November is TV sweeps month, where networks and stations vie for audiences to set their advertising rates for the coming months. Local stations feature gore, scandal, ghost stories, and more or less embroidered accounts of the bizarre, heavily hyped during the days preceding a broadcast.
Rarely do old Mormon sermons serve the purposes of sweeps month. Yea, verily, we see the fulfillment of that Chinese curse â€“ we do live in interesting times.
John Varah Long (1826-1869) was an Englishman, a convert to the church, who emigrated to Utah in 1854 and quickly found employment as a stenographer. Like the more widely known George D. Watt, Long used the Pitman system, the popular 19th century form of shorthand, now virtually extinct. (The church has employed a talented Pitman reader over the past few years to translate numerous documents in LDS archives, including the court testimony in John D. Leeâ€™s Mountain Meadows trials.) Long may have worked for a time as one of Brigham Youngâ€™s extensive corps of office clerks; his chief employment and source of income was as a recorder of sermons, many of which were printed in the Deseret News and eventually in the Journal of Discourses.
Long was excommunicated in 1866. Whatever records of his case may have been preserved in church files are restricted, as are all similar papers, and the newspaper coverage of the excommunication is a simple announcement of the fact. With no primary source available for confirmation, anyone with an opinion is free to speculate as to the cause.
In April 1869 Long was found dead, drowned in an irrigation ditch in downtown Salt Lake. Because the ditch reportedly held as little as three inches of water, and because, well, you know, Long had been excommunicated so good Mormons everywhere must have been out to get him, doncha know, speculation among those with a certain type of jaundiced view holds that Long was murdered. By Mormons, of course. Because he knew too much, of course. In the words of that, like, totally credible reporter Ann Eliza Webb Young (Wife No. 19, who also claimed to know too much because, see, Brigham Young had this curious habit of writing down the details of his nefarious schemes and leaving them under bedpillows for Ann Eliza to discover),
Was a man obnoxious to any of the church officers, he disappeared, and was never heard of again; or, like John V. Long, a clerk in Brighamâ€™s office, who was the only person who heard the conversation between Brigham and the messenger sent from George A. Smith, just before the Mountain Meadow massacre, and who wrote out the instructions which the man was to carry back, was found dead in a ditch, â€drownedâ€ in three inches of water, â€œaccidentally,” of course, since that was the decision of the Mormon jury.
Other voices point out that when you are as drunk as Long was, three inches is plenty of water to drown in. But letâ€™s not spoil a good story. Not in sweeps month.
Fast forward to 2007. Descendants of the Long family have recently placed their store of Longâ€™s papers with Ken Sanders, a Salt Lake rare books dealer, whom I greatly respect. Not only does he have a sterling reputation, his internet exploits in tracking down dealers in stolen books and documents, and dealing with the resulting threats against his safety, make for some of the most exciting â€“ and true â€“ tales you could hope to hear. Those stories would require no embroidery to make them sure-fire killers during sweeps periods.
I donâ€™t know how extensive Longâ€™s papers are â€“ like the water in that ditch, maybe three inches deep according to broadcast images â€“ but the potential for what they might contain, as long as they remain untranslated, made them irresistible for sweeps. Last night KTVX (Salt Lake Cityâ€™s ABC affiliate) broadcast an interview conducted by reporter Chris Vanocur with Ken Sanders and Will Bagley â€“ and, true to the needs of sweeps, John V. Long was transformed into the Brigham Young clerk (as opposed to one of many), the one who knew too much. Much was made of his excommunication, with no mention of his drunkenness at the time of his drowning. And of course we were treated to classic Will Bagley â€“ always a colorful interview â€“ pronouncing his judgment that â€œHe simply knew too much. He had been too close to the inside. He knew too much about the churchâ€™s dirty laundry and he knew where the bodies were buried.â€ Well, of course. What else?
I am â€“ honestly, truthfully, no snarking involved â€“ looking forward to learning what might be in Longâ€™s papers. Are they really diaries, as Ken suggested last night? If so, they arenâ€™t very extensive, unless there are far more than could be seen in the stack Ken displayed. My money â€“ hey, if Ken and Will can speculate, so can I â€“ is on their being primarily shorthand records of public sermons, some of which have no doubt been published already. Even so, as Will said, they would be â€œin the rawâ€ â€“ not edited for publication, as most sermons were. Those that may already have been published will be shown in a new light; those that have not been published will be new material for study.
Thatâ€™s the kind of thing that makes historians salivate â€“ sweeps or no.