Mountain Meadows: Pioneering Families See Terror and Murder

Last week, we saw how, in 1990, Danny Rolling inflicted terror on the college students in Gainesville, Florida. This week, we look back more than 160 years to an incident even more terrifying. In 1857 Utah, Mormon militia members massacred between 120 and 140 people travelling from Arkansas to California at Mountain Meadows.

The Mountain Meadows

An oasis of grass in mountainous southwestern Utah, the Mountain Meadows was a spot where travelers could graze their animals. It was, if you will, a nineteenth-century rest stop on the old Spanish Trail. Utah in 1857 was not yet a state but a territory. Its governor was Brigham Young, who was also president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In effect, Utah then was a theocracy and Young was virtually its absolute monarch.

Panoramic view of the Mountain Meadows in 2009 (Phil Konstantin)
Panoramic view of the Mountain Meadows in 2009 (Phil Konstantin)

Joseph Smith founded the LDS church in western New York in 1830. The next year, Smith moved the church to Kirtland, Ohio. He also established an outpost in Jackson County, Missouri, where he planned to eventually move the church. But Missouri residents, perhaps jealous of Mormon success and definitely concerned about their growing political power, drove the Mormons out. Their next stop was Nauvoo, Illinois. Smith and his brother, Hyrum, were jailed in Carthage, Illinois in 1844, accused of treason. While in jail, a mob killed both men. Brigham Young then took over as leader of the LDS church and, in 1847, led his followers west to Utah.

Brigham Young. Historians continue to debate his role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
Brigham Young. Historians continue to debate his role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

A decade later, what Young envisioned as a pre-millennial “Kingdom of God” was mostly flourishing in the deserts and mountains of Utah. Although Utah was a territory of the United States, the LDS was notably reluctant to accept federal authority.

The Utah War

Soon after taking office in March 1857, President James Buchanan decided to replace Young as governor. Buchanan appointed Alfred Cumming and ordered about 2,000 U.S. troops under Colonel Edmund Alexander to the Salt Lake valley. They were to establish an outpost in the territory.

Utah Governor Alfred Cumming
Utah Governor Alfred Cumming

In Utah, officials and residents alike viewed the Federal troops as an invading army sent to annihilate them. They prepared for war. Both sides were, in fact, ready to fight. However, although the conflict lasted until 1858, the “Utah War” had a few skirmishes but no battles as such. In the end, both parties reached a compromise. President Buchanan offered a free pardon to all Mormons for acts incident to the conflict. In turn, the Mormons agreed to submit to government authority.

Siege at Mountain Meadows

If you were paying attention to the dates, you noticed that the Mountain Meadows Massacre occurred during the Utah War. The chain of events leading to the tragedy in Utah began on May Day 1857. It was then that a wagon train led by Capt. John Baker and Alexander Fancher left Arkansas for California. The Arkansas emigrants followed the California Trail through present-day Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and Wyoming before ending up in Salt Lake City.

Refused supplies in Salt Lake, the wagons turned southwest following the old Spanish Trail. They reached the Mountain Meadows on September 5 or 6. There was plenty of grass for their animals and a freshwater spring.

The Baker-Fancher pary's campsite at the Mountain Meadows in 2005 (author's photo)
The Baker-Fancher pary’s campsite at the Mountain Meadows in 2005 (author’s photo)

On Monday, September 7, a party of Mormon militia disguised as Paiute Indians attacked the emigrants in their camp. Despite the surprise attack, the Baker-Fancher party quickly regrouped, chained their wagon wheels together, and returned fire.

However, the Arkansans couldn’t withstand a protracted siege. Their ammunition and food quickly dwindled, and they were unable to reach the spring for fresh water. Although a few actual Paiutes participated, it was clear to the besieged emigrants that white men were among the attackers.

The Mountain Meadows Massacre

After five days under attack, Mormon militia leader John D. Lee approached the campsite under a white flag. He offered to conduct the travelers safely to Cedar City, about 35 miles away. But the emigrants would have to surrender their wagons and their weapons. As outlandish as that sounds, the Baker-Fancher party probably had little choice by then but to accept those terms.

