My father, Orlando Anderson, never considered what I did for a living to be work. In that belief he was probably not alone. If I wasn’t sifting soil and generating sweat, Dad figured it wasn’t honest labor. Which is why, in the summer of 1934, while I entertained visions of a reporter’s life, he arranged a job for me thinning beet plants. Atop the rock-hard Utah soil, on hands and knees, I swatted at beet greens with a sawed-off hoe. I lasted an inglorious two weeks—long enough for me to conclude, at twelve years of age, that my future was at the typewriter. I abruptly quit, pedaled my bike over to the nearest newspaper, the Murray Eagle, and talked my way into a reporting job. Four decades later, after I had syndicated my work in hundreds of newspapers, seen my face on the cover of Timemagazine, and won the Pulitzer Prize, my father still did not approve of my chosen career.
The experience I brought to the Murray Eagle at age twelve was short on substance but long on ambition. At the time, I was president of the Boy Scout press club and presided over a weekly scouting page in the big-city paper, the Deseret News, in nearby Salt Lake City. I wrote in the simple style of a twelve-year-old. When it came time to cover the town budget, Murray’s comptroller explained it to me painstakingly in the language a twelve-year-old could understand. I passed it along to my readers unadorned. It was years before I realized that professional journalists were supposed to do the same thing—lowball their language to the industry standard of a reader with an eighth-grade education.
My photographer at the Eagle was a ten-year-old kid whose name I have forgotten; I called him simply Gooch. We made an odd news team, furiously pedaling our bicycles to the scenes of fires, traffic accidents, and other smalltown events. Gooch was shorter than me, so I often hoisted him up on my shoulders for a better picture. The publisher didn’t care how old we were or how we covered the town. Advertising was his prime interest, and if, for seven dollars a week, two boys on fat-tire bikes could fill the spaces between the ads with local news, he was satisfied.
I took the Eagle’s cash and the experience that came along with it, and also edited the gratis Boy Scout page in the Deseret News until the rival Salt Lake City newspaper, the Tribune, offered to pay me to write Boy Scout stories for them. Thinking I was worthy of a bidding war, I notified the Deseret News of the offer. They disabused me of my indispensability and released me to go to the Tribune.
I stayed there through high school, working my way up to the real estate page and, one great day, the city desk. Younger than most of the copy boys, I was paid fifteen cents an inch. But my output was so prolific, or perhaps so verbose, that the Tribune switched me over to an hourly wage lest my income outpace that of the grown-ups. I needed no more encouragement; I had chosen my life’s work.
My parents were living in Long Beach, California, when I was born in 1922. They named me Jack because they reasoned if they named me John, people would call me Jack anyway. When I was two, we moved to Salt Lake City where my father worked as a postal clerk.
I made an early career of avoiding my father. He worked the night shift and spent his days composing a long list of chores for me and my brothers, Gordon and Warren, to perform. Since it was impossible to do everything he wanted, we devoted our best efforts to doing nothing. By contrast, my mother asked very little of us, but what she asked, we did.
My mother, Agnes Mortensen, was a Danish-born convert to the Mormon Church who immigrated with her mother, Judith Northman, to Brigham City, Utah. Northman, my middle name, was Grandma’s maiden name. Two of her three children went back to it after Grandma weathered two grueling marriages to men whose names she preferred to forget.
My mother was a patient and persevering woman with a steely side, nonetheless, that was more sensed than seen. She could be sweetly unyielding. One day, chauffeuring my son Rodney on a two-lane highway, Mother crossed the center line to pass another car. “Grandma, there’s a car coming!” Rodney shouted in alarm. “That’s what the shoulders are for,” she said amiably. After much honking, the oncoming car swerved out of Mother’s way and onto the shoulder, thus confirming her rules of the road.
Danish was the language of choice between my parents when they retreated to confidential conversation in the presence of the children. They didn’t know I understood them until one day I shot back an indignant retort in English, betraying the fact that I had been following their Danish discussion about my shortcomings.
