Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Gangsters for God

Harold Schindler.  Orrin Porter Rockwell: Man of God, Son of Thunder.  Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1983.  ISBN: 087480440X.

Marco Amenta.  "La siciliana ribelle."  Music Box Films, 2009.

I just finished Schindler's biography of Porter Rockwell, which I have been reading while walking to and from my office: it breaks up the monotony of my day, and gives me something to think about besides all the jobs that I am not going to get.  I have actually enjoyed it a good bit.

Rockwell was quite a character.  Many people loved him (not just the LDS leaders whom he served faithfully).  Many people hated him (especially after he was implicated in the attempted assassination of Lilburn W. Boggs, the infamous governor of Missouri who signed the extermination order evicting the Mormons from his state).  Many people feared him.  Whatever your personal reaction to the man, it is really hard not to be interested in him, at least.  I learned that he joined the church young, that he befriended the prophet Joseph Smith, and that (like the prophet) he was rendered lame by an accident (which left one of his legs shorter than the other).  I learned how he was personally affected by the war between the Mormons and the Missouri settlers that ended in Boggs' extermination order, a war that saw lawless violence on both sides.  I learned that he spent nine months languishing alone in jail, waiting to be tried as Boggs' murderer, attempting at least two escapes before he was finally exonerated due to lack of evidence.  Early Mormon history contains many stirring tales; one of the most dramatic is undoubtedly the one of Rockwell's unexpected return from Independence, Missouri (where he was freed from jail December 13th, 1843), to Nauvoo, Illinois, where he interrupted the prophet Joseph's Christmas party (December 25th):
Fifty couples had accepted the prophet's invitation to dine and dance at his home, celebrating not only the Christmas season, but also Joseph's victories over the forces against him.  He had been three times arrested and three times acquitted during the year on charges preferred by the state of Missouri.  Bennett had been defeated.  And Joseph had successfully weathered the storm of controversy surrounding the doctrine of plural marriage.  Most important, Joseph had secretly decided to become a candidate for the presidency of the United States.  Suddenly the festivities were interrupted by a noisy scuffle at the front door.  Members of Joseph's Life Guard were struggling furiously to control what they thought to be a drunken Missourian who was punching and jabbing in every direction.  The prophet, resplendent in his Legion costume, pushed through the crowd to the center of the disturbance and ordered the guards to throw the intruder out forcibly.  As Joseph turned to walk away he was caught by something familiar in the filthy, disheveled specter of a man whose hair dangled in greasy snarls down his shoulders.  For a moment Joseph looked the creature full in the face.  It was grinning at him.
"To my great surprise and joy untold," he wrote, "I discovered it was my long-tried, warm, but cruelly persecuted friend, Orrin Porter Rockwell, just arrived from nearly a year's imprisonment, without conviction, in Missouri."  For Joseph, his friend's appearance was the fulfillment of his prophecy of March 15 that Rockwell would "honorably escape" the clutches of the Missourians.  Rockwell was the center of attention, and after partaking of a glass of the wine which flowed so freely at the festivities, he sat down with Joseph and a knot of church dignitaries to recount his trials since fleeing Nauvoo.  At the conclusion of his story, the prophet sat silent for several minutes; then, placing his arm around his friend's shoulder, [he] announced for all to hear: "I prophesy, in the name of the Lord, that you -- Orrin Porter Rockwell -- so long as ye shall remain loyal and true to they faith, need fear no enemy.  Cut not thy hair and no bullet or blade can harm thee!" ... From this day forward through thirty-five violent years in which Rockwell encountered hostile Indians, desperadoes, and other characters on the western scene, he managed to avoid a single physical injury at the hands of another man (Schindler, pp. 101-102).
This anecdote tells you a lot about Port (as he was known to friends).  He was loyal (enough to spend almost a year in jail for protecting the prophet, who was his friend).  He was tough (almost too tough for a posse of the prophet's Life Guard, even after a year spent running from the law and starving in jail).  He was a legend in his own time.  Before we get too excited about Smith's prophecy, it should be noted that Rockwell did cut his hair once.  Many years after the prophecy, he encountered Don Carlos Smith's widow Agnes Coolbrith, who was bald in consequence of a recent bout with typhoid fever.  Rockwell, generous friend that he was, had his hair cut to make her a wig:
Porter wore his hair long, as he said the Prophet had told him that if he wore his hair long his enemies should not have the power over him neither should he be overcome by evil.  When he met Sister Smith he had no gold dust or money to give her, so he had had his hair cut to make her a wig and from that time he said that he could not control the desire for strong drink, nor the habit of swearing (Letter of Mrs. Elizabeth D. E. Roundy, quoted in Schindler, p. 220).
By modern LDS standards, Rockwell was undoubtedly a strange-looking Saint: a long-haired, hard drinking, swearing, gunslinging bear of a man.  I am pretty sure the BYU Testing Center would have forbidden him entrance, though I am willing to guess that people on the street might have taken him a little more seriously than they did me when I did my tour of duty as a missionary.  He certainly made an impression on Richard Burton (the famous nineteenth-century world traveler, not the modern actor):
Porter Rockwell was a man about fifty, tall and strong, with ample leather leggings overhanging his huge spurs, and the saw-handles of two revolvers peeping from his blouse.  His forehead was already a little bald, and he wore his long grizzly locks after the ancient fashion of the U.S., plaited and gathered up at the nape of the neck; his brow puckered with frowning wrinkles contrasted curiously with his cool determined grey eye, jolly red face, well touched up with "paint," and his laughing good-humoured mouth.  He had the manner of a jovial, reckless, devil-may-care English ruffian.  The officers called him Porter, and preferred him to the "slimy villains" who will drink with a man and then murder him.  After a little preliminary business about a stolen horse, all conducted on the amiable, he pulled out a dollar, and sent to the neighbouring distillery for a bottle of Valley Tan.  The aguardiente was smuggled in under cloth, as though we had been respectables in a Moslem country, and we were asked to join him in a "squar' drink," which means spirits without water.  The mode of drinking was peculiar.  Porter, after the preliminary sputation raised the glass with a cocked little finger to his lips, with the twinkle of the eye ejaculated "Wheat!" that is to say "good," and drained the tumbler to the bottom ...
Of these "squar' drinks" we had at least four, which, however, did not shake Mr. Rockwell's nerve, and then he sent out for more.  Meanwhile he told us his last adventure, how when ascending the kanyon he suddenly found himself covered by two long rifles; how he had thrown himself from his horse, drawn his revolver and crept behind a bush, and he had dared the enemy to come out and fight like men ... When he heard that I was preparing for California he gave me abundant good advice -- to carry a double-barrelled gun loaded with buckshot; to "keep my eyes skinned," especially in kanyons and ravines; to make at times a dark camp ... and never to trust to appearances in an Indian country ... I observed that, when thus speaking, Porter's eyes assumed the expression of an old mountaineer's, ever rolling as if set in quicksilver.  For the purpose of avoiding "White Indians," the worst of their kind, he advised me to shun the direct route, which he represented to about as fit for travelling as h-ll for a powder magazine" (Richard Burton, City of the Saints, quoted in Schindler, pp. 309-310).
Burton was not the only stranger impressed by Rockwell, and (frankly) there was much to admire about the Mormon Samson.  He survived the Missouri troubles and the Nauvoo disaster, managing to run successful businesses (a ferry service in Missouri and a tavern in Nauvoo, though Emma Smith evicted this establishment from the Smith home, where the prophet Joseph wanted to locate it).  He was Brigham Young's prairie scout and mountaineer.  He carried mail.  He played a key role in thwarting Johnson's army during the Utah War (not without some personal embarrassment: the first time he and some others tried to drive off the army's mules, they only succeeded in losing their own mounts).  He had another tavern at Point of the Mountain, and he was famous in Utah for his stock (horse and cattle).  He had a reputation for being at once honest (so that outsiders looked to him for advice, scouting expertise, and protection) and dangerous (so that he was implicated in several grisly deaths, like the botched assassination of the Aiken party and the mysterious beheading of an otherwise unknown Missourian).  As gangsters go, he was "all wheat" (as he would have said).

