Because McLean’s estranged wife, Eleanor, had married the polygamous Pratt, the story made headlines across the nation as a sort of sensational morality tale. The Chicago Weekly Ledger summed up the tone of coverage this way: “McLean is almost canonized as a hero for the deed. Pratt is treated as would be the death of a beast of prey.” Among the few editorials written in defense of Pratt was one by Eleanor herself, which was widely reprinted—but typically with caustic and derisive editorial commentary.
I’m more saddened than surprised that the nineteenth-century press celebrated an unrepentant and unprosecuted murderer and ignored the counter-narrative offered by his former wife. But because we now claim to value evidence over blanket prejudice, due process over lynch law, and because we now feel an ethical commitment to acknowledge the perspectives of the marginalized, I thought twenty-first century coverage of my great-great-great-grandfather’s murder would be more nuanced.
I was wrong. Here’s Alex Pareene, a senior political writer for Salon, responding (in an article that says it provides “everything you need to know” about Romney’s Mormonism) to a brief passage in Turnaround where Mitt Romney dares to speak highly of our shared ancestor’s tenacity during the settling of the Salt Lake Valley:
Romney doesn’t add — and why should he? — that Pratt was murdered in 1857, by the husband of a woman he took as one of his ‘plural wives.’ (His ninth.) Pratt was in San Francisco proselytizing and promoting polygamy. The woman converted and eloped with Pratt, then pretended to renounce Mormonism in order to get her children from her parents, where her estranged husband had sent them. The husband tracked Pratt from California to Arkansas, and shot him dead when it became clear that he could not have Pratt jailed.If there's anything in that description that distinguishes 2012 from 1857, I missed it. Pratt’s murder is still narrated as a direct consequence of his deviant practice of polygamy. Eleanor still reads as practically brainwashed and deeply immoral. And we still have a poor, tenacious husband who practically had to kill Pratt when the impotent American legal system failed to bring him justice.
In a way, perhaps, I should feel honored. A century and a half after his death, my ancestor is still controversial enough to draw an implicit endorsement for extra-legal violence in a publication as prominent and nominally civilized as Salon. But I don’t feel honored. I feel let down and deliberately ignored. Because unlike the nineteenth-century editors whose Mormon-shaming he parrots, Pareene has access to an Oxford University Press biography of Pratt and a trove of online documents which would complicate the convenient image of a scheming woman and an evil polygamist who ruin an innocent man’s life. And unlike his ideological predecessors, Pareene has no reason to accept Hector McLean’s well-documented persistent brutality as normal.
The real story of Pratt’s death is a story of domestic abuse, of everyday oppression, and of American complicity in violence. It’s a story about how the institutional critiques we’re still so proud of can leave us morally tone-deaf in our evaluations of individual people. And apparently, it’s a story America still needs to hear.
This is how it goes.
In 1841, 23-year-old Eleanor McComb married Hector McLean in Greenville, Louisiana. But by 1844, she’d become exhausted with McLean’s alcoholism and abuse and was desperate enough to flee their home. Given the honor culture of their time and place, it’s probably not surprising that her father and brothers encouraged her to reconcile—apparently exerting significant pressure in the process. But historical context doesn’t negate emotional trauma. In a surviving letter from Eleanor to Hector during this period, you can almost feel her sense of despondence and entrapment:
Having used every persuation in my power to no effect, I see but three alternatives all ending in misery if not in crime. First, to live a victum of the vice to which you have became a prey 2nd to seek a home among strangers, or shall the smoothe current of the Mississippi be the last page that any may read of my “Ill Fate?”
In response to her letter, Hector promised to change. And then he promised to change again in 1849 or 1850, said a change of scene would help him reform when they left for the booming port of San Francisco. He even tried out different religious services with her, sharing her first encounter with the Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, in 1851.
But he didn’t change. When she told him she wanted to be baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he threatened her with a sword cane. When he caught her singing from a Latter-day Saint hymnbook one Sunday, he burned the book, beat her severely, then threw her out of the house and locked her out for the night. In May of 1854, he temporarily relented and even gave her his permission to officially join the Church. But after her baptism, he turned controlling again.
While it makes a great story to have Parley P. Pratt converting Eleanor McLean through his mesmerizing Mormon preaching, Pratt didn’t actually arrive in San Francisco until July of 1854, two or three years after Eleanor’s initial self-identification with the Mormon community and six weeks after her formal baptism. At that point, Hector McLean was attempting to have his wife institutionalized by presenting her deviant Mormon faith as a product of mental illness: Pratt’s first significant involvement in Eleanor’s life was helping her avoid the all-too-plausible nineteenth-century fate of forced hospitalization on the basis of her husband’s word and doctors’ religious prejudice.
