Ep 137 – Emma’ Stairway to Hell
On this episode, we discuss the historicity of an altercation between Eliza Snow and Emma Hale Smith. Legend has it that Emma saw Eliza who was “heavy with child” kiss Jo and pushed Eliza down the stairs in a fit of jealous rage. It’s common oral tradition passed down for generations, but did it really happen? We dive into where the story came from and what the documentary history can tell us of the supposed incident. History isn’t always so cut and dry.
Go help BROTHER JAKE!!!
Figures of the Past
Nauvoo Mansion and Homestead
FairMormon did Emma push Eliza down the stairs
Emma and Eliza and the Stairs by Beecher, Avery, and Newell
Joseph Smith, the Prophet, His Friends, and his Family
Music by Jason Comeau http://aloststateofmind.com/
Show Artwork http://weirdmormonshit.com/
Legal Counsel http://patorrez.com/
It was a stressful time for the Mormons in Nauvoo. Jo and his posse had departed Nauvoo at the very end of December 1842 with Jo under arrest, headed to Springfield for a hearing which would determine the fate of the beloved prophet of the Mormon kingdom. The beginning of 1843 was already shaping up to look very similar to the end of 1838 with Jo in state custody in court. Would the court grant his habeas corpus writ, or would it comply with the state constitutions of Illinois and Missouri and grant the extradition warrant leading to Jo’s death at the gallows?
We read through the court transcript at it played out last episode, but that was happening in real time. The Mormons in Nauvoo had no idea what would happen while the hearing was underway. Their safety was at stake.
None were more affected than the prophet’s own wife, Emma Hale Smith. His own FIRST wife, I suppose that distinction is necessary by this point. Thousands of Mormons were locked in a state of uncertainty. They had Jo’s word that everything would go well, and his word was informed by his legal counsel, but they could be wrong and the attorney general of Illinois may have the superior case. Nobody knew what would happen.
Whenever Jo was absent, it was up to the remaining leadership to keep the lights on. The presidency was responsible for keeping everything running smoothly when Jo was away from the kingdom. However, they were all with Jo in Springfield, with the exception of William Law, who remained in Nauvoo. The Quorum of Apostles took on heavier leadership duties when time necessitated, but they weren’t the prophet or his counsellors.
Nauvoo catalyzed a shift for many Mormons. Emma began spending more time in the spotlight as the mouthpiece of Jo when he wasn’t available, or was hiding out from the law. When people called on the prophet and he wasn’t available, it was often Emma who handled affairs in his stead. She was taking increased roles in land transactions as well, even holding property in her own name. Beyond that, she was the primary leader for half the Nauvoo population. Emma was president of the Relief Society and looked to by thousands of women as the ecclesiastical leader of Mormon women within the kingdom.
From Newell and Avery’s excellent biography of Emma on page 130:
Because Joseph’s attempts to avoid imprisonment forced him to be absent, many of the family business responsibilities fell to Emma. On September 23, 1842, she sold $343.30 worth of store goods. In June Hiram Kimball sold to Emma and Joseph a three-quarter section of land and Emma and Joseph together sold a city lot to a newcomer. By October Emma bought and sold land without Joseph’s supervision, but with his encouragement and approval.
Emma interacted with church leaders in business. She wrote to Sidney Rigdon in September 1842 about the way he ran the post office. The letter began with a polite but no-nonsense comment: ‘I have noticed for some time back with feelings of regret that there is not that care and particularity in the Post Office in regards to the papers and letters belonging to Mr. Smith and the printing establishment that the nature of the case requires.’ Emma charged that unauthorized persons had been given Joseph’s mail and had been seen ‘examining, overhauling, and handling both letters and papers belonging to Mr. Smith and opening and reading the papers, etc.’ She told Rigdon, ‘If this continues we shall feel in duty bound to make complaint to the proper authorities, considering it absolutely and indepsensably necessary for the peace and interest of the community at large, as well as my husband’s public and private interests. With sentiments of respect… Emma Smith.’
Rigdon answered that he gave papers only to persons asking for them from the printing office and he declined to take responsibility for what happened to them afterward. Thus, Emma acted in behalf of Joseph and approached the problems directly. While some men deigned to respond to her, they did not always do so civilly. Rigdon’s letter lacked the warmth of even the most formal salutation or closing.
Unfortunately for everybody, Emma had been rather ill since late September, largely confined to the Nauvoo Homestead due to her illness. She could take callers, but she wasn’t regularly attending Relief Society meetings for the last few months of 1842 and her ability to attend meetings which required her attention had also waned. People falling ill as seasons change is nothing new. Any Mormon journal, as well as the Documentary History of the Church, detail how rampant illness ran, especially when it became cold. In summer it was mosquitos and malaria in the swampland of Nauvoo, in winter it was freezing cold and the accompanying runny noses, coupled with nobody ever washing their hands, that drove people to the sick beds. Emma specifically falling ill was nothing new either, but this illness was different.
