Faith Promoting Rumors - Exploring Latter-day Saint Myths and Culture

The Mystery of Brigham Young's Haunted Hearse

Episode Summary

Ever heard the one about the hearse at Disneyland's Haunted Mansion-- that it used to be Brigham Young's? Let's dive unnecessarily deep to find the truth about this old dead-wagon.

Episode Notes

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TRANSCRIPT:

Ahh... Disneyland. “The Happiest Place on Earth”. An entire theme park dedicated to family and wholesome entertainment. It seems like the perfect place for Latter-day Saints. My wife and I honeymooned there and while we were there, we loved to play “Spot the Mormon” (BYU logos are a dead giveaway...).

In fact, in the seventies and eighties, if you were a Latter-day Saint, could buy discounted tickets on certain nights at your local meetinghouse. That’s right, Disneyland “Mormon Night” was a thing! As long as you observed LDS standards, you could enjoy all the late-night rides you wanted without the regular crowds filling up the lines.

Actually, I don’t mind waiting in line, because Disney’s Imagineers do an excellent job transforming the queues into immersive worlds that set the tone for each attraction. I always liked all the little details that add so much to the experience.

Like this for example: Parked right in front of the Haunted Mansion ride is an old-fashioned hearse hitched to an invisible horse. To your average park-goer it might seem like just another fun decoration, but to someone in the know, this ain’t no cheap prop, this is a genuine religious artifact. Apparently, this funeral coach carried the Brigham Young’s body to the grave.

At least that’s the rumor—and one that always seems to get spread right there in line. If you were to listen in on people’s conversations just in that section of the waiting area, you wouldn’t have to wait too long before somebody (probably a member) turned to their buddy and said,

“Hey did you know that that used to be Brigham Young’s?”

“What?”

“Yeah, when he died, they carried his coffin in that wagon.”

“Wow! Where did you hear that?

“I dunno, someone told me that last time I was here.”

It certainly looks pretty authentic, like it could’ve been used for an important person’s funeral in the 1800s. And I wouldn’t put it past Disneyland to buy an authentic funeral carriage just to add to the spooky atmosphere. Some of their set pieces are the real thing, like these cannons at Main Street USA Square. Apparently, they’re real 19th century cannons built for the French army.

But was this hearse actually used to transport the casket of the prophet? To know for sure, I needed to dig a little deeper than the first page of Google results. I spent weeks tracking down every lead, and consulting every expert I could find until I collected perhaps the most comprehensive timeline of this white wagon ever compiled. Okay, maybe I went a little overboard, but like a funeral hearse, we may be able to finally bring this myth to rest.

Are you ready? Let’s get meticulous.

PART 1: HISTORY OF THE HEARSE-Y HEARSAY

I started my search at the source of the rumor: Disneyland.

Back in early 1990, Disney execs like Michael Eisner collaborated with George Lucas on what was going to be a Wild West-themed live show called Young Indiana Jones Adventure Spectacular. I got in contact with one of the Imagineers, theme park genius Bob Baranick, who was responsible for the hearse ending up at Disney. Over email, Bob explained how he was tasked with hunting down authentic-looking set pieces for the stunt show where the hearse was originally supposed to be used on stage.

Eventually the project was abandoned in favor of the more ambitious Indiana Jones and the Lost Adventure, and then ultimately the Adventure ride we know today. Since the hearse was no longer needed for the live show, it was stored in one of Disney’s warehouses in Sunland until 1995 when Baranick brought it out again and parked it at the Haunted Mansion. Another designer had the idea to attach a harness to the front to create the illusion of an invisible horse.

The coach was finally on display to the public. And to commemorate the event, Baranick invited the man who sold it to him years earlier to come out to Disney for a photo. There was a report about it in Disneyland Line, a newsletter available exclusively to park employees. So, of course I had to get my hands on it. I suspect that it was this publication that brought the Brigham Young rumor to light.

The magazine has little stories from behind the scenes at Disney, and in the January 26, 1996 issue, we read about Bob Baranick purchasing the hearse from one Dale Rickards of Malibu. Rickards collected Western memorabilia for Hollywood movie sets. He had had the hearse in his possession for 18 years.

Dale has since passed away, but I got to speak to his son.

My name is Gary and my father was Dale.

