[This post is part of a series on Joseph Smith’s Polygamy. To read from the beginning or link to previously published posts, go to A Faithful Joseph.]If Joseph uncovered Bennett’s evil doing by January 13, 1842, we would expect to see evidence to that effect. Last week I proposed the 1842 census of Nauvoo and the formation of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo were two such evidences, but both of these lag mid-January by several weeks.
However it is only five days after January 13th that we see William Marks, Nauvoo Stake President, suggesting the bishops should have “the Priests visit from house to house…” 1
A member of the High Council wondered what response should be given if the bishops were to refuse this request. Apparently Saints in Nauvoo were as overwhelmed as any of us in modern times.
Hyrum Smith replied that the High Council had authority to deal with them for such a refusal, “that the Council should call on the Presidents of the Lesser Priest-hood to attend the Council & receive instruction… That it was necessary for them to go from house to house, to his house, and to every house and see that every family done their duty…” 2
Apparently Joseph had nearly immediately set Hyrum Smith and William Marks on a path that might help find the wrong-doers. But Joseph had to walk a fine line. Neither Hyrum Smith nor William Marks had been read in regarding the New and Everlasting Covenant, nor had the vast majority of the members of the “Lesser Priest-hood” who would be conducting the house to house visits.
A contemporary living in Nauvoo at the time would have only experienced the census, perhaps noted the formation of the Female Relief Society, then seen this simple notice in the Times and Seasons issue of June 15, 1842:
The Subscribers, members of the First Presidency of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, withdraw the hand of fellowship from General John C. Bennett, as a christian, he having been labored with from time to time, to persuade him to amend his conduct, apparently to no good effect.
The following members of the Quorum of the Twelve concur in the above sentiments.
HEBER C. KIMBALL
JOHN E. PAGE,
GEORGE A. SMITH
We concur in the above sentiment.
N. K. WHITNEY,
Bishops of the above mentioned Church. 3
The recorded testimony that damned John C. Bennett implicated several women and many more men. Joseph would rail against Bennett in the months following June 1842, but Joseph would withhold evidence presented to the High Council for two years, possibly in hopes of reclaiming those who had fallen. Towards the end of May, 1844, Joseph would finally tell the public some portion of the evil that had possessed the City of Nauvoo under Bennett’s corrupted leadership. 4
It would be too late.
Joseph Smith would be dead at the hands of a mob less than a month after publishing the damning testimony against Bennett and his chief acolyte, Chauncy Higbee.
Preaching to the Choir
The 1842 break in the public case occurred because of Joseph’s teachings against spiritual wifery. Joseph had addressed the Nauvoo Choir of Singers, speaking against sexual immorality, apparently using the kind of language we see Emma Smith using in her remarks to the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo. One member of the choir was Sarah Miller. On May 24, 1842, Sarah gave testimony that:
Some two or three weeks since, in consequence of brother Joseph Smith’s teachings to the singers, I began to be alarmed concerning myself, and certain teachings which I had received from Chauncey L. Higbee…
When he first came to my house soon after the special conference this spring, Chauncey commenced joking me about my getting married, and wanted to know how long it had been since my husband died, and soon removed his seat near me; and began his seducing insinuations by saying it was no harm to have sexual intercourse with women if they would keep it to themselves, and continued to urge me to yield to his desires, and urged me vehemently…
[Chauncy] continued to press his instructions and arguments until after dark, and until I was inclined to believe, for he called God to witness of the truth, and was so solemn and confident, I yielded to his temptations…
Chauncey Higbee, said it would never be known, I told him it might be told in bringing forth [a child]. Chauncey said there was no danger, and that Dr. Bennet understood it, and would come and take it away, if there was any thing. 5
Sarah Miller was likely Sarah Searcy, born in 1815. Her husband had died one year earlier in Nauvoo. 6 A few months later two other ladies from the choir would come forward and indicate they had similarly been taught there was no harm to have sexual intercourse with women if they would keep it to themselves. 7
The Widow’s Daughters
The widow Jane Neyman had been the first person to have herself baptized on behalf of a departed loved one. In March of 1842, Chauncy Higbee stopped by Widow Neyman’s home, proposing to walk Jane’s daughters to the spelling school. The daughters in question were Margaret, almost 30, and her sister, Matilda. 8
Margaret would testify:
My sister Matilda, and myself accompanied him; but, changing our design on the way, we stopped at Mrs. Fullers: During the evening’s interview, he, (as I have since learned,) with wicked lies proposed that I should yield to his desires, and indulge in sexual intercourse with him, stating that such intercourse might be freely indulged in, and was no sin: That any respectable female might indulge in sexual intercourse, and there was no sin in it, providing the person so indulging, keep the same to herself; for there could be no sin, where there was no accusor;—and most clandestinely, with wicked lies, persuaded me to yield by using the name of Joseph Smith: and, as I have since learned, totally false and unauthorized; and in consequence of those arguments, I was influenced to yield to my Seducer, Chauncey L. Higbee. 9
Matilda would testify:
During this spring Chauncy L. Higbee, kept company with me from time to time, and, as I have since learned, wickedly deceitfully, and with lies in his mouth, urged me vehemently to yield to his desires; that there could be no wrong in having sexual intercourse with any female that could keep the same to herself;—most villianously and lyingly stating that he had been so instructed by Joseph Smith, and that there was no sin where there was no accuser:—Also vowing he would marry me.