I grew up with immense reverence for the prophets Brigham Young and Joseph Smith.  They were heroes who could do no wrong; the crimes alleged against them were anti-Mormon lies.  Inevitably, this distorted picture of reality left me vulnerable to demonizing their less well-known associates, men like John D. Lee, Bill Hickman, and Porter Rockwell.  Today, I see the early LDS church as a mafia.  This is not really as black a mark against it as some might think: the government of Missouri that tried to crush it with mob violence was also a mafia (with different factions: remember Bleeding Kansas).  The American frontier was just not a nice place back in the day.  This does not mean that nothing good ever happened there, or that pioneers like Porter Rockwell were generally bad people.  But they were not really what we moderns would call civilized.  They lacked scruples that we consider basic; death was a constant reality for them, and killing a necessary part of life.  What would you do if you woke up one day and found yourself in danger of sudden death from ruthless strangers?  Would you think calmly to yourself, "Maybe I should move somewhere else, ditch my family and friends (with their weird religion which I believe heart and soul), and start over" or would you fight back?  Some early Mormons thought better of it and turned tail, no doubt.  Others fought back -- becoming "gentlemen of honor" just like the Italian mafiosi depicted by Marco Amenta.  Of these latter, some became renowned as despicable criminals (like Lee and Hickman), while others (like Rockwell) attained a kind of outlaw respectability.  Rockwell's strength was his honesty and integrity; in his own words (shouted to American vice president Schuyler Colfax when Rockwell was in his cups), "I never killed anyone who didn't need killing" (quoted in Schindler, p. 343).  Unlike Bill Hickman, Rockwell never turned state's evidence (becoming a snitch) or killed people for purely mercenary reasons (though some alleged that Joseph Smith at least rewarded his attempt on Boggs' life); he was the kind of mafioso who killed to defend life and honor (his own, and that of his close friends, who just happened to be mafia bosses).  Unlike John D. Lee, he never stooped to killing women and children (a circumstance which might owe something to luck as well as his character, to be punctilious; but facts are facts).  You might not agree with Rockwell, but you knew where he stood, and that he was totally committed.  In many ways, he is more admirable than either Joseph Smith (who was a philanderer and a liar, two things Rockwell never was) or Brigham Young (who was also a liar, and thus more of a coward than Rockwell: hanging Lee out to dry alone for the mistakes at Mountain Meadows despite promises of immunity was a dastardly thing).

No comments:

Post a Comment