Once again from Newell and Avery in Mormon Enigma commenting on how Jo was taking care of Emma during this bout of illness:
Although [Joseph] did not become seriously ill, his own feelings of well-being rose and fell with Emma’s.
By Wednesday, October 5, Joseph wrote, ‘My dear Emma was worse, many fears were entertained that she would not recover.’ Vilate Kimball described Joseph’s anguish: ‘Emma was brought down nigh unto death; Bro. Joseph despaired of her life, he mourned over her and refused to be comforted.’ His sorrow was not only for himself. ‘Oh dear,’ he cried. ‘What will become of my poor children… [Emma] was baptized twice in the river, which evidently did her much good,’ he reported. ‘She grew worse again at night and continued very sick indeed. I was unwell and much troubled on account of Emma’s sickness.’
Emma was in a bad place as 1842 drew to a close. Lucky for Emma, she had the Lawrence sisters, a few young Walkers, her secretary and dear friend, Eliza R. Snow, and some other women living in the house to tend to her and the young Smith children during this illness.
Her afflictions were unfortunately resolved the day Jo was departing for his trial in Springfield, December 26th, 1842.
On my return home, I found my wife Emma sick, had another chill; she was delivered of a son, which did not survive its birth.
If the stress of everything happening in Nauvoo wasn’t enough, a stillborn child the day her husband left town under arrest must have only added pain and anguish upon the stress. I mean, there was the overwhelming financial constraints weighing constantly on the first couple of Mormonism. Then we have Emma begrudgingly dealing with her husband’s polygamy and how best to stifle the rumors. Emma having regular duties as president of the Relief Society was a constant time suck which must have added stress. Emma had been sending and receiving letters from Illinois politicians and Church leaders as a liaison on her husband’s behalf, while trying to keep creditors at bay who were becoming more insistent with the Smiths’ shoddy finances. To top it all off, Jo was wanted by multiple states. Sheriffs had come knocking on Emma’s door while she hid her fugitive husband, and searched the home for him. And now, Jo was headed to the state capitol to answer for his crimes with hopes of being released, lest he face the death penalty in Missouri.
All of this must have significantly weighed on Emma’s mind. It wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to conclude that this incredible stress, that none of us could possibly understand, likely impacted her pregnancy. Further, she’d just lost her son, Don Carlos, in September of 1841 when he was barely a year old and had buried another unnamed stillborn child in February of 1842. Now, 10 months later, she buried another child who didn’t survive childbirth. No evidence can tell historians how far along this child was, but he was likely born prematurely with significant complications, which likely precipitated Emma’s illness for the 3 months prior.
It was with strength and fortitude that Emma entered 1843, quickly recovering from her troubled pregnancy. Lucy Mack Smith, Jo’s Mom, had become a second mother to Emma by this point, her own mother having distanced herself from Emma. Some dispute exists as to when Lucy lived with her son and daughter in law, but by early 1843, Lucy Mack was living in the same household as Emma, witnessing her deal with all these trials and stressors which would have crumbled a lesser person. Lucy penned this in her biography of Joseph the year after his and Hyrum’s death in Carthage. It’s a small token that reveals how Lucy revered Emma’s personality and strength during trying times, taken from Biographical Sketches Liverpool 1853 edition p. 169.
I have never seen a woman in my life, who would endure every species of fatigue and hardship, from month to month, and from year to year, with that unflinching courage, zeal, and patience, which she has ever done; for I know that which she has had to endure — she has been tossed upon the ocean of uncertainty — she has breasted the storms of persecution, and buffeted the rage of men and devils, which would have born down almost any other woman.
Unflinching courage, zeal, and patience indeed. She was quickly recovering from the illness resulting from her failed pregnancy when Jo and his posse of forty men returned to Nauvoo on January 10th, 1843, victorious in the hearing we ran through last episode. Jo had prevailed and he was released from the constant pressure of the Missouri officials wanting to play soccer with his disembodied head through the streets of Richmond, at least for now. A proper celebration was in order.
As was always the case with such victorious celebrations, the men sat around eating, drinking, and being merry, while the women slaved away to feed them all.
Once again from Newell and Avery’s Mormon Enigma p. 133
On Tuesday, January 17, Emma’s house overflowed with guests who met for a day of fasting, praise, and prayers of thanksgiving for Joseph’s release. At ten o’clock on Wednesday morning they assembled again at the Smiths’ to celebrate. Eliza had written a new song which the group sang “with the warmest of feelings.” Friends milled through the front rooms while Emma and the girls in the kitchen made final preparations. At two o’clock in the afternoon Emma and Joseph served twenty-one guests a hearty meal assisted by the Partridge sisters, the Lawrence sisters, and some of the Walker children. The table was cleared and another group of twenty sat down to eat, Emma and Joseph still serving. Eighteen people ate at the third table, including Emma and Joseph, then another fifteen, including the Smith children and the household members, were at the fourth. Joseph watched Emma move among the guests and supervise the work in the kitchen, then commented to the group. “this is not only a Jubilee but commemorates my marriage to Emma just fifteen years ago this day.”