My parents died within four months of each other at ages ninety and ninety-three. After they were gone, I learned that they had kept a meticulous record of my life’s work in clippings, photos, letters, and other mementos of my career. This gave me some comfort that my father had followed my work more closely than he had ever deigned to admit.
My old man was a smoldering volcano, ever threatening to blow his top. Yet the exploding lava would quickly turn to soft ashes. He must have been born a curmudgeon, given his fearsome nature. But I learned early in life that he was really quite mellow beneath the crust.
His face showed the wreckage of a thousand disappointments. It was furrowed and anguished. Still, no disappointment got him down for long. Until the day he died, he lived his life in the future. He dreamed big dreams; he made big plans. And he wrote it all down—what he’d like to do, where he’d like to go, what he expected of life.
Then the unforeseen would invariably shatter his dreams and leave his precious paperwork null and void. He would smolder and rumble and erupt. Then he would sit down at his rolltop desk, put pen to paper, and produce a new blueprint. In his old age, he did many things he had always wanted to do and traveled to many places he had always wanted to see. But he never stayed long in the present; his mind moved on to the future.
My father’s father was converted by missionaries in Sweden to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the “Mormons.” Grandpa moved to Brigham City, Utah, where he molded clay bricks until he earned enough money to bring his siblings and his mother across the ocean, one by one. He outlived four wives who produced so many children that even my father lost count of the siblings who died in infancy. A dozen lived to adulthood. In time, Grandpa opened a store in Brigham City but went broke extending credit to the neighbors. He moved in with us in his old age—a Santa Claus figure with a great belly, a flowing white beard, and a derby hat.
We were never really poor, not even during the Depression. But my family’s spartan lifestyle would have convinced many otherwise. When I was eleven, Dad bought a spacious house in an affluent suburb of Salt Lake City and then decided that we did not need to live in such luxury. He rented out the upstairs to a family with no similar disdain for creature comforts. They had all the indoor plumbing; our family lived in the basement and used an outdoor privy. Years later, after I had moved to Washington, the chaplain of the Senate looked me up and told me that he had once lived in the house that I had not been allowed to enjoy.
During the Depression, my father would round up derelicts and invite them to live with us. In those days, “bums” were college students and unemployed laborers. One of them, whom I remember only as Gary, stayed for a year and helped earn his keep by peddling my mother’s incomparable Danish cookies door-to-door.
Perhaps it was Scandinavian penury or the Mormon work ethic, but my father never missed an opportunity to save a few pennies. From our suburban home, he rode his bicycle ten miles into Salt Lake City each day to save the bus fare. He once put the family on a train from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles to visit relatives and then rode his bicycle across the desert to join us, all in the name of frugality. To my young mind, his sacrifices were an embarrassing show of austerity and stubbornness.
By my teens, I had concluded that he secretly enjoyed playing the martyr, yet I knew my father was a decent and good man, completely without guile. Long after I had moved East, a friend of mine bumped into my father on the street one snowy night. Dad was toting a Christmas tree on his shoulder and had stopped to rest. He counted his change from the tree vendor. “That fool gave me twenty-five cents too much,” my father sputtered angrily. “Now I’ve got to go all the way back.”
* * *
There came a time in my youth when I needed Dad’s car to nail down a scoop, the first story of an underground polygamist cult headquartered in Utah. I resorted to subterfuge, first to get the car and then to get the story.
At age eighteen I gleaned from the family rumor mill that I had a distant cousin, not many years off the boat from Sweden, who had acquired a second wife without dismissing the first. My fledgling reporter’s instinct told me there was a story here. I tracked down the cousin—an open-faced, good-hearted fellow who was willing to confide to a kinsman that he had found the true religion. He told me that his church was led by a holy man, Joseph Musser, and he gave me Musser’s address. With my father’s car to get me there, I decided to go underground.
It had been three generations since America had outlawed the Mormon practice of polygamy, forcing the church to give up a peculiar custom it had adopted from ancient Old Testament law. In 1890 the church hierarchy instructed the members to obey the law of the land; anyone who failed to do so would be subject to excommunication. Yet the doctrine of plural marriage never quite died. Occasional visionaries popped up, proclaimed superior reception from heaven, and founded their own splinter churches.
