CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


“The Great Polygamy Hotel”: Albert Robida (1848-1926) and the Popularization of Mormon Stereotypes in Nineteenth Century Fiction

by Massimo Introvigne
A paper presented at the CESNUR 2010 conference in Torino.© Massimo Introvigne, 2010. Please do not quote or reproduce without the consent of the author

imgMormonism in Popular Fiction

In order to create distinctions between religions and “cults”, critics typically use stereotypes. These stereotypes concerning minority religions are reinforced by popular culture, including novels and later comic books, movies, and TV series.

Some of the best known books concerning Mormonism have been written as “historical” fiction. American authors who have used to this method to write about Mormons include Artemus Ward (pseud. of Charles Farrar Browne, 1834-1867), Mark Twain (pseud. of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835-1910), and Zane Grey (1872-1939). Considering the amount of material published about Mormonism in Europe, it is not surprising that a number of prominent European authors also showcased Utah and the Mormons in their fictional stories. Authors who had never visited Utah were more responsible for creating a certain image of Utah and the Mormons than those who actually wrote first hand travel accounts. As Larry McMurtry has observed, “lies about the West are more important (…) than truths, which is why the popularity of the pulpers — Louis L’Amour [pseudonym of Louis Dearborn LaMoore, 1908-1988] particularly — has never dimmed” (McMurtry, 1999, 55.) Long before L’Amour was born, Karl May (1842-1912), Balduin Mollhausen (1825-1905), Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), whose very first Sherlock Holmes story was about the Mormons (Doyle 1887; see fig. 1, depicting a threatening Brigham Young), Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), Emilio Salgari (1862-1911), Jules Verne (1828-1905), and Albert Robida (1848-1926) were immensely popular in Europe. Stevenson, Verne, May, and of course Doyle continue to enjoy widespread popularity not only in Europe but throughout Europe and even in the United States. Their books have been used by critics of the Mormon Church as if they were factually accurate.

Terryl Givens has identified fifty-six novels which were written between 1850-1900 and included Mormonism in the plot. Mormonism was included because it was “salacious, lucrative, pious, chivalrous, and patriotic all at once” (Givens, 1997, 143.) More simply stated, Mormon polygamy was illicit sex, and illicit sex has always been a seductive and tempting subject. Most authors who used Mormonism as a subject — good and bad — usually poked fun at its “peculiar institution,” polygamy.

Verne, Robida, and the Mormons

Jules Verne, the most popular French author of adventure fiction during the nineteenth century, published his famous Around the World in 80 Days in 1872. An English translation (The Tour of the World in 80 Days) was published the following year (see fig. 2, Around the World lampooned by Robida). In Verne’s book Phineas Fogg, and his servant Passepartout travel through Utah on the Union Pacific Railroad. During the journey a Mormon missionary named Elder William Hitch boards the train and delivers a lecture on Mormonism. Passepartout attends the lecture and remains even after most of the audience has left the car because of the missionary’s aggressive sales pitch. From Ogden, where the train “rested for six hours”, Fogg and his party “had time to pay a visit to Salt Lake City, connected with Ogden by a branch road”.

Verne’s Around the World became so famous that it generated a number of parodies. Albert Robida, had achieved fame as a gifted illustrator before turning 20 years old. In 1869, at age 19, he drew a series of cartoons (very similar to a modern comic), entitled Le Mormonisme à Paris (“Mormonism in Paris”: fig. 3), which were published in Paris-Caprice on March 13, 1869 (Robida 1869.) Robida satirized both Mormonism (with the usual mandatory references to polygamy) and the prominent French feminist, Olympe Audouard (1830-1890), who visited Utah in 1869 and wrote a surprisingly sympathetic description of polygamy. Audouard’s lectures were, according to Robida, “beginning to have an unexpected effect…half of Paris has already converted to Mormonism!!!!”

Saturnin Farandoul meets the Mormons

In 1879, Robida published, in instalments, Voyages très extraordinaires de Saturnin Farandoul dans les 5 ou 6 parties du monde et dans tous les pays connus et même inconnus de M. Jules Verne (“Most Extraordinary Travels of Saturnin Farandoul in the 5 or 6 Parts of the World and in all the Countries Known and Even Unknown by Mr. Jules Verne”). While Verne’s tour around the world blurred fact and fiction, causing some readers to suspend disbelief, most of Robida’s tales — which included his own illustrations — were parodies aimed at creating humor through exaggeration rather than attempting to tell believable adventure stories. Although Farandoul was never translated into English, it had both authorized and pirate Spanish and Italian editions. In Italy, Robida’s Farandoul (fig. 4) was almost as popular as Verne’s Tour of the World.

