Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Detailed Resource about Parley P. Pratt, Eleanor Hector, and the Murder of Parley

Latter-day Saint martyrs in the 19th century are a favorite topic for cynical remarks from some critics. A popular theme is to list alleged wrongdoings of the victims and then infer that they were just getting justice, not martyrdom. This seems to be especially prevalent with Parley P. Pratt, who Latter-day Saints remember as the first Mormon killed while serving on a mission. His 1857 murder is routinely characterized by critics as simply the work of a jealous husband angry that an adulterous Parley had seduced his wife into a polygamous relationship. It's a somewhat plausible way to describe the killing, for the murderer, Hector McLean, had married Eleanor Jane McComb, and though he had driven her away by his abuse and his alcoholism, she had never bothered to obtain a formal divorce. She had left him and apparently considered herself single when she was later married to Parley P. Pratt. But technically, yes, it was her first and legal husband who killed Parley after she had joined Parley as a polygamous wife. However, there may be more to this story than the natural vengeance of a wronged husband.

A detailed resource for this episode is "Eleanor McLean and the Murder of Parley P. Pratt" by Steven Pratt, the Pratt family historian and a great-grandson of Parley P. Pratt. This was published in BYU Studies (Vol. 15, No. 2, 1975, pp. 225–56), available as a PDF file. In spite of personal biases the author may naturally have, his well-written and heavily documented essay provides detailed information and sources that appear to provide many opportunities to check some of the claims made on both sides of the account.

For example, some anti-Mormon writers downplay the role of religion and contend that the story was all about Parley's lust and Hector's revenge. Some contend that Eleanor didn't have any interest in LDS religion until after she was "seduced" by Parley, and that religious bigotry played no role in the anger of the first husband. In reality, it appears that she was actively attending LDS meetings long before Parley came to town in San Francisco and wanted to be baptized. She had two of her children baptized before she met Parley, and eventually got her husband to provide consent for her baptism, which took place before she met Parley (see footnote 6 in Pratt's HTML article - footnote 5 in the PDF file).

Our critics also downplay the abuse and alcoholism of the husband and suggest that he was a good guy and the real victim in the story. Perhaps, but Steven Pratt's essay provides information that leads to other conclusions. In retrospect, unless this article completely misrepresents reality, I think Eleanor might have been wise to leave McLean much earlier, perhaps when he "purchased a sword cane and threatened to kill her and the minister who baptized her if she became a Mormon" or perhaps when she later saw that his hostility to her Mormon faith was so great that he would rather try to get her committed to an insane asylum that to allow her religious liberty. Those might have been good times to leave, IMO.

As I have so often seen in cases of abused women, the victim trudges on in a terrible relationship, clinging to baseless hope, believing that change might occur, and just not knowing how else to live or where to go. Also, as often happens, well-meaning outsiders encourage the woman to stick with her man and not get a divorce. In this case, some of the well-meaning advisers were LDS members in the San Francisco Branch who encouraged her to keep trying. That's not always the best solution in cases of extreme abuse.

Here's an excerpt from the lengthy article, describing what happened after Eleanor married Hector:
They seemed to be happy at first. But Hector started drinking heavily, causing a separation in 1844. Eleanor, after seeking counsel from her father, two brothers, E. C. and J. J. McComb, and a John McDougal as to whether she should return to or leave Hector sent him an ultimatum:
Dear Hector:

Having used every persuation in my power to no effect, I see but three alternatives all ending in misery if not in crime. First, to live a victum of the vice to which you have became a prey 2nd to to seek a home among strangers, or shall the smoothe current of the Mississippi be the last page that any may read of my "Ill Fate?"
Your Wife.
E.J. McLean

Hector responded with the following note:
Millikins Bend
December 31, 1844

Nea, Ellen neither of these shall ever be your lot. I will cease to grieve your gentle spirit, and we will live together so long as it is the will and good pleasure of a Heavenly Parent we should. We seek an asylum among the people of God (I care not what that may be) and by their good example and precept I am persuaded your own dear husband, may cure. I must be saved and reformed--it is impossible to be either here. I have tried in vain, to live soberly and righteously before God and men but cannot accomplish it.

