brides for one brother: Plural marriage is rife in the western United
By SUZAN MAZUR
Oct 28, 2000
When 17-year-old Lorraine Johnson set off for Canada from her home in Colorado
City, Arizona, more than year ago, she had her father Ray's consent to marry
into another polygamous group. It meant her swapping her Mormon fundamentalist
community on the Utah-Arizona border for the Bountiful commune in British
Columbia's Creston Valley.
Her father won't say if she is married, but others inside the closed society,
which straddles the Canada-Idaho border, confirm that Lorraine is now one of the
common-law wives of the community's 44-year-old leader Winston Blackmore, who is
believed to have 30 wives.
For most modern western women, it is hard to imagine how anyone could endure
life as a multiple wife.
But for Lorraine and other's like her there may be little choice for girls
raised in polygamist societies with no experience of any other way of life. They
may also become trapped in a cycle of poverty and dependence.
Utah state Senator Ron Allen says: "We have thousands of women pulled out
of school at an early age, forced into marriages with older men, kept isolated
from society, constantly impregnated, and often placed on public assistance with
no financial means of their own. They are forgotten citizens facing abuse and
fear. On top of it all, the victims are constantly taught that God is just
pleased as punch about the whole deal. It has to stop."
Girls such as 16-year-old Nichole are typical. She returned to Colorado City
from Bountiful recently because her mother, Lenore, refused to allow her to
marry a 39-year-old married man.
Nichole is now estranged from her family, has left school and is under the
control of the FLDS (Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints) sect and its prophet,
Rulon Jeffs, a 90-year-old man with 50 wives, countless children and 12,000
Because Arizona's Mohave County law enforcement community has failed to respond
to Lenore's formal request for a medical examination to establish whether the
girl has been raped, she has now filed for a restraining order against Wynn
Jessop, the man Nichole is supposed to marry.
Salt Lake City writer John Llewellyn, a former fundamentalist Mormon, says:
"The key factor in controlling a polygamist cult is in brainwashing the
young women To inculcate upon their impressionable minds that everything not
condoned by the prophet is evil, that they cannot go to the celestial kingdom
unless they live in a plural marriage, and that the rates of heaven will be
closed to the disobedient"
Plural marriage is illegal today in both the US and Canada, though religious
freedom is guaranteed under Canada's Charter of Rights of Freedoms. This means
in practice that British Columbia is relaxed about a man saving 30 wives if be
says it is based on religious belief.
The US outlawed multiple wives in the late 1800s with he passage of the Morrill
and Edmunds-Tucker acts. The Supreme Court ruled in 1879, in George Reynolds v
the United States, that religious beliefs - but not religious conduct are
protected by the First Amendment: "Laws are made for the government of
actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and
Opinions, they may with practices" (U598:166)
Thus, the main Mormon Church abandoned the principle of polygamy in 1890 in
compliance with federal law. The state of Utah, where most polygamous families
lived, took further measures, and made plural marriage a third degree felony
under a bigamy statute, punishable by five years' imprisonment.
According to Chris:topher Rosch, communications director, speaking for Senator
Orrin Hatch (Republican, Utah): "By federal law, polygamy is not legal in
the US including Utah, Idaho, Arizona or any other state. Enforcement of this
statute is under the purview of law enforcement officials, and is not a matter
of congressional jurisdiction."
Furthermore, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women
has declared polygamy a human rights violation and both the US and Canada have
signed the convention.
But in defiance of the law, plural marriage families in the US have continued
to. grow some observers say doubling every decade. Estimates are that between
50,000 and 100,000 individuals practice polygamy in the US.
