Mary Ann is one of my favorite permas here at Wheat & Tares. (To be honest, all of the permas here are SUPER cool.) But Mary Ann has uncovered a crime drama that I think is made to be a movie. It doesn’t involve spies, per se, but is right up there with any spy thriller. Who can you trust? Were Church leaders involved in counterfeiting? And murder? (Ok, not murder), but this is an amazing, covoluted story that has never been told is such detail until now! I’m just giving a taste here, but you’ve got to check out this stranger than fiction true story. And don’t forget the Wooden Leg Myth that she tackled previously that won a Wheaties award.
Were Church Leaders Conterfeiters?
Mary Ann 18:32 But, the more I learned about the counterfeiting accusations, and who had Theodore Turley arrested, and who was making the accusations? You unravel this huge story of this entire criminal subculture in Nauvoo, that was just fascinating. I had never seen really explored very well. Because you typically had more hostile people, kind of, like with Kathleen Melonakos, who kind of take everything at face value, “So, all the accusations are true, obviously, and so yes, the church leaders in Nauvoo were heading up this massive criminal empire. So, of course, they were involved with organizing theft rings and counterfeiting rings, and all of this stuff.”
Mary Ann 19:26 But then, typically, you would have the other side of the coin, you’d have the people defending the church, who would be like, “No. These were all false accusations.” And so, they would just dismiss everything. To me, I wanted to try to figure out, “Okay, what’s the truth here?”
GT 19:40 Yes. What’s true and what’s false?
Mary Ann 19:42 What’s true, and what’s false? Was this all just false accusations? And so that was my foray into it.
GT 19:49 So you presented this at Mormon History Association.
Mary Ann 19:51 I did. Yeah. I mean, you only have 20 minutes to do a presentation, right?
GT 19:57 So, we can go longer here.
Mary Ann: When the Mormons come in from Missouri, this is frontier territory. In the frontier, they had so many problems with criminal gangs at this time. That’s something that I don’t think a lot of people quite realize. So, while the Mormons are coming up, you have, actually, in the early years of the Mormon period in Nauvoo, you actually have major criminal gangs who–vigilante groups, local groups are actually cracking down on major criminal gangs up in Northern Illinois, over in Ohio, and even down in Keokuk, Iowa. So, just as they’re cracking down on the criminal gangs, eventually, by the mid-Nauvoo period, you have a lot of these outside criminals who are now congregating in Nauvoo. So, Nauvoo then becomes a big criminal haven.
GT 23:20 Is this because of the Nauvoo city charter? One of the things Joseph did to protect himself was to say, “Hey. We don’t recognize any other arrest warrants. Nauvoo has to approve it first.” And so that was helpful for these criminals.
Mary Ann 23:37 Yes, it was very helpful. So, that definitely was a big draw for a lot of people. There were criminals. There were Mormon criminals and non-Mormon criminals in Nauvoo, early, but you don’t really get the organized criminal gangs until a bit later. But, yes, so if people don’t know, so Missouri kept trying to extradite Joseph Smith, and so they kept firming up the laws in Nauvoo to protect Joseph Smith more, making it harder for outsiders to come in and arrest anyone inside Nauvoo.
GT 24:11 Not just Joseph.
Mary Ann 24:12 Well, they made the rules to protect Joseph, but it ended up protecting criminals, too. So, you get a lot of criminals who start coming into Nauvoo, especially around 1843 and later, who just find Nauvoo very attractive, suddenly.
GT 24:33 The long arm of the law doesn’t reach into Nauvoo.
Mary Ann 24:37 Yeah, it doesn’t. Several of them start being really good friends with Joseph Smith, because they know if you can be really good friends with Joseph Smith, you can be protected from the law. We have several situations where Joseph Smith does step in to protect people, and surrounding communities get angry, very angry.
GT 25:01 Is there evidence that Joseph was aware that these guys were criminals?