John D. Lee, the only person convicted of the Mountain Meadows Massacre
John D. Lee, the only person convicted of the Mountain Meadows Massacre

The Mormon militia divided the emigrants into three groups: the men, the women and children, and the wounded. A militia escort accompanied each male member of the Baker-Fancher party. Then, according to a pre-arranged, plan, a signal was given. The militiamen then turned and shot the man they were escorting. More militia hiding in nearby bushes ambushed and killed the women and children. Seventeen children, thought to be too young to tell the story, survived.

Christopher "Kit" Carson Fancher was 6 at the time and survived the massacre
Christopher “Kit” Carson Fancher was 6 at the time and survived the massacre

Every militiaman was sworn to secrecy. The plan was to blame Native Americans for the murders. There was considerable effort to cover up the massacre as well. Although the Los Angeles Star printed a report in 1857, the killings didn’t become general knowledge until two years later. In that year, Brevet Major James H. Carleton, who led the first federal investigation, published his findings.

James Henry Carleton conducted the first federal investigation of the Mountain Meadows Massacre
James Henry Carleton conducted the first federal investigation of the Mountain Meadows Massacre

Epilogue

LDS leaders blamed the Baker-Fancher party themselves for the massacre, citing their allegedly disorderly and violent behavior. Most historians reject claims that the emigrants were overly unruly. It’s likely a combination of war hysteria, violent Mormon sermons, and jealousy of the emigrants’ obvious wealth were all factors.

Sarah Frances Baker Mitchell  (L) , then 3, and Nancy Sophrina Huff Cates (R), then 4, both survived the massacre
Sarah Frances Baker Mitchell (L) , then 3, and Nancy Sophrina Huff Cates (R), then 4, both survived the massacre

Seventeen years after the massacre, LDS leader (and Brigham Young’s adopted son) John D. Lee stood trial for the massacre. His first trial ended in a hung jury. A second trial in 1876 resulted in a conviction. Lee was executed by firing squad at the Mountain Meadows in 1877, twenty years after the original tragedy. Lee never denied his complicity but claimed he had not personally killed anyone and was nothing but a scapegoat. However, in his Life and Confessions of John D. Lee maintained that Brigham Young himself instigated the massacre. Historians have debated Young’s involvement ever since. Given the immense power he wielded in Utah, it’s difficult to believe that the massacre could have happened without at least Young’s knowledge.

Memorial at the Mountain Meadows campiste of the Baker-Fancer party in 2005 (author's photo)
Memorial at the Mountain Meadows campiste of the Baker-Fancer party in 2005 (author’s photo)

The Mountain Meadows Massacre remained largely unknown, hidden by LDS obfuscation for almost a century. Then Juanita Brooks, herself an active member of the LDS Church, published The Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1950. This was the first book to shine a critical light on the incident. Although the Church didn’t take any official action, unofficially Brooks faced ostracism for criticizing the LDS. In 2002, Will Bagley built on Brooks’ initial work in his book, Blood of the Prophets.

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Colin Ferguson: Sensational Shooting on the LIRR

In last week’s blog, we saw “Dapper” Dan Hogan. St. Paul, Minnesota’s “Irish Godfather” blown to kingdom come by a car bomb. This week, we look at Colin Ferguson and a scary shooting on a New York commuter train.

Colin Ferguson

Colin Ferguson was born in Jamaica in 1958. His father was a wealthy pharmacist and the managing director of a large pharmaceutical company. Young Colin had a normal upbringing, although one that was privileged by Jamaican standards. His high school principal described him as a “well-rounded student.” He graduated in the top third of his class.

Colin Ferguson in court.
Colin Ferguson in court.

His privileged life fell apart though when Colin was 20. First, his father died in a car crash in 1978. Then his mother died of cancer shortly thereafter. The deaths left the family fortune in shambles. In 1982, Colin left Jamaica for the United States.

In the US, Colin Ferguson met and married Audrey Warren, an American woman of Jamaican ancestry. He and his wife moved to Long Island, New York and had a son. There Colin attended a community college, making the dean’s list three times. However, Audrey sued for divorce in 1988 and won custody of their boy. Colin ended up living in what was essentially a flophouse in Brooklyn.