Yours sincerely.
Hector

Eleanor then returned to live with him. Sometime later they decided to leave New Orleans and go to San Francisco to help accomplish Hector's reform. They were accompanied by their three children, Fitzroy, Albert, and Annie, and one of Eleanor's brothers.

It was in San Francisco that they came in contact with the Mormon church. After attending a Mormon meeting with Hector, and her brother, J.J. McComb, Eleanor wanted to join the Church but was forbidden to do so by her husband, who purchased a sword cane and threatened to kill her and the minister who baptized her if she became a Mormon. In spite of this threat, Eleanor attended Church meetings as often as she could. One Sunday night, while Eleanor was singing from a Mormon hymn book she had purchased, Hector tore the book from her hands, threw it into the fire, beat her, cast her out into the street, and locked the door. She sought the help of a Dr. Bush, the family doctor, who took her to a hotel, boarded her there for the night, and charged the bill to Hector. The next day she filed a charge of assault and battery against Hector, planning to go to San Bernardino to live with the Saints and never return. She dropped the charges, however, and returned to Hector, following the advice of Dr. Bush and the members of the San Francisco branch. She describes the incident as follows:
That Mr. McLean put me by violence into the street at night, and locked the door against me, Captain Grey and Dr. Bush are witnesses; and I presume McLean himself would not deny that I then declared that I would no more be his wife however many years I might be compelled to appear as such for the sake of my children.

Even though she embraced Mormonism in November of 1851, she was not baptized until 24 May 1854, by William McBride. Although he had given his written permission for her to be baptized and she continued to live with Hector, he forbade her to sing Mormon hymns or to read Mormon literature in his home. Eleanor did not comply fully with his rules, however, for she made it a practice to hold morning devotionals with her children while Hector was away, and sought all available means to stay in contact with the Church.
There is much more to read on this.

History is so difficult to sort out, but there is an abundance of interesting evidence provided in the article that gives some insight into the nature of the man who murdered Parley P. Pratt. Regardless of how much one may dislike the mercifully removed institution of polygamy and its practitioners, Parley P. Pratt was murdered. Contrary to the claims of some critics, Parley P. Pratt was a real missionary when he was murdered. His call to the Eastern States mission involved church work and travel to multiple eastern states.

One of the interesting things learned from Pratt's history is the decency of some of the people in the southern United States who gave Parley and Eleanor a fair hearing when Hector had them both arrested on bogus charges. There were kind and decent people who tried to protect Parley from the murderous wrath of Hector. There were good people who were compassionate and helpful to Eleanor when Parley was killed. His murder was not the result of vast hostility from the locals, but of one violent man who hated the religion that his wife had joined and was apparently angry over his loss of control over her.

Eleanor was a tough and independent American woman, willing to stand up for her religious ideals and go to great lengths for her children, in spite of the abuse she suffered for years at the hands of an angry alcoholic. That she would go to Salt Lake, even after her husband had died, and continue with the challenges and struggles there, remaining faithful to her religion in a strange area, is a testament to the character of this strong woman. I cannot pretend to know the challenges that women and men faced in the difficult institution of polygamy in the 19th century, or in Utah life during that era, but I think we should give them a little credit for their toughness and commitment.

Meanwhile, I am saddened at the anti-Mormon spirit that could say of this murder that "Parley got what he deserved."

12 comments:

RickLDS said...

Jeff,

There will always be those that will believe the worst about the best people. Even our Savior, Jesus Christ, fit in this category. Brother Pratt is in good company.

Rick

Anonymous said...

Informative blog, Jeff. Thanks. It kind of relates it in to our day, her being a battered wife and that being such a concern these days.

AllAboutMormons said...

