The Cavour Controversy, 1866

January 16th, 2013, by Kent Larsen

It is wise to take many controversies that appear in the media with a grain of salt, for too often they are gone in a few days, and are regularly based on rumor and innuendo instead of fact.

I’m sure that rings true to most of us today. It was certainly true in August of 1866, when a group of Mormon immigrants touched off a minor controversy that appeared in the New York Tribune and then in the Brooklyn Eagle a few days later. The ship Cavour docked at Castle Garden in New York City on July 31, 1866 and almost all its passengers continued their journey by steamer towards Montreal on the following day. From their records, it appears they had no idea of how they would be portrayed in the Tribune a few weeks later.

The immigrants apparently had a somewhat difficult journey. Their voyage was longer than average for a sailing ship, almost two full months. During the voyage three died, one on they day before they arrived, and five were so ill that they were taken to the hospital on arrival because of a cholera outbreak on board1. Their troubles led Assistant Church Historian Andrew Jenson to say:

If the details of the journey across the plains of this company were written, it would probably present one of the most pitiable and heartrending chapters in the history of the Church, but it is perhaps better to close the episode and not revive the memory of something so touching and sorrowful. At some future day, undoubtedly, more details will be published about the experience of that ill-fated company, and in the great hereafter those who laid down their lives on the way will have an opportunity to give an accurate and truthful account of their sufferings2.…

According to the Eastern States Mission President, William H. Miles, on arrival the passengers may have been victims of an extortion attempt. Miles claimed that:

Some of its passengers had told him that persons from Castle Garden, probably under-strappers in the employ of the Customs department, had come on board and endeavored to extort money under the threat that unless they paid it they would all be detained at Castle Garden. They refused to pay it, and the officials referred to then threatened to have revenge3

This story was neither unbelievable nor that unusual. Immigration, usually consisting of those unfamiliar with the country and New York City and often including those who did not speak English, had long drawn the attention of the unscrupulous, who found myriad ways to bamboozle immigrants of what little they had of value. Concern for the victims led to the founding of Castle Garden as the immigration entry point in New York City in 1855. And after the unscrupulous had managed to corrupt officials there, it also led to its closure and replacement by Ellis Island in 1892.

However, the existing diaries and letters of the immigrants of the Cavour don’t mention any extortion attempt. There are many potential reasons for this: the immigrants were Scandinavians and may not have understood English, Miles may have spoken to non-Mormon passengers on the ship, and the existing accounts do not include those of the voyage’s leaders and returning missionaries, those most likely to have known about the extortion attempt.

If there was such an attempt, it may, as Miles asserted, explain the mention of the immigrants published more than three weeks later in the New York Tribune:

… The bark Cavour recently arrived with a load of them, and an eye-witness that saw them during the passage says the passengers slept together irrespective of sex, and they appeared to have no regard whatever for the sacred rites of marriage, and they were so dirty and filthy that the stench arising from them was sickening, and that several died during the passage to this port on account of the filth. In fact, of late they have been refused the privilege of occupying Castle Garden, on account of their filthy and indecent habits4.

Given the deaths and cholera on board5, some filth and stench might be expected. But the rest of the Tribune claims are hard to swallow. Miles claimed in the Brooklyn Eagle article that the men and women sleeping together were married (and given that they likely didn’t speak English, how would any eye-witness know differently?), and Miles’ explanation is the simplest and most plausible. As for the idea that future Mormon groups would have been refused accommodation at Castle Garden, it hardly seems likely that a bureaucracy would give up control that easily—where would they have the immigrants go in such a case?

Miles, of course, denies that claim also, saying that:

…he knew that their emigrants were always welcomed there, and were well spoken of by the authorities in charge. They were fully as good as the average of the emigrants coming to that place6.

Since the Cavour was the last Mormon immigrant group to arrive that year, the best evidence we have is that the next group, arriving on the ship Manhattan on 4 July 1867, was accommodated at Castle Garden, according to their diaries and letters.

As near as I can tell at this point, the controversy disappeared as quickly as it flared up. Mormon immigrants continued traveling through New York City and Castle Garden for more than 20 years after this event. And while controversy eventually returned, it didn’t concern filth or the habits of Mormons on board ship. Instead, it was mostly about the fact that Mormon immigrants were Mormon, and as such connected to polygamy, and generally poor.

  1. The average length of the voyage on a sailing ship was about 6 weeks, until 1868, when Mormon immigration switched to steamships, shortening the voyage to less than 2 weeks.
  2. Jenson, Andrew. History of the Scandinavian Mission. Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1927.
  3. “Mormons in Brooklyn.” Brooklyn Eagle, 27 August 1866, p. 2
  4. “Mormonism in New York.” New York Tribune, 25 August 1866, p,. 2
  5. The primary symptoms of cholera are diarrhea and vomiting.
  6. “Mormons in Brooklyn.” Brooklyn Eagle, 27 August 1866, p. 2

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