Charles Ellis Johnson and the Erotic Mormon Image

Charles Ellis Johnson and the Erotic Mormon Image

by Mary Campbell

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On September 25, 1890, the Mormon prophet Wilford Woodruff publicly instructed his followers to abandon polygamy. In doing so, he initiated a process that would fundamentally alter the Latter-day Saints and their faith. Trading the most integral elements of their belief system for national acceptance, the Mormons recreated themselves as model Americans.

Mary Campbell tells the story of this remarkable religious transformation in Charles Ellis Johnson and the Erotic Mormon Image. One of the church’s favorite photographers, Johnson (1857–1926) spent the 1890s and early 1900s taking pictures of Mormonism’s most revered figures and sacred sites. At the same time, he did a brisk business in mail-order erotica, creating and selling stereoviews that he referred to as his “spicy pictures of girls.” Situating these images within the religious, artistic, and legal culture of turn-of-the-century America, Campbell reveals the unexpected ways in which they worked to bring the Saints into the nation’s mainstream after the scandal of polygamy.

Engaging, interdisciplinary, and deeply researched, Charles Ellis Johnson and the Erotic Mormon Image demonstrates the profound role pictures played in the creation of both the modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the modern American nation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226410173
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/05/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 192
File size: 15 MB
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About the Author

Mary Campbell is assistant professor of art history at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

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Charles Ellis Johnson and the Erotic Mormon Image

By Mary Campbell

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-41017-3


A Royal Saint

An enormous religious imagination has been compromised (though not betrayed) by its descendants, even if one gets very little sense of any Mormon consciousness of that departure from [Joseph] Smith during a visit to Salt Lake City.

— HAROLD BLOOM, The American Religion, 1992

On May 29, 1903, Teddy Roosevelt visited Salt Lake City, Utah. With the 1904 election looming, the incumbent president had set out on an eight-week tour of western America earlier that spring, giving 263 speeches in twenty-five states before returning to the White House in June. His day trip to Salt Lake came toward the end of his fourteen-thousand-mile journey, sandwiched between his visits to Shoshone, Idaho, and Laramie, Wyoming. Stepping up to the podium at the city's Tabernacle and gazing out at the seven thousand eager listeners who had assembled to greet him, Roosevelt extolled his audience's pioneer heritage. "You took territory which at the outset was called after the desert," he proclaimed, "and you literally — not figuratively — you literally made the wilderness blossom as a rose."

Roosevelt was preaching to the choir with this pronouncement — literally and figuratively. Since 1873, the Tabernacle had been home to the state's nationally celebrated Mormon Tabernacle Choir, winner of the silver medal at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago and fresh off its own 1903 tour of Northern California. Many of these renowned choristers sat in the president's audience that day, listening as he sang their ancestors' praises. At the same time, Roosevelt's speech overtly echoed the way that the Latter-day Saints (LDS), or Mormons — still the majority in turn-of-the-century Utah — liked to talk about themselves. "We had not much to bring with us," the LDS apostle Orson Pratt reminisced of the Saints' arrival in the Salt Lake Valley in the summer of 1847, "but we came trusting in our God, and we found that the Lord really fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, and made the wilderness to blossom as the rose, made the desert to bloom as the Garden of Eden." With his own language of wilderness and roses, Roosevelt tapped into such cherished Mormon stories, evoking the original LDS settlers' unswerving determination to transform the Uintah Basin's arid landscapes into the verdant abundance of God's own garden. In the process, he used the Saints' frontier past to cast the current generation of Mormons as a model of American tenacity, responsibility, and success. "I ask that all our people from ocean to ocean approach the problem of taking care of the physical resources of the country in the spirit which has made Utah what it is," he declared. Only seven years into statehood, the country's newest addition to the Union basked in the glow of the president's admiration.