What a commemorative day indeed. Emma and Jo’s fifteenth anniversary was celebrated with dozens of friends in joviality for the recent court victory of the prophet. He’d prevailed over his enemies, the U.S. government and the anti-Mormon government of Missouri had no power over him. Pistol Packin Porter Rockwell, on the other hand, was still hiding out in Pittsburgh, looking for work to feed himself.
Emma’s world began to settle back into the regular swing of things as January progressed into February. She was back to 100% by the beginning of February, Dr. Bob the builder Robert D. Foster was making slow but steady progress on the Nauvoo Mansion, which was eagerly looked forward to by many as a central place in Nauvoo. Nobody looked more forward to the Nauvoo Mansion’s completion than Jo. He had half a dozen of his wives living with him and Emma in the Nauvoo Homestead and it was getting cramped. Beyond that, Julia Murdock Smith was 12, Joseph III was 11, little Frederick Granger Williams Smith was about to hit age 7, while Alexander was now 4. The Smith family was growing, Emma must have appreciated having these young women and her close friend, Eliza Snow, live in the home and help with chores and raising the kids. Further, Jo entertained a lot of company at his home on a daily basis. The women living in the Smith home were constantly feeding people who called on the prophet for some business and happened to stay over for a meal.
Logistically, the Nauvoo Homestead must have been a bit of a challenge. The Patridge sisters probably had their own room shared with the Walker siblings, the prophet and elect lady had their own room, and Eliza Snow may have had her own room but probably shared hers with others as well. However, the home itself is surprisingly small. By home size standards of the day it was very comfortable, but modern Americans would scoff that upwards of 13 adults with 4 children all lived in a home this size. Anybody who visits Nauvoo today can see the homestead and the headstones of all the Smiths who were buried in the garden adjacent to it. This home is a recreation based on original plans and the footprint of the old home, unfortunately the original hasn’t survived 175 years like some of the Nauvoo buildings have. But you really get a sense for how cramped it would have been with nearly 20 people just by standing outside the home. Everybody was waiting for the Nauvoo mansion to be completed by Robert Bob the Builder Foster.
To complicate matters within the Smith home, Eliza R. Snow was beginning to show with child. This was remarkable because she was one of Jo’s first polygamous wives who had never been married or wasn’t currently married to another man when she and Jo were married. When Jo took women to wife who were already married, resulting children could be concealed. Eliza Snow was a different case. They had been married in June of 1842. Assuming she’d become pregnant soon after that, she could have been as far as her third trimester by February of 1843.
As can best be estimated by historians, in early 1843 or 1844, an altercation happened between Emma and an Eliza. The details of this altercation are shrouded in mystery and clouded by oral history folklore, obscuring what may have happened. As the story aged, more details were added by people who were very young at the time or weren’t even present to witness what happened. The most detailed account came nearly 100 years after the supposed occurrence and that was reported by somebody who was told the story by an elderly person who’d recently died. This is one of those stories in Mormon history that historians have been wrestling with for over a century to figure out exactly what happened. A few assessments have been drawn which are relatively conservative, we’ll get to those in a minute. First let’s discuss the latest and most folklorish version of what happened, then we’ll discuss the historiography of how this story got to that point and what the record has to say of the incident.
Charles C. Rich called at the mansion house Nauvoo to go with the prophet on some appointment they had together. As he waited in the main lobby or parlor, he saw the prophet and Emma come out of a room upstairs and walk together toward the stairway which apparently came down center. Almost at the same time a door opposite opened and dainty little dark haired Eliza R Snow (she was heavy with child) came out and walked toward the center stairway. When joseph saw her, he turned and kissed Emma goodbye, and she remained standing at the bannister. Joseph then walked on to the stairway, where he tenderly kissed Eliza, and then came on down stairs toward brother Rich. Just as he reached the bottom step, there was a commotion on the stairway, and both Joseph and brother Rich turned quickly to see Eliza come tumbling down the stairs. Emma had pushed her, in a fit of rage and jealousy; she stood at the top of the stairs, glowering, her countenance a picture of hell. Joseph quickly picked up the little lady, and with her in his arms, he turned and looked up at Emma, who then burst into tears and ran to her room. Joseph carried the hurt and bruised Eliza up the stairs and to her room. “Her hip was injured and that is why she always afterward favored that leg,” said Charles C Rich. “She lost the unborn babe.”
