Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Footnote 43

Footnote 43

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 14, 2014

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



  1. Squatters, yes. Murderers, not so much.

    Thanks for the mid-day entertainment!

    Comment by Grant — May 14, 2014 @ 1:38 pm

  2. Nice write-up, and, yes, the endnotes can be as interesting as the text. (And these particular endnotes also include your name, as someone *cough Grant cough* pointed out elsewhere. : )

    Is there any hint in the historic record that this was an example of Mountain Common Law? Any vague references to an unnamed woman?

    And speaking of that, this story reminds me of another unsolved murder that I mean to write about one of these days. Two, actually.

    Comment by Amy T — May 14, 2014 @ 3:09 pm

  3. I loves me some unsolved murder cases. Any chance it might have been a drone strike? Those Danites were pretty ingenious, if you believe all the stories. I guess we were all Cliven Bundy back in those days.

    I also love footnotes and endnotes, but nobody does them like Edje used to do them over at the Juvenile Instructor. His were almost always more interesting than the posts themselves, and he did some great posts.

    Comment by kevinf — May 14, 2014 @ 3:42 pm

  4. Footnote 42! Huzzah, Ardis!

    Comment by David Y. — May 14, 2014 @ 3:50 pm

  5. Warm springs just north of Salt Lake City? Could they have been the same springs that provided the hot water (and, who knows, some of the excitement) at the Wasatch Plunge? (That name alone makes me wish I could take a trip back in time and spend an evening there!)

    The Homestead Act came along in 1862, so nobody anywhere would have obtained title to Federal lands by homesteading before that date. But before then the land offices, at least in some places, did a land office business.

    Comment by Mark B. — May 14, 2014 @ 3:56 pm

  6. Ardis, so much sarcasm! Do you not think that Samuel D. Sirrine was a Danite?

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — May 15, 2014 @ 1:10 am

  7. I’m a historian, BIV, not a conspiracist.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 15, 2014 @ 6:26 am

  8. I was being serious!
    There is a story that Heber C. Kimball reorganized the Danites in Salt Lake City. Also, the Danites were connected with the police in Nauvoo, so I wonder when I see Danites mentioned with policemen in Salt Lake City. You may conclude that the possibility is low. And certainly there were wild folklorish rumors flying about that should be put to rest. But there are tantalizing bits of historical evidence that suggest real Danite connections and Danite activity. Are you saying that you can dismiss any suggestion of Danite association with a conspiracy theory?

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — May 15, 2014 @ 10:36 am

  9. (That is, Danite activity in the Utah area in the 1850s-1890s)

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — May 15, 2014 @ 10:39 am

  10. BIV, I forgot you had a “thing” for Sirrine.

    Sirrine’s name came up in Footnote 43 as an example of someone who was supposedly “blood atoned” and who then turned up alive and well — it’s an illustration of the many such non-existent murders that were routinely attributed to Mormons.

    I do not deny that there was violence in Utah in the 19th century, much but not all of it arising from the misapplication of religious ideas — my article cited in Footnote 42 of the Peace and Violence essay is an example of my willingness to explore such violence; the significant award given to that article by the Utah State Historical Society and the number of times it has been cited in scholarly works is recognition of how thoroughly documented and well analyzed that case was.

    I’m not going to debate 19th century Mormon violence with you, because we both know going in that you will not be persuaded by any amount of evidence that conflicts with your fixed ideas. As a historian and not a conspiracist, I find such discussions tedious and absolutely useless.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 15, 2014 @ 11:34 am

  11. Ardis: Thank you for this write-up. At least for me, this falls under the category, “I never knew” and was totally fascinated by it. You are a true gift to the LDS blogosphere.

