Utah/Crime and violence/Parrish-Potter murders

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The Parrish-Potter murders

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Question: Were Brigham Young and the entire Church hierarchy responsible for the "Parrish-Potter" murders?

Parrish’s widow visited Brigham four months later, and reported he was unaware of events in Springville

It is claimed that Brigham Young and the entire Church hierarchy were responsible for the murder of two apostates, called the "Parrish-Potter" murders.

Local members may well have been responsible for the murder of Potter and Parrish. But, the account is remarkable not—as the some claim—because it was so emblematic of "blood atonement" or the murder of apostates, but because it was an anomaly.

As discussed here, violent crime and vigilantism in Utah was much less frequent than elsewhere in the Union, especially on the frontier.

There is likewise no evidence, beyond several testimonies taken two years after the murders that only suggest that the murders were orchestrated by the Church, that Brigham Young ordered or condoned the murder.[1] And, Bagley (and Denton who follows him) are wrong in claiming that local Mormons did nothing to bring the perpetrators to justice—they were indicted by a Mormon grand jury.

Polly Aird has written the most descriptive account[2] to date of the murder in Springville, Utah, of Mormon apostates William and “Beason” Parrish and spy “Duff” Potter. At the time, Aird found the evidence regarding Brigham Young’s foreknowledge of the crime conflicting enough to call for further analysis.[3] Witnesses reported a letter from Brigham Young being present at meetings where killing the Parrishes was plotted by the bishop of Springville, Aaron Johnson, and other local leaders. However, conspirators were told not report to higher authorities and William Parrish was threatened with death if he attempted to go to Brigham Young to appeal for recovery of illegally confiscated horses. Parrish’s widow visited Brigham four months later, and reported he was unaware of events in Springville. Young undercut the actions of the local perpetrators by arranging for some of the horses to be returned, but did not investigate much further.

Ardis Parshall discovered a copy of Brigham Young’s letter that set events in motion.[4] The contents exonerate Young from being an accessory before the fact.[5] Brigham warned that two non-Mormon ex-convicts (John Ambrose and Thomas Betts) might attempt steal livestock from a farm in Spanish Fork or somewhere else on their way to California. Brigham advised vigilance so that Bishop Johnson’s guards would avoid the mistake “of not locking the door until after the deed is stolen.” However if a theft “should occur we shall regret to hear a favorable report; we do not expect there would be any prosecutions for false imprisonment or tale bearers left for witnesses.” Young was essentially authorized extra-legal violence in the event that specific individuals were fleeing the territory with stolen livestock. Such a response was typical for such a serious crime in the western frontier and Brigham had presented his views on deterring theft in 1853.

William MacKinnon described the conditions Brigham Young labored under while trying to prevent a recurrence of Ambrose and Betts’s earlier crime spree.

Brigham Young was then beset by crushing personal, leadership, and health problems that would have sapped the patience and stamina, if not the judgment, of many leaders. Among Young's most obvious burdens were completing the faltering Reformation; recriminations over the large-scale loss of emigrant life among the Willie and Martin handcart companies; the unexpected death on December 1, 1856, of his second counselor Jedediah M. Grant, spearhead of the Reformation; a troubling rash of livestock thefts; a mysterious, debilitating illness that kept Young absent from church services for weeks; worries about the viability of restless Mormon colonies in San Bernardino and Carson Valley; anxiety over the launch of his ambitious, expensive Y.X. Carrying Company; congressional efforts to eradicate polygamy, truncate Utah's borders, repeal its organic act, and split the offices of Utah's governor and superintendent of Indian affairs; and a continuing deterioration in federal-Mormon relations that threatened both Utah's bid for statehood and Young's hold on the governorship.[6]

In targeting the Parrish family, Aaron Johnson convinced others that the letter gave him license to use extra-legal measures in widely different circumstances than those outlined by Brigham Young. Later in life Johnson defended Young from being complicit in murders, yet sometimes condoning or pardoning the abuse of criminals:

“How about Brigham Young, and his Danites, his Destroying Angels? Didn’t Brigham and his Angels kill a lot of men in Salt Lake City during the early days there?” I was asked. I replied “Brigham Young was not a murderer. He was a man a vision, one who did much to establish peace, and good order in Salt Lake City and elsewhere.” “Judgement to the line and righteousness to the plummet was his slogan.” Brigham Young had men around him who aided in ridding Salt Lake City of gamblers and desperados. “Your Mayor and police are doing the same here Nelson. You are trying to do as Brigham did, to have a clean town.”[7]

Question: What was Brigham Young's position on punishing theft without due process?