Befitting the magnitude of the occasion, Roosevelt's host, Utah senator Thomas Kearns, hired a photographer to memorialize the event. Outfitted with several cameras and undoubtedly groomed to dapper perfection, Charles Ellis Johnson (1857–1926) (fig. 1.1) arrived at the senator's palatial home immediately after the president's speech. Setting up his equipment on the lawn, Johnson photographed Roosevelt and his private secretary, William Loeb, posed with Kearns and Salt Lake City mayor Ezra Thompson (fig. 1.2). As if visually reiterating the president's own tribute to Utah's exemplary citizens, Johnson framed the shot to include the numerous American flags that decorated the front of the Kearnses' mansion. Moving inside, he captured a stereoscopic view of the elaborate table Mrs. Kearns had set for the formal breakfast she and her husband were holding in the president's honor, once again including the Stars and Stripes on prominent display. Although they don't appear in Johnson's picture, the senator's wife had placed a miniature American flag in front of each place setting before Roosevelt entered the room. At the end of the meal, the sixth LDS prophet, Joseph F. Smith, took his home as a memento of the festivities.

In all likelihood, Johnson would have found a way to meet and photograph Roosevelt even without the Kearnses' invitation. During the 1890s and early 1900s, he and his camera seemed to appear every time something interesting happened in or around Salt Lake City. When Buffalo Bill Cody came to town in 1902, Johnson persuaded the celebrated showman and his troupe to pose for a picture in front of the Salt Lake Temple (fig. 1.3). When a battalion of Buffalo Soldiers passed through the city on their way to the Spanish-American War in 1898, Johnson hauled his equipment onto a rooftop in order to get a photograph of the entire regiment marching down Main Street. When, in 1903, a fragile-looking young woman named Aurora Hodges confessed to murdering a traveling salesman just outside Salt Lake City, Johnson managed to shoot her stereoscopic portrait in the jail yard, discreetly cropping her handcuffs out of the frame.

Johnson took thousands of pictures like these over the course of his long career as a photographer and stereographer, pictures that he sold in a variety of formats and a multitude of ways. Cabinet cards, stereoviews, news photos that he offered to the Salt Lake papers for a dollar apiece, postcards that he marketed to tourists at his downtown photography supply and souvenir store — Johnson never limited himself when it came to his choice of format or the chance to make another sale. He did, however, focus his lens (or in the case of his stereo camera, lenses) primarily on Utah. A cosmopolitan to the bone, Johnson loved to travel. As his trademark proudly declared, "You see Johnson all over the World" (fig. 1.4). Overstatements aside, he seized every opportunity he could to see what lay outside Salt Lake City, eventually visiting San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Rome, Paris, and London. In 1904, Johnson even spent more than six months in Jerusalem, taking roughly two thousand photographs of the Holy Land. At base, however, Johnson was a Rocky Mountain man. He walked into Utah when he was three years old, holding on to his mother's hand, and he stayed there until the last decade of his life. To borrow from that great poet of the American West, Wallace Stegner, Salt Lake City was Johnson's Paris and his Rome. He spent the better part of his fifty-nine years documenting it in pictures.

In particular, Johnson lavished his photographic attention on all things modern. The first underground telephone wires in Utah, the state's first automobile, the first phonographic recording of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir — if it was new or involved cutting-edge technology, Johnson found it and photographed it. Or bought it, or wore it, or rode it, or invented it. While many of his generation clung to the pen, Johnson used a typewriter with a bright purple ribbon. In an LDS culture that prized live choral music above all other entertainments, Johnson owned a full-symphony version of a player piano, a Rube Goldberg–esque machine called an orchestrion. Even his decision to become a photographer reveals Johnson's love of innovation, and mechanical innovation most of all. The medium was in its early years when he was born, and still too novel and too machine-based to be fully accepted as its own art form during his professional prime. Johnson reveled in this newness, inventing and building his own state-of-the-art cameras. Kodak's "[George] Eastman didn't have anything like Charlie had," his sister-in-law Maude later remembered. Loading one of these contraptions into his bag and jumping onto his American Star bicycle (itself an 1890s craze), Johnson cut a figure every bit as current as the sights he set out to capture.

Salt Lake took notice. On February 24, 1900, the city's Daily Tribune newspaper published a caricature of Johnson rocketing along on his bicycle (fig. 1.5). In this sketch, Johnson pedals with one leg and steers with the other, his hands working his camera so feverishly that they fracture into a mechanical blur. True, Johnson appears calm, even reflective, from the neck up. According to family legend, his mother, Eliza, was the illegitimate child of an English nobleman, born in London but shipped off to the United States with her mother and stepfather when she was a young girl. "Her aristocratic face always suggest[ed] a noble lineage," Johnson's sister Rosemary remembered. Apocryphal or not, the story suited the public persona that Johnson cultivated. Throughout his life, he projected an air of well-bred refinement. With his impeccable clothing and traces of his mother's British accent (not to mention his enviable height and bone structure), he struck others as genteel, lightly patrician even. As the Tribune drawing suggests, however, he was always too fascinated by the outside world to move through it slowly or to limit himself to a single endeavor. "If Charlie Johnson could have just focused on one thing at a time," his great-grandnephew recalls, "he would have been a millionaire."