Most are excommunicated Mormons, calling themselves "original Mormons or
fundamentalist Mormons", and living along the "sacred" Rocky
Mountains where they believe the tribes of Israel will one day reunite. But the
number of Christian polygamists is also increasing, and members of susceptible
communities in the remoter parts of Utah, California and even some south-eastern
States are being converted. There is a sprinkling of polygamous
"Messianic" Jews as well, while Muslims neither condemn nor promote
Among the polygamous Mormons, the two largest groups are the "Jeffs",
named after prophet Rulon Jeffs, with sects in Utah, Arizona, Idaho and British
Columbia; and the "Allreds", after prophet Owen Allred, based in Utah
with a large community in Montana.
The "Kingstons" (or Latter Day Church of Christ, with about 1,000
members) operate in seven western states from their base in Salt Lake City,
while the mid-western "Strangites" (Original Church of Jesus Christ,
with between 100 and 300 members) are based in Wisconsin and claim Joseph Strang
as their prophet, whom they say was ordained by angels. The sects become more
esoteric as they get smaller.
So why has the law looked the other way?
Practical difficulties include the overwhelming prevalence of the practice and
the under-staffing and lack of computer skills in the more remote locations. The
law can also be easily circumvented in Arizona, for example, because only
solemnized marriages are recognized so the addition of common-law wives does not
constitute an offence. But there are even more fundamental problems.
One who criticizes the law and says there should be limits on how far it can
intrude into people's private lives is Ed Firmage, a legal scholar at the
University of Utah. He says the Reynolds ruling is flawed that it is impossible
to separate religious belief from conduct.
"We've gone as far as the law can go," says Firmage, who, as a
descendant of Mormon pioneer Brigham Young, understands plural marriage but
himself is now a practicing Protestant. "It's a matter of police staying
out of our bedrooms."
But University of Alberta sociologist and ritual abuse expert, Steve Kent, sees
the problem as it exists in places such as Mohave County as one of "local
government officials unwilling to fulfill their legal and moral obligations to
the victimized parties". Other experts claim that local authority officials
responsible for investigations are sometimes polygamists themselves.
Such questions have been raised in preliminary hearings for the trial of the
State of Utah v Thomas Green, scheduled to start early next year in Nephi.
Prosecutor David Leavitt has charged Green with child rape, four counts of
bigamy and criminal non-support of 25 of his 29 children. Green has five wives,
but the full family tree also includes previous marriages to the mothers of two
of his present wives and to two sets of sisters.
Leavitt is trying to establish that Tom and Linda Green (Green's only legal
marriage) conceived their son Melvin when Linda a woman whose formal education
ended at the age of nine - was just 13 years old.
It has been nearly 50 years since the last wide scale attempt to prosecute cases
of plural marriage. A police raid in 1953 on the Short Creek community on the
Arizona-Utah border was supposed to rescue several hundred children and arrest
100 or so adult polygamists. In fact, because of the way it was handled, it
resulted in a backlash, with the press depicting the anguish of parents and
children being separated.
And after an attempt to keep the men in Short Creek, move the wives to Phoenix,
and have the children adopted was thwarted, the descendants of those polygamists
are still practicing polygamy today in the same area, now renamed Colorado City,
Arizona, and Hildalti, Utah, and are organized as "the United Effort
Plan", a charitable trust.
Polygamy means a cycle of poverty for most, with common-law wives (only one wife
can be legally married) and their children subsisting on welfare, although a
significant number of their homes are state-of-the-art constructions.
As a result of home schooling. men and women in the fundamentalist Mormon
community generally do not acquire skills to compete as white collar
professionals. As a result, at some point young men eventually settle for a life
of blue collar employment as truck drivers, construction workers and, in Canada,
as loggers. Women are generally busy producing and caring for children.
The handful of men who control the communities have grown wealthy through a
combination of donations and businesses ranging from farming and logging to slot
machines and accountancy.
In Colorado City, there is no bus service but Rulon Jeffs leases a jet. There is
even an airport to accommodate it, thanks in large part to state and federal
grants. "Most residents have cars," smiled town clerk Kevin Barlow,
whose uncle Dan is mayor.