By the third generation after the repeal of polygamy, it existed only behind the closed doors of the secret disciples of such renegade prophets as Joseph Musser. Mainstream Mormons, by then proud of their reputation for wholesomeness,
The house in salt lake city was a distinguished red brick of nineteenth-century vintage that at one time must have been owned by a family of status. Now it was occupied by a spooky family that didn’t open the door to just anyone. I rapped on that door with as much authority as an eighteen-year-old could muster. I heard muffled sounds of movement from within and thought I glimpsed a female form at the front window. The door opened a crack, revealing a middle-aged woman who said nothing. I asked to see Joseph Musser, the holy man. Without a word, she shut the door, and I waited for several minutes. At length, the woman reappeared and silently ushered me inside. Mrs. Musser, I presumed.
She fed me through a living room, then a dining room, and into a den at the rear of the house. As I passed through, I spied another woman peeking at me from around the corner. Mrs. Musser, I presumed. A third woman retreated silently through a darkened doorway. Mrs. Musser, I presumed. The omnipresence of multiple and mysterious females quickened my pulse as I was delivered into the den of their husband, Joseph Musser, spiritual leader for a few thousand outlaw polygamists.
Musser sat in an old swivel chair behind a rolltop desk. To see him in that musty, silent room with its antique furniture, its austere order, its shelves of worn books of theological bent, was to be transported back to the days of Brigham Young. Musser had a rather saintly face, creased with wrinkles and crowned with a patriarch’s white hair. He projected a benevolence that seemed at odds with a craftiness of eye.
I told him cautiously that I wanted to learn more about his church, as he rocked warily in his chair, taking my measure and listening for a false note. Apparently my youth disarmed him, because Musser gradually warmed to my questioning and we slid into a discussion of his religious precepts. Outlining a “fundamentalist” faith that stressed old-fashioned virtues, he inched toward his main theme. He delivered a review of the moral shambles of modern life, tracing the downfall of Western civilization to one problem—monogamy, with its spawn of divorces and mistresses, unwed mothers and bachelor fathers, cast-off wives and abandoned children.
He became more animated as he led me to the mountaintop. In place of
the sewage of modern relationships, we must go back to the sacred institution
of plural marriage practiced by the Old Testament prophets. Like Abraham, modern
men should aspire to stand at the head of a family, with children as numerous
as the sands on the seashore. And, like Abraham, it would require a
great many wives to achieve this.
Musser’s prescription for replenishing the earth had a Strangelovian agreeability to it. God would provide women in abundance who were prepared to do their duty. But because the male members of the “true church” were so few, the task before them was vast. The bearers of the seed must buck up and do their duty also. Thus, our first meeting ended on a note of high purpose.
So well had I played the role of prospective proselyte that Mussergave me the addresses of his lay leaders and a letter of introduction. Thanking him, I left the wan but dedicated old gentleman to duties that apparently lay behind every door. Outside, I unfolded and read the note he had given to me: “This will introduce Jack Anderson, who is seeking the fullness of the gospel. Joseph Musser.” This would be my pass to the polygamist underground.
avoided any mention of polygamy in their ancestry—like Italian Americans shy away from the word “mafia.” Few were aware in 1940 that a polygamist underground flourished right in the heart of Salt Lake City.
This was the underground I was about to enter. I went to Musser’s home, where I played the role of prospective proselyte, and wangled the addresses of Musser’s lay leaders and a letter of introduction signed by Musser himself. With this letter, I was allowed to attend their underground discussion groups, join their religious services, and dance at their parties. In time, I gained their confidence and was welcomed into their homes.
As a rule, each of the sister wives, as they called themselves, had her own section of the house where she received her husband and raised her children. I was never invited to see the sleeping quarters, a matter of considerable curiosity to me since these modest houses seemed too small to afford privacy. One man confided to me that he was short of bedrooms so his wives had to double up. He left the rest to my imagination.
