Peter Mortensen, husband of my 2nd great aunt, was tried, convicted, and executed for the murder of James Hay. The personal revelation of a witness played a role in his arrest and conviction.
In 1901, Peter Mortensen owed the Pacific Lumber Company $3800. His Ogden, Utah neighbor,
James Hay, was an officer in the company and was responsible for collecting the debt.
In December, Mortensen told Hay that he had the money to pay the debt and wanted Hay to come to Mortensen’s house with the receipts. Hay went to Mortensen’s house in the evening and was never seen again. Mortensen claimed that he paid the debt with gold coins, and Hay left with the money.
The next morning, James Sharp, Hay’s distraught father-in-law, told the authorities that he had a “personal revelation” that Mortensen murdered Hay and buried his body in a shallow grave in a field less than a mile away.
The next day, Hay’s body was discovered in a shallow grave less than a mile away. He had been shot, and his hat was missing. The gun was never found, and Hay’s missing hat was never recovered.
Based on Sharp’s “personal revelation,” and Mortensen’s conflicting statements, he was arrested for murder.
This became a very high publicity case. Soon after the arrest, Mortensen’s wife and five children moved to Provo. She never saw him again.
The Preliminary Hearing
The preliminary hearing began on January 21, 1902, in Salt Lake City.
According to a newspaper account, “By far the most intriguing and controversial event at the hearing was the testimony of James Sharp.” Sharp testified that he knew Mortensen was the murderer because God “revealed it to me.”
One reporter wrote that upon hearing Sharp’s testimony, “[Mortensen’s] head drooped, his eyes were half closed, and looked unseeingly into his lap; his chin quivered, the blood mounted to his neck, cheeks and forehead, coloring them a dull red. . . . He glanced up appealingly as a stricken animal looks at the hunter about to take its life. Then his eyes fell again, but the look of helpless anguish lingered on his face.”
Public reaction to Sharp’s “personal revelation” evidence varied. The prosecuting attorney viewed it as “positive and splendid,” while the defense emphasized that such testimony could “never be admitted in a court of law.”
The Methodist pastor, in a sermon the following Sunday, accused Sharp of fanaticism, and declared that “such a statement could not stand either before the law nor as the gospel.”
LDS Church President Joseph F. Smith, was quoted in the church magazine:
“Recently a man charged with murder of another man was examined before a committing magistrate in Salt Lake City. The father-in-law of the murdered man, during the examination . . . laid the crime at the door of the accused. In the cross-examination the attorney for the defendant pressed the witness as to how he knew that the witness was guilty of the crime. The reply, as given in the press, was, because God had revealed it to him . . . .
“No member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should, for one moment, regard such testimony as admissible in a court of law, and to make the case perfectly clear it may be further stated that such evidence would not be permissible even in a Church court, where rules of evidence, though not so technical, are founded largely upon the same principles that govern the rules of evidence in a court of law. Any attempt, therefore, to make it appear that such evidence is in keeping with the tenets of the ‘Mormon’ faith is wholly unjustified.”
Despite the controversy caused by Sharp’s claims of revelation, the judge found enough evidence to bind Mortensen over to trial for murder
The Jury Selection
Because of the massive publicity, 1,000 potential jurors were summoned.
Among them was Orson F. Whitney, assistant LDS Historian. He knew both Sharp and Hay. When questioned about Sharp’s statement, Whitney replied, “I believe Mr. Sharp believed he had a revelation.” When press on whether Whitney believed Sharp’s “revelation,” Whitney confessed that he did not believe it.
When asked if he believed that “God does reveal to man the guilt or innocence of a person charged with crime,” Whitney replied, “I believe He can . . . but I never knew of such a case.” Whitney was excused by the attorneys.
Another prospective juror was George F. Gibbs, secretary to the LDS Church First Presidency. He also knew Sharp and Hay. Gibbs also said he did not believe Sharp had received a revelation. He explained that “such matters might be revealed by the Devil, and that God was blamed for many things He was not responsible for.” Gibbs was also excused by the attorneys.
In June 1902, after two weeks of testimony and argument Peter was convicted of capital murder.
“A feature of the trial was the testimony of Hay’s father-in-law, James Sharp, who claimed to have had a revelation from God that Mortensen was the murderer.”
On cross-examination, the defense lawyer pressed the hostile Sharp on how he knew Mortensen killed Hay.
Sharp: “I told you once.”
Attorney: “Tell me again.”
Sharp: “God revealed it to me.”
Sharp: “By the utterance of my mouth. The words came from my mouth and I could not stop them. I will not deny the word of God, neither here nor in the presence of God hereafter.”
Attorney: “Did God appear in person?”
Sharp: “Go and ask him.”
Attorney: “Answer my question.”
Sharp: “Ask God.”
Judge: “Answer the question Mr. Sharp.”
Sharp: “He did not.”
Attorney: “How did he appear?”
Sharp: “He appeared by the power of his spirit and told me. . . .”
Attorney: “Is this, Mr. Sharp, the only manifestation you have had with reference to this case?”
Sharp: “No, sir.”
Attorney: “When did you have any other?”
Sharp: “On Tuesday, at noon. I saw in a vision the trail of blood leading across the track to the grave. “
The prosecution called a parade of witnesses who provided circumstantial evidence of Mortensen’s guilt. The prosecution argued that, based on this independent circumstantial evidence, Mortensen had motive and opportunity, and was guilty of murder.
The defense lawyer devoted half of his closing argument to attacking Sharp’s “revelation.” The attorney declared that Sharp’s testimony was “an abuse of religion, a disgrace to the church, a mockery of God.”
“Do you believe a man who will come into the most sacred temple of justice on the most solemn of solemn occasions when a man’s life is hanging in the balance and tell you, that the great God of the universe, the God whom you worship and the God that I worship came down here and revealed either in person or in spirit the guilt of this defendant. . . .
“I do not believe it. In the words of one of the jurors, I believe that God that guides and controls this mighty universe has greater work than to communicate the guilt of this defendant to James Sharp.”
The attorney explained that Sharp had “been beside himself” and “lost in sorrow.” Sharp had “laid awake at nights until his mind [was] mystified.” Sharp was no doubt an honorable man, the attorney said, who “had made statements under wrong impressions.” Sharp’s statements “would be rejected in the councils of his own Church.”
Mortensen was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death by hanging or firing squad. The defense filed a motion for a new trial and an appeal, alleging that the judge committed reversible error when he allowed Sharp’s testimony about revelation.
Mortensen chose to be executed by firing squad which was carried out in November 1903. He decline the offer of a clergy visit, as well as the offer of “stimulants.” He said he needed neither.
Mortensen always claimed his innocence. “I did not kill Jimmy Hay. I am Innocent of this crime. Neither here nor in the hereafter will I forgive those who have sent me to my death.”
(“Peter Mortensen Found Guilty of the Murder of J. R. Hay,” Los Angeles Herald, Volume XXIX, Number 257, 15 June 1902; “Shot to Death for Murder: Peter Mortensen Pays the Extreme Penalty at Salt Lake,” Los Angeles Herald, Volume XXXI, Number 51, 21 November 1903; Craig L. Foster, “The Sensational Murder of James R. Hay and Trial of Peter Mortensen,” Utah Historical Quarterly, Vol. 65, 1997, No. 1.)