Latter-day Saint martyrs in the 19th century are a favorite topic for cynical remarks from some critics. A popular theme is to list alleged wrongdoings of the victims and then infer that they were just getting justice, not martyrdom. This seems to be especially prevalent with Parley P. Pratt, who Latter-day Saints remember as the first Mormon killed while serving on a mission. His 1857 murder is routinely characterized by critics as simply the work of a jealous husband angry that an adulterous Parley had seduced his wife into a polygamous relationship. It’s a somewhat plausible way to describe the killing, for the murderer, Hector McLean, had married Eleanor Jane McComb, and though he had driven her away by his abuse and his alcoholism, she had never bothered to obtain a formal divorce. She had left him and apparently considered herself single when she was later married to Parley P. Pratt. But technically, yes, it was her first and legal husband who killed Parley after she had joined Parley as a polygamous wife. However, there may be more to this story than the natural vengeance of a wronged husband.
A detailed resource for this episode is “Eleanor McLean and the Murder of Parley P. Pratt” by Steven Pratt, the Pratt family historian and a great-grandson of Parley P. Pratt. This was published in BYU Studies (Vol. 15, No. 2, 1975, pp. 225–56), available as a PDF file. In spite of personal biases the author may naturally have, his well-written and heavily documented essay provides detailed information and sources that appear to provide many opportunities to check some of the claims made on both sides of the account.
For example, some anti-Mormon writers downplay the role of religion and contend that the story was all about Parley’s lust and Hector’s revenge. Some contend that Eleanor didn’t have any interest in LDS religion until after she was “seduced” by Parley, and that religious bigotry played no role in the anger of the first husband. In reality, it appears that she was actively attending LDS meetings long before Parley came to town in San Francisco and wanted to be baptized. She had two of her children baptized before she met Parley, and eventually got her husband to provide consent for her baptism, which took place before she met Parley (see footnote 6 in Pratt’s HTML article – footnote 5 in the PDF file).
Our critics also downplay the abuse and alcoholism of the husband and suggest that he was a good guy and the real victim in the story. Perhaps, but Steven Pratt’s essay provides information that leads to other conclusions. In retrospect, unless this article completely misrepresents reality, I think Eleanor might have been wise to leave McLean much earlier, perhaps when he “purchased a sword cane and threatened to kill her and the minister who baptized her if she became a Mormon” or perhaps when she later saw that his hostility to her Mormon faith was so great that he would rather try to get her committed to an insane asylum that to allow her religious liberty. Those might have been good times to leave, IMO.
As I have so often seen in cases of abused women, the victim trudges on in a terrible relationship, clinging to baseless hope, believing that change might occur, and just not knowing how else to live or where to go. Also, as often happens, well-meaning outsiders encourage the woman to stick with her man and not get a divorce. In this case, some of the well-meaning advisers were LDS members in the San Francisco Branch who encouraged her to keep trying. That’s not always the best solution in cases of extreme abuse.
Here’s an excerpt from the lengthy article, describing what happened after Eleanor married Hector:
They seemed to be happy at first. But Hector started drinking heavily, causing a separation in 1844. Eleanor, after seeking counsel from her father, two brothers, E. C. and J. J. McComb, and a John McDougal as to whether she should return to or leave Hector sent him an ultimatum:
Having used every persuation in my power to no effect, I see but three alternatives all ending in misery if not in crime. First, to live a victum of the vice to which you have became a prey 2nd to to seek a home among strangers, or shall the smoothe current of the Mississippi be the last page that any may read of my “Ill Fate?”
Hector responded with the following note:
December 31, 1844
Nea, Ellen neither of these shall ever be your lot. I will cease to grieve your gentle spirit, and we will live together so long as it is the will and good pleasure of a Heavenly Parent we should. We seek an asylum among the people of God (I care not what that may be) and by their good example and precept I am persuaded your own dear husband, may cure. I must be saved and reformed–it is impossible to be either here. I have tried in vain, to live soberly and righteously before God and men but cannot accomplish it.
Eleanor then returned to live with him. Sometime later they decided to leave New Orleans and go to San Francisco to help accomplish Hector’s reform. They were accompanied by their three children, Fitzroy, Albert, and Annie, and one of Eleanor’s brothers.
It was in San Francisco that they came in contact with the Mormon church. After attending a Mormon meeting with Hector, and her brother, J.J. McComb, Eleanor wanted to join the Church but was forbidden to do so by her husband, who purchased a sword cane and threatened to kill her and the minister who baptized her if she became a Mormon. In spite of this threat, Eleanor attended Church meetings as often as she could. One Sunday night, while Eleanor was singing from a Mormon hymn book she had purchased, Hector tore the book from her hands, threw it into the fire, beat her, cast her out into the street, and locked the door. She sought the help of a Dr. Bush, the family doctor, who took her to a hotel, boarded her there for the night, and charged the bill to Hector. The next day she filed a charge of assault and battery against Hector, planning to go to San Bernardino to live with the Saints and never return. She dropped the charges, however, and returned to Hector, following the advice of Dr. Bush and the members of the San Francisco branch. She describes the incident as follows:
That Mr. McLean put me by violence into the street at night, and locked the door against me, Captain Grey and Dr. Bush are witnesses; and I presume McLean himself would not deny that I then declared that I would no more be his wife however many years I might be compelled to appear as such for the sake of my children.
Even though she embraced Mormonism in November of 1851, she was not baptized until 24 May 1854, by William McBride. Although he had given his written permission for her to be baptized and she continued to live with Hector, he forbade her to sing Mormon hymns or to read Mormon literature in his home. Eleanor did not comply fully with his rules, however, for she made it a practice to hold morning devotionals with her children while Hector was away, and sought all available means to stay in contact with the Church.
There is much more to read on this.
History is so difficult to sort out, but there is an abundance of interesting evidence provided in the article that gives some insight into the nature of the man who murdered Parley P. Pratt. Regardless of how much one may dislike the mercifully removed institution of polygamy and its practitioners, Parley P. Pratt was murdered. Contrary to the claims of some critics, Parley P. Pratt was a real missionary when he was murdered. His call to the Eastern States mission involved church work and travel to multiple eastern states.
One of the interesting things learned from Pratt’s history is the decency of some of the people in the southern United States who gave Parley and Eleanor a fair hearing when Hector had them both arrested on bogus charges. There were kind and decent people who tried to protect Parley from the murderous wrath of Hector. There were good people who were compassionate and helpful to Eleanor when Parley was killed. His murder was not the result of vast hostility from the locals, but of one violent man who hated the religion that his wife had joined and was apparently angry over his loss of control over her.
Eleanor was a tough and independent American woman, willing to stand up for her religious ideals and go to great lengths for her children, in spite of the abuse she suffered for years at the hands of an angry alcoholic. That she would go to Salt Lake, even after her husband had died, and continue with the challenges and struggles there, remaining faithful to her religion in a strange area, is a testament to the character of this strong woman. I cannot pretend to know the challenges that women and men faced in the difficult institution of polygamy in the 19th century, or in Utah life during that era, but I think we should give them a little credit for their toughness and commitment.
Meanwhile, I am saddened at the anti-Mormon spirit that could say of this murder that “Parley got what he deserved.”