Parallels to Short Creek Polygamy raid in 1953 are pointed out
By Geoffrey Fattah
Published: April 10, 2008
In the early morning hours, law enforcement moved into the polygamist community, seizing hundreds of women and children under the premise of child abuse — specifically that young girls were being married to older men.
This isn't Eldorado, Texas, in 2008 but rather Short Creek, Ariz., in 1953. At the time, the raid made national news as the largest roundup of men, women and children in modern American history.
One University of Utah professor, who has written a book on the history of the Short Creek raid, says what is unfolding in Texas is history almost repeating itself. The removal of hundreds of women and children and placing them in foster care, the raid of a polygamist community by dozens of officers and the accusation of child-bride marriages are all eerily similar, said Martha Sonntag Bradley.
If history is to be any kind of teacher, Bradley said, Texas authorities need to know that after the 1953 Short Creek raid, every man, woman and child returned to Short Creek to resume their polygamist lives. The raid quickly became the FLDS Church's rallying point — a tale handed down to the next generation as of a test of faith and of overcoming of outside oppression, which made the community even more closed and opaque to the outside world.
"Remember Short Creek" is a motto heard among polygamists. Even today in the twin communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., monuments serve as a reminder. "July 26, 1953. We must never forget how the lord blessed us in restoring our families taken in the 53 raid — Uncle Roy," one states.
Bradley interviewed more than 100 people in Colorado City about the raid, and in 1993 published the book "Kidnapped From That Land: The Government Raids on the Short Creek Polygamists."
"It's playing out again," Bradley told the Deseret Morning News after reading the articles and viewing the TV images pouring out of Eldorado and the YFZ Ranch. The images of women and children being ushered out of the community is almost the same as images from 1953 in Arizona.
Bradley said Arizona Gov. John Howard Pyle was concerned that men were marrying young females. In order to investigate, Pyle hired a group of private investigators, who infiltrated Short Creek under the guise of a Hollywood film crew. At the time, Hollywood loved the Utah/Arizona border's red-rock terrain as backdrops for westerns. While "scoping out the terrain," the crew filmed young women and their children as evidence of child-bride marriages.
"It was about the children, in particular the young women," Bradley said. "The purpose of that raid, and this one, was to take children out of that context, and the mothers were given the option to go along."
In the early-morning hours of July 26, 1953, more than 100 Arizona state police officers and soldiers with the National Guard entered Short Creek. Bradley said there is evidence that someone from within the Arizona Attorney General's Office had tipped off FLDS leaders about the raid. The some 400 inhabitants of Short Creek were "waiting in the school yard singing 'America' beneath a waving flag as the authorities arrived," a United Press article read.
Some 36 men were arrested. Eighty-six women and 263 children were taken into welfare custody.
What is also interesting, Bradley said, is the lack of violence in both Short Creek and Eldorado. "They anticipated violence, but there was no violence," she said.
Media reports of the 1953 raid quickly spread. More than 100 reporters rushed to the area, reportedly invited by Pyle to observe the raid. Although the raid took place in the same week the Korean War cease-fire was announced, the raid was covered by Time, Newsweek and other news outlets.
Pyle called it "a momentous police action against insurrection," and described the fundamentalists as "the foulest conspiracy you could possibly imagine," saying it amounted to white slavery.
The day after the raid, the Deseret News published an editorial supporting the action. "Law-abiding citizens of Utah and Arizona owe a debt of gratitude to Arizona's Governor Howard Pyle and to his police officers who, Sunday, raided the polygamous settlement at Short Creek and rounded up its leaders for trial. The existence of this community on our border has been a smudge on the reputations of our two great states. We hope Governor Pyle will make good his pledge to eradicate the illegal practices conducted there 'before they become a cancer of a sort that is beyond hope of human repair."'
However, Pyle's actions became a public-relations disaster. Coming on the heels of the totalitarianism of Adolf Hitler and World War II, Americans were sensitive to strong police action. Media publications criticized the raid as "un-American," while others questioned how children can be involved in a government insurrection. "It seemed like an extreme response," Bradley said.
Pyle, a close friend of Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater and a rising star within the Republican party, was said to have been a favorite for the party's presidential nomination. Bradley said the negative publicity over the raid was blamed for Pyle's fall from political grace and he also lost his gubernatorial re-election in 1954.
The Short Creek men were jailed for two months and, although they were released on bail, Bradley said none of them was ever prosecuted. After two years under court custody, every man, woman and child returned to Short Creek, even though the women were given a chance to leave with state help. Bradley said her research showed that child-bride marriages were not the norm back then, as assumed; rather, the average age of new wives was 19.
Yet there are some differences between Arizona 1953 and Texas 2008. Bradley said today there seems to be less of a tolerance for child abuse. The public is also more aware of polygamy cases involving underage marriages. Bradley said the prosecutions of Kingston clan members, Tom Green and FLDS leader Warren Jeffs led up to Eldorado.
Texas authorities are also operating under the shadow of the 1993 siege at Waco, in which 82 members of a Branch-Davidian sect died during a standoff and fire.
The YFZ Ranch is an important place for FLDS members. It is the site where they have built their first temple, which has been entered and searched by police. Bradley called that move "huge" and one that could have heightened tensions.
However, "one thing that it points to is their lack of willingness to resort to violence. One would think that would be the moment," she said.
What happens now in Texas will shape the future of the FLDS Church, Bradley said. If Texas authorities allow the women and children to go back, they will likely return and seal themselves off from the outside world even more.
"The raid in '53 didn't put an end to polygamy," she said.