The exorcism of William Hall’s horse

Study Sheet with Horses, da Vinci

While I was reading through some 1846 sources of the Saints trekking across Iowa, I came across an interesting entry in the journal of Willard Richards. On March 14th, he recorded a peculiar event — the healing of William Hall’s horse[1].  A story of healing a horse is interesting in and of itself, but this story includes other curious aspects as well.

Most members of the LDS church are familiar with the story of the blessing of Mary Fielding’s oxen while crossing the plains.  The story of Fielding and her healed oxen continuing their journey has been popular in church publications and sermons. Another story popular among fans of Eugene England has to do with a more modern day application of using priesthood to facilitate transportation. England recounts the time he blessed his Chevrolet, allowing him to carry on his duties as branch president.[2]

Apostle Richards’ account of the blessing of William Hall’s horse may be the first instance of an animal blessing on the pioneer trail, occurring over two years before the Mary Fielding incident.[3] Richards (the designated church historian) had previously recorded a number of instances of sickness or injury to animals (a sprain, distemper and drowning). But Richards had not yet recorded a blessing of an animal. After recording precise directions where “certain deposits near Vorhee” were buried (another enticing entry), Richards reports the events regarding William Hall.

…  At Indian Creek one of his horses sickened with bloating and colic.  Elders Hall and Luelling Mantle laid hands on him and he recovered immediately and went on about 2 miles when he was again attacked much more violently than before.  They tried to give him medicine but could not succeed.  The horse lay on his side with his foot over his ear, but Ruben Strong said he believed there was breath in him yet and proposed to lay hands on him. Some present doubted whether it was right to lay hands on a horse.  Elder Hall replied the Prophet Joel has said that in the last days the Lord would pour out his spirit upon all flesh and this satisfied the brethren, and Elders William Hall, Rabins R. Strong, Llewellyn Mantle, Joseph Champlin, Martin Potter, and one more laid hands on the horse and commanded the unclean and foul spirits of every name and nature to depart and go to the Gentiles at Warsaw and trouble the Saints no more, when the horse rolled twice over in great distress, sprang to his feet, squealed, vomited and purged, and the next morning was harnessed to a load of about 12 cwt. and performed his part as usual.[4]

Justification for the second blessing came from Joel 2:28, “… I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh …” Perhaps the discussion of the propriety of blessing a horse may have included the account where Jesus met two men possessed with devils. The devils request that if they are cast out of the men, that they be allowed to go into a herd of swine. Jesus pronounces “Go” and the devils leave the men and possess the swine, which run into the sea and perish. The citizens of the community then request Jesus to leave the coast (Matthew 8:28-34). Whether this story was discussed or not, it appears the blessing of Hall’s horse follows a similar pattern of the exorcism performed by Jesus.  A comparison of the two accounts has these parallels:

  1. The Mormon men believed that through their priesthood, they represented Jesus, and had the right and power to enact similar miracles

    Rearing Horse, da Vinci

  2. Both stories indicate the devils were of a particularly nasty breed. In Matthew, they come “out of the tombs, exceeding fierce, so that no man might pass by that way.” In the pioneer account they refer to the spirits as “unclean and foul” and of “every name and nature.”
  3. The pioneer story reverses the source and target of the spirits. Jesus casts spirits out of humans, into animals; while the pioneers cast spirits out of an animal, into humans. The targeted “gentiles” are the enemies of the Mormons concentrated in Warsaw, Illinois.
  4. Each exorcism/possession produces a violent result. Matthew does not describe how the men reacted after the exorcism, but the possession of the swine caused them to run “violently down a steep place into the sea” where they drowned. The horse responded violently to the exorcism. It “rolled twice over in great distress, sprang to his feet, squealed, vomited and purged.”
  5. The horse and presumably the two men are relieved of their afflictions.
  6. Another parallel (although perhaps a stretch) is that of exodus. After the possession of the swine, the town’s people ask Jesus to leave the area, while the Saints’ exodus had been due to pressure by the “Gentiles of Warsaw.”

