Ep 119 – Bennett’s Brothel Gets Dumped
On this episode, we continue rooting around in the muck of the underbelly of Nauvoo Mormonism. We discuss the primary catalyst that caused Bennett to be so opposed to Joseph Smith. With rampant rumors of adultery, Crazy Willey Smith pens “The Truant Husband” with a pleasant little PSA to all the “midnight watchers” in Nauvoo. We discuss the role of women’s organizations and the social context in which they rose by examining Emma’s claims that “Benevolence” societies were corrupt. Then we get into the seedy and vague history of Nauvoo brothels and temperance.
We are Engaged as a Band of Sister by Ruth Alexander
Ladies Bountiful by Keith Medler
Relief Society Minute Book
Times & Season November 1841
FairMormon Bennett’s Brothel
The Wasp edited by William Smith
Temple Lot depositions
The Saintly Scoundrel Bennett Timeline
Joseph H. Jackson expose 1844
Music by Jason Comeau http://aloststateofmind.com/
Show Artwork http://weirdmormonshit.com/
Legal Counsel http://patorrez.com/
Post mo quality of life survey https://www.soscisurvey.de/qol_survey/
The great back-stabbing had begun. Everybody was suspicious of their neighbor. Who would be the next to strike, who would be the next to take a knife? John C. Wreck-it Bennett’s public and vitriolic opposition to the leadership in Nauvoo was quickly turning into a meltdown for the Mormon leadership. Thousands were murmuring about the doctrine of plural marriage being practiced by select Mormon elites, hundreds had some evidence to substantiate the rumors, but only a few dozen people were privy to the knowledge that plural marriage was, indeed, a divine command of God and was being practiced.
Bennett’s disaffection caused everybody to look at each other with shifty eyes. Who else was under the guise of sincere belief for the purposes of exposing illegal church practices? Who could be trusted? Who would be the next to depart from the highest ranks and stab the brethren in the back?
The 21 May 1842 wasp summarized it well in a small snippet called “the shortest way to murder character”. The editor, Jo’s younger brother Crazy Willey, knew how hard it is to put down rumors once implanted in the collective consciousness of a society.
“Profess your friendship for a man—tell him how much you love him—proclaim how many excellent qualities he possesses, and, with a very sanctified look, and impressive sigh, express your fear that all is not as it should be. Whisper suspicion, and let conjecture, with giant strength, work out the ruin! He who understands human nature in its deeper workings of damnable cruelty, and selfish artifice, says a certain shrewd writer, will mark the man who stabs another under the cloak of pretended affection. The pretence has a lie, adds the, on the face of it. True affection would never whisper a suspicion, save in the ear of the one beloved, and whom that suspicion concerned.—Never trust that man who comes to you whining over his regard for another, while his tongue is a drawn sword to wound and kill-meet him promptly with the charge of his hypocracy, and he will sink with meanness before you.”
How could you know? How does a person know when somebody joins their organization for the purposes of infiltration and exposing what goes on behind closed doors? How do you tell the difference between pretended affection and genuine? How could Jo know if the next convert was a Bennett or a Brigham?
The problem for the men practicing polygamy and trying to keep it under wraps was largely the women. Funny how that works, you treat half the population as a commodity subject to your every whim with no legitimate power to affect change or influence politics and they eventually get sick and tired of it.
What we’re going to discuss today is a bit of the interplay between the newly formed women’s organization, the Relief Society, and the long-standing men’s organization governing everybody, the church hierarchy. These are our actors for today and the catalyst for conflict is the same as it’s been for the past few episodes, polygamy. Look, this podcast is about Mormon history and we talk about issues impacting the early church as they come along. Polygamy and the accusations of adultery were completely ruling and shaping every action in the church in spring to summer of 1842 which means we’ll try and examine it from as many angles as we can to contextualize the impact of polygamy in 1842. It’s complex. It can’t be dealt with in an episode or two and then take a backseat to the historical timeline because polygamy, and the associated decisions, truly did shape so much of Mormonism in this Nauvoo era.
What we see play out in the record of public documents is the brethren leveraging their platforms to try and stifle or control how much people were talking about polygamy. They wanted the problem to go away. On the women’s side we have the Relief Society creating a hotbed for these rumors to circulate and be confirmed. It’s a common anti-Mormon throw away that Jo preached to the Relief Society that he can only get one wife while 19 of his wives were sitting in the room, and that’s funny and it’s a fact and all, but the point is always so much more complicated than that. By June of 1842, his wives were the President Emma, Councilor Sarah M. Cleveland, Councilor Sarah Ann Whitney, Secretary Eliza R. Snow, and the primary movers in the society were Agnes Coolbrith Smith, passed from Don Carlos to Jo when he died a few months prior, Zina Huntington, Patty Sessions, and Presendia Huntington Buell. Those were the main movers and shakers in the Relief Society and the minutes detail most of them making speeches or proposing motions and Jo had taken all of them to wife by June 1842.
The Relief Society was created for many reasons. One of those was to bring the women together into one cohesive body to take care of each other, and, let’s be clear about this, police each other. When every single woman in the highest ranks of leadership was one of Jo’s wives with his first wife as president of the society…. I mean…. that creates a complex mess of power dynamics I don’t think anybody could reasonably tease apart.
Let’s start with the messages the brethren were sending to the women in a few articles printed in the Wasp. The Times and Seasons was the official church periodical, the Wasp was the independent propagandist rag edited by Jo’s younger brother, Crazy Willey Smith.
