In May, 1884, B.H. Roberts, president of the Southern States Mission, boarded the train in Jackson, Mississippi headed north to Water Valley on his way to hold a conference of the missionaries in that part of the state. He had sent word ahead that he was coming, and expected an elder to meet him upon his arrival in Water Valley, despite his train’s arrival in the middle of the night. He saw no missionaries on the platform, though, when his train pulled in, so he hefted his valise, stepped out of the car, and headed toward a large hotel not far from the railroad track.
A few steps from the track he stepped into a sticky puddle. “Hello, what does this mean?” he asked a nearby railroad employee carrying a lamp. “Oh,” he said, laughing, “that’s where No. 2 leaked” [referring to the last engine to pass]. Roberts cautioned the other passengers about the mess on the platform, then continued on to the hotel.
Although normally he signed his full name on hotel registers, giving his place of residence as Utah – that sometimes created an opportunity to bring up Mormonism with hotel clerks and guests – on this occasion he signed his name only as “Brigham Henry” and gave his residence as Chattanooga, Tennessee, the location of the Southern States Mission headquarters. That roused no curiosity, of course, and he went up to his room and went to bed immediately.
Having reached Water Valley so late the night before, Roberts slept in a bit the next morning, then went down to breakfast. Just as he seated himself at the table, another guest – a freckle-faced, red-headed drummer (i.e., a traveling salesman) came into the room laughing, and seated himself near President Roberts, explaining that he was laughing at the ridiculousness of his having been mistaken for a Mormon elder on the street a few moments earlier.
“What,” said Roberts, “do you have Mormon elders around here?”
“Yes,” chimed in the landlady. “There has been one here for the last two or three days. I saw him yesterday. But he left last night,” she said, with a laugh that Roberts did not understand.
“I don’t see how it is that those people can go on living as they do,” said the drummer, “when it is contrary to the Constitution for them to do so.” The landlady agreed with him.
Roberts said that he was “acquainted with the Constitution, but knew of nothing in it to prevent the Mormons continuing to live their religion.” He mentioned the recent Edmunds law and questioned whether it was constitutional.
The landlady and salesmen were both surprised that Roberts knew enough about the Mormons to make such a claim, and for almost two hours they chatted about what he knew about Mormonism. Finally it occurred to the landlady to ask, with some heat, whether Roberts himself was a Mormon, maybe even the one whom the Mormon who had left town the night before had come to meet. He cheerfully admitted that yes, he was no doubt that very person.
That ended the breakfast table conversation rather abruptly, and Roberts went out to see what he could learn about the elder who apparently had been expecting him, but had not waited for his arrival. As he walked up the main street of the town, he happened to overhear the word “Mormon” spoken by one man in conversation with another. Stopping to do a little window shopping, he listened to their conversation.
From it, he learned that Charles L. Flake, a 22-year-old elder from Snowflake, Arizona, had been in Water Valley for the past three days, meeting every train from the north – apparently he expected Roberts to be coming from Chattanooga, rather than from Jackson to the south. He had gone to the station to meet the train from the north at 10:00 the previous night. As he stood there, a man had come up quietly behind him, and overturned a two-gallon tub of thin tar over the elder’s head. The very puddle of sticky stuff into which Roberts had stepped two hours later was what had run off Flake as the tar flowed through his hair, into his eyes and down over his clothing.
As Flake described it soon afterward in a letter to his uncle,
I did not say anything, but stood in the light of the lamps trying to see Brother Roberts while the crowd gazed upon me in apparent delight. Not one spoke a kind word, although there were many standing around. By this time the tar had got into my eyes so I could hardly see, and it was running down my neck and clothes in streams.
As it was 15 miles to where I had a friend and having but very little money, I didn’t know what to do. This, however, was soon determined by the crowd, who said if I didn’t go I would get worse, that the tar was only a hint. I tried to talk to them, but all to no avail, for they were full of anger. So I bid them good night and started on my lonely ride. Next morning, after getting lost, and spending one of the most miserable nights of my life, I found two of the Elders who soon fixed me up so I felt like a new man.
Flake had tried to make light of the attack when he reached those two elders that morning. Calling to one, he said, “Brother [J.S.] Clark, put your hand on my coat and see how the dew has been falling.”
The other missionary did so, and upon his hand feeling the sticky tar said, “Why, Brother Flake, that isn’t dew, is it?!”
“Well,” said Elder Flake, “that is the way they dew things out in Water Valley!”
President Roberts, of course, didn’t know of the young elder’s brave front when he overheard the conversation on the street in Water Valley – he heard only the devilish laughter of the men who found the attack such a fine joke. Continuing on down the sidewalk, he overheard other conversations and discovered that word had spread that there was a Mormon elder – himself – staying at the town’s hotel, and that that elder
was the principal topic of conversation. Some thought he ought to be hung; others contended that whipping would be severe enough treatment; and still others favored more tar, this time accompanied with feathers, as the proper thing.
I must confess that moving unknown among squads of men who are discussing in what manner they will dispose of you, whether by tarring and feathering, whipping, or hanging you, is not calculated to produce the most pleasurable sensations.
Having satisfied myself as to which way the tide was setting in, and fearing to remain longer on the street lest I should become known, I walked over to the hotel and waited for developments. … Late in the afternoon one of the other Elders came to town afoot. I recognized him as he passed the hotel and hailed him; it was Brother [H.] Charles Call of Willard City.
We secured a team and driver and left for the place of holding conference, and that was the last time I was ever in Water Valley.