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LDS prophet Brigham Young’s drag-performing son skirted traditional norms and now stirs speculation

As Madam Pattirini, Brigham Morris Young delighted Latter-day Saint audiences, including his father-in-law, church President Lorenzo Snow.

Brigham Morris Young, a son of Latter-day Saint pioneer-prophet Brigham Young, would sometimes perform in drag as Italian singer Madam Pattirini.

Attired in an elegant long-flowing dress, a shawl draped over her shoulders and adorned with jewelry, the reputedly famous Italian singer Madam Pattirini thrilled Utah audiences over a century ago with her décolletage and high-falsetto soprano voice.

The performer in these shows, however, was no madam. Neither was she famous nor Italian. Nor was she really a she. He was a foot soldier in the faith of his father who served four proselytizing missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, married in the temple, sired 10 children and helped found the faith’s Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association (YMMIA).

Turns out, Madam Pattirini — one of his drag alter egos — was Brigham Morris Young, Utah pioneer leader Brigham Young’s 35th child from his plural marriage to Margaret Pierce Whitesides Young. Commenting on his father’s death in 1931 from a ruptured appendix, Gaylen S. Young extolled his virtues in his biography, a “Brief History of Brigham Morris Young.”

“He truly gave his time, talents and all that he possessed for the building up of the Kingdom of God on the earth,” he wrote. “He was humble, sincere and did not seek the plaudits of men … and because of his faithfulness, I am sure, is now receiving his reward in the great eternities.”

Today, nine decades after his death, Young, who went by his middle name Morris, is better known for his performances as a female impersonator — for duping and delighting Latter-day Saint general authorities and members at meetinghouses and other venues — than for his religious fervor.

Queer icon

Taylor Petrey, associate professor of religion at Michigan’s Kalamazoo College and the editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, said Young/Pattirini has become a queer Latter-day Saint icon in recent years.

“His story and photograph appear widely in social media and popular histories,” Petrey said. “His female impersonation has become associated with the modern practice of ‘drag,’ or occasionally trans identity.”

For example, Morris’ visage appears in some LGBTQ-themed websites and has even given rise to Madam Pattirini Gin, an alcoholic libation Ogden’s Own Distillery has concocted using juniper, bergamot, coriander, cardamom, Nigerian ginger and Sicilian lemon.

(Debi Robinson) Madam Pattirini Gin, produced by Ogden's Own Distillery.

Scholars say Madam Pattirini is both lauded and leered at now for his female impersonations, the latter by critics who sometimes use his performances as a means to mock or embarrass Latter-day Saints. Moreover, there is widespread speculation on social media about whether Young was gay or had gender identity issues.

For example, the Ogden distillery’s website notes that Morris Young drove a “horse-drawn streetcar” (it was actually drawn by mules) at a time in the early 1870s when a “popular stereotype … was that streetcar drivers were effeminate homosexuals.”

“Interestingly,” the website history continues, “Morris drove the streetcar between the Utah Central Railroad Depot and the Wasatch Municipal Baths, which [has been] documented [as] an active ‘cruising’ area for homosexual men … at least as early as the 1880s.”

Despite attempts to gin up Morris’ history, historians say, the facts show otherwise.

Historian Connell O’Donovan, who is writing a history of drag in Utah from 1871 to 2021, firmly believes Morris was heterosexual but doesn’t entirely rule out the alternative.

“He might have been questioning his gender identity and using the humorous [drag] portrayals that he was doing as a way to explore that,” he said. “[But] that’s purely speculation. There’s no evidence of him doing that.”

Steeped in church service

(The Salt Lake Tribune) The obituary for Brigham Morris Young, published on Feb. 21, 1931.

There was little in Morris’ upbringing that suggested he would become a flamboyant female impersonator. Born Jan. 18, 1854, he was named after his famous father. His middle name “Morris” was derived from his mother’s first husband, Morris Whitesides, who died eight months after their July 1844 marriage.

When Margaret Pierce Whitesides married pioneer-prophet Brigham Young on Jan. 22, 1846, she was 22 and the church leader was 45. Morris, who was their only child, lived with his mother on the northeast side of the main floor of the Lion House in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City.

In his short history of his father, Gaylen Young said Morris enjoyed hanging out with the children from the church president’s other polygamous marriages, roller skating and weightlifting on the large porch on the Lion House’s west side, being tutored by the likes of Karl Maeser at the “Brigham Young school” and watching the buildings take shape on what was to become Temple Square.

In 1873, at 19, he was called to serve a mission in Hawaii, then known as the Sandwich Islands. He had only been home a few months in 1875, when Brigham Young called him on a second mission, this one traveling throughout the Utah Territory with Junius Wells and Milton Hardy to organize the YMMIA.

On March 19, 1875, Morris married accomplished actress Celestia Armeda Snow, the “lovely brown-eyed, black-haired daughter” of later church President Lorenzo Snow and his wife Amelia Squires Snow. Morris and Armeda were the parents of 10 children, eight of whom survived to adulthood.

