Weird and Wonderful


A Brief History of the Kingstons

Part One: A Cult is Born



Charles Chats With God

It all began in the great depression. The unemployment rate in Utah had reached 60 percent, far higher than the national average. Roosevelt's New Deal was years from fruition, and relief seemed an unattainable ideal. No one had work. Charles Elden Kingston saw all this and wondered how to end the suffering. In 1935 he had a vision, a revelation from God that would put all things in order and foist the Kingston Clan on the west.

Like his counterpoint, Joseph Smith, the story of his epiphany is a maze of conflicting reports. The exact nature of the revelation, or even where this defining moment took place, varies with the teller.

Charles Elden Kingston, founder of the clan.

One version has Charles Elden praying near a cave in Bountiful, Utah when God informed him he had to start a religion based on Fundamentalist Mormonism, including polygamy, a practice outlawed in the orthodox church since the 1890s.

Others claim Charles Elden's father, Charles W. Kingston, authored a tract in 1931 that championed the fundamentalist canard that former Mormon president John Taylor had set aside a select group. These elected were charged to keep polygamy alive even though the church was publicly distancing itself in a bid for Utah statehood.

Charles Elden was just following in dear-old dad's footsteps when he launched The Davis County Cooperative Society (a.k.a. the Latter Day Church of Christ a.k.a. the Kingston Clan) in 1935.

Yet another version has Charles Elden whiling away the time in Idaho when God commanded him to venture forth unto the state of Utah. Once in Salt Lake City, Heavenly Father expanded on the revelation, telling the visionary that he needed to create a "United Order." Obedient prophet that he was, Charles Elden started this communal fundamentalist group that has come to be known as the Kingston Clan.

Whatever the origin of Charles Elden Kingston's extraordinary vision, by 1941 the Davis County Cooperative Society had incorporated and the Kingstons began their long journey to become the richest and most secretive fundamentalist Mormon sect in Utah.

Charles Elden brought his two brothers along for the ride. John Ortell Kingston and Merlin Barnum Kingston adopted the marrying ways of their brother and began acquiring multiple wives.

Not only were the Kingston brothers interested in adding to their connubial numbers, but they also began acquiring other members and--more importantly - property, all consecrated to the new fundamentalist church. This was the beginning of the Kingston business empire that is so intertwined in modern Utah.

Breeding with John

John O. Kingston, took over as head of the church, when his brother, Charles, died in 1948. It was under John Ortell's leadership that incestuous practices began which made the Kingston Clan notorious, according to ex-members.

John Kingston, a dairy farmer, began applying the same breeding practices in his family that he practiced on his holsteins.

Owner of Kingston Dairy in Woods Cross, John Ortell futzed around with genetics to improve the yield of his dairy cows.

"My father experimented inbreeding with his cattle and then he turned to his children," said Connie Rugg in an April 1999 interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. Rugg was one of John Ortell's estimated 65 children. Faced with a forced marriage to an uncle, Rugg fled the clan.

"My father manipulated and controlled people," Rugg said. "He wanted to control his children and grandchildren through genetics. He believed he had superior bloodlines."

During his thirty-year reign as the head of the Latter Day Church of Christ, couplings of uncles, nieces, half-brothers and half sisters became commonplace among the Kingston elite.

It is John Ortell's imprint that informs the modern Kingston clan as much as its founder, say many ex-members. Six sons and two daughters of John Ortell and favored wife LaDonna have marriages to at least 20 nieces, half-sisters and first cousins between them, a mind numbing version of keeping it in the family.

Not to be left out of all this relative marrying, Merlin Kingston counts four nieces and a half-sister among his wives, according to ex-members.

In a move much like the Holstein and pigeons he bred, John Ortell tried to control the better breeding practices of his flock by wielding marriage approval for members of the clan. Hence many young nieces were chosen by John Ortell for polygamous marriage to much older brethren in the clan. All the better to keep pure the bloodline.

Also under John Ortell, the Kingston empire began to grow. The Kingstons acquired businesses and wealth. Amazingly, all this relative wedding and empire building happened under the wire. The Kingstons remained a secretive sect that most folks knew little about or even that such an animal existed.

Despite the clan's wealth, John Ortell prized a very modest life for the sect members. He himself lived in dilapidated housing and demanded the same from his wives, children and followers.

