Question: Are the mysterious "Danites" in Utah a source of Mormon power, terror, and control?

Question: Are the mysterious "Danites" in Utah a source of Mormon power, terror, and control?

Anti-Mormon authors of the 19th century usually invoked the terrible "Danites" in their polemics

Critics of the Church have long appealed to the "Danites" in Utah as a source of Mormon power, terror, and control. [1]

The current evidence indicates that during the pioneer period, Utah was far less violent than most areas of the United States. Despite this, anti-Mormon authors of the 19th century usually invoked the terrible "Danites" in their polemics. These Danites were the source of Brigham Young's (and other church leaders') power, a tool to stamp out dissent, a lawless band of murderers and thugs, and a source of terror to any and all non-Mormons in the territory.

Some modern critics have continued to use 19th century polemic as if it was reliable.

Rhetorical purpose of the Danites

Observed Hugh Nibley:

In the four passages just quoted, the appeal to the Danites is neither casual nor playful—those Danites are an absolute necessity. They are necessary to supply by inference the evidence against Brigham Young and the Mormons that is so sorely needed and so conspicuously absent. We have learned from our dames savantes that ordinary Mormons, like Ann Eliza's friends and neighbors, were just plain folks, the unsuspecting dupes of a depraved hierarchy; they never suspected what was really going on and were simple enough to believe that Indians killed people. On the other hand, said depraved hierarchy carefully abstained from criminal acts: "As loudly as the Mormon leaders talked to the people about doing their 'dirty work' themselves, they, nevertheless, shrank from soiling their own fingers," so that even Brigham Young "would probably avow himself entirely guiltless, since his hand did not perform the deed." With the common people "humble, spiritual-minded, God-fearing, law-abiding," 7 and somehow managing to ignore the clarion call of their leaders to "dirty work," and with the leaders themselves fastidiously refraining from "soiling their own fingers," what evidence have we got against the Mormons? Who was carrying on the efficient and brazen system of mass murder that for years filled all the Utah valleys with altars and graves—none of which has ever been discovered? Who but the Danites, who, as Kelly and Birney observe, operated so very secretly that one can hardly be asked to produce evidence of their activities.

The Danites thus supply the anti-Mormon fraternity with a blank check backed by unlimited reserves of horror. Any unexplained death is automatically their doing; accidents don't just happen on the frontier—they are Danite manipulations; we need not bother with the extensive evidence that the Indians were numerous and deadly in the West and along the routes, for we know that people just talk about Indians because "they dare not say boldly who they believe those 'Indians' are." Even when an official non-Mormon investigation supported the obvious explanation of a disaster, as in the case of Captain Gunnison, the whole thing was just a cover-up for the Danites. Well, why not?—any calamity might be a Danite doing.[2]:647

Critics thereby place members in an untenable position—they insist that members must prove that any given murder or crime was not caused by the Danites. It is difficult to prove a negative, especially at a century and a half's distance, and often with only hostile, sometimes second- or third-hand testimony to go on. What is offered is often no better than gossip or rumor.

Rhetoric and atmosphere in place of evidence


A favorite trick of the anti-Mormon teratologists, desperately casting about them for something in the way of evidence, is to appeal to general principles to support their grim particulars. How can you doubt that "throats were slit right and left" if it was "the belief of all good Mormons" that they should be when the leaders spoke? 99 Need you ask for evidence where "the fundamental conviction entertained by every Latter Day Saint" sanctifies criminal acts against Gentiles? 100 Is Rockwell a paradox? There is a simple explanation: "He was a Mormon—and any attempt to analyze the man must be predicated upon that statement. . . . He was a Mormon. He was a good Mormon. That is equivalent to saying that he was ignorant, illiterate, superstitious, and as easily led as a mongrel dog." 101 Granted the general principle, all particulars are readily explained. But how do we prove the general principles? By the grizzly particulars, of course. All Mormons are wicked; Rockwell was a Mormon, ergo, Rockwell was a wicked man. If you ask for further proof that all Mormons are wicked, a single example will suffice, the case of the notorious Porter Rockwell—was there ever a bloodier villain? You ask the particulars? Well, "the newspapers of that day were full of complaints of Mormon thefts and raids and Porter Rockwell's name appears early. . . . Witness an item from the Burlington Hawkeye and Iowa Patriot." 102 Again the lone item from the bursting archives, and it turns out to be a story in which Porter Rockwell is not mentioned, the story of how when some goods were stolen someone suggested looking for them in the skiff of a certain Mormon; the skiff was searched and the stolen goods were not there. End of story. And this is what they dish up as evidence of the early depredations of Porter Rockwell. Never mind that Rockwell isn't in the story, and that the Mormon didn't steal the stuff—you get the idea.[2]:680

The absurd


To prove that the Mountain Meadows Massacre was the work of the Danites, Ann Eliza [Webb Young's Wife No. 19] makes much of the fact that Brigham Young's secretary, i.e., the only man who knew of his complicity in the crime, "was found . . . 'drowned' in three inches of water." 115 Since nobody drowns in three inches of water, this is obviously another Danite horror. According to the news report, the man was found dead at 6 a.m. with his head downstream in the irrigation ditch on North Temple street, the face was swollen, and "the Jury failed to find any marks of violence on the body, except a slight bruise near one of the eyes. . . . Ver- dict . . . [was] death by drowning." 116 It does not occur to our little detective that one does not wait twelve years to erase a party from whom one is in mortal danger, that one does not put one's private secretary out of the way most secretly on a downtown main street, or that people who want to make a drowning look accidental do not choose to submerge their victim in three inches of water. The Danites, those masters of supersecrecy, seem capable of concealing nothing on earth but their own existence—and that's a waste of time, because everybody knows about that. It is not until 1908 that Ann Eliza volunteers the helpful information that her husband's title was "Chief Archer of the Danites." 117 A strange little oversight.[2]:685

