Biography of a Hasheesh Eater


by Dave Gross

VII. First Impressions of Mormondom

"It is so hard for even the experienced imagination to avoid doing that poetic justice which exists nowhere in the real world," Ludlow wrote, "that I had always pictured to myself the Mormons dwelling in some such physical waste as the wilderness they abide in spiritually." Instead, when he arrived at Salt Lake City, he found an industrious and sincere group of settlers in a place of no small amount of beauty.

Of the view toward an island in the Salt Lake (a scene he thought "one of the loveliest things I ever saw in nature"), he wrote that

seen through the screen of mellowing vapors which insensibly tinged the atmosphere above the lake, the whole vast mass seemed soft as a sunset cloud in a tone of both of [sic.] feeling and color, or might have been taken for a luxurious bank of roses set adrift to sway lazily on the long swells of some hasheesh-eater's Lotos Bay.
But he brought to the city an enormous about of prejudice and misgiving about the Mormons, and a squeamishness about polygamy which embarrassed him almost as much as his first view of a household of multiple wives did. "I, a cosmopolitan, a man of the world, liberal to other people's habits and opinions to a degree which had often subjected me to censure among strictarians in the Eastern States, blushed to my very temples," he writes.

Even worse was that his embarrassment was not shared by those who were participating in such a spectacle. He couldn't believe that a pair of co-wives "could sit there so demurely looking at their own and each others' babies without jumping up to tear each others' hair and scratch each others' eyes out... It would have relieved my mind... to have seen that happy family clawing each other like tigers."

"Brigham Young is the farthest remove on earth from a hypocrite; he is that grand, yet awful sight in human nature, a man who has brought the loftiest Christian self-devotion to the altar of the Devil..."

But this was Utah, and here monogamy was not at all an obvious moral guideline. "My mistake arose through forgetfulness that the social moralities are manufactured; artificial, not natural; man's temporary expediency, not God's eternal law; that shame is merely the regret one feels, discovering himself ridiculously at variance with the usages of the surrounding majority..." And as a non-Mormon in Salt Lake City, Ludlow had reasons to feel "like the three-thousandth homoeopathic dilution of monogamy."

He discovered, for instance, that Brigham Young had been "sealed" to so many wives that he imagined "[h]e thus looks forward to spending his first years in Heaven in a state of perpetual suspense and twitter at every new arrival from the earth, expecting to hear announced by the celestial usher: 'Another Mrs. Young.'"

His impressions of the Mormons came at a time when Utah was seen by many as a state as rebellious and dangerous as those in the Confederacy. In fact, Ludlow encountered frequent snide comments about the disintegration of the Union, with some of the Mormons under the impression that with the flood of immigrants to Utah fleeing the draft, and with the decimation of the male population in war time making polygamy seem more practical, the Mormon state of Utah would come out of the Civil War in a stronger position than either the Union or the Confederacy. Ludlow's opinions were read with great interest back East, and would constitute a special appendix to the book he would later write about his travels.

"The Mormon system," wrote Ludlow, "owns its believers - they are for it, not it for them. I could not help regarding this 'Church' as a colossal steam engine which had suddenly realized its superiority over its engineers and... had declared once for all not only its independence but its despotism." Furthermore, "[i]t is very well known in Salt Lake City that no man lives there who would not be dead tomorrow if Brigham willed it so."

Ludlow spent considerable time with Orrin Porter Rockwell, who had been dubbed the "Destroying Angel" for his supposed role as Brigham Young's assassin of choice. Ludlow wrote a sketch of the man which Rockwell's biographer, Harold Schindler, called "the best of those left behind by writers who observed the Mormon first-hand." Ludlow said, in part, that he found him "[t]he kindest-hearted and most obliging murderer I ever knew."