My wife and I, we sell carriages and we sell harness and whips and everything that goes with a person who wants to drive a carriage, either a single horse, or two horses, or four horses for that matter.

Gary is something of an expert on carriages, and he remembers this one well.

Someplace there’s a picture of me sitting up on the driver's seat of the hearse, ‘cause Dad was going to put it on a trailer and he took it in a parade in Thousand Oaks, California. I was sitting up there. We had a big fiberglass horse in front of it. ‖

The actual hearse was in really good shape. It was sturdy, it was strong. ‖

This particular carriage did not have lamps on it (they put lamps on it at Disney). There was a trap door in it. I don’t know what that was for and it was in the middle of the carriage on the floor. The glass was all original glass. You could tell from the waviness of it. It was in very, very good shape. Other than the wood being extremely dry, there was quite a bit of cracking where they glued some of the carvings together.

The inside... the material that was on the ceiling was ripped and it was starting to come off. The doors closed. The wheels were good. There was not a maker’s name on it. We could not find a plaque of any kind. Usually they were quite small and brass and barely tacked on but my dad and I did some sanding and put some filler in some of the really bad areas that were cracking and we never ran across a name plate of any kind, so I really don’t know who the manufacturer was. ‖

I asked Gary if he thought it were at least possible that the hearse was old enough to have been used at Brigham’s funeral.

Yes I do... It certainly could’ve been around that era. It was not unusual-- it’s still not unusual really to find carriages that are that old even today. Usually the wheels are all bowed and broke but it’s not unusual to find them.

I can tell you something funny that happened with dad with the carriage. Dad had it and he opened the back door and (I’m gonna make a sound) and he heard *BAAAAAIIIII! And it just scared the piddle out of him... a chicken had gotten in there and was nesting on her eggs. And Dad opened it and scared it and that’s when she made that noise. My dad just knew a ghost was gonna get him!

PART 2: GHOST TOWN GRIFTER

Gary then told me about where he and his dad got the hearse. In 1972, Dale heard about a collector in Vegas who was selling antique horse-drawn vehicles.

My dad being interested in carriages at the time... he said, “Do you want to go to Vegas and look at carriages?” and I said, “Okay!” and so off we went!

The guy in Las Vegas was a fella named Robert F. Caudill.

He was an old man, a short man... When he met us it was so funny, he came out in his long- his red, faded long johns and cowboy boots and a six gun and he had really thick glasses.

Robert Caudill, known by all as “Doby Doc” was one of Nevada’s most distinctive figures. While he didn’t leave much of a paper trail, Doby Doc left an impression on everyone he associated with. He was a self-made millionaire from Elko, although much of his fortune was earned through questionable means. He was a good friend of the famous mob boss and expert gambler Benny Binion, and helped establish the second casino in Las Vegas, The Last Frontier. Part of the gambling hall’s appeal was its Village, basically a re-creation of a genuine Old West square, complete with authentic ghost town buildings, and all kinds of antique trains and wagons (including one familiar white funeral coach).

Where did Doc get all this stuff? Well, that’s the story. Those who knew him best remembered him as a bit of a kleptomaniac with a knack for “procuring” just about anything he thought might be valuable.

"Gawd helps those who help themselves." - he would say. He once claimed to have bought an entire Joss House, or Chinese temple that he somehow moved from Elko, Nevada to his own little town at the casino. When asked for the bill of sale, he responded, “It was a verbal agreement.”

Doc spent decades looting unattended properties throughout the West until he had curated a veritable museum of old-timey clothing, furniture, books, and vehicles, many of which had mysteriously disappeared in the dead of night.

Stored in barns in the dry Nevada desert, Doby’s vast hoard of train cars and carriages was kept in remarkably good condition. While most of his relics were genuine antiques, he was also known to tweak their narratives to make them sound more dramatic. He reportedly installed shackles to the inside of the jailhouse at the Frontier Village, spinning tall tales about the most horrendous criminals that were once held there—when in reality, the jail only ever detained the occasional drunk hoodlum, and never in chains.

Doby Doc was known for this sort of creative memory. Which is why I have my doubts about the story he told about the white hearse.

