Sending a Polygamist Straight to Purgatory

Polygamist Warren Jeffs

Polygamist Warren Jeffs (left) will soon reside -- no joke -- at the Purgatory Correctional Facility. Ethan Miller/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The followers of polygamist Warren Jeffs believe he is a prophet who holds the keys to heaven. But when Jeffs is extradited to Utah for trial, he'll be sent to Purgatory. Literally. And if not for a quirk of history, he'd be going straight to Hell.

Jeffs will await trial in an isolation cell at the Purgatory Correctional Facility at Purgatory Flats outside St. George, Utah. The red rock cliffs visible from the jail and the flats contain what geologists refer to as Purgatory sandstone. So it seems logical that the name came from the stone.

But a call to the Utah Geological Survey produced only more questions. Geologist Craig Morgan surveyed his colleagues and searched databases and found more Purgatorys in the area but no explanations. There's a geologic formation called Little Purgatory near Purgatory Flats, and a Purgatory Cliff that's nowhere near its other namesakes.

"I cannot find the origin for Purgatory Flat or Little Purgatory in Utah," Morgan says. "Most likely a mountain man or pioneer had a really bad time there." He suggested checking with a historian.

Now, I had developed my own theory. Purgatory Flats is at the northern edge of the hellish heat of the Mojave Desert. And it sits just below the heavenly cool heights of the Pine Valley Mountains and the Hurricane Cliffs. It's that in-between place. Maybe that's why it's called Purgatory. I offered my guess to a historian at Southern Utah University. "Good theory," he said. "But, if you'd like to know for sure, call Ranger Bart."

Ranger Bart is Bart Anderson, who knows so much southern Utah history that he gives history walks and talks, writes a history column for the local newspaper and serves as the official historian of Spilsbury Mortuary in St. George. People in southern Utah are deadly serious about history.

Sure enough, Ranger Bart knows the origins of the name "Purgatory." My theory was close but the geologist was closer. Mormon pioneers in the 1860s, Bart told me, had a really bad time at what became known as Purgatory Flats. The topography forced pioneers to bring their wagons across this hot, hot flat. It didn't have good water. "They didn't want to face it,' Bart says. 'It was dreaded by the pioneers. It was hellish."

Those Mormon pioneers were upstanding folk who didn't believe in using swear words. "They would've named it 'Hell Flats,'" Bart surmises, "but they couldn't swear." Purgatory was the next worst thing.

None of that is likely to comfort Warren Jeffs as he sits in his isolation cell 23 hours a day. When followers and wives want to visit, he'll have to tell them, "They've got me here in Purgatory." That's probably better than saying, "To visit me, you've got to go to Hell."

Former followers turned critics say life in Jeff's group was unbearably hellish. They're more than happy to see him confined to Purgatory, at least for now.

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