Terror on the Long Island Railroad

The Long Island Railroad is a series of commuter lines running from Manhattan’s Pennsylvania Station to Queens and Long Island. Several branches run to different destinations on the island.

Colin Ferguson staged his attack here, at the Merillon Avenue (LIRR station) in Garden City, New York (DanTD)
Site of the shootings, Merillon Avenue (LIRR station) in Garden City, New York (DanTD)

On December 7, 1993, Colin Ferguson boarded the third car of an eastbound train at the Flatbush Avenue station in Brooklyn. He carried a Ruger P89 handgun and a canvas bag with 160 rounds of ammunition. As the train approached the Merillon Avenue stations near Garden City he drew the gun and stood up. Then he opened fire. During the next three minutes, he walked slowly toward the front of the car shooting people on the left and the right. The New York Times wrote that he was “as methodical as if he were taking tickets.”

Ferguson emptied two 15-round clips during the shooting spree. As he was loading a third, someone yelled, “Grab him!” Michael O’Connor, Kevin Blum, and Mark McEntee tackled him and pinned him to a seat. These three and other passengers kept the shooter pinned down until Andrew Roderick, an off-duty LIRR policeman, boarded the train and handcuffed him.

Victims receive emergency attention at Merillon Avenue in Garden City after gunman Colin Ferguson fatally shot six people and injured 19 on an LIRR train (Newsday / Al Raia)
Victims receive emergency attention at Merillon Avenue in Garden City after gunman Colin Ferguson fatally shot six people and injured 19 on an LIRR train (Newsday / Al Raia)

The shooting spree left six people dead or dying. Nineteen other passengers suffered bullet wounds while two suffered injuries in the stampede of passengers trying to exit the train.

Colin Ferguson under arrest.
Colin Ferguson under arrest

Colin Ferguson on Trial

A Nassau County grand jury indicted Colin Ferguson in January 1994 on 93 counts. The district attorney announced that he would not accept a plea bargain. In March of that year, radical attorney William Kunstler and his partner, Ron Kuby, agreed to take the case on a pro bono basis.

Radical lawyer William M. Kunstler ca. 1989 (Joel Seidenstein). Kunstler volunteered to defend Collin Ferguson without fee.
Radical lawyer William M. Kunstler ca. 1989 (Joel Seidenstein)

Kunstler and Kuby decided to argue a “black rage” defense. They contended that racial prejudice he suffered in America had driven Ferguson temporarily insane. Apparently, even Ferguson himself found this offensive. The lawyers also questioned his competence to stand trial. But Ferguson insisted he was competent, although his bizarre courtroom behavior suggested otherwise. When his attorneys filed notice that they would pursue an insanity defense, he fired them and insisted on representing himself.

Ferguson conducted a disjointed an ineffective defense. His list of potential witnesses included President Bill Clinton, although in the end he called no witnesses. He argued that another person was the actual shooter, but every eyewitness identified him. His cross-examination often repeated witnesses’ statements, a legal no-no as it mostly reinforces the original testimony. And by failing to object to testimony and during closing arguments, he lost the right to appeal on those points.

Epilogue

Unsurprisingly, the jury found Colin Ferguson guilty of murder and attempted murder. Judge Donald E. Belfi sentenced him to 315 years and 8 months to life. He will be eligible for parole in August 2309.

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John List — A Killer’s Secret Life Exposed by Art

The bombings I featured last week shock us because the random act of a stranger can cause such widespread damage. This week’s case is even more chilling. It’s the story of John List, a seemingly normal guy who murdered his entire family, then disappeared. He successfully eluded law enforcement for 18 years before television and an artist led to his arrest.

John List – Outwardly Normal

John Emil List was a native of Bay City, Michigan born in 1925. He joined the army in 1943 during World War II. After the war, he earned a degree in business administration and a master’s degree in accounting. In 1950, the Army recalled List to active duty in Korea (he was a reserve second lieutenant). While in the military, he met and married Helen Taylor, the widow of an officer killed in Korea.

