Wild Bill Rides Again:
The Tanners on the Danites.
What about Bill Hickman's testimony on secret Danite crimes?
in The Salt Lake City Messenger, Issue No. 77, February, 1991.
In Sounding Brass (Bookcraft, 1963) Hugh W. Nibley wrote a long chapter entitled "How to Write an Anti-Mormon Book." [Webmaster's note: The compilation, Tinking Cymbals and Sounding Brass, is available online. "How to Write an Anti-Mormon Book" is Chapter 3 in Sounding Brass.] That chapter explains 36 rules of the genre which Nibley extrapolates from the examples before him. Although the chapter is a fine example of Socratic irony, and is written with tongue firmly in cheek, the rules are thought-provoking, and very applicable. The article under review is a magazine article, and not a book; nevertheless, it faithfully adheres to many of the rules which Nibley describes. So faithfully, in fact, that it would be possible, using the methods the Tanners employ on The Book of Mormon, to "prove" that Nibley's essay provided the "ground plan" for that article. There is no doubt that they have seen Sounding Brass, since they quote from it, thus:
"Nobody had been able to pin anything on the Mormons until 14 years later, when Bill Hickman came to the rescue with his thrice-welcome 'confessions'... a long and lurid catalogue of blood in which every major crime committed in Utah is mechanically and unimaginatively pinned on Brigham Young.... Hickman, as we shall see, never dreamed of such a thing until Beadle put him up to it... Beadle was a professional purveyor of scandal... we believe that those tales are Beadle's invention... The patent absurdity of the 'Confessions' becomes apparent on the most superficial investigation and grows with every monotonous episode.... The Hickman stories were not true." (Sounding Brass, 1963, pp. 254, 256, 263-65)
It is a fairly representative Tanner quote, telescoping phrases from four non-contiguous pages into a single paragraph. One would imagine, reading this quote, that Nibley's argument had been summarised for us. In fact those eleven pages of closely-reasoned arguments, including some full and explicit quotes, are simply devastating to the Tanners' thesis, but you wouldn't know that from the way they handle them. Nevertheless, this quote is valuable because it proves that they have read Sounding Brass.
Having read the book, we might expect them to take account of those arguments it makes which impact their own thesis; but they pass by these in complete silence (rule 16.) Since the article repeats the Tanners' stock accusation that the Church "suppresses" unhelpful documents, this is rather revealing. For example, the Tanners' star witness is William A. Hickman, a frontier roughneck who happened to be a member of the Church. The Tanners use a lot of column space arguing that Hickman's turgid "confession," Brigham's Destroying Angel, was not substantially altered by J. H. Beadle, and that it was true. In making this argument they address issues raised by Arrington and Hilton, but they completely ignore Nibley's two most important arguments.
The Tanners fail to mention that Hickman met several times with Governor Stephen S. Harding and told him all. In fact, Harding's name is nowhere mentioned in the article. Nibley points out that Harding's career as Governor was in trouble, and he desperately needed to pin something on Brigham Young. Furthermore, Hickman was, at this juncture, more than willing to give him all the help he needed; but their partnership was entirely fruitless. Hickman's allegations must have been of immense value to Governor Harding if they were true; so why did the good Governor not make use of them? Not only were the two of them unable pin anything on Brigham; they didn't even have enough to start proceedings against him. Why, Nibley asks, were Hickman's allegations of no help to Harding? Is it because those allegations were simply untrue? Nibley's argument is sound; it seems apparent that the Tanners simply ignore it because they are unable to deal with it. Indeed, the fact that Harding's name does not appear anywhere in the article is even more revealing when we realise that Beadle, in editing Brigham's Destroying Angel, relies upon Harding and quotes him at length.
