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Polygamist Held in Purgatory

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Polygamist Held in Purgatory

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Polygamist Held in Purgatory

Polygamist Held in Purgatory

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Polygamist Warren Jeffs is in jail in Utah awaiting a hearing on charges that he arranged plural marriages of underage girls to much older men. Jeffs is confined in a county jail at Purgatory Flats.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Polygamist Warren Jeffs faces his first hearing in Utah today after being extradited from Nevada. He's accused of arranging polygamist marriages involving underage girls, and he faces charges of rape as an accomplice.

NPR's Howard Berkes has reported on polygamy, among other things, from his base in Salt Lake City. In this Reporter's Notebook, Howard finds irony in the name of the Utah jail where Warren Jeffs is now being held.

HOWARD BERKES: The 6,000 or so followers of polygamist Warren Jeffs consider him a prophet who holds the keys to Heaven. But yesterday he was sent to Purgatory, literally. And it would have been straight to Hell, if not for a quirk of history.

Jeffs awaits 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 contain purgatory sandstone, so maybe that's where the name originates.

Not according to a geologist at the Utah Geological Survey. Craig Morgan canvassed his colleagues and searched databases and found more places named Purgatory, but no explanations. Morgan has a theory about Purgatory Flats. Most likely, he says, a pioneer had a really bad time there. He suggested checking with a historian.

Now, I had my own theory. Purgatory Flats is at the northern edge of the hellish heat of the Mojave Desert and it sits just below the cool, heavenly heights of the Pine Valley Mountains. It's that in-between place. Maybe that's why it's called Purgatory.

Good theory, says a historian at Southern Utah University, but if you'd like to know for sure, call Ranger Bart. Ranger Bart is Bart Anderson, who conducts history walks and talks, writes a history column for a local newspaper and serves as the official historian of a local mortuary. People in southern Utah are deadly serious about history.

Sure enough, Ranger Bart had an answer. My theory was close, but the geologist's was closer. Mormon pioneers, Bart told me, had a really bad time at what became known as Purgatory Flats, a bone-dry and blistering hot plain. They didn't want to face it, Bart says. It was dreaded by the pioneers. It was hellish. They would have named it Hell's Flats, Bart surmises, but these were upstanding religious folk. They couldn't swear, so 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. Now he has to tell the followers and wives who want to visit, they've got me here in Purgatory, which sure beats saying: to visit me, you've got to go to Hell.

There are plenty of former followers turned critics who say life in Jeffs' group was unbearably hellish and they're happy to see him confined to Purgatory, at least for now.

MONTAGNE: The thoughts of NPR's Howard Berkes in Salt Lake City.

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Sending a Polygamist Straight to Purgatory

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

toggle 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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