After his discharge from the Army in 1952, John List took a job with an accounting firm in Detroit. Next, he worked as an audit supervisor for a Kalamazoo paper company. He and Helen had a daughter and two sons in Kalamazoo. After working at Xerox in Rochester, New York, he assumed a position as vice president and comptroller at a bank in Jersey City, New Jersey. He moved his family, including his mother into a Victorian mansion in Westfield, New Jersey.

The John List family in 1971. (L. to R.) John (46), Patricia (16), Helen (46), John Jr. (15), and Frederick (13)
The John List family in 1971. (L. to R.) John (46), Patricia (16), Helen (46), John Jr. (15), and Frederick (13)

To his friends and neighbors, John List was a successful professional with a typical American family.

Signs of Trouble

Despite their normal outward appearance, all was not well in the List household. For one thing, John List was a devout Lutheran and a Sunday school teacher. One might even call him a religious zealot. He convinced himself that his family members were leading unholy lives. Another problem was that Helen List was an alcoholic and was becoming increasingly unstable.

Breeze Knoll, the List home in Westfield, NJ. The house remained empty and burned down nine months after the murders.  Although authorities ruled the fire arson, it remained unsolved. A new house was built on the site in 1974.
Breeze Knoll, the List home in Westfield, NJ. The house remained empty after the murders and burned down nine months later. Although authorities ruled the fire arson, it remained unsolved. A new house was built on the site in 1974.

Then List lost his job and bills started to pile up. With debts mounting, List’s world was crashing in on him. He began to dissociate from reality. He pretended to commute to work each day. Instead, he sat in the Westfield train station and reading the paper. He also siphoned money out of his mother’s bank account to pay the mortgage on the mansion.

In this state of mind, List feared his family was straying from the paths of righteousness. He decided to “ensure their place in heaven” by killing them all. He expected to join them there later. At least that’s the story he told authorities after his arrest.

A Family Murdered

On November 9, 1971, John List put his plan into action. When the children left for school, he shot his wife and his mother to death. When his daughter and youngest son came home, he shot them in the back of the head. That left his oldest son. He watched John Jr. play soccer at school, then drove him home and killed him, too.

List left his mother’s body in her upstairs apartment. He laid out the bodies of his wife and children on sleeping bags in the mansion’s ballroom. He then turned on all the lights, tuned a radio to a station that played classical music and walked out.

John List planned his exit carefully. He closed his and his mother’s bank accounts. Next, he stopped the mail, milk, and newspaper deliveries. List even sent notes to the children’s schools and part-time jobs saying the family was taking an extended vacation. Consequently, no one knew anything was amiss for almost a month.

Neighbors noticed that the lights in the List house burned day and night, although they saw no activity. When the lights began to burn out one by one, they called police, who found nothing wrong and left. A few days later, police were again called to the mansion. They found daughter Patricia’s drama coach calling to her from the front of the house. He convinced officers to enter the home through an unlocked basement window. Once inside, they found the bodies.

John List had left behind a five-page letter to his pastor that was essentially a confession. But there was no sign of the man himself.

John List on the Lam

John List was in the wind. Police later learned that he had traveled to Michigan and then on the Denver, Colorado. He settled there as Robert “Bob” Clark (he “borrowed” the name from someone he knew in college). Like List, “Bob Clark” was a CPA. Also like List, he joined a Lutheran church, where he ran a carpool for shut-in church members. In 1985, he married an Army PX clerk named Delores Miller.

In May 1989, the television program America’s Most Wanted featured the List murders. By now it had been seventeen and a half years since John List disappeared and old photos would have been of little use. Instead of photos, the program commissioned forensic artist Frank Bender to create an age-progressed clay bust of List. The bust featured prominently in the broadcast.

Frank Bender's age-progressed bust of John List
Frank Bender’s age-progressed bust of John List

By this time, “Bob Clark” had moved with his new wife to Midlothian, Virginia. However, one of his former neighbors in Denver recognized the bust and notified authorities. They arrested List on June 1, 1989. Bender’s bust had been almost a dead ringer. Strangely, List continued to insist he was Robert Peter Clark. That is, until faced with a fingerprint match to John List’s military records.

