Mormon historical documents create auction buzz

A benefactor for LDS church pays at least $150,000 for several pieces.

The Salt Lake Tribune/January 30, 2010

Some of the early Mormon Church's most poignant and embarrassing episodes are recounted in a trove of letters and other original documents sold at auction this week in New York.

None of the items, from the descriptions on the auction house Web site, appears to contradict history. But they do illuminate the bitter contention between Mormons and non-Mormons in Illinois, describe the grueling pioneer trek West, and show military men's disgust over the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

Among the papers are first-person accounts of mob violence in the Midwest, the burning of the Nauvoo Temple and the ruse that entailed burying rocks rather than bodies in the caskets of murdered church founder Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, through a benefactor, bought a number of pieces in the collection, which belonged to a 97-year-old Minnesota man who died in June, leaving behind a massive collection of Americana.

The Floyd E. Risvold Collection, American Expansion & Journey West, grossed a stunning $8.2 million in a three-day auction at the Spink Shreves Galleries in New York and online.

The collection, considered perhaps the best to be offered for sale since the 1940s, had been expected to bring about $5 million.

Risvold, a colorful historian, author and collector for more than 50 years, had participated in expeditions in the West with the Coast and Geodetic Survey in the 1930s and '40s.

The 50 pieces related to Mormons and early Utah history created much of the buzz surrounding the auction, said Charles Shreves, president of the gallery. Those pieces grossed close to $650,000 for Risvold's family and the auction house, according to a tally of the online prices paid and assuming a 15 percent auction fee.

LDS Church spokesman Scott Trotter confirmed that the Utah-based faith was acquiring documents from the auction house, but declined to say how much it spent (records show at least $150,000) or what it will do with the material.

Shreves said Friday that Mormon items, in particular, went for much higher prices than expected. He said the church's purchases were made via a benefactor.

"Many, many of the items blew away our estimates," he said.

While the LDS Church snagged several key documents, those going for the highest amount went to other bidders.

For instance, other bidders won an 1841 contract, signed by Joseph and Hyrum Smith, to buy a share in the steamboat Nauvoo, which went for $72,500, and an 1844 letter from Olive G. Frost, a plural wife of both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young who bears her testimony to an uncle, which sold for $60,000.

"There is so little great Mormon material on the market," said Shreves, explaining what he called "extraordinary interest" from collectors, dealers and the church.

Among the items the church won in the auction are documents from a lawsuit brought by Joseph Smith in 1841-42; letters from a non-Mormon who lived near Nauvoo; letters from Army men about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and letters written by Col. Albert Sidney Johnston, who commanded the Army in Utah.

Several Brigham Young University historians were not familiar enough with the collection to comment, according to a school spokesman. Historian Richard Bushman, Smith's biographer and one of the general editors for The Joseph Smith Papers project of the LDS Church, likewise said he was unfamiliar with the documents.

Historian Will Bagley, who wrote Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows , said two letters acquired by the church buttress his contention that Young was complicit in the southern Utah massacre of Arkansas immigrants in September 1857.

The letter written by an assistant surgeon at Camp Floyd, Bagley said, indicates that even before the Army or tribal agents went to southern Utah to investigate, Mormons were telling soldiers about the massacre.

In a six-page March 1859 letter to a doctor in Maryland, assistant surgeon Charles Brewer wrote of the massacre as "murders too horrible to be told & perpetrated by the authority of the church."

Big ticket items bought by the LDS Church

Bundle of 24 documents » from an 1841-42 lawsuit brought by Joseph Smith against the man who negotiated peace between Mormons and their neighbors ($37,500).

1846 letter » from a non-Mormon discussing plural marriages, construction danger in the temple and factionalism after the prophet's death ($32,500).

Six 1857-58 letters » in the hand of Albert Sidney Johnston, the colonel who commanded the Army of Utah ($35,000).

1859 letter from an assistant surgeon with the Infantry at Camp Floyd decrying the Mountain Meadows Massacre ($19,000) and a letter from a lieutenant on the same subject ($12,000).

Excerpts from a couple of documents

"Then they took care of the bodies [of Joseph and Hyrum Smith] and filled the coffins with stone and had them buried and the world does not know any thing about it." -- Letter written by Mormon convert Ursulia B. Hascall on May 2, 1846.

"There never was such a distressing time known, women and children screaming and the perpetrators of the deed at a loss what to do and the Warsaw people more alarm'd than even those at Carthage. Immediately they sent to Mo. for help." -- Letter written by non-Mormon Agnes B. Berry as neighbors feared reprisal five days after the June 27, 1844, murders of Joseph and Hyrum Smith.

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