It’s a story that some of you may have heard before, maybe you’ve never heard it. This Charles C. Rich account certainly contains some fascinating and salacious details. Fawn Brodie chose to homogenize many of the details in this story in her book No Man Knows My History, dating it in the spring of 1844 just a few months before Jo’s death.
Of the six wives who lived for long periods in the Mansion house, apparently only the thirty-nine-year-old poetess Eliza Snow conceived a child. She as well as Emma, it seems, was pregnant in the spring of 1844. Eliza must have been torn between dread of the consequences and exaltation at the prospect of facing the world the mother of a prophet’s son.
It so happened that her bedroom in the Mansion House was to the left of Joseph’s, Emma’s being on the right. According to tradition in the sSnow family, Eliza emerged one morning at the same moment as Joseph, and he caught her to him in a quick embrace. At this instant Emma opened her door and in a sudden terrible rage—for apparently she had trusted Eliza above all other women—seized a broomstick and began beating her. Eliza tried to flee, stumbled, and fell down the full flight of stairs. Still not content, Emma pursued her in a frenzy that Joseph was powerless to stop, and drove her out of the house in her nightdress. By this time the whole Mansion House was awake, young Joseph and Alexander weeping and frightened at their mother’s hysteria and begging her to be kind to the “Aunt Eliza” they adored.
Joseph finally calmed his wife and indignantly ordered her to restore Eliza to her room and rights in the household. The fall, it is said, resulted in a miscarriage. After Joseph’s death Eliza married Brigham Young, but bore him no children.
As was common with 1940s history books, Brodie’s book is light on the footnotes, but the appendices provide some sources of her information. In appendix C we find what documentation Brodie used to reconstruct this story. Beginning on p. 470.
There is a persistent tradition that Eliza conceived a child by Joseph in Nauvoo, and Emma one day discovered her husband embracing Eliza in the hall outside their bedrooms and in a rage flung her downstairs and drove her out into the street. The fall is said to have resulted in a miscarriage. (This tradition was stated to me as fact by Eliza’s nephew, Leroi C. Snow, in the Church Historian’s Office, Salt Lake City.)
Indeed, that Charles C. Rich account I read before Brodie was from Leroi C. Snow, nephew of Eliza, last remaining son of Lorenzo Snow. Leroi Snow was a church historian until his retirement in 1950, while Brodie was compiling No Man Knows My History, she very likely did hear it directly from Leroi, thus she introduced the story by saying according to Snow family tradition. She possibly even examined his source. But what source was Leroi referencing with all those details attributed to Charles C. Rich?
The details of how Leroi came into contact with the story are surprisingly interesting. Leroi was 11 years old when Eliza R. Snow died at the age of 83. It’s a bit of a stretch to think that Eliza personally told the story to her 11-year-old nephew on her death bed or anytime prior to that. However, Leroi was 25 when Lorenzo Snow died as prophet of the church in 1901. Leroi may have heard the story from his father, but then why would he attribute those details to Charles C. Rich instead of his own father in the account? Charles C. Rich died when Leroi was a mere 7 years old, he certainly didn’t hear that straight from Rich himself.
No, this account by Leroi Snow is attributed to an 11 August 1944 letter from W. Aird Macdonald, who served a mission under Charles Rich’s son in the early 1900s from whom Macdonald likely heard the story. So, the details from the Charles C. Rich account, that Eliza was pregnant, that Emma saw Eliza and Jo kissing, that Emma threw Eliza down the stairs, that Jo picked up Eliza and laid her in her bed, Emma running to her own room to weep, and Eliza miscarrying her pregnancy as a result of all this; all those details come from a fourth-hand account written more than 100 years after it supposedly happened.
It’s not what we’d consider a trustworthy source. However, there are interesting details to the story not included in this account, which somewhat tarnishes the notion that it was fabricated based solely on embellished older accounts.
Fawn Brodie also included another minor detail in Appendix C after that last passage we read. The context in which this detail is added is quite fascinating in and of itself. A man named Solon Foster was coachman for the prophet periodically in Nauvoo who was supposedly present. The details from Solon Foster were passed on second-hand to John R. Young, son of Brigham Young, who recorded these details in his journal in 1928, dating it nearly 2 decades before the 1944 letter describing the Charles C. Rich account. John R. Young heard Solon Foster relate these details in a sacrament meeting in Salt Lake when Joseph III and Alexander Smith were visiting the Utah Mormons in 1876 investigating allegations of their father’s polygamy. This is what Solon Foster’s account adds to the story, from No Man Knows My History Appendix C.
Solon Foster, coachman for the prophet, was present in the Mansion House when the incident occurred. Years later he met Emma’s sons, who were then publicly denouncing polygamy in Utah, and reproached them for their attitude: “Joseph, the night your mother turned Eliza R. Snow into the street in her night clothes you and all the family stood crying. I led you back into the house and took you to bed with me. You said, ‘I wish mother wouldn’t be so cruel to Aunt Eliza.’ You called her aunt, because you knew she was your father’s wife. He did not deny it.”
