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Not just outlaws held at infamous Yuma Territorial Prison
YUMA, ARIZONA -- A digital exhibit recounting the stories of nine prominent Mormons who were jailed for polygamy at the Yuma Territorial Prison in 1885 will be formally dedicated this week at the historic prison, better known for incarcerating Arizona's worst desperadoes during the Wild West era of shoot-outs and stagecoach robberies.
"This 21st-century digital exhibit tells the story of a 19th-century struggle over the issue of religious freedom colliding with the right of the nation to set certain moral standards," said Charles Flynn, executive director of the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area, which manages the state park. "These are issues the nation continues to wrestle with today."
From the 1850s onward, the newly formed Republican Party called for moral reform, calling slavery and polygamy "the twin relics of barbarism". Congress enacted increasingly more severe legislation, culminating in the Edmunds Act which made "unlawful cohabitation" a federal felony.
In 1884-1885, federal marshals selected leading Mormon citizens in Arizona for prosecution, apparently to send a message to all Mormons. While some fled to Mexico to escape prosecution, others, like William Jordan Flake, refused to recognize the constitutionality of the law, calling it a "mockery, a travesty on Justice", and served six months at the Yuma prison.
James Thomas Wilson described the public mood: "At the time the spirit of persecution ran almost wild. The whole of the nation were very hostile and bitter against us as a people".
Other prisoners took a more light-hearted approach. James Neils Skousen was sentenced to six months and a $500.fine. When he was unable to pay the fine, he was forced to serve another 30 days, to which he quipped, "It was the best month's pay I ever received". In an ironic reversal, another prisoner, Charles Innes Robson, had served as warden of the penitentiary at Salt Lake City in the 1870s before being jailed himself.
The justice system strained to deal with the situation of men of prominence being imprisoned with some of the most ruthless criminals in the West. One judge, "with tears in his eyes", said "As a man I am in favor of releasing you, but as a judge I must obey the law and my instructions". Sentences were generally for three to six months.
Once at the prison, these men presented Superintendent Frank Ingalls a unique challenge. He generally gave them light duty and actually used them to help manage the prisoners, and one prisoner even helped take care of Ingalls children.
This era ended almost as soon as it began. In 1890 the Mormon Church issued the Manifesto, which ended the practice of polygamy. Utah became a state shortly thereafter. But now the stories of these nine men live on within the prison walls of the Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park.
Flynn expressed particular appreciation to Professor David Boone of Brigham Young University for his research on this subject. "We wanted to make sure that the exhibit was based on sound scholarship and to ensure a balanced view of this very complicated period of American history"
|Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area is an independent nonprofit corporation governed by a local board of directors. It was among the first national heritage areas in the West to be officially designated by the U.S. Congress. The Heritage Area's master plan projects earned the Governor's Arizona Preservation Award in 2009. Info at 928-373-5198 or www.yumaheritage.com.
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