Not succeeding, he, on one occasion, brought one, 10 who affirmed that such intercourse was tolerated by the heads of the Church. I have since found him also to be a lying conspirator against female virtue and chastity, having never received such teachings from the heads of the church; but I was at the time partially influenced to believe in consequence of the source from whom I received it.
I yielded and become subject to the will of my seducer, Chauncey L. Higbee: and having since found out to my satisfaction, that a number of wicked men have conspired to use the name of Joseph Smith, or the heads of the Church, falsely and wickedly to enable them to gratify their lusts, thereby destroying female innocence and virtue, I repent before God and my brethren and ask forgiveness.
I further testify that I never had any personal acquaintance with Joseph Smith and never heard him teach such doctrines as Higbee, stated either directly or indirectly. 11
The Widow Fuller
The testimony of Margaret Neyman clearly indicated the home of Widow Fuller was the place where Chauncy Higbee had been able to interview Margaret and Matilda at length and perform his conquests.
If I am correct, the Widow Fuller was Catherine Laure, born 1807, who had married Josiah Fuller. Catherine and Josiah were living near Haun’s Mill in October 1838 when a 240-man militia from nearby Missouri counties attacked. Josiah Fuller was one of the seventeen killed, apparently having attempted to shelter in the blacksmith shop, Mercifully Josiah likely died before the militia entered the smithy and shot the remaining three boys and hacked a 78-year-old man to death with a dull blade. It seems the militia proceeded to chase down and rape many of the Mormon women who had just seen their men murdered.
In the 1840 federal census, Catherine (or Katherine) Fuller is shown as the head of her household between the ages of 30 and 40, with a boy and girl under age 5, two boys between ages 5 and 10, and a boy between the ages of 10 and 15. 12
In May 1842 Catherine would provide extensive testimony about how Bennett and his acolytes had approached her saying illicit sex was permissible as long as no one knew about it. An excerpt of Catherine’s statement reads:
I have had unlawful connexion with Chauncey L. Higbee. Chauncey Higbee, taught the same doctrine as was taught by J. C. Bennet, and that Joseph Smith, taught and practiced those things, but he [Chauncey] stated that he did not have it from Joseph, but he had his information from Dr. John C. Bennet. He, Chauncey L. Higbee, has gained his object about five or six times, Chauncey L. Higbee, also made propositions to keep me with food if I would submit to his desires. 13
The testimonies of these three women against Chauncy Higbee were published in in the Nauvoo Neighbor in May 1844, less than two weeks before Chauncy Higbee helped published The Nauvoo Expositor, the anti-Mormon paper whose destruction lead directly to Joseph’s death. 14
A Fuller Story
Based on the testimonies published in the papers, one could glean that John C. Bennett had been cut off and Chauncy Higbee had engaged in illicit sexual intercourse with four women. An examination of the High Council Minutes and the handwritten statements collected during the investigation expand the field of visible damage. 15
Ten men taught that illicit sex was permissible as long as no one found out. Of these, six not only taught about illicit sex, but engaged in the proposed illicit relations with one or more of the women who testified to having ‘yealded” to the men’s teachings. There is reason to suspect that all ten listed had participated in illicit sex, and that there were others who were simply not named in the testimony of the women who testified. It seems clear from the extant testimony that Dr. John C. Bennett was the ring-leader.