Once again, this is a secondhand account given roughly 80 years after the supposed occurrence. It adds some details absent in the Charles C. Rich account, namely that Joseph III at age 11 was outside with the rest of the family when Solon Foster brought him inside and he told Solon he wished that Emma wasn’t so mean to Aunt Eliza. Foster’s account also adds that Eliza was in her night clothes, which is another word for pajamas, which were essentially underwear, at the time. This contradicts the Charles Rich account as the Rich account takes place in the morning whereas the setting for the Foster account is late evening when he took Joseph III upstairs and tucked him into bed for the night.
Both the Foster and the Rich account are not directly from the people who gave the accounts, but passed to historians after their deaths by later people who’d absorbed the story and wrote it down long after it happened.
So, where did the story actually come from? That’s an important question because stories like this don’t just come out of nowhere with people seeking to verify their truth. The story had to exist in some form somewhere for people to know who to ask about what happened.
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To understand where this staircase story came from, we turn to Wilhelm Ritter Von Wymetal in his respectable 320 page 1886 expose of Mormonism, published by the Tribune in Salt Lake City, titled Joseph Smith the Prophet, His family, and his friends. This expose was packed full of incredibly controversial claims of the prophet and the origins of Mormonism, detailing physical intimacy of dozens of Jo’s extramarital affairs, many of which were never women sealed to the prophet.
This is what Wymetal told of the relationship between Emma and Eliza leading up to this altercation, beginning on page 57. You’ll find a link in the show notes.
“Miss” Eliza R. Snow, one of the most curious figures in the history of Mormondom, played an important part in the events relating to celestial hymenology. She is the great poetess (and such a poetess!), and is a sort of high priestess generally of Mormonism. She used to anoint the sisters in the Endowment house and to play the part of Eve in the celestial drama enacted there. She is now over eighty years old, yet doing the same thing in the Logan temple in Utah. Sister Eliza became the church’s “elect lady” when “the Lord” became thoroughly incensed with Sister Emma for her contumacy. She is the very prototype of what is called “female roosters” in Zion, always ready to enslave and drag men and women into polygamy. She was one of the first (willing) victims of Joseph in Nauvoo. She used to be much at the prophet’s house and “Sister Emma” treated her as a confidential friend. Very much interested about Joseph’s errands, Emma used to send Eliza after him as a spy. Joseph found it out and, to win over the gifted (!) young poetess, he made her one of his celestial brides.
Now that Wymetal set the scene of the relationship among Emma, Eliza, and Jo, he finally gets into the story of Emma throwing Eliza out of the house.
There is scarcely a Mormon unacquainted with the fact that Sister Emma, on the other side, soon found out the little compromise arranged between Joseph and Eliza. Feeling outraged as a wife and betrayed as a friend, Emma is currently reported as having had recourse to a vulgar broomstick as an instrument of revenge; and the harsh treatment received at Emma’s hands is said to have destroyed Eliza’s hopes of becoming the mother of a prophet’s son. So far one of my best informed witnesses. Her story becomes corroborated by another reliable source.
The scathing nature of Wymetal’s book, and the circumstances under which this expose was published, definitely calls the veracity of the story into question, especially as this was more than 4 decades after the supposed occurrence and he simply cites unnamed “best informed witnesses” and “reliable sources”. Eliza R. Snow was alive at the time this was published, but she was so old and feeble that she spent most of her time confined in the home. Wymetal could have called upon her to question her of the story, but why would she give him the time of day? He was an antagonist of the faith and she was arguably the most powerful woman in Utah at this time. She’d spent most of her life in Mormonism as royalty. As to how pervasive the story was… Wymetal chose to include it claiming that nearly everybody knew the story when he was in Utah interviewing so many people. It was simply oral tradition that he wrote into his book. What is interesting of this account is what was on the page prior to this story of Emma using a vulgar broomstick as an instrument of revenge on Eliza Snow. Here it is.
Mrs. J.: “Eliza Partridge, one of the many girls sealed to the prophet, used to sew in Emma’s room. Once, while Joseph was absent, Emma got to fighting with Eliza and threw her down the stairs. ‘That finished my sewing there,’ Eliza used to say.
