The murder of Mormon apostle Parley P. Pratt, slain by the husband of a woman Pratt had taken as a plural wife, was national news in 1857.
Hector McLean chased Pratt across much of the country before catching him and killing the LDS leader in Arkansas. The small Mormon media defended Pratt, pointing out that McLean was a drunk and wife-beater long estranged from his wife. However, defenders of Pratt also, not surprisingly, criticized the motives of murderer Hector McLean, who was never legally punished. The strongest published condemnation of McLean came from the wife who abandoned him for Pratt, Eleanor McComb Pratt. Her argument, shared by others, was that to kill Pratt, or to spend a long time seeking Pratt and finally murdering him, was the work of a brutal, godless man consumed by thoughts of revenge, hate and killing.
There is a certain irony to the Utah Mormons’ outrage over Pratt’s murder by the cuckold McLean, though. Through the latter half of the 19th century in Utah, cuckolds who murdered seducers of wives were routinely found not guilty of murder, and in fact applauded by the Utah media. Historian Kenneth L. Cannon II has written an interesting history “Mountain Common Law: The Extralegal Punishment of Seducers in early Utah,” published in the fall 1983 issue of Utah Historical Quarterly. Two early cases researched by Cannon are noteworthy. In 1851, Manti resident Madison Hambleton discovered his wife was having an affair with Dr. John Vaughan. After learning of the affair, one Sunday Hambleton spent hours at his Mormon church meetings, then sought out Dr. Vaughan, and then shot and killed him. He immediately surrendered and was taken to Great Salt Lake City. At the court of inquiry, Hambleton was represented by Mormon prophet Brigham Young! Writes Cannon, “The supreme court of the territory heard the case and acquitted Hambleton. Those in attendance enthusiastically voiced their approval of the court decision.”
Defenders of Hambleton may have argued that he killed Vaughan in a fit of passion upon learning of the adultery. I have no idea if that is true but it was an argument for adultery-related murders of that era. However, a more publicized case of a cuckold murdering a seducer could not claim “heat of passion” as a defense. Also in 1851, Mormon leader Howard Egan, returning to the Salt Lake Valley after guiding gold miners to California, discovered his first of three wives, Tamson, had been unfaithful with a man named James Monroe. Indeed, Tamson had given birth to a child by Monroe. Monroe, aware that Egan would want to kill him, fled the area. Egan pursued Monroe, and around the territorial border, found him with a wagon train and killed him. As Cannon recounts, a church investigation cleared Egan. At his civil trial, “Egan’s defense was handled by W.W. Phelps, a prominent Mormon, and George A. Smith, a Mormon apostle.”
During final arguments, Smith’s words are important, as Cannon writes, “they display the sentiments of Mormon Utah society at the time.” Smith was blunt and to the point. Criticizing English law, that applied only civil damages to adultery, Smith said, “The principle, the only one, that beats and throbs through the hearts of the entire inhabitants of this territory, is simply this: The man who seduces his neighbor’s wife must die, and her nearest relative must kill him!” It took the jury only 15 minutes to acquit Egan of a murder, that not unlike McLean’s of Pratt, was clearly premeditated.
Later in his article, Cannon posits that acquittals of cases where men killed seducers of their wives and daughters may have been grounded in efforts to protect wives, mothers and daughters from seducers in rural areas. Also, it’s likely many Utah territory residents were dissatisfied with penalties for seductions, which ranged from one to 20 years, plus fines, for a crime that was difficult to prove. Cannon notes that there was no evidence that Egan’s wife, Tamson, resisted Monroe’s sexual advances. Utah Mormons, Cannon adds, heavily publicized the Egan murder case, perhaps as a warning for outsiders to stay away from Mormon women?
Back to the Pratt murder by McLean. Patrick Q. Mason, writing in the excellent book of essays, “Parley P. Pratt and the Making of Mormonism,” 2011, The Arthur H. Clark Company, notes the power of cultural context of “honor.” Honor “is a communally constructed characteristic, as opposed to virtue or integrity.” As a result, a father or husband lost his “honor” among the community if a wife or daughter was seduced. Legal remedies might imprison or fine the seducer, but they did nothing to restore honor to the father of cuckold.
To regain honor, the offended man had to murder the seducer. That law doomed Pratt, no matter his religious motivations or the evidence that McLean was a brutal, drunken wife-beater. As the Hambleton and Egan cases show, Utah shared traits of the honor’s cultural context.
Utah’s commitment to “mountain common law” would last for decades, long after Pratt’s similar murder in 1857. As mentioned, the media usually agreed with the harsh punishment. After the seducer of a restaurant owner’s daughter was shot by father William Hughes, the Deseret Evening News published this approbation, writes Cannon: “… Public opinion in these mountains declares that a man who seduces a woman ought to pay the penalty with his life; and her nearest kindred should bring him to account.”
“Mountain common law” as a legal remedy was first challenged by the anti-Mormon Salt Lake Tribune, probably due more to antipathy to the church than a real commitment to legal reform. However, as Utah, and the LDS Church leadership, sought better relations with the “gentile” world, mountain common law, as in other parts of the nation, started a slow, consistent fade legally.
By 1888, the Utah Supreme Court reject the arguments of a cuckold convicted of killing his wife’s seducer because the killer, Wilford H. Halliday, had waited 24 hours before murdering the seducer. The “Egan rule” no longer applied.
Posts are authored by Doug Gibson. Cartoon is by Cal Grondahl. This post and cartoon was originally published on the now-defunct StandardBlogs website from The Standard-Examiner website, which this post is credited to.