Mary Ann 25:06 On one of them, yeah. There’s a story of a guy named Jeremiah Smith. He comes in and he had defrauded the government out of $4,000. He had claimed it. It was supposed to go to a different Jeremiah Smith. But he had claimed the money for himself. He had taken the money. So, he was very clearly guilty. This happened, I believe, in the beginning of 1844. Joseph Smith actually wrote out a writ of habeas corpus, before he was ever arrested, before Jeremiah Smith was ever arrested. Habeas corpus is when you’re arrested, but then you want to claim that there was a problem with the arrest. So, he had actually given this guy basically a “Get Out of Jail Free” card before he was ever even arrested. That just infuriated people. But, yes, Joseph was aware that there were people who were criminals. Initially–there’s a really good article from the John Whitmer Historical Society journal by Bill Shepard. He’s one of the few people that’s really written some really good stuff on the crime in Nauvoo.
Joseph Jackson: Informant Plays Both Sides
Mary Ann 28:30 So, yeah. They made a lot of enemies during that time, and the criminals took advantage of it. If they were caught, they would say, “Well, the Mormons made me do it.” Or, if Mormons caught them, they’d be like, “Oh, no. It’s false accusations that these Gentiles are making, because, you know, they hate us.” So, the criminals would just totally take advantage of the situation. And it just made things worse.
GT 28:59 So, the leaders were sort of aware of some of the counterfeiting activity and if it benefited them, they would turn a blind eye?
Mary Ann 29:11 Yeah, Bill Shepard brings us out in his article. Joseph Smith apparently had this idea that he didn’t really want to crack down hard on people who had a shady past. He wanted to give them time to repent. He believed strongly in the principle of agency, maybe because he had some shady stuff in his past. I don’t know. So, he tended to be very tolerant of people, even if he knew that they had done some bad stuff in the past, and he wouldn’t try to publicly embarrass them, unless they came after him. And then, he would unleash it.
Mary Ann 29:46 There was definitely some covering up. The first indication you get, people were passing counterfeit money, but the first indication you get that people are actually starting to manufacture counterfeit coins in Hancock County is in August of 1842. We get this non-Mormon who gets caught with these dies for making [money.] So, you had counterfeiting going on with paper money. You had counterfeiting going on with metal coins, and they were a little bit different processes. Usually with the paper money, people would purchase it from the good printers, who could print the high quality, so they would usually purchase the money. They didn’t usually manufacture it there. But there were enough blacksmiths, enough people that knew how to deal with metal, that as long as you got some good quality dies, you could actually manufacture your own metal coins.
3 Counterfeiting Operations in Nauvoo
Mary Ann 57:19 So yes, absolutely, there were counterfeiting operations going on in Nauvoo. They actually called the money Nauvoo bogus. Bogus was a term that they would use for counterfeit coins. The quality of some of the counterfeit money coming out of Nauvoo was so good that they would talk about how it was really a good quality of coin, but it was counterfeit. So, Nauvoo, absolutely, had a reputation for producing counterfeit coin. But even fairly late in the game, if you got farther out from Nauvoo, you had people who had a little bit more realistic view in saying, “It’s probably not the Mormons. There’s probably other people, or more organized gangs that are in there.” Because a Chicago paper mentioned it. They’re like, “Because, we’ve had issues with, definitely, organized gangs and stuff. So, we don’t necessarily think it’s the Mormons, but there’s definitely criminal stuff going on that’s based in Nauvoo.” But, again, because of that Nauvoo Charter, you actually have criminals who are coming in who are purchasing land in Nauvoo, who are joining the church, in some cases. It does seem to be after this 1843, after Joseph Smith has definitely proven that he can get out of extradition, that they’re tightening up the charter to make it harder to arrest people inside Nauvoo. And what’s fascinating is Edward Bonney was a criminal. In his exposè, he is very upfront with the fact that criminals came to Nauvoo to avoid getting caught, to avoid getting arrested. What’s funny is, of course, he doesn’t claim he’s one of those, but he really was one of those criminals that came to Nauvoo to avoid being arrested. So, that is something people do need to realize. Nauvoo was a haven. Nauvoo was seen as a criminal haven for good reason. So, there were a lot of problems of both Mormons and non-Mormons, criminal activities going on in and around Nauvoo.
