Bruce mentioned in his comments this week that my last post was speculative. Someone else objected to my use of “midrash” in this Faithful Joseph series, saying my “midrash” was pure fiction. They particularly noted my speculation about Eliza’s poem: “[Meg] hasn’t look[ed] at the original document but… proposes that the journal has been altered (based upon what evidence, save that it doesn’t help her theory as is?)…”
This caused me to rock back on my heals, chin-stroking, and wonder how I had violated the rules of scholarly etiquette practiced by those trying to figure out Joseph’s motives and activities regarding plural marriage. Why is Alex Beam’s remix portraying a dangerously manipulative Joseph 1 accepted while my methods are not? I was concerned in particular because if someone sufficiently orthodox to visit M* isn’t understanding my method, it’s a sure bet those not inclined to see Joseph as honorable will simply reject this reconstruction as the fevered imaginings of a deluded naive.
What you don’t know and I haven’t demonstrated, is the way I think, as a scientist. It’s similar to what we all do, but I suspect it is more rigorous in my case, and certainly rigorous in how I’ve treated the subject of Joseph and plural marriage.
Mary Leamon [Bell] and Marriage to Hezekiah Peck
Let me give you an example. Mary Leamon [Bell] is one of my ancestors who left Scotland and arrived in Nauvoo in 1843, during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. Mary’s husband, James Bell, died the following year. “One day in August 1844, while laboring in the hot hay fields, he drank too much cold water and died very suddenly.” 2
Mary’s daughter, Elizabeth, married Levi Sawyer in 1845, but died six weeks later.
On February 4, 1846, Mary Leamon [Bell] married Hezekiah Peck and was sealed to him for time, but she died six months later. Hezekiah Peck does not appear in any subsequent stories related to Mary Leamon’s children.
From these data I concocted a theory. Perhaps Mary had known Hezekiah in Scotland. They may have become better acquainted with each other during the ship crossing. But when I looked through the thick volumes of ship passengers, I couldn’t find a Hezekiah Peck. Finally one day I googled Hezekiah Peck, and found that he had joined the Church during the 1830s. He didn’t appear to have ever gone to Scotland, but had been a bishop in Nauvoo. I scrapped my original theory and put Mary Leamon’s second marriage on my “pending additional data” shelf.
Next I read Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness. I wasn’t looking for information about Mary Leamon. But during my reading, it became clear that women who were sealed to a deceased husband (e.g., Joseph Smith) were then married or “sealed for time” to the man who stood proxy. It appeared to be a policy enforced during the brief months the Nauvoo temple was operating in 1845-46.
I also came across the information that Brigham Young attempted to shut down the temple on February 3, 1846. He told the people that they needed to leave Nauvoo to escape the threats of mob violence. However those who had not yet completed their saving ordinances thronged the temple, and Brigham allowed the work to continue for another fortnight before insisting they abandon the temple work to seek safety.
As I rolled this additional information around in my head, I formed a new hypothesis. Perhaps Hezekiah Peck had served as the proxy when Mary Leamon was sealed to James Bell. Perhaps Mary had known she was dying and was one of those thronging the temple when Brigham tried to stop the ordinance work.
With this hypothesis, similar to the predictions I’ve always been asked to perform in my job as an engineer, I proceeded to the Family History Library in Salt Lake. They have a small room there where sensitive records are kept, which may only be entered by those who have a recommend or recommendation from the bishop presiding over the area where they live. These are records that contain information on living individuals and records related to polygamy, such as the Nauvoo ordinances performed in February 1846.
I found the record of Mary Leamon’s marriage to Hezekiah Peck. Just as I’d hypothesized, Mary had first been sealed to James Bell with Hezekiah Peck serving as James’ proxy. Then the officiator sealed Mary Leamon to Hezekiah Peck for time. To my surprise, I found another entry. Hezekiah Peck was also sealed to Mary’s daughter, Elizabeth Bell [Sawyer], with Mary serving as her daughter’s proxy. I was able to verify that these were the only sealings Hezekiah Peck participated in beyond his own sealing to his legal wife.
