Ep 161 – The Mormon Seraglio

On this episode, we jump back into Nauvoo Mormonism. We begin with discussing the realm of politics in the 1840s. Jo’s political chess didn’t begin in Nauvoo, but Nauvoo was where he ramped up his game and moved to the ranks of political chess master. Jo had an incredible ability to curry the favor of powerful politicians and influential business owners who regarded Nauvoo as a tourist town on the Mississippi. Then we discuss how polygamy and the practice of “spiritual wifery” required a system of organization and ascendency for Nauvoo sex workers. The results are worthy of note and degrading to the women who were regarded as property.


The Prophet and the Presidency: Mormonism and Politics in Joseph Smith’s 1844 Presidential Campaign by Timothy L. Wood

History of Illinois by Governor Thomas Ford

Women’s Work and Sex Work in Nineteenth-Century America by Anya Jabour

Joseph H. Jackson 1844 expose

Sexual Slander and Polygamy in Nauvoo by John S. Dinger

History of the Saints by John C. Bennett

Godless Engineer “Was Joseph Smith a Convicted Con Man? || Mormonism Debunked

Show links:

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Music by Jason Comeau http://aloststateofmind.com/
Show Artwork http://weirdmormonshit.com/
Legal Counsel http://patorrez.com/

We’re returning to our historical timeline after the last two episodes with historian Chris Smith on the topic of Native-Mormon relations. There’s always a challenge on this show, a balance I work to strike every week. This is the serial Mormon history podcast, I try to deal with issues chronologically, but, maybe some of you have noticed this, for quite a bit of our Nauvoo episodes I’ve had to deal with issues topically as they arise, which requires bouncing around the timeline a little bit. No other topic in Nauvoo history requires a topical treatment than Mormon politics, which is what we’ll be discussing today.

Politics of the 1840s were quite interesting. If we consider our political sphere complex today, always keep in mind that it has always been perceived as just as complex and chaotic to people who were living at the time. Politics is up in our faces today with the 24-hour news cycle and social media, but even in the absence of those tools, politics has always been the dog-eat-dog kind of world we see today, just operating further out of the view of the public eye.

There may be a case to be made that by percentage more people are aware of and engaged in politics today than at any other time in American history, but that has been largely as a result of the accessibility and ubiquity of these social issues continually bombarding us right in the face every waking moment. The availability of information has probably shifted more people to focus on politics, but while the complexity and games we see every day in politics has always been present, the public’s knowledge of it hasn’t been.

When it came to the 1800s, the only people who were privy to what was going on in politics were those who actively payed attention, there wasn’t the level of political osmosis we experience today. Politics in the 1800s was an elite’s game. Andrew Jackson was really the first president to actually make his way from a populous platform appealing to the every-day average Joe for votes. But Jackson’s presidency was over in 1837 and his successor, Martin Van Buren, was back to the elites being in control of the presidency. The Whigs made a comeback with populist non-politician William Henry Harrison, the so-called hero of Tippecanoe, one of many people who claimed to be the guy who killed Tecumseh, but he died a month into his presidency and his VP, John Tyler, was once again a member of the widely-reviled Washington elite to take the throne of the presidency. The Whig party had been losing a lot of power in the late 1830s and early 40s, Tyler’s inheriting the presidency from Harrison marked one of the final death throes of the Whig party as typically Whig voters became disenchanted by the party’s lackluster performance.

An issue that does seem to divide 19th-century politics from our current political sphere is the declaration of voters. What I mean by that is today people typically designate themselves either Republican or Democrat, and they use those labels to largely summarize their personal perspective of common social issues. In the 19th century, it was far more common for people to be issue-voters instead of party-line voters. Americans would vote for an issue based on how it impacted them directly, and much less out of loyalty to one of the two political parties in power. This meant that political platforms from two different politicians of the same party could be wildly different and campaign pamphlets would often incorporate rhetoric and buzz words from both parties; which would be like seeing Elizabeth Warren today running on a pro-choice anti-abortion platform. It’s hard to understand through our presentist lens, but suffice it to say, parties adapted with evolved cultural mores, as opposed to political parties shaping cultural mores as seems to be the case today.

Joseph Smith and the Mormons had an increasing involvement in politics as Jo’s ministry matured. When Jo first declared himself a prophet of god and published his Book of Mormon, there aren’t really any extant political declaration from his early ministry. As the Mormon sect continued to grow, he waxed political and his varied interests became even more diverse. The first trouble the Mormons really ran into was in Missouri when citizens of Jackson County sought to remove the Mormons to counties north of Jackson. However, even at this time, Jo didn’t spend much time working with politicians in Missouri to secure safety for his parishioners. That duty fell to the Whitmers, William Wines Phelps, Frederick G. Williams, and a few other Mormon elites. Jo stayed largely disconnected from the issue, which was for the better, because when he did get involved, he just marched 200 of his bros out there with their guns and bowie knives that all ended in a dozen of them dying from cholera.

