Sherlock Holmes and the case of the avenging Mormons

If you’re only going to read one page-turner about violent Mormonism this week, make it “Under the Banner of Heaven,” which is seriously fascinating. But after you’ve finished reading that, pick up the first Sherlock Holmes novel.

In an effort to become an obnoxious, hair-splitting Holmes purist in time for the the movie‘s release on Christmas day, I just finished reading “A Study in Scarlet,” Arthur Conan Doyle’s first novel starring the supremely logical 19th-century British detective. I didn’t expect it to have anything to do with my 21st-century, non-mysterious, illogical, 90% American (10% Canadian!) road trip.

And yet, when one has a blog to update, it’s remarkable what can be connected to one’s own life.

Brigham Young confronts his innocent victim in an early illustration of "A Study in Scarlet."

So, today’s fact of the day: A full third of “A Study in Scarlet” is devoted to a lurid tale of Mormon feuding and forced plural marriage in and around Utah! That’s a topic that I dilettantishly became interested in a few months ago after visiting to Salt Lake City’s Temple Square and viewing of a full-length feature film about Joseph Smith, along with various encounters with Mormon culture around the American West.

After introducing Dr. Watson (who has just returned from medical duty in Afghanistan), Holmes, and the particulars of a most unusual murder case, the narrative shifts from cozy 221b Baker Street to an “arid and repulsive desert, which for many a long year served as a barrier against the advance of civilization.” It also shifts from Watson’s precise, curious first-person narrative to a sanctimonious omniscient narrator with a flair for the florid.

Here’s Doyle’s setup of the confrontation between the vile Brigham Young and the noble father figure of the story-within-a-story.

One fine morning, John Ferrier was about to set out to his wheatfields, when he heard the click of the latch, and, looking through the window, saw a stout, sandy-haired, middle-aged man coming up the pathway. His heart leapt to his mouth, for this was none other than the great Brigham Young himself. Full of trepidation — for he knew that such a visit boded him little good — Ferrier ran to the door to greet the Mormon chief. The latter, however, received his salutations coldly, and followed him with a stern face into the sitting-room.

And this is before the straight-up murdering begins.

On an American speaking tour some 36 years after the book’s publication, Doyle made his first visit to Utah, where an offended correspondent contacted him at the Hotel Utah and requested an apology for his depiction of Mormons. The author hedged, writing that “all I said about the Danite Band and the murders is historical so I cannot withdraw that tho it is likely that in a work of fiction it is stated more luridly than in a work of history. It’s best to let the matter rest.”

I have a feeling it will “rest” in the movie, too, which is not based on a particular Holmes story and would have no reason to include this bizarre little American interlude. But a girl can dream: Maybe in the inevitable sequel, Robert Downey Jr.’s martial-arts-master version of Holmes can time-travel his way to 21st-century Utah for an ass-kicking confrontation of his own.

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2 responses to “Sherlock Holmes and the case of the avenging Mormons

  1. Far from having forced marriages, 1800s Utah had the most liberal divorce laws in the nation at that time.

    Basically, any woman who wanted a divorce, could easily get one.

    Utah was also one of the first places to allow female suffrage – until Congress demolished it fearful of Mormon votes.

    The late 1800s were so full of ignorant bigotry against the Mormons – the group was regularly misrepresented in the Eastern presses. The stuff being said was worse than just about any samples of anti-semitism or racism you could find being written in other time periods.

    Women in Utah during the 1800s were highly educated and fiercely independent. Visitors from the East were routinely puzzled by how powerful and strong-willed Mormon women were – it didn’t fit their stereotypes of beaten sex-slaves at all.

    I’d thank you to actually study the lives of these women before you continue to drag their names through the mud.

  2. Hi, Seth. Thanks for commenting. I guess I wasn’t clear: I actually didn’t write the first Sherlock Holmes novel; it was written in 1887 by Arthur Conan Doyle. Yes, its depiction of Mormonism was based on the crudest stereotypes of the day.

    My last line of this post has nothing to do with “these women,” who I have no doubt were powerful and strong-willed. If you’ll follow the link, you’ll see I’m referring to the damage that the contemporary church has done to the rights of gays and lesbians in this country.

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