The Dennis Wendt Jr. Post*: Undercover for the Lord

April 26, 2008 | 23 comments
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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 elder’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 Richards’ failure to contact the mission office at Chattanooga, Tennessee. When written inquiries to members and civil authorities in Richards’ 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 town’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 Richards’ 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, “he thanked the Lord for sending Mormon Elders to teach him the true religion.” He was married, but I do not know his wife’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 “pass” 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 pauper’s grave.

The next day, Tillman called on several of the men who had served as the coroner’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 man’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 man’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 Richards’ death were never fully settled – 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 – should any reader have further information about him, I will be grateful to hear from you.

*This “Dennis Wendt Jr. Post” is named in honor of the winner of last week’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 “a pragmatic and pluralistic approach to ‘folk theologies.’” 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, “A Prayer for Old Age,” 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 “think” deep in the interior of one’s bones.

Keep an eye on TMB – I like his current post on questions raised by the attempts to locate the remains of Parley P. Pratt.

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23 Responses to The Dennis Wendt Jr. Post*: Undercover for the Lord

  1. Jonathan Green on April 26, 2008 at 11:47 am

    Interesting. I always hoped I’d get one of those undercover missionary assignments, but those were only urban legends (at least in the late 20th century).

    Once while driving through Alabama, I noticed a town named Nauvoo on the map, which apparently was named for the Illinois town in 1888. Probably not relevant, but it still strikes me as an odd place to run across a placed called Nauvoo.

  2. Wilfried on April 26, 2008 at 12:06 pm

    Fascinating as always, Ardis. Merci!

  3. Ray on April 26, 2008 at 1:39 pm

    Thanks, Ardis. These are the untold stories that weave the common fabric of history – and it’s enlightening to read them.

  4. Julie M. Smith on April 26, 2008 at 1:53 pm

    Thank you, Ardis.

  5. East Coast on April 26, 2008 at 2:27 pm

    Very interesting post, Ardis. Thanks as always for a fascinating tidbit of history!

    I apologize right up front for an overly lengthy comment but John Morgan is my grandmother’s grandfather and I’m somewhat familiar with his life.

    This story is mentioned briefly on pages 467-468 of “The Life and Ministry of John Morgan” (Richardson and Morgan). Tillman is mentioned in that account, but he’s not even listed in the index to the book, so without reading the whole thing again, I can’t tell you if anything more is said about him. Did you look for him in Manassa?

    John Morgan was called as a missionary to the Southern States Mission in 1875 and then called as mission president in 1878. In 1884 he was called as one of the presidents of the Quorum of the Seventy.

    Even after his official tenure as mission president ended, he was often back and forth conducting the business of the mission, including resettling converts from the Southern States to Manassa, Colorado. His first wife lived in Salt Lake City and he would have considered that his primary home. His second wife (he was 42 and she was 40 years old when they married, by the way) evidently lived in Manassa, so that would have been a secondary home.

    John Morgan (at this point one of the Presidents of the Quorum of the Seventy) was one of the two men sent to the Insane Asylum on May 8, 1889. Elders Morgan and Tillman also visited the coroner, searched the countryside on foot, and posted a 500 dollar reward. On May 13 he returned to Colorado, only to return to Mississippi on May 30 after receiving a telegram informing him of Tillman’s discovery of Richard’s body.

    There is no indication of whether they paid out any reward money.

    I googled the distance by road from Manassa to Meridian as being 1254 miles, but the trip was simplified because both towns were on the railroad.

    On one of the trips back and forth, John Morgan said, “A young lady sitting in the seat opposite asked me for protection from some men who were seeking to become too familiar. Had quite a time with them and thought once I was going to get into a row. Sat up all night.”

    If you ever get a chance to read the biography of John Morgan he had a very interesting life from his childhood in Illinois where he saw some of the Lincoln-Douglas debates through his service as a Union soldier, followed by a trip to the West where he liked Salt Lake City so much that he decided to stay there and establish Morgan Commercial College. He joined the church after living in Salt Lake City for a while and then devoted most of the rest of his life to church service. He was a famous speaker and involved heavily in politics before his early death in 1894 at age 52.

