Ep 158 – The Very Walls Had Ears
On this episode, we dive into the ubiquity of Nauvoo polygamy. Much has been made about Joseph Smith having multiple wives, but he wasn’t the only Nauvoo elite with more than one. Just how prevalent was the practice? How many participated? How many knew about the doctrine? How many plural marriages were formed prior to D&C 132 being committed to paper? What conclusions can we draw from the available data? Gary James Bergera’s article is a masterpiece in helping to understand the complexity of the tangled web of Nauvoo Polygamy.
Identifying the Earliest Mormon Polygamists by Gary Bergera
Deed to William Felshaw
William Huntington biography by Andrew Jensen
John Edward Page
Music by Jason Comeau http://aloststateofmind.com/
Show Artwork http://weirdmormonshit.com/
Legal Counsel http://patorrez.com/
A new era of Nauvoo Mormonism was beginning to dawn, but only the truly adept could see the tides shifting. The polygamy revelation was on paper, it had been presented to the High Council and accepted. Those who didn’t accept were amidst being dealt with, those who did enjoyed the next degree of celestial glory on this earth in small prayer meetings with the most trusted Nauvoo Mormon elite.
This new Mormonism, though, could only exist in the shadows of the public façade. Only polygamy initiates could converse with other polygamists, as any leak could prove disastrous. “We hardly dared speak of it. The very walls had ears. We spoke of it only in whispers.” Recalled Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs Smith Young in 1898. The general membership could speak their rumors all they wanted. But, as Wilford Woodruff reminisced in 1892, “Of course there was things manifestly that the church was not to know—that they were not to reveal to the church, or were not to be revealed to the church.” It was a hard balance to strike. People are terrible at keeping secrets, but dozens were practitioners and hundreds were aware. How long until the hushed whispers of the thousands would grow to a torrential rage of antebellum fury and rent the church in twain?
We need to understand the scope and logistics of plural marriage in Nauvoo. Joseph Smith personally oversaw every single polygamous marriage, often picking the plural wives for his most trusted elders as rewards for absolute fealty. Hard numbers are tough to come by. Historians have extensively studied and documented Jo’s many wives, ranging from twenty something to eighty something, with best estimates putting the number in the mid-30s. But the practice of polygamy wasn’t just limited to Jo, Bloody Brigham, and William Clayton. Historian Gary James Bergera has tirelessly put together a 75-page article on the available evidence for plural marriages in Nauvoo prior to the death of Joseph Smith, which I’ll be relying on heavily this episode and you’ll find linked in the show notes. If names of Mormon historians aren’t your forte, Gary Bergera is the managing director of the Smith-Petit Foundation and former managing director of Signature Books, one of the most prestigious publishing companies in the field of Mormon history academia. He’s written a number of important articles on the Joseph Smith era of Mormonism along with a small handful of well-renowned books in the field including Joseph Smith’s Quorum of the anointed, 1842-1845, and The Nauvoo Endowment Companies 1845-1846. The article we’ll be discussing today from Gary Bergera is titled Identifying the Earliest Mormon Polygamists, 1841-44, and it was published in the Winter 2005 edition of Dialogue, a Journal of Mormon Thought. Once again, you’ll find it linked up in the show notes if you care to see the primary source for today’s show.
Let’s start with discussing the quality of evidence when it comes to these polygamous marriages. There isn’t much. The Book of the Law of the Lord, William Clayton’s Journal, the Nauvoo High Council Minutes, these sources will occasionally contain small lines of Joseph Smith or Brigham Young WAS to somebody, and the name will sometimes be included. WAS means wedded and sealed. The early Mormons were incessant document keepers, but they also knew how illegal and controversial it was for them to keep documentation on these marriages, so it was usually obscured, or was never recorded in the first place in case the documents fell into the hands of the enemies of the church. What does that leave us with in documenting polygamous marriages outside of Jo’s various marriages? Well, journals mostly. Journals are the single-most crucial piece of documentary history that historians have access to and there were quite a few journal keepers in Nauvoo. Journals and letters are the only contemporary sources. Beyond that, later mentions, whether directly referenced or obliquely, provides the next best source, although this can always be very problematic as memories change and fade and peoples stance in the church evolves or shifts. With those qualifiers in mind, lets discuss the fragmentary evidence of polygamous marriages outside of Joseph Smith in Nauvoo compiled by Gary James Bergera. Today’s episode is going to be an alphabetical data dump, but stick around for the conclusion so we can draw some actual analyses from all this data. We’ll discuss each of the leaders of the Nauvoo church, provide a brief character sketch, then discuss the evidence used to conclude they practiced polygamy before Jo and Hyrum’s deaths in Carthage.
Just a precursor. This is the late antebellum period of America and women were possessions. This information will be presented in accordance with that perspective, but I’ll try my best to equalize the language. The fact of the matter is, Mormonism in Nauvoo operated on prosperity gospel. The most righteous were the most prosperous and therefore were given the largest plots of land, the best horses, and the most beautiful wives.