The exorcism of the horse suggests the Elders may have been influenced by the story in Matthew 8. The loss of a horse was a serious matter for a pioneer, which contributed to the need for a spiritual solution in a worldview that blended the temporal and spiritual. A sense of spiritual innovation by these common men is apparent as they felt empowered by scripture and their priesthood to enact a new multi-purposed blessing/exorcism/cursing for the animal and the gentiles, as well as facilitate their mode of transportation. Their act apparently met the approval of Apostle Richards who records the account with its faith promoting conclusion.

Also reflected in the account is the sense of anger at the loss of their prophet and their homes. They called for divine retribution over the dying horse, looking for biblical-styled vengeance. By laying hands on the horse, they exercised faith that their enemies in Warsaw might become possessed and perhaps even run down the banks of the Mississippi to drown like swine.

[1] William Hall joined the church in 1840 but became disaffected in 1847. He is best known for his 1852 expose’ of Mormonism, Hall, William, The Abominations of Mormonism Exposed; Containing Many Facts and Doctrines concerning That Singular People, during Seven Years’ Membership with Them, from 1840 to 1847, Cincinnati: Published for the Author by I. Hart &, 1852
[2] Eugene England, “Blessing the Chevrolet,” Dialogue, IX (1974):57-60
[3] Stanley B. Kimball, “The Iowa Trek of 1846: The Brigham Young Route from Nauvoo to Winter Quarters,” Ensign Magazine, June 1972.  Kimball indicates Hall’s horse is the first animal to be blessed while crossing the plains. Details of the exorcism are not included in his account. Other subsequent materials produced by the church about the blessing also exclude the exorcism. LDS-oriented books that mention the exorcism include Lee Nelson’s historical fiction series Storm Testament where the story is used in volumes 2,5 & 6. Also including the exorcism is Crockett, David Romney, Saints in Exile: A Day-by-day Pioneer Experience, Tucson, AZ: LDS-Gems, 1996.
[4] Willard Richards Journal, DVD 31, MS 1490, Box 14, p. 105-107, March 14, 1846. See also Manuscript History of Brigham Young, DVD 2, CR 100 102 Vol 15, p. 97 (middle page number) March 14, 1846 (note “W. Richards Journal” on side). The journal entry is reproduced at: Barrus, Clair. “Mormon Church History.” : Mormon History, Saturday, Mar 14, 1846. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 June 2012. <>.


The exorcism of William Hall’s horse — 13 Comments

  1. Epic, Clair! 🙂 The disregard for the poor Gentiles at Warsaw is both hilarious and slightly disturbing. Fascinating use of scripture to justify the ritual, though, and fantastic that the horse recovered!

  2. Whenever I see someone invoking the Mary Fielding Smith and her ox story, I invariably link to Lavina Fielding Anderson’s wonderful article, “Mary Fielding Smith: Her Ox Goes Marching On .” (last 2 pages if you want to cut to the chase)

    The article is a perfect blend of historical fact and recognition of the place the story has in the folklore of our people.

  3. Yes Chris, it is somewhat disturbing about attempted cursing of the folks in Warsaw. I’m not sure what to make of it — other than how it underscores the anger the felt.

    Cheryl, Thanks for bringing Lavina Fielding Anderson’s article to our attention. Now you’ve got me wondering if L. Fielding A. is a descendant of Mary Fielding.

  4. Thanks for this Clair. I hope we can explore pioneer legend, folklore and iconography at length. Cheryl’s link points in a good direction.

  5. If I remember correctly, I have come across two or three animal healings on the Western trek that occured before this. I also think that it is important to note that it wasn’t just ordained males, but women (and really all faithful believers) that were authorized to heal and exorsize.

  6. Just looked this up. It would be interesting to compare this entry to John D. Lee’s unpublished holograph journal entry, which recounts the same events.

    Also note that this entry is in Box 2, Volume 14, pp. 106-107.

