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Lehi History: Christmas of 1871 marred by murder of Lehi schoolteacher

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Lee Anderson | Lehi Historical Society and Archives

On Christmas Eve, 1871, Lehi schoolteacher William Thurmond and several other men were in the new Southwest School decorating a large Christmas tree that had been brought down from Big Cottonwood Canyon. Spirits were high as they trimmed the tree, anticipating the festive party the schoolchildren would have the next day. The doors were locked to prevent anyone from entering and ruining the surprise. But before they were finished, they heard shouting and banging on the east doors of the school, which was located at the southwest corner of 100 South and 200 West. 

The commotion was caused by Jed Woodward calling out to Thurmond. Woodward was a young man who continuously caused trouble and was known as a boy “with no sympathy.” The angry youth kicked the doors and kicked in a panel before Thurmond got the door open. Woodward was upset at Thurmond because Thurmond had chastised him a few days earlier. 

Woodward verbally assaulted and threatened Thurmond, boasting that he could “clean out the whole Thurmond family.” Newspapers reported that Woodward was at the bottom of the steps, and Thurmond hit him twice with a knife, slightly cutting him. Other reports state that Woodward was trying to shove his way in when Thurmond pushed him outside and down the stairs, accidentally cutting him with the knife he was using to trim the tree. 

Regardless of which version of the story is correct, Woodward was about 25 feet from Thurmond when he pulled out a revolver and shot Thurmond in the abdomen about six inches below his left nipple. Thurmond was taken across the street to Israel Evans’ home, on the northeast corner of 100 West and 200 South, where he later died. 

Jed Woodward was arrested and held in the Lehi jail. A heavy guard was placed around the jail to discourage angry citizens from taking the law into their own hands and lynching him. Woodward was sentenced to ten years in the territorial prison for the murder but served less than one year. Years later, he was shot and killed by the marshal of a southern Utah town after making a disturbance at a dance. 

The summer after the murder, James W. Taylor placed a monument over William Thurmond’s grave. Lehi resident, Andrew Fjeld, remembered, “a sagebrush fire was made, lead melted, which Taylor expertly poured around the base of the upright stone, anchoring it firmly into the base block.”

Thurmond’s monument can be seen in the Lehi Cemetery. The inscription on the monument reads:

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In MEMORY of

G. W. THURMOND

AGED

28 Years 7 Months

Who was shot by an

Assassin on the eve of

Dec. 24, 1871, whilst per-

forming an act of love for

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his scholars & the people.

We mourn him, for we miss him

But more his bitter end.

We loved him for his virtues

as a Father, Brother, Friend.

George William Thurmond was born in Kentucky on Aug. 11, 1843. He served in the Civil War as a member of the Kentucky Home Guard. At the age of 19, he was decorated for carrying an important dispatch 20 miles through Confederate territory. In 1864, while heading for California, he stopped in Salt Lake City to work for the summer. 

That fall, he went to Nevada, where he was hired by Lehi resident, Len Wines, to work on the Overland Stage. In 1865, he transferred to Fairfield to manage the station in Cedar Valley. He soon decided to leave to become a teacher in Cedar Fort.

In 1868, he moved to Lehi and became a teacher in the new Southwest School, which was next to the first Lehi meetinghouse of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 1937, the two structures were merged and incorporated into the First Ward chapel. The entire building was demolished and replaced by a new church structure in 1972.

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Lee Anderson, a native of Lehi and an active member of the Lehi Historical Society and Archives. He loves to tell and sometimes illustrate the stories of Lehi. Check him out on the Lehi Historical Society and Archives Facebook group to find more of his works.

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