A True-Crime Story That Pits Polygamists Against Drug Lords — The New York Times

In her ninth book, “The Colony,” the veteran journalist Sally Denton takes readers across the border to a Mormon sect in Mexico.

June 28, 2022

Women tend to fare poorly in religions created by men. Throughout history, male prophets have claimed divine authority to write laws that perpetuate male power and shunt women aside as intellectual inferiors or evil temptresses who threaten male glory.

Although we reject sexism in other sectors of our society, it is baked into many religious creeds. Nowhere on our continent does a faith based on male supremacy loom larger than in the polygamist sects dotting the American West and northern Mexico, which follow the original teachings of the libidinous founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith. Billing himself as a “prophet, seer and revelator” in 1830, Smith bested the religious start-ups of yore: He claimed that God — viewed as male, always — allowed men to take multiple wives. Smith accumulated up to 40 himself, including a 14-year-old girl — a troubling history that Mormon leaders denied until 2014.

“Central to Smith’s theology was the doctrine that all male devotees were on the road to godhood,” Sally Denton writes in her meticulously researched new book, “The Colony.” She goes on, “In the Mormons’ patriarchal system, a woman could only enter heaven as an appendage to a man, yet a man could take as many women to the eternal kingdom as he pleased.” Unsurprisingly, young men found Smith’s sales pitch very attractive.

Denton, who is an award-winning journalist and the author of eight previous books (including two related to Mormonism), is a descendant of polygamists. In “The Colony,” she traces the lineage of Melissa LeBaron, the plural wife of one of Smith’s early acolytes, to the present-day Colonia LeBaron, a polygamist community of 5,000 people in Chihuahua, Mexico.

“This book is an exploration of LeBaron — the place and the family — in an effort to explain the impulses that drove thousands of women over generations, including ancestors of mine … to join or remain within a novel American religion based on male supremacy and female servitude,” Denton writes.

Bowing to pressure from the federal government, the Latter-day Saints issued a manifesto forbidding plural marriage in 1890. The sudden shift in dogma split the church; fundamentalists, including the LeBarons, fled to Mexico to continue their polygamous lifestyle.

The author couldn’t have found a more bizarro clan to profile than the LeBarons, whose history of murdering family members, mental illness and incest rivals that of the Hapsburgs. One LeBaron patriarch, after 14 years of marriage to one woman, claimed he had a vision telling him that he needed a “quorum” of seven or more wives to attain godhood. Another blamed God for his seduction of underage girls. Yet another incorporated U.F.O.s and extraterrestrials into his teachings. One family member told Denton that a “streak of insanity haunted the family,” the result of generations of marriages between first cousins and even half siblings. Over the years, it has become increasingly difficult for followers to distinguish between their leaders’ “divine” revelations and mental derangement.

Most of Denton’s polygamous sources insisted on anonymity, reflecting a culture ruled by secrecy and fear. Practitioners skirt the law by marrying only the first wife; subsequent wives are relegated to the status of “concubine,” with few legal rights. Whether male practitioners truly believe Smith’s teachings or are only “converted below the belt” — as one woman who fled the colony suggests — is impossible to tease out.

The clan has grown relatively wealthy in Chihuahua, where they own more than 12,000 acres of walnut and pecan orchards that rise from the desiccated landscape like a green mirage. The trees are irrigated with water diverted from communal aquifers and rivers, an action that has provoked ongoing water wars with neighboring farmers.

The LeBarons made headlines in 1972, when Ervil LeBaron ordered a Mafia-style hit on a rival polygamist leader: his own brother. The murder kicked off a 15-year killing spree that claimed 33 lives, as Ervil (known as “the Mormon Manson” in the press) enlisted some of his 13 wives and 54 children to kill his enemies — murders that were financed by drug trafficking, bank robberies and a vast, trans-border car theft ring.

In 2009, the family again entered the news cycle when drug traffickers kidnapped a teenage boy from the colony and demanded a million-dollar ransom. The case caught the attention of Keith Raniere, leader of the Nxivm sex cult, who billed himself as “one of the top three problem solvers in the world” and flew to Mexico to advise the family. Raniere was struck by the “docility and submissiveness” of the LeBaron women, Denton writes, and chose 11 girls, ranging in age from 13 to 17, to bring back to his headquarters in upstate New York, ostensibly to work as Spanish teachers in a school he’d founded, but in reality, according to prosecutors, to groom them as sexual partners. Raniere was unable to solve the polygamists-versus-narcos problem, however, which came to a head in 2019 when gunmen opened fire on a caravan of three cars from LeBaron and a sister polygamist community, killing three women and six children.

I grew progressively angrier as I read this book. While Denton provides an excellent history of a polygamist subculture, she never fully explains why women choose to stay in a religion that treats them so shabbily. But as someone who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian household and understands how self-eroding patriarchal religion can be to girls, I’ll take a stab at an answer. The stranglehold of a dogma embedded in a child’s mind from infancy can be loosened only by exposure to new ideas. But for the LeBaron women — hobbled by chronic pregnancy, economic dependency and lack of a formal education — the odds of escaping that stranglehold are very slim.

“The colony is a magnet for trouble,” one woman who fled long ago told Denton. “They have a good racket. Many of the women are not there by choice.”

Perhaps women should start a belief system based on respect and equality for ourselves and our sisters. Oh wait, we already have one: It’s called feminism. Denton’s book is a testament to what happens when male power, under the guise of religious conviction, goes unchecked.

Julia Scheeres is the author of “Jesus Land” and “A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown.” Her latest book, “Listen, World! How the Intrepid Elsie Robinson Became America’s Most-Read Woman,” will be published in September.

THE COLONY: Faith and Blood in a Promised Land, by Sally Denton | Illustrated | 288 pp. | Liveright | $27.95

What the staff at Poor Richard’s Books suggests for your next great read

As part of The Colorado Sun’s literature section — SunLit — we’re featuring staff picks from book stores across the state. >> Click here for more SunLit — COLORADO SUN

Poor Richard’s Books & Gifts, 320 N. Tejon St., Colorado Springs — poorrichardsdowntown.com

From Jeffery Payne, Book Department Coordinator:  Sally Denton does a remarkable job sorting through vast, overwhelming and endless events to present a true-life telling and, the unsettling back story, of the horrific deaths of nine members of a Mormon sect in Mexico. With vivid attention to details, the reader learns of the complicated and long history of the LeBaron clan. We witness how the tenuous uneasy relationship between the residents of Colonia LeBaron, the surrounding Mexican drug cartels and the local population unravels which results in mistrust and more death. The pure ungodly violence that the members of the community put upon one another in the name of grace is astounding. This is a crime family hidden behind the cloak of “godliness.”

This book gives us insight into the harsh realities of fundamental Mormons and their treatment of women. We get just a glimpse of the complexities and workings of plural marriages and for this reason we admire the strength and courage of these people. It’s a complicated story, there are heroes and villains, sometimes they are the same person.

Ervil, Joel, Verlan, Alma, and Floren LeBaron (Wikimedia Commons/Google)

Ervil LeBaron: How a fundamentalist leader became known as the ‘Mormon Manson’ — The Independent

A new book investigates the 2019 killings of nine people with ties to the extended LeBaron family, Clémence Michallon reports, and delves into the LeBarons’ complicated history   |   Monday 25 July 2022 22:22

On 27 June 1988, four murders took place across three different locations. All occurred in Texas at the same time: 4pm. The date, journalist Sally Denton would later note in her book The Colony: Faith and Blood in a Promised Land, marked 144 years since the killing of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. The four victims, the youngest of whom was an eight-year-old girl, were all former members of the Church of the Firstborn of the Fulness of Times [sic], a Mormon fundamentalist sect founded by a man called Joel LeBaron. Their deaths had been ordered by Ervil LeBaron, Joel’s brother and the leader of a rival sect, the Church of the First Born of the Lamb of God.

While the four murders were committed in Ervil LeBaron’s name, and under his orders, Ervil had been dead for seven years at the time of the killings. Prior to his death in 1981, the fundamentalist leader had written a manifesto including a list of people to be killed. They were considered infidels, and Ervil had convinced his followers that murdering them was the right thing to do. His influence was such that people kept killing in his name, risking a lifetime in prison, even long after he had passed on.

The murders – which became known as the four o’clock murders in the true-crime space – are part of multiple killings attributed to the LeBaron family over the past 50 years. According to Denton, six LeBaron siblings were indicted in 1992; five were sentenced to time in prison and another was granted immunity in exchange for her testimony. In 1992, the LA Times estimated that “the LeBaron family’s saga spans two decades and involves 25 to 30 murders”, noting that Ervil’s sect “also attracted a handful of non-family followers.” A Daily Beast article published in July this year attributed “as many as 50 members” to “members of LeBaron’s family”, “as well as bank robbery, car theft, drug dealing, and selling guns to drug traffickers.”

Denton’s new book, published on 28 June by Liveright, an imprint of W W Norton & Company, investigates the 2019 killings of nine people (three women and six children) from Mormon enclaves in Mexico with ties to the extended LeBaron family. A contemporary column in The Salt Lake Tribune pointed out they were not members of Ervil’s sect, noting: “While many of the families in the colonies share the surname LeBaron, they are likely of no association to Ervil’s group, most of whom they’ve never met or interacted with.” The killings brought international attention to the family and the apparent tensions between the LeBarons and Mexico’s drug cartels, who were suspected of being behind the attack.

The Colony: Faith and Blood in a Promised Land also serves as a deep chronicle of the LeBaron family’s history, and its place in Mormon doctrine. Released around the same time as two documentaries (Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey on Netflix and Under the Banner of Heaven, the TV series adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s book of the same name), Mormon fundamentalism is currently at the front of the modern true-crime landscape.

The Church of the First Born of the Lamb of God

While Ervil LeBaron, having earned the nickname “Mormon Manson” due to the killings perpetrated at his behest, is the most infamous member of his family, the LeBarons’ ties to fundamental Mormonism far predated his adulthood.

In 1924, his father Alma Dayer LeBaron Sr (who went by Dayer) was excommunicated from the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for practicing polygamy, which the church renounced in 1890. (Prior to that, polygamy had been a Mormon practice beginning in the 1840s, under Joseph Smith’s leadership.) Ervil LeBaron, the ninth child of Dayer and his wife Maud (one of Dayer’s two wives), was born in 1925. The family settled for a time in Colonia Juárez, a small town in Chihuahua, but, per Denton, were ostracized due to their subscription to polygamy and asked to leave. In 1944, Dayer began establishing Colonia LeBaron, a polygamist community in Galeana, Chihuahua. Dayer died in 1951; four years later, in 1955, his son Joel started the Church of the Firstborn of the Fulness of Times.

Denton says Ervil was initially his brother’s “most passionate devotee”, but their rapport soured. In the late Sixties, Ervil started his own sect, the Church of the First Born of the Lamb of God, and in 1972, Ervil had his brother Joel murdered. The killing marked the beginning of a “ruthless campaign” by Ervil, writes Denton, which would see him order “Mafia-style hits on his many rival polygamist leaders and apostates from his church”.

Blood atonement

As sect leader, Ervil – described by The Daily Beast as “a 6’8” white supremacist and religious fundamentalist who loved to seduce underage girls” – relied on the idea of blood atonement, a disputed concept within Mormon doctrine according to which people who commit certain acts can be redeemed only through the shedding of their blood. (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has rejected the doctrine, as seen here in a statement released in 2010.)

In 1981, The Associated Press noted that Ervil’s “belief that he was ‘the one mighty and strong prophet of God’ and his vow made in 1970 that ‘blood will run to solve our problems’ has led to a reign of terror among Mormon fundamentalists.” At the time, “the number of LeBaron’s former disciples who have died or disappeared over the past two decades” had reached 18. In her book, Denton attributes 33 murders to the killing spree that began with Joel’s death.

From Chihuahua to NXIVM

To talk about Ervil LeBaron is to talk about women and girls – his 13 wives, his daughters, and the 11 girls, “aged 13 to 17”, writes Denton, who traveled from Chihuahua to the US to join NXIVM, Keith Raniere’s cult in upstate New York. Former prosecutor Moira Kim Penza, who led the case against Raniere, told the Times Union in 2019 she believed some of the girls were “exposed to Raniere’s pedophilic and misogynistic teachings” and “groomed to have sex with Raniere”.

“I believe the girls from the LeBaron community were targeted specifically because, having been raised in a polygamist sect, they were more vulnerable to Raniere’s teachings on sexuality, including that it is natural for women to be monogamous and for men to have more than one partner – a philosophy that served Raniere’s own sexual preferences,” Penza told the publication.

Raniere’s cameo in the LeBaron story is at once surprising and predictable: Raniere’s narrative, similar to LeBaron’s, is the tale of a man who used spiritual doctrine in the service of his own desires and interests. (Raniere was sentenced in October 2020 to 120 years in prison after being convicted of racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, sex trafficking, attempted sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy, forced labor conspiracy, and wire fraud conspiracy.)

“Nowhere on our continent does a faith based on male supremacy loom larger than in the polygamist sects dotting the American West and northern Mexico, which follow the original teachings of the libidinous founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith,” wrote author Julia Scheeres in a review of Denton’s book forThe New York Times. To Scheeres (whose own books include the memoir Jesus Landabout her upbringing in a fundamentalist Christian household and A Thousand Lives about Jonestown), “Denton’s book” – and Ervil LeBaron’s story – “is a testament to what happens when male power, under the guise of religious conviction, goes unchecked.”

Ervil LeBaron’s legacy

Ervil LeBaron was arrested, extradited to the US, and convicted in 1980 of having ordered the 1977 murder of Rulon Allred, the leader of another polygamist sect. He was also convicted of plotting to kill his brother Verlan LeBaron, also the head of a different polygamist group, The New York Times reported at the time. Ervil was sentenced to life in prison and was found dead in his cell the following year, in 1981, having apparently died by suicide. Prior to his death, he wrote a long manifesto including a hit list of enemies for his followers to kill.

Denton notes that those killings continued into the Nineties and included the four o’clock murders for which six LeBaron siblings were indicted.

“The families who remained in the Mexican colonies had to contend with threats from Ervil’s followers until the list allegedly went ‘dead’ around 2013,” Mormon consultant, blogger, and podcaster Lindsay Hansen Park wrote in her 2019 Salt Lake Tribune column. Nowadays, she added, “many of the citizens of the Mormon colonies are members of a variety of different Mormon churches – from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to independently practicing Mormon polygamists. Some practice plural marriage and others believe in the principle but don’t practice it, though they all trace their presence in Mexico to it.”

Tensions with drug cartels

The LeBaron name “became common in La Mora” through “intermarriage over the generations”, The Associated Press reported in 2019 citing Cristina Rosetti, a scholar and expert of Mormon fundamentalism. “But since the family name is so widely associated with the church, La Mora residents consider themselves ‘independent Mormons’ to stress they have no connection to the Church of the Firstborn of the Fulness of Times,” the agency noted.

Tensions grew between those communities and the drug cartels in the same area. In 2009, “Mormon families of the same LeBaron name were targeted by drug cartels”, Park wrote. That year, Eric LeBaron was kidnapped by a cartel that demanded a $1m ransom in exchange for his release. (Eric was eventually released; the family has said the ransom was not paid.)

Also in 2009, Benjamin LeBaron, an anti-crime activist, was killed along with his brother-in-law Luis Widmar. The 2019 killings of nine people – Titus Miller, Tiana Miller, Rogan Langford, Krystal Miller, Trevor Langford, Howard Miller, Christina Marie Langford Johnson, Rhonita Miller, and Dawna Langford – were described by relatives as a continuation of the same strand of violence.  Earlier this month, a US judge ordered the Juarez cartel to pay $1.5bn to the families as part of a lawsuit.

‘The Colony’ revisits 2019 La Mora massacre — and dives into Mormon history, Mexican politics, drug cartels

New book explores a place that began as a polygamous outpost.

It’s not often you can read about Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in the same book.

But that’s the vast, sandy ground covered in “The Colony: Faith and Blood in a Promised Land,” a volume due out Tuesday about the 2019 massacre near La Mora, Mexico. Longtime Mormon history and crime author Sally Denton merges the topics to create nonfiction that’s part historical, part political science and part war story.

The killers — whoever they were, exactly — used automatic weapons and, Denton reports, a rocket-propelled grenade to kill three women and six children. I traveled to La Mora to report on the funerals for The Salt Lake Tribune. While I heard some of the details that the surviving children told their parents, Denton told me a lot of things I didn’t know about the bullets that flew through the desert and the horror seen by the kids.

The victims had citizenship in Mexico and the United States. Denton explains all the history that left northern Mexico with a Dutch oven stew of Mormonism.

There’s the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which officially abandoned polygamy in 1890 as a condition of Utah statehood and kicks out members found practicing it. Then, add in the fundamentalist Mormons who still let men marry multiple women and other types of independent Mormons in between.

Denton conducted scores of interviews and cited other reporters’ work. Despite that, she can offer only theories for the bloody ambush.

The first is that the target was one of the mothers slain that day: Rhonita Miller.

“She was the only one that they burned alive,” Denton told me in an interview earlier this month, “that they used a rocket launcher [on]; that they videotaped it.”

Miller was also from the town of Colonia LeBaron, the destination the three families were traveling to that day and a community that had complex ties to all of Mexico’s factions. While La Mora had what one family member described as a “cordial relationship” with Guzmán’s Sinaloa Cartel, Colonia LeBaron had activists opposing the drug traffickers.

The LeBarons — as residents are known, even if their surnames aren’t LeBaron — also had poor relations with their neighbors over land and water. Denton describes how Colonia LeBaron wanted the government to do something about the corruption and violence. Advocates for native Mexicans accused the LeBarons of ignoring environmental laws to grow more Brussels sprouts, tomatillos and watermelons.

If your knowledge of Mexico comes from sipping margaritas in Cancun, you may have forgotten the country is fundamentally different from the United States. Drug cartels operate as nations within Mexican borders. Politics in Mexico City on down to municipal governments are intertwined with opposition to — and cooperation with — the traffickers.

Denton spells out all the ways Colonia LeBaron’s conflicts could have birthed the massacre. She even floats the idea that someone in Colonia LeBaron could have worked with the cartels to perpetrate the massacre to settle old Mormon grievances.

“When it came down to it,” Denton told me, “the LeBarons don’t have a lot of friends down there.”

When I called David Langford this month to ask why he thought one of his wives, Dawna, and two of his sons, 11-year-old Trevor and 2-year-old Rogan, were gunned down, he didn’t believe anyone in Colonia LeBaron could have cooperated with the cartels.

“There’s no shred of evidence,” he said, “to support a theory like that.”

His theory is that it had to do with a lithium mine scheduled to begin production in 2024 about 75 miles south of La Mora.

Langford’s idea is a little hard to track, but the short version is that someone in the Mexican government perpetrated the killings to boost support for a better road leading to the mine. Denton doesn’t address that possibility in “The Colony.”

Langford said his surviving children are doing well. They now live near Colorado City, Ariz. He says about 15 to 20 other families moved out of La Mora, too.

At least 30 people have been arrested in connection with the assault, Langford and Denton both told me. No one has yet been convicted of murder.

The Salt Lake Tribune and FOX 13 are content-sharing partners.

The ‘Mormon Manson’ and His Family’s Mexican Massacre

Ervil LeBaron was a murderous white supremacist and religious fundamentalist, nine of whose followers were slaughtered in a 2019 cartel killing.

Members of the LeBarón family search through the burned car where five of the nine Mormon community members were killed in an ambush launched by a cartel gang in Bavispe, Sonora, on November 4, 2019

‘It wasn’t mistaken identity – it was about money’ — The Daily Mail

Author claims nine murdered Mormon moms and kids were slaughtered by the cartel in targeted REVENGE massacre after their ‘fathers and husbands reneged on a guns deal’

An author has shared her theory that the nine Mormon mothers and their children who were slaughtered in 2019 were killed in a revenge attack by the cartel that was designed to send a message to their husbands and fathers after a deal went wrong.

Nine members of the LeBaron and Miller families were shot and burned in La Mora, a town 70 miles south of the US-Mexico border, in November 2019.

Members of the cartel have been arrested for the killings but the motive has always been murky; some have suggested the killings were a case of mistaken identity, while others say the families were caught in the crossfires of a turf war between rival gangs.

Now, author Sally Denton has shared her theory that the families were in fact in business with the cartel – and that their business relationship took a deadly turn.

‘I think it’s naive for the public to believe they were just friendly neighbors, saying hello at sicario checkpoints.

‘I don’t believe you don’t live with some of the most violent people in the world without having accommodations. I think they were helping with guns.

‘I think somebody owed somebody something. I think there was a great big message, not to the women and children, but to their husbands and fathers.

‘It was not a case of mistaken identity; they were targeted. It was about money; somebody reneged on some kind of deal,’ she told The Daily Beast. 

Uniquely Kentucky dives into ‘The Bluegrass Conspiracy’ with Sally Denton


In the latest episode of Uniquely Kentucky, Amber Philpott dives into “The Bluegrass Conspiracy” with Sally Denton.

who has written a number of books, including, “The Bluegrass Conspiracy.” It is an inside story of power, greed, drugs, and murder and it blew the lid off of Lexington, Ky. when it was released.

Denton was a WKYT investigative reporter from about 1980-83 and who worked several reports on corruption in the Lexington police department.

Her book, “The Bluegrass Conspiracy” was released in 1989 to both raves and jeers. It is a detailed account of the events that both surrounded and lead up to former Lexington police officer Drew Thorton parachuting to his death with 150 pounds of cocaine.

The scandal reached far beyond the rolling hills of the Bluegrass and became one of Lexington’s and the country’s most intriguing stories.

It also includes the disappearance of Melanie Flynn. The Lexington woman went missing in 1977 after leaving work at the Kentucky High School Athletic Association.

“An attractive young lady, daughter of a prominent family. Her father had been on city council. He had been a state senator. She worked for a prominent public sports agency. Her older brother was a rising sports star, and all of a sudden, she’s gone,”

Her purse was found shortly after her disappearance on the Kentucky River in Jessamine County. But afte that the case went cold for years.

“Despite all of our best efforts, we never could come up with any conclusions,” Kurtz said. “It just went on for month after month and nothing, nothing.”

Last week, investigators received a tip from an elderly person in another state,

That person had new information about the location of her body given to him from a key figure in the investigation. It specifically mentioned a septic hole at Murphy’s Landing. Kentucky State Police said they received a similar tip from a different person.

It’s on the Kentucky River on U.S. 68 in Mercer County.

Lexington and state police took equipment to scan underground and took K-9s to the area. They’ve not found anything so far, but police are asking for tips and old photos of Murphy’s Landing.

You can send the photos to policepio@lexingtonpolice.ky.gov.

They also cleared sections out near a wooded area.

“We are out here for a reason. We are putting it out there that we are here, and we want the public to know we don’t forget cases like this,” Lexington Police Sgt. Donnell Gordon said.

The search is expected to continue for days.

Police are also encouraging anyone with tips to report them.

“We want people to know that we are still – it doesn’t matter how old the cases are – that we are still actively investigating all of our cases and any tip that comes in we really appreciate it because we need the community’s help,” said Sgt. Gordon.

“We will exhaust all of our leads again, and hopefully we can come up with something that will help the family out.”

In the latest episode of Uniquely Kentucky, Denton is asked if she thinks there will ever be answers in the Flynn case.

“I think if there could be some answers and some justice that it would go a long way towards helping everybody heal from the results of this,” said Denton. “I mean Melanie is hardly the only victim in this situation.”

You can listen to the full podcast below, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.


‘The Profiteers,’ by Sally Denton — The New York Times

March 8, 2016

When James Madison discussed the relationship between corporations and government, he sounded as if he were knocking on doors for Bernie Sanders. “The stockjobbers,” he wrote, “will become the pretorian band of the Government, at once its tool and its tyrant.” But stop right there. You might recognize Madison’s worry about corporations being government’s “tyrant,” but “its tool”?

In Madison’s day, legislatures chartered corporations through special acts, one by one, to channel private money into public projects. Alexander Hamilton, the corporation’s champion, saw it as a vessel for public policy, the consequences of which Madison feared as much as public corruption.

I thought of this history as I read Sally Denton’s new book, “The Profiteers,” a history of the Bechtel Corporation, one of the world’s largest construction companies. She targets Bechtel’s decades of extraordinary influence in Washington, detailing how the company has thrived on and perhaps even set the terms of the relationship. But her account left me thinking: Hasn’t the federal government benefited as well?

Denton rolls ahead with all the energy of the company’s founder, Warren Bechtel. Born in 1872, he worked his way from a farm in Illinois to a construction firm in California, “a natural engineer,” as one boss said. In 1906, he “was ready to strike out on his own,” Denton writes. He built railroads, pipelines, highways and finally the Hoover Dam.

“The Profiteers” shows how the dam set a pattern. Warren Bechtel made alliances with other businesses and federal officials, and obtained the contract for his consortium in 1931, through the influence of a former government insider in his employ. Denton, the author of several books of American history and investigative reporting, uses the term “revolving door” more than once to describe Bechtel’s personnel exchanges with Washington. She concedes that the Hoover Dam may have been “a marvel of design, engineering, architecture and construction,” but she highlights how “the safety violations and labor unrest that characterized Hoover Dam’s construction site would become synonymous with Bechtel” over time.

Warren Bechtel’s mysterious death in Moscow in 1933, from an apparent insulin overdose, ignites a theme of political maneuvering and international intrigue. The corporation went global after World War II, seeking contracts in the Soviet Union, Indonesia, Qaddafi’s Libya. It developed an expertise in energy, erecting refineries, nuclear power plants, even an entire city in Saudi Arabia. It adhered to the Arab boycott of Israel. It cooperated with the C.I.A.

But who or what is Bechtel? How do we separate the corporate person from the corporation’s people? What of Bechtel’s society of managers, technicians and workers, its internal turf wars, its procedural habits? Denton says little about Bechtel’s internal culture; despite her extensive research, she writes, she confronted a privately held company with a “longstanding tradition of privacy and secrecy,” and her freedom of information requests for Bechtel contracts with the Department of Energy “were denied in their entirety.” She focuses on the top, populated by Warren Bechtel’s descendants. They have maintained a consistent, and boring, sensibility. “The Bechtelians were a colorless, sober bunch,” she writes.

Fortunately for the reader, more vivid characters appear. John Alex McCone, for example, joined Bechtel in 1937. Stern to the point of threatening (“When he smiles, look out,” a C.I.A. official once said), he helped invent the “cost-plus” contract, in which the government guarantees a profit. McCone pushed an anti-Communist, pro-nuclear agenda under Harry Truman; Eisenhower named him chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1957, and Kennedy appointed him director of the C.I.A. in 1961. McCone used his posts to help the company, a long-running pattern. Steve Bechtel Jr., Warren’s grandson, wove ties to Richard Nixon that proved lucrative after Nixon won the White House in 1968.


Bechtel and the Men Who Built the World

By Sally Denton

Illustrated. 436 pp. Simon & Schuster. $30.

T. J. Stiles received the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for “The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.” His newest book is “Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America,” a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

A version of this article appears in print on March 13, 2016, Page 10 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Reservoir of Power. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

“The Plots Against the President: FDR, a Nation in Crisis, and the Rise of the American Right,” by Sally Denton

Eighty years after his first inauguration, it is easy to forget that Franklin D. Roosevelt had political problems. His presidency seems so effortless: the 100 days, four electoral landslides, large majorities in Congress. Millions hung his portrait above their fireplaces. All that belies the conservative vitriol he and his policies faced during the first two years of his presidency, which Sally Denton explores in “The Plots Against the President,” a thoroughly readable primer on political discourse in the early years of the Great Depression.Denton, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, sets the scene by describing a nation near collapse in 1932, three years into the Depression. People openly wondered whether democracy, with its deliberate processes, could act fast enough against the economic decay. Some called for a fascist state to alleviate the problems. “Even the term Fascism implied a strength and unity desperately needed in America,” Denton writes. Two days before Roosevelt’s inauguration, “more than half the states had closed their banks. . . . The New York Stock Exchange and the Chicago Board of Trade were shuttered.”

The American republic seemed too brittle to withstand the calamity. Denton quotes the historian William Manchester: “The evidence strongly suggests that had Roosevelt in fact been another Hoover, the United States would have followed seven Latin American countries whose governments had been overthrown by Depression victims.”

Of course, Roosevelt was no Hoover. During the 100 days that started on March 4, 1933, when he was inaugurated, Congress approved 15 New Deal proposals offered by the White House. They took the country off the gold standard, shoring up banks by preventing runs on them. A subsquent bank holiday allowed financial institutions time to straighten out their finances. Soon deposits returned to the banks. Roosevelt’s policies set in motion the repeal of Prohibition and offered assistance to homeowners, farmers and unemployed veterans. In little more than a year, the results were striking. “By March 15, 1933,” Denton writes, “76 percent of the country’s Federal Reserve member banks had reopened.” When the stock market reopened the following day, the Dow Jones “jumped a historic 15 percent.”

To call Roosevelt popular would be an understatement. “The Nation was giddy in its response to their deliverer. ‘Roosevelt is the greatest leader since Jesus Christ,’ a prominent businessman was quoted as saying. ‘I hope God will forgive me for voting for Hoover.’ ”

“The Plots Against the President: FDR, A Nation in Crisis, and the Rise of the American Right” by Sally Denton (Bloomsbury Press)

But that wasn’t a view held by everyone. The right turned against his policies. Some took offense at his diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union, surely an indication of his communistic intentions, conspiracy theorists thought. American fascist parties formed paramilitary groups called the silver shirts, the khaki shirts or the black shirts, a Crayola box of colors inspired by Hitler’s brownshirts and Mussolini’s blackshirts. “Dangerous or not,” Denton notes, “America was awash with right-wing groups overtly bent on government takeover outside the bounds of the democratic electoral process.”

The largest effort was a well-financed Wall Street plot to organize the American Legion to march on Washington, seize the White House, overthrow the president and install a famous military hero, Smedley Darlington Butler, as leader of a fascist state modeled after Italy. Butler, a two-time Medal of Honor recipient and firm supporter of Roosevelt, turned the ringleaders in. Despite the opposition, Democrats gained 22 seats in Congress in 1934, and Roosevelt steamrolled Kansas Gov. Alf Landon, the Republican nominee, in the 1936 election.

A charismatic, eloquent leader, eager for change, faces a vocal conservative backlash. Sound familiar? Throughout the book, you might draw parallels to today. Were the unemployed World War I veterans who encamped in Anacostia in 1932 seeking their unpaid bonuses forerunners of the Occupy D.C. movement 80 years on? Is the invective of radio priest Father Charles Coughlin similar to that of Glenn Beck (although Beck’s lacks the anti-Semitism)? As for the commanders in chief, “There is not much difference between the forces lined against President Franklin Roosevelt and those against President Barack Obama,” Denton writes.

Timothy R. Smith is an editorial aide for Book World.