So Wymetal’s book never claimed that Emma threw Eliza Snow down the stairs, but that she threw Eliza Partridge down the stairs, who was then probably 17 years old. However, the detail of Jo picking up whichever Eliza it was who tumbled down the stairs and carrying her up to her bed wouldn’t conform to it being Eliza Partridge as it was explicitly stated that Jo was away from the home when the altercation between Emma and Eliza Partridge took place. According to Wymetal, Emma’s treatment of Eliza Partridge also didn’t involve the “vulgar broomstick,” but whatever did happen supposedly rendered Eliza Snow unable to ever bear children again. However, there’s nothing in Wymetal’s book to conclude that Emma possibly threw Eliza Snow down the stairs that resulted in the miscarriage, only that she maybe caused Eliza to have an abortion with a broomstick, which is pretty messed up in and of itself and would explain why she remained childless her entire life despite being wife of a man with more than 50 children. But, once again, readers may have falsely harmonized the Eliza Partridge and Eliza Snow fights with Emma into a single story and applied it all to Eliza Snow.
Needless to say, Wymetal’s book was full of salacious accusations and tales that paint Jo as much larger a human than he really was. Some of the claims and reporting in it are considered trustworthy, but only when corroborated by outside sources. These two stories were oral tradition in Utah that Wymetal printed in his book, which turned them into fact for a lot of people. However, oral tradition does not equal truth. So, the question remains, what outside sources exist to corroborate or debunk that Emma and Eliza Snow had a fight that resulted in Eliza tumbling down the stairs and miscarrying hers and Joseph’s child?
Wymetal didn’t have access to many documents historians can access today. Beyond that, the Charles C. Rich account recorded by Leroi Snow in 1944 was a fourth-hand account more than a century after it happened, but Leroi Snow didn’t have access to documentation historians have today. Have supplemental studies found any veracity in this story?
First, let’s deal with dating this supposed occurrence to see if it’s even possible that a timeline would allow such an incident to occur. Fawn Brodie dates it to early 1844 in the mansion house, but Eliza Snow didn’t live with the Smiths in the Nauvoo Mansion. She lived with them in the Nauvoo Homestead until February 1843 when she went to live on the Morley settlement in Yelrom, Illinois. The Smiths didn’t officially move into the Nauvoo Mansion until August of 1843. If this altercation did happen, it must have happened in the Nauvoo Homestead house in early 1843, likely between January and February before Eliza moved out. Other historians have placed it in spring of 43 possibly in May or something, but that was after Eliza had moved to the Morley settlement. This altercation doesn’t require that she lived with the Smiths at the time, she could have just stayed the night with her husband away from her own home. However, Eliza living with the Smiths until February of 43 would be the most reasonable time to date the stairs incident.
Neither Brodie nor Leroi Snow had access to Eliza Snow’s Nauvoo journal, which she kept periodically from June 1842 to summer 1844. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher’s work has been crucial to historians seeking to understand Eliza Snow and her Nauvoo Journal. What has Beecher’s study of Eliza’s Nauvoo journal unearthed about this supposed time period for which such an incident to occur? I’ll read briefly from a 1982 article Maureen wrote with Avery and Newell, the authors of Mormon Enigma, Emma’s biography, concerning the incident.
[Eliza’s] journal itself gives not a hint of either a pregnancy (unless “delicate constitution” be construed to mean “delicate condition,” a nineteenth-century euphemism for pregnancy) or an altercation with Emma at any time during that six-month stay. One cannot read anything into Eliza’s terse note of her departure: “Took board and had my lodging removed to the residence of br. J[onathan] Holmes.” The next entry, dated 17 March 1843, shows Eliza ceremonially closing the school she had taught since 12 December 1842, “having the pleasure of the presence of Prest. J. Smith [and] his lady.” During the period of Victorian prudery, no woman would have ventured forth unnecessarily, much less have taught school, once her pregnancy was evident. Certainly the account attributed to Charles Rich does not square with the dates in the journal: either Eliza would have to have been pregnant when she moved in with the Smiths, allowing her to have become “big with child” by the close of her sojourn there so that she could not have taught school, or she would have to have conceived afterward, allowing her to teach school for the few early months but not giving her time to become “big with child” before she left the Smiths’. In any case, the report she kept of her class shows her own perfect attendance during her school, a record she could hardly have maintained had she miscarried during that time. And, as has been noted, her school continued a month after Eliza moved in with Jonathan and Elvira Holmes.
So, Eliza’s own journal offers no evidence to corroborate any altercation between her and Emma. Beyond that, her activities of school teaching don’t really leave an opening for her to have been pregnant with the prophet’s child, or for her to have spent time recovering from a late-term miscarriage. Essentially, Eliza’s own journal leaves little to no room for this fight to have occurred in early 1843. That’s not to say that it couldn’t have happened and it simply wasn’t recorded, because that’s entirely possible. The point I’m making is Eliza Snow’s journal doesn’t mention it at the perceived time, nor does any of the documentation she left behind at the time really allow for it to have happened. A hypothetical could be constructed, maybe she was only beginning to show as pregnant, then it happened on a weekend after she closed the school when she was on a conjugal visit to the Smith home. There’s plenty of holes in her timeline for her to have missed a weekend from the public eye for her to recover from the miscarriage. Although, moving the incident to after she moved out of the Smith home in February 1843 definitely introduces more questions than it solves.
