Yelnock, Sema Anthonie

Biography

Sema Anthonie Yelnock

Sema Anthonie Yelnock, also known as James A. Conley, led a checkered life. As an adult he was in and out of trouble with the law and moved from state to state. He worked at various jobs over the years, including barber, shoeshine, and clairvoyant. When Yelnock moved to Salt Lake City in the 1920s he converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and spent over ten years as a member of his new faith before fresh legal trouble changed that.

Yelnock was born as James A. Conley on June 25, 1889, in Texas. He was the first child of Henry and Mary Annie Wallace Conley, a farming family living in rural Cass County on the eastern border of Texas with both Arkansas and Louisiana.[1] He spent his childhood years in Cass County, where he attended school and helped on the family farm. His life changed as a teenager when his father passed away sometime between 1900 and 1910. His mother then moved James and his younger brother Hosea to Arkansas, where James worked in a tailor shop. He stayed in Arkansas for only a few years before moving to Phoenix, Arizona.[2]

In Phoenix, Conley roomed with a group of Black women and men and began to work as a barber. It was there that he also had his first brush with the law.[3] Late in September of 1920, Conley ended his shift at the barbershop where he worked and went to a local confectionary to purchase a box of candy for a Black single mother in town. Conley took the sweets to the woman’s house but she refused his offer. Conley persisted and harassed her until she fled the home, and a neighbor phoned the police.[4] Conley was convicted of disturbing the peace and sentenced to ten days in jail. He appealed the decision but failed to appear at the hearing.[5]

By 1924 Conley moved to Salt Lake City and changed his name to Sema Anthonie Yelnock. The reason for the change is not clear other than it may have been calculated to facilitate his effort to identify as a Native American. Whatever the reason, James simply spelled his name backward and slightly altered it. Conley spelled backward became Yelnock by adding a “k” at the end and James spelled backward became Sema minus the “j”.  In addition, public and religious records for both James and Sema report the same birth dates and parental birth locations making it evident that they were the same person.

Yelnock worked as a shoeshine in Salt Lake and at some point reunited with his mother who also adopted Yelnock as a last name. The two of them became interested in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and were baptized into the Salt Lake Fourth Ward in the Pioneer Stake on the same day. Theodore M. Burton (later an LDS general authority) baptized Yelnock on June 28, 1924, and William F. Perschon confirmed him a week later on July 6.[6] Yelnock moved between several wards after that, shifting from the Fourth Ward to the Sixth-Seventh Ward, then to the Fourteenth Ward, and finally to the Lincoln Ward.[7] Sometimes his records transferred between wards even though Yelnock continued to live at the same address. Ward boundaries may have shifted or it may indicate that Yelnock did not participate regularly in worship or other ward activities and local members may have not known of his whereabouts. In some instances, ward members sent his records to the Presiding Bishop’s Office at church headquarters because they likely were not able to locate him.

Throughout his time in Salt Lake, Yelnock avoided identifying as Black. In the 1900 census he, his brother, and both of his parents were listed as Black, and he claimed Black as his racial identity in other public records until he reached Salt Lake City.[8] Starting with the 1930 Census, Yelnock claimed to be Filipino and stipulated that his father was born in the Philippines.[9] Later, he declared Native American ancestry on his World War II draft registration card, even though the registrar noted that she believed “this man is a negro.”[10] Yelnock even changed his place of birth from Texas to Oklahoma for his LDS membership records and World War II registration card, likely to support his claim to Native American ancestry.[11] The 1940 Census, taken while Yelnock was incarcerated at the state penitentiary, is the only known Utah record to identify him as Black.[12] Yelnock’s effort to obscure his racial identity was likely calculated to aid social acceptance at church and in broader Utah society.

Even still Yelnock faced more legal challenges within two years of his arrival in Salt Lake City. In July 1926, federal officers arrested Yelnock as an accomplice to two other men who sold opium and other narcotics to an undercover agent. In October, he was charged with a violation of the Harrison anti-narcotic act.[13]

In 1930, Yelnock married Frieda Wechtersbach, an Austrian born immigrant, who assisted him in his business endeavors. Frieda was previously married and brought three daughters and a son into the marriage.[14] Sema and Frieda lived and worked together for five years. During that time Yelnock sometimes called himself a professor and variously described his occupation as ethnographer, scientist, psychologist, and doctor. Promotional materials offered health, business, and social advice, but some people did not believe his claims.[15] By 1930 Yelnock dropped any pretense and listed his occupation as a “Clairvoyant.”[16] In 1931, Salt Lake police charged Yelnock with fortune-telling and by 1933 he openly advertised his business as a card reading service with “Madame” Yelnock as his assistant.[17]

