Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Opposition to Polygamy in the Postbellum South

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Opposition to Polygamy in the Postbellum South

Article excerpt

ON A WARM LATE JULY MORNING IN 1879, TWO YOUNG MEN, JOSEPH Standing and Rudger Clawson, walked down a country road in rural northern Georgia. Rumors had swirled in the neighborhood about these two men, both in their early twenties and strangers to the area. Local gossip said that the pair, and Standing in particular, had been preying on unsuspecting white women in the area and that they had similar intentions in this hamlet as well. No one could verify the stories, but simply the fear of such unfamiliar characters having possible access to their wives, daughters, and sisters made the local men nervous, even hostile--better to nip the problem in the bud before it was too late. (1)

Twelve of these citizens decided to take a stand in behalf of their women and their community. The self-appointed posse seized the two strangers as they walked down the road and then accompanied them on a forced march until they reached a secluded place in the woods. Their captors accused Standing and Clawson of a long list of offenses, mostly involving their alleged aim of robbing local women of their virtue. Though the vigilantes were armed with guns, it was evident that they simply intended to give the young men a good whipping and then send them out of the county. But Joseph Standing, who during the march had indignantly lectured his captors on his rights under the Constitution, was in no mood for a whipping; the previous night, he had confided to Clawson that he had "an intense horror of being whipped" and would "rather die than be subjected to such an indignity." (2) In a flash, as one of his captors was distracted for just a moment, Standing somehow seized the guard's pistol and pointed it at the group, demanding that they surrender. Just as he did, a shot rang out. Standing slumped to the ground, still breathing but mortally wounded. (3)

Stunned by the unexpected turn of events, the mob allowed Clawson to leave unharmed. When he returned with help from town, he found that the mob had mutilated his friend's face and body with multiple gunshots and stab wounds. (4) A hastily assembled coroner's jury named the twelve men in the posse. Most fled the region, but local authorities apprehended three and charged them with murder, assault and battery, and riot. The public trial, which attracted a large and boisterous crowd, was a complete "farce," as one observer sympathetic to Standing remarked. (5) The defense's only witnesses were the three defendants themselves, who never denied their role in the killing. Nevertheless, the verdict came back as not guilty on all charges. No one was ever convicted for the murder of Joseph Standing. (6)

Though troubling, such stories about extralegal mob violence in the late-nineteenth-century South no longer surprise us. Reports from the Freedmen's Bureau, as well as subsequent campaigns by Ida B. Wells and W. E. B. Du Bois and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, systematically documented incidents of southern violence against black men, often newcomers and strangers in a community, who were accused (usually falsely) of sexual attacks on white women or of other similar threats to community safety and stability. Modern historical scholarship, especially the burgeoning literature on lynching in the South, has only reinforced the conclusions of these earlier scholars and activists.

But Joseph Standing and Rudger Clawson were not African American. They were white. More specifically, they were Mormon. Standing was a victim of identity-based violence, but it was religion, not race, that was the key variable in this instance of southern violence, as well as many others, in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. It was neither Joseph Standing's behavior nor his skin color, but rather his religion, that qualified him for victimhood and put him outside the protection (and subsequent vindication) of the law. As one of his captors gruffly pronounced, "There is no law in Georgia for Mormons, and the Government is against you. …

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