22 September 2020

Citizen Protests and the Possibility of Military Occupation in 1885

 Flag at Fort Douglas 1864, from UDSH.

1885 was a time of civil unrest in SLC and which resulted in an act of citizen defiance that the US Army was asked to intervene, but refused.  

In the 1880s, tensions were high between the Mormon and the Gentile citizens of SLC.  The Utah Territorial Governor overturned a lawful election in 1880 (Cannon vs Campbell), the Edmunds Act of 1882 had made polygamy a felony, Utah women lost their right to vote in 1887, and many other issues.

On July 2 1885, Mormon apostle John Henry Smith was arrested for unlawful cohabitation, he was the most prominent Mormon to be taken into custody up to that point. Although the case against Smith was dismissed the fury of the Mormon citizens of SLC had been roused.

On the morning of the July 4 1885, SLC awoke see that the US flag on many prominent buildings had been lowered to half-mast. Flags at City Hall, County Court House, Salt Lake Theater, ZCMI, the Tithing Office, Deseret News, and the Gardo House (official residence of the President of the LDS Church) had all been lowered.

At first it was supposed that the flag indicated the death of former President Ulysses S. Grant, but this was soon dispelled when Fort Douglas continued flying the flag at full mast and no bulletins announced his death.

The flag had been placed at half-mast by private citizens as a “sign of mourning and the death of liberty” to the Mormon citizens of SLC. The mostly Mormon citizens deemed it a proper manifestation, but the Gentiles of the City saw the act as offensive and treasonous.

Tempers grew and alliances formed mostly along religious lines. Governor Eli H Murray, a staunch anti-Mormon, immediately telephoned the Commander at Fort Douglas, Gen Alexander McCook, for military aid to compel the raisings of the flags. Gen McCook refused to interfere.

By 5pm, a mob had formed marching on Main Street to ZCMI threatening to break in and raise the flag. Eventually all the flags were all raised to full mast by the cooperation and de-escalation of City and Mormon leaders. Although violence was threatened, none was initiated.

Source: History of Utah V3 by Orson F Whitney, 1898, p398-407

On a humorous note:
Anticipation of similar antics with the flag was predicted for the following July 24th 1885 celebration and preparations for another mob incident were made. But former President Ulysses S. Grant died on July 23 1885 and Governor Murray issued a proclamation to the people of Utah recommending that flags be draped in mourning until his burial. “The Governor did not recommend that the flags be half masted although he well knew they would be and that this was a perfectly proper proceeding.”

On a serious note:
During the SLC Council special committee after action review, a committee member who was a Gentile said that he “would not condemn the coolness of General McCook but quoted General [Patrick E.] Connor, the founder of [Fort Douglas] as having said that ‘if he had been there the flags would have been run to the top of the mast, or he would have poured hot shot into the streets of Salt Lake City.’”

In an alternative history timeline SLC could have had its own Bloody Sunday incident. Instead, the US Army refused to intervene in a mostly peaceful act of civil disobedience and the 1885 4th of July is now a relatively unremarkable day in SLC history. 

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