Sherlock Holmes’ first villain: Brigham Young

One of the great things about owning an iPad (or other e-reader) is that you can read literally thousands of older books for free. I have been reading dozens of older works that I never got to for one reason or another. And I have been on a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle jag, mostly because his books are accessible, fun and easy to read (unlike some of the other things you read from the 19th century).

Sir Arthur’s first book about Sherlock Holmes is called “A Study in Scarlet.” It is a murder mystery in which we are introduced for the first time to Dr. Watson and the famous Holmes. Two people are killed in London, and Holmes sets about solving the mystery. Much to my surprise, it turns out the primary villain in the story is Brigham Young, whose portrayal is so far from the historical Young that it is kind of campy fun.

SPOILER ALERT: I will be solving the mystery for you in this post, so if you haven’t read “A Study in Scarlet” and would like to, and want to be surprised, then don’t keep on reading.

Our story starts with two murders that Holmes gets involved in solving in London. Two American men are murdered, and the police can’t discover the culprit. After many amazing feats, Holmes determines that the murderer is a horse-drawn carriage cab driver, who is lured to Holmes’ apartment on Baker Street and is caught by the police, whom Holmes had invited to his flat without telling them why (one of the best scenes ever in the Sherlock Holmes canon). After being delivered up to the police, and being handcuffed, the cab driver tells his story.

It turns out that the two murdered men are both former Mormon apostles (members of “the Holy Four,” whatever that is). The killer, Jefferson Hope, had been in love with a non-Mormon girl in Utah. The evil Brigham Young forced the girl to choose between one of the two Apostles, each of whom had a number of wives already.

Hope tries to help the girl escape from her Mormon prison, and they dramatically flee together across the desert, but they are caught by the evil Mormons. The girl is taken back to Salt Lake City, and is forced to marry one of the apostles. She dies a month later of a broken heart. Meanwhile, Jefferson Hope (great name!) swears revenge. The two apostles eventually quarrel with Brigham Young and flee Utah. Hope follows them for years until finally finding them in London, where he tracks them down and murders them. This is where Holmes gets involved.

The real villain of the story is not the killer, who is portrayed as manic but justified. It is Brigham Young, who has turned Utah into an armed camp, with bands of men who scour the countryside for young women to marry. They literally spend weeks stalking Lucy, Jefferson Hope’s one true love. There is even a footnote in the story in which Sir Arthur claims that Heber Kimball calls women “heifers” — only cattle to be bred. Young is portrayed as a tyrannical but charismatic dictator who uses armed scouts to protect Utah and keep the heifers confined so they can’t escape.

The number of mistakes made by Sir Arthur makes the story rather comical if you know anything about Mormon history. He wrote the novel in three weeks, obviously relying on a few biased histories of the Mormons he had dug up in a London library. It is important to note that the late 19th century when Sir Arthur wrote the story was a time of great agitation against the Church. Anti-Mormons flocked to the region to write about polygamy, and the portrayal of Young in “A Study of Scarlet” is pretty much in line with the popular view at the time.

Wikipedia says the following about Sir Arthur’s portrayal of the Saints:

According to a 1994 Salt Lake City newspaper article, when Conan Doyle was asked about his depiction of the Latter-day Saints’ organization as being steeped in kidnapping, murder and enslavement, he said: “all I said about the Danite Band and the murders is historical so I cannot withdraw that, though it is likely that in a work of fiction it is stated more luridly than in a work of history. It’s best to let the matter rest”. However, Conan Doyle’s daughter has stated: “You know, father would be the first to admit that his first Sherlock Holmes novel was full of errors about the Mormons”. Years after Conan Doyle’s death, Levi Edgar Young, a descendant of Brigham Young and a Mormon general authority, claimed that Conan Doyle had privately apologized, saying that “He [Conan Doyle] said he had been misled by writings of the time about the Church”.

In any case, if you have not read any of Sir Arthur’s books, I highly recommend them. The best Holmes book is the most famous, “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” If you saw the recent movie “Sherlock Holmes” with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, please keep in mind that the Downey character has very little to do with the Conan Doyle creation, although I personally enjoyed the movie. At least Brigham Young is not the villain in the film versions.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

8 thoughts on “Sherlock Holmes’ first villain: Brigham Young

  1. I once used the paragraph where Conan Doyle first describes the Great Basin, portraying it as a most foul and desolate region, in a Pioneer Day sacrament meeting talk when I was on the high council. After reading the paragraph, I said “brothers and sisters, we have a name for this most unsavory of places on earth, we call it ‘home'”.

  2. I’m pretty sure he never visited the Western U.S. before he wrote “A Study in Scarlet.” One small example: when Jefferson Hope and Lucy flee SLC, they flee west, and he describes them going through heavily wooded canyons not far from Salt Lake. Not likely.

  3. I hadn’t known about the Sherlock Holmes stories mentioning Mormons until just a few months ago (bloggernacle mentioned it). I had only known about it for a week before my 7th grade daughter told me one of the books she read for school a month or two previously had stuff about polygamy and Brigham Young in it. Sherlock Holmes!
    Parenting is just so fun, isn’t it? These conversations come up out of nowhere. I didn’t know exactly what was in the book so I didn’t know what she might have read that was true vs. not true.
    I thought it was interesting how my daughter reacted and handled it. She unapologetically told the teacher that she was kind of offended by it so she skipped that part of the book. It seemed to be a book of short stories so that worked just fine. I assume the teacher didn’t mind.

  4. We must have some sort of synchronicity or something. I’m currently writing a chapter for a book on Sherlock Holmes, and as a result I’ve come across a related Holmes item I was going to blog about. So, keep an eye out.

    On a similar note, I recall that Harry Turtledove, when he came to BYU the year I was in charge of the annual LTUE Science Fiction symposium there, apologized for his treatment of Mormons in some of his fiction (I didn’t think he needed to apologize, since his fiction was clearly not anti-Mormon). Turtledove’s main use of Mormons was in his alternate history where the South won the Civil War. So, Utah decided to secede as well, and General Custer was sent in to beat the Mormons into the ground. Very interesting – Lee Allred did a pretty good paper on Turtledove at an AML conference one year.

  5. Ivan, it might be interesting to compare notes and see what Sherlock Holmes story you like the best. My favorite is “Hound,” as mentioned above. But some of the short stories are pretty good too.

  6. If you are a fan of Sherlock Holmes and of history, I suggest Sherlock Holmes: The Unauthorized Biography, which I’m almost finished reading. It treats Holmes and Watson as if they are actual historical figures. It’s a bit dry in parts, but the writing style is droll while still remaining straightforward. I find it quite entertaining.

  7. Ivan, I remember reading those Turtledove books and Brigham Young and the Mormons were portrayed as the modern day Taliban. Religious, warlike fanatics who were blowing themselves up in a ruthless battle against the military. It’s quite a stretch from what actually happened when the US went to war against the Mormons.

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