Eliza herself didn’t leave any documentation behind concerning the incident. What about sources other than Eliza. It turns out William Clayton, scribe to Joseph Smith, recorded an interesting entry in his journal in May of 1843. The entry concerns Eliza Partridge though, not Eliza Snow. Here it is:
Prest [Smith] stated to me that he had had a little trouble with sis. E[mma]. He was asking E[liza] Partridge concerning Jackson conduct during Prest. Absence & E[mma] came up stairs. He shut to the door not knowing who it was and held it. She came to the door & called Eliza 4 times & tried to force open the door. Prest. Opened it & told her the cause etc. She seemed much irritated.
This is really the only entry in a contemporary journal which allows for some kind of altercation to have occurred. But, importantly, this mentions nothing of stairs, a broom used as a weapon or abortifacient, personal injury, or Jo’s lack of ability to control the situation until after harm was done. None of the later details in the Charles C. Rich account or the Wilhelm Wymetal 1886 expose are present here, it was just an argument between Jo and Emma concerning Eliza Partridge, not Eliza Snow.
How Todd Compton dealt with the historicity of this issue was quite conservative in his book In Sacred Loneliness on page 315.
To sum up: something may have happened between Eliza and Emma, and Eliza may have lost a child. Without further evidence, it is impossible to know for certain. The multiplicity of versions inclines one to suppose tha[t] an authentic incident lies behind them, but they are so late and second-hand that one mistrusts their details. However, they do point to a possibility—and if Eliza did lose a child, the experience would have been psychologically devastating to her.
Newell and Avery’s biography of Emma deals with the incident even more conservatively on page 136.
Whether Eliza fell down the stairs or whether Emma pushed her or pulled her down by the hair, or whether Emma only turned her out of the house, the result seems to be documented in Eliza’s terse journal entry for February 11, 1843: “Took board and had my lodging removed to the residence of br. [Jonathan] Holmes.” Both Emma and Eliza had known Holmes’s wife, Elvira Cowles, since they had arrived in Kirtland. Elvira Holmes was treasurer of the Relief Society and she would become Joseph’s wife in less than three months. Eliza did not make another entry in her journal for five weeks and wrote no explanation for either the gap in her diary or her abrupt departure from Emma’s home.
An article published by BYU studies with Newell and Avery as coauthors with Maureen Ursenbach Beecher as primary author is even more conservative in its reporting of the supposed incident.
The anecdote is told orally more often than it is written, with details of time, scene, costume (one account has Eliza in her nightclothes), action, motivation, and results being adjusted according to the attitudes of the teller. As generally related, it takes the form of a short story, with setting, plot, and characters; and it displays the characteristics of easily defined formula fiction: the characters are “good” or “bad,” their motives oversimplified, the action predictable, the results inevitable. It is the stuff of legend, a folk tradition, perpetuated orally, and likely to continue.
For the student of Mormon culture, the prevailing questions about this story are: Why was it told and why is it still told? What does the telling say about the tellers? What “truths of the human heart,” their own human hearts, do people reinforce through the telling? But for the biographers of Joseph Smith, or Emma Hale Smith, or Eliza Roxcy Snow, there is a more awkward problem: How did the story get its start, and which details, if any, are based on fact?...
The article concludes with this historian’s safe haven as is very common in conclusions of essays dealing with such folklorish stories. The final line feels like typical BYU correlation department editorializing, which sort of denigrates the conclusion. Regardless, it’s still relevant, even with the get out of paradox free card invoked at the end.
So there we are. But where are we? Faced with a folk legend, with genuine documents that tell no tales, and dubious ones that contradict themselves and the contemporary accounts, perhaps it is best for us to respond as we must to many paradoxes of our history: consider thoughtfully and then place all the evidence carefully on the shelf, awaiting further documentation, or the Millennium, whichever should come first.
Emma seeing Eliza Snow and Jo kissing and her pushing Eliza down the stairs after beating the hell out of Eliza with a broomstick, resulting in the miscarriage of Eliza’s child is folklore. But, as Compton said, there’s so many versions out there and as an oral tradition it has survived so successfully in the collective Mormon mindset that it’s hard to conclude that a nugget of truth underlies that an incident of some sort did occur.
Whether or not it happened is an interesting question, which we’ve spent most this episode exploring. Historians simply can’t conclude one way or another. It’s clearly folklore, legend, if you will. The documentary evidence doesn’t corroborate it, but there are plenty of holes where such an incident could have occurred and we also wouldn’t necessarily expect to find such an incident documented. Lack of evidence doesn’t mean something didn’t happen, it just means nobody can prove that it did happen. There’s a lot of ambiguity in the historical record which lives in the realm of historical plausibility, and that’s what this is.