On February 13, 1935, police charged Yelnock with a more serious crime. The accusation against him this time was three counts of “infamous crimes against nature.” Yelnock had allegedly sexually assaulted one of Frieda’s daughters three times over four months – once in November and twice in February.[18] Five days after being arrested, Sema was excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for unchristianlike conduct.[19]A jury then convicted Yelnock of the charges and a judge sentenced him to serve between five and twenty years at the Utah State prison then located at Sugarhouse. After several attempts at early release, a parole board eventually granted Yelnock’s petition and he was released on March 12, 1942.[20]

After his prison term, he continued to associate with Reverend Harold W. Gretzinger, a pastor at the First Church of the Nazarene who he seems to have met during his incarceration.[21] There is no evidence that he ever returned to membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Yelnock continued to live in Salt Lake City until at least 1948. He worked at a variety of jobs, including as a self-described psychologist before eventually returning to his earlier occupation as a barber.[22] During these years, authorities charged Yelnock with other major and minor crimes. In 1945, he pled guilty to indecent assault against a fourteen-year-old girl and received a three month jail sentence.[23] Other cases involved fortune-telling and providing a prescription without a license.[24]

After his time in Utah, Yelnock eventually reverted to his original name, James Conley, and returned to Texas. Social Security records indicate that he died in September 1973, in Texarkana, Texas.[25]

By Adam Hock

Primary Sources

“Admits Morals Count.” Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah). 17 October 1945, 20.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Record of Members Collection. Fourth Ward. CR 375 8, Box 2295, Folder 2, Image 87. Church History Library. Salt Lake City, Utah.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Record of Members Collection. Fourteenth Ward. CR 375 8, Box 2292, Folder 4, Image 280. Church History Library. Salt Lake City, Utah.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Record of Members Collection. Lincoln Ward. CR 375 8, Box 3695, Folder 4, Image 233. Church History Library. Salt Lake City, Utah.

Conley, James A. U.S. Social Security Death Index, 1924-2014. Number: 451-50-8127. Issue State: Texas. Issue Date: 1973.

“Daily Readings.” Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah). November 11, 1933, 4.

"Declines Candy of Colored Suitor; Has Him Arrested.” Arizona Republican (Phoenix, Arizona). 1 September 1920, 2.

“Draws Jail Sentences.” Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah). November 26, 1947, 22.

“Fined for Forecasting.” Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah). 6 December 1944, 12.

“Health, Business, Social Advice.” Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City). 3 Feb 1930, 17.

“Joke Results in Knife Battle.” Ogden Standard Examiner (Ogden, Utah). 26 July 1927, 2.

“Marital Ties of Three Couples are Severed by Judge.” Arizona Republican (Phoenix, Arizona). 3 October 1920, 1.

“Negro Changes Plea to Guilty.” Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah). 10 July 1946, 9.

“Pardon Board Spurns 13 Prisoner Pleas.” Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah). 21 October 1941, 17.

“Personals.” Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah). 7 September 1930, 37.

“Police Nab Six as Fortune-Tellers.” Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City). 7 March 1931, 26.

“Post Office Robbery.” Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah). 9 October 1926, 24.

Salt Lake City Directory. Salt Lake City, Utah: R.L. Polk & Co., 1924, 1944, 1948.

“Three Charges Filed.” Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah). 14 February 1935, 10.

“Three Held in Narcotic Deal.” Ogden Standard-Examiner (Ogden, Utah). 21 July 1926, 2.

United States. 1900 Census. Texas, Cass County, Justices’ Precinct.

United States. 1910 Census. Arkansas, Pulaski County, Big Rock Township.

United States. 1920 Census. Arizona. Maricopa County, Phoenix, 6th Precinct.

United States. 1930 Census. Utah, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City.

United States 1940 Census. Utah, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City, Penitentiary.

United States. Arkansas, Fort Smith. World War I Draft Registration Cards. 1917-1918. James A. Conley. National Archives and Records Administration, Washington D.C.

United States. Utah, Salt Lake City. World War II Draft Registration Cards. 1942. Sema Anthony Yelnock. National Archives and Records Administration, Washington D.C.

Utah. State Board of Health. Bureau of Vital Statistics. Certificates of Death. Registered No. 1096, Infant Yelnock.