Actual email I received through my site, http://www.allaboutmormons.com: "…why should anybody care if there's hate crimes against Mormans. You deserve every bad thing that happens to you…"

Thanks for the article. Very interesting.

Anonymous said...

Hi All,

Martyrdom versus Justice. That's an interesting concept. Its also all a matter of symantics. LDS claim JS was martyred, non-LDS see justice being done. Perhaps both are right, and perhaps its all a matter of perspective. What I've noticed though in looking at these issues, is both sides distort the facts in thier favour.

For example, if you talk to TBM they will tell how JS was taken into custody and led "like a lamb to the slaughter." Lamb to the slaughter is a direct quote from LDS Sundays school sessions, heard over and over again. What these TBM's won't tell you is that JS was able to defend himself with a smuggled firearm. This fact is often left out, and I'm not sure many TBM's actually are aware of this fact.

On the non-lds side though, you get other distortions of the event...too many to even name, and some factual, some non-factual, and some embellishments of the facts. Obviously this causes problems with credibility on the non-lds side of the fence.

But look at this objectively. JS did and said some things that led to the treatment that he recieved. The non-lds did and said some things that led to the treatment they recieved. Both sides were right about some things, both sides were equally wrong about other things. The fact is neither side behaved in a truly christian fashion, and the end result was that a man was murdered in his jail cell. I personally don't believe JS did anything that warranted that kind of treatment. He should have stood trial, and if found guilty of the crimes he was accused of, then he should've recieved the appropriate form of punishment. That said, he likely would not have recieved a fair trial, and would likely have recieved a death sentence regardless given the mentality of the folks against him. The point is that no matter what JS did, killing him was not the right thing to do. But calling him a martyr for the cause probably isn't accurate either. Again, its all a matter of perspective.

Catholic Defender

Tony said...

CD, I agree that perspective can be important when looking at Mormon history, and I would also add that accuracy and getting info from reliable sources would as well...primary document sources when possible, such as the Joseph Smith papers.

Having said that, I was wondering if you could explain just where you heard that JS had a concealed firearm with him in the jail?

Nathan S. said...

concealed handgun in the cell? That and our eternal potential are perhaps the only charges I've heard more from LDS than from "non-LDS" - and the guns in the cell probably takes the cake as being the one that is more likely to be heard from LDS sources than the "anti" sources.

Yeah they had guns in a jail cell. And they couldn't have been there if not for being concealed.

That's told so commonly in any dramatized or read account in a class lesson or video clip that I'd might well notice it's absence if it were left out!

So what! That was in an era when everyone carried guns like 60 years ago I suppose most every man carried a pocket knife and a hankerchief!

Or are pocket knives and hankerchiefs too scandalous for mentioning these days?

Anonymous said...

Hi Tony,

There are details of the accounts in the Carthage Jail that are reported in the newspapers of the time which indicate that JS was able to fire back into the crowd with a handgun that had been smuggled into him somehow. That seems to be factual information when you review the various newspapers which recorded the event, and look at other historical records from the time. I believe the LDS Church also documents this, but doesn't publicize these facts to its members. Could be wrong on that.

Suffice to say that I have seen this information on both pro-LDS and anti-LDS websites. What may be questionable, and this is the real problem with both sides of the debate, is what are the accurate details, and what are the distortions. Both sides distort so much its hard to sift the accurate facts out.

Nathan S, I think you missed the point of what I was saying.

It really doesn't matter that JS may or may not have had a gun concealed on him while in the jail. Whats more concerning is that when you talk to an LDS member about this event in thier church's history this fact is omitted in favour of a discourse on how JS was led like a lamb to the slaughter. A more accurate picture is that JS was locked up, and took the opportunity to defend himself from a vigilante mob. I'm not saying he was wrong to do that, most of us would do the same. What I'm saying is that the description members give isn't an accurate reflection of the events, and is tainted by the emotional response members have over the event.

And yes, in today's society it has become scandalous to carry a pocket knife around. You might rush an armed federal agent defending a pilot on a flying airplane. Come to think of it, any carrying any unidentified, or identified liquid of more 3 oz is considered scandalous in today's society. What have we come to.

