The United States v. Udall Cases and the St. Johns Ring
In the 1880s, David Udall—bishop of the St. Johns Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—found himself and his community increasingly at odds with the St. Johns Ring, a group of sheriffs, court officers, and town leaders who brought the power of public opinion and the authority of the courts to bear in their crusade against Mormon polygamy.
When authorities arrested Latter-day Saint bishop David King Udall on perjury charge in May 1884, his second wife Ida Hunt Udall called it a “trumped-up charge, simply got through malice on the part of the ‘ring.’” Though Ida dismissed the case as spiteful and unfounded, within the year David was in court both this perjury charge and two more trials, including a polygamy charge and second perjury case. Ida saw the “St. Johns Ring” operating behind each charge—an anti-polygamy group in St. Johns, Arizona who thoroughly controlled the town.
Solomon Barth, a German Jew who founded St. Johns with Mexican farmers, led the Ring. As the town’s founder, Barth became its de facto leader, and his marriage to Refugio Landavazo y Sanchez, a prominent Spanish-American, extended his influence to the local Hispanic community. Barth regularly served as a grand jury foreman, and his employees often filled grand jury seats. With his intersecting business and political influence, Barth could influence his employees’ votes as grand jurors.
Others in positions of civic authority joined Barth in the St. Johns Ring. Ebenezer S. Stover, Tomas Perez, and John Lorenzo Hubbell all served as sheriff; Charles L. Gutterson was the local United States District Attorney, Alfred Ruiz was district clerk, and George A. McCarter was the local United States Court Commissioner. McCarter’s position was particularly powerful. He determined the priority for pressing charges and often chose cases prosecuting Latter-day Saints.McCarter was also editor of the Apache Chief (renamed St. Johns Herald in 1884), a newspaper regarded as heavily anti-polygamy and anti-Mormon. In an 1884 journal entry, Ida reported the newspaper wrote about her “frequently,” describing her in “glowing colors” as a “prostitute, mistress, etc.” Even after McCarter sold the paper in 1885, it still declared itself “the only exclusively anti-Mormon paper in Arizona.”
Although the St. Johns Ring justified their actions as the duties of elected public office, St. Johns’ Mormons accused Ring members of holding their offices through voter fraud. For example, David reported being barred from voting in November 1882. The election official simply told him, “We have decided that no polygamist should vote today.” David recalled, “There was no redress; I turned and walked away.” With the sheriffs in the Ring, investigations into the voter suppression did not materialize.
By 1882, Mormons faced frequent “nuisance suits,” including larceny, unlawful assembly, and perjury. With Barth serving as grand jury foreman, indictments were frequent.
Under these difficult circumstances, David testified before a grand jury for the perjury complaint filed against him. In David’s June 1884 grand jury, however, an independent St. Johns local named David Campbell served as jury foreman, not Barth. After hearing David’s testimony about the supposed perjury—an error caused by a misunderstanding on district clerk Ruiz’s part—Campbell convinced the grand jury to dismiss the case.
The dismissal was only a temporary respite. By August, David was charged and arrested for unlawful cohabitation, despite his second wife Ida going into hiding two months earlier. All but one of the witnesses signing the indictment were members of the St. Johns Ring, whom Ida in her journal insisted, “knew nothing whatever of our family affairs, except from hearsay.”
In November, David stood trial in Prescott, Arizona. However, the prosecution failed to subpoena Ida and compel her testimony, and without further evidence the court found David not guilty. David was fortunate; three Latter-day Saint neighbors were convicted in the same timespan. By January 1885, Church prophet-president John Taylor was advising members to flee Arizona and migrate to Mexico, beyond the reach of the U.S. government. David stayed in St. Johns, but some forty other families packed up and left town.
David, perhaps, should have also left. In the summer of 1885, a grand jury convened to attempt a second indictment for the previously dismissed perjury charge, and this time the court did not inform David. Without his testimony, the grand jury indicted David for perjury.
At the trial itself, Judge Howard Sumner presided. Sumner was a respected jurist and frequent speaker on the evils of polygamy. In David’s trial, Sumner sustained the prosecution’s objections to defense testimony and evidence, effectively excluding all possible proof that might have exonerated David. The jury returned a guilty verdict after 30 minutes. In response, David wrote this prayer: “Oh God, please deliver me… If I am to suffer imprisonment, let it be for my religion and not for the heinous crime that will be a disgrace to me and my family throughout life.” By September 1885, David was serving his prison sentence in Detroit, Michigan.
This was the St. Johns Ring’s last anti-Mormon victory. Some unknown disagreement between Barth and the others caused him to split from the Ring. Meanwhile, former sheriff Hubbell had begun forming business relationships with Mormons, and district clerk Ruiz had actually tried to testify on David’s behalf before Sumner ruled against the defense. The two of them left the Ring, and they even signed on to a letter to President Grover Cleveland asking him to pardon David. Cleveland did, freeing David in December 1885.
By 1887, the Ring fell apart. McCarter was dismissed as court commissioner due to alcoholism, and Barth went to prison for two years as the territorial court turned against him and found him guilty of destroying county records. Meanwhile, by 1888 David moved to Round Valley, Arizona, where he lived for several years before eventually moving back to St. Johns with his family and going on to build a home there and become a stake president for the Church. After his prison sentence, Barth also returned to St. Johns. Having apparently mellowed out toward Mormons by the time he died in 1928, Barth requested his funeral be held in a Latter-day Saint chapel. Levi Udall, David’s son, conducted the service.