Let’s start with James Adams. Adams was born in 1783 in Connecticut. He was a veteran of the War of 1812 and Black Hawk War and held various positions in government from that time forward. He was baptized into the church in 1840 where he was the Deputy Grand Master of the Second Grand Masonic Lodge of Illinois in Springfield. He became a Regent of the University of Nauvoo in 1841, became a branch president in 1842 in Springfield, and later became a patriarch of the Church. He died 4 days after election to office of Probate Judge of Hancock County in August 1843. Evidence for Adams being in a plural marriage actually comes from a late affidavit in the late 1860s as part of Joseph F. Smith’s pro-polygamy propaganda campaign to combat Joseph III’s prophetic claims as president of the RLDS. Roxena Higby Repsher testified that “On the eleventh day of July A.D. 1843 at the City of Nauvoo, County of Hancock, State of Illinois, She was married to James Adams for time and all eternity by President Joseph Smith.” She had one sister wife, Harriet Denton, for the month while Adams was alive. Roxena apparently had another husband at this time, but they were estranged. This first husband, Daniel Mayhope Repsher, also married another woman in the Nauvoo Temple in January 1846. She was 22 years his junior.
Ezra T. Benson. Grandfather of Ezra Taft Benson, prophet from 1985-1994, was an early church convert, although there’s very little available information on him in the Nauvoo era. Ezra Benson did serve as captain of a handcart company to Utah in 1849. Ezra Benson’s civil wife was named Pamelia Andrus. She testified in 1869 of the details of her sealing to Ezra by Hyrum Sidekick-Abiff Smith on November 19th 1843 with her sister, Adeline Andrus, present as witness. Pamelia testified “and further, on the twenty seventh day of April A.D. 1844 at the same place She was present and witnessed the marrying or sealing of her sister Adeline to her Husband E. T. Benson by President Hyrum Smith.” This sister sister-wife sealing was one of the latest sealings Hyrum performed prior to his death in Carthage. Ezra was sealed to his wife a few months after the polygamy revelation was read to the High Council, and a few months after that he was sealed to his sister-in-law.
Next on this list by Gary Bergera is Reynolds Cahoon. This is a name that hopefully some of you recognize from our timeline. I’ve even been contacted by descendants of Cahoon who’ve listened to the show. Well, he was an O.G. Kirtland-era Mormon. This guy was born in 1790, was a veteran of the war of 1812, and was baptized into the church by the first mission troop to Kirtland, by the inimitable P-cubed Parley Parker Pratt in November of 1830, less than a year after the Book of Mormon was published. Cahoon has been here through thick and thin of the church, serving missions, serving as counselor to Bishop Newel K. Whitney; he was in the Kirtland Stake Presidency, counselor in the Stake Presidency of Adam Ondi Ahman in Missouri; he’s a member of the Nauvoo Legion, serves on the temple building committee, member of the Masonic Lodge, and he’ll be inducted into the Council of Fifty when it’s formed early next year. Reynolds Cahoon apparently had just one plural wife that can be documented, but that information only comes from family tradition, which understandably has many issues. According to Cahoon family tradition, Reynolds married Lucina Roberts Johnson in either late 1841 or early 42. Lucina was a widow of 3 years at that point. The dating here is really important because it reveals Reynolds rank in the Nauvoo elite. Most of the marriages we’re discussing today happened in 1843 or 44, when D&C 132 was committed to paper and the revelation could be shown to prospective wives that polygamy was the commandment of gods. The fact that Reynolds took his plural wife prior to the revelation being committed to paper and even before Hyrum Smith reportedly knew of the doctrine, reveals that Reynolds was truly in the highest echelon of the Mormon elite, above nearly every other guy we’re talking about today.
Bergera’s article next turns toward Joseph W. Coolidge. This guy was born in Maine, 10 years younger than Joseph Smith, in Maine. He joined the church in early 1838 and moved to Caldwell County as tensions in the Missouri-Mormon war were just beginning to fester. He was a member of the Nauvoo Legion, and was later inducted into the Council of Fifty. After the schism crisis he moved to Iowa where he made a life for himself and his wives before dying there in 1871, never joining the Mormons in Utah. Right before his death, Joseph Coolidge sat down with Joseph F. Smith and discussed his Nauvoo marriages. Joseph F. Smith recorded the conversation in his journal as such: “Joseph Smith had sealed more than one wife to Jos. W. Coolidge, and he [Coolidge] ‘knew’ as he said, what he spoke. I record this testimony of a man who has not been with the church for more than 20 years.” Who was this second wife Coolidge was sealed to? He’d been civilly married to a Elizabeth Buchanan in 1834, but sometime, most likely in 1843 or early 44, Coolidge was also sealed to his sister-in-law Mary Ann Buchanan, Elizabeth’s younger sister. This was not the first, nor will it be the last, instance of a man being sealed to sisters as plural wives in Nauvoo. That’s an interesting pattern we’ll continue to watch emerge, but forego commenting on for now.
