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Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Murder of Parley P. Pratt

Apostle Parley P. Pratt was a prominent and towering figure in 19th century Mormonism.  His accomplishments as a theologian, missionary, author, poet, and historian were unparalleled.   He endeared himself to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints throughout the world as a prophet, seer, and revelator.
Several of Pratt's poems were set to music.  The hymn “The Morning Breaks” remains a favorite among Mormons today. Click on the following link to hear the hymn sung by the world renowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir:

The morning breaks, the shadows flee;
Lo, Zion's standard is unfurled!
The dawning of a brighter day,
Majestic rises on the world.

The clouds of error disappear
Before the rays of truth divine;
The glory bursting from afar,
Wide o'er the nations soon will shine.

The Gentile fulness now comes in,
And Israel's blessings are at hand.
Lo, Judah's remnant, cleansed from sin,
Shall in their promised Canaan stand.

Jehovah speaks! Let earth give ear,
And Gentile nations turn and live.
His mighty arm is making bare,
His cov'nant people to receive.

Angels from heav'n and truth from earth
Have met, and both have record borne;
Thus Zion's light is bursting forth,
To bring her ransomed children home.

Text: Parley P. Pratt, 1807-1857
Music: George Careless, 1839-1932

When Parley P. Pratt left Salt Lake City on a mission to the eastern States, his wife Eleanor accompanied him as far as St. Louis.  From there she made her way to her father’s home in New Orleans to reclaim her children and take them to Utah.  James Gammell, one of twenty missionaries traveling in the Pratt wagon train, helped Eleanor arrange lodging for her return trip to Salt Lake City the next spring.  This simple act of kindness drew James into a series of events that endangered his life, as well as Eleanor’s, and ended in the tragic death of Parley P. Pratt.  The beloved Mormon apostle was murdered near Van Buren, Arkansas,(1) on May 13, 1857, around the same time James was preparing to leave Texas.  The story involves Eleanor and her estranged husband Hector McLean, the man who killed Parley.

Hector and Eleanor McLean were married in 1841 near New Orleans.  Soon afterwards Hector started drinking heavily, and they separated.  The couple reunited and later moved to San Francisco with their three children, hoping for a fresh start.  While living in San Francisco they were introduced to Mormonism.  Eleanor soon expressed a desire to join the Church, but Hector not only forbade it, he threatened to kill her and the minister who baptized her, if she did.  Eleanor continued to attend meetings, and with Hector’s written permission, she was baptized in May 1854.(2)  Later, after Eleanor had taken their two oldest children to be baptized, Hector put all three children on a ship bound for New Orleans to live with their grandparents.  It wasn’t until that evening that he informed Eleanor, “Now they are where you and the cursed Mormons can never see them again!”  Hector then locked her in her room for several hours, and she cried inconsolably. Two weeks later Hector finally allowed her to leave and join the children in New Orleans.(3)

Eleanor spent three months at her father’s home in New Orleans, but was unable to gain his permission to take her children away.  She finally decided to travel to Salt Lake City alone and hoped to regain the children after she was established there.  At this point in time, having left Hector for good, Eleanor considered herself an unmarried woman, though she had not obtained a legal divorce.  Arriving in Salt Lake in September 1855, she visited the Pratt home and obtained a position as the schoolteacher to their children.  In November 1855 Eleanor became Parley’s plural wife in a ceremony performed by Brigham Young in the Endowment House.(4)

In September 1856, Eleanor traveled with Parley by wagon train across the plains via Fort Kearney, arriving in St. Louis on November 18th.(5)  Records show that “Bro. James Gemmel”, also part of the Pratt wagon company, arrived at St. Louis at the same time.(6)  From there Eleanor traveled on a Mississippi River boat to New Orleans.  After spending a week at her father’s home, she escaped, taking her two youngest children without her father’s permission, and boarded a steamer bound for Galveston, Texas, on December 18.  From there she and the children traveled via the steamer Captain Pierce to Harrisburg, Texas, where they stayed the night in a hotel owned by James Gammell’s brother-in-law, Captain James Andrews.(7)  The next morning Andrews took them to the home of James’ brother William Gammell in Houston.  Eleanor wrote that she and her children were treated very well:(8)

Two miles from Houston we found a home at the house of Mr. William Gambell (sic), who is a man of no religion, lives well, has plenty of servants, and no children.  His wife [Jane] was like mother to us.  The three first weeks I made a change of clothing, and then sought for something to do.  Found employment in a dress-making establishment, Mrs. Stanbury’s, where I worked five weeks, spending two days with my children, Sunday to rest, and Monday to wash and mend.  On the 4th of March I left Houston with Captain Andrews, Mr. Stanfield, and James Gammel (sic) (the latter being a Mormon Elder), to journey to Ellis County, where the Mormon emigration was fitting out for a trip across the plains.(9)

While still in Houston, Eleanor had received a letter informing her that Hector was in pursuit of her.  As a result she decided to travel instead with a non-Mormon named Mr. Clark, and his wife and children, in a “poor wagon and three yoke of good oxen.”  Hector McLean found them anyway on the trail just west of Arkansas.(10)