Let’s start with the 21 May issue with an article titled “Wives”:
“Woman should be acquainted that no beauty hath any charms but the inward one of the mind; and that a gracefulness in their manners is much more engaging than that of their person; that modesty and meekness are the true and lasting ornaments; for she that has these is qualified as she ought to be for the management of a family, for the education of children, for an affection to her husband, and submitting to a prudent way of living. These only are the charms that render wives amiable, and give them the best title to our respect.”
Respect is earned, William Smith, and it’s a two-way street.
The next issue of the Wasp has an article titled “The Wife”. It tells women what is expected by the man to not break his heart.
“It needs not guilt to break a husbands heart; the absence of content; the mutterings of spleen, the untidy dress and cheerless home, the forbidden scowl, and deserted hearth; these and other nameless neglects, without a crime among them, have harrowed to the quick therefore of many a man, and planted there beyond the reach of cure the gloom of dark despair. Oh! May woman before that sad sight arrives, dwell on the recollections of her youth and awake and keep alive the promises she then so kindly gave, and though she may be injured, not the injuring one—the forgotten, no the forgetful wife—a happy allusion to that hour of peace and love—a kindly welcome to that comfortable home—a smile of love to banish hostile words—a kiss of peace to pardon all the past, and the hardest heart that ever locked itself within the breast of selfish man will soften to her charins, and bid her live, as she had hoped, her years in matchless bliss—loved, loving and content—the soother in the sorrowing hour, the source of comfort and the spring of joy.”
Now, for the crowning jewel from Crazy Willey. This may be one of the most patronizing and condescending articles I’ve read from a church article, given the social context from which it was printed. I’ll allow you to judge it for yourself, it’s titled “The Truant Husband”. This story really speaks for itself, but I’ll break it up with some of my own commentary to make it a little more palpable. This reads like Crazy Willey’s objectified idea of a perfect wife. Remember, Willey was a bit of a party freak, even moreso than his older brother, Jo, which is saying something.
“It was past midnight and she sat leaning her pale cheek on her hand, counting the dull ticking of a French clock that stood on the marble chimney-piece, and ever and anon lifting her weary eye to its dial to mark the laps of another hour. It was past midnight and yet he returned not!—She arose, and taking up the lamp, whose pale rays alone illuminated the solitary chamber, proceeded with noiseless steps to a small inner apartment. The curtains of his little bed were drawn aside, and the young mother gazed on her sleeping child. What a vivid contrast did that glowing cheek and smiling brow present, as he lay in rosy slumber, to the faded, yet beautiful face that hung over him in tears!—“Will he resemble his father?” was the thought that passed for a moment through her devoted heart, and a sigh was the only answer!
‘Tis his well known knock—and the steps of the drowsy porter echoed through the lofty hall, as with a murmur on his lip, he drew the massy bolts and admitted his thoughtless master. “Four o’clock, Willis, is it not?” and he sprang up the staircase—another moment he is in the chamber—in her arms!
No reproaches met the truant husband, none—save those she could not spare him, in her heavy eye, and faded cheek—yet these spoke to his heart.
“Julia, I have been a wandering husband.”
“But you are come now, Charles, and all is well.”
And all was well, for, from that hour, Charles Danvers became an altered man. Had his wife met him with frowns and sullen tears, he had became a hardened libertine;--but her affectionate caresses, the joy that danced in her sunken eye, the hectic flash that lit up her palid cheek at his approach, were arguments he could not withstand.”
So, when your husband comes home at 4 in the morning, don’t you dare ask questions or he’ll stop loving you. An explanation for Charles’s truancy is further explained in this lovely little anecdote.
“Married in early life, while he had felt all the ardor, but not the esteem of love; possessed of a splendid fortune and having hitherto had the command of his own pleasures, Danvers fell into the common error, of newly married men—the dread of being controlled. In vain did his parents, who beheld with sorrow the reproaches and misery he was heaping up for himself, in after life, remonstrate; Charles Danvers turned a deaf ear to advice, and pursued with companions every way unworthy of his society, the path of folly, if not of absolute guilt. The tavern, the club-room, and the race-course, too often left his wife a solitary mourner, or a midnight watcher.
Thus the first three years of their wedded life had passed—to him in fervid and restless pleasure, to her in blighted hope or unmurmuring regret. But this night crowned the patient forbearance of the neglected Julia with its just reward, and gave the death blow to folly in the bosom of Danvers. Returning with disgust from the losses of the hazard table, her meekness and long suffering touched him to the soul, the film fell from his eyes, and Vice, in her own hideous deformity, stood unmasked before him.”
Poor Charles Danvers, just lost all his money at the gambling tables in the local tavern, feels controlled by his wife, pushed into a marriage he didn’t want at the advice of his parents, only wanting to be a free spirit. But, lucky for him, when he gets home at 4 in the morning to his sleeping sick child and wife who’s been awake all night waiting for him to return, she doesn’t ask any questions or try to find out where he’s been, like a good wife in the spirit of meekness and affection. She doesn’t even ask if he’s gambled away all their money again or where they’ll get their next meal, she just gives him a tearful hug and is glad that he’s home. God knows if she complains that he’ll just leave her and the kids because he feels too controlled, so it’s definitely in her best interest to bite down on that unruly member of a tongue and never speak ill of her husband. Julia is such a model wife. Happily for everybody, her not asking questions of her husband worked out for everybody…
“Ten years have passed since that solitary midnight, when the young matron bent in tears over her sleeping boy. Behold her now? Still in the pride of womanhood, surrounded by their cherub faces, who are listening ere they go to rest to her sweet voice, as it pours forth to the accompaniment of her harp an evening song of joy and melody; while a manly form is bending over the music page to hide the tears of happiness and triumph that spring from a swelling bosom, as he contemplated the interesting group.”
