Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » The Trials of Cora Birdsall: part 6
 


The Trials of Cora Birdsall: part 6

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 08, 2014

Cora’s appeal before the stake presidency and high council in Richfield took place on October 21, 1902. She did not have to wait long to hear the decision of the court.

Decision of Stake Presidency

Richfield, Utah, October 22, 1902.

In this appeal case, brought from Bishop Orson Magleby’s court, in which James E. Leavitt is the accuser and Sister Cora Birdsall is the accused,

Sister Cora Birdsall appeals from the decision of Bishop Orson Magleby’s court.

On this case we render the following decision:

We sustain the decision of Bishop Magleby’s court, viz., That Cora Birdsall shall deed unto James E. Leavitt the northwest forty (40) acres of the southeast quarter of section one (1) in township twenty-five (25) south, of range four (4) west of the Salt Lake meridian, and that James E. Leavitt pay to Cora Birdsall the sum of one hundred dollars upon receipt of said deed. And we require Sister Cora Birdsall either to comply with this decision or appeal to the first presidency of our church before the 10th day of November next.

WILLIAM H. SEEGMILLER,
JOS. S. HORNE
JAS. CHRISTIANSEN,
Sevier Stake Presidency.

As I’ve said before, I think everyone involved – with the exception of James E. Leavitt, who, I think, tipped his conniving and unjust hand when he admitted that the reason he had gone to the church courts in the first place was because they could exert pressure on Cora that he, Leavitt, was immune to – was doing the best he could to arrive at a fair decision: Leavitt, among others, had used Cora’s meadow before she filed her homestead claim. The entire community had an interest in upholding traditional Mormon land law, because failure to uphold it may have left a great many others in the community unable to own the land that they had developed for a generation. The high counsel had questioned all witnesses, and had given Cora every opportunity to speak on her own behalf.

On the other hand, Cora was handicapped by her father’s refusal to attend either of her hearings. Although Cora had her receipt showing that Leavitt had paid his cow and harness as rent, not toward payment, the court either ignored that documentation or else believed Leavitt’s claim that both he and Cora had lied in creating that receipt in order to defraud the federal government. Cora and her mother and sister were Cora’s only witnesses – and these women, unused to business, unused to speaking before men, greatly outnumbered by men – men in authority – may not have presented Cora’s defense as well as they might have in other circumstances: a 21st-century society that prides itself on its increasing egalitarianism may struggle to appreciate how difficult it can be for women raised in other circumstances (even women of my own late 20th-century generation) to be assertive, or even expressive, in a room filled with men.

And finally, although I am no psychologist, I think I see signs in the record that Cora might not have presented herself well in almost any stressful situation. She seems to me to have had a somewhat brittle, black-and-white way of looking at the world: In a later hearing, her mother would testify that Cora had never done much socializing, even as a young girl, but had always preferred to play the role of Martha, working and doing good deeds over participating in parties. Rather than summarizing her side of the dispute with Leavitt as the high council court concluded, she apparently had nothing to say until councilmen asked her more questions. And, as we will see, she was incapable of reconciling what she believed to be right (that no one but Cora had any legitimate claim to her land) with her belief that Church leaders would always do what was right (support her in her claim). That one-way-or-the-other personality trait, that inability to compromise or negotiate or see shades of gray, would soon devastate Cora’s life.

The stake presidency gave Cora until November 10, 1902 to deed the property to Leavitt or to appeal their decision to the First Presidency. As she had done following the verdict of the bishop’s court, Cora did nothing.

The stake presidency waited beyond their deadline, then sent Cora this notice:

J.M. Lauritzen to Cora Birdsall, 29 January 1903

Office of Stake Clerk,
Richfield, Utah, January 29, 1903.

Miss Cora Birdsall, Elsinore, Utah.

Dear Sister:

I am instructed by the stake presidency to notify you that unless you comply with the decision of the high council in the case of Leavitt v. Birdsall or appeal from the decision before the 10th day of February, 1903, the high council will take action against you at their next regular session, to convene February 20, 1903.

Very respectfully,

J.M. LAURITZEN,
Clerk of the High Council.

Cora again procrastinated, and one day past the stake deadline she did write to the First Presidency to appeal her case. I do not have a copy of her letter. Anthon H. Lund, second counselor in the First Presidency, noted in his diary for 17 February:

At the [First Presidency’s] office we read an appeal from the Sevier Stake High Council. We felt to confirm the decision, but as the appellant told us that she had new evidence, and could prove some testimony false, we wrote her to send us such fact.

Here is the letter sent by the First Presidency’s secretary:

First Presidency to Cora Birdsall, 19 March 1903

Office of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
P.O. Box B.
Salt Lake City, Utah, March 19, 1903.

Miss Cora Birdsall, Elsinore.

Dear Sister:

On the 21st ultimo you wrote to the first presidency informing them that false testimony had been given in the case of Leavitt v. Birdsall, recently tried by the Sevier stake high council, and the falsity of which you were able to prove.

