You are likely already aware that the Church published yesterday another in its series of scholarly essays, this time Peace and Violence among 19th Century Latter-day Saints.
A lot of my friends are, apparently, nerdy in the same way I am nerdy – we scour the endnotes as carefully as we read the main text. Footnote 43 suggests a piece of Utah history that has been largely forgotten, although it was “the crime of the century” for a couple of decades, probably second only to Mountain Meadows as the Utah murder that spilled the most ink in the East and stirred up the strongest feelings against the Mormons during the second half of the 19th century. I’ve been asked for the story, so I’ll tell it here – briefly and without taking the time to remind myself of the facts beyond a few dates. This is incomplete and the details are subject to correction, although I’m sure it’s accurate in the main.
J. King Robinson was from New York. After taking a medical degree at Bellvue Hospital in New York, he came to Utah with the federal troops under Gen. Connor, who built Camp Douglas on the Bench east of Salt Lake City. When he left the army in 1865 or ’66 he stayed in Salt Lake, establishing a medical practice, marrying a local girl, and teaching Sunday School in one of the Protestant churches (Presbyterian, I think, although I may be mistaken as to that). By just about anybody’s standards he was a good man, which is why his murder in 1866 stirred so much wrath throughout the Eastern states.
There was only one cause for animosity toward him, so far as I am aware.
Ever since the Mormons had arrived in Utah, they had been squatters on the public domain. That is, because the United States failed to establish a land office in Utah, and survey the land to make it available for homesteading or sale or other legal possession, it all belonged to the United States. Those who built houses, or planted orchards, or cultivated farms, or fenced livestock ranges, or developed mills and factories and other businesses, owned their improvements – owned the wood and stone and growing plants – but did not own the ground beneath any of them. The government did not establish a land office in Utah until 1869, and until then, there was no guarantee that the settlers who had lived and improved the land since 1847 would ever get title to their land.
Looking toward the day when such arrangements could become official, the people developed their own system for keeping track of what land belonged to whom. The important point for this story is that the government of Salt Lake City claimed certain lands in and around the city as city property, not open to occupancy or claim by individuals. One of those important sites claimed for the people of the city was Warm Springs, just north of the city, where natural springs of hot and warm mineral water had been used for public baths and resorts since 1847.
But Dr. Robinson, disregarding the claims of the people as a whole, decided to claim Warm Springs for his own property. He began building shanties there to serve as the foundation for a future hospital. They were only board shacks, not the fine building conjured up by the word “hospital” when read in the Eastern press. The City tore them down, claiming it was unlawful for Dr. Robinson to build there. Dr. Robinson sued Salt Lake City before the federal judge there (Judge Titus, I think?) claiming that as a piece of unoccupied public land, Warm Springs was open to his claim. The judge gave his ruling, in favor of the City and against Dr. Robinson, late in October, 1866.
Only one or two days later, after dark, someone knocked at Dr. Robinson’s door, calling out that he was needed to give medical assistance. Dr. Robinson readily accompanied the man – he really was a good man who felt an obligation to his fellow man. About half a block from his home several men opened fire, killing Dr. Robinson. Despite the number of people still on the street, and a direct view of the murder scene from several nearby homes and businesses, nobody admitted to having witnessed the murder.
There was no shortage of accusations, though. Obviously, according to one faction, Dr. Robinson had been killed by the Mormons (no one in particular; merely “Mormons” in general) to prevent his legally and lawfully taking possession of Warm Springs – completely ignoring the fact that the judge had already ruled against Dr. Robinson, so he was in no sense a danger to Mormon interests. When Brigham Young’s name headed a list of contributors to a reward for information, that, too, was turned against the Mormons – obviously Brigham Young, who must have ordered the murder because all murders were ordered by him, doncha know, was only trying to deflect suspicion by pretending to look for the guilty parties. For their part, the Mormons accused the non-Mormons (no one in particular, so far as I know, but just “non-Mormons”) of having carried out the murder themselves for the purpose of pinning blame on the Mormons. Newspapers and a few diaries I’ve checked point the finger at this or that group, but without any evidence heavier than the weight of suspicion.
Several Salt Lake City policemen were brought to trial for the murder, but were acquitted; at least one, maybe more, of the witnesses against them later recanted, saying their testimony had been bought. The accusations from both sides continued to fly, and no one was ever convicted.
Footnote 43 refers to Samuel D. Sirrine, a Mormon who had been a city policeman at the time of the murder. I don’t know why, but in 1875, the Salt Lake Tribune latched on to Sirrine, claiming that he, as a policeman, had known all the details of the murder, and had been on the verge of sharing those details with the Tribune when he disappeared … and obviously any disappearance meant murder, and any murder meant Danites. The newspaper traced Sirrine’s career over the years since the murder – when he struggled, it was obviously because he had fallen out of favor with the Danites; when he prospered, it was obviously because the Danites were supporting him so that he would not reveal their secrets. And when he disappeared, it could be none other than the Danites who had done him in at long last.
Footnote 43 also cites two articles from the Salt Lake Herald, showing that Sirrine had been located, alive and well in California in 1877, completely free of Danite bullet holes or knife wounds. And that, of course, is the whole reason for mentioning Robinson or Sirrine in Footnote 43 – it is one of a number of illustrations that could have been given of men who were supposedly murdered by the Mormons, who later turned up alive and well elsewhere.
J. King Robinson is buried in the Fort Douglas cemetery. His murder remains unsolved, except by those conspiracists who, as in 1865 and 1875 and 1877, somehow just know, without benefit of evidence, that he was a victim of the Mormons.
I’ve transcribed the three newspaper articles cited in Footnote 43; you can find them here