Mark Twain and the Mormons

It has been a while since I posted anything on this blog, and many things have happened since my last post. Sadly, many of those things will have to be left without comment – the moment has simply passed. But, in order to get back into writing, I thought I would start with a simple, and lighthearted post, and one which I have been wanting to write for some time.

Mark Twain in 1867

In 1872 Samuel Longhorn Clemens, (Mark Twain) published an autobiographical account of his travels thru the Wild West during the span of years from 1861-1867. It was during these travels in the pioneer west, that he first made use of the pen name, “Mark Twain”. While on these travels Samuel learned many things; among them was “how far he could push a joke” a lesson learned from some “disagreeable experiences” he brought upon himself.

He made these travels with his older brother, Orion Clemens, who was the newly appointed Secretary of the Nevada Territory (its first and only). In writing the account, Twain relied on his brother’s diary to refresh his memory. In order to fill in the gaps, he borrowed heavily from his own active imagination, and wry sense of humor.

Altho I would recommend the book generally, it is very long, being 608 pages. And tho I have read a good deal of it, I could not push myself to complete it before the library stopped allowing my renewals.

However, for the interest and entertainment of the reader, I will reproduce some briefer quotations from the book below. The Great Salt Lake City, founded by Mormons in 1847, became known as, “The Crossroads of the West”. A great many travelers, famous, infamous, and otherwise, came thru Salt Lake City in those early pioneer days. Many of them were naturally curious to see the Mormons and their peculiar ways; namely, plural marriage. Samuel Clemens was no exception, and goes on for several chapters of his book, Roughing It, describing his experiences in Utah among the Mormons.

In the beginning of Chapter 13, after arriving in Great Salt Lake City (more commonly known today by its short form, “Salt Lake City”, or even just, “Salt Lake”), Twain reports:

We had a fine supper, of the freshest meats and fowls and vegetables—a great variety and as great abundance. We walked about the streets some, afterward, and glanced in at shops and stores; and there was fascination in surreptitiously staring at every creature we took to be a Mormon. This was fairy-land to us, to all intents and purposes—a land of enchantment, and goblins, and awful mystery. We felt a curiosity to ask every child how many mothers it had, and if it could tell them apart; and we experienced a thrill every time a dwelling-house door opened and shut as we passed, disclosing a glimpse of human heads and backs and shoulders—for we so longed to have a good satisfying look at a Mormon family in all its comprehensive ampleness, disposed in the customary concentric rings of its home circle.

He goes on to say:

Next day we strolled about everywhere through the broad, straight, level streets, and enjoyed the pleasant strangeness of a city of fifteen thousand inhabitants with no loafers perceptible in it; and no visible drunkards or noisy people; a limpid stream rippling and dancing through every street in place of a filthy gutter; block after block of trim dwellings, built of “frame” and sunburned brick—a great thriving orchard and garden behind every one of them, apparently—branches from the street stream winding and sparkling among the garden beds and fruit trees—and a grand general air of neatness, repair, thrift and comfort, around and about and over the whole. And everywhere were workshops, factories, and all manner of industries; and intent faces and busy hands were to be seen wherever one looked; and in one’s ears was the ceaseless clink of

One Crest

hammers, the buzz of trade and the contented hum of drums and fly-wheels.

The armorial crest of my own State consisted of two dissolute bears holding up the head of a dead and gone cask between them and making the pertinent remark, “UNITED, WE STAND—(hic!)—DIVIDED, WE FALL.” It was always too figurative for the author of this book. But the Mormon crest was easy.

The Other

And it was simple, unostentatious, and fitted like a glove. It was a representation of a GOLDEN BEEHIVE, with the bees all at work!

We saw the “Tithing-House,” and the “Lion House,” and I do not know or remember how many more church and government buildings of various kinds and curious names. We flitted hither and thither and enjoyed every hour, and picked up a great deal of useful information and entertaining nonsense, and went to bed at night satisfied.

On the next day Twain was very much excited to meet the famous, Brigham Young, but the feeling was not as mutual as he would have liked.

The second day, we made the acquaintance of Mr. Street (since deceased) and put on white shirts and went and paid a state visit to the king. He seemed a quiet, kindly, easy-mannered, dignified, self-possessed old gentleman of fifty-five or sixty, and had a gentle craft in

Brigham Young

his eye that probably belonged there. He was very simply dressed and was just taking off a straw hat as we entered. He talked about Utah, and the Indians, and Nevada, and general American matters and questions, with our secretary and certain government officials who came with us. But he never paid any attention to me, notwithstanding I made several attempts to “draw him out” on federal politics and his high handed attitude toward Congress. I thought some of the things I said were rather fine. But he merely looked around at me, at distant intervals, something as I have seen a benignant old cat look around to see which kitten was meddling with her tail.

By and by I subsided into an indignant silence, and so sat until the end, hot and flushed, and execrating him in my heart for an ignorant savage. But he was calm. His conversation with those gentlemen flowed on as sweetly and peacefully and musically as any summer brook. When the audience was ended and we were retiring from the presence, he put his hand on my head, beamed down on me in an admiring way and said to my brother:

“Ah—your child, I presume? Boy, or girl?”