Nibley also mentions - almost in passing - the fact that Hickman, despite his published "confessions", lived alone on an isolated ranch for years afterwards; why did the "Danites" never avenge Hickman's breaking of their oaths by killing him? And we might add - why did Hickman himself show no concern for his safety after "blowing the whistle"? There was no "witness protection program" in those days, and people who run murder rackets are not known for their forbearance towards those of their number who "rat" on their former colleagues. Again, the Tanners offer no answer to this issue, preferring to simply ignore it. For sure, they trot out the old chestnut "that Hickman could commit the atrocious crimes he did while the Mormons were in power without being punished seems to show that he was being protected by church leaders." But what about afterwards, when the leaders were definitely not protecting him? They do not say. An argument that is not addressed is an argument that is not refuted, and these arguments are quite strong enough to lead to the conclusion that Hickman's book is untrue. This is all the more significant because these arguments are embedded in the very same pages from which they cull their quote, cited above.
They give the same cavalier treatment to Nibley's analysis of some of their source material. For instance, they quote a statement of Brigham Young, which, they claim, proves that Brigham was acknowledging both the existence and the bloodthirsty propensities of the Danites. In Sounding Brass Nibley analysed that quote, and clearly demonstrated that such was not the case at all, but did the Tanners answer, or even acknowledge his argument? No.
In discussing Joseph Smith's statements on the Danites, the Tanners enjoy the prerogatives of "unequal scholarship" (rule 26); they strain at a number of gnats about what was or was not in his "scriptory book" but completely ignore his own full account of his dealings with Avard and the Danites in Missouri. Once again, Nibley gave this account a full treatment in Sounding Brass, but the Tanners seem quite inexplicably to have missed it.
The way the Tanners handle Nibley is important; since they are so manipulative of such a widely-available source, there is no reason to expect them to be any more responsible with their other sources. They rely heavily on Hope Hilton's book, "Wild Bill" Hickman and the Mormon Frontier, but it is unlikely that Mrs. Hilton would endorse their conclusions.
The section that comes under the heading "HICKMAN'S WORK FOUND?" is as perfect an example of what Nibley called "the 'House-that-Jack-Built' technique" (rule 17) as we could hope to find. There, the Tanners give full rein to their penchant for drawing firm conclusions from their own uninformed speculations. In this case, the speculation is based upon what Hope Hilton does not say in her book (rule 18). Mrs. Hilton draws some different conclusions than those she presented in an earlier paper co-authored with Leonard J. Arrington. Proceeding from this, the Tanners ask, "Is it possible that she has located the original manuscript of Brigham's Destroying Angel?" And so they commence to build their argument, in signature Tanner style:
"Mrs. Hilton's statements concerning the matter are rather strange... she would be suspicious.... She, of course, would not know for certain.... Anyone... could have added the words... Is this document something the church is trying to suppress...? It could also he [sic] possible that someone... was forbidden to release any information concerning the manuscript's existence.... We may never know the truth about this matter.... In any case [an admission that the case has not been established] Arrington and Hilton felt.... Today, however, Hope Hilton feels...."
And so the case is built; it is all their own reaction ("rather strange") and speculation ("would be suspicious", "would know", "could have added") subtle hints of conspiracy and cover-up ("we may never know the truth") and of course the inevitable mind reading without which the Tanners would be able to publish considerably less material. It is perfect "house-that-Jack-built" speculation that leaves the unwary reader with the impression that something very significant has been proven, when in fact nothing at all has been.
The Tanners expend several paragraphs on the so-called "Blood Atonement" doctrine, i.e. the idea that people could atone for their own sins by allowing their own blood to be shed. This, they argue, was the doctrinal/ideological basis for the many murders the Danites committed. They argue from this as though it has been established as doctrine, (it hasn't) but this is a peripheral issue here. The main problem, for their purposes, is that the idea of "Blood Atonement" seems always to relate back to Mormons breaking covenants, or otherwise transgressing against the greater light. In fact, the passages which they cite from the Journal of Discourses, which are used to support the claim that Brigham believed in Blood Atonement, make it absolutely clear that people guilty of capital crimes should voluntarily submit themselves to be executed.
And so, having established "Blood Atonement" as the ideological basis for "Danite" atrocities, they proceed to prove that those atrocities actually took place. Which atrocities? Why, various murders of hostile or well-heeled gentiles, of course! But what on earth has that to do with "Blood Atonement"? Did any of those gentiles commit capital offences, or break Mormon covenants? Did they step forward and ask to be executed for those crimes? The Tanners offer no evidence for this.