McLean was relentless in his search for Pratt.  From December 1856 to March 1857, Parley visited various eastern states, and much of the time Hector McLean was not far behind.  Hector managed to learn about Parley’s itinerary from Mormon apostates, and to enlist the help of the police to search the homes of the Saints.  He nearly caught up with Parley in St. Louis.  Parley knew of the approaching danger, and for several months he managed to elude McLean.  By May, McLean determined that both Parley and Eleanor were on their way west.  At Fort Gibson he filed a formal charge against Eleanor, "a charge of larceny of clothing belonging to Albert and Annie McLean [his two children] to the amount of ten dollars.”  The names Parley P. Pratt, James Gammell, and Elias J. Gammell,(11) appeared on the same charge.  Finally, on May 6 an armed military escort approached Parley on the trail near Fort Gibson.  The captain rode up to Parley and said, “Parley P. Pratt, I arrest you in the name of the United States of America.”(12)  On the same day Hector and his friends caught up with Eleanor’s wagon and took the children.  The marshal arrested Eleanor three hours later.  The prisoners were taken to Fort Gibson and then on to the courthouse in Van Buren, Arkansas.  After questioning her, the judge dismissed all charges against Eleanor.

At the trial Hector McLean was allowed to read the charges and to state all his grievances against Pratt, successfully stirring up the crowd of five hundred spectators against the defendant.  When Parley stood to answer the charges, McLean pulled out his pistol and aimed it at Parley’s head.  The officers stopped him from firing, and the judge postponed the trial till later that afternoon.  Parley was locked in jail for his own protection, and the angry crowd returned to the courthouse well before the appointed time of four o’clock.  The judge postponed the trial again, this time until the next morning.  This second postponement was only an effort to deceive McLean.  The judge had already decided to acquit Pratt and to release him as soon as it was safe to do so.(13)  Very early the next morning, Wednesday, May 13, Parley was released:

…Judge Ogden brought Parley’s horse to him at the jail.  He released Parley, put him on his horse and offered him his knife and pistol, but Parley refused by saying, “Gentlemen, I do not rely on weapons of that kind, my trust is in my God.  Good-bye Gentlemen.”  He rode off in a southerly direction .(14)

When Hector came back to Van Buren for the morning trial and learned that Parley had escaped, he and two other men “mounted their horses and started in pursuit.”  They caught up with him about twelve miles away near the Winn farm.  McLean fired his pistol six times but missed.  He then rode up close to Parley and stabbed him twice in the chest.  Parley fell to the ground motionless.  The three men rode off, but Hector came back ten minutes later, got off his horse, and shot Parley in the neck.  Mr. Winn had witnessed the entire episode and thought that Parley was dead.  Winn raced off for help and when he returned with a few neighbors an hour later, Parley was still alive.  Parley asked for a drink of water and told them his name.  He requested that they notify his family at Salt Lake City, Utah Territory, and send them his gold watch and personal effects, and finally that they ask a Mormon wagon train to take his body back to Utah.  Parley bore his dying testimony to the men who comforted him in his final hour: “I die a firm believer in the Gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith, and I wish you to carry this my dying testimony. I know that the Gospel is true and that Joseph Smith was a prophet of the living God, I am dying a martyr to the faith.”(15)

Monument near Parley P. Pratt's grave.
Inscription includes his poem
"The Morning Breaks."
Photo by Reed Russell, March 2011.
When Eleanor learned that Parley was dead, “she asked Marshal Hays if she and George Higginson (Parley’s missionary companion) might go prepare the body for burial.”  At the Winn farmhouse they found the body lying on a board.  Mr. Winn took them to the scene of the murder.  He told them that Parley had died from the loss of blood about two hours after being attacked.  From Winn’s examination of the body and clothing, he learned that Parley had “six bullet holes around the skirt of his coat and two knife marks in the front.”  A knife that penetrated directly to the heart inflicted the fatal wound.  At the farmhouse Winn had already washed the body and prepared clean clothing.  George and the marshal dressed the body, and “Eleanor wrapped it from head to foot in white linen.”  Higginson placed Parley’s body in a white pine box, and late that night (May 14), under cover of darkness, buried him in an unmarked grave.(16)
P. P. Pratt monument, Alma, Arkansas
Photo by Reed Russell, March 2011.

The tragic death of Elder Pratt was not the end of the ordeal.  Eleanor Pratt and James Gammell still had reason to fear for their lives.
  1. Van Buren is located in the northwest corner of Arkansas near Fort Smith and the Oklahoma border.
  2. Pratt, Steven, “Eleanor McLean and the Murder of Parley P. Pratt,” BYU Studies, 1975, Vol. 15, No. 2, pp. 225-228.
  3. Pratt, Steven, pp. 228-231.
  4. Pratt, Steven, pp. 232-234.
  5. Pratt, Steven, p. 234.
  6. Erastus Snow’s letter to Brigham Young. (Church History Library, CR1234/1, Box 42, Folder 16.
  7. James’ sister, Margaret Jane Gammell, married James B. Andrews on September 18, 1837, in Lowell, Massachusetts
  8. Steven Pratt, pp. 234-5.
  9. Eleanor J. McLean (Pratt), letter to the Van Buren [Arkansas] Intelligencer, May 18, 1857, published in The Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star, Liverpool, July 4, 1857.
  10. Steven Pratt, p. 235.
  11. Elias J. Gammell has not been identified as part of the Gammell family. (Perhaps McLean made a mistake.)
  12. Steven Pratt, pp. 238-9.
  13. Steven Pratt, p. 245.
  14. Steven Pratt, p. 245.
  15. Steven Pratt, pp. 246-48.
  16. Steven Pratt, pp. 48-49.

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