23 March 1877 – John D. Lee

John D. LeeJohn Doyle Lee a Latter-day Saint in the eyes of the Mormons, was put in front of a firing squad for his role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

Turf wars

Based in Utah, the Mormon group was fiercely protective of its territory. In a time when public transport…well it just didn’t exist…great groups of migrants would trek across the arid heartlands of America to get to their destinations. And Utah was a great place to stop and recoup, before you hit the hard terrain of the Mojave (or Mohave depending where you’re from) desert en route to California.

That’s what the Fancher–Baker party was doing in 1857 – they were trekking from Arkansas to California in search of gold and a better life. Not that they were poor, far from it – some reports say they had around 800 cattle with them and plentiful supplies in tow. However, they stopped at Mountain Meadows en route to the Mojave – a well-known stopping point – to rest, or so they thought.

Instead they were jumped by a mix of Native American Indians and Mormons cunningly dressed as Indians – cunning because they were later able to blame the Indians exclusively for the event. The entire Fancher–Baker party was slaughtered save for 15 or so young children.

Utah saints

Lee was very vocal when the Utah lawmen turned up, headed up by the governor of Utah and leader of the Latter Day Saints movement, Brigham Young. First Lee blamed the Indians for the massacre, then said he was coerced. He was tried and found not guilty in 1857. But you know this site well enough by now to realise that that can’t have been the end of it. The controversy never died and someone needed to be held accountable.

Lee was tried again in 1877 for leading the massacre and found guilty. He finally maintained that he was a scapegoat and had never actually killed anyone, but not before turning against the head of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His final words included a damning indictment of his former leader: ‘I do not believe everything that is now being taught and practiced by Brigham Young.’

In a sharp twist of fate, he was shot by a firing squad on the very site where all those innocent travellers were murdered.

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