But the crisis that finally allowed Eleanor to leave Hector for good didn’t come until January 1855. In his brief description of events, Alex Pareene neglects to mention that Hector McLean sent his children to New Orleans before Eleanor left him or married Pratt. He also neglects to mention that Hector sent away the children without consulting or informing his wife in advance, or that his motive was to “protect” children who had lived their whole lives with their father’s alcoholism and abuse from their mother’s Mormonism. And, in his eagerness to present Eleanor as at fault, Pareene fails to mention that the children were aged seven to twelve at the time their father sent them, unescorted, on a ship to Nicauragua with a transfer ticket to take them the rest of the way to Eleanor’s parents in New Orleans.
When Eleanor insisted on trying to catch up with her children, McLean locked her in her room. She screamed for hours before he lost his nerve and let her out.
Over Hector’s objections, and with financial support from the Mormon community, Eleanor left San Francisco for New Orleans two weeks later. But her father, likely scandalized both by her newfound faith and by her second public break with her husband, refused to allow her to take the children. After several months and serious health problems, she left New Orleans and her children with a promise to return. She then emigrated to Utah with the next pioneer company. She would never return to San Francisco or attempt to reconcile with Hector McLean again.
Though she hadn’t obtained a formal, legal divorce—which may not have been possible over such great distances in that era in any case, and was likely not her priority during the two weeks when she prepared to follow her children back through Nicaragua to her parents’ home—she went by her maiden name, McComb, in Utah, and considered herself single. And at the time, her failure to legally terminate a relationship was not unusual. People often left one state or territory and simply started over in another.
In September 1855, Eleanor applied for a position as schoolteacher for the many young children in Parley P. Pratt’s large, polygamous family and was hired. On 14 November 1855, she married Pratt, who she saw as an extremely kind, stable, and loving man. She was 37 years old.
Now, there are all kinds of ethical, economic, emotional, and other complications with a system of polygamous marriage. But we make a mistake, I think, when we project any structural critique over every individual involved, because reality is even messier than any of the systems that shape it. And when I look at the individuals, it’s difficult for me to believe that Eleanor was better off as a single wife of Hector McLean than as a plural wife of Parley P. Pratt. Which makes it irresponsible, I feel, to rewrite this individual story to conform to a pre-set evils-of-polygamy message.
It was December of 1856 when Eleanor returned to New Orleans, lied to her father about her current religious and marital status, and ran away with her children. While Eleanor and the children hid in Texas for the winter, planning to meet up with Parley and a Mormon emigration party to cross the plains when spring came, Eleanor’s incensed father alerted McLean, who left San Francisco to take back the children—and to take vengeance on Pratt.
Hector McLean made no secret of his hunt for Pratt. Indeed, the project of premeditated murder may have been the only way he saw to save face in a culture that expected men to keep their wives and female relatives in line and under control. Being vocal about his goal was also the only way to make it achievable: McLean needed a lot of help to track down a man who knew he was being hunted in the vastness of nineteenth century America.
And plenty of help is what McLean got. An article in the New Orleans Bulletin using McLean’s story as an example of the horrors of Mormonism was widely reprinted and made it easier for McLean to gather information about the whereabouts of his wife and her “seducer” from sympathetic readers. A dozen of McLean’s old friends gathered to help with the search and to, in his words, “aid me should the government not take any notice of my grievances.” Other sympathizers helped McLean intercept at least one of Pratt’s letters. And even after McLean had found Eleanor and taken the children by force, he was able to persuade a sympathetic militia officer to arrest Eleanor—and Pratt, though he hadn’t been with Eleanor and the children—on a charge of stealing the children’s clothes.
A hearing supposedly centered on $10 worth of children’s clothing is not ordinarily a major community event, but the trial of Eleanor and Parley P. Pratt drew, in McLean’s estimation, “about five hundred spectators.” Though he was privately advised that he lacked the evidence to convict the accused of anything, McLean focused his efforts on the crowd. Ever the controlling husband, he apparently complained about Eleanor’s presence in the same room with him and “the officers of the court paid such deference to my feelings that they dismissed Eleanor before calling upon me to testify.” With Eleanor gone, McLean “exceeded any previous effort of my life at relating to others the burden of my soul’s anguish” and “was kindly permitted to implicate the scoundrel in court, Parley Parker Pratt, as the principal cause of all my sorrows” until “the crowd were about making a move to lay hold of him and tear him to pieces.” When Pratt stood to respond to the accusations, McLean drew a pistol and pointed it at him, but was restrained by a court officer, who told him “you cannot do that in court.”
