Post Mortem May 2005

The Marrying Kind

Owen Allred (1914-2005)

"I hate to be hated. I think everybody does. I want to be part, but I want to be myself and live the way I believe, the way the Lord told me to do.

"Now, does that make me an evil person?"

Well, it depends who's talking. A nice middle-aged gay man in a committed relationship, with a weekend home in Connecticut, where he serves as a popular longtime usher at the local "open and affirming" Congregational Church? Alas, no. Owen Allred was a proponent of a far less fashionable minority marriage cause: he was the patriarch of the Apostolic United Brethren, Utah's second largest polygamous group, a church with some 5,000 to 7,000 believers, many of them living a confetti throw from Allred's home in Bluffdale, on the edge of Salt Lake City. Seven thousand doesn't sound like a lot, but there are more polygamists in Owen Allred's municipality than gay Vermonters who've applied to their town clerk for a "civil union" permit.

I say "home," though The New York Times preferred "compound." The precise point at which a "ranch," a "bungalow," or an "eighteenth-century saltbox with many original features" becomes a "compound" is best left to real-estate agents ("Extensively remodeled compound with drop-dead views of ATF agents at the tree line calling for backup"). But the Times seems to use the term as universally accepted shorthand for "wacky cult"; and certainly Owen Allred attracted his share of lurid headlines over the decades. He came from a long line of Mormons—his great-grandfather walked with Brigham Young on the original trek to the Great Salt Lake—but Owen knew how to move with the times. He was the kind of stern fundamentalist patriarch who, when his church needed financing to buy the recreational hangout of the old Vegas mob, was savvy enough to route the deal through Belize. Two years ago a judge ruled that he'd laundered thousands of dollars and his church had swindled $1.5 million out of Marsha Jones, a onetime South American movie star and Detroit hood's moll who had changed her name to Virginia Hill in honor of Bugsy Siegel's squeeze. Poor old "Virginia" could handle the mobsters but got taken to the cleaners by the Mormons.

As the presiding elder and the only "living prophet" of his church, Allred was said by some to have learned the sacred Mormon rites directly from God. Others said he got them from a fellow named Fred Collier, who had a genealogist pal with access to the archives of the Latter-Day Saints. Collier's wife, Bonnie, pulled a Sandy Berger and smuggled microfilm of the holiest texts out in her bra and then passed it on to Allred. A third version, by the disenchanted polygamist and Nixon-era Secret Service agent Rod Williams, holds that he, Williams, stole the LDS holy ordinances for Allred. The living prophet conceded that Williams had brought them over to the house, but he told him to take them right back.

Owen came to the role of living prophet late in life, having been designated as such only after the Brethren's previous leader, his brother Rulon, was murdered, in 1977, when rival polygamists from the Church of the Lamb of God went on a killing spree after their leader, Ervil LeBaron, had been excommunicated by his older brother, the leader of another polygamous sect, the Church of the First Born of the Fullness of Time. There are men who cope with the stresses and tensions of multiple marriages but apparently go bananas at the thought of multiple polygamous sects. Ervil had his teenage bride Rena pump seven bullets into Rulon at point-blank range, mainly because another brother had gone into hiding and he thought that Rulon's funeral would flush him out and he could kill him there.

Yet the mob moll/Belize bank/homicidal child bride/sects 'n' violence segments of Eyewitness News do an injustice to Mr. Allred. For a presiding elder living in a compound, he was droll, urbane, and politically shrewd; Mormon polygamist—wise, this was not your father's patriarch. An open and engaging chap, he was especially open about all the engaging: he held press conferences and testified before legislatures on multiple marrying. He was very adroit at reminding his fellow Utahans that regardless of how many practicing polygamists there were in the state, those who were part of a broader polygamous inheritance were far more numerous, and included Senator Orrin Hatch and Mike Leavitt (then Utah's governor and now President Bush's secretary of health and human services)—men whose family histories are little different from the Allreds'. Born in Idaho, the son of the speaker of the state's House of Representatives, Owen Allred was excommunicated from the Latter-Day Saints in 1942, when he took his second walk down the aisle. By the end he'd married eight wives, fathered twenty-three children, raised another twenty-five stepchildren, and had more than 200 grandchildren.

In an age that deplores unreconstructed homophobes who are foolish enough to conflate gayness and pedophilia, we're happy to assume that if some hatchet-faced patriarch with nothing but a compound in one of the less chic zip codes can find eight women prepared to marry him, they must be fourteen-year-old cousins he keeps in the cupboard under the stairs most of the week. But there's less verified child abuse among all the Utah churches than among priests who passed through Cardinal Law's diocese in Boston. It was the state that permitted marriage at fourteen, and Owen Allred who campaigned for the legislature to raise the age to sixteen. "For fifty years now," he said, "the rule among our people has definitely been that girls should not even start courting until they are at least seventeen."

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Mark Steyn is a columnist for Britain's Telegraph Group, the Chicago Sun-Times, and other publications.

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