This started as a comment for BCC’s posting of an 1859 letter by army quartermaster P.T. Turnley. Due to its length, however, I’m posting it here rather than straining BCC’s tolerance.
I have no – well, very little – quarrel with Bill MacKinnon’s use of this document in his review of Polly Aird’s biography of Peter McAuslan. I wish he had extracted the lines from this letter that were relevant to his review (establishing that Turney was an army officer; that he was aware of people who wanted to leave Utah but who did not have the means to travel; and that he recommended military resources to assist those people in leaving). In the context of a review, outside the scope of a documentary study, and given the ugliness of the balance of the letter, publishing the full letter unedited serves only to poison the discussion of Mormon history during this contentious and extremely polarized era. (Interpret that sentence as you will, as referring either to the 1850s or to the present; it fits both.)
Posting the letter as a BCC post, divorced from the story of Peter McAuslan’s disaffection and departure, only compounds the problem: Rather than illuminating the military role in helping such persons leave Utah, Turnley’s letter becomes a stand-alone indictment of Utah and Mormonism. It is an indictment based on exaggeration, animus, and outright falsehood. It bears false witness.
As is evident by the unedited grammar, my initial comment was a hasty, frustrated response to the posting of this letter on an ostensibly pro-Mormon blog without sufficient context and without editorial comment. Bizarrely, Connell O’Donovan offers what almost amounts to a formal review of my comment, as if it represented a careful exposition of my objections and arguments. In doing so, he makes his comment as much about me as about the document and the mangled evaluation of 1859 Utah it represents. So much for Connell O’Donovan.
If I were to make a more complete, rather than a reactionary, analysis of Turnley’s letter, I would not pick away at the factual accuracy (or not) of the low-hanging fruit toward the end of his letter. I would instead examine the intended effect of his statements: Why did he inflate numbers? Why did he report rumor as fact? Why did he choose those particular claims over others?
When he writes of Mary Young’s age, for instance, his objection is not to the disparity between hers and Appleby’s ages; he makes no mention of that. He reports, rather, Mary’s youth; and not content with reporting her actual age, he exaggerates her youth to heighten the effect of his gossip: Child bride! Nubile young woman fallen prey to Mormon rapaciousness! Just as today when press attention to FLDS polygamy is devoted to the ages of the youngest brides and to almost nothing else, Turnley’s prurient interest and his appeal to what he (unconsciously or otherwise) assumes will be Douglas’s prurient interest comes through loud and clear.
Similarly, the composition of Appleby’s 1859 wagon company is of little importance beyond a check of Turnley’s accuracy … except for what his hyperbole implies about Mormon society. By so grossly distorting the ratio of male to female members of that company – by pretending to report their gender at all – Turnley joins the long line of detractors most vividly illustrated by Winifred Graham’s scurrilous post-World War I campaign: Mormon missionary efforts are aimed primarily at securing additions to Mormon harems, whom they import to Utah by the shipload, or wagon-train load in this case. Without editorial notice, that slander stands unchecked here.
We could go line by line through Turnley’s letter and consider its truthfulness and why Turnley included each charge in his appeal to Douglas, as well as the meta-question of why a military officer “by-passed the military chain of command” when seeking military action. I won’t do that now – that’s not what I’m suggesting should have been done before Turnley’s letter was posted at BCC. I do suggest that publishing “hyperbolic” (I would use a stronger term, but that’s the one introduced into the discussion) documents that misrepresent historical fact and slander a people the way this one does, without any sort of disclaimer, not even the possible defense that while factually doubtful it may have represented McAuslan’s fears – was irresponsible and unjust.
The document’s value lies not in accurate reporting of the situation in Utah, but in its representation of a partisan viewpoint, as well, perhaps, in its commentary on Turnley’s violation of military protocol. That should have been made clear without a commenter having to make it clear, and, as a result, having to take the heat from those whose jaundiced viewpoints are more aligned with Turnley’s than with the facts.