[End Part 1]
Mob Murders on Mississippi
Mary Ann 03:22 So, then we get into the summer of 1845. There’s a lot of criminal gang activity that gets exposed in Nauvoo in the summer of 1845. The first problem is, we get what’s called the Miller-Leiza murders over in Lee County, Iowa. Lee County is directly across the river from Nauvoo. You have three guys from Nauvoo, who are all Mormon, go over and they’re robbing people at night. They’re coming in. They’re scaring people. They’re trying to rob them. There are all these robberies happening. One of the robberies goes bad. And it’s this Reverend, this German minister, John Miller, and he has him[self] and his wife and then he has his two daughters and their husbands all in the house. These guys come in, William and Stephen Hodges, and this guy, Thomas Brown. They all come into the house and they’re threatening them and they’re saying they’re going to kill them, if they don’t give them all the money. Because they’ve heard that this guy has like $2,000 in his house, and so they’re trying to get this money.
Mary Ann 04:40 But, it ends up Miller starts fighting back and Leiza starts fighting back, and so they end up killing Miller and Leiza. It’s brutal. They kill Miller, and then they mortally wound Leiza, but he ends up surviving, just barely, but his wounds eventually kill him. But one of them ends up leaving his cap there. William Hodges leaves his cap there, and they run back, and they go back to Nauvoo. So, suddenly, the people are in the area are infuriated. They’re like this is–because robbery is one thing. Murder, that’s a whole different story. That was one thing that a lot of the thieves at the time knew. You can threaten people. You can do all you want, but you do not kill people, because the citizens wouldn’t stand for it. So, there’s this massive manhunt. There’s this $500 reward, which gets put up by the people to find these murderers. And that’s a lot of money back then.
Mary Ann 05:49 So, by this point, Edward Bonney and Dr. Williams, and some other people are living in Iowa. Edward Bonney starts getting this idea of like, “I can work with some other people. We can get that $500 reward.” Because he already has a pretty good idea of who did it. So, in his book, he basically takes all of the credit himself. He’s like, “Oh,” like when he sees the fur cap, he’s like, “Oh, I saw a guy in Nauvoo, who was wearing that cap.” So, that’s what he tells the sheriff. He’s trying, so he totally talks about how he’s the hero. He’s the guy. So, he tells the sheriff who it is, and it’s all because of him they’re able to capture the guys in Nauvoo. It was unusual, because the Mormons did allow the people from Iowa to come into Nauvoo to take them, but there was kind of a standoff. Of course, Bonney is the one. He claims that he was able to calm everything down and the Mormons actually do allow these two brothers to get taken from Nauvoo to go back for to get prosecuted for this murder.
Going after Edward Bonney & Mormon Leaders
Mary Ann 27:44 Of course, the community is furious. They want justice, immediate justice. So, these three guys, even though only one of them was there at the time that they were murdered, there’s this massive trial. Of course, John Long and Aaron Long, both based in Nauvoo. Granville Young was a frequent visitor of Nauvoo. They were all part of that Nauvoo criminal gain. The three guys end up getting convicted and hung. They’re sentenced to be hung. They end up getting hung. But before they’re hung, the criminal people, there’s a lot of people mad at Edward Bonney, now. Because Edward Bonney, now, has facilitated, he’s like this massive hero in the community. His name is plastered all over the newspapers as this incredible bounty hunter, this wonderful man who brought Davenport’s killers to justice.
Mary Ann 28:47 You have the people, the criminal gangs down in Nauvoo are ticked. They are so mad at him. Also, because you have these guys, Aaron Long and Granville Young… John Long and the other two, they’re like 19, 20 in their early 20s. So, they’re fairly young kids. You have a lot of the older guys, who are mad that these young kids are getting killed, because Edward Bonney turned them in, basically. So, you start getting this conspiracy. This guy down in Iowa named Silas Haight, he ends up working and he has this plan to get these three guys–if not off, at least, maybe he can get their sentences at least lessened or something. So, his plan is to have the three of them turn state’s evidence against Edward Bonney. He wants to have Bonney convicted. Because he knows, because he was associated with a criminal gang. Silas Haight knows that Edward Bonney was a counterfeiter. He knows he was part of all the criminal activity. So, he orchestrates his plan where he’s going to get Bonney indicted in Iowa, for murder, for helping out on the Miller/ Leiza murders with the Hodges for counterfeiting. [Haight wants Bonney indicted] for, basically, three counts of counterfeiting, having presses and then passing counterfeit money. So, he goes, and he’s able to get Dr. Williams to testify against Bonney. It’s likely he set up Dr. Williams to also get caught, which is probably why Dr. Williams agreed to testify against Edward Bonney, just because of some other reasons.
