Authored by McKenzie Wood
On September 9, 1891, Cass Hite killed Adolf F. Kohler in the Green River Valley of the Utah Territory in self-defense. Despite this, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison. What followed were petitions, letters, and people asking one question: why?
The answer was complicated. Prosecutors in court claimed Hite killed Kohler out of anger after being called a coward (The People of the Territory of Utah vs. Cass Hite, n.d.). For Hite’s defense, Kohler shot first after Hite went to him to settle their differences without violence (Salt Lake Tribune 1892, 3). The court split when the first trial proceeded in February 1892. With no solid proof of either sides’ story besides bullet holes and a dead man, a he-said she-said predicament ensued. Witnesses contradicted each other on key points depending on which side they supported. “Ultimately,” says Knipmeyer, author of Hite’s biography, “[it] came down to which witnesses each member of the…jury believed” (Knipmeyer 2016, 147-148).
A second trial was held October 1892. Though Hite maintained his story of self-defense, the jury gave the verdict of second-degree murder. Of the 12 jury members, all were part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormon faith. Hite and his friends wondered if the Mormons declared him guilty due to his visceral “anti-Mormon” feelings, and therefore did not provide an impartial jury (Knipmeyer 2016, 155). Hite was sentenced to 12 years in the Utah Territorial Penitentiary under hard labor (Vernal Express 1892, 1; Salt Lake Herald-Republican 1892, 1).
Many who knew Hite knew he would never kill without reason. “We cheerfully certify that [Hite’s] general reputation as a peaceable, law abiding, quiet and useful Citizen was above reproach,” states one letter to the territory’s governor (Laeuris n.d.), then signed by 12 different people at the bottom and back of the page – reminiscent of the Founding Father’s signatures on the Declaration of Independence as they fought for one man’s own freedom.
Another letter states “the trial was unfair and the conviction unjust, and…the law…violated” (Anderson 1893). Self-defense is a right under the Constitution of the United States. This right was not held true under Hite’s trial. More letters of this same kind followed in the year after the sentencing.
The citizens of the Utah Territory spoke out against Hite’s injustice. This reflects St. John’s Vincentian tradition to “search out the causes of…social injustice and…encourage solutions that are adaptable” (St. John’s University 2022). Hite was a good man who was forced to defend himself from a willing killer. If Hite was declared guilty for defending himself, what would happen to others who defended themselves, their families, and property as was their constitutional right?
The people of the territory – including 8 of the 12 Mormon jurors who had convicted him – saw Hite’s situation as unjust and petitioned for a change (Knipmeyer 2016, 163-64). Immediate and overwhelming reactions from citizens to release Hite allowed Governor Caleb West to reconsider the conviction. On November 29, 1893, Cass Hite was pardoned of all charges and released a free man.
Anderson, T.J. 1893. T.J. Anderson to Governor Caleb W. West. September 20, 1893. Series 328, Board of Pardons Prisoner Application Pardon Application Files, 1892-1949. Utah State Archives. https://images.archives.utah.gov/digital/collection/328/id/65648/rec/1 .
Knipmeyer, James H. 2016. Cass Hite: The Life of an Old Prospector. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.
Laeuris, Jno. A., Frank Knight, Bert B., Henry E. Rawlings, W. O. N., C. N. Radfield, Julian Riley, et al. n.d. The People of the Territory of Utah to Governor Caleb W. West. n.d. Series 328, Board of Pardons Prisoner Application Pardon Application Files, 1892-1949. Utah State Archives. Accessed March 19, 2022. https://images.archives.utah.gov/digital/collection/328/id/65599.
Salt Lake Herald-Republican. 1892. “Cass Hite Sentenced.” Vol. 46, no. 115, p. 1, October 16, 1892. From Utah Digital Newspapers. https://newspapers.lib.utah.edu/details?id=10916116&q=cass+hite&sort=rel&year_start=1890&year_end=1895.
Salt Lake Tribune. 1892. “Cass Hite in His Own Behalf.” Vol. 42, no. 173, p. 3, October 10, 1892. From Utah Digital Newspapers. https://newspapers.lib.utah.edu/details?id=12934014&q=hite&parent_i=12933944.
St. John’s University. 2015. “St. John’s Mission and Values.” https://online.stjohns.edu/about-us/mission.
The People of the Territory of Utah vs. Cass Hite. n.d. Series 328, Board of Pardons Prisoner Application Pardon Application Files, 1892-1949. Utah State Archives. Accessed March 19, 2022. https://images.archives.utah.gov/digital/collection/328/id/65570/rec/1.
Vernal Express. 1892. “The Cass Hite Case Decided.” Vol. 1, no. 37, p. 1, October 20, 1892. From Utah Digital Newspapers. https://newspapers.lib.utah.edu/details?id=21229635&q=cass+hite&sort=rel&year_start=1890&year_end=1895.