The article concludes with a nice little PSA for all the young matrons out there looking to chastise their husband should he return at 4 in the morning without explanation.
“Youthful matrons! Ye who watch over a wandering an erring heart—when a reproach trembles on your lips towards a truant husband, imitate Julia Danvers, and remember, though hymen has chains, like the sword of Harmodius, they may be covered with flowers; that unkindness and irritability do but harden if not wholly estrange the heart—while on the contrary, patience and gentleness of manner (as water dropping on the flinty rock will in time wear it into softness,) seldom fail to reclaim to happiness and virtue, the Truant Husband.”
Yeah, it speaks for itself standalone, but when you consider the context of all the rumors gripping Nauvoo at the time and the brethren constantly putting out fires, it takes on a new dimension. Beyond that, I can’t say that this is something which was published in direct response to Bennett scandal currently under way, because that article honestly could have been printed just about anywhere in the country at this time, and, quite frankly, there are plenty of articles and stories like this printed every day and broadcast to millions of people at the click of a button. The inherent sexism within the story is worth decrying on its own merits and it’s a shame I can’t even say that this was a product of the time.
The important piece is the context during which this story was printed. This reads like a snuff piece. Wives, stop asking your truant husbands all those probing questions or he’ll stop loving you.
Let’s shift our focus, because I don’t want you all to come away from today’s episode with wrong impressions. Let’s hone in on the Relief Society for a minute here and it’s role in Nauvoo Mormonism.
In spite of the way I’ve painted it this far, in many ways Nauvoo was a weird experimentation of early women’s rights. Let me qualify that a bit because everything I’ve said today so far makes it sound like it was created for the sole purpose of shutting up those wives who couldn’t keep their mouths shut about polygamy. That is laughably reductionist and simplistic, so let’s discuss the Relief Society in light of women’s rights movements of the day within Nauvoo Mormonism. On the one hand, Nauvoo was only able to survive with the contributions by the women and their untiring devotion to the cause and providing for the destitute Mormons in their times of need. One partial reason the Relief Society was formed was as a kind of reward for doing so much to build Zion in their own way. Look, these women had been building Zion in ways we can’t imagine within the confines of their gender roles society had dictated. Sure, the major structural pieces of construction projects were carried out largely by the men cutting lumber and stone, firing bricks, everything you can imagine to get a structure built. But once the structure was up, it was just a skeleton of a building. Who do you think built a ton of the furniture and upholstered it, sewed rugs and curtains, designed the interior to look the way it was. Who do you think kept all the thousands of men and children fed during all these construction projects? Who was tending to small farming operations and taking care of livestock while the men were occupied with construction? Sure the men usually farmed the cash-crops, but small gardens and private farming operations? Who educated all the kids? Laundry was a multiple day’s-long chore, who did all of that amidst cooking and child-rearing duties and was then expected to have a fresh loaf of cornbread and stew in the fireplace when daddy comes home from building temples all day? Yeah, women in Mormon history were the unseen force that kept society afloat. Maybe it was time they finally have some power and say in what happens.
After years of contributing to the collective Mormon effort, the Relief Society was formed which granted women the ability to meet together and lobby their efforts as a cohesive singular group. They could finally work together in solidarity and meet with the prophet and his wife on a weekly or semi-weekly basis to voice concerns, or talk about what’s been going on in Nauvoo lately. For a few hours a week they could get away from the kids and husband and all the never-ending chores to just hang out with friends, and be a support group for each other. What an incredible thing, right? Truly, this was progressive for its day. I can’t stress that enough, women’s organizations were a revolutionary time in American history, and Nauvoo Mormonism was part of the movement.
Now let’s view this revolution in the broader context. A few women’s organizations existed at the time. Let’s use the complaints Emma voiced in the first Relief Society meeting to put the Relief Society in its time and place of American history. Emma’s criticisms of the naming stood as important criticisms of many of the women’s societies of the day.
When Jo and John Taylor were trying to name the Relief Society the Nauvoo Benevolent Society, Emma’s objections revealed these criticisms of women’s organizations of the day that I’m talking about.
“Emma Smith, said the popularity of the word benevolent is one great objection—no person can think of the word as associated with public institutions without thinking of the Washingtonian Benevolent Society which was one of the most corrupt Institutions of the day—do not wish to have it call’d after other Societies in the world--.”
It can’t be argued that these benevolence societies, or the Relief Society when it comes to Mormonism, weren’t beneficial in so many ways. The subject is really complex. They accomplished social change at the behest of groups of women, a phenomenon which had never happened in western history before, with a few minor exceptions.
Ruth Alexander wrote of the importance of the benevolence societies as a social safety net in the 1840s and 50s. This article is titled “we are engaged as a band of sisters” class and domesticity in the Washingtonian Temperance Movement 1840-1850, and you’ll find a link in the show notes.
