Mormon History Association speaker: Brigham Young enigmatic, larger than life

Published: Sunday, June 9 2013 12:00 p.m. MDT

The Brigham Young Statue near Temple Square.

Jeffrey D. Allred,

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LAYTON — Brigham Young was an enigmatic, larger-than-life figure for many people, both in the past and present, a fact reflected in the varying reactions to his death on Aug. 29, 1877, at age 76.

The aftermath of his death was discussed by Ronald W. Walker, retired professor of history at Brigham Young University, at a Friday session of the 48th annual conference of the Mormon History Association at the Davis Conference Center in Layton.

Walker’s presentation was rich with quotations from diarists who knew the second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and from newspaper accounts published at the time of his death.

But perhaps the most striking portion came near the end of the session, when a conference attendee asked the cause of the church president’s death.

"Food poisoning" was Walker’s response, contradicting some online sources such as Wikipedia that carry forward the belief President Young died of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix.

Moreover, Walker believes that with more advanced expertise in diagnosis and treatment, President Young could have been nursed through the illness and lived on.

Historians have the advantage of a detailed day-by-day account of President Young’s symptoms leading up to his death, Walker said. He has shown this documentation to physicians, including an acquaintance who, having received the information just prior to an LDS sacrament meeting, came up with the diagnosis of food poisoning before the meeting had ended.

The man suggested a check to see if other members of President Young’s household experienced similar symptoms at the time of his illness. This Walker did and found that to be the case.

Prior to his death Brigham Young was in fairly robust health, Walker said.

He began to feel ill on a Friday evening, having met with bishops and exhorting them to do their home teaching (called "block teaching" in those days) and having spent time with some of his daughters discussing a possible lecture tour through the United States.

"That evening, he took violently ill, retching and vomiting, and within a week he was dead," Walker said.

"Brigham Young was a multiplicity of talent, policy, personality, image." he said. "Sometimes we try to find a common denominator and smooth those contradictions in his life; I’m not sure you can do that. Part of what I’m suggesting today is that this man is an enigma."

The contradictions were evident in the reactions to his death. Emmeline B. Wells, with her usual candor, wrote that it was "not so much mourned as one might imagine."

But other diarists wrote that his death left the church members feeling as though they were a sheep without a shepherd.

"Even some of the Indians felt heartbreak," Walker said. "They built signal fires 80 miles across the length of the Wasatch Front, which, of course, was their own kind of telegraph.

“ ‘All the Indians have lost a father, and their hearts cry,’ wrote an Indian leader in central Utah."

Not everyone grieved, Walker noted.

"The Salt Lake Tribune, an old opponent, could not resist a final thrust-and-parry" and said Young’s most graceful act had been his death.

"The Tribune’s terrible display of bad manners signaled that there would be no truce in its combat against Mormonism, even during this time of solemn bereavement."

Elsewhere, the vitriol was almost as strong. Walker cited a Massachusetts newspaper that wrote, "His friends have good reason to rejoice that he has escaped his hanging."

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