Such concentrated attention just wasn't Johnson's modus operandi, however. Even though he probably never actually tried to load a glass plate into the back of his camera while steering his bike with his knees, he constantly pursued more than one career at a time. In addition to working as a professional photographer from the early 1890s until his death in 1926, Johnson manufactured and sold a successful line of patent medicines under the label Valley Tan Remedies (VTR), operated his own printing press, acted as the Utah correspondent for the New York Dramatic Mirror theatrical newspaper, distributed American Star bicycles, and served as the vice president of Salt Lake's Social Wheel bicycle club. According to the blurb that appeared beneath his Daily Tribune caricature, he also worked as a traveling salesman as a young man, distributing "baking powder, cloves, preserved ham, kerosene, whale bone, oatmeal and hair dye." At one point, Johnson's stationery (he designed and printed it himself) featured three different logos: one for VTR; one for a separate pharmacy business he started with his friend Parley P. Pratt; and one for the photography studio he initially ran with a man named Hyrum Sainsbury. More than thirty years before his fellow Utahn Philo T. Farnsworth developed the technology that would eventually lead to the invention of television, Johnson exhibited a decidedly televisionistic mode of attention. Like the twentieth-century channel surfer or the twenty-first- century Internet hound, he jumped from one thing to another and back again with tremendous speed. Views, vocations, interests — it didn't matter. Like the Daily Tribune's dashing camera-creature on wheels, Johnson raced from one sight to another, freezing each on glass before speeding off to the next attraction.

There's a catch here. Or at least a tension. Because at the same time that Johnson adored the new, he was part of a culture that worshiped the old. For most of his life, he belonged to a religion that worked diligently to recreate the biblical past in the here and now. Like the rest of his family, Johnson was a Mormon. And not just any Mormon. Although his mother's nobility might have been in question, that of his father, Joseph Ellis Johnson, was not. On his father's side, Johnson descended from pure LDS aristocracy. Joseph Ellis had converted to Mormonism with his mother and fifteen siblings in 1831. This was only a year after the faith's original prophet and founder, Joseph Smith, published the Book of Mormon in Palmyra, New York. The Johnsons were among the first families to convert to Smith's new religion in toto. The prophet loved them for their early dedication, and he often referred to them as the "Royal Family." In keeping with this favored status, Smith asked Joseph Ellis to "bear him company" as he rode to the Carthage, Illinois, jail where a raging mob would murder him in 1844.

After Smith's death, the Royal Johnsons made their way to the territory that would eventually become Utah. When Orson Pratt and, later, Roosevelt waxed eloquent about the Mormons' ability to make this wilderness bloom, they might as well have mentioned Joseph Ellis by name. Johnson's father wasn't one of the earliest Latter-day Saints to colonize the American West. In fact, he didn't arrive in the territory until 1860. This was thirteen years after Smith's successor prophet, Brigham Young, first led his followers on a three-months' march out of Illinois and beyond what was then the nation's border in order to establish a new Mormon Zion in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Belatedness notwithstanding, Joseph Ellis was an extremely skilled horticulturalist. So skilled, in fact, that in 1865, Young directed him to move to St. George — a town in the far south of the territory — and make it fruitful. St. George was "a land of burning sands, sage brush, volcanic ridges and poor water," and Joseph Ellis and his family nearly starved to death a few times before he mastered it. Eventually, however, he succeeded in establishing a spectacular greenhouse, garden, arboretum, and apiary in the town's brutal heat. In addition to the impressive variety of fruits and vegetables he coaxed from the scorched dirt, his family remembered "lovely pink tea roses, clumps of John Hopper and other roses, acacia bushes, honeysuckle, flowering almonds, fringe trees and arbor vita." As a boy, Johnson helped his father tend these blooms and crops. "Mother and Charlie, age 8, had to take care of the watering of the garden," his sister Rosemary recalled, "and the two would stay up all night when the watering turn came."

