Utah’s Lawless Fringe


Utah’s Lawless Fringe: Stories of True Crime

Favorite Readings from the Utah Historical Quarterly

An anthology studying the Utah’s homegrown justice system.

June, 2001

SKU: 1-56085-148-1 Category: Tag: Author: Stanford J. LaytonProduct ID: 1506


It was Sunday and worship service was in progress. One of the settlers who was not attending service eyed four known outlaws passing near town. He raced to church to spread the alarm, and parishioners leaped up, grabbed their guns, and galloped off in pursuit, joined by some neighboring cattlemen. Before it was over, one of the posse was dead.

So it went on the outskirts of Utah Territory. In this case it was the little town of Bluff where the Mormon bishop served for some ten years as de facto sheriff and his congregation as deputies. As elsewhere, law and order developed organically rather than by legislation.

In this anthology several aspects of the process are considered, including one of the worst manifestations of citizen action: vigilantism. Territorial Utah witnessed more lynchings than legal executions. Another citizen trait was an unexpected indifference to vice. In 1908 Salt Lake City had 148 registered prostitutes overseen by a madam who was recruited for the position by the mayor and city council. During Prohibition one of the largest distilleries in the West operated in a Salt Lake warehouse.

What is to be learned from this? The contributors to these fourteen articles leave moral considerations to the reader’s contemplation, while providing surprises along the way in an extremely engaging—dare we say arresting—read.

Stanford J. Layton, former managing editor of the Utah Historical Quarterly, is a visiting professor of history at Weber State University. He is the author of To No Privileged Class: The Rationalization of Homesteading and Rural Life in the Early Twentieth Century, a contributor to the Utah History Encyclopedia and Worth Their Salt: Notable but Often Unnoted Women of Utah, and editor of the Favorite Readings from the Utah Historical Quarterly series.

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5 reviews for Utah’s Lawless Fringe

  1. Joseph B. Romney, Journal of the West

    Fourteen lively articles selected from the Utah Historical Quarterly provide an entertaining and informative view into crime in Utah. Having seen many of the articles through their original publication, Layton is “delighted beyond words” to provide in this anthology some of these “old treasures.” Racial murder, sheepmen-cattlemen conflict, frontier justice, robberies, gunfights, trial drama (with my grandfather as the attorney!), lynching, prostitution, prohibition, and penal practice are some of the juicy topics. (Good grief! Some other relatives of mine are also in the book.) Through the insight and good will of Signature Books, we now have these stories in an attractive (including illustrations), convenient (indexed as well), and inexpensive form. They are worth a reading and rereading—in both cases enjoyable, although some might hurt a bit.

  2. Dennis Lythgoe, The Deseret News

    Stan Layton, for twenty-seven years the managing editor of the Utah Historical Quarterly and a top-notch historian, has assembled a fascinating collection of essays that previously appeared in the quarterly.

    Layton gives the credit for the idea to Miriam Murphy, long-time associate editor of the quarterly and now a publishing poet. The anthology consists of fourteen articles about lawlessness in Utah history. They are written by fifteen surprisingly eclectic authors, i.e., graduate students, high school teachers, professors, archivists, attorneys, retired businessmen, elected officials, and others. Several contributors are well-established historians, including Richard and Mary Van Wagoner, Larry Gerlach, John McCormick, Helen Papanikolas, and Martha Sonntag Bradley.

    The first essay, “Mountain Common Law,” focuses on two high-profile murders in 1851, in which each suspect was a respected member of the community, and each was avenging personal honor by killing the man who had seduced his wife. The defense counsel argued an age-old principle: “That the man who seduces his neighbor’s wife must die, and her nearest relative must kill him.” In fact, both defendants were acquitted on the basis of “mountain common law.”

    The third essay, “Murder and Mayhem,” set in southeastern Utah, deals with the conflicts between Mormons and American Indians. Another essay focuses on the murder of a black man, Gobo Fango, during the racist years of the Gilded Age. Two essays deal with a lynching, another about prostitution in Salt Lake’s red-light district. There is an article about penal road building (“Utah’s First Convict Labor Camp”) and one on juvenile detention (“Reclamation of Young Citizens”).