Harsh rhetoric against apostasy and rumors of Danites searching out fleeing apostates created an atmosphere of fear

Brigham Young’s “motto” regarding thieves was included in an ill-considered sermon that Young used to menace Gladdenite missionaries and their converts.[8] “Now, you nasty apostates, clear out, or judgment will be put on the line, and righteousness to the plummet.” A few weeks later, Young moderated his remarks. “We have been pretty severe upon them, but nowhere, except in the pulpit, to my knowledge. I counsel my brethren to keep away from their houses; let them alone, and treat them as courteously as you would any other person.”[9] In June 1858, after martial law had been lifted and Johnston’s army had entered the valley, Brigham Young could reflect, "With the exception of a short time during the late difficulties all persons have always had the privilege of going away from here when they pleased, and have been repeatedly invited to do so if they wished to."[10]

Despite invitations to leave, debt and poverty in Utah could be a significant barrier for apostates to actually do so.[11] When fortunes were reversed, Mormon history (especially in Lucy Mack Smith's biography[12] is full of examples of debt collectors' harassment and efforts to evade them. Whenever parties moved out of an area, there was potential for extra-legal violence or imprisonment for debts. Once out of a jurisdiction, few legal remedies could be pursued to settle debts. The amount of economic entanglement with the Church and its members could be especially difficult to resolve amicably. Members could be in debt to the PEF fund while being emotionally invested in the Church through voluntary tithing and consecration of property. Harsh rhetoric against apostasy and rumors of Danites searching out fleeing apostates created an atmosphere of fear. In 1859, Mormon writer, John Jaques countered some of more sensationalistic elements appearing in exit narratives:

The idea put forth by some here, that men cannot think or act or speak freely in, or pass through, or leave this Territory without their lives being in danger is too absurd to be entertained. The fact that hundreds annually have peaceably left the Territory, from its first settlement to the present time is ample refutation of any such assertion. True some who attempt to leave with other people’s teams, or without liquidating their just debts, are sometimes intercepted in their flight. But if I am not mistaken, such interception is not altogether illegal, and I fancy it could be easily supported by eastern precedents.[13]

The Springville Murders

Edward Leo Lyman provides some details:

Even the local historians of Springville admitted that the "foul crime" would not fade away. William Parrish and his adult son, Beatson, both of whom had apostatized from the Latter-day Saint church, intended to leave for California against the wishes of local church authorities. According to one account, someone infiltrated their circle of friends and learned the time of their contemplated "escape." The good horses acquired for the journey were secreted in a cane thicket on the edge of town. At early dawn Parrish and two of his sons, along with a man named Duff Potter, walked single file along a trail to the horses. According to Orin Parrish who survived the attack, his father became suspicious of Potter lagging back of the others and insisted that he walk directly behind him. This may have confused those hiding in ambush who shot the first three men—William and Beatson Parrish and Potter—while Orin escaped into a cornfield. All accounts mention that the older Parrish's body was also lacerated with knife wounds. "[T]he perpetrators of the awful deed were never apprehended," concluded the local histories. According to historian Nels Anderson, despite attempts by non-Mormon territorial officials to bring the guilty to justice, "the fact remains that the Mormons in charge of the local government did nothing to find the murderers."[14]

The claim that local members did nothing about the murders is false. There were no indictments brought in the Parrish-Potter murders at the first grand jury of 1859, but "[t]he second 1859 grand jury handed down indictments for the Parrish and Potter and the Henry Jones cases, yet Bagley [in Blood of the Prophets] tells us that no indictments were ever obtained for these crimes."[15]

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here


  1. Sally Denton, American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, (Secker & Warburg, 2003), 190. quoting Polly Aird, "Escape from Zion: The United States Army Escort of Mormon Apostates, 1859," Nevada Historical Society Quarterly 44/3 (Fall 2001) :202. Aird notes, based on the testimonies taken by John Cradlebaugh, that "[s]everal testimonies taken two years after the murders suggest the direction of the plot [of the Parrish murders] involved the entire church reporting line from Brigham Young down to Aaron Johnson, bishop of Springville."
  2. Polly Aird, "'You Nasty Apostates, Clear Out': Reasons for Disaffection in the Late 1850s," Journal of Mormon History 30 (Fall 2004): 129–207 off-site
  3. Aird p. 191
  4. Ardis Parshall, ˜'Pursue, Retake & Punish': The 1857 Santa Clara Ambush," Utah Historical Quarterly 73 (1): 64-86 off-site
  5. Brigham Young to Aaron Johnson, Feb. 3, 1857, CR 1234 1, Box 3, Letterpress Copybook Volume 3, Pages 345-363in Selected Collections from the Archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2 vols., DVD (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, [Dec. 2002],
  6. William MacKinnon, “‘Lonely Bones’: Leadership and Utah War Violence.” Journal of Mormon History 33 (Spring 2007): 121–78 off-site
  7. Paul H. Peterson, "The Mormon Reformation," PhD Dissertation, Brigham Young University, 1980, 176–199 citing Aaron Johnson Autobiography p. 95-96
  8. Richard Saunders, Francis Gladden Bishop And Gladdenism: A Study in the Culture of a Mormon Dissenter and his Movement, USU Thesis (1989): p. 143-146 off-site
  9. Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 2:125.
  10. Aird, p. 147 citing Brigham Young, Sermon, June 6, 1858, Deseret News (28 July 1858), 94.
  11. Aird, p. 146-152
  12. [citation needed]
  13. John Jacques, Millennial Star, July 1859
  14. Edward Leo Lyman, San Bernardino: The Rise and Fall of a California Community (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1996), 343.
  15. Robert D. Crockett, "A Trial Lawyer Reviews Will Bagley's Blood of the Prophets," FARMS Review 15/2 (2003): 199–254. off-site

Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims