A Missionary’s Two Months in Jail

“A Missionary’s Two Months in Jail,” New Era, Nov. 1982, 8

A Missionary’s Two Months in Jail

A Czechoslovakian prison cell seemed like a strange place for Thomas Biesinger to preach the gospel

Vienna. What a magnificent, historic city, but what a huge place in which to be looking for a missionary companion! Elder Thomas Biesinger, age 39, just off the train from Germany, looked in vain for Elder Paul Hammer, who was to arrive by train about the same time. November 25, 1883. 5:30 A.M. He waited in the railroad restaurant until daylight, then walked outside the station and from an elevation looked out at the Austrian capital. He was awestruck as he thought about his difficult mission, and in his mind he conversed with Vienna:

“Thou City of Vienna, thou boasteth thyself as being one of the proudest cities of the East and the beauties of thy gardens and parks are perhaps not excelled in the world. Thou also containeth many ancient relics amongst the abode of a monarch who sways his proud sceptre over a dominion containing nearly forty millions of inhabitants.”

Vienna, he recalled, had 20 years before expelled one of the most noble and intelligent Apostles of the Restoration, Orson Pratt. “Again God has extended his mercy unto thee,” he warned Vienna in his mind, “and has inspired his servant the prophet to send to thee other messengers. One of these has just entered the city, though much inferior in wisdom and intelligence to the one thou rejected.” The lonely elder then prayed for God to have mercy on Austria, to “soften the heart of the emperor and officers of the land, that thy servants may be permitted to stay and [be] given liberty to search for the honest in heart.”

His prayer, however, would require decades for fulfillment. For Austria-Hungary, an empire old and mighty, was not a land of freedom. In order to keep its different states and nationalities from breaking away, a police state prevented anyone from preaching new ideas, political or religious.

He rented an inexpensive room with cooking facilities, then checked with the Vienna police to see if his companion had registered with them. No sign of him. Because Elder Hammer was the senior companion, Eider Biesinger did not start his actual missionary labors yet, except to enter into conversations with people he met as he went back and forth to the railway station. They finally found each other on December 3 and discovered that for a week they both had been living in different quarters on the very same street!

December was spent meeting people, primarily through asking about rooms to rent, even if they did not need one. “We made a good many friends,” they reported.

In January 1884 they began to hold small meetings in homes, mainly at the home of a widow named Mahrburg. But then “the adversary began to wake up,” said Elder Biesinger, and their contacts started to shun them. Mrs. Mahrburg was warned by the police that if she permitted Mormons to hold another meeting in her house she would be prosecuted and the missionaries arrested. But police activity did not prevent the two elders from holding a baptismal service in the Simmering Canal on February 2 for P. Chalewa, a native of Poland, and Josephine Jellinek, an Austrian. This brought Church membership in Austria to three, Elder Hammer having baptized Paul Haslinger of Lambach on November 25 before joining Elder Biesinger.

Suddenly Vienna was placed under martial law when the government suspected a socialist uprising. Foreigners were arrested and deported. The elders, sensing danger, decided to separate. That way, if one was arrested, the other would still be free to proselyte. Elder Hammer stayed in Vienna while his companion transferred to another important city in the empire, Prague, in Bohemia (now Czechoslovakia).

Elder Biesinger found a room to rent in Prague and began talking to residents—those who spoke German—about the gospel. He won a number of friends and investigators, including Johann Klusak, a sectarian Bible agent, and Anthon Just, a dealer in furs.

On the morning of March 30 the elder was aroused from sleep and arrested by two police officers. They took him and all of his belongings down to police headquarters. There, to his dismay and shock, he found that his accuser was Mr. Klusak, the man “with whom I had conversed a great deal about Mormonism and who as my best friend introduced me to a great many people.” Also signing the complaint was Mr. Klusak’s fellow investigator, Mr. Just.

Police examined the missionary for two hours, then delivered him to the jailer. In a prison cell measuring eight by twelve feet, “a dirty hole,” he joined two accused thieves. “The cell fairly swarmed with lice, bed bugs, and fleas,” he recalled. After 48 hours in jail with nothing to eat, he was given a bowl of thin flour soup. Soon he was transferred to another prison in the city and securely locked up in Cell 34. “In the dim twilight I could discern millions of vermin, commonly called lice, crawling over wall and ceiling,” he noted. Two socialists, his new cell mates, were reclined on the floor.

Two days later he received a four-hour hearing. The judge “tried to be polite but was really bitter at heart, still I had a fair chance to testify of the organization of the Church and explain some of the principles of the gospel.” He learned at the hearing that the local newspapers had run articles about him, with his picture, calling him a great Mormon chief seeking to trap people into Mormon slavery.

His next week in prison brought deep discouragement. He received a letter from Elder Hammer, who had left Vienna and was now in a hospital in Schlessien, suffering from smallpox. The senior companion wrote that he was so sick he expected to die. He told where his belongings were and asked Elder Biesinger to forward them to Utah. He requested a priesthood blessing. The prisoner, unable to help, appealed to the Lord “in tears and prayer” for guidance:

“I realized he had no friends at hand to administer kindness to him. After receiving this letter I pled with the judge to permit me to leave the prison under restrictions in order that I might visit my sick friend, but this privilege was denied me, but I was granted the privilege to write to Bro. Hammer, which I did, and promised him in my letter in the name of the Lord Jesus that he would return to his family in Utah alive.”*

The judge read the letter and seemed astonished by this brash prophecy. He also allowed the American to send another letter, this one to the American consul in Prague. Soon the consul, Mr. A. C. Phelps, appeared and agreed to help the elder get out of jail. The court informed the consul that no trial could be held until agents in Vienna rounded up evidence about Elder Biesinger’s proselyting work there.