Utah v. Sema Anthonie Yelnock. No. 10052. Third District Court. Salt Lake County. March 12,  1935. Utah Division of Archives and Records Service. Salt Lake City, Utah.

Utah v. Sema A. Yelnoch. No. 12446. Third District Court. Salt Lake City, Utah. June 14, 1945. Utah Division of Archives and Records Service. Salt Lake City, Utah.

“Yelnock.” Presiding Bishopric stake and mission census, 1914-1935. CR 4 311. Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.


[1] United States, 1900 Census, Texas, Cass County, Justices’ Precinct.

[2] United States, 1910 Census, Arkansas, Pulaski County, Big Rock Township.

[3] United States, 1920 Census, Arizona, Maricopa County, Phoenix, 6th Precinct.

[4] "Declines Candy of Colored Suitor; Has Him Arrested,” Arizona Republican (Phoenix, Arizona), 1 September 1920, 2.

[5] “Marital Ties of Three Couples are Severed by Judge,” Arizona Republican (Phoenix, Arizona), 3 October 1920, 1.

[6] Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Fourth Ward, CR 375 8, Box 2295, Folder 2, Image 87, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah; Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Fourteenth Ward, CR 375 8, Box 2292, Folder 4, Image 280, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah; Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Lincoln Ward, CR 375 8, Box 3695, Folder 4, Image 233, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[7] “Yelnock.” Presiding Bishopric stake and mission census, 1914-1935, CR 4 311, Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah; “Yelnoch, Sema A.,” Salt Lake City Directory, (Salt Lake City, Utah: R.L. Polk & Co., 1924), 1075.

[8] United States, 1920 Census, Arizona, Maricopa County, Phoenix, 6th Precinct; United States, Arkansas, Fort Smith, World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918, James A. Conley, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington D.C.

[9] United States, 1930 Census, Utah, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City.

[10] United States, Utah, Salt Lake City, World War II Draft Registration Cards, 1942, Sema Anthonie Yelnock, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington D.C.

[11] United States, Utah, Salt Lake City, World War II Draft Registration Cards, 1942, Sema Anthonie Yelnock, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington D.C.

[12] United States, 1940 Census, Utah, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City, Penitentiary.

[13] “Post Office Robbery,” The Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah) 9 October 1926, 24.

[14] United States, 1930 Census, Utah, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City.

[15] Utah, State Board of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics, Certificates of Death, Registered No. 1096, Infant Yelnock; “Sema A. Yelnoch,” Salt Lake City Directory, (Salt Lake City, Utah: R.L. Polk & Co., 1931), 1092; “Sema A. Yelnoch,” Salt Lake City Directory, (Salt Lake City, Utah: R.L. Polk & Co., 1944), 892; “Health, Business, Social Advice,” The Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City), 3 Feb 1930, 17.

[16] United States, 1930 Census, Utah, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City.

[17] “Police Nab Six as Fortune-Tellers,” The Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah), 7 March 1931, 26; “Daily Readings,” The Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah), November 11, 1933, 4.

[18] Utah v. Sema Anthonie Yelnock, No. 10052 (Third District Court, Salt Lake City, Utah, March 12, 1935), Utah Division of Archives and Records Service. Salt Lake City, Utah.

[19] Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Lincoln Ward, CR 375 8, Box 3695, Folder 4, Image 233, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[20] “Pardon Board Spurns 13 Prisoner Pleas,” The Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah), 21 October 1941, 17.

[21] United States, Utah, Salt Lake City, World War II Draft Registration Cards, 1942, Sema Anthony Yelnock, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington D.C.

[22] “Yelnoch, Sema A.,” Salt Lake City Directory, (Salt Lake City, Utah: R.L. Polk & Co., 1944), 892; “Yelnoch, Sema A.,” Salt Lake City Directory, (Salt Lake City, Utah: R.L. Polk & Co., 1948), 1177. 

[23] Utah vs. Sema A. Yelnoch, No. 12446, (Third District Court, Salt Lake City, Utah, June 14, 1945), Utah Division of Archives and Records Service. Salt Lake City, Utah.

[24] “Fined for Forecasting,” The Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah), 6 December 1944, 12; “Draws Jail Sentences,” The Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah), November 26, 1947, 22.

[25] Conley, James A. U.S. Social Security Death Index, 1924-2014, Number: 451-50-8127. Issue State: Texas. Issue Date: 1973.

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