After the Last Frontier Village changed ownership, Doby started selling off his larger artifacts to collectors in California, for whatever price he thought he could get. When he sold the hearse to Dale Rickards in 1972, he claimed that he had gotten it in Salt Lake City from a woman named Tomasetta Young, a descendent of the late prophet. Apparently, they’d kept the wagon in the family since Brigham’s death and when Doby bought it, Tomasetta signed an affidavit verifying that it was the real deal.

When Rickards asked for this documentation, Doby Doc said that he was going to send it to him but he was beaten and robbed before he could mail the paperwork. Hmm... I guess it’s a better story than “My dog ate it.” I asked Gary whether he thought Doby was just making the whole thing up in order to sell the wagon.

Ah gosh, that’s a good question. Um... I don’t know. I really couldn’t tell you that for sure. You kinda have to judge a man... I think he was a very colorful man. He was quite old when we bought the hearse...

But Dale and his son genuinely believed his story (at least they did at the time that they sold it to Disneyland) and after a career in law enforcement, Dale would never have knowingly tried to dupe the Mouse. Bob Baranick backed up Rickard’s character in an email:

“I have no reason to ever doubt what Dale Rickards told me. He had more integrity than anyone I ever knew.”

“My dad was just a fantastic person...What my dad told Bob is what was told to him. That’s the way my dad was. It was the truth as he knew it.”

But maybe Doby Doc actually was telling the truth. Hours of searching genealogical records yielded no evidence of any woman named Tomosetta Young who would’ve been alive between 1920 and 1955, when Doby had to have acquired the hearse. There was, however, a lady named Tomasita Aerts, whose second husband was named Ormal Brigham Young, or “Brig” for short. Tommy and Brig got married in Elko (where Doby Doc lived) in 1954—only a year before the hearse was first photographed at the Frontier Casino. So maybe the trail isn’t cold after all. Is it possible that this strange cowboy met with Brig Young and talked him into selling a family heirloom?

Brig’s grandfather was named Joseph Young, who, according to census records, sold pianos and had a machinery business in Salt Lake. But there’s no evidence that he ever dealt in carriages, and despite his last name, I could find no relation to the Brigham Young, not through any of the prophet’s 55 wives.

So maybe this Tomasita was just confused and thought the hearse was authentic. Or maybe Doby Doc assumed that because her husband’s name was Ormal Brigham Young, that his great-grandad must’ve been the prophet.

That is, if he got the wagon from them at all, or even met them at all. The only evidence we have is his word. And based on Doby’s character, it’s more likely that he filched the old dead-wagon from some ghost town near Elko and gave it an exciting Mormon backstory, maybe using this Tomasita Young as inspiration.

Elko historian Howard Hickson put it this way:

“It's hard to swallow some of Doby's stories about his adventures and treasures. That's because they are pure baloney spiked with a little truth, some wishful thinking, and a lot of imagination, all seasoned with a little entertainment. He loved being the center of attention, no matter what it took. A tall tale loosely based on a small amount of fact usually served his purpose.”

...

BUT WAIT, maybe I've been going about this the wrong way. Wouldn’t it be easier to debunk this myth by starting with Brigham Young’s funeral and working forward from there?

…Yes it would. But I thought all that history stuff was pretty neat. And it’s my investigation...

Okay, so let’s start way back in the 1870s to answer a simpler question: Did Brigham Young even have a hearse?

PART 3: BRIGHAM’S BURIAL

Well, funny enough, Brigham himself might have the answer for us. A few years before his death, he wrote up his Last Will and Testament and was oddly specific about how he should be buried:

“I, Brigham Young, wish my funeral services to be conducted in the following manner:

When I breathe my last I wish my friends to put my body in as clean and wholesome state as can conveniently be done, and preserve the same for one, two, three or four days, or as long as my body can be preserved in a good condition. I want my coffin made of plump 1 1/4 inch boards, not scrimped in length, but two inches longer than I would measure, and from two to three inches wider than is commonly made for a person of my breadth and size, and deep enough to place me on a little comfortable cotton bed, with a good suitable pillow for size and quality; my body dressed in my temple clothing, and laid nicely into my coffin, and the coffin to have the appearance that if I wanted to turn a little to the right or to the left, I should have plenty of room to do so. The lid can be made crowning.