After that, one of Jo’s early political movements was to get the Kirtland Safety Society approved by the Ohio state legislature. He wanted to form a bank to deal with tens of thousands of dollars of outstanding debt. Jo sent Orson Hyde, or Orson L’Chydem as we call him because of his later mission to the holy land, to the Ohio state legislature to procure the bank’s charter. Hyde couldn’t get any sponsors, so he returned to Kirtland to acquire signatures of non-Mormons who could vouch for the formation of the Mormon bank. He returned to the legislature and was able to gain a few sponsors for the charter, which was incorporated into a larger spending bill to be passed early that year, 1837, but the bill was defeated and the Kirtland Safety Society wasn’t approved, making it illegal for the KSS to issue bank notes. As a perfect analogy for Jo’s conduct moving forward, he simply told his boys to change the printing plates to Anti-Bank-ing society and print the money anyways. This foray into politics was wholly unsuccessful, and Jo simply decided to circumvent the entire system when he couldn’t bend Ohio laws and politics to his will.

For Jo’s first real foray into politics and the elite sphere surrounding it, the theatre of our focus shifts to Missouri in 1838. Jo had so many legal troubles in Ohio that he was forced to flee the state and take refuge in the Mormon settlements in Caldwell and Davies counties. The Mormons had always been perceived as an imposition by Missourians. Now with their headquarters recently moved to Missouri, tensions rose. Jo began active campaigns to get Mormons elected to government offices, he frequently exchanged letters with members of the Missouri government, including Governor Boggs himself, all while creating his own Mormon theocracy in the shadows with its own military and underground enforcement squad. After everything boiled over in Missouri and Jo found himself among dozens of his fellow Mormon elites locked up in state jails, the Mormons had to shift tactics when it came to politics. No longer would they impose themselves upon the system, instead opting to work within it to curry the favor they required to make a permanent settlement.

This renewed earnest foray into politics with seeming good faith was well-received by Illinois politicians, including John C. Wreck-it Bennett, and Governor Thomas Carlin. Upon Jo’s escape from Liberty Jail, he sought to build necessary relationships with people in power. Those relationships were forged through a lot of work and help of Wreck-it Bennett, but these new political movements also shaped Nauvoo society in many ways, which we’ll attempt to explore in this episode.

At the heart of Jo’s actions lay the single motivation of self-interest, which regularly manifested in him doing he perceived as best for the Mormons. When it came to elections, Jo was only motivated to vote for who could provide the Mormons with the most liberty. The Mormon voting bloc was up for sale to any politician who would stroke the ego of, and make the grandest promises to, the one true prophet. This also caused some tensions in the membership who viewed Jo solely as their prophet and religious leader. Jo had to strike a balance with these people that his politics were done in service of forwarding the kingdom of God, which could be a hard sell to the more skeptical of his followers.

Historian Timothy L. Wood published an article in the Journal of Illinois State Historical Society back in 2000, vol. 93 no. 2, in which he summarizes this tension very aptly.

[T]he relationship between religious and secular authority during the early days of the Mormon movement was quite paradoxical. Although Mormonism came into being during a time of heightened democratic awareness in the United States, it quickly developed many authoritarian tendencies. According to [Thoms F.] O’Dea, as Mormonism developed a coherent church polity during the 1830s, a potentially unstable dichotomy emerged. On one side was the impulse toward congregationalism that so many of the New England Saints had been steeped in, which emphasized the authority and participation of the general membership. On the other hand, to avoid schism the church needed to contain religious charisma and innovation within the office of prophet-president. To maintain any kind of unity of purpose, Smith alone had to be seen as the sole source of direction for the Restoration movement.

The resulting system has been characterized as “a willingly designated absolutism.”

Further in the article, Wood cites Historian O’Dea again saying “What had developed was a democracy of participation and an oligarchy of decision making and command… Thus Mormon authoritarianism drew its leaders from the ranks, and the ranks supported such leaders.”

Now from later in the same article:

This principle suggests a paradox in the Mormon attitude concerning the relationship between religion and power. Within the church and the immediate community, Mormons tended to favor an authoritarian style of leadership, which enforced doctrinal conformity and defended such “peculiar” LDS social institutions as secret temple rituals and, eventually, polygamy. On the other hand, the constitutional theory articulated by Smith and his followers steadfastly advocated the principles of religious liberty and governmental noninterference with the religious lives of its citizens. Seen in that light, the Mormons demanded traits in their leaders at the state and national level that would have seemed quite distasteful to them if possessed by authority figures closer to home.

So, just like Mormons today, small government that allows religious liberty, but if Mormons are controlling the government, then we’re totally okay because that’s just one step to building Zion.

It wasn’t until Nauvoo where this described phenomenon really became the status quo, although the roots trace back to the early Kirtland era. It’s how the church operates today, although by a much more streamlined algorithm. Power is vested in the highest echelon of members who’re lifelong devotees, while the average membership sees their role as crucial in the theodemocracy of voting to sustain leaders every conference. To inspire loyalty, the leadership draws from the lower ranks to fill middle management, which inspires every member to eventually aspire to the higher echelons, even if that may never be a remote possibility. This was how the church itself operated in Nauvoo, and it was how politics in the city worked. Jo did his best to keep only the most loyal followers close to him which were all pulled from the lower and middle ranks, granted promotions upon expressions of fealty. People like Wreck-it Bennett had to buy his way into the highest ranks with offerings of nearly unlimited political power, a promise on which he delivered. For his efforts, Wreck-it Bennett gained access to the deepest and darkest secrets of the Nauvoo kingdom; he became bearer of Jo’s most explosive secrets.