Howard Egan is the next subject of our focus. Egan was an immigrant from Ireland who’d moved to Quebec, Canada in 1825. Egan has a tragic childhood behind him. When he was only 8 years old his mother died while he was sixth of eleven children. That’s when his father packed all the kids up and headed to Canada, but upon their arrival, it wasn’t 2 months before 3 of his siblings had died. Then, in 1828, when Howard was just 13 years old, his father died, leaving 6 children in Canada orphaned including Howard. Howard continued to grow up and eventually became a sailor around the age of 15. At the age of 23 Howard Egan made his way to Salem, Massachusetts and learned the trade of rope-making. There he met Tamson Parshley and they were married, Howard being 24 and Tamson 15, which wasn’t uncommon at the time. In 1842, with their 2 sons, the Egans were baptized into the church by Erastus Snow and they moved to Nauvoo where Howard continued his rope-making career. A personal anecdote here; back in 2017 when I did the Mormon history tour across the country, my brief time in Nauvoo included stopping at the reconstructed Nauvoo Community Center, which is this massive room with all sorts of community activities from the period. They have bread-making, wagon wheel banding, yarn spinning, and plenty of other activities recreated by missionaries wearing period-looking clothing. One of the exhibits is rope-making. It’s this contraption where you attach 3 strands of string from a spool to one end of the spinner arm. Then you attach the other end to a static board on the other side of the contraption. Then the rope maker sets it in motion. The whole thing spins while keeping the string taught, weaving three strings together into a rope. It spins until you have an acceptable length of rope and then you tie a very small string around the end to keep it from unravelling. The whole process is really cool. The older gentleman missionary who spun my length was interesting. He was dressed up in his bloomers and long-sleeve shirt with a scarf tie thing that looked like he was dressed up for trek. I could tell this guy was so done with his mission. He barely spoke a word the whole time. I was the only guy in there because it was off season and I could tell this guy did NOT want to spin a rope for just one dude in an almost empty building with just 2 other missionaries at the other stations. He refused to make eye contact and just barked out each and every little thing he did. Here’s the string. Attach it here. Spin the wheel. Here’s yer rope. Get outta my face. It. Was. Magical! So, if you’re ever in Nauvoo, be sure to go in the community center and get your length of rope, even if it does make your car smell like gasoline.
Anyway, so this Howard Egan guy ended up becoming a Captain in the Nauvoo Legion, but additionally served as a Nauvoo policeman, which was an even more prestigious rank. He also worked on the Temple Building Committee; this guy was surely one of the chosen elites. His second wife was Catherine Reese Clawson, a widow of 5 years at the time of their marriage in early 1844. She had 6 children from her previous marriage and was 40 years of age; they were sealed by Hyrum Sidekick-Abiff Smith. Howard Egan remained with Tamson and Catherine as his wives in Nauvoo where he also married two other wives after the deaths of Jo and Hyrum. Catherine left him in 1852 in Utah. They were members of the very first wagon train that entered the valley in 1847. Altogether a really interesting family.
Bergera’s article next talks of William Felshaw. This guy is pretty obscure and the only document with his name on it available on Joseph Smith Papers is a land deed to him dated June 30, 1836 from Jo and Emma, meaning he was likely a member then and was with the church through the Missouri and Nauvoo era as well. He apparently was sealed to a Charlotte Walters on July 28, 1843; she was 24 years his junior. When their marriage was resealed in the Nauvoo Temple they had their first daughter, which alludes to a May of 1844 sealing, one of the latest performed by Jo or Hyrum before they died in Carthage.
William D. Huntington is the next focus of Gary Bergera’s article. William D. Huntington, and his brother Dimick, are people who’ve made plenty of appearances in our timeline. To put this guy into context we need to go back to his dad, William Huntington. I spent hours tracking this down without things making sense before I realized that they just wanted to confuse future historians by naming their kids the same name as themselves. So, William Huntington was born back in 1784 in New Hampshire. He married Zina Baker in 1806, after which he served in the War of 1812. He joined and left the Presbyterian church an a few other churches. He stumbled upon the Book of Mormon sometime in 1832-33 when he heard some Marmon preachers and bought a copy. He and Zina were baptized into the church in 1835 by an Elder Dutcher. He and the family moved to Kirtland in late 1836 where he bought a farm from Jacob Bump for $3,000. The Huntington family became embroiled in lawsuits as the Kirtland Safety Society broke apart and the Huntington home became a safehouse for Jo Sr., Big Daddy Cheese as we know him, and Hyrum Smith and some of the other Smith family members as they put their affairs in order to flee Kirtland for Missouri. The Huntington family made their way to Far West, then Adam Ondi Ahmen in Missouri in May to June of 1838, where they had a rough go. When the twin Mormon cities surrendered after the Haun’s Mill Massacre and them being surrounded by some 3-5,000 Missouri militiamen, William Huntington was put in charge of one of the committees to document the worth of the Mormon property in Missouri as they fled to Quincy that winter. After that, the William Huntington family was one of the first to live in the swamp of Commerce, Illinois, which would later become Nauvoo. The entire Huntington family is crucial to the Mormon history timeline as Zina Diantha Huntington and Presendia Lathrop Huntington were two of Jo’s wives, marriages for which Dimick actually bore witness and later testified to the fact that they were consummated. Jo couldn’t just partake of the sacred fruit of the new and everlasting covenant without his brother-in-law, William D., partaking as well. Accordingly, William D. Huntington was sealed to Caroline Clark, his first civil wife since 1839, and his sister-in-law Harriet Clark, likely in early 1843.
