A Mormon Image: Polygamists in the Pen

February 5, 2004 | 12 comments
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In one of the comments below, Judy Miller of the Utah State government asked about the image of the prisoners in our masthead. A large, framed version of this photograph hangs in my office, so I thought I would say a little about it.

This is a photograph of George Q. Cannon, then First Counselor in the First Presidency to John Taylor, and other polygamists taken while Cannon was incarcerated for unlawful cohabitation (polygamy) during the 1880s. Cannon was repeatedly arrested for polygamy. The first time was in the early 1870s (1872?), when federal officials indited Brigham Young and the other leaders of the church en mass for polygamy as well as murder, treason, and conspiracy. (The other charges were based on the theory that Brigham ordered the Mountain Meadows massacre.) Ultimately, these inditments were dismissed when the Supreme Court held that federal officials had illegally circumvented local control of the grand jury process. Later in the 1880s, Cannon was arrested by U.S. Marshalls while taking a train across Nevada to California. Cannon jumped from the train to elude law enforcement. Ultimately, he gave himself up to authorities and was sentenced to several months in the Territorial Penetentiary, where this photograph was taken. The Penetentiary stood on the land that is now Sugarhouse Park in Salt Lake City.

Cannon is seated in the center of the photo, holding a plant. The man seated at the center front who is not wearing prison clothing is George Reynolds. He was the secretary to the First Presidency, and at Cannon’s request he was the defendant in a test case for the constitutionality of federal anti-polygamy laws. When Reynolds lost his case in the U.S. Supreme Court he was sentenced to prison. That case occurred in the 1870s, roughly a decade before this photo was taken, by which time Reynolds had been free for some time.

The only other figure I have identifies is the man on the far left who is not wearing prison clothes. This is Frank Cannon. He was George Q. Cannon’s son. He was a marginally active Mormon, but a very active Republican, which made him a rare thing in 1880s Utah. At this time, Frank was actively working as a political lobbyist and strategist for the Church. After statehood, he became embittered against the Church. He served one term as a Utah Senator, but was subsequently defeated, at least in part because of the intervention of Joseph F. Smith, also an active Republican, who supported a rival GOP faction. As a result, Cannon left the Church — and Utah — moving to Colorado where, with a journalist ghost writer he produced an expose of church interference in Utah politics entitled “Under the Prophet in Utah.” The villian in the piece was, not surprisingly, Joseph F. Smith, but Frank also wrote critically of the federal anti-polygamy crusade and defended the political actions of his father.

You will notice that there is a watermark in this photograph. That is because the electronic version you are seeing is housed on the University of Utah website. The U of U has a copy of the photograph in their collection. The original negative — from which my photograph was made — is in the Church archives. I figure it is a good picture for a Mormon lawyer to have in his office. My judge loves it, and regularlly brings around visitors to show them “the leaders of the Mormon church” in prison.

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12 Responses to A Mormon Image: Polygamists in the Pen

  1. greenfrog on February 5, 2004 at 12:55 pm

    I have a very similar photo hanging in my office, different people, same garb, same group photo style. My great great grandfather standing there like Lurch.

    It resonates on a number of levels for me — it’s fun to have a criminal in the ancestry of a lawyer, the photo itself is fascinating both for the clothing as well as for the fact that these people apparently thought enough of their time in prison together that they had a group photo taken, it’s always worth remembering that some people serving time are prisoners of conscience, and it hangs there as evidence that the Supreme Court can render decisions exactly the opposite of what you’d think the Constitution would require.

  2. Nate Oman on February 5, 2004 at 1:02 pm

    Group photos of men incarcerated for polygamy were extremely common, and were displayed as a symbol of loyalty to the Gospel. Interestingly, although there were women incarcerated as part of the anti-polygamy raids, I have never seen any photos of them. The few who were imprisoned were jailed for either contempt of court (refusal to testify against fellow Saints) or fornication. The charge of fornication, in the 19th century, was most often used to punish prostitutes. The few inditements against polygamist women were self-conscious attempts by federal officials to brand Mormon women as whores. This (along with the relative rarity of such cases) may account for the lack of photographs.

  3. Kaimi on February 5, 2004 at 2:58 pm

    Those silly polygamists! If only they had grasped the obvious concept,

    “Marriage is between one man and one woman.”

    Some people just seem far too willing to alter an institution that “predates our Constitution and our nation by millennia” (Mitt Romney, 5 Feb 2004). Or maybe that they are “entitled to change 1000s of years of history and the overwhelming support of the majority of
    the people in the state.” (Lyle Stamps, 4 Feb 2004).

  4. Matt Evans on February 5, 2004 at 5:00 pm

    Mitt and Lyle aren’t demanding that gay cohabitators be jailed, Kaimi. Nor are they arguing that the government had to recognize polygamous marriages.

  5. Matt Evans on February 5, 2004 at 6:35 pm

    Does anyone know where I can get a copy of this photo, or another one like it?

    Speaking of which, does anyone know of a resource for Mormon art and prints that are decidedly un- Greg Olsenish? I find the sparkling white robed, blue-eyed, faux-Jesus paintings uninspiring.

    Quick, name an inspiring Norwegian, not counting Jesus.

  6. Nate Oman on February 5, 2004 at 6:40 pm

    Amudsen, the first man to the South Pole.

  7. Stephen on February 5, 2004 at 11:28 pm

    Nate,

    The man in the center front with the cane is Abraham Alonzo Kimball, not George Reynolds.

  8. Nate Oman on February 6, 2004 at 11:08 am

    Really! I am curious, because he is listed as George Reynolds in the UofU archives.

  9. Stephen on February 6, 2004 at 7:06 pm

    I did a search for George Reynolds on the UofU (J. Willard Marriott library) archives. Sure enough, the penitentiary photo came up with a description indicating that Reynolds is the one with the cane. But then I did a search for George Q. Cannon. The same picture came up, only this time the man with the cane was said to be Cannon. I think they’re wrong on both. They’re clearly wrong about it being Cannon.

    Abraham Alonzo Kimball was the son of Heber Kimball and Clarissa Cutler (a daughter of Alpheus Cutler). I have some family history stuff for Heber & Clarissa descendants (Abraham is my great grandfather on my father’s side, btw). Anyway, according to it, the guy with the cane in that photo is Abraham Kimball. Based upon that, I’ve always just assumed it to be Abraham. I hope I’m not mistaken…I don’t think that I am.

    I’m not really sure on the details of the photo. However, I do know that Abe was eventually transferred to the hospital part of the prison because of his failing health. Maybe that explains the cane? He died only about nine months after his release.

  10. Renee on February 27, 2004 at 12:52 am

    Matt – Leif Ericson. Or maybe my grandmother.

  11. Eros Faust on March 2, 2004 at 1:20 am

    The Free Exercise Clause would certainly seem to protect the practice of polygamy in a Territory which was not even part of the U.S. when the Constitution was adopted, and to which the church went to avoid religious persecution.

  12. Nate Oman on March 2, 2004 at 11:26 am

    Eros Faust: I don’t get your claim here. Are you saying that the levels of constitutional protection are different for different parts of U.S. territory based on whether that territory was part of the United States in 1787?