  7. J. Stapley, thanks for the feedback. Cheryl B. mentioned the essay “Mary Fielding Smith: Her Ox Goes Marching On.” There, Lavina Fielding Anderson says she mis-remembered the events regarding Mary Fielding’s oxen. She thought (as did I) that Mary had done the healing when apparently she has asked men to bless her oxen.

    So I’m glad to hear you’ve come across instances of women healing (and exorcising?) their animals. I know it is well documented that women healed other women at this time, but did not know they healed animals.

    I took a look at a typescript of John D. Lee’s journal for this date and see that his entry is virtually the same as Willard Richard’s entry. I know that Richards had been sick for some time, and that at times he would dictate to Lee. Lee reports on this day, “The historian, not withstanding his sickness is content and happy” and that Lee “wrote until 2 O’clock in the morning at the dictation of Dr. Richards.”

    I suspect the similarity of the entries is because one was copied, or retold from the other. I’ll reproduce the relevant excerpt from Lee’s journal in a separate post.

  8. Excerpt from John D. Lee’s Journal recounting the exorcism of William Hall’s horse:

    Saturday Mar 14 1846
    Richardson Point

    Some time to day Wm Hall left camp with his team for the Desmoines river to bring forward a load for A J Stout[.] At Indian creek one of his horses sickened with bloating and cholick[.] Elder Hall & LuallenMantel layed hands on him & he recovered immediately & went on about 2 miles when he was again attacked much more violently than before[.] they tried to give him medicine but could not succeed[.] the horse layed on his side with his foot over his ear[.] Ruben Strong said he believed there was life in him yet, and proposed to lay hands on him but some doubted whether it was right to lay hands on a horse or not[.] Elder Hall replied the Prophet Joel has said that in the last days the Lord would pour out his spirit upon all flesh & this satisfied the Brethern & Elder Wm Hall[,] R R Strong[,] L Mantle[,] Joe Chaplain[,] Martin Potter & one more l laid hands on the horse and commanded the unclean and foul Spirit of what ever name or nature to depart and go to Warsaw. and trouble the Saints no more when the horse rolled twice over in great distress[,] spraing to his feet[,] squealed vomited & purged[,] next morning was harnessed to a load of about 12 hundred & performed his part as usual[.]

  9. Yes, that is what I remembered, but I was away from my notes. Regarding the ultimate source, I tend to think it was Lee, as if Richards were seriously ill, he probably would not have seen the events.

    I also miscommunicated regarding women. My comments were in response to your discussion more generally. I probably have accounts of 5 or 6 animal healings on the Trek West, but none were by women. I wouldn’t be surprised if women did, but such accounts are so rare that it makes finding them rather challenging.

  10. OK, I see. I was hoping to run across some cool stories of women blessing animals. 🙂 I hope you find an example.

    My reading of Lee and Richards is that they may not have been first hand witnesses, but were reporting the story as told by others. As you point out, Richards is sick. And Lee states “Some time to day Wm Hall left camp with his team” — suggesting that Lee did not go with them. Nor are Lee or Richards listed as co-blessers (although either could have observed the blessing).

    Personally, I suspect the lack of a higher authority figure facilitated the innovation of a priesthood exorcism/ attempted-forced-possession. If Lee or Richards were there, they may have dictated a different approach in curing the horse.

  11. Yes, it really was a disappointment to me to learn that Mary Fielding Smith did not bless and heal her own ox! But Lavina treated the subject so skillfully that she almost made up for it.

  12. Clair,
    This is really an interesting tidbit. In my research on Mormon exorcism, I haven’t found any other references to exorcisms of animals. There is, however, a history of healing-exorcism rituals performed on animals in Medieval Europe.

  13. I had wondered if there were other examples of animal exorcism.

    It would be interesting to find other examples of casting out demons from one animal/person and directing them to inhabit someone/something else. And what would you call that — reverse exorcism? Trans-exorcism?