A retired postal inspector in Houston wants to set the record straight about an 1857 murder near Van Buren of the Mormon Apostle Parley Pratt. The slaying of Utah Sen. Mitt Romney’s great-great-grandfather is largely thought to have contributed to the Mountain Meadows Massacre in Utah, when about 120 traveling Arkansans were shot down by a Mormon militia in September.
Some of the men who helped Hector McLean track down and kill Parley Pratt north of Van Buren in May 1857 were said to have been in the group of Arkansans moving west, adding to the violent response.
As noted in a Sept. 11 Times Record article connecting the two events, the massacre was far more complicated and also involved fears of the U.S. Army moving in on Mormon territory. But one minor aspect of the story that has created opportunity for a follow-up here was an error on what Hector McLean did for a living.
Ron Pry of Houston, the former national historian for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, noted the Sept. 11 Times Record article incorrectly reported McLean was a "postal inspector." The information was taken from one of the several Pratt Family histories found on the internet.
After being forwarded the Times Record article commemorating the Mountain Meadows Massacre and its possible ties to the Crawford County murder of Pratt, Pry dug into the Postal Inspection Service archives for 1857 and found no record of a Hector Hugh McLean. He did, however, find a March 24, 1877, San Francisco Bulletin article reprinted by the Kansas City Times a few days later about the execution of John D. Lee, a Mormon who confessed to his part in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
The Bulletin records McLean as being "an unemotional, plain man, a good book-keeper and altogether the opposite intellectually of his wife."
The five-deck headline encapsulates the saga: "PRATT-M’LEAN LIAISON. Origin of the Mountain Meadow Massacre - The McLean Family - Elder Parley P. Pratt’s Relations to Mrs. McLean - Pratt’s Death at the Hands of Hector H. McLean - Fate of the Family." McLean, the report adds, worked in the custom house when a John A. Collier was port collector and "was instrumental in unearthing the crookedness of that official in office," by having kept a duplicate set of accounts.
In that one erroneous Pratt family history about the murder, McLean was said to be both a Presbyterian minister and postal inspector who carried the title Dr. before his name. More importantly, Pry wanted to make sure readers did not think a postal inspector was illegally intercepting mail between McLean’s estranged wife, Eleanor, and Elder Pratt before their rendezvous at Fort Gibson in present-day Oklahoma to venture west to Utah.
Also, Pry clarified the term "postal inspector" was not used in the year 1857. Rather it would have been Special Agent-Post Office Department.
Although separated, Hector and Eleanor McLean were not legally divorced when she became one of Parley’s plural wives. She described in a letter his alcohol-induced spousal abuse.
"Under postal regulations, a spouse can accept and open mail addressed to the other spouse. No special authority is necessary," Pry explained. "So not only was McLean not a Postal Inspector or even a Special Agent POD, he also didn’t do anything unlawful by opening his wife’s mail."
The mistake on McLean being a "postal inspector" could have emanated from a different Pratt family history that records when Hector was looking for Eleanor: "He related some of his troubles to the postal official and had given descriptions of Parley and Eleanor, the official produced some letters written to a Mrs. Lucy Parker from Mr. P. Pratt Parker ... Hector knew immediately whose letters they were. He filed a formal charge with the commissioner in Fort Gibson and went in pursuit of Eleanor, while the soldiers and his friend Shaw looked for Parley."
In Pry’s opinion, based on modern postal regulations at least, McLean could have lawfully opened mail addressed to his wife even if she was using an alias.
"In this strange tale Eleanor still has Hector as her husband, too," Pry writes. "Her marriage to Parley, without divorcing Hector, would be invalid. Thus, she is still legally Hector’s wife, in my opinion, and he could open her mail."
The historian pictures Hector McLean going into a Van Buren general store/post office, where the postmaster and store owner are the same person. He theorized the store owner somehow knew Hector and handed over mail intended for Hector’s wife, Eleanor.
"That said, Hector had no legal basis to accept mail addressed to anyone else. The postal regulations only allowed him to open mail addressed to his wife, minor children and other persons living in the same household," Pry writes, clarifying that he is quoting modern U.S. Postal Service regulations because of uncertainty on exactly what they were here in 1857.
A history of the event found at Fairmormon.org states Pratt had tried to reconcile the marriage of Hector and Eleanor McLean. Hector McLean "was a heavy drinker, which in 1844 resulted in separation," the website entry noted.
"The couple was reconciled, and the family moved to San Francisco. While in California, Eleanor discovered the church. Her husband forbade her to join and ’purchased a sword cane and threatened to kill her and the minister who baptized her if she became a Mormon,’" the entry continues. "It is therefore claimed by critics of Mormonism that Parley P. Pratt's practice of polygamy was responsible for his murder, partly because he married a woman who hadn't been divorced from her first husband."
Eleanor lodged a complaint of assault and battery against Hector and planned to leave him until prevailed upon by local church members and her physician, the Fairmormon.org entry added. At that point, writes Eleanor in a letter, "I presume McLean himself would not deny that I then declared that I would no more be his wife however many years I might be compelled to appear as such for the sake of my children."
It may be noted here that much of the press at the time was slanted against the Mormon faith, even 20 years after the Pratt murder when the San Francisco Bulletin article appeared and called the religion "heresy."
What happened to Eleanor and Hector?
Eleanor was born in December 1817, in Wheeling, Virginia to James and Ann McComb, according to a 1975 Brigham Young University Studies Quarterly article. Little is known of her early life, except her parents were Presbyterians and they moved to Greenville, Louisiana, near New Orleans, when she was a small child. Later on, there in south Louisiana, she would meet and become married to Hector McLean, possibly as early as 1838. One family history had the meeting in 1841, which predated the estimated year of birth for their first child. They had three children: Fitzroy McLean, born about 1839; Albert McLean, born about 1841; and Ann Blanch McLean (Aug. 1847-Sep 9 1872).
A whole extra saga entails the sons being sent by Hector from San Francisco to New Orleans by ship, around Cape Horn in South America and back up to Louisiana, as a sort of punishment to Eleanor for becoming a Mormon.
Eleanor died at the age of 56 on Oct. 24, 1874, in Salt Lake City, Utah. She had served as a teacher to children there.
Doug Gibson of the Standard-Examiner in Ogden, Utah, wrote in a 2011 opinion piece when Mitt Romney was running for president, that research into this story led him to an anti-Mormon website showing a Hector McLean died and was buried in New Orleans on Oct. 24, 1867, coincidentally the same day his former wife died seven years later.
"The fact that one McLean son decided to visit his mother a couple of years after his dad’s death also seems reasonable," Gibson wrote. "I’m convinced this is McLean, whose death remains unreported by virtually all accounts of Pratt’s life and murder. Despite the notoriety and even adulation that Hector McLean received for killing Pratt, today he maintains small part in a much bigger figure’s life story."