    Mission President William Spry, also featured in this story, served as governor of Utah from 1909 to 1917.

  6. Ardis Parshall on April 26, 2008 at 3:00 pm

    East Coast — Yes, John Morgan was a great missionary, a brave man, and he was involved in several noteworthy adventures. I’ve read some of his papers in LDS Archives — he gave lectures in Salt Lake, and wrote about the effect of the Salt Lake Tribune‘s manufactured tales — a supposed sermon given by a man who never existed, for instance — on the church in the South. (I wish today’s media learned from the mistakes of the past and were more cautious in the tales they repeat about us today.) I’m glad at least one of his descendants knows and appreciates John Morgan for who he was!

    I’d never heard of Nauvoo, Alabama, Jonathan. I followed the link, and wish there were an indication of when the town’s name was changed. That will be an interesting bit of trivia to follow up on.

    Thanks, Wilfried and Ray and Julie.

  7. mmiles on April 26, 2008 at 3:27 pm

    Thanks Ardis. Very interesting.

  8. Edje on April 26, 2008 at 5:10 pm

    Thanks, Ardis. This is wonderful! Would it be possible to get an annotated version?

    I’m going off memory and it’s the end of the semester, so no fact checking for me this month, but… The member/family Elder Richards was presumably enroute to visit was one Pleasant Odom*. Pleasant and family subsequently moved to Southeast Texas. When missionaries eventually made it back to that portion of Texas in 1898 or so (after having been absent since before the Civil War) they re-established contact with the Odoms, whose many descendants played significant roles in establishing the church in Texas and many of whom are still active. [*That the Odoms’ home was the presumptive destination is from William Hatch’s interview with Vera Ogden in 1965; I don’t know the source of Mrs. Ogden’s information.]

    I have a vague recollections of Tillmans at the Kelsey colony in East Texas in the early 1900s and of a Tilghman showing up in one of the East Texas missionary diaries about that time (1898-1910). I’ll look into it this summer.

  9. Ardis Parshall on April 26, 2008 at 5:25 pm

    Edje, my hero! Yes, Odom is the family APR was heading to see — or at least the Roper/Arrington bio of Spry says that. They were writing in 1971 and may have been relying on Hatch rather than being an independent source, though. I’ll send you a note with my sources.

    There are so many James Tillmans around, especially in the South, that I could have looked at my man a dozen times without being able to recognize him, without even an age or place of origin to use as a matchpoint. If the record doesn’t mention a Mormon connection, I can’t pick him out.

    It would be good to know more about the Odoms as well as James Tillman. These local Saints get lost in our history.

  10. Kevin Barney on April 26, 2008 at 6:53 pm

    Fascinating stuff, as always, Ardis.

    This reminded me of that famous picture of B.H. Roberts dressed like a tramp. As the story is recounted in Wikipedia: On August 10, 1884, a mob in the small community of Cane Creek murdered two LDS missionaries and two members of the Mormon congregation. (One of the latter had killed a member of the mob before he was in turn slain.) At some personal risk, Roberts disguised himself as a tramp and recovered the bodies of the two missionaries for their families in Utah Territory.

    Serving in the Southern States Mission back then was no picnic!

    There’s also a Nauvoo, Pennsylvania. Steve Benson claimed that Joseph got the name from this other Nauvoo, even though it is abundantly clear that the influence went from Illinois to Pennsylvania and not vice versa. No amount of facts or reason could dissuade him, however.

  11. Randy B. on April 26, 2008 at 10:27 pm

    Great stuff, as always, Ardis.

  12. John on April 27, 2008 at 1:24 am

    Very interesting! I too would like the annotated version is that is possible. – JMP

  13. Adam Greenwood on April 27, 2008 at 10:36 am

    Good story. Thanks.

  14. Jonathan Green on April 27, 2008 at 10:43 am

    Ardis, according to the inerrant font of all truth (i.e. Wikipedia), the Alabama town changed its name to Nauvoo in 1888, so right around the relevant time period.

  15. Raymond Takashi Swenson on April 27, 2008 at 12:51 pm

    That is a fascinating narrative. Has any compiled a book of such stories about missionary heroes? My recollection is that my great-grandfather was baptized in the evening in the sea in Denmark because at the time the authorities were arresting missionaries.