The papers in the case are now in the hands of the first presidency and they invite you to make a statement in writing setting forth that part of the testimony regarded by you as false, and to give them also the character of the new testimony which you would be prepared to introduce were you again to be heard by the council.

Yours, etc.,

GEO F. GIBBS,
Secretary.

Again, I do not have a copy of Cora’s letter written in response to this request. Whatever she wrote, the First Presidency’s response soon came:

First Presidency to Cora Birdsall, 10 April 1903

Office of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
P.O. Box B.
Salt Lake City, Utah, April 10, 1903.

Miss Cora Birdsall, Elsinore.

Dear Sister:

We have carefully read your communication of the 23d ult., setting forth exceptions to the decision rendered by the high council of the Sevier stake in the case of Leavitt v. Birdsall, and are perfectly satisfied that the points raised by you are not sufficient to justify you in refusing to recognize former rights to the land in question, and we therefore have affirmed the decision in the case and informed the stake presidency accordingly.

Your brethren,

JOS. F. SMITH,
JOHN R. WINDER,
ANTHON H. LUND,
First Presidency.

They sent a similar letter to the stake presidency, whose clerk immediately reported to Cora:

J.M. Lauritzen to Cora Birdsall, 14 April 1903

Office of Stake Clerk,
Richfield, Utah, April 14, 1903.

Sister Cora Birdsall, Elsinore, Utah.

Dear Sister:

In a letter to President Seegmiller and counselors, dated April 10, 1903, the first presidency of the church render their decision in the case of James E. Leavitt v. Isaac Birdsall and Cora Birdsall, his daughter, as follows:

After carefully reviewing the transcript of record in the case of James E. Leavitt v. Isaac Birdsall and Cora Birdsall, his daughter, tried by your high council October 21 last, and duly considering exceptions taken by defendants, we hereby affirm your decision in said case.

I remain, very respectfully,

J.M. LAURITZEN,
Clerk of the High Council.

What would Cora do now, her last appeal exhausted?

Nothing, apparently.

J.M. Lauritzen to Cora Birdsall, 18 May 1903

Office of Stake Clerk,
Richfield, Utah, May 18, 1903.

Cora Birdsall, Elsinore, Utah.

Dear Sister:

At the session of the high council held April 17, 1903, you were given till the 10th day of May in which to comply with the decision of the first presidency in the case of Leavitt v. Birdsall, and you were requested to notify the clerk on or before that date as to what course you decided to take in this matter. At the last session of the high council, held May 15, 1903, I informed the council that I had heard nothing from you, and the council was about to take action against you; but in discussing the matter some of the brethren felt that perhaps you did not realize what the results would be upon your failure to comply with the decision of the first presidency, and it was decided to give you another extension of time, and I was ordered to notify you that unless you comply with the decision of the first presidency in this case on or before June 12, 1903, and notify me as clerk of the high council to that effect, the high council will take action against you upon your fellowship at their next regular session, June 19, 1903.

Very respectfully,

J.M. LAURITZEN,
Clerk of the High Council

Cora still did not respond. The stake high council met again; the stake clerk again wrote to Cora.

J.M. Lauritzen to Cora Birdsall, 23 June 1903

Office of Stake Clerk,
Richfield, Utah, June 23, 1903.

Cora Birdsall, Monroe, Utah.

Dear Sister:

By direction of the stake presidency, you are hereby informed that at the session of the high council of the Sevier Stake of Zion held June 19, 1903, you were excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints for failure to comply with the decision of the first presidency of the church in the case of James E. Leavitt v. Cora Birdsall.

Very respectfully,

J.M. LAURITZEN,
Stake Clerk and Clerk of High Council.

The church court system had run its course. But the trials of Cora Birdsall were only just beginning.



15 Comments »

  1. A couple of thoughts:

    Here’s an instance where access to other court proceedings in the Sevier Stake could come in very handy in helping to understand how the stake conducted such business and the extent to which it intervened in such seemingly “civil” matters.

    If the Church had decided not to involve itself in settling civil disputes, why did the First Presidency seem to sanction such cases by approving the stake’s actions? Wouldn’t it have been a simple matter to inform the stake to suspend the court and to withdraw from such actions?

    Great series, Ardis. And yes, you should consider submitting the entire study for publication as a stand-alone article.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — July 8, 2014 @ 8:34 am

  2. Even receiving a fair market price for one’s land is unsatisfying if one doesn’t want to sell (as a family friend used to say after he lost by eminent domain the back several acres of his river bottom land in Orem to the “BYU Diagonal,” now “University Parkway”–helluva “park,” by the way–six lanes of asphalt and thousands of vehicles a day driving by at 50 mph). But I wonder what percentage of the value of Cora’s land was represented by the $100 Leavitt was ordered to pay.

    On a completely different issue: did the First Presidency realize that Leavitt was not then a member of the church, and that he therefore had nothing whatever at stake in the proceeding? It seems that that alone should have caused someone to stop and reconsider.