“Throughout the winter and spring of 1842, the women of the Ladies’ Chelsea Temperance Benevolent Society visited the houses, alleys, and streets of their Manhattan neighborhood searching for families and individuals who suffered from the ravages of alcohol. Led by “Directress” Bowrason,… The Chelsea devotees of the Washingtonian temperance movement offered cash, clothing, and the message of abstinence from alcohol to impoverished inebriates. Among those aided were three women “restored” to sobriety by the actions of the female Washingtonians. The first woman was destitute, drunk, “nearly naked,” and “sick from exposure” when members of the society found her. She was persuaded to take the pledge of total abstinence, food and medical care were provided for her, and society members helped her find employment and board. Later she became a “worthy member” of the organization. The second, a young woman who was destitute and “without friends,” took the pledge and was clothed, boarded, and assisted in obtaining work with a sympathetic family. The third, a mother so poor and drunken that local authorities had taken her children from her, was able to resume care of her family after receiving help from the Washingtonian women.”
Ruth Alexander further sums up the benefits of these societies and social movements fostered within them, including the temperance movement, as follows:
“Feminine modesty, charity, the “rescue” of destitute or degraded females, and attentiveness to the reform of personal habits, all evident in the report from the Ladies’ Chelsea Temperance Benevolent Society, were common features of the reform efforts spearheaded by middle-class women during the nineteenth century… Numerous historians have asserted that this enthusiastic activism was inspired in part by middle-class women’s adherence to the tenets of domesticity—an ideology that sharply differentiated the “public” world of men from the “private” world of women and yet ultimately prompted many matrons to take their message of moral probity into the temperance, moral reform, antislavery, and woman’s rights movements.”
Another historian by the name of Keith Melder articulates the rise of women’s benevolence societies and notes how difficult it is to chart their rise. Most of these benevolence societies were formed to increase circulation of Bibles and inter-faith proselytization to Native Americans, a common sentiment shared by the majority of Protestant Christian sects in early America. The unwashed Native required conversion to Christianity to complete the colonialization of the American continent, so people like Joseph Smith wrote books about their supposed Christian heritage in hopes of converting them. However, Christianizing the Natives was a dogmatic ideology long before Jo was even born. These female bible benevolent societies contributed in ways we can’t imagine to help with those missionary efforts.
From Melder’s Ladies Bountiful: Organized women’s benevolence in early 19th-century America:
“The missionary impulse spread quickly into New York state where the Female Missionary Society of the Western District, organized in 1816, maintained six missionaries and raised more than $2,000 in the year 1818 from 46 towns and villages in ten counties. The religious crusade stimulated the growth of centralized, nonsectarian, national organizations dedicated to the circulation of Bibles and tracts, and many women’s societies became affiliates of the national groups. New Hampshire’s female Bible societies numbered 138 local groups at the height of their activities in 1828. In 1817 the managers of the American Bible Society paid tribute to their lady assistants:
‘It would be an act of injustice to that sex who contribute so essentially to the relief of our cares, whilst they heighten our purest pleasures, not to notice, in a prominent manner, their active benevolence in aid of the Society no only in forming Auxiliaries, but also in constituting, in so many places, their Pastors Members for life. They thus manifest the sense which they cherish of their obligations to that holy volume, whose truths have elevated them in Christian lands to their just and all-important station in society, and qualified them to perform the duties of that station with honour and success.’”
With that societal context in mind, let’s consider what Emma said about other benevolence societies. She said that the Washingtonian benevolence society was one of the most corrupt institutions of the day. Women represented a major untapped bloc of social power. Women’s role in politics until 1920 was the values she raised her male children with who would vote on her behalf once he reached voting age. However, voting is just one aspect of social power. It turns out that organizing grass-roots social movements was something women were really good at doing in 19th-century America. These groups took on social issues of the day, mostly temperance as it was the most prominent issue which impacted so many women on a day-to-day basis. Beyond the social movements though, these societies offered that intangible sense of sorority and cohesion in a world where women had no power to directly affect social change through voting. They also provided times when the women could leave the kids with her husband and just go hang out with all her friends away from all the annoyance of children, husbands, and the daily grind of chores to distract them.
It is interesting to note that the organization of the Female Relief Society in Nauvoo was formed in a similar fashion as other female societies of the day, that is by the approval and dictates of the ruling brethren in the area. I mean, the FEMALE RELIEF SOCIETY was only formed when Joseph Smith and John Taylor gave their approval and ordained the women there to be in charge of the society. Taylor even tried to name it contrary to what the president of the Relief Society wanted it named and she had to debate him to get it named Relief Society instead of the Benevolence Society of Nauvoo.
Once the group was formed, it was kept on a short leash by the Mormon leadership. Almost every meeting of the society for the first few months had a keynote speech by Jo or another high-ranking Mormon like Father Newell Whitney or Heber the Creeper Kimball. Either that, or Jo would have Emma read out a statement to the women that he’d prepared. Sure, the women controlled what happened in these various societies, including the Nauvoo Relief Society, but they were usually forced to run everything through local male leadership. Beyond that, if any of the societies wanted to affect societal change that ran against the will of local churches or governments, what could they do? If these female societies opposed any powerful male societies, who do you think usually won that debate?
Nevertheless, female groups did represent opportunities to curry women’s favor in a given demographic, which made the societies vulnerable to being coopted by local politicians or religious leaders. That Female Missionary society Melder talked about was able to raise $2,000 in a year’s time from 46 villages and townships, all from women who wanted to spread the Bible to the unwashed Natives. That’s a lot of dough from a large swath of land all funneled through a group advocating for social changes, run exclusively by women, that mass of untapped social and voting power.
Any politician worth their salt would recognize the utility or, conversely, danger of such a cohesive group of women devoted to social change. Women’s societies had to be kept on a short leash or they might actually accomplish something counter to what the powerful men wanted. It was this constant interplay between men’s and women’s societies. Beyond that, corruption inevitably seeped its way into most of these organizations. Imagine that, money and absolute power corrupt absolutely, it’s a phenomenon that unfortunately transcends all races, genders, and cultures.
However, even with the short leash granted by the brethren, it didn’t stop the Nauvoo Relief Society from causing change in their own ways.
Case in point; Bennett’s brothel. John C. Wreck-it Bennett owned a brothel in Nauvoo. A man with his knowledge of intoxicating herbs usually on hand in brothels, obstetrics, and salesmanship, along with a set of morals that were always for sale to the highest bidder, few men in Nauvoo were better suited to own and manage a brothel than Bennett.
Now, the historical record of this house of ill-repute are scant to say the least. In a city championing piety to any outside observers, to have a public brothel definitely didn’t help with circulating rumors of rampant adultery and sexual experimentation within Nauvoo’s city walls. As Bennett’s public persona began waning in early 1842 amidst these rampant adultery rumors, eventually the Mormons could no longer deal with having a permanent-standing brothel in town right next to one of their meeting-houses, they eventually acted. We can be sure the newly-formed Relief Society played a major role in what transpired.
Before we get to that, a question exists here. Let’s see if we can play around with this question for a few minutes. How was a brothel able to operate in Nauvoo? Why was it allowed in the first place? This is actually a really good question to ask those believing loved ones because it’s really unconventional and it doesn’t deal with the typical points of argumentation about the Books of Mormon or Abraham or Polygamy or something to that effect. This is just pure logic and facts to come to some uncomfortable possible conclusions and can be reached via Socratic method. So, how was a brothel able to operate in Nauvoo? Let me walk you through why this is a fun line of questioning to broach with a believing loved one and arm you with the facts to feel comfortable having that conversation should the situation present itself.
Joseph Smith was the sole leader of everything in Nauvoo. The only person with a higher government office than him was John C. Bennett prior to his resignation in May 1842, but Jo held the highest ecclesiastical position in the church and his will became law. This was the structure of the Nauvoo government since the elections held in February 1841:
Mayor John C. Bennett, Councilors: Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Charles C. Rich, John Barnett, Wilson Law, Don Carlos Smith, John Greene, Vinson Knight and aldermen: William Marks, Samuel H. Smith, Daniel Wells, and Newel Whitney. Daniel Wells is the only non-Mormon in that group, but he was a Jack-Mormon and simply keeping up appearances. He was the token non-Mormon who was extremely friendly to Jo and the Mormons. All church authority rested in the hands of Joseph Smith as prophet, seer, and revelator and every member of the Nauvoo government looked to Jo for direction. All public works projects were divinely commanded by god through his self-proclaimed prophet. Nothing happened in Nauvoo without the knowledge and approval of the Mormon mob boss, Don Joseph Smith. Beyond that, he was Lieutenant-General of the Nauvoo Legion so anything he couldn’t accomplish by government or divine dictate, the Nauvoo Legion or local police force would handle the problem, often under the cover of nightfall. Jo was the sole authority running Nauvoo. So, if he was the pious prophet of God as so often asserted by the believer or apologist, why did he allow a brothel to exist in the city? Why didn’t he stop it from opening? Or, if he didn’t know about it, when he eventually did learn of its existence, why didn’t he immediately close it?
Here’s a set of historical facts you need to know if a conversation does happen to spawn from this line of questioning. The timing on all of these facts is important as is the source from which the information derives, so hang in there with me for a few minutes while I create a bit of a timeline in discussing the vice-ridden underbelly of Nauvoo.
When the Charter was passed in late 1840, a temperance bill was argued soon after which banned the sale of non-medicinal alcohol within the city limits. In response to the passage of this bill, action was taken, published in the Times & Seasons on 15 November 1841. Bennett was in good-standing in the church at this time, living in a room of Jo and Emma’s house and regarded as Jo’s closest bosom-friend at the time, having long since replaced Sidney Rigdon who’d replaced Oliver Cowdery. Here it is:
“The Neusance.—It is known to many of our patrons, that a certain young man very injudiciously, and contrary to the remonstrancies of his friends, and in violation of the ordinances of this city, not long since erected a small building, near the Temple square, avowedly for the purpose of transacting the business of a Grocer. Said building was for a short time occupied for that purpose; but so heavy did the frown of public disapprobation rest upon it, that it was finally vacated, and stood some time, a lonely wreck of folly. In the mean time, the very sanctimonious and extremely unfortunate Mr. Kilbourn of Montrose, threw out to the public, ungentlemanly and slanderous imputations concerning the matter, saying that the Presidency of the church abetted and approbated the concern, &c., and the building having become a monument for every fool to write upon and exhibit his folly, to the annoyance of the citizens, the City Council very judiciously ordered the building removed as a neusance.—Some opposition to the execution of this order was exhibited, and the authorities called out a few of the military and demolished the building. The city authorities manifest a determination to carry out strictly the temperance ordinances of the city, and in this we wish them “God speed.” We suppose however, that Kilbourn and his junto will bray worse than ever, and “Mormonism” be adjudged by “witch law:” “Take the accused, bind him head and foot, and cast him into the pool; if he stinks and drowns he is innocent, if he floats take him out and hang him or burn him with fire.” We say, let the poor fools judge till they themselves are overtaken by judgment, and let them bray till they burst their wind chests.”
Grocers in 19th-century terminology basically meant a store for alcohol of all sorts and tobacco and other psychoactive herbs, not what we consider grocery stores today. A grocer near the temple violated the city temperance ordinances Bennett so vociferously fought to put in place because he was a teetotaler, probably because it was popular with the ladies and he was an insufferable ladies’ man. The article specifically claims that it was because of the temperance ordinances that the building was declared a neusance and destroyed.
We’ll get into this in a minute, but this establishment has been falsely conflated with Bennett’s brothel by historians before. Most notably, Richard Price’s book Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy is a bit reckless with the timing here, but we’ll get into that soon.
What is most notable is that Bennett’s brothel actually was destroyed. This is how it happened. There was a resolution passed on May 14, 1842, a month and a half before Bennett started his crusade against Jo and the Mormons, but he’d begun his departure. He resigned less than a week after this resolution from the office of Mayor and he’d basically already tendered his church membership resignation by this point.
HoC Vogel edition 5:8
“I attended city council in the morning, and advocated strongly the necessity of some active measures being taken to suppress houses, and acts of infamy in the city; for the protection of the innocent and virtuous, and good of public morals; showing clearly that there were certain characters in the place, who were disposed to corrupt the morals and chastity of our citizens, and that houses of infamy did exist: upon which a City Ordinance concerning brothels and disorderly characters was passed, to prohibit such things, and published in this day’s Wasp.
I also spoke largely for the repeal of the Ordinance of the City licensing Merchants, Hawkers, Taverns and Ordinaries, desiring that this might be a free people and enjoy equal rights and privileges, and the Ordinances were repealed.”
Here’s the Wasp article referred to:
“An Ordinance concerning brothels and disorderly characters.
Sec 1st Be it ordained by the City Council of the City of Nauvoo, that all brothels or houses of ill fame, erected or being in the City of Nauvoo, be and the same hereby are henceforth prohibited and by law declared public nuisances and that the owners or keepers of such houses, be fined in a sum of not less than five hundred nor more than fifty thousand dollars & imprisoned for, six months for each offence of one days continuance of such establishment; and that any person frequenting such establishment, (except on lawful business) shall be fined in the sum of five hundred dollars, and six months imprisonment for each offense; and further, that for ever act of adultery, or fornication, which can be proved the parties shall be imprisoned six months, and fined, each, ___ the sum of from five hundred to fifty thousand dollars, and that the individuals own acknowledgement shall be considered sufficient evidence in the case.
John C. Bennett, Mayor
Approved May 14th, 1842”
Approved by John C. Wreck-it Bennett, and then he walked out of the meeting with his middle fingers flying and as soon as he got home he wrote down his resignation from the office of Mayor. I mean, not quite that literal, but pretty close. This was Bennett’s last order as Mayor of the city of Nauvoo, an ordinance commanding brothels and houses of ill-fame to be disbanded or destroyed, and the owners fined five hundred to fifty thousand dollars. No evidence is readily avaliable of whether or not Bennett paid a fine for being the owner of such a business, but it was passed and his brothel was immediately destroyed. Beyond that, in the same meeting this ordinance was passed, Jo was able to repeal the temperance ordinances on the city as well. Bennett’s and Jo’s relationship, whatever was left before that council meeting, completely melted down in that meeting. Oh, to be a fly on the wall to see that argument play out. Bennett’s power had been completely neutered by Jo and the temperance order his fought for so hard and the brothel he’d built as a successful business, all undone in a single meeting. No wonder he hated Jo so much. Jo was a total power-hungry bastard and he flexed his muscles in this meeting.
Details of the destruction of Bennett’s brothel are unfortunately weak in the historical record. Bennett was so quickly scrubbed from the historical record in any way possible that as soon as he left the Mormon community he largely departed from the collective memory of most Mormons at the same time. His contributions to the movement and foundation of Nauvoo have been effectively minimized since mid-1842, but some details did come to light, and here they are.
During the temple lot hearings in the mid-1890s, a man named John Taylor, not the Brighamite prophet John Taylor, he was dead by the 1890s, a different John Taylor of the RLDS sect, told a few details of the Nauvoo brothel that he recalled from his teenage years. This account comes as a court testimonial, so that’s good, but it’s nearly 50 years after the fact from a believer in Mormonism who saw Bennett and the Fosters as mortal enemies of Joseph Smith for their respective roles in destroying his character. Bennett for his expose and lecturing against Mormonism and the Fosters for their role in publishing the Nauvoo Expositor which led to the death of Joseph Smith. Here’s Taylor’s testimony, it’s a bit biased:
“I stated that at one time I watched John C. Bennett go into a house that had a bad reputation, and I reported that fact when I caught him. That was in the year 1842; sometime in the latter part of the season. John C. Bennett and a lot of them built an ill-fame house near the Temple in Nauvoo, and there was a meeting ground in the grove near there. After they had built it, John C. Bennett and the Fosters,--I knew all their names at the time, they were the head men of it,--after they got it built, they wrote on it in large letters what it was,--a sign declaring what it was, and what it was there for; but I don’t remember just what the inscription or sign was they put on it. When we went to go to meeting we could not get there without passing this house and looking right at it, for it was close to the meeting ground, and one or two thousand people would go there to meeting on a Sabbath and they didn’t feel very good seeing that house there with great big letters facing them when they would look at it.”
Once Bennett became the problem he was, the citizens of Nauvoo lobbied to have the house of ill-fame removed. According to the timing claimed by Taylor almost 50 years after the fact, this would have been a few months after the formation of the Female Relief Society. Should his timing be accurate, this may have been one of the first projects the women banded together to accomplish for understandable reasons. Maybe they were sick of too many nights of a truant husband. We’ll discuss the limitations of Taylor’s testimony momentarily. This was how the citizens of Nauvoo dealt with Bennett’s brothel.
Building crashing into gully
struggle of a fight
noisy mob rabble rabble rabble background
creaking and stuff putting building on rollers
“The City Council held a council over it, and they considered it was a nuisance to the city, and the authorities passed an ordinance against it and notified them to move the nuisance; but they did not pay any attention to the order. They had some furniture in it, not much; the police gathered around, (NOISY MOB BG) and one of the policemen went to go in to move some of the furniture or something that was in it, and John Eagle, a big, burly looking fellow, (STRUGGLE AND WHACK ON HEAD) hit the policeman and knocked him down (THUMP). They went in, and took the building, and put it on rollers (CREAKING AND STUFF); and there was a deep gully there, and they pitched the house into it (BUILDING CRASHING)—just rolled the house off and tipped it over into this gully, shingles and all, and that was the end of that transaction.”
That’s all the historical record has to offer us concerning Bennett’s brothel, at least all I could find, there’s inevitably more out there that I couldn’t find, I need to be clear about that. Let’s evaluate how valuable this testimony is. It’s fun, right? Taylor knows how to tell an exciting story from his memory, but is it trustworthy?
As stated earlier, it was given 50 years after the occurrence. Beyond that, Taylor went on in the same statement to claim that Joseph and Hyrum were never practicing polygamy which perjured himself on the stand, casting his entire testimony into serious question. Also, he was a staunch believer in Joseph Smith as the prophet and his son, Joseph III as the current prophet, and Taylor likely could never see any possible wrong Jo could have done, much like the majority of believers throughout ALL of Mormon history. His religion, the RLDS, had a vested interest in proving that Jo was a monogamist as the majority of scholarship falling on that side of the spectrum has come out of the RLDS tradition. That reveals a religious conflict of interest with respect to him making certain claims or interpreting certain evidence in a way which would not be critical to Joseph Smith, which further limits his credibility. The timing is also an issue. He claimed it happened in the latter part of 1842 when Bennett was doing his lecture circuit against the Church, but there doesn’t exist any article in the Times and Seasons or HoC that I can find which alludes to this specific instance happening in late 1842 when they supposedly tossed Bennett’s brothel into a ditch. In fact, there isn’t any article detailing the destruction of a building of ill-fame except in November of 1841, and that was a grocery store selling alcohol against city regulations, not a brothel.
That’s the only article that even close to fits the bill for what John Taylor claimed in the temple lot hearings concerning a house of ill-fame. However, the timing of that November 1841 article is problematic as Bennett was still in good-standing with the church in November of 1841, even if there happened to be murmurings of problems that wouldn’t fully gestate until April and May of the next year when he resigned. However, the location fits in general terms, both Taylor’s testimony and the November 1841 article claim the building in question was near the temple. But that’s the only point where there’s agreement.
Also, the 1841 article makes no mention of a police officer being assaulted as Taylor had claimed. The article also says the building had been erected and then vacated, which may be a euphemism for it being inhabited only by those people of ill-fame who would need such a house, but that’s only inference and it’s speculative at best. Beyond that, the article says it was a Mr. Kilbourn who owned the grocer, and there’s nothing tying Bennett to it whatsoever that would link this article to the testimony given by Taylor in the temple lot hearings.
So, did Bennett own a brothel with a big XXX sign on it right next to the temple that was pitched into a gully when the ordinance banning brothels was passed? It’s pretty likely. He had all the skills and know-how to create a successful sex-work business and he had the obstetrics skills necessary to keep the women in working order…. (Hmmmm… kinda gave myself a little shudder at that thought.) But, should Taylor’s testimony be granted as historical fact, no. There’re just too many holes and conflicts of interest for it to be trustworthy.
The limitations in Taylor’s testimony hasn’t stopped historians from using it as historical fact.
If you read the 2 FairMormon articles concerning Bennett and his brothel, they link the 1841 article and Taylor’s testimony together and claim it was Bennett who opposed the removal of the building in the 1841 article. Beyond that, they also cite an article out of the Wasp for Oct 2, 1842 as substantiation that Bennett owned the building, that it was a brothel, and that he opposed its removal. Well, there was no issue of the Wasp on Oct 2, 1842, and the Oct 1 and Oct 8th issues don’t have any articles of the sort. I know… because I read them. What I’m saying is that FairMormon has these articles online with shoddy and dishonest historical practices and citations that are either misinterpreted or simply don’t exist when you chase them down. Always check your sources, folks.
Now I know most of you must be balking at the idea of FairMormon using shoddy scholarship, how dare I lob such accusations. Honestly though, it’s important on this subject. I’ve been digging for quite some time and Bennett’s brothel is a subject that’s not so open and shut. But why is it important? Why is this a line of questioning to try and broach with that believing loved one at family reunions?
This reveals a seedy underbelly of Nauvoo history that isn’t the kinderhook plates or the book of Abraham or the masonic initiation rituals that are fun. This is something on a completely different level and it reveals a bit of the human element within the story. Tensions had been building between Jo and Bennett for a couple months prior to what happened with Bennett’s brothel, this was the final straw. This went down 5 days prior to Bennett’s resignation from the office of Mayor and membership in the church. The passage of this resolution must have driven that final ax blow that finally rent the trunk of their friendship in twain. Bennett was so viciously opposed to alcohol consumption and was probably making a bit of money off his spiritual wife business in that brothel, and in one fell swoop Jo outlawed brothels and repealed the temperance ordinances making the sale of alcohol legal again.