Today, of course, McLean would have been promptly arrested and Pratt carefully protected. But no one did anything further to restrain McLean, and all the court did to protect Pratt was to adjourn early to head off mob violence that night and to release him and his horse at 8 o’clock in the morning instead of calling him back into court.
Pratt fled, but it wasn’t long before McLean, riding a borrowed horse and accompanied by a posse of his friends, caught up with him near the home of a local blacksmith. The blacksmith spent an hour alerting the neighborhood about the attack in his yard before anyone went into the thicket where Pratt had been dragged and found that he was not yet dead. Though Pratt named McLean as his killer before he died, a local jury ruled that he “came to his death by the hand of some unknown person.”
On 9 July 1857, less than two months after the supposedly unsolved murder, this statement of McLean’s was published in the San Francisco newspaper Alta California:
I killed him! I am not able to say how you will view the act, but I look upon it as the best act of my life. My duty to myself demanded it; my duty to my children, demanded it; my duty to my relations, demanded it; and my duty to society, demanded it. And the people of West Arkansas agree with me in this view of the commission of the deed.#
Let’s take one more look at Alex Pareene’s narrative of events as published in Salon:
Romney doesn’t add — and why should he? — that Pratt was murdered in 1857, by the husband of a woman he took as one of his ‘plural wives.’ (His ninth.) Pratt was in San Francisco proselytizing and promoting polygamy. The woman converted and eloped with Pratt, then pretended to renounce Mormonism in order to get her children from her parents, where her estranged husband had sent them. The husband tracked Pratt from California to Arkansas, and shot him dead when it became clear that he could not have Pratt jailed.Pareene’s version is certainly simpler than the one I’ve told. His later explanation that early Mormons were persecuted because “they stole dudes’ wives” is simpler still—and therefore likely to retain its place in the American mind. But for Eleanor’s sake, I hope that a few of us will be able to think of early Mormon women not as property for a man like Pratt to steal, but as the intelligent, independent women they typically were—women who made choices that may seem strange to us, but made sense to them. I hope that after a century and a half of having her perspective erased from most tellings of her story, we are finally able to listen to what Eleanor Pratt told Judge John B. Ogden in the Arkansas court where she stood formally accused of stealing her own children’s clothes and unofficially accused of ruining Hector McLean’s otherwise blissful domestic life:
No Sir, it was not Mormonism that desolated McLean’s home–but that spirit that comes in bottles prepared his heart and him for deeds of desperation and at last he found a pretext in my religion, that was unpopular, and upon this ground he might treat his family with personal violence,–thrust his wife into the street and lock the doors–send his children, while yet infants upon the high seas to go many thousands of miles without one friend they had ever seen. And now it is no marvel that he is prepared to tell a lie and swear to it–imprison innocent persons, and drag them before an excited populace in a land where mob law bid defiance to the Constitutional government and the Civil Courts. I have no hope of justice in this land Sir.Times have changed. It is no longer in fashion to expect abused women to stand by their partners or become social outcasts. Mormons in twenty-first America can largely take their rights to due process for granted. And people speak up when confessed killers go unprosecuted.
But am I expecting too much if I say that times don’t seem to have changed enough? Is it too much to ask now for religious Mormons or Muslims or any other marginalized faith group to get a fair and respectful hearing in the court of public opinion?
A note on sources:
Historical information in this article is drawn from the following three sources:
Givens, Terryl and Matthew Grow. Parley P. Pratt: the Apostle Paul of Mormonism. Oxford University Press, 2011. 361-390. (Previews available through Amazon or Google Books)
Pratt, Steve. “Eleanor McLean and the Murder of Parley P. Pratt.” Jared Pratt Family Association: http://jared.pratt-family.org/parley_histories/parley-death-stephen-pratt.html
“The Killing of Parley P. Pratt—Letter from Mr. McLean” Alta California, 9 July 1847. Transcript available at: http://www.sidneyrigdon.com/dbroadhu/CA/misccal1.htm#070957
The version of history I am taking issue with comes from:
Pareene, Alex. "The Book of Mitt." Salon.com, 6 May 2012: www.salon.com/2012/05/06/the_book_of_mitt/
A note on this article:
I finished this piece on 9 May (three days after Pareene's piece was published) and submitted it to places like Slate, Politico, The Morning News, and even Salon. Nobody picked it up. There are plenty of reasons, of course, not to take a piece. But I wonder whether sincere discussions are simply harder to have than flippant, derisive ones these days. Which seems problematic in the long term....