One of the first Italian silent movies, was about Farandoul. Le avventure straordinarissime di Saturnino Farandola, which was turned in Turin and released in 1913, was directed by Marcel Fabre (pseudonym of Marcel Fernández Peréz, 1885-1929), who also starred in the title role (see fig. 5). In 1938-39 the story was serialized in the Italian comic magazine Topolino (“Mickey Mouse”), which was republished several times. In 1977, Italian television also produced a series on Farandoul (Saturnino Farandola, by Raffaele Meloni) starring popular actor Mariano Rigillo. In 1959 a spoof on the spoof was even published. That year a comic was published which featured the character of “Paperino Girandola”, or Donald Duck (“Paperino” in Italian) in the role of Farandoul. It also went through several reprints. The very existence of this comic book shows that Farandoul was a literary reference which was immediately recognizable by most Italian children and teen-agers. This was also confirmed in 1979 when another well-known author of Italian comic books, Bonvi (Franco Bonvicini, 1941-1995), produced another spoof of Farandoul, both as a comic and as a television cartoon, known as “Marzolino Tarantola”. For whatever reason, as Farandoul gradually became less popular in France it became increasingly popular in Italy. Today it is out of print in the country where it was originally published.

Farandoul has a rich (and richly illustrated) section about Mormonism and Brigham Young (1801-1877.) Farandoul, his second-in-command Mandibul, and the mariners of their ship Belle Léocadie (including the Breton Tournesol), “tired of the solitary life”, decide to convert to Mormonism and embrace polygamy. Farandoul telegraphs Brigham Young announcing his conversion:

A wedding is organized in Salt Lake City with due fanfare (fig. 6):

Farandoul, having appreciated how Mormon homes work fig. 8), makes a great speech in favor of Mormonism and polygamy, and is made a Mormon Bishop on the spot (fig. 9). Unbeknownst to Farandoul, Brigham Young believes that he could be a possible rival, and therefore plans the Frenchman’s murder (an obvious allusion to the popular Danite theme) while Farandoul is home expecting a pleasant evening in the company of his seventeen wives.

Thereafter Brigham Young orders Apache warriors to kidnap and kill Farandoul (an allusion to the Mountain Meadows massacre), but the French traveler pacifies them by painting designs on their skin. But he eventually falls from grace because he spends too much time with their squaws, particularly Rising Moon, the wife of Red Buffalo. He runs off with her into the wilderness, while being pursued by Apache warriors. Farandoul must kill two grizzlies to save their lives, and they wear their skins to disguise themselves. After taking refuge from their pursuers in a cave full of real grizzlies, the pair travel down the Colorado River, still pursued by Apaches. They are dispatched over a waterfall by a ruse of the nimble-witted Farandoul. He and his consort meet two trappers who first fire at them, mistaking them for real grizzlies, then offered to take them to Santa Fe, two days’ journey away.

Farandoul’s first thought is to telegraph Mandibul at Salt Lake City. A reply soon arrives. Mandibul and his companions, when they learn of the disappearance of their chief, had abandoned their wives. In the meantime,

Farandoul and Bikelow agreed on setting the dispute through a duel and the Frenchman suggested that “each adversary shall be mounted on a locomotive. Both trains shall leave at the same time from New York and San Francisco, to collide in the middle of the Central Pacific Railroad line” (Robida 1879, 208.)

Bikelow had to accept Farandoul’s challenge. The latter’s crew had been vainly searching for their captain, when in Nevada they came upon the news of Farandoul’s duel with Bikelow. They join Farandoul as he prepares to leave New York taking with him the special train with which he is to confront Bikelow. The opponents are to meet at the Devil’s Bridge, spanning the Nebraska river. The duel attracts considerable public attention, and people gather in Nebraska waiting for the two trains, armed with swivel-mounted cannon, to come together. As they meet, a murderous exchange of fire damages Farandoul’s train, but Bikelow’s train causes the bridge to collapse, and plunges over a hundred feet into the river. The speed of Farandoul’s train causes it to reach the abutment in time. “Now that honor is satisfied”, declares Farandoul, “I renounce all seventeen ungrateful women; please telegraph the fact to Brigham Young” (Robida 1879, 212-216.)

Mormons in Le Vingtième Siècle

In 1882, Robida began publishing installments of another novel entitled Le Vingtième Siècle (The Twentieth Century). One year later these installments were collected and published in a book. Although the book was less influential than Farandoul on Latin European youth and in popular culture, it is now regarded as Robida’s masterpiece, and remains in print in France. It has been translated into English in 2004 in a critical edition by Wesleyan University Press. It is a humorous science fiction novel, in which Robida anticipated in astonishing detail some of the inventions of the twentieth century, including telephones, airplanes (fig. 11), and television (fig. 12).. Mormonism is a side theme in the novel. The setting of the novel is in France and England in 1953. Robida explains that in 1910, the United States had become three nations: a Chinese republic in the West, with its capital at New-Nanking (San Francisco), a German empire in the East with its capital at New-Berlin (formerly New York City), and a Mormon republic (formerly “the old states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, etc.,”), headquartered at Salt Lake City.

