That was the year Idaho sent its first convicts out of state. Well, out of territory. Idaho wouldn’t become a state for another three years. One can speculate on why they chose to do so, and, having just given myself permission, I’ll speculate that it was to provide an extra level of punishment for a crime that at that time was considered extra reprehensible. The five prisoners who were sent to the United States Penitentiary at Sioux Falls, Dakota Territory, on 4 December 1887, had been convicted of polygamy.
Austin Greeley Green, John Henry Byington, Sidney Weekes, William Sevins, and Josiah Richardson had the dubious honor of being the first men from Idaho to be sentenced to a prison in another territory. In a previous post I noted how aggressively Fred T. Dubois, then the U.S. Marshal of Idaho Territory, went after polygamists. It had proved difficult to convict on a charge of polygamy, even though congress made it a federal crime in 1862. Those practicing polygamy were not marrying multiple wives by going down to the local courthouse to get multiple marriage licenses. The marriages were recorded only in LDS church records, which were not open to the public.
In 1882, Congress passed the Edmunds Act. It enabled law enforcement to arrest men on charges of adultery and cohabitation. It was much easier to prove cohabitation than to prove that a man had multiple wives.
There were many disaffected former Mormons who were willing to serve on juries looking into polygamy, cohabitation, or whatever a prosecutor wanted to call it. For a while being charged was the same as being found guilty, such was the anti-Mormon fever running high in places such as Blackfoot, where the trial for the five was held. On November 14, 1887, a reporter for the Deseret Evening News wrote that “A ‘Mormon’ arrested and taken to Blackfoot stands convicted, and all he has to do is wait for the sentence.”
One result of this prosecutorial zeal was that the Idaho Territorial Penitentiary was filling up. Finding empty cells out of the territory where prisoners could be housed made some sense. Bonus: They could send convicted “cohabiters” far away from their families, inflicting a special punishment on them that was off the books.
The first five men sent to the penitentiary in Dakota Territory were reportedly docile prisoners who caused no trouble. Meanwhile, back in Idaho Territory, there was growing sentiment for their release. James Hawley, then the US Attorney for Idaho Territory looked into their case and recommended a pardon. On January 7, 1889, President Grover Cleveland pardoned the men. This did little to quell the anti-Mormon and anti-polygamy sentiment in Idaho. It would take a manifesto from the LDS church in 1890 stopping the practice of polygamy to cool things down.