At my interment I wish all of my family present that can be conveniently, and the male members wear no crepe on their hats or on their coats; the females to buy no black bonnets, nor black dresses, nor black veils; but if they have them they are at liberty to wear them. The services may be permitted, as singing and a prayer offered, and if any of my friends wish to say a few words, and really desire, do so; and when they have closed their services, take my remains on a bier, and repair to the little burying ground, which I have reserved on my lot east of the White House on the hill...”

And he goes on to describe in great detail things like the size and depth of his grave.

So, those were his wishes, but were they carried out? With the help of the Church History Museum I tracked down all the relevant news articles to plot out exactly what happened to the prophet upon his death. Brigham passed away in his home, the Lion House, on August 29th, 1877 after suffering from cholera and possibly a ruptured appendix. His remains were laid in a plain rosewood coffin of the dimensions he specified, with silver handles. Brigham wished that his body be set on a “bier” or a small stand that holds the coffin. Some biers have wheels so you can push it from place to place, but from what I’ve been able to ascertain, whenever the coffin needed moving, it was done manually.

Three days after his death, on a Saturday morning, friends and family carried the coffin from his home, down the roped-off sidewalk (not the street itself) and into the Tabernacle where it was placed inside a metallic case and draped in a white cloth and covered in flowers. It was raised up high on a type of bier called a catafalque so that over 20,000 visitors could shuffle through to see it. The next day the actual service took place. Hymns were sung and remarks were given by a handful of Apostles like Wilford Woodruff and John Taylor, and then it was time for the procession.

The procession, which included everyone from the Heads of the Priesthood quorums to the Tabernacle Choir made their way out of Temple Square and back up South Temple, by way of the north sidewalk. Ten of the twelve apostles acted as pallbearers. The mourners marched eight-wide past the Lion House and the Beehive House and through Eagle Gate. They then turned north up what is now State Street and into Brigham’s property the next block over where a private burial garden had been prepared.

In total, Brigham’s body traveled less than a mile from his home to the Tabernacle to the grave. There was no hearse involved at any point during the services, as it would probably be more of a hassle with the throngs of mourners who filled the actual street, which had been sprayed with water that morning to keep all the dust down. Every witness account agrees that Brigham’s wish that he be borne by his employees was carried out exactly. And for a final “nail in the coffin”, as it were, the program that they handed out emphasized that “No horses or vehicles [were] allowed at the Procession.”

So there you have it. Brigham Young’s hearse can’t be at the Haunted Mansion because he never had one to begin with. And even if he had had a hearse, it probably wouldn’t have been white. It’s been reported that the Saints in Utah only built white hearses. I called a couple mortuaries and old-fashioned carriage services in Utah to verify if that was true. It’s definitely not. In the Victorian era, white hearses were quite rare and were traditionally used only in children’s funerals. If the family of Brigham Young were to hire a funeral coach from one of the carriagemakers in Salt Lake, it would’ve been black.

So maybe this small bit of Disneyland magic is just another illusion. But, boy, is it a great story. And the thing is, nobody still living can be blamed for believing it. After all is said and done, it seems this spooky old wagon was made famous by the crafty imagination of an old, gambling cowboy named Doby Doc.

As Las Vegas reporter Judy Carlos once said in 1972:

“Robert Caudill may be one of the last true "westerners" in our midst, a man whose tales are partly based on fact, partly on fancy, partly on wishful thinking, and always mysteriously compelling like an old letter found in someone else's basement.”

I like how Bob Baranick (the Disneyland Imagineer who bought the hearse) put it: “Perhaps it should be left as just another Disney Urban Legend.”

Perhaps he’s right.

Well, that does it for another episode of Faith Promoting Rumors. If you’re listening to this in podcast form, you may not know that we have a YouTube channel now. You can watch this episode and others with some pretty cool archival photos and visuals. If you’re watching this on YouTube, guess what? We have a podcast, with a backlog of other topics we’ve previously covered that you can listen to as you work out or wash dishes or whatever. Either way, you’ll find more Latter-day urban legends like this at Faith Promoting Rumors.

While we strive for the most accurate information possible, Faith Promoting Rumors does not claim to be an authority on any subject nor are officially affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or any other organization. The views and options of those interviewed are entirely their own.

© 2019 John Stanley