A new theory emerged, based on these additional data. And perhaps because I’ve known Scottish women, the theory bloomed into nearly a vision of what could have happened.
Mary Leamon, the Widow Bell, desires to secure the blessings of sealing for herself and her family. Further she learns that Levi Sawyer has not performed the sealing ordinance binding himself to Mary’s deceased daughter, Elizabeth.
Mary goes to Levi, begging him to allow her to stand as proxy for Elizabeth, and requesting that he stand as proxy for James. Levi, however, knows there is a policy requiring that widows be married for time to the man who stands as proxy. Faced with the prospect of becoming the husband of his mother-in-law, Levi refuses to participate in the ordinances.
Brigham announces that the temple will be closing. Mary, who may know she is nearing death, becomes frantic. Desperate, she goes to her bishop, Hezekiah Peck. With all the power God granted Scottish women, Mary begs Peck to stand as proxy so Mary can be sealed to James, and demands Peck allow Mary to similarly secure the sealing blessings for her deceased daughter, Elizabeth. Hezekiah Peck looks to his beloved, Elizabeth Read [Peck]. In the face of the widow’s distress, Elizabeth Read [Peck] allows her husband to agree to Mary Leamon’s demands.
If one was unaware of all the facts leading to my final hypothesis, one could presume I was simply making this story up. George Smith, for example, characterized the marriage of Hezekiah Peck and Mary Leamon as one of the hundreds of polygamous marriages the Saints entered into during the two months the Nauvoo temple was in operation. 3 But given my research, I was inclined to see Peck as a glorified home teacher, not a polygamous husband.
The Importance of the Predictive Hypothesis
Back when I was a junior engineer, I was involved in tests of Navy “things.” We were very dismissive of what we called “postdictions.” Postdictions were supposed model predictions that matched measured data, but were only published after the data had been collected and made available to the one performing the “prediction.” Postdictions were only slightly less despised than “measured” data that had been manipulated to fit expectations.
Therefore I am used to the practice of proclaiming my prediction before the data is in, when I can’t know what the data will reveal.
It was in this spirit that I suggested Eliza may have modified her poem after a possible miscarriage in November 1842. It is a hypothesis that can be independently verified as either being impossible, plausible, or verifiable.
Let me revisit the poem I hypothesize was modified. I have indicated the possible additions I believe Eliza Snow could have made:
To Jonathan & Elvira.
Like two streams, whose gentle forces
Mingling, in one current blend—
Like two waves, whose outward courses
To the ocean’s bosom tend—
Like two rays that kiss each other
In the presence of the sun—
Like two drops that run together
And forever are but one,
May your mutual vows be plighted—
May your hearts, no longer twain
And your spirits be united
In an everlasting chain. 4
The original handwritten journal is available. So we can examine the original and see if my hypothesis is disproved, plausible, or verified.
In the 1975 Ursenbach presentation of Eliza’s journal in BYU Studies, it would seem the writing “& Elvira.” appears next to a left-justified “To Jonathan” in the journal. If this is the way the ampersand and name appear, then my hypothesis remains plausible but unverified. The ink and handwriting of “& Elvira” might reveal a difference, however I seem to recall that Eliza Snow had a distinctive and regular handwriting style. The original poem was written only two months before I propose the possible modification, so it would be reasonable that there would be no detectable difference in the ink. Thus a left-justified “To Jonathan” followed by “& Elvira.” in the same handwriting and ink would potentially be consistent with my hypothesis, in a dissatisfying “can’t prove a negative” sense.
If the original poem has “To Jonathan” centered, then the placement of “& Elvira.” becomes more interesting.
If “& Elvira.” is placed to the right of a centered “To Jonathan” my hypothesis becomes, if not verified, then more distinctly plausible.
If a centered “To Jonathan” is followed on a subsequent line by “& Elvira.” my hypothesis, while potentially still plausible, becomes so unlikely as to risk being disproved.
Obviously if there were to be a noticeable difference in either Eliza’s handwriting between “To Jonathan” and “& Elvira.” or if there were to be a noticeable difference in the ink, then my hypothesis becomes plausible and possibly verified, depending on the nature of the difference.
