Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » The Trials of Cora Birdsall: part 4

The Trials of Cora Birdsall: part 4

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 26, 2014

Cora obeyed the summons she had received and attended the bishop’s court scheduled in Monroe, Utah, on 29 October 1901. Her father, Isaac, who had also been accused of un-Christianlike conduct and also summoned to appear, did not attend.

The setting for the court would have been quite different from what we might imagine today. I do not know what the particular arrangement was in this case, but most Mormon chapels of that era in small rural communities like Monroe were nothing like today’s buildings: Virtually all of the space under the roof would have consisted of the single large room where worship was conducted. Benches were likely not permanently attached to the floor, but were movable so that the same space could be used as a schoolroom, a courtroom, a dance hall, or serve any other community need – it was probably the largest building in town.

Many such buildings also had a small vestibule at the front, serving as a buffer between the outside world and the actual worship space, but any such entryway was only a few feet deep, large enough for removing coats and stamping the snow off boots, but not fitted with any tables or chairs. There would have been no cultural hall, no hallways, no classrooms, no Relief Society or Primary rooms, no restrooms, and no office space. There was no bishop’s office. At least one bishop in the area had a room built at the end of his house, with an outside entrance, that he used as an office. Towns with tithing yards for the receipt and storage of donated produce usually had accounting offices that could be used for small meetings.

Whatever space Bishop Orson Magleby of the Monroe Ward had available, it was almost certainly not outfitted with a a long, polished table ringed by heavy wooden chairs. It was probably a simple open space, with a small desk for the ward clerk to use for taking his minutes, and a few ordinary chairs.

The meeting opened at 2 p.m. Present were Bishop Magleby, his two counselors (Samuel W. Goold and Joseph A. Smith), the ward clerk (William A. Warnock), plaintiff James E. Leavitt, defendant Cora P. Birdsall, and plaintiff’s witnesses. Cora had brought no witnesses; her mother did accompany her, for moral support.

Samuel A. Goold offered an opening prayer.

Bishop Magleby then explained how the court would proceed. The details of his explanation are not preserved in the minutes of the meeting, only that he explained the procedure, and that “proper decorum should be preserved and proper methods used to bring out truthful evidence.” The ward clerk then read the formal accusation made by Leavitt:

Complaint: James E. Leavitt v. Isaac Birdsall and Cora Birdsall

Joseph, Sevier County, Utah, June 10, 1901.

To the honorable bishopric of Monroe Ward, Brethren: I hereby prefer a charge of unchristianlike conduct against Isaac Birdsall and Sister Cora Birdsall, his daughter, which consists of this:

First. That Isaac Birdsall has defrauded me, by agreeing to furnish me the deed for about 60 acres of meadow and pasture land that I bought of Kent and Frank W. Farnsworth, which was in Birdsall’s entry. It is in the S.E. 1/4 of Tp. 25, S.R. 4 West, known as the Jerico pasture, in the Joseph precinct, for which he has received from me $50.00 (fifty dollars) in part payment. That he has failed to deed me any land and has relinquished his claim to his daughter Cora.

2nd. That Cora proved upon said land and in April, 1896, forbid me the use of my land and improvements and has appropriated the same to her own use, and refuses to deed to me the land that she knew belonged to me, that I had fenced and improved and possessed in peace from 1883 until 1896. I consider that I have been damaged to the amount of five hundred dollars ($500) by being deprived of the use of said land. I therefore ask for the title to my land and damage. I therefore appeal to you in the matter and I ask that your court shall judge the matter between us and grant me the just equities of the case.

Respectfully, your bro.,

Jas. E. Leavitt

Leavitt testified first, saying “he bought the land in question from Kent Farnsworth and his bro. in 1883; was to get the land from Farnsworth’s Bros. Later Bro. Birdsall entered upon the land. I went to the Farnsworth Bros. about it and I agreed with Birdsall to purchase the land for $150.00. I paid him two cows valued at $50.00. In the fall of ‘93 I tried to get money at the bank, but could not. It was the year of the panic. Bro. Birdsall relinquished the land in favor of his daughter in the year 1896. Three years ago she told me to leave all improvements and not put any cattle on the land.”

A neighbor, William Parker, testified that he had helped Leavitt fence the pasture, and that after Leavitt left for Arizona he, Parker, had used the pasture.

Charles Leavitt, a brother of James E. Leavitt, next said that he, too, had used the land after his brother had gone to Arizona. “While I was on the land Mr. Birdsall came to me and said he needed $100 to pay in proving up the land. I was not molested or objected to while I was on the land by Mr. Birdsall.” He had helped drive two cows to Birdall’s place which, he said “were turned over to him on payment of the land.”

Leavitt testified again. “Cora called me out of the meetinghouse at one time. We went to one side and she said to me: ‘I may be a little long about the matter, but I will make it all right.’ The land has cost me a great deal – including the improvements, about $800.00.”

Cora denied that any such conversation had ever taken place, or that any other promise had been given at any other time, to deed the meadow to Leavitt. She also produced a receipt, signed by Leavitt, acknowledging that a payment he had made to her was for rent of the land.