    There are three essays about Prohibition (including cigarettes), one on the difficulties of enforcement and another about clever bootleggers matching wits with smart law officers over the illegally distilled beverages. A third Prohibition piece is a first-person reminiscence about the human costs of the war over alcohol.

    John Farnsworth Lund, a now-deceased businessman, called his piece, “The Night before Doomsday,” in which he recalls the Martin family of Salt Lake City, who were so distressed about Prohibition that they called it “doomsday.” Mrs. Martin said, “The government’s takin’ away our liberties. What’s to become of us? We laid in what supply we could, but a workin’ man can’t get far enough ahead to last him very long.”

    The author had seen the family’s store of liquor in the cupboard. He tried unsuccessfully to get the son, Claybourne, to go into town with him to see “the big doings.” Lund saw the liquor auction next to the Orpheum Theatre and peddlers trying to sell leftover liquor supplies. The police seemed to be letting this last night play itself out.

    “Ministers and members of the Anti-Saloon League patrolled the streets and watched what they mistakenly termed the death struggle of Demon Rum. They held soap-box meetings, and one speaker pointed out how mankind was cursed with the love of his worst enemy. Great rejoicing and congratulatory back-slapping kept spirits high in these groups.”

    Three days later, Lund went to the Martins’ apartment to find it empty. Apparently they had moved to a state where thy could still buy liquor—at least temporarily.

    This collection is a feast of Utah’s early social history.

  3. Taylor Fielding, Ogden Standard Examiner

    Four times a year, the Utah Historical Society publishes the Utah Historical Quarterly as it has since 1928. After nearly 280 issues, a selection of favorite articles are appearing in a series of books published by Signature Books. The first of the series is one focusing on stories of true crime in Utah, Utah’s Lawless Fringe ($18.95).

    So how did the fourteen articles make their way from the pages of Utah Historical Quarterly into this special series? “That’s an easy question to answer,” said Stanford Layton, managing editor of the quarterly. “There was only one criterion—what was in my heart. These are my personal favorites. Maybe we should have added that to the title.”

    His favorite article in the collection is “The Night before Doomsday.” “It’s probably one of the shortest ones in there,” he said. “It’s also the least scholarly.” It was actually written in first- person by John Farnsworth Lund from his memories as a young boy and it describes the night before the beginning of Prohibition.

    “I remember when he brought it in,” Layton said. “I knew he was up there in years before I read the article. It’s written without a lot of pretense but from the heart. It just moves me on a very personal level every time I read it.”

    The selection process didn’t take long at all, Layton explained. “I just took out the combined table of contents and ran my finger down them,” he said. “I checked off those that I liked.” The first time around, Layton had twenty selections for the first volume. He revised the list down to the fourteen articles that appear in the book.

    “It wasn’t more than a couple hours,” Layton added. “I was so familiar with the articles—almost as if they were my own children. They’re like old friends.” Layton said that almost all of the articles appeared in the Utah Historical Quarterly while he has been managing editor.

    “There is only one here that precedes my tenure,” said Layton, who will be celebrating his twenty-eighth anniversary with the publication. “Most of them were published within the last ten years. Generation was not much of a consideration.”

    The articles should appeal to anyone with an interest in Utah history, no matter their experience. “I think there will be some surprises—even to those who are well-versed in Utah and Western history,” Layton said. “They will mostly be surprised by the nuances, subtleties, colorful characters and strange twists and turns. History is intended to be instructional, but it can also be entertaining,” Layton added. “And there’s nothing wrong with that.”

    Not surprisingly, Layton said, there was crime in early Utah. “There was slightly less violence and lawlessness in Utah than other Western American states,” he said. “Utah’s settlement process was on the basis of family. It was not like the mining camps of California, Montana, and the Black Hills with large numbers of unattached young men at their most violent age. Families make for a more orderly society, but it was not without its own lawless fringe.”

  4. Kay Gillespie, Utah Historical Quarterly

    The idea to republish articles from the Utah Historical Quarterly and group them in appropriate topics is well demonstrated in this book. There is a vast and exciting history that can be traced through the stories of crimes, legal issues, and common law in the State of Utah. Stanford Layton has done an excellent job of assembling articles that exemplify these issues and this historical period of time.

