2 August 1888: Elder Alma P. Richards, ten months into his missionary service and working without a companion, stopped at a hotel in Meridian, Mississippi and made arrangements with a porter to keep some books and clothing until the elderâ€™s return, expected to be a few days later. Richards, on foot, left Meridian to visit friends just over the state line in Jasper County, Alabama.
He was never heard from again.
6 November 1888: Mission President William Spry had become increasingly uneasy over Richardsâ€™ failure to contact the mission office at Chattanooga, Tennessee. When written inquiries to members and civil authorities in Richardsâ€™ district failed to locate him, Spry and six of his elders took the train to Meridian in order to conduct a personal investigation.
The elders were recognized the moment they arrived. Minutes after checking into a hotel, Spry found the chief of police at his door, warning him that the Mormons would be arrested if they dared to preach. He and another elder went down to the street to gauge the townâ€™s mood and saw two of their elders sprinting toward the train station, a group of angry, cursing men at their heels. Following another visit from the chief of police that evening, informing him that several of the missionaries were under police protection from a rapidly increasing crowd, Spry and his elders left Meridian on the 10:00 train.
Unable to search in person for Richards, Spry employed a private detective to make inquiries. The detective submitted regular bills to the mission, but as 1888 turned to 1889, and as winter turned into spring, no clue to Richardsâ€™ whereabouts had been found.
In May, the mission received a tip that a man who might be Richards had been imprisoned in the East Mississippi Insane Asylum; two elders were dispatched to investigate, but it was not Richards.
One of these elders was James Tillman, a man who joined the church in northern Alabama in 1885. At the time of his baptism, he was heard by a newspaper reporter to say, â€œhe thanked the Lord for sending Mormon Elders to teach him the true religion.â€ He was married, but I do not know his wifeâ€™s name. Where he came from, when he was born, whether he ever came west, whether he lived a long life in fellowship with the saints or fell away, I have so far been unable to learn.
I do know that in the summer of 1889, he was where the Lord needed him, and he was able and willing to render a service that few if any others could have given.
James Tillman had the advantage of a southern accent and a native knowledge of local culture. This brave man, able to â€œpassâ€ as one of the people, assumed the identity of an itinerant stove-repairman, one who tramped the back roads, calling at lonely cabins, offering his services and spending long evenings in conversation. No one questioned his comings and goings; it seemed perfectly natural that he would gossip over supper, ask about local excitements, inquire about passers-by.
One evening, while Tillman stayed overnight with a family about six miles from Meridian, his host recalled that months before, a man had been killed by a train in that neighborhood. No one knew the dead man, he said, who had been buried in a pauperâ€™s grave.
The next day, Tillman called on several of the men who had served as the coronerâ€™s jury, showing them a photograph of Richards. Yes, they thought, the photo did resemble the man they had buried. Tillman immediately telegraphed the news to the mission home in Chattanooga. Spry contacted John Morgan, former missionary and future president of the Southern States Mission, who traveled from his home in Manassa, Colorado, to investigate.
Tillman and Morgan interviewed the local coroner about the circumstances of the unidentified manâ€™s death. The coroner had decided the man had been walking along the train track, had heard a train approaching from behind and stepped off the track; when it passed, he had stepped back onto the track, not realizing that the first train was followed by a second section, which struck and killed him.
The elders obtained permission to dig into the grave. After ten months, the body was unrecognizable. However, he had been buried as he was found, and the two Mormons had no difficulty recognizing distinctive marks on the manâ€™s undergarments. They obtained a metal coffin, and the remains of Elder Alma P. Richards were returned to his family for burial in Morgan, Utah.
The details of Richardsâ€™ death were never fully settled â€“ what of his watch, and money, and valise, and umbrella, items he was believed to have been carrying? The coroner knew nothing of them. Had Richards been killed by accident, as assumed, with his belongings disappearing after death? Or had he been robbed and murdered, his body placed on the tracks to disguise the manner of his death? Partisans of both theories debate the matter to this day.
My last sighting of James Tillman is at the graveside of Elder Richards. He is a Latter-day Saint who deserves to be remembered â€“ should any reader have further information about him, I will be grateful to hear from you.
*This â€œDennis Wendt Jr. Postâ€ is named in honor of the winner of last weekâ€™s contest to guess the moment of a T&S milestone. Dennis is a graduate student at BYU, studying philosophical and theoretical psychology; one of his current theological interests concerns â€œa pragmatic and pluralistic approach to â€˜folk theologies.â€™â€ Dennis is the author of a relatively new Mormon-themed blog, Thinking in a Marrow Bone. He explains the source of the title here as:
In one of my favorite poems, â€œA Prayer for Old Age,â€ W.B. Yeats writes:
God guard me from those thoughts men think
In the mind alone;
He that sings a lasting song
Thinks in a marrow-bone.
Here Yeats makes the provocative claim that thinking is not restricted to the mind, and that the wise person is the one who is able to â€œthinkâ€ deep in the interior of oneâ€™s bones.
Keep an eye on TMB â€“ I like his current post on questions raised by the attempts to locate the remains of Parley P. Pratt.