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."

At eighty-eight he told The New York Times, "People have the wrong idea that we're old-time kooks who prey on young girls. I suppose I'm guilty of that. My youngest wife is sixty-four. My oldest girl is ninety-three." He and his wives lived in four houses, lined up side by side, and all eight marriages were till death did them part. At Owen Allred's funeral six of his sons carried his coffin and as many daughters celebrated his memory with a rendition of "Oh, My Papa." And given that most of them aren't exactly spring chickens, I doubt that's because he was keeping them chained out in the dog run.

He died on Valentine's Day. And before you add "Which must have saved him a fortune at the florist" or "He collapsed under the weight of all the heart-shaped chocolate boxes he was carrying," Mark Woods, The Florida Times-Union's sports columnist, did most of the polygamous Valentine gags three years ago, when he found himself in Salt Lake City for the Olympics and in need of a Utah-themed romantic column. So he called up Owen Allred.

He wouldn't come to the phone. The man who answered said that Allred's not doing any interviews these days. And that he was busy.
I bet.
Eight wives. Do you buy valentine gifts in bulk? ("Yes, the same message, just change the name to Sally.")

Etc. To feminists, the practice of polygamy is inherently abusive. But to guys, it's mostly an easy laugh—the Old Testament elder who hit the swingers' jackpot. Journalists turned to him when they needed a quotation for a light item on a Utah brewery's introduction of Polygamy Porter (slogan: "Why have just one?"). Mr. Allred was not minded to order a crate for his next wedding toast: "We do not believe in alcoholic drinks of any kind," he said.

Utah is said to have a "Don't ask, don't tell" policy on polygamy, the conventional wisdom being that the likes of Allred are left alone out of official sympathy. That may have been true once, but I doubt it's the reason now. I was told recently that provincial officials in British Columbia have decided to let be their own polygamous community of Bountiful, because of a general feeling that if they hauled everyone before a judge, by the time the case wound up at the Supreme Court of Canada, all the defense lawyers would have to do is read out the justices' recent ruling giving the go-ahead to gay marriage. Whatever the merits of gay nuptials, it's hard to see why, if gender is irrelevant, the central immutable feature of marriage should now be the number of participants.

Gay activists get all huffy about being compared to some stump-toothed backwoods wives-beater. And as an argument against polygamy, mere indignation might suffice if it were just a matter of Owen Allred and his ilk. But last summer Le Monde leaked a government report revealing that polygamy was routinely practiced in Muslim ghettos in France. An informal survey of the Islamic communities of Ontario found much the same. In Britain the Inland Revenue is considering recognizing polygamy for the purposes of inheritance law, so that a Muslim husband's estate can be divided tax-free among several wives. And if it's a Muslim who finally makes it to an American state supreme court with a polygamy case, bet on the traditional deference to "multiculturalism."

Unlike the overtaxed Islamists of the United Kingdom, Owen Allred did not believe in legalizing polygamy. He fretted that it would then be practiced more carelessly—as legal, monogamous marriage is—and its holiness would be diminished. His detractors said he'd figured out that, like bootleg hooch, it's more profitable outside the law. As things stood, Allred claimed sole authority to bless polygamous unions, and you had to agree to tithe your income to him before he'd give you the nod.

"It takes twice as good a man to have two wives as it does to have one," Allred liked to say. On another Valentine's Day, in 2001, he took more than a hundred polygamists to the state legislature for the biggest public hearing on the subject in Utah's history. "The man who wants several women to be his sexual partners," Allred said, "can have children by them, and the state will support those children. He remains free of any legal accusation—until he marries more than one wife. Marry them, and he becomes a criminal."

Owen Allred was born in 1914, barely a generation after the LDS abandoned Joseph Smith's injunction to go forth and multiply multiply. For the best part of a century Allred kept it going, ensuring polygamy's survival into an era of hitherto unknown "rights to privacy" and modish "tolerance" and "multiculturalism." Demographic reality suggests that the new face of plural marriage in North America will not be that of Owen Allred or his kind. Still, he might take some comfort in knowing that his sacred covenant and/or lifestyle choice is almost certain to endure and prosper in the years ahead.