    From the “unwritten” law that allowed wronged husbands to avenge their “honor” to the operation of a “red light” district within the shadows of downtown Salt Lake City, these articles and their authors provide an opportunity for readers, within one volume, to examine crucial issues of public, private, and institutional morality and values.

    Utah has a unique history—socially, legally, and religiously. This uniqueness is well highlighted by these articles. From Kennth L. Cannon’s article on the “extralegal” punishment of wronged husbands through the review of law enforcement and lawmen, the reader is given an overview of the legal machinery in operation during the early history of the state. Then, specific crimes and criminals are discussed by Dean Garrett, David L. Buhler, and Craig L. Foster. These examples provide insight into the workings of the system as well as into the social/cultural conditions and attitudes common among the people of Utah at that time. Also included are the failures when lynchings represented the frustration of the citizens and pointed to the racial/ethnic suspicion and bias inherent within the state. Additionally, spurts of reformation and societal change are traced through efforts to deal with prostitution, alcohol, and tobacco. In conclusion, the efforts of the state to deal with prisoners and juvenile offenders provide a foundation for understanding the origins of our present system and efforts at incarceration and rehabilitation.

    While Layton presents these selections as some of his favorities, they are significant for their representation of early conditions in the State of Utah regarding attitudes towards law, crime, and criminals. This compilation is a wonderful addition, in one volume, for those interested in these conditions, specifically, and in the history of the state in general.

  5. Journal of Mormon History

    First in a series of books collecting favorite readings from the Utah Historical Quarterly, this anthology presents fourteen considerations of some aspect of lawlessness in Utah history. Originally published between 1972 and 1998, the articles range widely, from murders and robberies to prostitution and penal reform. In an introduction, Layton expresses his elation at the opportunity to revisit favorite articles from the Quarterly, most of them published during his twenty-seven-year tenure as managing editor.

    Contents include “‘Mountain Common Law’: The Extralegal Punishment of Seducers in Early Utah,” by Kenneth L. Cannon II; “Arthur Pratt, Utah Lawman,” by Richard S. Van Wagoner and Mary Van Wagoner; “Murder, Mayhem, and Mormons: The Evolution of Law Enforcement on the San Juan Frontier, 1880-1900,” by Thomas E. Austin and Robert S. McPherson; “The Controversial Death of Gobo Fango,” by H. Dean Garrett; “The Peculiar Case of James Lynch and Robert King,” by David L. Buhler; “The Sensational Murder of James R. Hay and Trial of Peter Mortensen,” by Craig L. Foster; “Ogden’s ‘Horrible Tragedy’: The Lynching of George Segal,” and “Justice Denied: The Lynching of Robert Marshall,” both by Larry R. Gerlach; “Red Lights in Zion: Salt Lake City’s Stockade, 1908-11,” by John S. McCormick; “Cigarette Prohibition in Utah, 1921-23,” by John S. H. Smith; “Bootlegging in Zion: Making and Selling the ‘Good Stuff,” by Helen Papanikolas; “The Night before Doomsday,” by John Farnsworth Lund; “Utah’s First Convict Labor Camp,” by Virgil Caleb Pierce; and “Reclamation of Young Citizens: Reform of Utah’s Juvenile Legal System, 1888-1910,” by Martha Sonntag Bradley.

    Of particular interest to Journal readers is the description of how Mormons used “mountain common law” to punish seducers and acquit those who avenged the seduced. Mormons not only countenanced such extralegal measures but publicized them widely, at least in the two cases from 1851 described by Cannon, who speculates that the church wished to advertise its position that “while gentile society condoned extramarital encounters, Mormons limited their sexual relationships to the marriage state, albeit one man might have several wives” (8).

    John H. Smith’s intriguing article tells the story of a Mormon-led crusade against cigarette smoking, which culminated in passage of a 1921 law that prohibited selling cigarettes, smoking them in enclosed public places, and advertising their availability. Perhaps simply premature, in light of current legal restrictions, the law fell victim to a concerted campaign for its repeal after prominent citizens Ernest Bamberger, Edgar L. Newhouse, A. N. McKay, and John C. Lynch were arrested “for smoking an after-dinner cigar” in the Vienna Café in Salt Lake City (166).

    The book contains one illustration for each article, an index, and notes on authors.

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