Book review: American Crucifixion, by Alex Beam
In the 1840s, the Mississippi River town of Nauvoo was the largest city in Illinois. Before the fledgling Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - the Mormons - made Salt Lake City the centre of its earthly existence, adherents had settled in Nauvoo, following their founding prophet Joseph Smith.
The charismatic sect leader had a remarkable knack for capturing the imagination of those who would believe, but also of enraging those who saw him not as a Christian prophet but as a heretic, a seducer of women and other men's wives - a conman. And that brought a steady rain of violence to both Smith and his flock.
It's a brutal yet absorbing slice of history that Alex Beam captures well in his new book, which tells us as much about religious intolerance and the low flash point of mob violence as it does about Mormonism.
There are few "good guys" in Beam's book, and his portrayal of Smith is less than charitable. Smith's religious claims drew deep scepticism. Regardless, he attracted enough followers to become a potent political force wherever they settled. The church began near Palmyra, New York, then moved to Kirtland, Ohio, then to Missouri, where its anti-slavery beliefs made Smith and his followers unwelcome. In 1839, after arrests and violent skirmishes culminating in the massacre of 17 Mormons, Smith bought 20,700 acres of swampland on either side of the Mississippi River and founded Nauvoo.
The city, like the church, grew at a remarkable pace, reaching more than 10,000 residents by 1844 and resented by earlier settlers. Then whispers began circulating about secret marriages with multiple wives, and the tinder began drying.
When Smith's followers destroyed the printing press of a critical newspaper opened by some Mormon rivals, the match was lit. Beam details the legal fights that ultimately led to the murder by a mob of Smith and his brother, Hyrum, as they were jailed in nearby Carthage, Illinois.
In a sense, Smith's murder was the rebirth of the church. Within weeks Brigham Young was elected to lead the flock and, after more violent attacks from outsiders, he moved the church and its followers to the Great Salt Lake Valley, a place far beyond the reach of the US government in what was then Mexican territory inhabited by native Americans. As for Nauvoo, it's now a slow-paced river town of 1,100 people. One can only imagine, looking at Salt Lake City, what each might have been today were it not for that long-ago spasm of religious intolerance and old-fashioned American mob violence.
Los Angeles Times