The tarring and feathering of Latter-day Saints in Edinburgh

by Dr James Perry

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Edinburgh began holding meetings at 14 Picardy Place in the late nineteenth century and continued to do so until they moved to Ruskin House (15 Windsor Street) in the 1930s.  As in many areas of the country, the Branch rented space to hold meetings.  The photograph below was taken on the rooftop of Picardy Place, probably in the 1920s.  This period of time was difficult; members faced considerable hostility and prejudice.  One such example of the opposition that members experienced occurred on 18 June 1922.

The rooftop of Picardy Place, probably in the 1920s
Elder Finlayson (left) and Elder Ingles (right)
Elder Finlayson (left) and Elder Ingles (right)

On the evening of that particular Sunday, a small group of members gathered as usual for their meetings in Picardy Place.  Another room in the property had been rented out that evening to the Young Men's Missionary Union.  However, this was a cover; the group was actually made up of Edinburgh University students who had less than pure motives.

At 7pm, about 100 students in the room began singing a hymn.  Then small groups moved from their assigned room taking up positions in and around the building, in corridors and on the rooftop; some were posted to keep lookout.  The singing was intended to demonstrate that the students were legitimate users of the room, at the conclusion of which a group broke into the Saints’ meeting; Elder John Ingles (1851-1934) and Elder Thomas Finlayson (1855-1939) met them.  The two missionaries were natives of Scotland who had converted to the Church many years earlier and subsequently emigrated to Utah.  Now, back in their homeland, the two mature missionaries were leading the small group of members in Edinburgh; they now found themselves facing a hostile group of university students.

After bursting into the room, the students’ leader confronted the Elders and asked if they were Latter-day Saints from Utah.  The Elders confirmed that they were.  The young student leader declared: “It is then my pleasant duty to cover you with feathers.”  The students uncovered tins that they were carrying and began covering Elders Finlayson and Ingles, and others who intervened. with a mixture of cats’ blood, paint, oil, treacle, and other substances.  Feathers were then pulled from pockets and thrown over them.  Of the event, Elder Ingles later stated:

“I never anticipated such an outrage and was a bit dumfounded when they laid down these things.  Suddenly, and without another word, they opened the tins and attacked Elder Finlayson, Brother Ure and myself.  They commenced to pour paint and treacle [molasses] over us, and after that flung the feathers on us.  We were helpless and we knew it would be useless to resist.  One of the young women present came to our aid and snatched the feathers away from one of the students.  He, however, regained possession of them.  Another young woman who attempted to push the men off was smeared over.  She became infuriated at the cowardly attack and smacked the face of one of the students.  After they had smeared the four of us, they then set about tearing up the hymnbooks, mutilating them beyond recognition.  They went away after that, leaving us in a very sad state, but things did not stop there.  They came back and attempted to enter the room, but they did not manage to do so, as we had taken precaution to bolt the door.  Some of the students, I noticed, carried clubs, but they did not use them.”[1]

The event sparked outrage and four students were arrested by police as they tried to leave.  The University was embarrassed by the event; senior university leaders apologised to Church authorities.  President Orson F Whitney received the following letter from I A Ewing, the Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Edinburgh University:

I regret exceedingly to be informed that representatives of your Church were subjected to foolish and violent treatment by some young students here, who forgot the courtesy that is due to years.  The matter was brought to the attention of the President of the Students’ Representative Council, and such reparation as was possible has been made in payment of property which has been damaged.

Will you be so good as to convey to the representatives who were maltreated this expression of my most sincere regret that they have suffered annoyance at the hands of any members of the University.

Compensation of £6 was paid, a particularly low amount considering the damage and disruption caused.  However, the incident had some positive effects.  Some months later missionary Elbert Curtis joked, “I think you should apply for another tar and feathering ordeal if the results will be the same.”[2]  The agitation had led to increased media coverage, which for the missionaries, often generated more persecution, but it also led to popular interest and new opportunities to share their message.[3]  

Elders Ingles and Finlayson cleaned themselves up after that June Sunday incident and were out proclaiming the gospel in no time.  They completed successful and honourable missions and returned to their homes in Utah where they lived until their deaths in the 1930s. They and many other missionaries have persevered in the face of tribulation.  It is through such sacrifice and faith that the gospel has continued to be proclaimed throughout the British Isles.

[1] ‘A Dastardly Outrage’, Millennial Star, Vol. 84, No. 27 (1922), p. 428.

[2] Letter from Elbert Curtis to John E. Ingles, 15 September 1922.

[3] For other accounts of the attack see ‘Students rag Mormons’, Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 20 June 1922, ‘Mormons Treacled and Feathered’, Cornishman, 21 June 1922, and ‘Mormons Tarred and Feathered’, Warwick and Warwickshire Advertiser, 24 June 1922, amongst others.