We’ll get back to Bennett in a minute, but let’s spend a second talking about Nauvoo from an economic perspective for a moment. To understand Nauvoo economics, a further contextual understanding of broader Illinois economics is required.

From Robert Flanders’ Nauvoo Kingdom on the Mississippi p. 167

General economic conditions in the state were at that time near a state of collapse. The whole country had remained depressed following 1839; and in Illinois the chronic fiscal crisis stemming from the enormous state debt incurred by the plan of works had further hindered recovery. Public and private credit had long been strained, and early in 1842 the Bank of Illinois at Shawneetown and the Illinois State Bank at Springfield failed. With the collapse of the two largest banks financial ruin spread throughout the state. What commerce there was was on a near barter basis.

This financial strain was hitting the Mormons and Jo hard by late 1843 where our historical timeline resides. Dozens of city projects had been conceived, initially financed, and had yet to be completed to return on the investment, or failed outright. Jo was personally hundreds of thousands in debt for land contracts he’d signed to get the Mormons their own land. He wasn’t paying bills on the land contracted for, so the deed holders were unable to pay land taxes, making them more insistent on Jo to repay even a small portion of his debts. The Canal project was set to bring a ton of commerce and manufacturing into town, but a few feet were dug and the project was abandoned. No factories were built. The small amount of mercantile and goods the Mormons could produce was too costly to ship to a location where they would sell for the price the labor commanded. The Nauvoo Temple was an absolute black hole of resources that would never produce income the way temples do for the church today through membership fees of 10% of every member’s income. The Nauvoo House was a project created to make the premier inn and tavern in the state of Illinois, but it was so far behind schedule that Jo opted to have a wing added to his own home for visitors of the city to stay in. We could discuss many similar projects, but these examples suffice to illustrate how problematic Nauvoo’s economy was.

But those were just the economic forces at play at the city-wide level. Jo had mountains of personal notes he’d yet to square away. Another passage from Flanders’ book offers a window into Jo’s own financial troubles.

That Halstead and Haines note was only one of many financial problems trying the Prophet just then. Smith was beginning his store business in the winter of 1841-42. He managed in March, 1842, to repay William Marks, the Nauvoo Stake President, “who had loaned money and property to the Church at various times.” Smith recorded with evident satisfaction, “Closed a settlement with William Marks… and paid him off, principal and interest to the last farthing for all that myself or the Church had had of him.” The following day he recorded simply, “Settled with Brother Niswanger.” But he was unable to retire his obligation to the estate of Oliver Granger. “Finally failed to effect anything,” he complained. “[Gilbert] Granger refused to give up the papers to me, which he had received of his father, although I presented him deeds, mortgages and paper to the amount of some thousands against his father, more than he had against the Church.” It was in March that Smith advised Edward Hunter to bring specie to Nauvoo and offered him the store; the Prophet’s financial condition was then critical. Yet he did not suspend his land-buying operations. On March 2 he offered a New York land speculator $100 an acre for twenty acres in the city not yet owned by the Church, “or to take an agency to sell the same,” and a month later he bought a farm for $1,150.

This was all in the lead-up time to Jo and a dozen other Mormon elites all filing for bankruptcy later that year of 1842. Maybe Jo thought if he vacuumed up enough property that he’d be able to incur enough debts and file bankruptcy and then somehow the properties would end up his, although there’s no possible way to put our minds in Jo’s skull to see what he was really thinking or what his possible long-term plans were for answering all these debts.

This is the crucial issue here, and I can’t stress this enough, Nauvoo wasn’t exporting anything. It was so painfully insolvent that only disaster loomed in the near future. Chicago is what it is today because at this time it was growing at a sustainable rate. It had location on one of the great lakes, allowing for importing and exporting by water, which was the largest medium of transit at the time. It had just completed a rail system through the city in the late 1830s and was beginning to reap the benefits.

Thomas Ford, elected Governor of Illinois in 1842 during a heated election made more intense by the presence of the Mormons, summarized this period in his 1852 book, History of Illinois, from page 232.

The great plenty of money brought here by the work on the canal and the railroads, set up a great many merchants all over the country in business; it increased the stocks of goods brought to be sold; created unnatural competition amongst the merchants to sell; who were forced to sell on a credit or not at all. The people were encouraged to buy on credit, and when their debts became due, for want of money to pay them, they gave their notes to the merchants with twelve per cent. Interest, which the reader will observe hereafter was the cause of some strange legislation on the collection of debts, and caused the reduction of the rate of interest to six per cent. Until the year 1833, there had been no legal limit to the rate of interest to be fixed by contract. But usury had been carried to such an unprecedented degree of extortion and oppression, as to cause the legislature to enact severe usury laws, by which all interest above twelve per cent. Was condemned. It had been no uncommon thing before this, to charge one hundred and one hundred and fifty per cent., and sometimes two and three hundred per cent. But the common rate of interest by contract had been about fifty per cent.

Understandably, Governor Ford’s brain would explode at payday lenders today, but this sets the scene for what the wild west of speculation was like. People were trading notes and bartering because actual gold and silver specie was so hard to come by since the panic of 1837 and the specie circular which required the government to only take gold and silver for taxes. All of this crushing debt led to an interesting program in 1842. Once again, from Flanders Kingdom on the Mississippi:

On April 12 the Quorum of Twelve initiated a program of debt forgiveness within the Church. Many Saints had borrowed from their brethren over a period of years, and the Presidency and Bishopric had done likewise to relieve the destitute from the Missouri expulsion and to build up Nauvoo. “Many of these claims have already been settled,” said the Apostles, “many have been given up as cancelled by those who held them, and many would remain unsettled.” Now the Twelve urged a general cancellation of all such claims “which have arisen out of the difficulties and calamities of the Church… that when the Temple is completed, there will be nothing from this source to produce jars, and discords, strifes and animosities, so as to prevent the blessings of heaven descending upon us as a people… While things remains as they are, and men remain subject to the temptations of evil as they now are, the day of release, and year of jubilee cannot be…” How were the Saints to prosper when the Church, the Presidency, and bishops, and “those who have sacrificed everything but life… for our salvation, are thus encumbered? It cannot be.” They advised that all such “old accounts, notes, bonds, etc.” be consecrated to the Temple; if they could be negotiated, the proceeds would advance the building; if not, after the Temple was finished, “we will make a burnt-offering of them… which shall bind the brethren together in the bonds of eternal peace, and love, and union… and you shall rejoice… that [you] have hearkened unto counsel, and set our brethren free…”

A debt forgiveness program that would only seem to benefit the elite who’d borrowed themselves so deep into a hole that even bankruptcy couldn’t suffice to answer the cloud over their heads. Eventually, if you’re so far in debt, it feels like a burnt-offering of all your debts would be a good idea, but that’s not how economics work. This is the micro level of individuals owing each other hundreds or thousands of dollars, and the city itself was only a more extreme version of this perpetual poverty being shrouded by the tangled line of credit web that Nauvoo elites had weaved for themselves and the Mormons.

Nauvoo simply had no material exports and was importing goods at an alarming rate, all on credit. Nauvoo’s chief export was debt. Loans and creditors were swallowing the Kingdom on the Mississippi and there was no answer beyond just holding out. Just hold out till we finish the Nauvoo House, just hold out until a rich guy comes and builds a factory here, just hold out a little longer; but the house was never built and the rich men never came.

But that didn’t stop rich and powerful men from visiting the Mormon theocracy. In fact, for all the troubles the Mormons were experiencing, they could still put on a hell of a good show when a visiting dignitary would make their way to the city. Annual fourth of July parades with the Nauvoo Legion in full battle regalia, skirmishes, and grand parties became a wildly popular event for wealthy people to attend.

The prophet was quite the entertainer. The number of house parties he held in the Nauvoo Mansion and other public areas throughout 1841-44 are truly remarkable, most of which were catered and attended to by his many beautiful young wives. If Chicago was the industrious Mexico City, Nauvoo was Cabo. The Mormon kingdom is where rich people in Illinois went to party and rub elbows with other prominent politicians. Jo wasn’t a politician, but he held a ton of political power with the Mormon voting bloc and thus attracted a lot of powerful people. He also installed the Masonic lodge just a year and a half prior to where our timeline resides in late 1843, and plenty of politicians at the time were Masons, making Nauvoo even more enticing for the beautiful 3-story lodge they’d just built.

All of this amassing power all came back to the Nauvoo Charter and how it was employed. As Flanders puts it in the Kingdom on the Mississippi:

On its face it was just another city charter with some novel clauses; in operation it was a charter to create a Mormon kingdom in the sovereign state of Illinois. Smith conceived Nauvoo to be federated with Illinois somewhat as Illinois was federated with the United States, with strong legal and patriotic ties to be sure, but also with guaranteed immunities and rights of its own.

Given the expansive powers granted by the Nauvoo Charter, and the expansive powers realized by the Mormons by 1843, we need to understand the importance for the Nauvoo House. It was set to become the Mormon Ritz. A 5-star hotel with dozens of rooms, staffed by Jo’s younger beautiful wives to take proper care of the dignitaries who chose to stay a night or two in the city.

All of this leads to a question, what do rich and powerful politicians, an elite group of which Jo was steadily becoming a member, want to do when they go on vacation to a beautiful city like Nauvoo with very little to do when compared to a large metropolis like DC or New York? Same thing as wealthy politicians today, party. Sure, I’m painting with broad brushstrokes here, but it’s the 19th century and wealthy white guys are gunna do what wealthy white guys are gunna do.

Nauvoo was considered a temperate city because one of the first things Wreck-it Bennett did upon his arrival and the passage of the Nauvoo charter was to outlaw any alcohol distribution inside city limits unless for medical purposes or with the express written approval of the Mayor, Vice Mayor, or an Alderman of the city. This resulted in alcohol being strictly controlled in the city for the year and a half Bennett was Mayor, but much like prohibition, alcohol consumption still happened. Jo himself was frequently seen in Nauvoo public gatherings with other powerful men quite smashed. If you’ll permit me a bit of a long reading from one of the most overlooked and fun little books in Mormon history, Hearts Made Glad by Lamar Petersen. This is beginning on page 166.

Biographer Harry M. Beardsley met the question of the Prophet’s decorum with this rationalization in his Joseph Smith and his Mormon Empire: “Officially, Joe was an ardent advocate of Temperance; even to the extent of issuing commandments against the use of tea, coffee, and tobacco. In his unofficial capacity, however, he was not above indulging in these dissipations himself. Some Mormon writers attempt to make the prophet a teetotaler; but in the face of testimony of his contemporaries, their efforts fail. Drinking was general among Americans of Joseph Smith’s period. Particularly in Missouri and Illinois, consumption of large quantites of whiskey was considered a necessity. The restricted diet of the pioneers, especially the preponderance of salt-pork, resulted in numerous digestive ailments. Malaria, too, was common, and whiskey was considered a prime remedy for both troubles. At Kirtland, Joe apparently was circumspect in his drinking, taking his tipple at his own home, or the homes of close friends, and seldom drinking in public or permitting himself to appear intoxicated on the streets. Brother [Crazy] William felt no such restraint. He was usually drunk on Saturday afternoons and sometimes ascended the pulpit next morning with a perceptible hangover. By the time the Mormons reached Nauvoo, however, Joe’s inhibitions had vanished. He patronized his own barroom in the back room of his store and the barrooms of Montrose across the river. He was frequently drunk in public, nearly always so on holidays and festive occasions, and he was proud of his capacity for liquor.”

Beardsley continued his picturesque peroration some sixty pages later: “At Kirtland many of the new arrivals had been bitterly disappointed in the appearance, speech, and actions of the Prophet, and many of them apostatized. Joe wanted to guard against this at Nauvoo. One method would have been for him to lead an exemplary life conforming speech and action to the popular concept of a prophet of God; but this would have robbed the ‘prophet’ job of all attractions for Joseph Smith; and he realized that should he attempt to conform, and then fall into human errors, the effect would be devastating. So Joe adopted a bold course. ‘I am not a perfect man and never professed to be,’ he reiterated from the pulpit. ‘I have my failings and passions to contend with the same as the greatest stranger to God has. I am tempted the same way as you, my brethren; I am not infallible.’ The converts, having heard this from Joe’s own lips on Sunday morning, were thus, in a measure, prepared for the extraordinary spectacle they might witness that afternoon: the Prophet whooping it up at a horse-race on the falts; the Prophet, stripped to his waist, covered with sweat and dirt, engaged in a wrestling match; the Prophet, his hat awry, weaving unsteadily down the street, or being loaded into his carriage by Porter Rockwell and an able-bodied assistant.

In summer of 1843, the Smiths and many of Jo’s wives moved into the Nauvoo Mansion when the Nauvoo House was so far behind schedule and the city needed a proper place to entertain visitors. In the Nauvoo Mansion, Jo had installed a bar, which Pistol-Packin Porter Rockwell attended at bartender after his escape from jail and arrival late that same year. Jo was apparently very proud of the barroom in the Nauvoo Mansion and when Emma confronted him about it, this is what Jo said:

He reminded her that all taverns had their bars at which liquor was sold or dispensed—which was true at that day—and again urged that it was only for a time and was being done for Porter’s benefit, explaining that since porter had been compelled to leave his own home and had, in measure, been made a scapegoat for charges that had been made against the two of them, he felt obligated to help him.

No hunny, I swear, it’s all Port’s liquor even though it’s our house! Besides, people who stay in taverns expect to have their alcohol palate satisfied, so it’s okay, I promise! A similar justification was given by Jo’s nephew, Joseph F. Smith, when he was prophet of the Brighamite church at the Salt Lake City Hotel was opened in 1912, when he said “The people who visit us want something to wet up with—and unless it is provided for them they’ll go somewhere else.” Same justification as his uncle about the Nauvoo Mansion bar.

What many people would call sin and vice, was and undertone that gripped Nauvoo. But, it wasn’t just alcohol, because drinking is only one part of partying that wealthy white guys liked to do in the 1800s, but could be equally applied to nearly all societies for all times in all places.

We know that a number of brothels operated in the city of Nauvoo. The largest of which was owned by Wreck-it Bennett, which was uprooted and tossed into a ravine for unknown reasons in late 1841 or possibly early 1842. However, Jo’s younger brother, Crazy Willy Smith, was operating his own little prostitution ring, or “spiritual wifery” ring as historians would call it. He had a smaller brothel on the outskirts of town. Consider the economic pressures that led to the formation of these brothels. Nauvoo had no system of major exportation to bring money into town. One of the only ways money came into Nauvoo was through tourism by wealthy and powerful men who often held government positions. This meant that men couldn’t provide for their families and many women, who at the time constituted nearly ¼ of factory job force nationally at this time, had to resort to other industries to bring money in to the family when her husband couldn’t find enough work to keep food on the table.

A fascinating article you’ll find in the show notes goes through the economic dynamics of sex work in antebellum America, written by Anya Jabour, titled Women’s Work and Sex Work in Nineteenth-Century America. Here’s just a little bit from it.

Women in antebellum America had few options for self-support. Throughout the nineteenth century, domestic service—including cleaning houses, laundering clothing, preparing meals, and caring for children—was by far the most common paid occupation for women. However, because servants were required to live in the households of their employers, receiving most of their pay in the form of room and board, and had limited autonomy, most women preferred other types of wage labor. By 1850, approximately one-fourth of all factory workers were women. Factory work included textile production (i.e., spinning thread and weaving cloth) and making ready-made clothing (i.e., cutting patterns and sewing trousers), increasingly with the use of power machinery. Outside of the factory walls, the “needle trades” also included finishing clothing—hemming pants, for instance—by hand.  None of these occupations offered financial stability, even with regular employment, and many women, especially in the “needle trades,” frequently found themselves unemployed during economic downturns.

Economic necessity and the desire for an easier life drove many women to the sex trade in the decades leading up to the Civil War. In 1859, Dr. William Sanger’s study of 2000 prostitutes confined in New York’s Blackwell’s Island prison revealed that half of the women had worked as domestic servants before entering the sex trade, and another quarter had worked as seamstresses. (Abused and abandoned wives made up the remaining one-fourth.)  According to Sanger’s study, one-fourth of the women at Blackwell’s Island reported being destitute before entering the sex trade. Their stories revealed the desperate circumstances of working-class women in nineteenth-century America. As the case history of one inmate tersely put it: “No work, no money, and no home.” 

Although most women clearly regarded sex work as a last resort, one-quarter of the women in Dr. Sanger’s study claimed to have entered the trade voluntarily.This choice, of course, was shaped by financial considerations.While prostitution was rarely lucrative, a sex worker could earn as much in an hour as a seamstress could in a day. As feminist speaker Caroline Dall told a Boston audience in 1859: “Lust is a better paymaster than the mill-owner or a tailor. Compare the price of labor with the price of dishonor, and you will cease to be surprised that women fall.”

This was the harsh economic reality of Nauvoo and the expected results in creating a fragile edifice of a city built on speculation, debt, and fraud. What this eventually created was a system of organization among the sex-workers of Nauvoo, some of which were also likely taken as plural wives to Jo and other Mormon elites. Bennett’s expose includes an entire chapter on the sex work hierarchy that was created within the confines of Mormon theology as much as out of economic necessity. This begins on page 217 of History of the Saints; the chapter is titled the Mormon Seraglio. And, of course, if you’re a subscriber on patreon.com/nakedmormonism you get access to the audiobook version of this book with my commentary. It was a long read, but it’s all there and uploaded if you search for NaMo Book Club on the patreon page for the show, a little as a buck an episode will grant you access to that wealth of controversial Mormon history.

The Mormon seraglio is very strictly and systematically organized. It forms a grand lodge, as it were, and is divided into three distinct order, or degrees. The first and lowest of these is styled the “Cyprian Saints;” the second, the “Chambered Sisters of Charity;” and the third and highest degree is called the “Cloistered Saints,” or “Consecratees of the Cloister”.

He breaks down these three degrees of Mormon sex workers, attributing the organizational and initiatory aspects to the Relief Society. For the first degree, the Cyprian Saints, a woman is picked out when rumors circulate that she’s “lapsed from the straight path of virtue” after which she is marked and brought in for a Relief Society {I}nquisition. According to Bennett, “This body is solemnly organized in secret and select council, and by its members, the poor, terrified female is questioned and threatened, until she confesses the crime she has committed, or perhaps, in her confusion and terror, accuses herself of what she was never guilty of. She is immediately, by the council, pronounced a Cyprian, and is excluded from any further connection with the Relief Society.” After this inquisition, this prospective Cyprian is cut off from contact with her friends in the Relief Society and “her name and failing are stealthily promulgated among the trustworthy members of the Church, at whose command she is, for licentious purposes, forever after.”

This is how a woman goes from nice and wholesome in the Mormon community of Nauvoo, to being a target when some unfounded rumor circulates about her chastity. And, according to Bennett, it was common that “Many young and beautiful females have thus been ruined eternally,”. This was the first degree that began young and beautiful females on a path towards full-on sex slavery in Nauvoo. The next degree sounds much worse as the women seem to become not only victim, but completely shaped by their new forced profession.

“The Chambered Sisters of Charity”

This order comprises that class of females who indulge their sensual propensities, without restraint, whether married or single, by the express permission of the Prophet.

Whenever one of the “Saints,” (as the Mormons style themselves,) of the male sex, becomes enamored of a female, and she responds to the feeling by a reciprocal manifestation, the loving brother goes to Holy Joe, and states the case. It makes, by the bye, no difference whatever if one or both the parties are already provided with conjugal helpmates. The Prophet gravely buries his face in his hat, in which lies his peep-stone, and inquires of the Lord what are his will and pleasure in the matter. Sometimes, when Joe wants the woman for his own purposes, an unfavorable answer is given; but, generally, the reply permits the parties to follow the bent of their inclinations, which they do without further ceremony, though with a strict observance of secrecy, on account of the Gentiles, who have no right to the blessings and privileges so liberally granted to the Latter Day Saints.

Thus these poor, deluded females, while incited by their very religion (if it deserves that name) to indulgence in the most degrading passions, have their consciences soothed, and their scruples appeased, by the sanction of the pretended Apostle and Prophet of the Lord, in whom they have the utmost confidence, and whose lightest word is with them a law…

The Chambered Sisters of Charity are much more numerous than the Cyprian Saints. This results naturally from the greater respectability of their order. They are “Saints of the Green Veil,” and are by no means niggardly of their favors to any of the faithful. Provided the Holy Joe does not desire to monopolize any of them, they are at the service of each and all of the Apostles, High Priests, and Elders of Israel.

For what interesting purposes might Jo “monopolize” some of these much more numerous Chambered Sisters of Charity? They’re at the service of all the highest-ranking Mormon elites, all the way down to the lowliest Elders of Israel, and I’d bet their services were provided to Gentiles when the opportunity would arise. Finally, Wreck-it Bennett gets into the third and final degree of the most favored sisters of the Relief Society.

“The Consecratees of the Cloister, Or Cloistered Saints”

This degree is composed of females, whether married or unmarried, who, by an express grant and gift of God, through his Prophet the Holy Joe, are set apart and consecrated to the use and benefit of particular individuals as secret, spiritual wives. They are the Saints of the Black Veil, and are accounted the special favorites of Heaven, and the most honorable among the daughters of Jacob. Their spiritual husbands are altogether from the most eminent members of the Mormon Church, and participate in the holiness of their consecrated wives.

Consecrated to the church and the designs of Jo and the church, just like the property of the Gentiles in Missouri. The analogy makes itself and the results are understandably similar.

There were other logistical constraints beyond merely establishing this grooming structure to grow the pool of possible wives and sex workers. Further detail is illuminated by another scathing expose of Jo Smith and the Mormons, by Joseph H. Jackson, who Jo sent on a mission to break Pistol-Packin Port out of prison, but Jackson was unsuccessful. He spent a bit of time in our timeline, but he saw enough of what happened in the darkest alleys of Nauvoo to shed further light on this superstructure of hedonism.

On page 12 of his expose, which you’ll find in the show notes, he describes the scriptural justification for polygamy and how sealings worked. Then he writes:

Having an explanation of the doctrine, let us see the application. Joe had in his employ certain old women, called "Mothers in Israel," such as Mrs. Tailor, old Madam Durfee, and old Madam Sessions, in whom the people have great confidence, but in fact, they are the most depraved hypocrits on Earth. If Joe wishes to make a spiritual wife of a certain young lady, he would send one of these women to her. The old women, would tell the young lady, that she had had a vision, in which it was revealed to her that she was to be sealed up to Joe, (or his friend as the case might be) as a spiritual wife, to be his in time and eternity… Soon after this Joe would appear, and tell the lady that the Lord had revealed to him that Mrs. so & so, had had a vision concerning her, and had been to see her. Not suspecting any collusion the young lady would be astonished, and being strong in the faith, she could have no doubt but that Joe spoke by authority of God, He would then ply his arguments, and with the utmost sanctity speak "in the name of the Lord" and say that at such a time, and at such a place it had been revealed to him that she should be his or his friend's, in time and eternity. If she objected he would quote his scripture and his revelations, and thus by playing on her superstitious credulity, and artfully at the same time inflaming her passions he seldom failed of his object. Being once successful, he held the fear of exposure over her as a rod to prevent rebellion from his allegiance... This was a specimen of the mode and manner of Joe in carrying his vile measures of seduction. To the truth of what I have here said, there are hundreds who can testify, and I have no doubt would do it, if they could be protected from the revenge of the hellish clan, which still exists in Nauvoo. The extent to which this abomination was carried may be imagined from the fact that Joe Smith boasted to me, that he in this manner from the commencement of his career had seduced 400 women.

Jackson has more strong words for one of these Mothers in Israel, whom he called Madam Durfee in that previous screed.

There are women, however, who should be exposed, such as this Mrs. Durfee. Taking her own confession and Joe's stories as correct, there is not, I believe, such another perfect fiend in human shape on the Earth. A more devout, pious and virtuous being, than she apparently is, cannot be found in any church; but a more perfect specimen of knavery, villainy and every thing that is detestable in humanity, than she in reality is, the Union cannot produce.

Women coercing younger women into sex work, yeah that’s a thorny issue to deal with. Women coercing younger women into sex work at the direction of a self-proclaimed prophet who stands to gain the younger women as his own personal sex workers to carry out whatever he sees fit, that’s even more troubling. These are the structural day-to-day workings of the Nauvoo sex worker ring. What does it really look like?