Photos of Bender's bust of List (left) and of List  (right) taken after his arrest show the  uncanny resemblance between the two
Photos of Bender’s bust (left) and of List (right) taken after his arrest show the uncanny resemblance between the two

Trial and Conviction

At trial, John List claimed that financial stress and concern for his family’s spiritual well-being led to the murders. He was convicted anyway. The judge sentenced him to five consecutive life terms. During his appeals, List contended that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from his military service. He also tried to claim that the letter left behind was a confidential communication to his pastor and therefore inadmissible. Not surprisingly, these arguments failed.

John List prison mugshot ca. 2005
John List prison mugshot ca. 2005

John List died in prison on March 21, 2008.

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Joseph Harris Goes Postal in Ridgewood, New Jersey

This week’s subject is the workplace killings of Joseph Harris in Ridgewood, New Jersey. Harris was a former postal clerk angered over his dismissal.

Prelude to Murder

Joseph Harris had a rough start in life. His mother was in prison when she gave birth to him. Things didn’t get much easier after that since he had a lifetime history of psychiatric problems.

Harris began working at the Ridgewood, New Jersey post office in 1981. Former coworkers described him as quiet, intense, and sullen. He earned a reprimand in 1984 for harassing other employees. And in February 1990, his supervisor filed a complaint with police alleging that he had threatened her on the job. In April, the supervisor, Carol Ott fired Harris after he refused to submit to a “fitness for work” exam. She later decided not to press charges over the threats.

Joseph Harris
Joseph Harris

Joseph Harris did not take his dismissal lightly. Nursing a grudge against Ott and the Postal Service, he began collecting weapons and explosives. By October 1991 he had an arsenal that included grenades, an Uzi, a .22 caliber machine gun. He also had homemade explosives.

The Ridgewood Murders

On October 9, 1991, Joseph Harris donned a black ninja costume and went from his apartment in Paterson to nearby Wayne. There he entered the home of Carol Ott, his former supervisor, and killed her with a three-foot samurai sword. He also shot Ott’s live-in boyfriend, Cornelius Kasten, Jr. in the head, killing him.

Joseph Harris held police at bay for four hours while holed up in the Ridgewood, New Jersey post office
The New Deal-era post office in Ridgewood, New Jersey

From Ott’s home, Harris continued to his former workplace, the Ridgewood post office. A postal service truck driver arrived at the building at 2:15 a.m. to find it dark and the loading dock door closed. The driver went inside and saw Harris in the basement wearing a gas mask. Harris fired a shot at the driver but missed. The driver then managed to escape.

When police arrived, Harris lit what appeared to be a pipe bomb or stick of dynamite and threw it at them. Retreating from the building, officers heard a second explosion. A standoff ensued when police then surrounded the building. The standoff ended shortly before 7:00 a.am. when Harris surrendered to the Bergen County SWAT team. Although the explosions caused minimal damage, police found two dead postal workers. Joseph M. VanderPaauw and Donald McNaught.

Harris claimed that a “ninja spirit” drove him to commit the murders. His lawyers naturally argued that he was insane. But the jury in his 1992 trial didn’t buy it and convicted him of the Ridgewood murders. The judge sentenced him to death. However, just as the New Jersey Supreme Court was set to hear a case attempting to overturn the state’s death penalty law, Joseph Harris died in prison of natural causes.

Joseph Harris in court
Joseph Harris in court

An Earlier Murder

On November 15, 1988, a man forced his way into the Montville, New Jersey home of Roy Edwards. The intruder wore a ninja costume with a black mask and black gloves. He sexually assaulted Edwards’ wife and two young daughters. When Edwards tried to escape, the intruder shot and killed him. His wife broke a window and screamed for help. A neighbor then called police, but the intruder was gone.

The crime went unsolved until 1991. After the Ridgewood post office standoff, investigators learned that the 1988 ninja had been Joseph Harris. Harris, believing that an investment he made with Edwards had lost about $10,000, went to the Edwards home seeking revenge.

The 1992 jury also convicted Harris of the Edwards slaying.

Going Postal

Between 1970 and 1997, disgruntled postal workers killed more than 40 people in acts of workplace violence. The St. Petersburg Times and the Los Angeles Times introduced the term “going postal” into the American lexicon in 1993. It isn’t likely to go away soon.

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