"Hosea Stout was a member of the Danite Band and later served as a body guard for Joseph Smith. Besides serving as Chief of Police in Nauvoo, he was an officer in the Nauvoo legion." With these words, the Tanners introduce the figure of Hosea Stout, whom Hickman implicates in some of his best atrocity stories. Stout, the Tanners tell us, was "a very brutal man", as evidenced by his diary. And so, to prove how brutal he was, they cite two incidents recorded in that diary in which he did not kill anyone. The first, in April 1845, concerned a trespasser on the grounds of the Temple at night, who had been roughed up by the police. In a time when shooting trespassers on sight was not rare, this is not a very good atrocity. The second incident took place the following January, when one William Hibbard, whom Stout suspected of spying, appeared among the guard; Stout hit him on the head with a stone. Hibbard subsequently walked off the Temple grounds, somewhat dazed, but not seriously injured.
It is interesting that both of these incidents happened during the last months at Nauvoo. This was a dangerous time; the city, from the martyrdom to the exodus, was always embattled and frequently close to besieged. The Temple, in the grounds of which the trespasser had been found, was destroyed by an arsonist only months later. (We may ask - was not that arsonist trespassing at the time he started the fire? Does that not vindicate "stern measures" against trespassers?) Mob activity was at its peak, as the mob leaders sought to keep up the pressure on the Saints to ensure their speedy departure. And it is to this dangerous time that the Tanners must go to find the evidence of Stout's brutality. To be sure, they make a vague reference to other diary entries which they do not cite; but this does not inspire our confidence, since it is abundantly clear that the entries that were cited were the best ones available. (This is called "controlling one's sources" - rule 11.) Certainly, Stout was neither a milquetoast nor an academic theologian; a man of action in a violent time, he did what had to be done and made no apologies for it. Whatever his failings may have been, the Tanners have not made their case that he was a man willing to commit murder at a moment's notice.
The Tanners' patriotism (rule 34) appears in their treatment of conflicts between the Saints and various federal officials. The latter are always regarded as responsible public servants; the LDS perception of them as careerist scoundrels is carefully suppressed. Just as the Johnson and Grant administrations, during the Reconstruction, were able to find an inexhaustible supply of self-serving opportunists who hated both Southerners and the South, so a series of administrations were never short of self-serving opportunists who hated both Mormons and Mormonism, and who were willing to feather their own nests in Utah. The Tanners report the scornful comments of R. N. Baskin, who claimed that he would gladly have indicted Brigham Young but for opposition from non-LDS Utahns, which opposition he characterised as "fire from the rear". This, he claimed, was because the gentiles thought that arresting Brigham would bring wholesale reprisals. The very next paragraph, we learn that Brigham was arrested and that there were (surprise surprise) *no* reprisals. In fact, there was no reason at all for the gentiles to fear reprisals; on the other hand, the Saints had every reason to fear for the safety of their leaders in the hands of the government, if their experience in Nauvoo was anything to go on. Actually, when the gentiles protest, it can only be because they think the "feds" are going too far; the fear of "reprisals" is a necessary fiction to lead us away from the obvious conclusion that the authorities in general, and Baskin in particular, were getting carried away in their own bigoted zealotry.
The Tanners show their skill at using the unfulfilled condition (rule 19) in their treatment of Rockwell's death. They said, "Finally, on Sept. 29, 1877, Rockwell was arrested for his part in the Aiken massacre. He was 64 years old at the time. On June 9, 1878, Orrin Porter Rockwell died, and therefore he did not have to face a trial which could have been very embarrassing for the Mormon Church" (emphasis added.) If they wanted to be fair, they would have admitted that the only conclusion to be drawn about a trial that did not happen was that it did not happen. Arguing that it "could have been" embarrassing to the Church is pointless; it equally "could have" exonerated Rockwell and the Church completely, but the Tanners have evidently not heard of the presumption of innocence.