Soon after the birth of their first child, Morris was serving a third mission to the Midwest, Eastern States and Washington, D.C., in 1877, when he learned Brigham Young had died. In 1883, soon after two of the couple’s children died in their infancy, Morris and Armeda and their two living children at the time served a mission together in Hawaii.

Rich man, poor man

About 15 months after Brigham Young’s death, Morris received his share of his father’s estate, about $18,000 in stocks and bonds and property that would be worth more than $540,000 today. Alas, Gaylen said, the ensuing 15-year economic depression and his parents’ church mission to Hawaii took its toll on their newfound wealth. Soon, many of their stocks were worthless and the family had to sell off properties at deflated prices to make ends meet.

Upon returning from their mission, the couple ran and later sold a confectionary shop in Brigham City. In financial straits at the height of the economic downturn in 1893, the family eventually settled in Salt Lake City, where then-President Lorenzo Snow offered Morris a job at the Salt Lake Temple that paid $60 a month.

“With careful handling, it was enough to keep the wolf from the door,” Gaylen wrote in his father’s biography.

Cross-dressing and gender-bending

(Photo by Mike Hoogterp) Benjamin Park, assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University, says Latter-day Saints "didn’t see anything scandalous about" Brigham Morris Young's drag act.

Morris’ foray into female impersonation began around 1885 and lasted through the early 1900s. Typically performing under the stage name Madam Pattirini, he skirted traditional norms and vamped to audiences throughout northern and central Utah. He also would dress up, on occasion, as a Chinese diplomat. Both characters were on display at church President Snow’s 87th birthday party at the Beehive House on April 3, 1901.

“The honor of sustaining the amusing side of the celebration…fell mostly upon B. Morris Young, who not only as Pattirini, the Italian prima donna, exhibited a good falsetto voice and the ability to sustain a female character,” the Deseret Evening News reported, “but he convulsed the company in the delineation of a Chinese character.”

Morris also regaled a crowd attending a Christmas ball in 1886 at the Salt Lake Theatre with his portrayal of a “fine Irish girl” named Bridget McCarthy. Historian Benjamin Park, an associate professor at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, said George Q. Cannon, a counselor to four successive church presidents, wrote in his diary about going with others to see Morris perform.

“He would mention that they would go witness the performance, and they would say they enjoyed it,” Park said. “They didn’t see anything scandalous about it at all … In the public view, it was seen as a form of performance.”

Petrey notes the drag acts of Morris’ day often involved the flirtation between male performers and audience members and exaggerated costuming and performances that also could be misogynistic in nature. He said Young’s Italian diva persona fit into the entertainment culture of female impersonators from that era. “Many of his performances,” Petrey said, “were on stages in LDS meetinghouses for all ages.”

The big reveal

(Courtesy photo) Religious scholar Taylor Petrey says Brigham Morris Young "expressed his female persona at a time when American culture was open to gender expression in a variety of forms.”

Morris had plenty of company. By O’Donovan’s count, more than 200 men performed in drag on Utah stages between 1871 and 1931, only about 10% of whom he has been able to document as gay.

[Morris] was just a performer,” he added, “and I think performing drag was something he did because it was a good time. It was just a hobby for him.”

Petrey concurs with that assessment.

“Not all female impersonators at the time were gay men, and few comedic performers would have described their acts as their trans identities,” he said. “There were of course gay men, and lots of people cross-dressed in the American Frontier West in their daily lives, but such proto-trans practices should be distinguished from performance impersonators.”

To reinforce the notion that the drag exhibitions were all an act, O’Donovan explained, they were accompanied by what was called the “big reveal,” which involved performers like Morris doffing the hat to the audience at the end of the performance to reveal their true gender and avoid confusion.

Female impersonators further underscored the point, he added, by also staging boxing bouts or shooting matches to demonstrate they were masculine men and “this was just a form of entertainment and nothing more sinister.”

So how has drag become so closely associated with the queer community?

For his part, O’Donovan traces that evolution to the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when American conservatives attributed the misfortunes of the nation to moral decay and started pushing for a stronger moral stance on public drag performances.

“That’s when municipal codes started being introduced to forbid cross-dressing,” he said. “At that time, when homosexuality was criminalized, drag became criminalized as well. … And [drag] became almost exclusively within the domain of the gay and bisexual male community.”

Park believes many Latter-day Saints’ more hostile view of drag performances today dates back to the 1960s and ’70s.

“As the LDS Church became more committed to the broader post-World War II era’s heteronormative norms, and committed to these eternal notions of gender,” he said, “gender crossings — even in the form of drag performances — were seen as especially scandalous.”

As for how B. Morris Young is seen today, it varies with the viewer. There is little doubt, as his son and others avow, his devotion to his wife, family and faith never faltered. His legacy, however, wavers depending on who is doing the assessment. Some stress his religious commitment; others focus on his female impersonations.

“While it might be anachronistic to say that Young was a drag performer, if we take female drag to refer to a practice largely associated with gay men’s culture, that doesn’t mean it is wrong to see Young as a proto-queer figure,” Petrey said. “He expressed his female persona at a time when American culture was open to gender expression in a variety of forms.”

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

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