An outsider might say that the polygamists had institutionalized adultery, but such an accusation would fall on scandalized ears. Among the men, there was no locker-room lip-smacking about sex. Procreation—filling the earth with believers like themselves—was seen as the central duty of their lives. They forbade their teenagers kissing before marriage. Young people were to keep each other at arm’s length. At that distance, most of the dance steps of the 1940s were awkward, so it was just as well that only folk dancing was permitted at their socials. To this day, if required, I can stomp up a small storm, thanks to the parties I infiltrated in the line of duty.
On Sundays, I blended in at services, interminable ones, as I recall. Tuesday evenings were set aside for group discussions with men at one home and women at another. We men would meet in the front parlor of the host home, which was lined with rows of folding chairs. The invisibility of the polygamist colony was brought home to me when, at the meetings, I encountered occasional teenagers I had known throughout my school days without ever imagining their secret. My surprise was no greater than their own at seeing me there.
At these meetings, discussion would flow freely, with each contributor rising from his chair to make his point. These folks had a varied and complex theology ranging far beyond mere marital arrangements. But the favorite topics were always the justifications for polygamy and denigrations of monogamy.
There was a curious astigmatism about our bull sessions. The duty to procreate was always before us, yet the acquisition and impregnation of wives was never spoken of. I could not dispel the sense that polygamy troubled the women who subscribed to it. A kindly, work-worn matron, one of two wives, told me, “Don’t think for a minute that it is easy to live in polygamy. It is sometimes very hard. But I believe it is the true way of life.”
Eventually, I found the fault line where one might suspect it to be— in the distribution of wives. According to the cult, God told the leaders who should marry whom. This had the effect of placing in the hands of the spiritual leaders an absolute corner on the most valuable of all markets. For our group, the holder of this awesome writ was Joseph Musser. After spying on the homes of the more prominent polygamists and interviewing some who were unhappy with their allotment, I came to suspect Musser was making liberal interpretations of God’s messages. Either that, or God has a partiality for old codgers. The choicest young girls were going to the leaders themselves or to wealthy laymen who were big contributors to the cause. Young girls just out of high school were being pawned off on old psalm singers in their sixties and seventies. My notebooks were filling up with quotes, and the ranks of my informants were growing.
Unbeknownst to me, I was not the only investigator on the beat. The mainstream Mormon Church was also keeping the cult under quiet surveillance, determined to protect itself from reidentification with polygamy. The task of containing the heresy and keeping the church’s skirts clear, without causing a scandal, was a delicate one—but not beyond the subtlety of church elders. They hired private investigators to keep an eye on the polygamists and identify any mainstream Mormons who might be attracted to the sect. If any such backsliders were found, the church would encourage them to come back to the fold. Those who couldn’t be reclaimed would be excommunicated.
Over the years, the private investigators had located the key homes of trie polygamists. They would slip among parked cars during meetings and copy license plate numbers. If the same car appeared at several meetings, they would trace the license plate number and determine whether the owner was on the church records as a baptized Mormon. Thus it was that my father’s old Plymouth, the only wheels I had, kept appearing in the investigators' reports. In due course, my father was summoned by his church superiors for a confrontation that utterly confounded him.
My father’s intolerance for backsliding made him the most unlikely polygamist in the Salt Lake Valley. Aside from his draconian adherence to the laws of the church, he had never had an interest in any woman other than my mother. One day I came home to find my father in a towering rage. The unspeakable had been spoken. He had been accused of an undercover flirtation with polygamists and convicted by his Plymouth. His suspicion had not yet lighted on me and his wrath groped for an object, alternating between the perversity of fate and the stupidity of man. I finally confessed and spent a long time in the doghouse. I was able to clear his name, but I could not repair the affront to his dignity nor rehabilitate my own credibility around the house.
Worse, my cover was blown with the polygamists because snickers travel fast. The variety of dodges I had used to hide my investigation from my family, friends, and church lay in a ludicrous heap. So ended my early adventures with the polygamists and my dream of freelancing the big story to the Saturday Evening Post.