Leavitt admitted he had signed that receipt, but claimed it was Cora’s attempt to defraud the federal government, which forbid such sales of land that was still in the process of homesteading. He had signed the receipt, he said, to protect Cora’s homesteading claim, but the receipt was part of an illegal deception.

With only the clerk’s notes, without a verbatim transcript, it’s hard to know whether all the relevant facts can be known to us. For the most part, the testimony is one person’s word against another’s – Leavitt says he had an oral agreement with Cora; Cora denied that any such conversation had occurred. Leavitt claimed to have had an oral agreement with Isaac Birdsall, too; but Isaac was not there to admit or deny the truthfulness of that claim. Cora was somewhat handicapped by not having her father there to challenge Leavitt’s unsupported claim. Other witnesses could testify that they knew Leavitt had made improvements (fencing) on the land, but they were not privy to any supposed agreements between Leavitt and either of the Birdsalls. It was solely Leavitt’s unverified word against Cora’s. The only documentary evidence was in Cora’s favor – a receipt for rent, not purchase; in an attempt to discredit that documentary evidence, Leavitt claimed he had intentionally participated in fraud. Notice also that the land had been used not only by James Leavitt, who claimed that his use entitled him to own the land, but also by Kent Farnsworth, William Parker, and Charles Leavitt – as mentioned in an early part of this series, and will be shown later by a quotation from a later trial record, Isaac was not at all “particular” about which of his neighbors used the meadow on his homestead without, apparently intending that such use meant that he intended to give any of them permanent ownership of the meadow.

I will say here what I will probably say another dozen times before this story is complete: I believe that, with the possible exception of James E. Leavitt, who had everything to gain and nothing to lose, that everyone involved in these proceedings tried his or her best to be fair and honest and arrive at a just decision. I do not know why the bishop’s court gave the decision they did, although I have two theories, which I’ll reserve until the report of a later trial where I think both of these theories are more clearly illustrated.

In any case, the bishop’s court closed, and the bishopric deliberated. On 1 November 1901, they rendered their decision:

Decision of Bishop’s Court

Bishop’s office of Monroe Ward, Sevier Stake.
Monroe, Sevier Co., Utah, Nov. 1, 1901.

Sister Cora Birdsall:

Bishop’s court, held to decide in the case of James E. Leavitt against Isaac Birdsall and Cora Birdsall, his daughter, as presented at the Bishop’s court held Oct. 18, 1901.1

After duly considering the matter as presented by both parties, our decision is –

That Cora Birdsall shall deed unto James E. Leavitt the northwest forty (40) acres of the SE. 1/4 of sec. 1, Tp. 25 S., R. 4 W., of Salt Lake meridian, and that James E. Leavitt pay to Cora Birdsall the sum of one hundred dollars upon receipt of said deed.

You are hereby required to comply with this decision in writing, or on appeal taken to the High Council on or before the 15 day of November, 1901.

Orson Magleby.
Samuel W. Goold.
Joseph A. Smith.

Cora did not accept this decision, and immediately appealed the decision to the First Presidency. Her appeal is one of the few key documents that I do not have, so I cannot state what her grounds were for appeal. I think, though, that she did not think the decision of the bishop’s court was fair, and I think her immediate appeal actually supports her side of the “he said/she said” claims made at the hearing: Her appeal shows that she still had faith in the church system; had she lied when she denied there was any agreement between Leavitt and herself, appealing to an ecclesiastical judge whom she expected to discern the truth through divine means would be the last thing she would want.

But whatever her grounds for appeal, she soon received an answer from the First Presidency.

Referral to High Council

Office of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
P.O. Box B.
Salt Lake City, Utah, Nov. 12, 1901.

Miss Cora Birdsall, Monroe.

Dear Sister: This is in answer to yours of the 10th inst., in which you express a desire to appeal your case direct to us from the bishop’s court or go to law.

In answer we would say that in all such matters all members of the church are expected to follow the order of the church governing them, and that order provides that an appeal may be taken from the bishop’s court to the high council and from the high council to the first presidency.

We would advise you to follow the order provided of the Lord to govern in your case.

Your brethren,

Jos. F. Smith,
John R. Winder,
Anthon H. Lund,
First Presidency.

This was not a judgment on the merits of her case, but was a simple procedural matter. There is order in the Church; an appeal from a bishop’s court was properly made to the next higher court, the stake high council.

Again, I may be reading too much into too little information, but I think there is a hint here that Cora’s disagreement with the bishop’s court decision has a whiff of distrust of the entire local system: She evidently told the First Presidency that if she could not appeal directly to them, she would rely on the civil court to support her claim to her property. She may also (according to the letter below) have objected to the decision of the local court to heart Leavitt’s charges at all, since he was not a member of the Church and the Church held no influence over him. (Alternatively, she may not even have known she should appeal to her local stake; perhaps she wrote to the First Presidency something like “If you won’t correct this injustice, I’ll have to rely on the law to protect me.” There is simply no way to know, without having her appeal.)