Aside from “& Elvira.” the only clue that Eliza’s poem is written to Jonathan and another woman is the presence of the three instances of “your” in the final stanza.
Here kerning, or the aesthetic spacing between letters, can be used to determine if the “y” in the three instances of “your” were more likely original or possibly added at a later date. In addition, this poem was almost certainly written in cursive, so the nature of the connection between the “y” and the “our” in the three “your” instances could eliminate the possibility that my hypothesis is valid.
Once again, a distinct difference between the “y” and “our” in the three instances of “your” or a difference in the ink would suggest that my hypothesis is plausible or even verified.
your judge is murdered…
Behold, now we will know of a surety whether this man be a prophet and God hath commanded him to prophesy such marvelous things unto us. Behold, we do not believe that he hath; yea, we do not believe that he is a prophet; nevertheless, if this thing which he has said concerning the chief judge be true, that he be dead, then will we believe that the other words which he has spoken are true. 5
I have quite dismayed one reader, who feels that my inclusion of midrash and other bold and unorthodox methods of historical interpretation will allow those who don’t believe to dismiss me out of hand.
However I have inadvertantly put before you a hypothesis that I can’t know is correct, as I haven’t examined Eliza’s original journal. I have lain before you metrics for how we might judge if my hypothesis is verified, merely plausible, or disproved.
I’ve rolled the dice. But I think I’m safe to say the dice will come up totaling something between 4 and 10, with my hypothesis remaining unproved, but at least plausible.
I could come up snake-eyes, with all the evidentiary clues confirming beyond question that Eliza’s poem as it now appears in her journal shows not only no sign of modification, but is formed in a way that positively could not have been effected two months later.
There’s also the possibility that I come up double boxcars, with some irrefutable indication that Eliza did modify the poem.
So I challenge someone to go get an image of the original poem and allow us to analyze the formation of the “To Jonathan” and “& Elvira.” dedication, as well as the kerning and connectivity for the three instances of “your” in the last stanza. Differences in ink and handwriting would be nice to bring home boxcars, but are not something I’m expecting to see.
Why does this matter?
If Eliza modified the poem in the manner I suggested, she was originally writing a poem to Jonathan as a prospective bride. This, coupled with her November poems suggesting an intimate sexual relationship with the “wretch” or John C. Bennet, would align very well with my working hypothesis regarding a “Faithful” or at least honorable Joseph. 6 Beyond that, it would suggest that Elvira was for some reason important enough to shield in a marriage that was supposed to have “pretended” to cover Eliza’s pregnancy. This increases the likelihood that Elvira could have been Bennett’s beloved, rather than merely one of the many random women in Nauvoo who were aware of Dr. Bennett.
If Eliza wrote the poem to Jonathan and Elvira, it doesn’t strictly disprove my theory that Elvira remained a virgin until after Joseph’s death and re-burial, but it makes it harder to argue that the mere absence of offspring for Elvira necessarily means there was also an absence of sex. Why would a pregnant and unwed Eliza have written that lovely poem about her two friends if there was not some sign of mutual affection?
I am a scientist. I believe in data. Let’s go get some data.
- Alex Beam, American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church, April 22, 2014. ↩
- From a history written by Florence Alvey, “Mary Bell Heywood (1839-1915) “An Incredible Woman” in Kathryn H. Ipson, Ever Faithful: The Life of Joseph Leland Heywood, p. 174. ↩
- George D. Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy – But We Called it Celestial Marriage, 2007. p. 612. ↩
- Eliza R. Snow’s Nauvoo Journal, edited by Maureen Ursenbach, BYU Studies Vol 15:4 (1975), p. 399. Available online at https://byustudies.byu.edu/showtitle.aspx?title=5186, retrieved 16 April 2014. ↩
- Helman 9:2. ↩
- Faithful to me implies Joseph kept himself sexually faithful to Emma. Some challenge my characterization, pointing out that he could have engaged in sexual relations with some of his plural wives in a context that did not betray Emma. Either that or they are suggesting that it was OK if he slept around behind Emma’s back because he was God’s prophet… ↩