With that said, Beecher Avery and Newell did ask some important questions that are worth exploration. Why was the story told and why is it still told? What does the telling say about the tellers? What truths of the human heart do people reinforce through the telling? How did the story get its start?
First, is it plausible that Emma and Eliza had a falling out of some kind in early 1843? Consider all the stressors weighing on the Elect Lady of Mormonism we discussed at the top of this episode. Beyond all the outside pressures, Emma was dealing with some powerful inner turmoil surrounding her husband and polygamy. She’d been dealing with Jo’s libertine nature their entire marriage, but he had well over 2 dozen wives by early 1843, only some of which Emma was privy to the knowledge of. Plus, she’d just had her second miscarriage in a year only a month before this supposed altercation happened. Then, she has a rough day for any number of reasons, probably because of stuff Jo was doing, and then sees Eliza and Jo share a little heartfelt kiss in the hallway while Eliza is showing with Jo’s baby. How would that make her feel? Emma was never known for rage or cruelty, but the historical record reveals should would occasionally lose her composure when it was just too much. I’m not justifying violence, I’m simply saying is it plausible that Emma had an outburst like this toward one of her closest friends and sister-wives? Of course it was.
Emma was under so much pressure in Nauvoo. She was running the female side of the church. She was brokering business and land deals. She was meeting with politicians to try and secure her husband’s freedom so he wouldn’t be executed by the state. Beyond all of that, she was taking care of 4 kids and had just buried three of her own children in the past year and a half. Jo had another 2 dozen partners at this time as well, what kind of signal does that send to Emma to know that her husband could spend nearly every day of the month in a different bed with a different wife. Obviously she didn’t know the extent of his sexual deviancy, but she had some ideas and had to deal with the fallout of incredibly pervasive rumors spawning from the Nauvoo rumor mill. She had every reason to be mad or harbor feelings of jealousy against Eliza Snow AND Eliza Partridge.
Historians will simply never know if Emma did act out against one of them and push them down the stairs, my point is if it happened, it shouldn’t be a surprise.
On to possibly the more salacious aspect of this story; why was the story told and why is it still told? When Wymetal included it in his 1886 expose of Mormonism, this story was a prolific oral tradition in Utah. Why? Because the Utah church had done everything in its power to absolutely destroy Emma’s legacy. The RLDS and LDS churches have only recently been on friendly and collaborative terms, that’s only been the case for the last half-century. Leonard Arrington and Robert Flanders were crucial to building bridges between the religions beginning in the 1960s and 70s, but prior to that, the religions were diametrically opposed with competing one-true-religion succession claims which couldn’t be reconciled. The RLDS have always held Mother Emma in very high regard, but Emma and Brigham Young hated each other. The first time Emma appeared in a Brighamite Church-published article in a positive light was in 1978. 1978! That’s a century after her death before the Brighamite church finally spoke favorably of her and it was only done so in tandem with praising Lucy Mack Smith as well.
The most plausible explanation for how a possible altercation between Emma and Eliza grew into oral tradition and folklore is simply character assassination perpetrated by Bloody Brigham Young. No single person has had more of a hand in shaping Mormon history, and the way we view the characters within that history, than Brigham Young. He had a vested interest in Emma being seen as untrustworthy and opposed to everything the Brighamite church stood for, which, at the time, was polygamy. What better way to assassinate Emma’s character than to spread a rumor that she viciously attacked one of the most beloved and powerful women in Utah solely because Eliza was one of Jo’s plural wives who was showing with his child? That turns her into the adversary of everything the Utah church stood for. This stairway story made Emma the villain, the adversary—anathema to everything the Utah church sought to live and practice.
It's compelling. It’s exciting. There’s anger, vengeance, blood, heartbreak, tragedy, crying children, and so many aspects woven into the story that it can’t help but cause personal attachment and interest. The best part about folklore is it can be easily tailored to the audience without being tethered to those pesky things we call “facts”. Folklore is a set of comfortable lies we pass on to teach a lesson. It’s why religions are so pervasive and generational. What’s more important is examining the underlying lesson behind the folklore and examining why it was created in the first place.
For that reason alone, the next time this story comes up, if that ever happens, maybe take a second to step back and ask the important questions. Did Emma push Eliza down the stairs in a fit of rage? What evidence are you basing the story on? And, to the important questions… Why would Emma have done such a thing? What could have motivated her actions? Why has this story been circulated and who is telling it? Why did it gain traction in the first place?
Those are the questions which lead to deeper discussions that actually give these one-sided characters depth and meaning. The villainous Emma pushing the helpless little pregnant Eliza down the stairs in a fit of jealousy is the stuff legends are made of. “What set of circumstances caused these two incredibly close friends to become enemies overnight” is when we dip our toes into the nuance and complexity that makes us human. That’s the lesson we should take from Emma’s stairway to hell.
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