Visitors are under constant surveillance by a security force, dubbed the
"God squad", which also takes note of car license plates. Many
businesses, including the supermarket, display signs reserving the right to
But Utah is taking some action. Following media scrutiny that began with the
trial and conviction of David Kingston last year for incest and sexual abuse of
his niece, and reports of teen brides and welfare fraud in the polygamous
societies, the state recently hired Ron Barton for the innovative post of
investigator for closed societies on a salary of Dollars 75,000. Senator Allen
is also pushing for Dollars 250,000 from the state to help fund investigations,
calling also for media coverage and a big awareness campaign.
Author Lon LaFlamme is even contributing part of the proceeds from his
polygamist crime novel, Lords of Paradise, to the non-profit Tapestry Against
Polygamy organization, a group of ex-polygamist wives who have been working for
two years with an annual budget of Dollars 10,000-Dollars 15,ooo from private
donations to assist those trapped in polygamy, by providing exit counseling and
shelter. Tapestry was also instrumental in Utah's decision to raise the marriage
age from 14 to 15, and is now pushing for 16.
Jay Beswick monitors child abuse in Utah and Arizona for the non-profit
organization, For Kids' Sake, and may have more files than the investigator for
closed societies. Beswick has said that as many as 1,000 residents in the
settlements on the Utah-Arizona border may want to leave because of an internal
power struggle, since FLDS prophet Jeffs is near death and his son Warren has
been reassigning wives, excommunicating members and threatening to evict them
from their homes which they built with their own money although on land owned by
Beswick thinks rescue efforts might be a lot cheaper than the ongoing drain of
welfare dollars. He thinks the main polygamy kingpins should be brought to
justice and cites a violation of the Mann Act relating to the international
trafficking of women for sex and marriage.
What does the FBI say? Beswick says it seems concerned about these cults, but
comments that it "cannot comment on a pending investigation" -
Rowenna Erickson who, with Vicky Prunty, co-directs Tapestry, spent most of her
life in the Kingston clan. Erickson says the Kingstons believe Jesus Christ was
Today, Erickson's home often doubles as a conference centre for tearful
ex-wives, some of whom are not even clear about who their parents are. It is
also where Tapestry's lawyer Doug White listens exhaustively to cases on a pro
While the National Organization of Women has applauded Tapestry for its work,
the American Civil Liberties Union takes a contrary position. According to
Steven Clarke, Salt Lake City legal director: "Criminal and civil laws
prohibiting or penalizing the practice of plural marriage violate constitutional
protections of freedom of expression and association, freedom of religion, and
privacy for personal relationships among consenting adults."
The medical community has also been asked for its views on plural marriage.
"There are some who enter these relationships by choice," says Scott
Stiefel, medical director of the Neurobehavioral Clinic Research Program at
Primary Children's Medical Center in Salt Lake, which serves the Rocky Mountain
region, "but what is choice if you are raised in the culture without
Stiefel has had direct field experience in remote regions of Utah with plural
marriage families. He says women and children are at risk of poor development in
these families, as in any fundamentalist group, because they are cloistered and
There might also be physical risks: numerous members of the Kingston community
said, when interviewed, that they suspected the frequency of birth defects was a
result of close relatives marrying. Eight microcephalics were born to three of
the wives; most of these survived -one with an IQ in single digits and are being
cared for by the state at an annual cost of up to Dollars 100,000 a child.
Babies have also been born with fused limbs, genital abnormalities, dwarfism.
Tourette's syndrome and autism. Stiefel confirms that birth defects as a result
of in-breeding is an emerging pattern.
Much rides on the outcome of the Tom Green prosecution. If he is found guilty of
four counts of bigamy, will that open the floodgates and step up prosecution of
"Absolutely," says Doug White. And David Leavitt, Juab County
prosecutor in the Green case, agrees: "If another case is brought to me, it
is my responsibility to prosecute." Copyright: The Financial Times Limited