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The remains of Parley Parker Pratt, a Mormon apostle, missionary and writer murdered in Arkansas on May 13, 1857, may soon find a new resting place in Utah.
The long-awaited move may not end the debate about whether Pratt, a revered early leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was a saintly martyr to the Mormon cause or a seducing, polygamist scoundrel who stole another man's wife.
But it will provide a sense of closure for the Pratt family, which now numbers between 20,000 and 30,000 and had been pushing since 1894 to rebury Pratt in a Utah plot among four of his 12 wives, Salt Lake City businessman Robert Grow said Thursday.
"His dying request was that he be buried among his family," said Grow, president of the Pratt family organization. "We feel it is the right thing to do to bring him home."
On Wednesday, Crawford County Circuit Judge Gary Cottrell approved a petition by Pratt's descendants to move the apostle's remains from a tiny plot near Alma, Ark., to the Salt Lake City Cemetery as long as no other remains are disturbed.
In the past, the move was held up by the difficulty of identifying the exact location of Pratt's remains. The Arkansas graveyard had been a farm, then a barracks for troops during the Civil War, then a farm again, an orchard, and finally a cow pasture. There was only one remaining headstone.
In recent years, though, technological advances have suddenly made finding his remains more plausible. Using ground penetrating radar, technicians can pinpoint individual graves. Magnetic reflections reveal humps where different bodies were buried, Grow said. Scientists then will match what they see with historical records, such as how many feet Pratt was buried from the old fence or the giant red oak tree.
"Our archeologists expect to find bones and significant remains, but we won't know until we dig," he said, adding that a scientific team will begin work on April 21.
Pratt, whose literary prowess "allowed him to defend Mormonism through a steady stream of pamphlets and books," wrote Grow's son, Matt Grow, last year in Pioneer magazine for Pratt's 200th birthday. "His Voice of Warning . . . has been correctly described as the 'most important of all noncanonical [early] Mormon books.' His Key to the Science of Theology was the first comprehensive theological treatise of Mormonism."
In 1856, Brigham Young sent Pratt on a mission to the Eastern states at a time when the country's anti-Mormon sentiment was on the rise.
At the same time, Pratt's 12th wife, Eleanor McComb McLean, traveled to New Orleans to retrieve her three children, sent there by her estranged husband to get them away from Mormonism. Eleanor and Parley planned to meet in the Oklahoma Indian Territory.
But Hector McLean, Eleanor's ex-husband who accused the polygamist Pratt of seducing his wife, tracked them down and had the pair arrested. They were taken to Van Buren, Ark., the nearest jurisdiction, to stand trial. When Judge John Ogden heard Eleanor's testimony of her husband's abuse and alcoholism, he released her and Pratt, urging them to get out of town.
McLean and several associates caught up with Pratt 12 miles from Van Buren. McLean stabbed Pratt twice in the chest, shot him at point-blank range in the neck, then stabbed and shot him again. The Mormon leader died within an hour and was buried in the local blacksmith's family plot.
"I die a firm believer in the Gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith, and I wish you to carry this dying testimony," Pratt allegedly told witnesses. "I am dying a martyr to the faith."
National newspapers declared Pratt's murder a triumph over the Mormon cult. The Fort Smith Herald headline read: "One Mormon Less! Nine More Widows!!! Alas for the Mormon Prophet!!!"
When word reached Utah, his fellow believers were stunned and outraged, Matt Grow wrote, "easily incorporat[ing] Pratt's assassination into their narrative of persecution. . .The Mormon press immediately cast Pratt in the role of martyr."
Some writers have argued that Pratt's death was the catalyst for the Mormon attack on an Arkansas wagon train a few months later, but Richard Turley, LDS assistant church historian, disputes that.
"While his death may have been part of the general background for the massacre, I do not see a direct causal link between the two," Turley said. "By the time Eleanor McLean Pratt made it to Utah, it was already old news."
When Pratt's remains are buried in Utah, Grow quoted the Arkansas judge saying Wednesday, "it will close a chapter in our history as well. It was a tragic episode in our history and not one of our more heroic moments."
* Born in 1807 in Burlington, N.Y., Pratt was an early Mormon leader, accomplished writer and member of the original LDS Quorum of the Twelve Apostles from 1835 until his murder in 1857.
* Pratt died on May 13, 1857, at age 50, after he was stabbed and shot in Arkansas by Hector McLean, the estranged husband of his 12th wife Eleanor McComb Pratt. Parley and Eleanor earlier had faced trial in Arkansas on a theft charge they said McLean orchestrated, but a judge later released them. Pratt was outside Van Buren, Ark., when McLean attacked.
* Many Mormons came to view Pratt as a martyr even as anti-Mormon forces active at the time saw his murder as a triumph over Brigham Young and Utah's polygamist cult.
* Parleys Canyon east of Salt Lake City is named after Parley Pratt, whose remains will now be returned for burial in the Salt Lake City Cemetery alongside four of his wives.
Source: Parley Pratt descendant