A third letter brought another visitor ten days later. This was Elder Joseph A. Smith, sent by the mission president. He told the prisoner of his visit with Elder Hammer who was recovering. The half-hour visit took place under the watchful eye and ear of an officer, and the two missionaries had to speak in German so the guard “could understand all that passed between us.”

In Cell 34 the missionary’s cell mate was a man sentenced to be hanged. Later Elder Biesinger was transferred to Cell 38, “where my cell mates were Rudolf Wedlich, a Socialist, and John Menedal,” a man convicted of first-degree murder. The socialist was “a pleasant companion” who joined the elder in singing the “Songs of Zion” to help pass the time. The murderer was a restless fellow who paced up and down the cell like a wild animal. Visitors were few, being the American consul, his son, and then a lawyer appointed by the consul.

Finally, after 37 1/2 days in jail, Elder Biesinger was brought to trial on May 6, 1884. The courtroom contained five judges—“Die fünf richter collegium” as they were called—two prosecuting attorneys for the state, reporters, spectators, and Mr. Pretsneider, the elder’s attorney.

The prisoner was asked to stand up during the questioning. They wanted to know why he was in the country and what doctrines he had been teaching. “In answering their questions, I had a tolerable good chance to explain the principles of the gospel and bear my testimony,” he said. Then evidence uncovered by agents in Vienna was introduced. John Klusak, who entered the complaint, did not appear. Anthon Just testified, but in Bohemian, which Elder Biesinger could not understand.

Allowed a final statement, the missionary complained that he had been very ill-treated by the first court, that as a foreigner he should have been warned concerning Austrian regulations rather than having agents spy on him and try to trap him. His attorney simply asked for leniency in case of a verdict of guilty.

While the judges deliberated, the attorneys and prisoner left the room. Elder Biesinger engaged the chief prosecutor in conversation. One charge against the elder was that he taught immoral practices by defending polygamy in Utah. “I assured him” countered the elder, “that during the 20 years I had lived in Utah I had witnessed no immorality such as I had witnessed in the city of Prague in one night.”

“Guilty,” the judges decided. The elder was guilty of violating section 304 which stated that “if any man is found guilty of canvassing as a missionary or agent for any society, church or sect with the intention of gaining them as converts to their faith providing such societies and sects are not acknowledged by the Church and authority of the state, the same is punishable with a fine not less than one nor exceeding three months imprisonment, and cost of court.”

Because of the prisoner’s good behavior, and his lengthy imprisonment to date, the judges sentenced him to the minimum possible term, one month at hard labor, and a fine of five guldens.

They asked if the elder would accept the sentence. He agreed but only on the firm condition that they understood that he had delivered his message from God to their city and nation for their salvation and that the responsibility for Prague’s rejection of the gospel rested on the authorities of the nation. The judges agreed, dropped the hard labor stipulation, and sent the elder back to Cell 38.

Ten days later he transferred to a better jail with a kinder jailer. Finally, after a total of 68 days in prison, he was released and walked out into the fresh spring air. Surprisingly, he was not banished from the country nor asked about his future plans.

During his second day of freedom, while he was walking down a street, he was interrupted by someone tapping him on his shoulder. Turning, he faced John Klusak, his chief accuser. “He was much frightened and begged me to forgive him as he did not know at that time what he was doing.” Klusak was convinced that “the Lord had punished him very severely,” said the elder, because the man’s only son was dying of smallpox and his mother had become gravely ill. The elder forgave him but said that the troubled man would have to ask God for His forgiveness. The son died two days later.

Because newspapers carried his picture and said such evil things about Mormons, Elder Biesinger could not do effective missionary work anymore in Bohemia. While waiting for money from mission headquarters in Bern to pay for transportation out of Prague, he sent Church literature to all of the friends he had made while in prison. Then, on June 21, 1884, before leaving the city by evening train, he baptized and confirmed Anthon Just, his other accuser, in a nearby river.

Wherever Elder Biesinger went in the empire, police watched him and newspapers carried his photograph with warnings for the public to beware of him. So he was transferred to Switzerland that summer and fall. Then in December he returned to Austria-Hungary. After a month in Budapest he went to Vienna again, but anti-Mormon publicity forced him to leave for Germany.

He completed his mission in Bavaria, where Mormon elders had been banished by that government before they could organize Saints residing in Nuremberg and Munich. Elder Biesinger barely had time to complete their organizational work before he too was banished. He then returned to America.

Despite persecutions and imprisonment, Elders Hammer and Biesinger had baptized four converts during their aborted mission. But another two decades would pass before Austria’s first LDS branch was established. And only following World War I, when the massive Austro-Hungarian empire was dismantled and a tiny Austrian Republic created, did religious freedom begin and the Church establish firm roots there.

During the 1920s an 80-year-old missionary went to the Austrian Mission from Utah. It was Elder Biesinger, serving his fourth mission to Europe. He felt that the Lord was allowing him to return to Austria in order to finish the mission he had started that cold winter morning in Vienna in 1883.

This article is based on three different accounts which Elder Biesinger gave of his first Austrian mission. The most contemporary account appeared in the Millennial Star on January 26, 1885, a translation of an account written even earlier in German. His longest and fullest account appears in the Austrian Mission’s Manuscript History in the Church Historical Department archive. A third and very brief version is found in Brother Biesinger’s biographical sketch submitted for Andrew Jenson’s Biographical Encyclopedia.

  • The prophecy was fulfilled and Elder Hammer returned to his family in Utah.

Photo by Eldon Linschoten