*Dr. John C. Bennett, Mayor and General of the Nauvoo Legion
*Chauncy Higbee, Bennett’s Aide-de-camp and son of Nauvoo’s judge
*Joel S. Miles
*George M. Thatcher
*Jacob B. Backenstos, non-member, another Bennett Aide-de-camp and sheriff of Hancock County
*Gustavus Hills, Nauvoo alderman
Darwin Chase, member of the Seventy since the flight from Missouri
William Smith, apostle, Joseph’s brother 16
Lyman O. Littlefield
The women who confessed to having engaged in illicit intercourse with these men were:
Catherine Fuller Warren (10-12 times with Bennett, 5-6 times with Higbee, 2 times with Joel S. Miles, 2 times with George M. Thatcher, and 1 time with Jacob B. Backenstos)
Sarah Miller (engaged in relations with Higbee multiple times, the first time possibly in the presence of Darwin Chase)
Margaret Nyman (engaged in relations with Higbee multiple times and possibly also with John C. Bennett, this occurred at the same time as Higbee was having sex with her sister, Matilda 17)
Matilda Nyman (engaged in relations with Higbee multiple times)
Mary Clift (became pregnant with Gustavius Hills’ child)
Other women mentioned as having been seen with members of the Bennett ring in a manner strongly suggestive of intercourse include:
Miss Lucy Munjar (also mentioned in the Relief Society minutes)
Ms. Brown (also denied admittance to Relief Society on this basis)
Rachel Kingsley (seen with Higbee and Littlefield)
Elenor Kingsley (seen with Higbee and Littlefield)
Esther Smith (Testified Gustavius Hills had taught her it was acceptable to have illicit intercourse)
Brian Hales said he is unaware of any evidence that Joseph’s plural wives were among those seduced by Bennett and his cronies. However as I analyze the evidence, I am not persuaded that the testimony before the High Council was complete:
- There was no attempt to identify the “one, who affirmed that such intercourse was tolerated by the heads of the Church,” as Matilda Nyman had indicated in her testimony.
- Catherine Fuller Warren indicated John C. Bennett was the first to seduce her, and had done so about a year earlier in July 1841 or before. Yet Sarah Miller, Mary Clift, Esther Smith and the Nymans had only been approached by the seducers that spring.
- Mary Heron isn’t mentioned in these findings, despite the indication that she was the first woman “frigged.”
- Sarah Pratt isn’t mentioned in these findings, despite Bennett confiding in Jacob Backenstos that “Sarah made a first rate go.”
- Catherine Fuller Warren testified that multiple men (Darwin Chase, William Smith, Lyman O. LIttlefield, and Justus Morse) to who she didn’t yield tried to get her to have sex with them. Are we to believe that these men never tried that line on anyone else?
- There was no attempt to get the men to yield up a complete list of the women they had corrupted.
- There is the curious matter of the women Bennett would later assert were part of Joseph’s “harem,” characterizing the entire membership of the Relief Society as a “seraglio” 18 presided over by Emma.
Bruce Nielson has reminded us of the concept of an “ice cube” from Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan. An “ice cube” a postulated explanation for extant historical events that constitute the metaphorical puddle of water from which we are forced to infer the truth. In my ice cube, Bennett seduced Sarah Pratt before coming up with a scheme for justifying illicit intercourse. After Bennett was discovered and attempted suicide, I think he began teaching the “doctrine” that illicit intercourse was permissible as long as no one became aware of the interactions. The first woman I think he seduced with these teachings was Mary Heron. From there I think he expanded the pool of men and women to whom taught his “doctrine.” I propose that he and his acolytes preferentially preyed on widows like Catherine Fuller and Sarah Miller and young women who did not have a living father, such as Clarissa Marvel, Margaret and Matilda Neyman. They could provide monies for food, and Bennett’s expertise in female medical matters could be used to prevent or remove pregnancy.
I propose that Bennett, having asserted his teachings came from Joseph, began to notice patterns that supported his claims. This could have been as simple as noting a pattern in certain rejections. Many would have simply declined to yield, the way Catherine Fuller didn’t have sex with every man who came at her with the story about illicit sex being fine. But those who had been taught about the New and Everlasting Covenant would reject Bennett’s heresy by stating they knew that wasn’t what Joseph taught. 19
From January 13th until May 20th, I propose that Bennett and William were engaged in a terrible game of chess with Joseph and Emma. Joseph and Emma were conducting a sting to ensure they identified the true source of the heresy while simultaneously warning as many innocents as possible to reject the arguments of the seducers.
I think Bennett, with the assistance of William Smith and Chauncy Higbee, was trying to gain access to a particular woman, one who knew he was still married, a woman ensconced in the bosom of the Smith family and well-versed in the teachings Joseph had been sharing with the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo.
It is unclear if Bennett was ever able to sleep with the woman he’d been targeting. But with the public withdrawal of fellowship from Bennett, Joseph and Emma were left with the responsibility to care for the wives of sorrow, the women who’d been involved with Bennett and his men.