Mary Ann 30:37 Again, this is, like you said, it’s very convoluted. And it is hard to piece all this stuff together. But he’s able to get these indictments. But, at the same time, because they really need a trial to happen. They need a trial to happen to get an opportunity for these three guys who are about to be killed. They are two weeks away from getting hung. They need a trial to happen. So, these three guys can testify against Bonney, because then that’ll pause…
GT 31:05 To save their own lives.
Mary Ann 31:09 That will save their lives. Silas Haight books it back down to Lee County, Iowa, because the term is almost over, the court term is almost over. So, he’s able to get–he probably arranges for Dr. Williams to get caught. But then, that way Dr. Williams will testify against Edward Bonney. He gets Bill Hickman and some of the other gang from…
GT 31:31 Wild Bill Hickman?
Mary Ann 31:32 Wild Bill Hickman, who was also part of the criminal gangs, he gets him to testify against Edward Bonney. That’s how they get the murder charge on him. At the same time, you also have Dr. Williams testify that a bunch of church leaders were counterfeiting as well. I suspect part of that was to try to guarantee a trial would take place. Because, at the time, there was so much anti-Mormon sentiment, this was October 1845. The Church leaders had already agreed, by this point, that they would be leaving in the spring. And there’s all this other stuff happening in Hancock County.
How Counterfeiting Affected Mormon Exodus
Mary Ann 51:22 About the same time, you have the Illinois Governor starts realizing that maybe he can use this to his advantage. So, he sends a letter to Jacob Backenstos, who’s the Sheriff of Hancock County. He heavily implies that the federal government may be sending in U.S. troops to enforce these federal writs. And he has no control over what the federal government is going to do. So, he purposely starts playing up this risk that federal troops, any day, are going to be marching into Nauvoo. It spooks the leaders enough, but, because of enough other things that are going on that they start moving up the timeline for leaving. Their first priority is to get everyone who has arrest warrants out, for them need to leave first. They and their families need to get out of town first. But that’s why they end up having to leave at such a horrible time. The governor admitted, later. He wrote a history of Illinois, and he totally admits he overplayed the risk of the federal troops coming in. But he’s like, “I wanted them out, I wanted them out.”
Mary Ann 52:34 So, it’s funny, because you actually had Major Warren initially, who didn’t want to enforce the arrest warrants, because he was worried it would delay them leaving. But, then later on, you have the Illinois governor who’s like, “Okay, we can use this to our advantage. We can do this.” So historically, a lot of historians have thought that the counterfeiting charges that were done in both Iowa and in Springfield at the federal level, were a ploy by government officials to get the saints out of Illinois sooner. That was my argument for the Mormon History Association presentation was that no, the counterfeiting accusations are actually this ploy by these other criminals to try to get back at Bonney, try to get a trial, try to save these three guys, initially, but now trying to get these other guys off the hook, because now they have counterfeiting charges against them.
Mary Ann 53:31 So, yeah. It was not the governor who initially did the counterfeiting charges. It had very little to do with that, but the governor used it. He did use it later on. Most of the Mormons–so the only person of the 12 men who were indicted, who eventually does go to trial, most of the Mormons, obviously, they leave. They go west. Silas Haight and Edward Bonney still go after Theodore Turley. There’s evidence that they’re still trying to catch him before the Iowa courts are trying [suspects.] Because, again, he can testify against Bonney. And Bonney wants to get to him before he could testify against him. But eventually, Bonney is put on trial. And this is where you have Dr. Williams and Silas Haight testify against him and they have some other guys testify against him. This is where you have guys from the Hancock County grand jury who come in and say, “Yeah, Dr. Williams testified to us and he gave no indication that Edward Bonney was involved. He gave no indication.” So, eventually, Edward Bonney gets off the hook, more because Dr. Williams and Silas Haight, they’re able to prove that they’re [Haight and Williams are] not super trustworthy witnesses. It’s clear that they had a motive, that they were trying to go after Bonney. They were trying to get Bonney convicted.
