Brigham Young and Captain Richard Burton

IN EARLY AUGUST of 1860 Captain Richard Burton, lately of the Nile, crossed the Missouri and set off by mail wagon for the Utah Territory. The American West was not his customary milieu. He was a man attracted to the forbidden and the exotic: Africa, Arabia, India, were his usual haunts. He had learned strange languages and adopted stranger disguises to penetrate the shrines of Mecca and Medina, and had entered uninvited the holy city of Harar. A Victorian dissident. Burton appended his books of exploration with detailed descriptions of the marriage rites and sexual habits of native peoples. Polygamy fascinated him. He had crashed an Egyptian harem and, on another occasion, bedded down with the Bedouin. Now, in the New World, he was eager to visit the Mormon settlement at Salt Lake City. He particularly wanted to meet its leader, Brigham Young— this master carpenter turned high priest who had managed, in a puritanical and Christian country, to acquire twenty-two wives.

The “young rival of the ancient holy cities lay before Burton in gridiron squares, remarkable for its symmetry. All was order. Burton was given an appointment for 11:00 A.M. in the prophet’s office. The venerable sage he had expected was instead a heavyset but youngish man in gray homespun, who spoke with directness and occasional humor. Conversation touched on Burtons African explorations and on Utah and the agricultural, but could not be steered to the matrimonial. Young was firmly in control. Perhaps unexpectedly, the two men liked each other. Young took his visitor on a tour of the town, and Burton was impressed by the prophet’s extensive holdings, especially the private school for his children and the “Lion House" tor his plurality of wives. But the captain looked in vain for a veiled face glancing seductively from an upper window. Women were everywhere; what was missing was mystery. Mormon polygamy was, perhaps, simply the monotony of monogamy, multiplied. —Nancy Caldwell Sorel