Catholic Defender

Anonymous said...

Catholic Defender,

If one walks into the LDS Church History Museum, they have the peppershot pistol and small sixshooter that Hyrum and Joseph carried in Carthage Jail right out in the open. We don't "omit" this fact. However, it isn't important as far as eternal progression goes. If you were being led into hostile territory and felt the gloom of death over your head, would you not try in some way to return to your pregnant wife and children? Yes, the LDS people ARE taught that Joseph Hyrum Smith had 2 small pistols in the jail with them, one of them being given to them by the warden himself, if I'm not mistaken. 2 small guns against a whole militia...it was a martyr. Now, had the men in the jail had about 50 more men with guns supporting them, then I can see your point about it not being a martyr. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. Lambs don't just lie down and let you kill them, they try like hell to survive. Joseph and Hyrum didn't even come close to having a fighting chance for survival...

Hope that sheds some light on the subject for you...

LDSMom

Anonymous said...

Hi LDSMOM,

Take a poll of members of your church, and find out how many of them know the facts of Carthage Jail. I would surmise many of them do not...if I am wrong about that, so be it. But, to describe what happens as JS being led like a lamb to the slaughter, without adding that fact, is a distortion of the facts...distortion by omission is still distortion. That causes credibility problems for your members. I don't agree with the antis either, because there is as much distortion, if not more from that side of the fence. There's a principle in the practise of law that talks about defending someone. Basically its much easier to defend the truth, than it is to defend an embellishment or distortion of the truth. What that means is it would be far easier to believe your members, if they told all of the facts, instead of just portions of the facts that serve the purpose they are seeking to achieve. The same holds true for the antis, probably even more so for them.

Sincerely

Catholic Defender

simple woman said...

so then is it neccessary that we mention the color of their shirts and what they had for breakfast to be in line with the whole truth? Or maybe it's necessary to mention they didn't want to die and tried to keep the door closed. The point is that while he may have tried to defend himself, it doesn't negate the fact that he was murdered. Even if he knew he was going to die, it's ridiculous to think he'd go without a fight. Being "led like a lamb to the slaughter" was his acknowledging that he wasn't running anymore. He was facing the inevitable. Even the Savior asked that he not have to suffer but then accepted His father's will.

Tony said...

Thank you, CD and LDSMom for clearing that up...for me, it does not change the fact that I know he was a martyr for our faith. Once you recieve a testimony that he was indeed a prophet, and you really know that in your heart, such details, while pertinent, are not wholly important to JS's mission. I am just glad to have the knowledge I have, and pray that others can come to such knowledge as well.

Anonymous said...

HI Simple Woman,

Admittedly I come from a perspective that believes JS was nothing remotely close to a prophet or a great man of God. Quite the contrary, and likely my veiwpoint is skewed by my own beliefs about what JS was or was not. I don't believe he should have been murdered for his belief though. Condoning that would mean a complete departure from the 1st amendment, which the people of that time obviously had forgotten about, or hadn't read.

In any event, no we don't need to know the colour of the shirts, or what they had for breakfast. Yes, it is expected that a man in JS situation would defend himself. The problem is that when a member of your church describes the event as JS being led like a lamb to the slaughter, that's misleading. Its misleading because the member of your church, likely very innocently, doesn't convey the facts in making the statement, they are conveying the emotional response to the event based on a lack of knowledge of the facts of the event. Led like a lamb to the slaughter has different meanings to different people depending on the context of the word usage, the experience of the people making the and percieving the statements, and the emotions used to convey the statement. I you're talking about the event from an emotional level but not giving the facts, and I'm talking about it from a factual basis, we're not talking about the same event the same way. THis leads to distortion, and misunderstanding. Just seems to me the better way to approach the event is to say JS was murdered in his jail cell waiting for trial by an angry mob, and leave out the emotional element.

Sincerely

Catholic Defender