    Comment by David R — May 15, 2014 @ 11:50 am

  12. What David R said.

    Comment by The Other Clark — May 15, 2014 @ 1:19 pm

  13. Ardis,
    I think you’ve done your usual fine (and wry) job of summarizing the Dr. Robinson case, which fits with my general understanding of what happened, although, like you, this isn’t exactly my area of expertise. The new essay of which footnote #43 is part, is a definite step forward on the subject that it addresses. My only concern is that in putting this essay up on the Church website, the public affairs folks have added a sidebar suggesting “Learn more about the Utah War” with a link that takes the unwary to Chapter 29 (“The Utah War”) of the 2003 edition of “Church History in The Fulness of Times Student Manual.” This chapter is horribly out-of-date and inaccurate and, because of its timing, wholly misses the near-tsunami of scholarship on the subject done over the past fifteen years or so by a phalanx of talented Mormon and non-Mormon historians, including analysts like Rick Turley, Ron Walker, Glen Leonard, Will Bagley, Dave Bigler, and our own Ardis Parshall (drum roll!) . The folks at need to take down this link pronto, as it undercuts the very essay that it is intended to support, and I suggest that the CES people (or whoever else is responsible), after all these years, overhaul Chapter 29 lest anyone conclude that there is a deliberate intent to mislead and ignore the best work of the Church’s own historians.
    Back to the Dr. Robinson case for a minute. My recollection is that when he heard of the murder and the lack of a prosecution/conviction, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman was so incensed that he telegraphed B.Y. to say that if such violence continued in Utah that more U.S. troops would soon be arriving. A bit later, the general and Mrs. Sherman visited Salt Lake accompanied by their unmarried and presumably attractive daughter. The visit, which proved to be amicable, produced a letter from President Young to 2d Lt. Willard Young, his West Point-educated son, who had just been posted to Fort Totten, NY as an engineering officer. In this note, the father advised the son that if he undertook to pay social attention to Miss Sherman, this could have a positive impact on the trajectory of his army career. Willard chose to ignore this “counsel” and instead became engaged to the daughter of William H, Hooper, Utah’s delegate in Congress who had appointed him to West Point. So although the murder of Dr. Robinson produced an escalation in tensions between Utah and the federal government, the incident carried with it the unexpected by-product of General Sherman’s visit to see Utah first-hand and the near-miss of a social entanglement which demonstrated that not everyone always did what Brigham Young counseled.

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — May 15, 2014 @ 1:34 pm

  14. Bill, I cringed at that link, too, and suppose it was put in the sidebar because that manual is still, unfortunately, in use. I don’t know who would have authority to consider taking it down, but will look for somebody to forward your concerns to.

    Thanks, everybody.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 15, 2014 @ 1:39 pm

  15. OK, thanks Ardis. BTW, I should have mentioned Polly Aird as well as a historian who has written extensively about violence in Utah during the Utah War period. Her work is cited in the new essay but ignored in Chapter 29, another example of the disconnect I’ve just discussed. If you succeed in speaking with whomever is responsible for the lamentably outdated Chapter 29, you might mention that I’d be happy to volunteer to help re-write it.

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — May 15, 2014 @ 1:49 pm

  16. Since there are experts on Utah Territory violence reading, has anyone every put together an essay comparing Mountain Meadows with the downing of Iran Air 655 by the Vincennes?

    Comment by John Mansfield — May 15, 2014 @ 5:43 pm

  17. A quick look at Google suggests that the essay may very well be waiting for you to write it, John.

    Comment by Amy T — May 15, 2014 @ 6:32 pm

  18. One thing about ther Turley, et al book on Mountain Meadows that I appreciated was the work it did in placing that tragedy into the context of the history of mass violence in America. The MMM was in the same category as the murder of over 200 civilians by Quantrill’s Raiders, Confederate irregulars, in Lawrence, Kansas, a continuation of the slaver vs. abolitionist attacks across the Kansas-Missouri border that had given Kansas the appellation “bloody”. But in the overall context of the Civil War and the fighting that led up to it, it is not worth remembering.

    Then there are all the attacks by US militias and Army units on Indian camps. My recollection is that the Army troops that arrived in Utah with Governor Cumming were involved in such a massacre that rivaled the MMM in scale, but is not remembered, even though the two mass murders share a close context, because it was a “dog bites man” story–ho hum, American soldiers kill more Indian children.

    The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki undoubtedly hastened the end of the war against Japan. And the scale of their homicide was on the scale already established by mass firebomb raids by hundreds of B-29s over Nagoya and Akita and other cities. But because it was part of a deliberate series of decisions by Roosevelt and Truman, marshalling thousands of people to create the weapons, we do not consider them in the category of mass homicide with MMM and Lawrenceville and Wounded Knee.

