad to find none of these men were members of my family. I was concerned since my great grandfather was on the High Council which looked into Cora Birdsall’s troubles. And I thought I knew every detail of Aurora’s history, but did not know about this. I wish my grandmother was still alive, she would know the details of what happened in Aurora. Seldom, can you help me find it. What was the newspaper and the date.

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — August 2, 2011 @ 11:37 pm

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