  16. Idahospud on April 27, 2008 at 8:40 pm

    Ardis, I really enjoy these insights into individuals in our history–I appreciate you sharing your interests and talents with us.

  17. kevinf on April 28, 2008 at 5:43 pm

    Great story again, Ardis. I read William Spry’s biography a while back. If I recall correctly, he was the Utah governor who oversaw the execution of labor organizer Joe Hill for a murder in SLC.

  18. Ardis Parshall on April 28, 2008 at 6:05 pm

    Yep, kevinf, that’s the man. Don’t you love the way history is so interconnected?

  19. kevinf on April 28, 2008 at 7:47 pm

    Even weirder, my grandfather, who was 30 at the time, was a missionary in southeastern Texas from 1899 to 1901 (he didn’t marry until later, and then my father was born when he was 50 – I’m old, but not that old!). I will check his journals over the next few days for mention of a James Tilman. Incidentally, my grandfather was in Galveston at the time of the 1900 Galveston Hurricane that killed an estimated 8,000 or more people in the area. He and his companion survived by climbing up into the attic of the three story house they were living in to avoid the storm surge. He felt like Galveston deserved it, according to his journal.

  20. Edje on April 28, 2008 at 11:22 pm

    Kevin f: Speaking of interconnections… There were four Elders in Galveston during the hurricane, one of which had a last name starting with “F”; his birthday is 07 Aug 1869, which would have made him thirty when he started his mission. I presume this is your grandfather. [I don’t know how you feel about being “outed” online, so I’ll refer to Elder “F.”]

    I’ve checked his journal for Tillmans (that is, I’ve checked the index of investigators and members; it’s possible the index is incomplete). I didn’t find any Tillmans.

    Elder F is one of the Elders who “found” the Odoms. His diary entry for 17 January 1900: “Weather clear and warm. Left Mr. Smart’s after breakfast to go to Mr. Kirkondoll to hold a meeting there. Came to a family Odom by name. They come from Alabama. They was well acquainted with Bishop Bramwell when he was on a mission. There father and mother belonged to the church. The Elders made there house headquarters. They afterwards moved to Colorado and did not like the country and moved to Texas. They are living at Town Bluff, Tyler Co., Texas. …”

    The family they found is one of Pleasant Odom’s sons, Tom. A group of intermarried families moved together from Alabama to Colorado to Texas. Deep South to West to Not-So-Deep South is a migration pattern that shows up with some frequency in early Texas church history (though I won’t hazard a quantitative guess as to how common). On 10 April 1900 Elder F baptized and confirmed nine people at Tom Odoms and then blessed ten children. The Odoms had been baptized in Alabama. Why they were re-baptized is not clear. (There are a couple of plausible explanations but no evidence to favor one over another).

    Four days later (14 Apr) Elder F records: “Stayed at Bro. Odom’s all day. About 5 o’clock their was a friend come there and told us that he overheard some men talking of mobing us and that if we ware not out of their in twenty four hours, their would be one of the worst deeds committed that was ever known in East Texas and about six o’clock, Bro.Tom Crosby and Irving Smith came and littel later Bro. Bill Crosby and Wm. Odom came. We sit up untill after 12 o’clock then we retired. Slept well.”

    And so on. “F” is a name spoken with a degree of reverence in these parts.

    I would be interested in off-blog contact to exchange information about Elder F (or whomever your grandfather was). My email is edje dot hilton at gmail dot com.

    The Ensign ran a piece on Odomville several years ago: Don L. Searle, “Odomville: Its Citizens Are Family, Its Boundary Is Love,” Ensign, Feb 1985, 44 (link).

  21. Martin Willey on April 29, 2008 at 4:40 pm

    Hey! Where did the Janos post go!?! I wanted ot read it!

  22. kevinf on April 29, 2008 at 4:51 pm

    Edje, that’s him. Heber Nephi Folkman. My brother actually has more information than I do, and in fact, may still have HNF’s original missionary journals. How did you come across them? I’ll drop you an email.

  23. Edje on April 29, 2008 at 5:43 pm

    Kevin f, I’ll look for your email.