Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » B.H. Roberts in Water Valley, Mississippi, 1884

B.H. Roberts in Water Valley, Mississippi, 1884

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 22, 2011

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.



  1. Fascinating. Thanks, Ardis.

    Comment by middle-aged Mormon Man — August 22, 2011 @ 7:03 am

  2. I’ve heard many stories indicating that Mississippi was not a hospitable places for missionaries. Thanks, Ardis.

    Comment by HokieKate — August 22, 2011 @ 7:44 am

  3. Thanks, Ardis! B.H. Roberts is buried in the Centerville Cemetery just a block or so from my house. With regard to Southerners, I will bite my tongue on some of my prejudices only saying that in 1884, Utah Mormons and white Southerners were all mostly Democrats in fear of repression from the federal government (for different reasons, of course). And then, there was that class of people (US Citizens all) also in the south who didn’t have much political clout as the white Southerners were busy repressing them. And I bet Elder Flake is an ancestor of Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a principled conservative not of the tea party (even if I still don’t agre with him all that much).

    Comment by Grant — August 22, 2011 @ 8:23 am

  4. I’ll take your bet on Jeff Flake’s ancestry, Grant. You want to my address so you can pay up? : )

    New Family Search says that William J. Flake, one of the founders of Snowflake, had eleven sons (five of whom lived to adulthood) by two wives. The oldest was James Madison Flake, who was Jeff Flake’s great-grandfather. Charles Love Flake was James Madison Flake’s brother, which makes him the good congressman’s great grand-uncle (or whatever that relationship is called).

    Jeff Flake is one of the few intelligent voices left in the Republican Party on immigration policy, which makes him ok in my book. (Or is that too overt a political statement to be allowed here, Ardis?)

    Comment by Mark B. — August 22, 2011 @ 9:35 am

  5. I use “ancestor” broadly enough to include great grand-uncles so I’m not payin’!

    Comment by Grant — August 22, 2011 @ 9:52 am

  6. As long as we’re talking family connections —

    The Charles Love Flake in this story became the father of Charles Love Flake, Jr. (the father, this missionary, died several months before son was born). CLF, Jr. was with the American military force that went into Russia at the end of World War I. He was killed in Siberia, leaving an infant daughter at home whom he never met.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 22, 2011 @ 9:58 am

  7. With regard to comments about Mississippi, it is apparently satisfying for some to have a group to treat as less than themselves.

    Comment by Steve — August 22, 2011 @ 10:46 am

  8. Gee. And I thought having a door slammed in my face mid-sentence was the height of abuse.

    Comment by The Other Clark — August 22, 2011 @ 11:40 am

  9. Good story, Ardis.

    Elder Flake was indeed a trooper. In July of 1884 in Calhoun Co., Miss., he was “arrested” by a prosecuting attorney for preaching polygamy. Flake took it all in stride, casually discussing the merits of the attorney’s case against him. Turns out it was prank by a fellow missionary that Flake had never had the chance to meet personally, but who was impersonating a federal official. Doesn’t compare to a bucket of tar poured over your head, though. Yuck!

    Comment by Bruce Crow — August 22, 2011 @ 12:03 pm

  10. I just saw a list of Snowflake natives who had died in the World Wars, in a history of Snowflake in my dad’s library–and was interested that one of them died in Siberia, but didn’t make a note of his name. So, thanks for making the connection.

    NFS says Charles L. Flake, Jr., died June 22, 1919, (in World War II, in Siberia) which was more than seven months after the Armistice (and more than 15 months after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which ended World War I in the east). So he didn’t really die in World War I. And, since he died 22 years to the day before the Germans attacked Russia in the Second World War, he surly didn’t die in World War II, and somebody really should correct the NFS entry.

    Comment by Mark B. — August 22, 2011 @ 12:05 pm

  11. Interesting story. Things are a little more hospitible here in the South.

    That’s fasinating about Charles L. Flake, Jr. and his death during the Russian intervention–a piece of history that is too often ignored (except in my classes).

    Comment by Steve C. — August 22, 2011 @ 12:27 pm

  12. I get surly when I make typos.

    Comment by Mark B. — August 22, 2011 @ 12:58 pm

  13. Okay, sources please! I know this is a threadjack, but where can I find out more about the Russian intervention, Steve C.? Evidently my great-grandfather, a World War I soldier from the Little Colorado area of Arizona, was in Russia at that time. I don’t know how long he was there or what his experiences were.

    Let me think if I have anything to add to the original post. Technically speaking, Roberts was the acting president of the mission, but that was largely a technicality and is entirely irrelevant to this story, so I probably shouldn’t mention it. : )

    Comment by Researcher — August 22, 2011 @ 1:12 pm

  14. Grant, I grew up with some of B.H Roberts’ descendants in Centerville. Ardis keeps throwing out tidbits of his life. He was a fascinating character.

    Comment by Maurine Ward — August 22, 2011 @ 8:18 pm

  15. Elder Flake is mentioned several times in my ancestor’s mission journal. I sent a portion of it to Amateur Mormon Historian which he published in his blog at the following link. It is always great to be able to put people of the past together and imagine their interactions.

    Comment by Marianne Egan — August 24, 2011 @ 5:52 pm

  16. Marianne, thanks for sharing your family papers that way — we all benefit. And I, too, love seeing the connections among people of the past. We all have networks of personal relationships today, and finding them in the past makes that past all the more real, doesn’t it?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 24, 2011 @ 6:14 pm

  17. Researcher, the “Russian Intervention” is described on Wikipedia here:

    Comment by Kent Larsen — August 25, 2011 @ 2:08 pm

  18. Thanks!

    Comment by Researcher — August 25, 2011 @ 3:33 pm

  19. Having served in the area where missionaries Rudger Clawson was attacked and Joseph Stadnding was killed, I can say that I am glad that the era of lynch law is history in the South. I would be very interested in learnign more about the application of violence and intimidation against non-black minorities in the reconstruction era south. I know that Jews were also targeted…

    Anyway, That being said, at least a white mormon of the period could 1) go back west, and 2) blend in with a crowd during this period. Some things to be greatful for.

    Comment by Taylor — September 30, 2011 @ 10:47 am

  20. Researcher: Sorry I didn’t get back to this sooner. Slipped my mind until I talked about it in class yesterday. A book you might find interesting on the Russian Intervention is The Ignorant Armies by E.M Halliday.

    Comment by Steve C. — September 30, 2011 @ 11:08 am

  21. Thanks, Steve. I’ll have to check that out.

    Taylor: try Patrick Mason’s recent book The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South, or his dissertation, which you can download here: Sinners in the hands of an angry mob: Violence against religious outsiders in the U.S. South, 1865-1910.

    Comment by Researcher — September 30, 2011 @ 11:38 am

  22. Just discovered a letter written by Charles L. Flake to John Taylor, 28 February 1886, reporting his mission. He says:

    “On the 16th of May while waiting in Water Valley for Prest. B.H. Roberts I was tar[r]ed by a mob,and then had to ride until 3 next morning before I could wash or change.After this we received notices to leave from every side, but we felt that there was yet a good work to be done in that part. Soon after this, things took a change for the better,and we made many friends, and were enabled to hold meetings every Sunday and sometimes during the week.”

    That’s the way his whole letter goes — he reports some difficulty, brushes it off cheerfully, and then reports something upbeat.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 17, 2013 @ 1:21 pm

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