The Tanners take a strange line on the name "Danite." "Some Mormon apologists have tried to make an issue over the fact that Bill Hickman was called a 'Danite' on the title page of Brigham's Destroying Angel," they say. And in the next paragraph, "it seems rather ridiculous to quibble over the word 'Danite' when the evidence shows that Bill Hickman functioned in the same way that the Danite band did in Missouri." Yet that selfsame evidence is as insistent upon the name as it is upon the activities it links to that name; the two go together. If the men in question are not truly Danites, then which of the allegations against them can be trusted? If the evidence is sound, then Hickman and others were Danites in Utah. If they were not Danites, then the evidence that says that they were is not reliable; and if we discard that evidence, then we have nothing left to go on. The Tanners are trying to have their cake and eat it too.
The Tanners ensure that they preserve the gap (rule 30) between their modern audience and those wicked Mormons in this manner:
"While all the evidence seems to show that everyone who opposed the Mormon Church in early Utah risked the possibility of losing their property or even their lives, things are different today. The police in Salt Lake City give full protection to both Mormons and Gentiles."
Thus, they excuse themselves for having to explain how it is that modern Utah Saints are so entirely unlike their predecessors; for their whole premise begs this important question. The fact is that the Saints in Utah today are by and large what their (mostly LDS) parents taught them to be; those parents were pretty much what their (mostly LDS) parents taught them to be, and so on back to Brigham's day. Thus, if modern Latter-day Saints will only take up arms in self-defence, we can reasonably infer that that was also true of their ancestors.
And does "all the evidence" really show that "everyone who opposed the Mormon Church in early Utah" did so at the risk of life and limb? Everyone? Well, all the evidence that the Tanners are willing to admit, and there's the rub, for that evidence is pretty poor stuff. As Nibley (again) pointed out, again in the very pages that the Tanners quoted, Beadle himself had to live in Utah for years before he even began to suspect that not all was well. In fact "all the evidence" does not show what the Tanners want us to believe it shows, and only by playing fast and loose with that evidence can they make it do so.
1 Nibley's rules are:
Rule 1: Don't be modest! Your first concern should be to make it clear that you are the man for the job. Rule 2: A benign criticism of your predecessors will go far towards confirming your own pre-eminence in the field. Rule 3: Curtsies and bouquets to everyone. Rule 4: Proclaim the purity of your motives. Rule 5: Proclaim your love for the Mormon people. Rule 6: Allow the Mormons a few normal human failings. Rule 7: Furnish documents! Rule 8: Avoid footnotes! Rule 9: Be lavish in your appendix! Pour it on! Rule 10: Be a name dropper! Rule 11: Control your sources! Rule 12: Wave your credentials! Rule 13: Establish immediate intellectual ascendancy. Rule 14: Have something new to sell. Rule 15: Get an inside track! Rule 16: Don't answer questions! Rule 17: In place of evidence use Rhetoric! Rule 18: Use lack of evidence as evidence! Rule 19: Use the unfulfilled condition to make out a case against the Mormons. Rule 20: Be generous with hints - they are very effective and you never have to prove anything. Rule 21: Use quotation marks without sources - the most effective hinting device, and the most popular with anti-Mormon writers. Rule 22: Discuss motives; read minds! Rule 23: Be cute! Rule 24: Make atmosphere your objective. Rule 25: Attack not the thing but the Image! For your readers Mormonism is what you say it is. Rule 26: Enjoy the prerogatives of "unequal scholarship," i.e., "the scrupulous straining at small historical gnats which diverts attention from the silent digestion of large and inconvenient camels." Rule 27: Be literary! Rule 28: Develop a special vocabulary of loaded and emotive words. Rule 29: Study the techniques of gossip. Rule 30: Preserve a gap between your readers and the Mormons. Rule 31: Learn when to be silent. Rule 32: Be bloody, bold, and resolute! Rule 33: Uphold the tradition! Correct and improve the legends! Rule 34: Be patriotic. Rule 35: Join the Ladies. Rule 36: Your target is Mormonism! The Tanners adhere to at least half of these rules in a short magazine article.
Russell C. McGregor
Mormons and Danites: The Historical Background in Missouri
Curator: Jeff Lindsay , Contact:
Last Updated: Oct. 23, 1999