Bill Hickman was one of the most interesting rogues in Mormonism. A self-styled enforcer for the church, his career is deserving of a high-caliber biography. Unfortunately, "Wild Bill" Hickman and the Mormon Frontier is not of high caliber.
Bill Hickman grew up in Missouri and, in 1838, affiliated with the Mormon church, quickly becoming a member of a vigilante gang that terrorized dissidents. Migrating to Utah, Hickman continued his violent lifestyle, where his activities included, among others, guerilla operations in the 1857-1858 Mormon War. Hickman admitted to the murders of several people, suggesting that he had been taking orders from Brigham Young. When his activities became embarrassing to the church, Hickman engaged in a game of power politics, playing Mormon and government officials against each other. He was successful for a time, but his violence eventually made him persona non grata in both camps. In 1872 he published an expose, Brigham's Destroying Angel , which implicated the Mormon leadership in his misdeeds. Hickman finally died in 1883 in obscurity near Lander, Wyoming.
Hilton's book has several problems. As one example, there is a disturbing lack of documentation. She declares in the preface that footnotes "can be distracting," and that she "instead tried to provide enough information within the text to allow the reader to locate the appropriate reference in the bibliography" (p. xi). Unfortunately, locating sources is nearly impossible in many cases, especially in instances where it would be most useful. The author also fails to organize the work into a coherent form. For instance, in a chapter entitled "The RLDS in Utah," less than a full page is devoted to the subject, and the remainder is concerned with other Hickman activities not related to the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
But these are minor difficulties compared to central questions left perplexingly unexplored. Hilton's inability to deal with the difficult issue of what was fact and what fancy in Brigham's Destroying Angel , despite a promise to do so in the preface, was disappointing. Was it written out of spite? What basis in fact did it have?
Additionally, and it is fundamental to considering the career of Hickman, what was his relationship to Brigham Young? Young was clearly aware of Hickman's lawlessness but still used him to carry out dangerous assignments, until Hickman's reputation became so colored that it significantly hurt the church. Hilton does not know or does not care about Young's role in murders and other felonies apparently committed by Hickman. Did Hickman carry out his activities at the direction of the church? The work is unclear on such crucial questions.