Making it up versus the Scientific Method

Scientific Method

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:

Conjugal
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.

Examples of Eliza's handwriting taken from the Relief Society Meeting Book

Examples of handwriting taken from the Relief Society Meeting Book

& Elvira.

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.

your

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.

Notes:

  1. Alex Beam, American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church, April 22, 2014.
  2. 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.
  3. George D. Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy – But We Called it Celestial Marriage, 2007. p. 612.
  4. 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.
  5. Helman 9:2.
  6. 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…
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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the LDS church for over four decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation, and is working on a midrashic treatment of the events in Nauvoo associated with early polygamy.

24 thoughts on “Making it up versus the Scientific Method

  1. I love the Church History Library. I was able to do a search on Eliza Snow, and found the call number for the manuscript of her journal. Surprisingly, no one has requested it be digitized. So I’ve submitted the request. I’ll go ahead and pay the $20 I think they usually request for doing this. Then we can all go online and see the poem ourselves.

    The journal should be digitized by 5/23. When it has been digitized, everyone will be able to view it by clicking this link, which is searching for journals authored by Eliza Snow, 1840s, manuscripts.
    ___________________________________________________

    Your query, request, comment or information has been logged with our service and will be addressed by the next available staff member. It has been assigned the number CH28876. Please record this number for future reference.

    Question # CH28876

    Question Patron digitization:

    Item summary Eliza R. Snow journal, 1842-1882 / Snow, Eliza Roxcy 1804-1887 / MS 1439 / Manuscript / .

    Received date 4/25/2014 12:55 AM

    Target date 5/23/2014 09:00 AM

  2. It might be more than $20 – that’s just what I paid to have Jonathan Holmes’ manuscripts digitized. Eliza wrote more than Jonathan did. But I’m assuming the set up is a major portion of the digitization cost.

    The lovely thing is that I will never have touched the document, so there’s no concern that I may have modified it. I just hope no one in the Church History Library decides to interfere with the digitization, though I will take that as a data point were it to happen.

  3. I appreciate your efforts. If others can paint Joseph as unfaithful, you should be able to paint him as faithful. And somehow, I believe the faithful painting, even if imperfect in some details, will be more honest than the others. Thank you!

  4. I appreciate your presentation of a faithful Joseph. If there is this much nuance and sub plot going on with Joseph and Bennet et al, could there be the same kind of story related to Brigham? Have you thought about fleshing out the true narrative for Brigham Young and his wives?

  5. Many of Brigham’s wives were Joseph’s wives. I think by the time we get to Brigham we have the residue of what remained from the Joseph/Bennett situation.

    I’m not personally passionate about delving into Brigham’s situation, but that would be an option after I finish up with Joseph.

  6. But we do know that at some point the official Church (but as you point out maybe not Joseph) embraced polygamy wholeheartedly and most of the unions undertaken during this period eventually did produced children. If what you write is accurate the the transition between a “faithful Joseph” and pragmatic polygamy would be interesting to understand.

  7. As noted in Wives of Sorrow, the women married to the faithful in 1842 did not conceive children again until after Joseph’s death.

    There were a few marriages just prior to Joseph’s death (1843, 1844) that I seem to recall produced children, and I’m not opposed to the possibility that Joseph himself consummated some marriages starting in May 1843 (Emily Partridge, Malissa Lott) once Emma started “giving” him wives. Emma kicked Emily and Eliza Partridge out around August (not controversial as a fact), which I think was related to 1) the fact that they appeared not to understand how dangerous all this was to Joseph and 2) they hadn’t turned up pregnant from whatever intimacies they might have shared with Joseph in May.

    I do wish Brigham hadn’t had such a huge mess to clean up. How much more delightful might it have been if he’d only had 2-3 wives, instead of the mess load he actually had to deal with. Also so much more delightful if he hadn’t had the need to police every aspect of marriage in the Mormon Community, due to the possible latent corruption that lurked under the surface, such as the weirdness that emerged with Albert Carrington (perhaps he spent too much time perusing the histories during his tenure as Church Historian…).

  8. Meg,

    Excellent post.

    Back when I bumped into my own problems with history, a big turning point for me was the eventual realization that history was largely unknown and interpretive, and therefore one’s biases made a huge difference on how one read the data.

    The fact that there is currently a ‘scholarly consensus’ of sorts that JS was a sex maniac does create a sort of self perpetuating story all its own because if you are to learn of the history of polygamy you’re going to learn it through sources that have already made up their mind, which in turn makes up your mind.

    When it comes right down to it, it’s all just hypothesis. It grows strong when the data later found matches one of the hypotheses. This post really lays out how it will work.

    I think the person that challenged you on this front really needs a quick kick in the pants over the fact that this hypothesis — like all of them — is always going to be a work in progress. The fact that you tell us your hypothesis isn’t you speculating into some final analysis required for your story, its you coming up with a good way to test your theories.

  9. A few nits – the “**it” in the title is likely to be a turn-off for many people visiting this blog. Also, you should probably look up the definition of the word “factoid.” And “naive” is not a noun. The word you’re looking for is “naif.”

