Arizona’s 1953 Raid on Sect Backfired
Horrified by stories of rape, incest and men taking young girls as brides, the new governor of Arizona quietly made plans to invade this polygamist settlement in the summer of 1953.
Shortly before dawn on July 26, a raiding party of about 120 law enforcement officers -- state Highway Patrol, sheriff’s deputies and liquor control agents -- descended on the community, which was then called Short Creek.
Somewhere in the desert, a lookout signaled the posse’s approach with a blast of dynamite.
“Me and my sister went into the garden and hid behind the bushes, and this policeman came looking for us,” recalled Shari Hammon, who was 10 at the time.
“He said, ‘Get out, ma’am,’ to my sister, and my sister said, ‘Get the hell out of here!’ ”
The rest of the town, members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gathered in the schoolyard, waving flags and singing “God Bless America.”
By day’s end, families and crying children were separated in a scene that would haunt political leaders for years to come. In all, 36 men were arrested. Authorities loaded 86 women and 263 children aboard buses to Phoenix.
C.D. Tyra, 86, a former highway patrolman who took part in the raid, recalled encountering a girl, about 8. She showed off her new patent leather shoes, which Tyra noticed were actually well-worn and stuffed with cardboard to make them fit.
“She was so proud of those shoes,” he recalled.
“Then my partner Frank said to me, ‘How would you feel if that was your little girl and she was going to get married that night?’ That really got me.”
But the public was angrier at the state than at the polygamists.
Arizona Gov. J. Howard Pyle, a Republican, took to the radio, saying “the foulest conspiracy you could imagine” was underway in the community. He said there had been wholesale abuse and enslavement of children, especially girls who were forced into a “shameful mockery of marriage.”
“Here is a community ... dedicated to the wicked theory that every maturing girl child should be forced into bondage of multiple wifehood with men of all ages for the sole purpose of producing more children to be reared to become more chattels of this totally lawless enterprise,” he told the radio audience.
As sympathy built for the FLDS, Pyle was denounced and ridiculed by newspaper editorials. The raid was called “Pyle’s Folly.”
The Arizona Republic said the action would have made the Keystone Kops “green with envy” and resembled “too closely the hated police-state roundups of the Old World.”
Religious leaders and political rivals accused him of using excessive force.
Democrats decried the action as “odious and un-American.” A prominent Mormon leader denounced the “tyrannical methods” used.
The raid’s results were meager in court as well. Charges of statutory rape and contributing to the delinquency of a minor were dropped. The men pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate laws against bigamy, and open and notorious cohabitation. One-year suspended sentences were handed out. Many promptly returned to Short Creek with their families.
For years, the raid was memorialized each July with speeches and parades. Town officials erected a monument to the event.
“They are very proud of what they went through,” said Marshall Trimble, Arizona’s state historian. For the FLDS, he said, the raid by state authorities “was their personal Holocaust.”
Hyperbole aside, it was in fact a political disaster for Pyle. He lost his reelection bid. And the episode was seen as ushering in half a century of political timidity in the face of FLDS abuse.
But Trimble believes those days are long past.
“We are a different society today than in 1953, and [state authorities] could take action without the political risk,” he said.