Brigham Young was a multiplicity of talent, policy, personality, image. 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. —Ronald W. Walker, retired BYU history professor
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."
"Of course, not all newspapers were quite so fierce, but even admiration for Young usually came through clenched teeth," Walker said.
"As the nation’s newspapers puzzled about Young and his community, the Mormons continued with funeral arrangements," he noted. "Plaster molds were made of Young’s right hand and face, which seemed to preserve a slight smile, as if death had found him in peace."
A procession escorted his coffin to the newly completed Salt Lake Tabernacle about a city block away, Walker said. "The number in the procession was estimated at between 600 and a thousand, not much elbow room for a distance that was less than a city block."
During the procession, "gentle but copious tears fell from the sky; it was raining." Walker said. "It seemed that even the heavens were mourning."
During the 16 hours the body lay in state in the tabernacle, some 25,000 men, women and children passed by or stood about the grounds. "That would be about one out of every five people in the territory," Walker said.
"Some had walked long distances, literally. Others had arrived by horse or carriage, and still others traveled on specially arranged trains. The local railroad company borrowed cars from Union Pacific Railroad to meet the demand."
On the day of the funeral, every seat in the tabernacle was filled, "except for the prophet’s chair, a wooden hardback with what seemed to be a scepter of office extending from one armrest as if to proclaim ex cathedra," Walker said. On this day, "the chair was enrobed with folds of solemn drapery."
Four years earlier, President Young had left written instructions for his funeral, and he was so particular, he wanted the instructions read at the funeral to make sure they were followed, Walker said.
"His coffin, he said, should be made of plump 1½ inch redwood boards, ‘not scrimped in length, but 2 inches longer than I would measure and from 2 to 3 inches wider than is commonly made for a person of my breath and size and deep enough to place me on a little, comfortable cotton bed."
He wanted no black crepe on the men’s hats or coats and no specially bought black bonnets, dresses and veils for the women. His wives and daughters came to the funeral dressed in white.
One of the special visitors to Salt Lake City for the funeral was Thomas L. Kane, "perhaps Young’s best non-LDS friend" and a man who had been an influential benefactor of the Mormons at a time when they were in great need of his help.
Kane, who learned of the death by telegraph five minutes after it happened, was the first to be notified of it. On a family holiday, he felt his presence was necessary so he immediately departed for Salt Lake City. In Chicago, he was alerted by telegraph that Mormon leaders were waiting upon Kane before doing anything else.
"Continuing his train travel, he soon discovered that two Mormons had inconspicuously joined his car. They had been sent from Salt Lake City to protect him. It was at this point that he decided to no longer go incognito."
Kane visited some of President Young’s widows, including Mary Ann Angel Young.
"I have been with him for 44 years, during which my life has been enlarged by his life and the consciousness that every breath he drew was for the Lord and for the advancement of the Kingdom," she said. "I am comforted to think that he has withdrawn from the persecution that was in preparation for him."
Kane tried to comfort another of the widows, Amelia Folsom, who said "she had lost her prophet and her priest and her father and her baby."
"Those were telling nouns," Walker remarked.
At the gravesite on the hill above Salt Lake City, Kane encountered William C. Staines, who often served as confidential courier between Kane and President Young.
Kane penned these words in his diary: "It was not in either of us."
"These cryptic and unclear words may have had something to do with their respective disabilities or perhaps their suppressed emotions, or perhaps Kane was saying something about Brigham Young himself. Kane and Staines had known Young for decades. but there still remained a riddle. No one, then or now, knew just what to make of this man, even those who had been the closest."