Next we focus on Orson Hyde. Now, Orson L’Chydem really needs no introduction to our timeline, but he was an O.G. Kirtland Mormon. We did an episode about the conflict generated when Orson learned of his own wife’s marriage to Jo, Nancy Marinda Johnson Hyde, while Orson was on a mission to Jerusalem to dedicate the holy land for Mormon purposes or something. In September of 1869, Orson Hyde gave this affidavit:
I, Orson Hyde, do hereby certify and declare according to my best recollection, that on the 4th day of September I was married to Miss Marinda N. Johnson, In Kirtland Ohio, in the Year of our Lord 1834. And in the Month of Feb or March, I was married to Miss Martha R. Browitt, by Joseph Smith the Martyred Prophet and by him She was Sealed to me for time, and for all Eternity, in Nauvoo Ill. And in the month of April of the same year 1843, I was married by the same person to Mss. Mary Ann Price, and by him she was Sealed to me for time and for all Eternity, in Nauvoo Ill while the woman to whom I was first married was yet living and gave her cordial consent to both transactions and was personally present to witness the ceremony’s
Gary Bergera’s article also includes a memoir from Mary Ann Price Hyde from the 1880s which corroborates this account. This is quite remarkable. Jo had roughly 33 wives by the time of his death, but it was extremely rare for another man in Nauvoo to have more than one plural wife living for understandable reasons. Sure, Jo could hide how many wives he has, but if every guy has a dozen wives, where do they all come from? How do they keep it secret? The more guys with more wives, the harder it is to keep secret. Orson Hyde having 3 plural wives prior to the Carthage Assassinations reveals he was one of the more favored, which likely had something to do with him sharing Marinda Nancy with the prophet; although that’s quite speculative.
Next we focus on Joseph A. Kelting. There really isn’t much available on this guy, but we know he was born October 3, 1811 in Philadelphia. When he became an adult he worked as a sheriff, merchant, gristmill owner, and an attorney, a Joseph of all trades you might say. He first married Elizabeth Martin civilly in September 1832 before either ever heard of the church. The Kelting family converted sometime in 1835 or 36 and Joseph was ordained an elder in May of 1836. Records get fuzzy, but the Kelting family shows up again in Nauvoo by 1843. Joseph A. Kelting is interesting because he was one of the people who volunteered for the mission to Oregon and California to find a new place for the Mormons to settle. That was a mission created during Jo’s lifetime, but would fall to Bloody Brigham to see to through. A few missions were created for this purpose, including to Texas where the peyote grows like sagebrush; Lyman Wight was called to fulfill that mission and he built his congregation out there, the Wightites, as a result. Joseph A. Kelting here eventually went with the Mormons to Utah where he became a territorial district attorney, served a mission to Australia during the Reformation era, then eventually moved his families out to California where they lived the rest of their days in peace away from the Mormon empire. In September of 1903, long after he’d left the church, Kelting gave an affidavit that connected him with polygamy prior to the Carthage shootout.
I first knew Joseph Smith, the Prophet, in Ohio. I once called upon him afterwards at his residence in Nauvoo, Illinois, and told him I wanted a private interview. We walked up stairs together. His wife, Emma, was down stairs, and he did not wish her to hear what we were going to talk about.
We went into the front room, and he locked the door. I told him it was mooted about that he was teaching plural marriage, and asked him the question, "Are you mooting plural marriage?"
His answer was, "cannot answer you, as you are both a lawyer and sheriff of Hancock County, and it might militate against you as an officer as well as against us."
I said, "Joseph, whatever you tell me as your friend is safe; I came here to find this out, and I assure you upon the square (and we were both Masons) it shall never injure you in any shape."
"I did moot plural marriage," said the Prophet.
"Did you have a revelation to teach this?" I asked.
"I did," he answered.
"Have you more than one wife sealed to you by this authority," I asked.
"I have," said he.
After giving me this information, he referred me to Brigham Young if I wanted any more on this subject, Brigham seeming to be the man he trusted most with this matter, and was putting him to the front.
The Prophet assured me that the revelation was as authoritative and binding as any revelation given through him up to that time; and, in fact, that it was paramount to all the rest.
In a separate affidavit from a few years prior, Joseph Kelting said “A short time after this [interaction] I married two wives in that order of marriage.” This purported interaction and the timing of it is quite fascinating, especially when compared with his affidavit from 1894 where Jo was the one to bring up the issue, instead of Kelting. But there are some interesting details to tease out of this, especially given the timing of spring 1844. First off, according to this interaction, Emma was specifically excluded from hearing the conversation. She knew some things but not most of it. Jo was keeping her on a need-to-know basis and that was probably the only way to keep the peace in the home. Secondly, Kelting was the one who aimed the question at Jo, are you propagating plural wives doctrine? To which Jo was apprehensive to answer, but loved when the question came up because then he got the opportunity to brag about how many wives he has. Jo told Kelting that his position as a law enforcement officer made it so he couldn’t share with Kelting what was really going on, but upon Kelting’s issuance of a Masonic sign, Jo came clean. Then, for Jo to push the matter to Bloody Brigham was quite interesting as well. The third thing I find so fascinating about this interaction is what it tells us about how the doctrine was passed around. The previous affidavit says, in part, “After we entered the room he locked the door and then asked me if I had heard the rumors connecting him with polygamy. I told him I had. He then began a defense of the doctrine by referring to the Old Testament.” Rumors of polygamy were rampant, but what this affidavit reveals is that Jo relied on those rumors to prime people to accept of the doctrine.
Look, if Jo just walked up to somebody one day and told them they needed to take a second or third wife apropos of nothing, they’d think he was bonkers. But, because rumors of polygamy were circulating for years before the revelation was committed to paper, when he would teach somebody of the practice and give them the Old Testament justification for it, they’d more readily accept it.
There was always this balance that Jo and fellow initiates had to strike. Decry the rumors publicly, converse discreetly, and confirm the rumors only to those who could be trusted. It’s not very sustainable, is it? It was only a matter of time before something like the History of the Saints by John C. Wreck-it Bennett, or the Nauvoo Expositor came along and exposed the perceived sexual deviancy of the Mormon empire.
I simply found Joseph Kelting’s story to be quite interesting. A lot to learn from him and his affidavits about Nauvoo polygamy prior to June 1844.
Gary Bergera’s article next focuses on Heber the Creeper Kimball. We’ll forego discussing him for now because Kimball’s polygamous marriages are a massive issue in and of themselves that will require some time to deal with. Instead let’s turn to the next person his article discusses, Isaac Morley.
Isaac Morley is super interesting and another one of these early O.G. Morms from the Kirtland era. He was the guy who had a farm a few miles outside of Kirtland where they practiced communalism before Joseph Smith was even on the scene. He was a Rigdonite from the mid-1820s. He was another guy baptized into the church by the first mission troop, P-Cubed Parley Parker Pratt was the guy who dunked Isaac Morley less than a year after the Book of Mormon was published. The Morley farm was where the Smith family first lived upon their arrival to Kirtland in early 1831. He was born in 1786 and had married Lucy Gunn in 1812 right before serving in the War of 1812, and he held some interesting deistic/universalist ideas, making him very receptive to the Book of Mormon’s overall message. Isaac Morley eventually gave up his farm to control of the church for the purpose of supporting the poorest of converts and immigrants from the further eastern states. The Morley family made their way out to Missouri in late 1831 where they settled and Isaac was given various leadership positions in the Whitmer church out there. He was eventually appointed a bishop in 1833 and was a member of the Missouri High Council. Prior to the Missouri-Mormon war, Isaac was ordained a patriarch to the church by Jo, Hyrum, and Hingepin Rigdon in November 1837. He was there throughout the war and eventually was exterminated with the rest of the Mormons in 1838-9. Isaac Morley actually founded another communalistic town near Nauvoo in 1839 called Yelrom. Get it? Yelrom is Morley backwards, a clever little code known only to the adepts. Mormonism is many things, a boys club in a treehouse with a “No gurlz allowed” sign is definitely one of those things. Notably, after Eliza R. Snow and Emma had their falling out in early 1842, Eliza moved to the Morley settlement to live in one of the commune homes there. After the deaths of Jo and Hyrum, the burning of the Morley settlement and Bloody Brigham’s reaction to it will be one of the major issues we discuss.
So, Isaac Morley was one of the earliest and highest-ranking elites in Mormonism from the Kirtland era, it’s understandable he would be granted multiple wives for his loyalty to the prophet and the theocratic cause of the religion. Bergera notes that evidence for Morley’s plural marriages is “inferential and based on family tradition.” The first of these was noted by Eliza R. Snow in her Nauvoo Journal when she records her sister, Abigail Leonora Snow Leavitt, as “A L Morley”. According to Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Eliza’s biographer, Abigail was Isaac Morley’s scribe when he gave Eliza her patriarchal blessing in 1843. Isaac and Abigail Leonora were likely married sometime in September 1843. His third marriage was to a Hannah B. Finch Merriam in January of 1844. Hannah was a widow of 2 years when she and Isaac were sealed. In exchange for Isaac taking multiple wives, Isaac’s daughter, Cordelia Morley remembered in her autobiography, “plural marriage was introduced to me by my parents from Joseph Smith, asking their consent and a request to me to be his wife. Imagine if you can my feelings, to be a plural wife, something I never thought I ever could. I knew nothing of such religion and could not accept it. Neither did I.” But, Cordelia’s opposition to polygamy didn’t matter too much because she was sealed to Jo after his death in the Nauvoo Temple by Brigham Young or Heber the Creeper Kimball, I’m not sure which.
Next our gaze turns toward Joseph Bates Noble. Joseph Noble is interesting because he is another one of these O.G. Kirtland Mormons. He lived in New York about 15 miles from the Smith family in a town called Penfield, then moved to Bloomfield in 1828, which is just south of Penfield and about equidistant from the Palmyra/Manchester area. He was baptized into the church in 1832 and moved to Kirtland in 1834. He was a participant in Zion’s Camp, the first military expedition of Jo and the Mormons. He was inducted into the First Quorum of the Seventy, received his elders license in 1836, moved to Far West sometime in 1838 and was a participant in the Army of Israel during the Missouri-Mormon war. After the Mormon surrender and exodus he moved with his family to Iowa territory, just across the Mississippi from Commerce. Here is where he officiated the first officially recognized plural marriage of Joseph Smith to his first officially recognized polygamous wife, Louisa Beaman, Joseph Bates Noble’s sister-in-law. Joseph Bates Noble continued in the highest ranks of Nauvoo leadership, commissioned as a bishop in Nauvoo, a member of the Nauvoo Masonic Lodge, Second Lieutenant in the Iowa Territorial Militia, a quartermaster sergeant in the Nauvoo Legion, and remained with the Brighamite sect where he resided in Bountiful, Utah for most of the remainder of his days after being part of the first wagon train to Utah in 1847. He was keeper of Jo’s Nauvoo Legion sword after Jo’s death, which can be seen exhibited online and has basically taken on a mythology of its own.
Joseph Bates Noble was one of the first people Jo personally taught that a revelation on plural marriage existed. He learned it in 1840 when Jo propositioned Louisa Beaman through Noble. Jo and Noble both recognized the gravity of the situation as evidenced by an affidavit Noble gave in June of 1869.
in the fall of the year A.D. 1840 Joseph Smith, taught him the principle of Celestial marriage or a "plurality of wives", and that the said Joseph Smith declaired that he had received a Revelation from God on the subject, and that the Angel of the Lord had commanded him, (Joseph Smith) to move forward in the said order of marriage, and further, that the said Joseph Smith, requested him, (Jos. Bates Noble) to step forward and assist him in carrying out the Said principle, saying "in revealing this to you I have placed my life in your hands, therefore do not in an evil hour betray me to my enemies.”
Noble was an initiate as of late 1840, when he performed the marriage between Jo and Louisa Beaman. Jo rewarded his loyalty by granting him Sarah B. Alley as Noble’s first plural wife. 10 months after their marriage, Sarah Alley gave birth to their first plural child, George. But, of course, these marriages were done only for celestial purposes, not carnal. As Bergera documents from William Clayton’s journal, Noble didn’t require much convincing to believe plural marriage was totes from gods. From the dialogue article:
“Apparently, Noble had hoped to marry sooner. According to William Clayton's diary for May 17, 1843: "pres[idenlt. Jloseph Smith] said to bro[ther]. [Benjamin R] Johnson & I that Jloseph]. B[ates]. Nobles when he was first taught this doctrine [i.e., plural marriage] set his heart on one [potential plural wife] & pressed Jloseph]. to seal the contract but he never could get opportunity. It seemed that the Lord was unwilling. Finally another [potential plural wife] came along & he then engaged that one and is a happy man. I learned from this anecdote never to press the prophet but wait with patience & God will bring all things right."
Once again though, polygamy was viciously opposed by these holy and pious men of god. Carnal desire to have lots of women to have sex with had absolutely no influence on the either the doctrine being revealed, or its practice as a whole. Philosophies of god mingled with semen. A few weeks after Joseph Bates Noble took Sarah Alley to wife, he took his third wife, Mary Ann Washburn.
Our next subject of focus is John E. Page. Page was born in 1799 in New York, about a day’s journey from the Palmyra/Manchester area. He was baptized into the church by Martin Harris’s brother, Emer in August 1833 where he married Lavona Stevens, his second wife after becoming a widower. He and Lavona moved to Kirtland in 1835 and he eventually became a member of the Quorum of Apostles in 1838. His second wife died and he married again to a Mary Judd in January 1839. Page continued to be a picture-perfect salesman for the church. He’d served missions in Canada, the eastern states, Pittsburgh, and even published his own missionary pamphlet, Gospel Light in 1843. He served an electioneering mission to Washington D.C. in 1843 to 44 and was inducted into the theocratic Council of Fifty after Jo’s death. Eventually he came into disagreements with Bloody Brigham Young and was excommunicated from the church in June 1846, when he joined the Strangite church and became an editor for the Strangite paper. That’s all in the future from where we are now.
Evidence for John E. Page’s plural marriages comes from yet another interview conducted by Joseph F. Smith in the early 1900s. Smith interviewed Mary Judd, Page’s 3rd wife in serial monogamy. Here’s the statement from Joseph F. Smith in Bergera’s article:
In 1904 I went to the World's Fair in St. Louis. James G. Duffin was presiding over the Central States Mission at that time, and I went with him to see Mary Page Eaton, wife of John E. Page. She was an aged woman, and I was introduced to her. The two of us sat there and talked and I questioned her about plural marriage. I asked her, "Did John E. Page have wives other than you?" She replied, "Yes." I said, "How did he get them?" She said, "I gave them to him." I said, "How come you did that?" She said, "Well, he wanted them and I gave them to him." I said, "Well, that was in the days of the Prophet Joseph Smith." She said, "Yes, it was."
Apparently, Mary gave to John a woman named Nancy Bliss sometime in 1844, but they separated soon after. Mary did according to the Law of Sarah as most of the first wives involved in these relationships. She had to agree to the marriage, or suffer damnation. I love how Joseph F. Smith asked her how John Page got more than one wife, she said I gave them to him, and he didn’t follow up with a “and how did that make you feel.” Because… why would he, am I right?
Gary Bergera’s article next focuses on some people that we’ll have to wait on. Like Heber the Creeper Kimball, the plural relationships of P-cubed Parley Parker Pratt, White-out Willard Richards, and Hyrum Sidekick-Abiff Smith all require more time than we can devote here. Instead we’ll jump much further down in Bergera’s article to Uncle John Smith.
Uncle John Smith is an interesting character in Mormon history that we’ve only obliquely referenced before. Basically, he was there from the beginning. He was Big Daddy Cheese’s younger brother born in 1781. He held many leadership positions throughout the church, he was father of George A. Smith, as well as Jesse Smith, the Smith who died during Zion’s Camp. Uncle John Smith is actually one of the very few Smith men who ever had their photo taken. Some people claim that there’s a picture circulating of Joseph Smith, but I personally don’t find the evidence for it very convincing. William Smith was the only other Smith of that generation who had a photo taken because all of the other Smiths were dead before photography was available enough to have their pictures easily taken. Anyway, Uncle John has been here from the beginning. He was one of the early converts in 1832 when he moved to Kirtland. He was ordained a High Priest, served multiple missions, held stock in the Kirtland Safety Society, appointed counselor in the First Presidency in 1837, moved to Adam Ondi Ahmen in 1838 where he was appointed president of the stake there. He was one of the coordinators of the Mormon exodus from Missouri to Illinois, and helped with much of the planning and execution of the construction of Nauvoo. He was also inducted into the Nauvoo Masonic Lodge, appointed to be a stake president in Nauvoo and admitted to the Council of Fifty when it was formed. Uncle John Smith was the only of the original generation of Smiths to migrate to Salt Lake City where he was ordained patriarch of the church in 1849, the office he retained for 5 years until his death in 1854 at the age of 72.
Uncle John married Clarissa Lyman in September of 1815. His first polygamous marriage was to Mary Aikens; they were married August 13, 1843, just a few days after the plural marriage revelation was presented to the High Council. Mary Aikens was a widow of 4 years with three children at the time. Now quoting from Bergera’s article:
About the same time as his plural marriage to Aikens, John Smith was also sealed, according to Benjamin F. Johnson, to Julia Ellis Hills Johnson [his mother]:
My mother having finally separated from my father, by the suggestion or counsel of the Prophet [Joseph Smith] she accepted of and was sealed by him to father John Smith. In this I felt not a little sorrow, for I loved my father and knew him to be naturally a kind and loving parent, a just and noble spirited man. But he had not obeyed the Gospel, had fought it with his words; and as I knew a stream must have a fountain and does not rise above it, so I consoled myself, assured by the Prophet's words that a better day would come to my father.
This presents a very interesting family dynamic. What I mean by that is Joseph Smith had married 2 of Julia Ellis Johnson’s daughters, Delcena and Almera in May and June of 1843. Now just 3 months after Julia’s daughters had been taken as the prophet’s plural wives, she was given to Jo’s uncle as his plural wife, which made Julia Ellis Johnson Jo’s plural aunt, as well as his twice over mother-in-law. Julia Ellis is an interesting case as she had 16 surviving children from her previous marriage when she left her husband just prior to this sealing to Uncle John. However, they were all grown adults by this time, Benjamin being one of the youngest at age 24. Julia simply left her husband because Jo advised her to do so. Possibly her first husband wasn’t right for her after 4 and a half decades of marriage and raising sixteen kids, maybe Jo thought she would be a perfect fit for his aging uncle and advised her to leave because her first husband never joined the church while Julia was a faithful woman since her baptism. Who knows what really happened here, but this was Uncle John’s second wife. Notably, uncle John Smith’s progenitors were crucial to Utah and Mormon history. His son, George A. Smith is the namesake of St. George, Utah. His son, John Henry Smith, was a member of the Utah Territorial Legislature and served as second counselor to Joseph F. Smith in the presidency of the church until his death in 1911. His son, George Albert Smith, was 8th prophet of the church from 1945 until his death in 1951. 4 generations of prominent church leadership all came from Uncle John Smith and he himself was quite a prominent leader in his own rite.
We’re going to skip over John Taylor and Brigham Young like most of the other prominent leaders because their marriages are simply too complex and require so much time in and of themselves. We’ll next focus on Theodore Turley. He was born in England in 1801 where he was a mechanic, gunsmith, brewer, farmer, blacksmith, and gristmill operator. He first married Frances Amelia Kimberley in 1821 and the new family migrated to Canada in 1825. They were baptized into the church in 1837, moved to Far West, and joined the Mormon exodus to Illinois. Because England was his old stomping grounds, he accompanied the Quorum of Twelve on their mission to England from 1839-41. He continued in leadership positions in the church and was eventually admitted to Council of Fifty. He joined the Utah Brighamite Congregation in Utah where he died in Beaver in 1871.
