Polygamists in the Sugar House Pen

In the 1880s, Latter-day Saints convicted for polygamy filled Western prisons. One of these was “the Pen,” or Utah Territorial Penitentiary.

In 1857, Latter-day Saints in Britain could buy the fourth volume of the Journal of Discourses and find a stirring declaration attributed to Brigham Young. The prophet-president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (sometimes nicknamed “Mormons” at the time) decried the United States Congress’ agitations against polygamy, saying, “True we have more wives than one, and what of that?” Young questioned if Congress could even enforce the law. He hyperbolically supposed a prison large enough to contain every polygamist lawbreaker in Utah would eventually have to encompass the entire Great Basin, “roofed… over from the summit of the Rocky Mountains to the summit of the Sierra Nevada.” When federal prosecution of polygamy cases escalated in the 1870s and 1880s, officials instead relied on western prisons like the Utah Territorial Penitentiary—sometimes nicknamed “the Pen.”

Completed in 1854, the Territorial Penitentiary was southeast of Salt Lake City in Sugar House, Utah. Just two years previous, the territorial Legislative Assembly had requested federal money for building a prison in order “to prevent crime, but also to reform the offenders.” Decades later, federal officials were now trying to use the penitentiary to prevent polygamy and reform the Mormons.

This included Mormons such as George Q. Cannon, who lived in hiding “underground” from 1885 to 1888. Cannon was the First Counselor in the First Presidency of the Church—a high office held only by apostles—and with five wives and thirty-two children, he was an easy target for federal marshals. Despite the dangers, though, hiding grated on Cannon. In his journal, he wrote he was “not anxious to become a martyr,” yet also “always felt to urge our people to stand up courageously to their principles” and wanted to live up to the same standard. When a prosecutor and marshal tried to extort the Church—money in exchange for not prosecuting Cannon—Cannon resolved to turn himself in, deciding, “I had much rather go to the penitentiary and serve the full term” than have the Church pay blackmail money to do him a special favor other Latter-day Saint polygamists could not afford.

Cannon entered the Territorial Penitentiary in Sugar House in September 1888, and he found himself in good company. Fifty other Mormon polygamists were also in the Pen “for living with their wives,” as Cannon wrote, and they even took a few photographs together when they had visitors. Perhaps with some irony, Cannon observed in his journal that he and “the brethren”—as he liked to call his fellow Latter-day Saint incarcerees—resided in the same prison as twenty-two men either accused or convicted of murder. 

Conditions in the Pen were scant. Winters were cold, but fires were prohibited for fear of arson. One inmate remembered waking up on winter mornings with his beard frozen solid. The prison provided spoons but no other utensils, so “the brethren have improvised knives out of spoon handles and other scraps of metal they have got hold of and made wooden forks,” Cannon wrote. Meals themselves were mostly coffee, bread, meat, gravy, and “mush.” Cannon did not drink coffee, and he often forewent meat. He substituted milk and butter when he could.

Unlike some other prisons in the Western territories, the Pen did not make labor part of the sentence, leaving inmates with copious free time. Cannon filled the extra time by researching and writing a history he called The Life of Joseph Smith the Prophet, a project he and his sons had been writing for the last six years.

On Sundays, Cannon and the other imprisoned Latter-day Saints held Sunday School together, reading the Bible and singing hymns. In October 1888, they even procured an organ from the Church’s Sunday School Union for musical accompaniment. Other ministers came to the Pen to give sermons in the afternoon, and Cannon sometimes assessed them. One Episcopal preacher’s “discourse was a very weak effort,” Cannon thought, but a few months later a Methodist “preached the best Methodist sermon” Cannon had ever heard.

Cannon’s prison sentence was short—only five months—and he left the Pen in February, 1889. In his journal, he was optimistic. He wrote, “The Lord manifested to me in a very plain manner, before I came in, that I ought to go, and that if I did, it would be easier for the brethren who should follow.” Now, five months later, Cannon noticed polygamists receiving shorter sentences, prison officials granting more privileges to inmates, and even the quality of the food improving. “Our lot was far from being a hard one,” Cannon thought. The Latter-day Saints would continue to endure, he was certain.

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1330 2100 S, Salt Lake City, UT 84106 ~ This marks the site of the Sugar House prison, which was demolished in 1951. Today, Sugar House Park stands on the old prison site.