Mary Ann has been approached by a few publishers to make a book out of this. I hope she does! With all the subterfuge and criminals turning in criminals, I think a movie could be made!
Were you aware that these counterfeiting charges are the reason why Brigham instructed to leave in that cold winter of 1846?
This is yet another example of early Church history that forces me to take one of three positions:
1. It’s untrue or inaccurate so I’ll ignore it (it’s probably just anti-Mormon BS)
2. It’s mostly true but doesn’t change the fact that the Church is true
3. It’s true and there’s no way real servants of the Lord could have been operating this way thus they weren’t who they claimed to be.
I haven’t done my own research on this yet so I have to delay position #3 although I suspect that’s where I’ll end up. For so long I held on
to position #2 when these things came up
because I could no longer maintain position #1. Is it just me?
No, it’s not just you.
But, I guess I just like learning the messy history without turning every episode an existential crisis.I would have quit a long time ago if I framed every episode as an existential crisis. I just love Mormon history.
Is it just me or do you have an obsession with how everything I post affects your testimony? I mean I know this is important for people like you (and there are a lot of you), but I just love Mormon history and I don’t need to answer these 3 bullet points the way you’ve posed them. There is a new podcast for those who need help struggling with faith crisis. Check out either
I think Valerie great, and she can help you with these 3 questions much more than I can. Tell her I sent you. She’s a friend of mine, and I’m going to start sending people her way.
Josh h, have you listened to the interview? The subject matter has very little to do with doctrinal truth claims. It’s more about understanding a lesser known aspect of Mormon history. I’m still just trying to get basic facts straight, and I’m sharing what I’ve been able to figure out so far in the last couple years. This research is still ongoing, so I wouldn’t really recommend anyone using this as a basis to evaluate whichever spiritual home works for them.
When you attend a Mormon History Association conference, no-one’s jockeying to prove or disprove truth claims of a particular Mormon sect. We’re just nerds of various backgrounds who like talking about Mormon history.
Thanks, this was fascinating. Rick, if you ever run out of ideas for interviews, you might want to look into Noah Van Sciver. He spent part of his childhood in the church and later spent years studying Mormon history, finally culminating in the graphic novel Joseph Smith and the Mormons. I thought it was fair and compassionate, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Hello all, thanks for mentioning me in your content to Josh, Rick. I’m happy to weigh in.
So my sense in working through any of the very complex information regarding the church’s history and how it impacts testimony…let’s see if I can efficiently break down my thoughts:
1. No person, idea, belief, organization [including a church] is “true”…I cringe every time I hear this phrase “the true is true” actually. The only “black and white” entity that is the composite of truth is God. Once it touches this earth, it becomes tarnished by heaps of complexity and “not truth”, aka, humanity.
2. On the other hand, nearly all [I hesitate saying “all”] people, ideas, beliefs, and institutions also have aspects of them that are “true”…
3. It’s our responsibility as evolving human beings to realize where truth can be found and to embrace it wherever we can find it.
4. Because elements of truth are housed in many churches, the LDS church is no exception. It houses good things. It houses bad things. It houses good people who do good things. And the same good people who also do bad things. It is no different than any other institution run by fallen humans.
5. This is a bitter pill to swallow mainly because of bad marketing. The church has liked to sell itself as above all of this normal-mortal humanity stuff. It sets itself up to crush people through disillusionment when we realize it’s just a bunch of mortals, sometimes acting inspired [even prophetically once in a while] and often acting very, very human.
6. When we change our own paradigm, grieve the false advertising, and use our own growing powers of discernment, then we can begin to navigate something that looks like a healthy relationship with the church. Incidentally, we also find personal peace and a more rich relationship with God than we could ever imagine.
As Rick mentioned above, my podcast addresses how to get from “here to there” in every episode. My highest priority is to help people grow spiritually so that they can use their recovered personal authority to decide confidently how to be in a peaceful relationship with God, themselves, and all other aspects of their spiritual life.
The podcast is called Latter Day Struggles. As a therapist with a lot of experience in trauma recovery, I have also have started running space-limited small groups to coach people through this process. I work with them directly once a week and connect them with each other so that they can have a small community that serves as a support network while working on this mind-bending paradigm shift. Check these things out of this fits for you!