By "mother," Rosemary meant Johnson and her own mother, Eliza Saunders Johnson. Eliza, however, was neither the only mother nor the sole wife in Joseph Ellis's household. Instead, the Royal Johnsons were among the first participants in Joseph Smith's "new and eternal covenant" of polygamous marriage. According to Rosemary, the "Royal Johnson" moniker itself stemmed from the fact that Smith had chosen her aunt Almera to be his first plural wife. "Envious people, observing [Smith's] frequent visits at the Johnson home in Macedonia, Ohio dubbed them 'The Royal Family,'" Rosemary wrote in her short autobiography. "The Prophet on hearing this, declared it should be a reality, for '[the Johnsons] are a Royal Family.'" In fact, Almera was the twenty-second of Smith's thirty-eight wives. Regardless, the royal brothers still required some time to adjust to their prophet's interest in their sister. Upon first hearing that Smith wanted to marry Almera, Joseph Ellis told him he'd be a dead man if he tried it. Eventually, however, all but one of the Johnson brothers followed Smith into polygamy.

Eliza was the last of Joseph Ellis's three wives. She was barely sixteen when he married her — twenty-three years his junior, and seventeen and twelve years younger than her sister wives, Hannah and Harriet, respectively. Charles Ellis was her first child, born in St. Louis — the product, as his younger brother Rufus reminisced, of Joseph Ellis's "latest launching upon the sea of conubial [sic] bliss." It wasn't a bliss that was destined to sit well with the other Mrs. Johnsons. As Rufus speculated, his father "probably lacked the nerve to tell them right off that he had taken another wife." For whatever reason, Joseph Ellis didn't immediately let Hannah and Harriet know that he had expanded their family. Eliza continued to live at home with her parents, and Charles Ellis grew up calling her Liza. By the time he turned three, however, the rest of the Johnson clan knew of Joseph Ellis's newest marriage and his youngest son. That same year, Joseph Ellis sent Charles Ellis and Eliza off to Utah. Acting as an advance guard for the rest of the family, the two walked most of the thirteen hundred miles to Salt Lake City so that Joseph Ellis's prized trees and plants could ride in their wagon.

This heritage alone would have been enough to guarantee Johnson a position among Utah's LDS elite. In addition to being a Royal Johnson and Joseph Smith's nephew by marriage, however, he was also a son-in-law of the second Mormon prophet, Brigham Young. Johnson met Young's daughter Ruth, or Ruthie, as everyone called her, at a party in St. George, where the prophet and some of his family spent their winters. Young's winter home stood directly behind the Johnsons' house, and Brigham enjoyed strolling through Joseph Ellis's gardens and admiring the roses. Johnson and Ruthie married in the St. George Temple in 1878, and within five years they had two sons and were living in Salt Lake City. They made a spectacular couple, the stylish Ruthie as delicately beautiful as Johnson was sharply handsome. Rosemary later remembered her first trip to their house in Salt Lake as "one of the most wonderful experiences of my life." Ruthie, she recalled, "had a beautiful newly furnished room for me, with boxes full of lovely things dear to the heart of every girl — dresses, hats, gloves, perfumes." Like her husband, Ruthie had a taste for the fashionable and the new.

Despite their initial compatibility, however, Ruthie and Johnson's marriage didn't last. In 1887, Johnson filed for divorce, claiming his wife had abandoned him. As the court found, Ruthie refused to return to her husband despite his promises to "do anything that she could reasonably ask" if only "she would come home again." It isn't clear why she left Johnson, but family letters and interviews suggest that she had an affair. "I was very much surprised and shocked to learn the facts that caused Charles [sic] and Ruth's separation," Rosemary's future husband, Jesse Fox, wrote to her on September 18, 1887. "I think that he is more than Mortal — or has Job's patience. I would have raised H — — right away." Even though Jesse didn't state Ruthie's transgression directly, he was clearly outraged. He wasn't the only one. In general, the Young family sided with Johnson in the divorce. Not only did Ruthie's cousin LeGrand Young represent Johnson in the divorce proceedings, but the rest of her family was so cold toward her that she eventually converted to Methodism.


Excerpted from Charles Ellis Johnson and the Erotic Mormon Image by Mary Campbell. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1          A Royal Saint
2          Civil Saints
3          Johnson’s New Century Girls
4          Mormon Harems
5          Lady Saints
6          Stereoscopic Saints


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