I enrolled at the University of Utah, but didn’t give much thought to pursing a college degree, since I was already working in my chosen profession. My journalism courses consisted of a professor lecturing from a text book and then turning to me for an exposition on the real world. Looking back, I didn’t know much, but I was sure I knew more about reporting than any college course could teach me. A review of some of my English papers saved by my parents betrays a writing style that could have used a little less smugness and a little more instruction. (“The full moon was a pool of pale light overflowing the muddy banks of night with silvery radiance.…”)
I sorely needed the seasoning and humility that comes only through experience. My opportunity came in the form of a church mission. By Mormon custom, I was called at age nineteen to serve a two-year mission that my family and myself were obliged to finance. My assignment was to the Southern States Mission headquartered in Atlanta. I accepted the call in large part to make my parents happy, but like others who have begun with more compulsion than commitment, I came to view my mission as a seminal experience. With my mother back home driving a taxi to help pay my way, I couldn’t do otherwise.
My two-year mission began on a day with other distractions—December 7, 1941. Like all missionaries, I was exempt from the draft and frequently had to defend my choice as I went door-to-door in the conservative
I HAD BECOME A WASHINGTON COLUMNIST with a receding hairline and expanding waistline before I returned to the first big story of my investigative career: polygamy. At the time of my youthful infiltration, all but a few renegade polygamists had belonged to the same gentle sect. But over the years, the polygamist movement had splintered in pieces and rotted in character. The cults seemed to demand more from their members and give less. I heard stories about disciples disappearing, their leaders getting rich, girls being intimidated, and wives being auctioned off. So, I came back to the story in earnest in 1976.
I crossed paths and shared information with a young St. George, Utah, investigator, Tim Anderson, who visited the polygamist colonies, and Salt Lake City investigative reporter Dale Van Atta, who was researching a book. Anderson later went on to law school and participated in a landmark case, testing whether polygamists had the right to adopt children into their ranks. Van Atta finished his book and came to work for me in Washington.
The polygamist movement was haunted by the ghost of Alma Dayer Le-Baron, who had preached and practiced plural marriage in Utah in the early 1900s until his peculiar beliefs forced him to flee over the Mexican border and found his own colony, Colonia LeBaron. Obsessed with the idea that the Mormon Church had gone astray, LeBaron claimed he was the true prophet of God on earth. He promised to pass that authority on to the most righteous of his seven sons. This was to spark a bloodbath that lasted more than two decades.
The first son to claim the birthright, Benjamin, wound up his ministry in a succession of mental hospitals. The second, Joel, was murdered by his brother Ervil—a charismatic, darkly handsome man with blazing black eyes and a mind that was in turn brilliant and deranged. Ervil fashioned himself to be God’s executioner and was allegedly responsible for more than twenty murders. He collected at least fourteen wives and moved back and forth between the United States and Mexico, eluding the lawmen of two nations.
LeBaron added a startling refinement to polygamy: He trained his women to kill for him. On December 26, 1974, under cover of darkness, a caravan of Ervil’s devotees cruised into the little Mexican town of Los Molinos, the bastion of another brother, Verlan LeBaron. While men, women, and children leaped from their beds and rushed to hide behind tumbleweeds, Ervil’s vigilantes tossed firebombs into the houses and then picked off the panicked Los Molinos residents with rifle shots. The attack lasted about twenty minutes, and the toll was one dead and thirteen wounded. Brother Verlan was out of town and escaped injury.
Before Ervil could eliminate his four surviving brothers, all pretenders to the throne, he was imprisoned for dispatching an assassin to Salt Lake City to murder Rulon Allred, the leader of a rival cult. Ervil had hoped to lure his brother Verlan to Allred’s funeral, where Verlan could also be gunned down. But the TV cameras that crowded into Allred’s funeral made a second murder too risky.
Ervil died of a heart attack in a cell at the Utah State Prison on August 16, 1981. Two days later, his brother Verlan was killed in a car accident when an oncoming car swerved into his lane and struck him head-on.
rural South. Chaffing in the southern sun under my regulation dark suit and white shirt, I decided that my peculiar talents might be better used at the mission office in Atlanta. So I proposed a public relations program, using radio spots written by me. My orthodox mission president reluctantly agreed to my experiment, and before long we had missionaries doing guest spots on radio stations across the South. The mission president never caught the mass-media vision. Even as I rode high on my success, I was dispatched to do door-to-door tracting in the backwoods of Florida while the media experiment went on without me.