    Comment by Raymond Takashi Swenson — May 15, 2014 @ 7:34 pm

  19. On the accusation of Brigham Young “covering up” the MMM, I wonder how he was able to do that when he was no longer the governor, while there was a new non-Mormon governor backed by hundreds of US soldiers who were surely interested in investigating the MMM and pinning the blame on Mormons, especially Brigham Young. Why were they so ineffective?

    I recall that after the Civil War, the Federal government sent marshals to investigate the sleeping habits of prominent Mormons so they could be prosecuted for unlawful cohabitation and put in prison. Surely diverting some of that energy into finding the perpetrators of the MMM would not have been too difficult? Indeed, the evidence of polygamy could have been used to extract information about the MMM from the men arrested. Yet all through the 1870s and 1880s they caught polygamists but almost no murderers. One would assume there would be a substantial overlap between the two categories. Why did they never leverage the easily proven cases of polygamy to prove the more difficult case of murder?

    Comment by Raymond Takashi Swenson — May 15, 2014 @ 7:41 pm

  20. I wish I had smething to add, but I instead I’ll say good post, interesting and informative, good job.

    Comment by Adam G. — May 16, 2014 @ 11:21 am

  21. Raymond, a few comments about your #18. In your first para. you write about the Civil War massacre at Lawrence, Kansas in August 1863 by a detachment of Confederate guerrillas led by William C. Quantrill. The death toll there was about 150 civilians rather than 200. You comment that “It is not worth remembering,” but for years those who rode with Quantrill held episodic “reunions” and the citizens of Lawrence, if not Kansas taken more broadly, continue to remember what happened there. Quantrill met his end in 1866 when he was shot by a Union Army patrol in Kentucky; his bones ended up in a cabinet in the Kansas Historical Society in Topeka, and until relatively recently his head resided in the refrigerator of an Ohio household. There is an interesting connection between Quantrill and Utah — during the Utah War Quantrill accompanied the Utah Expedition as a civilian teamster, gambler, and camp cook operating under the alias “Charley Hart.” When he and his band rode out of Lawrence five years later, they left in the smoking ruins of the town the body of Lemuel Fillmore, a local realtor who was also a civilian participant in the Utah War. Fillmore was a field correspondent for the “New York Herald,” until he got into a knife fight with a reporter for the “New York Times” in a Provo hotel at the tail end of the Move South.
    The massacre to which you refer in your second para. is that at Bear River (along the territorial boundary of Utah and Idaho) on January 29, 1863. The U.S. troops involved were not the regulars who accompanied Gov. Cumming west in 1858 as the Utah Expedition but rather were California volunteer troops who came to Utah in October 1862 under Gen. Connor, the founder of Ft. Douglas. The death toll at Bear River exceeded that at MM — more than 224 Shoshoni men, women, and children and 21 soldiers, with about 50 of the latter wounded and another 75 soldiers suffering frostbite. The argument over what took place at Bear River continues today as to whether it was a battle or a massacre. It probably started off as the former and ended up as the latter. There were several important differences between MMM and Bear River to think about. At MM, when killed, the emigrants had surrendered all of their arms on a promise of safe passage; at Bear River (as also at Wounded Knee in 1890) the Shoshonis were well armed throughout the fight, as indicated by the number of army casualties sustained. Also, little known, is the fact that much of the Mormon community approved of the army attack on the Shoshonis, and Gen. Connor used as guides several Mormon civilians, including the famous Porter Rockwell. Whether these guides played any roile in the fighting once the shooting started, I do not know. Bear River has not been forgotten, and last September the Utah State Historical Society and the Fort Douglas Military Museum sponsored a tour of the site. The most recent published account of that conflict appeared in Ken Alford’s excellent 2012 book (BYU and Deseret Book) “Civil War Saints.”

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — May 16, 2014 @ 4:26 pm

  22. “The argument over what took place at Bear River continues today as to whether it was a battle or a massacre.”

    I stopped at the Bear River historical site last Fall, and as I seem to recall the site sign put up by the State of Idaho describes the event as a “massacre” while the language on the monument erected by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers describe it more as a “war” or “battle.” At the time, I thought it was a little curious and now understand a little better the difference in description.

    Comment by David Y. — May 16, 2014 @ 4:42 pm