The Mormons, sensing that their country would become the inevitable battlefield and plunder of the two larger American nations, turned their attention to their mother country of England, particularly when the British government fled to India. In a matter of ten years, the Mormonization of England was complete. “The land of the expression, “shocking!,” has become the most shocking country on the planet. The House of Lords is now the House of Bishops, and to be eligible for election to the House of Commons, one must have at least eight wives” (Robida 1883, 316). New landmarks include the Great Temple, modeled after that of Salt Lake City, and, in Hyde Park, the Palace of the head of state (who is both pope and president of the Mormon republics of Europe and America). Windsor Castle is now a retirement estate “for widows of bishops and archbishops, etc., etc.” (Robida 1883, 315)

Monsieur Ponto, a Paris financier, has unwisely sent his son Philippe to England, now the most dangerous country in Europe, on a crucial banking matter. Philippe has dropped out of sight, and his father’s concern is only heightened when he finally receives a letter - something fairly rare in this modern day of telephone calls:

My dear father,

“So what is that?” I asked Percival Douglas.

“What is this?” I said: “yellow women, white or swarthy, even Negresses . . .”

“Then all the ladies of this arrival will find spouses?”

Young Ponto is quite surprised:

Are you married?” they asked me.

No!” I replied, surprised.

No spouse?

“None at all!”


— “But I am a foreigner!”

— “Everyone we arrest says that!”

— “But listen to me, you can tell very well from my accent that I am French!”

— “You know very well there haven’t been passports since the Middle Ages.”

In the end, it turns out that Percival Douglas is letting poor Philippe rot in Bachelor’s Prison until he might agree to marry the Douglas daughters. Philippe is saved in the nick of time by a good-looking young girl who is his father’s secretary, sent to London and appearing at the prison, pretending to be Philippe’s wife.

Mormonism, Stereotypes, and Popular Culture

Popular fiction, whose immediate theme is entertainment, plays an important role in sustaining stereotypes about religions and other minorities perceived as “other”, “bizarre”, or “fringe”. It may also sustain ethno-definitions which exclude certain groups perceived as bizarre or ridiculous from the sphere of “real” religion. Ethno-definitions, defined by Arthur Greil as “the working definitions that social actors themselves use in an attempt to make judgements in everyday life” (Greil 1996: 48), are produced and negotiated in the course of social interaction. Greil has observed that “when focus is on ethno-definitions, ‘religion’ is examined not as a characteristic which inheres in certain phenomena, but as a cultural resource over which competing interest groups may vie. From this perspective, religion is not an entity but a claim made by certain groups and — in some cases — contested by others to the right to the privileges associated in a given society with the religious label” (Greil 1996: 48).

Works by Robida, popular as they were, were part and parcel of the 19th century social construction of the stereotypical anti-Mormon cliché which defined Mormonism as something less — and less serious — than a religion. Jules Verne’s references to Mormonism were probably too quick to be really influential; Verne, however, influenced both Robida and other authors. The polygamy stereotype is still used today in any anti-Mormon enterprise (fig. 17: gay activists protesting Mormon opposition to same-sex marriage).

This is not to suggest that Robida had an agenda in terms of perpetuating stereotypes and sponsoring discrimination. Robida is mostly interested in satirizing Jules Verne, and in creating humorous situations, which are easily realized when dealing with polygamy Successful popular culture is neither ideology nor propaganda, but may include elements of both. Propaganda disguised as entertainment fiction is rarely successful. Good fiction, on the other hand, may pick up elements of propaganda from external sources, and more or less advertently disseminate them to much larger audiences. Readers who would never be directly interested in religious propaganda may be exposed to it as filtered and re-interpreted by the authors of entertainment fiction. The latter genre, thus, plays an important if neglected role in propagating stereotypes about minority religions, and certainly deserves further study.


Doyle, Arthur Conan 1887. “A Study in Scarlet.” Beeton’s Christmas Annual. London: Ward, Lock and Co, 1-95.

Givens, Terryl L. 1997. The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths and the Construction of Heresy. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Greil, Arthur L., 1996. “Sacred Claims: The 'Cult Controversy' as a Struggle over the Right to the Religious Label.” In David G. Bromley - Lewis Carter (eds.), The Issue of Authenticity in the Study of Religion, Greenwich (Connecticut) and London: JAI Press, 1996, 47-63.

McMurtry, Larry. 1999. Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, Reflections at Sixty and Beyond. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Robida, Albert, 1869. “Le Mormonisme à Paris”. Paris-Caprice. n. 68, March 13, 1869.

Robida, Albert. 1879. Voyages très extraordinaires de Saturnin Farandoul dans les 5 ou 6 parties du monde ed dans tous les pays connus et même inconnus de M. Jules Verne. Paris: M. Dreyfous.

Robida, Albert. 1883. Le Vingtième Siècle. Paris: G. Decaux. English trans.: The Twentieth Century, translation, introduction and critical materials by Philippe Willems, edited by Arthur B. Evans. Middletown (Connecticut): Wesleyan University Press, 2004.

Verne, Jules. 1872. Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours. Paris: Hertzel.

Verne, Jules. 1873. The Tour of the World in 80 Days. Boston: James R. Oswood & Co.


The collaboration of Michael W. Homer in preparing this paper is gratefully acknowledged.



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