As for Twain’s intentions to bring about a reformation of the Mormons, on the subject of polygamy, he had these sobering words to share in Chapter 14:

Our stay in Salt Lake City amounted to only two days, and therefore we had no time to make the customary inquisition into the workings of polygamy and get up the usual statistics and deductions preparatory to calling the attention of the nation at large once more to the matter.

I Was Touched

I had the will to do it. With the gushing self-sufficiency of youth I was feverish to plunge in headlong and achieve a great reform here—until I saw the Mormon women. Then I was touched. My heart was wiser than my head. It warmed toward these poor, ungainly and pathetically “homely” creatures, and as I turned to hide the generous moisture in my eyes, I said, “No—the man that marries one of them has done an act of Christian charity which entitles him to the kindly applause of mankind, not their harsh censure—and the man that marries sixty of them has done a deed of open-handed generosity so sublime that the nations should stand uncovered in his presence and worship in silence.”

And finally in Chapter 15, he shares a humorous tale which, tho fictitious, has a kernel of truth. It was supposedly told to Mark Twain by a Gentile named Johnson:

Mr. Johnson said that while he and Mr. Young were pleasantly conversing in private, one of the Mrs. Youngs came in and demanded a breast-pin, remarking that she had found out that he had been giving a breast-pin to No. 6, and she, for one, did not propose to let this partiality go on without making a satisfactory amount of trouble about it. Mr. Young reminded her that there was a stranger present. Mrs. Young said that if the state of things inside the house was not agreeable to the stranger, he could find room outside. Mr. Young promised the breast-pin, and she went away. But in a minute or two another Mrs. Young came in and demanded a breast-pin. Mr. Young began a remonstrance, but Mrs. Young cut him short. She said No. 6 had got one, and No. 11 was promised one, and it was “no use for him to try to impose on her—she hoped she knew her rights.” He gave his promise, and she went. And presently three Mrs. Youngs entered in a body and opened on their husband a tempest of tears, abuse, and entreaty. They had heard all about No. 6, No. 11, and No. 14. Three more breast-pins were promised. They were hardly gone when nine more Mrs. Youngs filed into the presence, and a new tempest burst forth and raged round about the prophet and his guest. Nine breast-pins were promised, and the weird sisters filed out again. And in came eleven more, weeping and wailing and gnashing their teeth. Eleven promised breast-pins purchased peace once more.

“That is a specimen,” said Mr. Young. “You see how it is. You see what a life I lead. A man can’t be wise all the time. In a heedless moment I gave my darling No. 6—excuse my calling her thus, as her other name has escaped me for the moment—a breast-pin. It was only worth twenty-five dollars—that is, apparently that was its whole cost—but its ultimate cost was inevitably bound to be a good deal more. You yourself have seen it climb up to six hundred and fifty dollars—and alas, even that is not the end! For I have wives all over this Territory of Utah. I have dozens of wives whose numbers, even, I do not know without looking in the family Bible. They are scattered far and wide among the mountains and valleys of my realm. And mark you, every solitary one of them will hear of this wretched breast pin, and every last one of them will have one or die. No. 6’s breast pin will cost me twenty-five hundred dollars before I see the end of it. And these creatures will compare these pins together, and if one is a shade finer than the rest, they will all be thrown on my hands, and I will have to order a new lot to keep peace in the family.

Sir, you probably did not know it, but all the time you were present with my children your every movement was watched by vigilant servitors of mine. If you had offered to give a child a dime, or a stick of candy, or any trifle of the kind, you would have been snatched out of the house instantly, provided it could be done before your gift left your hand. Otherwise it would be absolutely necessary for you to make an exactly similar gift to all my children—and knowing by experience the importance of the thing, I would have stood by and seen to it myself that you did it, and did it thoroughly. Once a gentleman gave one of my children a tin whistle—a veritable invention of Satan, sir, and one which I have an unspeakable horror of, and so would you if you had eighty or ninety children in your house. But the deed was done—the man escaped. I knew what the result was going to be, and I thirsted for vengeance. I ordered out a flock of Destroying Angels, and they hunted the man far into the fastnesses of the Nevada mountains. But they never caught him. I am not cruel, sir—I am not vindictive except when sorely outraged—but if I had caught him, sir, so help me Joseph Smith, I would have locked him into the nursery till the brats whistled him to death. By the slaughtered body of St. Parley Pratt (whom God assail!) there was never anything on this earth like it! I knew who gave the whistle to the child, but I could, not make those jealous mothers believe me. They believed I did it, and the result was just what any man of reflection could have foreseen: I had to order a hundred and ten whistles—I think we had a hundred and ten children in the house then, but some of them are off at college now—I had to order a hundred and ten of those shrieking things, and I wish I may never speak another word if we didn’t have to talk on our fingers entirely, from that time forth until the children got tired of the whistles. And if ever another man gives a whistle to a child of mine and I get my hands on him, I will hang him higher than Haman! That is the word with the bark on it! Shade of Nephi! You don’t know anything about married life. I am rich, and everybody knows it. I am benevolent, and everybody takes advantage of it.

I hope you all enjoyed these accounts, and can see the humor in them.

Happy Pioneer Day!

4 thoughts on “Mark Twain and the Mormons

  1. You did not tell the famous Mark Twain polygamy joke. When “Mark” was asked for a scripture that prohibited polygamy he famously replied, “Nothing easier,” Twain replied. “No man can serve two masters.”

    Liked by 2 people

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