Rick B: Church history isn’t a hobby for me. It’s the history that pulled me out of my 50+ year belief system. I doubt I’m the only one
Josh, as I said before, you’re not the only one. But please get in touch with Valerie.
Playing Debby Downer every time I post isn’t helpful for you or me. There are other ways to think about history, and continually raining on a parade doesn’t make me suddenly want to be besties with you.
I mean when you watch Oceans 11, or Mission Impossible, do you suddenly lose all faith in the US government?
Or can you watch Titanic or Pearl Harbor and appreciate the lessons from tragedies?
(And I know you’re going to pull out “the Church is different” card, but can you try to treat it differently?)
Talk to Valerie.
For some reason, Valerie’s comment was moderated. I just released it. Check it out above.
Love Valerie’s perspective. Let me add something to you Rick:
I don’t get on here just to blow off steam although that’s the case sometimes. I also make posts that I hope are relatable so that others who struggle can see that they are not alone. Call me a Mormon Stories wannabe if you want.
In my post above, I’ve listed three possibilities as to how one might process bad Church history. I kind of assume there are many others out there who are like me: They lived in the world of #1 for most of their lives. That’s how they were trained. They slipped into #2 when the data didn’t add up. And they’ve discovered that #3 is the most probable explanation in most cases.
I’m not looking to bash the Church every chance I get. And you are right, we shouldn’t treat every flaw as evidence that the whole thing is made up. But at the same time, I’ll never meet your expectation for magnanimity. I’m not neutral anymore (that was where I was when I was between #2 and #3). But I’ll try to lay off your posts if it bothers you so much.
Josh, I have no animosity toward you. I’d like to invite you to write a guest post. Email me at gospel tangents at gmail dot com, and I’ll be happy to put up something with the topic of your choice. Your voice needs to be heard. I’ll see when we have an open slot.
W0w, that was a crazy story. I was not at all aware of the counterfeiting charges or the attraction of Nauvoo to criminals, so all this was really interesting. The past is a foreign country, as they say. It’s no surprise to me that Joseph was a bad judge of character (John C Bennett and others make this clear). It is kind of interesting how much unintended consequences continue to be a problem for the Church in creating policies, but that’s the problem with policies. They all come with a downside. Really interesting stuff.
As a tangent to this. is the background of counterfeiting with Joseph Smith in New Hampshire and New England. http://mormoncounterfeiting.com/
Watch Mormon stories #994-997.
Again, thought had found most prior facts of early Mormon history and now a whole new tunnel.
Learned about Steven Burrows, and many topics that Kathleen Kimball Melonakos exposes.
As we mentioned in the interview, Kathleen tends to take all allegations at face value. Mary Ann takes issue with some of Kathleen’s conclusions, but Kathleen does bring in a lot of sources that are extremely useful.
Sounds like Valarie is what Dehlin would be if he was intellectually honest and focused on helping others… Perhaps what he aspired to be a decade or so ago.
I found this topic fascinating. One thing that has puzzled me for several years can be found in Robert Flander’s book, Nauvoo, Kingdom on the Mississippi. In one section, he describes how Joseph Smith stopped making payments on the first Nauvoo land purchase to the consortium of investors back East. Writing in the 1960s, Flanders couldn’t fill in all the details, but it made me wonder. Another interesting old manuscript by Eudocia Baldwin Marsh describes how Joseph Smith violently refused to pay a gentile who he had been purchasing wheat and cattle for the church. Although one can dismiss these as anti-Mormon lies, the research in Dr. Flander’s book is quite compelling,
Mrs. Marsh also describes in her manuscript another interesting aspect of Joseph Smith: his room of curiosities where visitors could view the Egyptian mummies and papyri for twenty-five cents. Josiah Quincy visited Nauvoo in 1844 and likewise saw the room of curiosities. Both Quincy and Marsh commented independently on how Joseph Smith said one of the mummies was a Pharoh, which I found interesting because it gives credence to what Mrs. Marsh wrote about the gentile being defrauded by Smith.
I’m not a researcher, just a person interested in LDS history. I welcome any thoughts on whether white-collar crime may have also been a thing in Nauvoo.