I have from his own mouth, and from the mouth of his victims, statements which I dare not reveal; for the world will not believe that such corruption could possibly exist. Yet, if protection could be afforded to some of those females who were the victims of these wretches (the leaders in Nauvoo,) I could, I believe, from their own mouths, procure confessions that would startle the world. I have visited frequently, those women whom Joe supported for the gratification of his lust -- I have found them subsisting on the coarsest food, and not daring to utter a word of complaint, for they feared Joe Smith more than they did their God. I have appealed to the finer feelings of their nature, and seen them weep as children, when dwelling on the degraded state to which their credulity had reduced them. Knowing me to be in the confidence of Joe, they hesitated not to unfold their griefs to me, but their neighbors and acquaintances generally, know nothing of their feelings or their degradation. These remarks apply only to a portion of the spiritual wives, for there are many who are as corrupt as Joe himself. 

Why must we rely on strictly antagonistic sources for this information? Is it not trustworthy because there isn’t any faithful corroboration of this information? Would we expect to find a faithful member recount any of this when their life held in the balance? There’s also the legality of this to consider because polygamy was illegal and Sexual Slander laws were powerful and carried heavy penalties.

As John Dinger notes in his 2018 article, which is nominated for best article of JWHA this year:

One of the major problems encountered when studying the beginnings of Mormon polygamy is the lack of contemporaneous historical documentation. This is because of the secret nature of polygamy and the crime of polygamy… “Secrecy itself defined and delineated this tragedy.” However, [George Smith] added “Mormon record-keepers faced a dilemma in writing about Nauvoo” because they were “engaged in ‘illegal’ bigamous marriages.”

Another reason for the lack of contemporaneous documents is the existence of sexual slander laws and their criminal and civil use in nineteenth-century Illinois. While legislatures created these laws to protect women’s reputations, Joseph and Hyrum Smith used them to counter claims against their participation in polygamy or “spiritual wifery.”

Such lawsuits help explain the lack of detail in John C. Bennett’s History of the Saints, and William and Wilson Law’s Nauvoo Expositor. While these laws may have helped to protect polygamists, they challenge historians studying Nauvoo polygamy.

Because of this dearth of available documentation, antagonistic accounts must be used to contextualize faithful to form a more wholistic picture of Nauvoo polygamy. Every historian I’ve asked about Bennett’s claims of the degrees of wives has been handwaved or considered Bennett just being Bennett, but it holds explanatory power and forms a basis of understanding the organizational structure necessary when dozens of Mormon men, and possibly dozens of powerful and wealthy Gentile tourists were passing around hundreds of women like a frat-party pocket pussy.

Accordingly, historians have to deal with accusations like this from Bennett and Jackson, specifically when it comes to the women’s complicity in the criminal empire of Nauvoo.

He spoke of his spiritual wives particularly, and called them "great captains," in his service to carry his design, and remarked that through them he could get any stranger's money. I asked him how he would work the matter; to which he replied, that he had only to tell certain of his spiritual wives, that such a man had been in the Missouri war, and that he should be put out of the way, and his properly and money consecrated to the use, of the church; then said he, it is d--d easy for them to got into his good graces, and to mix a white powder with his victuals, and put him out of the 'way. I then told him that he ought to give me the names of these women, as they might be of great service to me in carrying his secret measures. He then went on to give me the names of women, who he said would go to the ends of the earth for him; but I shall not in this place disclose them.

And, because of sexual slander laws, the names of these women are not provided.

The casual visitor of Nauvoo ran into the same limitations historians do today. This was a criminal empire and operations behind closed doors were never recorded. The real Nauvoo existed in the shadows of the clean streets, the cheery-faced merchants, the casual young man whittling with his bowie knife on the street corner, the beautiful buildings erected in typical industrious Mormon fashion. The real Nauvoo will forever remain enigmatic to those of us who study it from nearly 2 centuries in the future, but that historical blindness is by design of the people who ran the city and the man who sat atop the criminal empire. If Mormons living in Nauvoo for years had no idea of the true face of the city that underlie the mask that covers it, how can we expect to see the face of the demon now? I think Joseph Jackson is a terrible writer, but this passage in his 1844 expose stands out as exceptional to describe exactly what I’m trying to say which applies equally to contemporary visitors, and historians of today, especially if they believe the pious prophet apologist narrative of this vile degenerate of a human being.

A stranger who visits Nauvoo can form no idea of the corruption practiced in the city. To him, every thing appears perfectly quiet and harmonious, and he is favorably impressed; and hence, sets down all that he hears against the Mormons, as originating in religious intolerance. Nay! a man may live for years in this place, and know but little of its iniquities, so completely does Joe cover up his crime. Many who were disposed to tell what they knew, were deterred and are still deterred by the fear of the power of Joe and the secret clan about him. When any thing of a disgraceful character is disclosed, Joe, ever ready to prove a negative, will bring together his clan and prove himself perfectly innocent; and thus, no matter how vile his conduct in private, the individual who ventures to disclose it, not only runs the risk of his life, but has but little hope of making the people believe his story.

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