  10. I roll my eyes every time I see “scholarly consensus”.

    I think someone needs to do an in depth analysis of how “scholarly consensus” and “groupthink” actually harm intellectual progress. I’ve read accounts of how some folks in academia are bullied, pressured, and extorted into getting “in line” on some doctrinaire or historical shibboleth in order to get that thesis approved, that coveted teaching position secured, and of course the holy grail: tenure.

    The entire system is corrupt. And if it isn’t corrupt, it’s highly susceptible to corrupting influence peddling. You know, that awful nexus of research and “getting funding”.

  11. It’s similar to the Milford Method used by many writer’s workshops. The writer passes work out to fellow writers, and those writers read and critique the work. The originating author is not allowed to interject any justification and has to simply sit there and take it.

    This is very similar to what happens when work is actually published. The author doesn’t get to be with each reader, to intercept erring interpretations. Certainly with review sites like Amazon, the author isn’t able to intercept reviewers and reason with them on why their opinions are wrong. Actually, they can do that, but arguing with reviewers looks even worse than simply leaving a crappy review in place.

  12. Good catch on “factoid.” Yet another word that will be excommunicated from my vocabulary. So many words. So many I no longer use because of their provenance.

    Naif is the noun, but I’m a girl, so wouldn’t the corresponding word for me be naive? Looking it up, [1590–1600; < Middle French; masculine of naive]

    I'll go un-gutterize the title of this post. Luckily, the shortcut never incorporated the implied gutterization of the title.

  13. I’m not sure I agree that words need to be “excommunicated”. I think disfellowshipment is perfectly fine until the word achieves a more common currency. As a linguist, I am open to neologic shenanigans. Half of Shakespeare is pure verbal mania.

  14. Meg, might I suggest you also include examples of her writing “our” to this post, so we can look at how she formed the “o” both when the “y” precedes it and when it does not?

  15. I think ‘factoid’ can be useful if defined in end notes. Otherwise I find myself confused about what it means. Is a ‘factoid’ a disputed issue or a probable assumption? ‘History’ is itself a word that seems to have fexible meanings much of which depends on point of view of the historian or their milieu. If one proceeds from the perspective that Joseph Smith was morally a product of a combination of Yankee virtue and popular Victorian era values and personally of the same virtuous nature as Joseph of Genesis, then the story Meg is putting together based on both fact and guided supposition makes a lot of sense. He appears to have been reluctant to engage in polygamy, but pursued by God who knew that the sooner done the better. It really depends on whether you personally believe that God was the driver or an excuse. Was Joseph a true prophet or a charismatic scoundrel? I believe he was a stubborn Yankee who finally yielded to God’s will when Satan started up a perverse version of plurality with Bennett and his buddies as his tools.

  16. I realized that I wasn’t certain that the particular minutes from which I pulled these images were written by Eliza. I’m pretty sure it’s her handwriting, but it might have been pulled from the part John Taylor was writing during that first meeting.

    I’m pretty sure an example of Eliza’s handwriting is on page 58, with an “our” at the very bottom of the page. One problem seeking exemplars from the minutes will be the relatively infrequent use of second person speech, minimizing the number of times you’ll even see the word “your.”

  17. I replaced the word “factoids” with “data.”

    As for words being excommunicated, I don’t use sycophant anymore because of it’s Greek origins. My male colleagues have asked me not to use the word prophylactic to mean “preventative.” And there was the time one male colleague was using the term condom frequently, because he thought it was widely understood to merely mean a conformal dome. I asked him to look it up in the dictionary, he turned a bit red, and never used it in technical meetings after that.

  18. Meg:

    I have had to use handwriting experts for litigation in the past. You almost never have enough samples to conclusively say things are a match, but you often have enough to say that they are not a match. But what you are proposing is a little bit different.

    I can tell you that the way an expert would handle it would be to gather samples of matching text to determine as many differing ways things were done as possible. For example, the “o” in the second “your” you posted was open at the top in a manner matching the second “o” of “God” several times in the text (making me think what you posted was written by the same hand that wrote the Relief Society Minutes that you linked to).

    To my untrained eye, it appears that most word-origin “o”s are more round and full than subsequent “o”s (with the exception of some terminal “o”s which are likewise round and full). I think if the “o” in “your” is full and round, then you have a good probability that it is originally “our.” If, on the other hand, the “o” is narrow or unconnected (as were the your samples #1 [narrow] and #2 [unconnected] above), you have a good probability that it originally was “your.”

    Just my two cents and prediction, for whatever it is worth.

  19. The fun thing is once we have the digitized journal, we can all go to town. I suspect it will be plausible but inconclusive, myself. But it might be obvious, once we look at it. And the great thing is that there is no end of handwriting experts or those who think they know about handwriting.

    May 23rd. So far away.

  20. For those browsing to this at random, Eliza’s journal has been digitized and published on the Church History website. Though the poem wasn’t modified the particular way I expected, Eliza clearly modified the poem, likely to hide the original reading of the poem, which was written to someone who would be united with their deceased spouse in eternity.

    Eliza’s original word in the second stanza appears to have been “angels” rather than rays. For more on this, including images so you can try to determine what word Eliza scraped off the page, see my post on Manuscript of Eliza’s Journal.

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