But it goes so much deeper! This was passed on the same day Orrin Pistol Packin’ Porter Rockwell returned from Missouri after having shot ex-Governor Lilburn Boggs. Port wasn’t motivated by nice possessions or a lavish lifestyle, he was a mountain-man motivated by freedom. If there was one thing that motivated ol Port, it was whiskey. Whiskey was expensive and hard to get in a city with temperance laws. Well, Port had just returned from fulfilling prophecy in Missouri, maybe Jo owed him a favor to make whiskey a little easier to obtain.
But there’s another level of historical conjecture to get into here. So much of the argument between Jo and Bennett wrapped around the problems created with Bennett’s spiritual wifery system, as opposed to Jo’s celestial marriage system. Look, Bennett owning a brothel and making money off sex-workers is something we can talk about. There’s a lot of factors that play into it. Commodifying sexual pleasure is something humans have been doing for as long as we have written history. But I want to draw a line between Jo and Bennett here when it comes to the commodification of women and sexuality in Nauvoo.
Bennett was gaining money off sex-workers… what was Jo gaining from his sex-workers? The story of the Kimball family is heart wrenching. We’ll get into the details in an episode when our timeline gets there, but essentially Jo told Heber the Creeper Kimball that Jo wanted Heber’s wife, Vilate, as a celestial wife. They toiled over the decision for a few days and finally came back and said they’d do it and Jo told them he was just joking, he actually wanted their 14-year-old daughter, Helen Mar. He gained a 14-year-old victim and the undying fealty of his closest followers by commodifying the Kimball family’s sexuality. Heber was handsomely rewarded with 43 wives before his death, many of those were Jo’s wives after he died in 1844. What else did he gain? Well, more women with his “Mothers in Israel” who would coerce younger girls into marrying Jo. And let’s not be too hasty in thinking Jo just took these women for his own possession and that was the extent of their sex-work services. A visiting dignitary came into town, send him over to one of the rooms of the Nauvoo Mansion and all his worldly lusts will be satisfied. Let’s hear how Jo treated his wives and what he’d get them to do according to Joseph H. Jackson’s account:
“Joe's conduct with the women of Nauvoo, surpasses every thing in blackness that I have ever heard or read of. I have from his own mouth, and from the mouth of his victims, statements which I dare not reveal; for the world will not believe that such corruption could possibly exist. Yet, if protection could be afforded to some of those females who were the victims of these wretches (the leaders in Nauvoo,) I could, I believe, from their own mouths, procure confessions that would startle the world. I have visited frequently, those women whom Joe supported for the gratification of his lust -- I have found them subsisting on the coarsest food, and not daring to utter a word of complaint, for they feared Joe Smith more than they did their God. I have appealed to the finer feelings of their nature, and seen them weep as children, when dwelling on the degraded state to which their credulity had reduced them. Knowing me to be in the confidence of Joe, they hesitated not to unfold their griefs to me, but their neighbors and acquaintances generally, know nothing of their feelings or their degradation. These remarks apply only to a portion of the spiritual wives, for there are many who are as corrupt as Joe himself…
But to return to my conversation with Hyrum. After giving me his experience in the spiritual wife system, he urged me to take a few women, and named two or three whom he said would suit me. I thanked him, and said I had no desire to form any connection with any women in the city, but if I should change my mind I would give his choice the preference, in part…
I asked him how he would work the matter; to which he replied, that he had only to tell certain of his spiritual wives, that such a man had been in the Missouri war, and that he should be put out of the way, and his properly and money consecrated to the use, of the church; then said he, it is d--d easy for them to got into his good graces, and to mix a white powder with his victuals, and put him out of the 'way. I then told him that he ought to give me the names of these women, as they might be of great service to me in carrying his secret measures. He then went on to give me the names of women, who he said would go to the ends of the earth for him; but I shall not in this place disclose them.”
Who’s more evil here, Bennett making money off sex-work, or Jo building a debased and corrupt system of theocratic power by leveraging his sex-workers? Bennett sold the sex services of his spiritual wives to satisfy lusts, Jo gave the services of his wives and concubines to men as a favor. And, well, I think Marlon Brando captures it pretty well…
Everything we’ve discussed today is one tiny window into Mormon history that reveals a dark and malevolent side of Joseph Smith. Sure, we can throw shade at Bennett’s spiritual wife system all day, but it seems Bennett got out of the game at a good time. I think Jo scared Bennett the longer they spent together. I think that just like Joseph Jackson, the more Bennett was able to see this darker side of Jo, the more he realized the type of depraved and hideous villain he was working with. Bennett saw the blueprints and piles of parts lying around behind closed doors that would eventually comprise Jo’s second Revolutionary war machine.
So, maybe this isn’t a subject to bring up to that family member the next time you get in a conversation about the church. Maybe this isn’t a fun line of questioning to walk people down, there be monsters down this rabbit hole. But I think it does reveal aspects of the human condition that exist ubiquitously throughout all human history across all human cultures. Aspects we don’t want to talk about; we don’t want to acknowledge because it might be our neighbor, a friend, a family member, or a trusted religious leader who’s just the nicest guy you’ve ever met. A religious leader who could do no wrong. Sound familiar, anybody?
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