A later visitor to Salt Lake City, another journalist unfriendly to polygamy and bearing a physical resemblance to Ludlow, was mistaken for him and confronted by Rockwell:

[Rockwell had] confused me... with Fitz Hugh Ludlow, who had passed through two years before, and given an unflattering description of him for the Atlantic Monthly. Some one told Porter, or he dreamed it, that I had characterized him as the murderer of one hundred and fifty men; and he significantly remarked that if I had said it he believed he would make it one hundred and fifty-one! He finally concluded it a mistake and contended himself with complaining to me that he had been cruelly slandered by Ludlow, and afterward while in his cups, assuring me that he would kill any journalist who should publish such falsehoods about him...
Ludlow wanted his readers to know that "[i]n their insane error, [the Mormons] are sincere, as I fully believe, to a much greater extent than is generally supposed. Even their leaders, for the most part, I regard not as hypocrites, but as fanatics." For instance, "Brigham Young is the farthest remove on earth from a hypocrite; he is that grand, yet awful sight in human nature, a man who has brought the loftiest Christian self-devotion to the altar of the Devil..."

A warning that must have seemed especially poignant was this: "[T]he Mormon enemies of our American Idea should be plainly understood as far more dangerous antagonists than hypocrites or idiots can ever hope to be. Let us not twice commit the blunder of underrating our foes."

One of the less well-known, and certainly less well-understood aspects of Ludlow's personality and his writings was his occasional forays into close-minded bigotry. In the face of his progressive nature, inquiring mind, and abolitionist politics, we find a "motherly mulatto woman" described as possessing "the passive obedience of her race;" or Mexicans in California described as originating from "a nation of beggars-on-horseback... the Spaniards, Greasers, and Mixed-Breeds...;" or Chinese immigrants in "a kennel of straggling houses" with Ludlow imagining them "finally... swept away from San Francisco, and that strange Semitic race... either exiled or swallowed up in our civilization...;" or "the natural, ingrained laziness of the Indians."

Native Americans were a particular target of his bigotry. He rarely has anything good to say about "the copper-faced devils," and looked with scorn on "the pretty, sentimental, philanthropic prayers" that constituted much of the contemporary literature about the "noble savage." According to Ludlow, the "Indian" was subhuman - an "inconceivable devil, whom statesmen and fools treat with, but whom brave and practical men shoot and scalp." In an article for the Golden Era, he fantasized about when the Overland Stage would be replaced by passenger trains:

Contemplate the splendid luxury of dramatic vengeance open to the man who saw his ghastly countrymen roasting on the rafters of Canon Station, and rode through one hundred miles of torturing suspense with his hand glued to his rifle - when he shall diversify the day's reading and sleeping by occasionally running over half a dozen Go-Shoots! Be sure, that if I can thus participate in even the mechanical-extermination of our country's copper-skinned, treaty-petted murderers; if I can follow the engine which plays guillotine to these fiendish loafers of the desert; if I can create a famine in that market of the "noble red-man" which our sickly Eastern sentimentalists are so fond of patronizing for the raw material of their maundering poems and addresses - I shall cheerfully, my Era, pay you an early visit in this way, even though I have to ride on the tender. You see I hate the Indians, I make no scruple about acknowledging it. I should hate myself if I didn't, after what I have seen of those loathsome wretches throughout the whole country West of the Mississippi - and I fully believe that the only treaty with them which can save our brave men, with their defenceless wives and babes from the horrid massacres whose memory curdles in my veins, must be written in blood... with that only style whose characters an Indian can read - the scalping knife.
When he turned on the Jews, however, his opponent struck back. He compared the Mormon culture to that described in the Old Testament, saying that the Mormons are "like the Jews, shameless polygamists, assassins, bigots, inquisitors, delighters in massacre, extortioners and zealots..."

After the San Francisco Golden Era printed the article containing these sentiments, the Hebrew responded in an editorial, "More Slanders Refuted," in a way that might be expected, casting scorn on most of Ludlow's comments about Jews, and ridicule specifically on his assertion that Jews were "bigots [and] inquisitors." The Golden Era was left to give Ludlow the weakest of defenses, saying that his article was "full of prejudice and misapprehension. To a considerable degree, the very extravagence of his strictures and denunciations carries with it their refutation.... Clever literary men cannot write well under restriction, and prefer to place their opinions before the public, pure and simple, as the expression of their own personality. It is in precisely this light that individual contributors are regarded by intelligent readers."

To Ludlow's credit, or perhaps to the credit of his editors, most of the anti-Semitic comments in his published articles were removed from the text of the book he eventually published about his trip (although a reference to "the dark portals of Idolatry and Judaism" remained intact).

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