Theodore Turley is an interesting case in that he wasn’t just sealed to his sister-in-law, but to two of his sisters-in-law, Eliza and Sarah Clift, in March and April of 1844, just a couple short months before the Carthage shootout.
Lyman Wight is next treated in Bergera’s article. He’s another prominent leader with a fascinating history during Jo’s life and after Jo’s death that we’ll have to deal with in coming episodes. Regardless, evidence for his plural marriages, according to Bergera, relies solely on family tradition which claims he had 4 wives at the time of the Carthage shootout, 3 of which “were recently acquired”. He was married to Harriet Benton in January 1823, then, quoting from Lyman Wight’s biographer:
There was Jane Margaret Ballantyne, 25 year old daughter of John and Janet Ballantyne, Scottish emigrants with the company. Jane was pregnant and expecting a child in late winter. Then there was Mary Hawley, 22 year old daughter of Pierce and Sarah Hawley, Vermonters with the company. The next was Mary Ann Hobart, 17 year old daughter of Otis and Sophoronia [sic] Hobart.... There, of course, was the ever faithful Harriet [Benton], now age 44 and at the end of her childbearing years. Harriet was old enough to be the other wives' mother. Harriet appears to stoically accept the new and everlasting covenant of plural marriage or perhaps she welcomed the company. We have no record of her opinion.
Just like the majority of these marriages, we have no record of her opinion.
And, finally, for today, we turn to Edwin D. Woolley. Woolley was born in 1807, a farmer, coal miner, cattleman, builder, and a merchant in Pennsylvania. He converted from Quaker to Mormon in 1837. He’d married Mary Wickersham in Ohio in 1831. He escaped the Missouri-Mormon War as he was branch president in East Rochester, Ohio. Edwin Woolley married two wives in 1843, Louisa Gordon Rising and Ellen Wilding. In stark contrast to many of these plural marriages, none of these wives were related to each other.
As I said at the top, this episode is just a data dump. Check the show notes for Gary Bergera’s article, it really is a fascinating read, if a bit long. But hey, that’s what I’m here for, to read these books and articles so you don’t have to.
What kind of analysis can we draw from this data dump today? Well, roughly 28 men and something like 106 women can be documented to have practiced polygamy in Nauvoo prior to Jo and Hyrum’s deaths; but that doesn’t really tell the whole picture, does it? The secretive nature of celestial marriage renders documenting its practice a challenge. But this is only one small detail of the darker side of Nauvoo Mormonism. Apologists and faithful members want to claim that polygamy was for the support of the widows and when it included a sexual dynamic those were rare exceptions. This was holy and righteous, with Mormon leadership only begrudgingly assenting to it because gods commanded it so fiercely. There is some truth to the assertion that polygamy was to support widows, but to claim such was the norm is boldly dishonest because more of the marriages were dudes marrying their sisters-in-law. Besides, resources were scarce and polygamous couples VERY rarely cohabitated, so it wasn’t supporting the widows so much as claiming them, now was it? What about the brothels? What about Spiritual Wifery that was condemned as an inferior system but exactly the same in practice? That’s the underbelly that can only be speculated on and never documented. Frederick G. Williams, one of the botanical physicians of the church until his death in 1842, had a special formula he called bachelor’s delight, because imagine the diseases flowing freely around this little fiefdom on the Mississippi. Anybody trying to talk about this as anything more than a bunch of rich dudes being rewarded with wives is pounding a square peg in a round hole. In the analysis section of Bergera’s article we’ve been discussing this episode, there are a few tables that details some of the stats of these marriages. I have a feeling like none of this will surprise you, but if you factor Jo’s marriages out of it, less than 1 percent of these 106 marriages included a man who was younger than the wife. The youngest man to marry was 18, while the youngest woman was 13. 63% of these marriages were to women who had never been married before, only 14% were actually widows. The average age of wives in sequence decreased in age, meaning the average age of the first plural wife was 28, the second 28, and the third 22, while the average age for husbands increased at those intervals. Bergera’s breakdown of the leadership roles of polygamous marriages is possibly the most revealing metric. Leadership quorums in Nauvoo Mormonism included the Anointed Quorum, those who received their second anointing, the Council of Fifty, and then on the lower end of leadership roles you have the Seventies and High Priests. 57% of polygamous marriages were given to men who were in the Anointed Quorum. 39% to men who’d received their Second Anointing. 50% to men who were members of the Council of Fifty. And 36% of the marriages went to men who were members of all of those quorums. 26% of these marriages were biological sister, dudes who wanted to marry their sisters-in-law.
What was Nauvoo polygamy? This is a wife-daughter-sister-sister-in-law swapping ring. This is dozens of dudes in power laying claim to women as property. There is simply no other way of viewing this data. Don’t let anybody lie to you by claiming otherwise because this square data simply doesn’t fit in that round hole.
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