    Comment by Mark B. — July 8, 2014 @ 8:53 am

  3. The 40 acre meadow was a portion of the homestead that Cora Birdsall proved. How significant a portion was it? Was the value of the rest damaged by losing this meadow?

    Comment by John Mansfield — July 8, 2014 @ 9:41 am

  4. John, it was 25% of her homestead; it was right next to the river; it was natural meadow in a terribly arid environment; it was probably the best of her land because that’s where she tried to grow trees (unsuccessfully) when she filed under the Timber Culture Act. None of these papers mention water rights, but I wonder whether she would have had access to water without that quarter of her land — according to the linked maps in comments to the last installment, it appears that the meadow included the entire portion of her property contiguous to the river.

    In other words, beyond the principle of the thing, I suspect that losing that particular 25% of her homestead was far, far more serious than losing any other equivalent acreage.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 8, 2014 @ 9:50 am

  5. I appreciate that the post points to the larger principle at play–that the Gospel itself is true, despite being implemented by leaders that are fallible and sometimes err.

    The cognitive dissonance created by this probably did more to affect Cora’s future state of mind than the loss of the land. I suspect every member, sooner or later, must confront this issue. In my case it was the petty tyranny of mission leadership. It was, of course, orders of magnitude less severe than what this blog author experienced.

    I should be grateful major trials of faith don’t run in my genetics!

    Comment by The Other Clark — July 8, 2014 @ 12:19 pm

  6. Excommunicated for abiding by the decision of a church court which before the civil law would have had no jurisdiction. So dad that she had no advocate to help her with this.

    I may have mentioned this before, but I wonder if the Sevier High Council held to different standards in these land law cases than they would for other, less secular issues. Access to more of that information would be helpful, but ultimately we know that such records are kept confidential.

    And her trials are just beginning? It gets worse? This is a tragedy of epic proportions. I agree with Gary, there is a full length article in this, and it is a story that needs to be told.

    Comment by kevinf — July 8, 2014 @ 12:23 pm

  7. Yes, there are more trials, and worse ones, ahead. The next part to be posted is going to be the hardest to write, and, if I do it right, the hardest to read.

    Gary and kevinf both point to how useful it would be to compare this case to others from the same time and place. Besides the confidentiality of records, though, I really wonder how many there would be to compare this to — How many land cases would one stake have had? how many would involve complainants who are not LDS? how many would involve women land owners? Those are such important factors, and yet I think they would have been relatively rare.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 8, 2014 @ 1:53 pm

  8. A perfect storm.

    Comment by Grant — July 8, 2014 @ 2:54 pm

  9. Arids, I suspect you’re correct that such cases are rare. On the other hand, water was more valuable than gold. So I guess I simply can’t help wondering …

    Comment by Gary Bergera — July 8, 2014 @ 3:12 pm

  10. Oops. Ardis. :-)

    Comment by Gary Bergera — July 8, 2014 @ 3:13 pm

  11. I’ve been reading a borrowed copy of Nels Anderson’s Desert Saints in a few free minutes here and there and have been interested to read his explanation of the political and land struggles with Cora’s story in mind. His two examples of this land crisis were from the 1870s and the town of Grantsville, but from his account both seem to have been solved through governmental means, and the case most like Cora’s, involving pasture land, was decided in favor of the filer of the claim, not prior users of the pasture. (See pp 255-257.)

    Anderson says that most land was titled by 1879, so it’s awfully unfortunate that Cora’s case went the way it did, from beginning to end.

    Comment by Amy T — July 8, 2014 @ 3:56 pm

  12. Calling Dr. Freud. Water is awfully valuable in an Arid place like southern Utah!

    Comment by Mark B. — July 8, 2014 @ 4:56 pm

  13. Not to suggest that Cora’s water situation would necessarily be like this but in the north end of Sevier county, my pioneer family owned, and still do, a pasture on the Sevier River, too. The actual farmed land was and is irrigated from the two canals to the west of the river, not from the river flowing next to the pasture. (The river is lower and water doesn’t run uphill naturally.) This river water was used for watering stock but there is still no irrigating ditches available for its use to grow a crop on the meadow or pasture. And the water rights they still own today, 6 generations later, are on the two canals, not on the river.

    Comment by Rachelle — July 8, 2014 @ 7:21 pm

  14. Thanks, Rachelle. I’m so much a city girl that I didn’t think of the possibility of canals — duh — to water land beyond the natural meadow.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 9, 2014 @ 5:12 am

  15. I’m a city girl, too. And I am far more hopeful that Cora had water rights that weren’t attached to the land issue than I am certain what canals existed in the south of the county. I know one northern one didn’t and wasn’t even created until 1906. I don’t know what is down there. I do know that without water rights, no farming could be done. There is absolutely not enough rain water to grow even a garden in Sevier county. Water rights are very valuable. Since they aren’t mentioned in your history, she likely didn’t own any (he would want them also) or they weren’t attached to the land exchange and so she still retained them. Loving the series, and the site as always! Thanks.

    Comment by Rachelle — July 9, 2014 @ 9:39 am

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