Mormon Elder Behaving Badly

“an obscene and lascivious letter”

First, before I raise any hackles: this all happened long ago, and by the time you get to the end of this short account you will question whether the perp, Albert Ketchum, was an elder of the Mormon Church anywhere but in his own mind. I record it here as an instance of the early twists and turns of Mormonism as it headed West, and before it settled into the coherent institution that is the common perception of it today.

This article came to my attention while I was engaged in the venerable sport of family history research. You search a name in various databases — if you’re lucky, a somewhat unusual name so that you’ll be able to distinguish the signal from the noise — and sometimes you’re surprised at what you find. My search target in this case was Wingfield Watson, and I’ll get to him in a minute. But here are the first paragraphs of the article clipped above, from the Denver Evening Post of 8 October 1900:

Now, a time-out to introduce what is known about the dramatis personae. The least mysterious of the three is Wingfield Watson, the informant in the case. You can read about him on Wikipedia: a minor figure in Mormon history, as the de facto leader of the Strangites, a schism of the Mormon faith that accepted the claim of James Strang, rather than Brigham Young, as the successor to Joseph Smith. Strang, like Smith, was murdered, and after Strang’s death, Wingfield Watson led this small and widely dispsersed community of faith.

Wingfield Watson. Photo courtesy of William Shepard.

Albert Ketchum, the letter writer, is a shadowy figure who is rarely mentioned apart from controversies that surrounded him. Mormon historian William Shepard thumbnails him as “a Strangite noted for his inappropriate interactions with his fellow Strangites” (Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 35 №3, p. 245). A website that lays out the Strangites’ rather tortuous claims of legitimacy notes Ketchum as a former church official and high priest, along with Wingfield Watson.

Mrs. Emma Wake is the most mysterious of the three and is probably destined to remain so. The census of 1900, taken only a few months before the events described in the article, finds no Emma Wake in Monte Vista. But there is an Emma Wake in Stanley, a now-extinct rural community 12 miles from Monte Vista. At the time of the census it was in Costilla County, and is marked on this map with a red X:

Souther Colorado Counties at the turn of the 20th century. Adapted from oldmapsonline.org

The possibility of this Emma Wake being the object of Ketchum’s machinations has good supporting evidence: some early settlers in Stanley were Strangites. Prominent among them was Robert Watson, who was Wingfield Watson’s adopted son. Wingfield Watson had in fact visited the San Luis Valley and would do so again, in his capacity of pater familias and also as flag-bearer and cheerleader of the struggling Strangite sect. Furthermore, Emma Wake’s neighbors in the 1900 census are also named Wake, and one of these may well be the “relative of hers” who first received the scandalous letter.

Now, to return to the colorful story:

Mr. Ketchum’s case was duly heard two weeks later before the Federal court at Pueblo. It was predictably open-and-shut, since he had already confessed to writing the letter. The judge was extremely lenient, owing to factors that are nowhere made clear in the case documents. Ketchum was fined $1 plus court costs of $68.95 and released, after which he returned to Monte Vista.

Inquiring minds, and that certainly includes my own, are very curious to know what the “obscene, lewd, lascivious, and indecent” letter said. Sadly that’s not going to happen. The grand jurors of yesteryear, perhaps more endowed with compunction than we are today and also intent on maintaining the peace and dignity of the nation, said this:

Grand jurors behaving circumspectly

The case is filed at the National Archives Center in Denver and includes all of the before and after relating to it, but not the letter itself.

Three months later in January, 1901, a marshal was dispatched with a writ for the collection of the sum of $69.95 from Ketchum, who had not paid it. The Marshal’s Return reads as follows: “After diligent search I am unable to find any goods and chattels, lands or tenements, the property of the said defendant from which I can make the amount of the writ or any part thereof. I therefore return the writ unsatisfied this 31st day of January, 1901.”

Here’s the remainder of the Denver Evening Post article, in which Ketchum emerges as more fully flesh-and-blood, but no less creepy:

The Mormon settlement at Manassa was, and remains today, the mainstream one, or “Brighamite”, in the view of the Strangites. The Strangites still exist, with a membership in the low hundreds at most, scattered among various places. Albert Ketchum and Emma Wake both found it prudent to leave the San Luis Valley soon after these events; Ketchum to Missouri, Wake to another part of Colorado.

Wingfield Watson died at age 94 in 1922 and never deviated from his life’s mission of upholding, encouraging, and trying to propagate the Strangite community. He urged his children to “hold fast to your faith as you would your life.” One of these children was his adopted son Robert Watson, my second great-grandfather. Robert did in fact keep the faith but within our family, he and his wife were the last who counted themselves among the Saints.

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