As we review the charges (they are too long to repeat here), 204 we are forced to the astonishing conclusion that, according to Mr. Wallace's guide, for many years in Utah (seven at the very least), if a person was a Gentile he was immediately killed; if he was an apostate he was immediately killed; if he was weak in the faith, he was immediately killed; if he was merely suspected of being weak in the faith, he was immediately killed; if he "dared to neglect the counsel of the Priesthood," he "was at once charged with apostasy" and immediately killed; if he "committed even the most trifling offense to any member of the priesthood [including each and every male in the church above the age of eleven], he was immediately killed; if no charge of apostasy or deviation could be brought, he would still be accused of being a spy and instantly killed; if he was a casual visitor or transient and let slip one uncomplimentary word, he was immediately killed. Joseph Smith taught his people "openly that it was their duty to 'destroy in the flesh' all upon whom the leaders of the church frowned." 205 Her proof of this is Doctrine and Covenants 132:26, which has nothing to do with the case. Brigham Young, in turn, "set at nought all morality with his horrible and debasing teachings . . . the duty of assassination." 206

Insanity is no word for it. Are these people telling the truth or aren't they? Is this a likely situation? Do you find it appealing, or convincing? For people living on the narrowest margin of survival, as the Mormons were in the 1850s and 1860s, this doctrine seems singularly weak in survival value; what would such a policy do to any society? It seems even weaker in its human appeal. Murder the order of the day year after year? People think nothing of it? We wonder. The vast majority of these people in Utah were recent emigrants from Northern Europe, where the too frequent assassination of one's neighbors was frowned on, at least in the straight-laced nineteenth century. Why no protest from them? Why were the Mormons, to whom the liquidation of Gentiles and apostates was a sacred duty, never proud of their Danites? Why are none of their exploits known or praised by the Saints? Surely such a dedicated and efficient band must have at sometime performed some useful service besides murder during the years when there was so much else to be done. The fact that they never appear, either in times of crisis or in those parades of which the Mormons were so fond, is, to say the least, a suspicious one.[2]:712-13

Rumor as truth


Only desperation could lead Mr. Wallace and his army of trained researchers to bring so pitiful a witness into court as Horace Greeley, to give "some credence to the continuing rumors of threat and violence." "Some credence" isn't very good, but it is far better than what Greeley gives us. He reports that "there is some basis of truth for the current Gentile conviction that the Mormons have robbed, maimed, and even killed persons in this territory. . . . I deeply regret the necessity of believing this; but the facts are incontestable." What begins a sentence as "some basis of truth" turns up at the end as "incontestable facts." And where does he get his incontestable facts? From "United State soldiers encamped near Salt Lake City," who told him that " 'not less than seventy-five distinct instances of murder by Mormons because of apostasy . . . are known to the authorities here.' " 153 Why didn't he consult the "authorities"? What could bored and resentful G.I.'s, robbed of an easy victory and condemned to the confinement of a dusty camp, find better to do than to propagate rumors in the grand old army manner? Greeley and Wallace, by locating their informants "near Salt Lake City," have them enjoying a ringside view, as it were, of all that went on in the Mormon community, never hinting that they were actually isolated in a camp forty-five miles away and forbidden to fraternize with the Mormons. That the camp should be a hothouse of barrack-room and mess-hall rumors, and that the poor soldiers should be pitifully grateful for a chance to show off to a famous newspaper man is understandable; but Mr. Greeley could have spared himself great mental anguish if he had only asked himself how soldiers stationed far from any Mormon settlement and objects of suspicion to the civilian population could possibly know about the inner workings of the Mormon system in dealing with "apostates."

When Richard Burton later went to the same source for enlightenment, he discovered that the soldiers could furnish no evidence whatever for the stories they told so well. Of this singular lack of confirmation Burton observes, "They attribute the phenomenon to the impossibility of obtaining testimony, and the undue white-washing action of juries." 154 Of course they do—thus adding Mormon rascality to Mormon criminality. But whatever the reason the proof was not forthcoming, the rumor-loving G.I.'s refer confidently and characteristically to "the authorities" and to Mormon cover-up tactics as their franchise for unlimited invention, and their eager gossip is the whole substance of Mr. Greeley's "incontestable facts."[2]:698-99

See also: Danites


  1. Richard Abanes, One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003), 211-252 ( Index of claims ); Martha Beck, Leaving the Saints (Crown Publishers, 2003), .; Sally Denton, American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, (Secker & Warburg, 2003), . ; [William] Bill Hickman, with explanatory notes by J. H. Beadle, Brigham's Destroying Angel... (Salt Lake City, Utah: Shepard Publishing Company, Publishers, 1904), 1–.; Charles Kelly and Hoffman Birney, Holy Murder: The Story of Porter Rockwell (New York: Minton, Balch, 1934); Richard N. and Joan K. Ostling, Mormon America: The Power and the Promise, (New York:HarperCollins Publishers, 2000), 34. ( Index of claims ); Stenhouse, "Tell It All", 169. ; Irving Wallace, The Twenty-Seventh Wife (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961), 238.; Ann Eliza Young, Life in Mormon Bondage (Philadelphia: Aldine, 1908), 42.; Ann Eliza Young, Wife No. 19, or the Story of a Life in Bondage...(Hartford, Conn.: Custin, Gilman & Company, 1876), ??.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Hugh W. Nibley, Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass: The Art of Telling Tales About Joseph Smith and Brigham Young (Vol. 11 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by David J. Whittaker, (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Company ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1991). ISBN 0875795161. GL direct link