THE EXECUTION OF JOHN D. LEE

Most of us, who grew up in Southern Utah, know something about the “Mountain Meadow Massacre” that took place a few miles north of the village of Veyo back in September, 1857.

            Our interest here is not to rehearse that tragedy, but to look at the process used to satisfy justice in the end.

            John D. Lee was found guilty, in his second trial, for leadership in that affair and was sentenced to be shot by firing squad.  On March 23, 1877 he was taken from Fort Cameron near Beaver City to the Meadows.  A plain wooden casket had been furnished.  Lee sat on a lower corner facing a covered wagon in which five rifle barrels protruded.  After giving a short speech on his innocence, he asked one marshal to inform the firing squad to aim for his heart.        

  A crowd of on-lookers waited 200 yards away while some officials stood close by.  The signal was given, the guns blazed and the flying dust behind the coffin signaled the shell loads.  John fell back into his coffin.  A Mormon doctor examined his body, and covered John with a blanket.  They nailed a lid on the box, hoisted it into the back of a wagon driven by two of his sons, and they left.

            Now, everyone felt the 120 murdered Fancher Train folks had been avenged.  This writer, however, has his doubts.  I’m no forensic scientist, but I am an observer and student of the Massacre.  Some things cause me to question whether John D. Lee died that day or not.  1) Brigham Young was dedicated to the sanctity of humanity, especially his “saints.”  He was in St. George at the time of the execution and sent a rider to get details of the event and was unusually concerned that everything went “as planned.”  2) Young had agreed with federal attorneys to offer John as a “scapegoat” (John’s words in his memoirs) to mollify governmental officials – Young was interested in statehood for Utah, and justice for the “massacre” was a serious impediment, but John was his “adopted son,” and killing an innocent man was contrary to Young’s tenets.  3) The firing squad was all Mormon sharpshooters who believed the same.  4) When the shots were fired, dust flew from the ground behind the casket, but no one documented any tearing of John’s body when the bullets from the high-powered rifles hit.  John showed no physical response to the impact of five, large rifle shells fired at a point-blank distance.  He merely fell back into his coffin.  I have seen photos of John’s body (see photo,) and I saw no holes in his chest, no destruction of his body, nor blood in the coffin or around the site.  5) The doctor who verified John’s death was a Mormon doctor.  No one else examined, but others there merely viewed his body.  6) John’s casket was driven away by his sons.  They went to Parowan (about 40 miles away) and met the family for “a memorial.”  John’s coffin was eventually taken to Panguitch and buried in an unmarked grave.                

I have no evidence that John D. Lee survived his execution on March 17, 1877, but neither Colonel William Dame (the leading Church and military officer in Southern Utah), nor Colonel Isaac B. Haight (also a leading Church official and officer) who commanded the militia that murdered 120 immigrants and planned the subterfuge, were ever tried for their key roles in the killings.  Lee was a Major, as were others at the site.  This is why the massacre at Mountain Meadows and the souls of the slaughtered still haunt me and the site.

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