Future Planned Posts:
Wives of Sorrow
Sangamo and Pratt
The Apostles and their Wives
Eliza and the Stairs
Healing Wounded Hearts
Revealing the Revelation
Those Virtuous and Pure
Daughter of Hope
The Prodigal Returns
Conferring the Mantle
Collecting the Sorrowful
For Eternity and Time
Fifty Years in the Wilderness
Days of Defiance
God’s Strange Act: A Legacy
- Minutes of the High Council of the Church of Jesus Christ of Nauvoo, Illinois, 1840-45, entry for January the 18th 1842. The originals are currently in LDS church archives. Copies are available at various Utah and Western libraries. ↩
- ibid. ↩
- Times and Seasons, Volume 3, No. 16 of 15 June 1842, available online at http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/NCMP1820-1846/id/9200, retrieved 20 March 2014. ↩
- Gary Bergera has written about the trial in his article, “‘Illicit Intercourse,’ Plural Marriage, and the Nauvoo Stake High Council, 1840-1844,” published in the John Whitmer Historical Journal. Unfortunately, I have not had a chance to read this article. ↩
- Women’s testimony available from many sources, including the May 29, 1844 issue of the Nauvoo Neighbor, and Richard and Pamela Price’s Restoration Bookstore website describing how they believe Joseph fought polygamy, available online at https://restorationbookstore.org/articles/nopoligamy/jsfp-vol1/chp12.htm, retrieved 19 March 2014. ↩
- Records for James J. Miller, LZG8-Z5X, available online at familysearch.org, retrieved 19 March 2014. ↩
- These two ladies were Mary Clift and Esther Smith. The man in their case was Gustavius Hills, one of the Nauvoo Aldermen. ↩
- I do not have an age for Matilda. In the family story recorded by Rachel Neyman’s descendants, the children in the family when the Neymans left Pennsylvania in 1830 are listed as Margaret Jane [b. 1813], Cyrus Livingston [b. 1815], Annis [b. 1818], Hiram [b. 1819], Matilda, Mary Ann [b. 1822] and Jonathan [b. 1825]. This would imply Matilda was born around 1820. ↩
- Women’s Women’s testimonies published in the Nauvoo Neighbor issue of May 29, 1844, available online at http://boap.org/LDS/Nauvoo-Neighbor/1844/5-29-1844.pdf, retrieved 18 March 2014 ↩
- It seems this “one” might have been either John C. Bennett or William Smith. However the deponent did not specify in her testimony, nor is there any record that she was asked who this one was, who had tipped the balance in Matilda’s mind regarding the likelihood that Joseph had taught illicit sex to be correct. We only know that “one” was male. ↩
- Women’s Women’s testimonies published in the Nauvoo Neighbor issue of May 29, 1844, available online at http://boap.org/LDS/Nauvoo-Neighbor/1844/5-29-1844.pdf, retrieved 18 March 2014 ↩
- 1840 census image, available online at https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-267-12895-144349-35?cc=1786457, retrieved 19 March 2014. ↩
- May 29, 1844 issue of the Nauvoo Neighbor, and Richard and Pamela Price’s Restoration Bookstore website describing how they believe Joseph fought polygamy, available online at https://restorationbookstore.org/articles/nopoligamy/jsfp-vol1/chp12.htm, retrieved 19 March 2014. ↩
- Others contributing to the Expositor were men like Austin Cowles and William Law, who had sat on the 1842 High Council that cut of Chauncy Higbee and John C. Bennett, men who had been exposed to the entirety of the sordid testimony associated with the activities of Bennett, Chauncy Higbee, and the other seducers. ↩
- Brian Hales was kind enough to send me a transcription of the Nauvoo High Council Minutes covering 1841-1845, as well as a scan of some 15 pages of the listed 25 pages of handwritten testimonies before the High Council. ↩
- Information about William Smith has been crossed out in the hand-written testimony, but is still adequately legible. A late account (Abraham H. Cannon Journal, 9 April 1890) indicates Brigham Young had been assigned to prefer charges against William Smith for adultery and other sins. After the trial had begun, Joseph entered the room. As the testimony concerning William proceeded, Joseph stood and cried, “Bro. Brigham, I will not listen to this abuse of my family a minute longer…” Cannon writes “A rupture between the two greatest men on earth seemed imminent.” But Brigham instantly said, “Bro. Joseph, I withdraw the charge.” I think until this last stage of the investigation and trial, it had not been clear to Joseph whether William or Bennett had been the originator of the illicit sex scheme. Once Joseph determined Bennett was the culprit, he determined to protect all others, particularly including his brother. ↩
- It is not clear if Margaret meant Higbee was having sex with Margaret’s sister during the same period of several weeks, or if Higbee was simultaneously engaging in sex with both of them in a menage a trois. The name of Margaret’s mother, Jane Neyman, also appears, but I was not able to decipher the words sufficiently to be certain whether she was implicated as one who had been seduced. ↩
- Seraglio is the term for the living quarters of a harem in the Ottoman Empire. ↩
- Some researchers suppose additional details might have leaked to Bennett via Nancy Rigdon, who Joseph interviewed. Nancy’s beau was Francis Higbee, Chauncy’s brother. Those not vested in the idea that Joseph was innocent of Bennett’s activities presume that Bennett learned about Joseph’s plural marriage activities from Joseph himself, however the gross difference between the seducer’s rationale and Joseph’s teachings makes this unlikely, in my opinion. ↩