Shortly, the campaign was called off. When the word reached me in Florida, I wrote an insubordinate letter to the mission president reminding him that I had touched more people with one fifteen-minute radio broadcast than all his missionaries could talk to in person in two years. He ignored my impertinence, so I knuckled under and resumed the face-to-face preaching I had been assigned to do. In letters home, I recorded the hardships I suffered, like the time I sampled oysters as a sporting gesture to please a man I was teaching: “I figured that he might be baptized some day and the least I could do would be to eat one of his oysters. I knew it would be a sacrifice before I ever clamped my jaws on the thing. But I looked it straight in the protoplasm, offered a silent tribute to the pioneers who sacrificed everything for their religion, and gulped it down. It has been trying to get back up ever since.”
Southern diet aside, I came to enjoy relating to these people individually as they let me share the faith that had shaped my life to that point. But, I continued to stew over the potential of mass media. While attending a church conference later, in Augusta, Georgia, I was invited to dinner at the home of a Mormon businessman named Heber Meeks. Over the table, I told him of my aborted mass media campaign and he was intrigued. As luck would have it, a month later Meeks was summoned by the church to Atlanta to take his turn as president of the Southern States Mission, and soon thereafter he assigned me to his office staff and put me in charge of public relations.
My first step was to syndicate news about the church to southern papers. I called our little
distribution network the Gulf News Service because I figured no one would accept our news if we called it the Mormon News Service. It wasn’t long before a syndicated column by Heber Meeks was cropping up in papers all over the South.
When it came time for me to go home, President Meeks called me into his office with two other homeward-bound missionaries. Frank Gibbons and I were headed for Salt Lake City, and Earl Updike was returning home to Arizona where his mother was seriously ill. Her doctor had warned Meeks that if young Earl was snapped up by the draft as he would likely be when his mission ended, the shock would kill his mother. “You three have got to take a very slow route home,” Meeks told us.
That launched a peculiar pilgrimage that we dragged out for two months. The straight-arrow Frank dawdled only because he had been ordered to do so, and only reluctantly surrendered his missionary suit for casual clothes. But Earl and I threw on some loud duds as soon as we saw Atlanta in the rearview mirror.
We stopped in Washington, D.C., where I wangled my first invitation to meet a president, Franklin Roosevelt. It was FDR’s custom to hold intimate press conferences in his office, with him seated behind his desk and a gaggle of reporters clustered around. The Washington bureau chief for the Salt Lake Tribune arranged the credentials so I could join the small cluster. I was told to keep my mouth shut. My first visit to the Oval Office turned out to be the last time that I had to sit there in silence.
While I breathed in the heady air at the White House, Earl Updike did some research on how he could serve his country during wartime without traumatizing his mother. The Merchant Marine officer training program looked perfect, although the chances of getting one of the coveted officer slots were slim. The more Earl talked about putting out to sea, the more he stimulated my wanderlust. On a lark, I applied along with him, but I needed some credible references. An old Boy Scout buddy of mine worked for Utah Senator Elbert Thomas, so I imposed on him to ask the senator to write me a letter of recommendation. What I didn’t know was that Thomas was chairman of the Armed Services Committee. His recommendation was tantamount to an entry ticket for the Merchant Marine.
My draft notice nearly beat me home to Salt Lake City. The suburban draft board in Murray was notoriously anti-Mormon and had a reputation for collaring returning missionaries as soon as they stepped off the bus. But while the draft board was hastily processing my paperwork, the assignment to the Merchant Marine training program came through. Earl turned out to be 4-F when he got home, but thanks to him, I was headed for the high seas, about as far as I could get from the desk they had saved for me at the Salt Lake Tribune.
Copyright © 1999 by Jack Anderson and Daryl Gibson