A polygamist raid undoes a governor

First published in The Daily.

From the red cliffs overlooking Short Creek, Ariz., anyone could see an invading army coming from miles away. Perhaps that’s why the first Mormon families chose to settle there. On July 26, 1953, when the attackers finally came, they attempted to creep in under cover of darkness, during a total eclipse of the moon. Short Creek’s sentries spotted the trespassers anyway, and blew up a charge of dynamite to warn the town. Everyone gathered in the local schoolhouse to sing songs praising God and spend their last few minutes together. Then the government troops arrived.

That morning, the Arizona State Police and National Guard took the unprecedented step of arresting every resident of an American town — nearly 400 people in all. The official goal was to enforce Arizona’s constitutional clause forbidding polygamy. But one of the underlying aims was to assert control over what was in those days still frontier country. Gov. Howard Pyle called the fundamentalist Mormon community — part of a polygamous schism rejected by the mainstream church — “an insurrection within Arizona’s own borders,” and he conducted the raid as a military operation that came to be seen as one of the worst abuses of government authority in that era.

In the preceding weeks, the authorities had sent in a reconnaissance team disguised as a film crew scouting for a cowboy movie. The crew saw enough evidence of polygamy and child rape to justify the raid. What authorities suspected, demography confirmed: 263 of those rounded up were children and only 126 were adults. Thirty-six were adult men. Ratios so heavily slanted to youth are rare in monogamous societies; the youngest country in the world today is Niger, where polygamy is legal and children make up 50.1 percent of the population. In Short Creek, they made up 65.8 percent. All but six members of the community were Mormon fundamentalists, and nearly everyone was extremely poor, supporting families of as many as 60 on welfare checks. Women led isolated, limited lives, married off before adulthood and rapidly conscripted into a sort of livestock model of reproduction.

Over the next few days, the police counted and processed everyone. Not many of the marriages enjoyed civil status, so it was difficult to charge them with polygamy. But authorities found ample evidence of “open and notorious cohabitation,” a criminal offense. They separated children from parents and wives from husbands. The children and women were kept together and sent to Phoenix to live with mainstream Mormon families.

The men went to jail in Kingman for a week, and returned to find a radically different community. Suddenly a town overwhelmingly populated with women and children was home to only a few dozen men. Life magazine sent a photographer, who captured images of them sitting together eating oatmeal and fried eggs. It took two years of legal wrangling for these men to reconstitute their scattered families.

Pyle, the governor, knew the raid would put a few dozen polygamists in jail. What he failed to anticipate were the consequences beyond Short Creek. He went after the fundamentalist Mormons in part because he found their lives abhorrent (“the foulest conspiracy you could possibly imagine” and a form of “white slavery”), and in part because he wanted to assert the state’s power over its own territory. But Americans largely ignored the moral argument, and turned the second part on its head, viewing the Short Creek raid as an abuse of state power rather than the responsible exercise of it.

The raid produced vast media attention and newsreel footage. It didn’t look like the busting of a criminal syndicate. It looked like the breaking up of families. The Short Creek houses were decrepit and poor, like the Dust Bowl shanties from a couple decades prior. So when Americans saw poor families being torn apart and kids led away in shoes made from string and paper, they forgot for a moment their disgust at child marriage and child rape, and sympathized with the fundamentalist Mormons.

The group most approving of Pyle’s raid was the Mormon Church itself. The Mormons had officially banned polygamy — a practice the church fathers had previously celebrated as a sacrament — in 1890, in part of an effort to make Utah an attractive target for U.S. statehood, which finally came in 1896. But Short Creek was in Arizona, which took another 16 years to join the union. Although Arizona never permitted polygamy, it was more hospitable to the practice than Utah. The Mormon Church loudly cheered the Short Creek raid, because Pyle was eliminating a dissident sect that served as a public reminder of the church’s embarrassing past.

Today, Short Creek is still cited as an example of government power run amok. The town’s religion was unorthodox, but the community was a very familiar type of settlement in the West. For over a century, utopians, idealists and assorted crackpots had come to found communities where they could enjoy the solitude of open spaces, and a relative lack of harassment by the government. Short Creek was the fundamentalist Mormon Zion.  Before the raid, one could still believe that the West had enough empty space to allow a Promised Land to be established and to flourish. The Short Creek incident called such thinking into question.

The raid also brought with it some real political consequences. Howard Pyle was voted out in 1955. By his own account, he was the victim of an electorate enraged by the family-rending at Short Creek. For the next half-century, the issue remained radioactive, with politicians unsure whether to risk backlash for enforcing the law. Short Creek later changed its name to Colorado City, and it remains a polygamous hub today — a utopia for some, a hell for others.


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