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Polygamist Held in Purgatory

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.
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