He also appears to have been parsimonious in providing monetary support for his many wives and children and often let the state welfare system help bear the load. That led to the first glimpse to the world at large of Kingston life. It was also a precursor of troubles to follow.

The State's First Salvo

In the early 1980s the state of Utah was a little miffed at John Ortell. It seems that three of his wives and 26 of his children (whose paternity he denied) had collected some $200,000 in welfare assistance in spite of boasting a moneybags father and husband. The state wanted that money back.

A Utah judge had ordered him to undergo a paternity test to determine if the children were in fact his seed. This was the Kingston clans' first brush with the law under the public eye. It would not be the last.

John Ortell sidestepped the issue by settling out of court and paying back the welfare cash (pocket change for the clan). In return he didn't need to submit to paternity testing and was not required to acknowledge paternity. The Kingstons dodged a bullet.

One of John Ortell's wives, Mary Gustafson defends his memory and claims much of the ballyhoo about the Kingston's is nothing but an invention of a scandal mongering press. She is John Ortell's niece and third wife.

"Most of what you print is lies, lies, lies," Gustafson said in an April 1995 interview with the Salt Lake Tribune.

She defended arranged marriages between John Ortell's sons and her daughters.

"Those boys are the most moral, upstanding and wonderful people I know," she said.

Kingston is Dead, Long Live Kingston

In 1987 John Ortell Kingston gave up the ghost. His empire passed to his son, Paul Kingston. Paul would be the head of the clan during its most trying times.

In the 1990 the Kingstons would be yanked from relative obscurity and thrust into the headlines in a series of salacious scandals that could only happen in Utah. The cat would finally be out of the bag.

Paul Kingston was a golden boy from the start. He was elected student body president of South High School in Salt Lake City, lettered in cross county and swimming, and a member of Boys State. A real charmer.

Paul moved on to get an MBA in business and a law degree from the University of Utah. This guy was going places.

So it was no surprise when family members voted him to lead the Kingston clan, vetted to the top slot ahead of three older brothers. Paul is a member of the Utah State Bar, along with brother Carl E. Kingston, a more upscale polygamous than one is use to in the fundamentalist roll call.

It is also estimated by former members that he has 30 wives and more than 50 children.

Head of a polygamous sect worth more than 150 million bucks, though Merlin Kingston is the head of the Latter Day Church of Christ in official records, Paul was seated high on the catbird seat. The Kingston clan was acquiring fistfuls of cash. The media and world at large seemed blissfully ignorant of the clan's practices and wealth. But the worm was about to turn.

In 1998 sixteen-year-old Mary Ann Kingston called the Box Elder Sheriffs office from a gas station pay phone. The teenage girl had trod over seven miles from the Kingston-owned Washakie Ranch to make the call.

She claimed her father forced her into a polygamous marriage with her 32-year-old uncle, David Ortell Kingston. The man pushing her into the incestuous marriage, John Daniel Kingston, was also David's brother.

John D. Kingston

Dad beat her senseless with a belt because she had not taken to the marriage with the proper fervor, Mary Ann claimed. She attempted an escape from the distasteful situation and was shipped to the Kingston home for wayward wives, the Washakie Ranch for her trouble.

The media went wild. This story had everything Utah; mysterious polygamous sects, teenage wives and sex, sex, sex. After almost 60 years of relative obscurity, the Kingston name was splashed across front pages all over the nation.

The dreaded newspaper vultures were not only interested in the salacious nature of David O. and John Daniel's crimes, but probed deeper into Kingston affairs. Slowly, the true extent of the Kingstons' lifestyle and volumous business holdings began to emerge.

Another blow to Kingston privacy came later that same year. Rowenna Erickson, a former Kingston wife, formed Tapestry of Polygamy (later Tapestry Against Polygamy) with three other ex-multiple wives. She was eager to blow the whistle on the Kingstons' more sordid practices.

Erickson has been one of the Kingstons' most vocal foes. But soon others came forward, including Mary Ann Kingston. Newspapers around the west began including stories on the clan, dissecting their practices and revealing businesses owned by the fundamentalist sect.

David O. Kingston served nearly four years in the Utah State Prison for third degree felony incest and unlawful sexual contact with a minor. John Daniel pleaded no contest to felony child abuse and served 28 weeks in jail.

Now that the public eye was focused on the clan, their troubles seemed to keep coming and coming. The public, the press, and the law just couldn't get enough of those wacky folk.

To Be Continued