Cora did not appeal to the stake council by November 14, the deadline given by the bishop’s court for her to comply with their order; neither did she deed her land to Leavitt by that date. Instead, the matter seems to have dragged on for nearly a year. Finally, in September 1902, Cora’s stake president gave her a new deadline: Either make the deed, or appeal to the stake high council by their next session on September 20.

William Seegmiller to Cora Birdsall, 6 September 1902

Office of Sevier Stake Presidency,
Richfield, Utah, 6 Sept., 1902.

Miss Cora Birdsall, Joseph.

Dear Sister:

Yours of 4th ult. received.

I am sorry you have failed on meeting me as per instructions received from President Jos. F. Smith at our last conference. I am quite busy, but I can be found at home most of the time. I suppose you want to get matters adjusted relative to the land dispute between James Leavitt and yourself.

According to the ruling of President Jos. Smith, James Leavitt has a right to have a hearing before our church tribunals where a church member is concerned with him providing he will agree to abide the decision rendered. I understand to this he is willing to agree.

The Monroe bishopric has rendered a decision in the case brought before them against you by James Leavitt. Your only alternative now is to comply with that decision or inform Bishop S.W. Goold that you want to appeal the case to the high council. It will convene on 20th Sept. next. If you conclude to abide the decision of bps. court, that ends the matter; if you want to appeal, you can inform Bp. Goold, and he will forward the minutes of trial with complaint and decision and you will request a hearing before the high council in a letter addressed to Jacob Lauritzen, Richfield, clerk of high council. This request should be made within a few days, so the matter can be gotten in shape for the council session, 20th Sept. next.

Trusting that these directions will enable you to come to such conclusion as will be best. It will be well for you to carefully consider the bishop’s decision in your case before appealing, as the high council considers very closely the equities in cases brought before them.

With kind regards, I am your brother,

William H. Seegmiller

I think if I had been Cora, I would have found that last line very ominous. I think I might read into it that the stake president had already reached his conclusion that “the equities” in Cora’s case were against her.

A note about sources: Records of church courts, no matter what the date or what the nature of the hearing, are very closely protected by the Church and are not generally made available for study. Some of you might wonder where I obtained the records of Cora’s bishop’s court, and whether my working at the Library has given me access to materials you would not be able to see. In Cora’s case, her records are available from other, public sources, and I tracked down everything you’ll read in this series years ago, long before I began working for the Church. I have not seen – nor even sought – anything that might be in restricted records relative to Cora’s case.

(Part 1) (Part 2) (Part 3) (Part 4) (Part 5) (Part 6) (Part 7) (Part 8)

  1. I don’t understand this date. The minutes of the bishop’s court are dated 29 October, and a two-day deliberation of the matter seems far more reasonable than a two-week delay. []


  1. Keep it coming!

    I can certify that there are public sources available as Ardis says. But I don’t want to spoil the fascinating story either.

    Comment by Grant — June 26, 2014 @ 7:46 am

  2. Sometimes you can be surprised at what you can find that otherwise you might think would be hard to find. Some of the most obscure stories can be brought to light with just some hard work, and so often just blind luck, stumbling on something that otherwise go unnoticed. This makes for gripping reading. More, please!

    Comment by kevinf — June 26, 2014 @ 12:15 pm

  3. This is so frustrating. It definitely shows the limitations of the written record.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — June 26, 2014 @ 12:59 pm

  4. This is well past the death of Brigham Young, but what must the government have thought about the church getting involved in litigation over the ownership of federally granted land?

    Comment by Amy T — June 26, 2014 @ 1:18 pm

  5. Thanks, all. I want to know more, but I’m so glad for how much is there to be found. There are still some startling turns to come.

    And funny you should ask about that, Amy. Even the United States Senate is going to play a part in this before we’re through.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 26, 2014 @ 2:14 pm

  6. Ardis, you are doing a masterful job unfolding this story and keeping us in a high level of suspense. Being a Richfield native I just know Cora will find some justice now that her case will be heard at the stake level in the big city!

    Comment by Brad Ogden — June 30, 2014 @ 11:25 am

  7. Fascinating. The conflicting testimony & evidence don’t seem to be due to a simple misunderstanding; rather, it sounds to me like someone is prevaricatin’! I wish Cora’s father had been there to support her testimony.

    And yes, that last line from the bishop telling Cora to thoughtfully consider “the equities” of the case sounded dire. [cue ominous music]

    Comment by David Y. — July 1, 2014 @ 9:25 am

  8. I didn’t start out reading this as you published it. Now I have to go catch up. :)

    I just realized I have a tenuous connection with this. William Seegmiller joined the church because of his brother Daniel, who met my GGGrandfather Charlie Crow in a harness shop in New York. Charlie Crow baptized Daniel and they went to Utah where Charlie became a constable (you might remember him in connection with the half mast incident). Daniel eventually went back to Canada and convinced two of his brothers, including William, to come to Utah where they joined the Church.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — August 5, 2014 @ 3:08 pm

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