[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.]
Orson Pratt has figured only lightly in the account until now. But the events following John C. Bennett’s departure from Nauvoo would throw Orson painfully into the spotlight.
After the Church publicly withdrew fellowship from Dr. Bennett, Bennett approached the editor of the Sangamo Journal, a Whig newspaper in Springfield, Sangamon County, Illinois, the State Capital. The editor of the Sangamo Journal, one Simeon Francis, had ruthlessly assailed Bennett in the press only weeks before. But Bennett convinced Francis that an expose against the Mormons would help the Whigs defeat the Democrats in the upcoming election.
The initial letter was a kitchen sink of accusations, containing allegations of treason, political tyranny, attempted murder, sexual misconduct, and about every other un-American deed Bennett could think of. But the stories Bennett knew best were stories related to sexual intrigue. These stories also appeared to capture the imagination of the public. The most damning of these was Bennett’s tale alleging Joseph had attempted to woo the wife of one of his own apostles, Orson Pratt.
Orson Pratt was one of the original members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in Joseph Smith’s Church, ordained to his position in 1835. Many in the original Quorum apostatized due to the turmoil of the financial collapse in Kirtland and Oliver Cowdery’s allegations regarding Joseph and Fanny Alger. One was killed in the mobbings in Missouri. Those who survived and remained faithful had been sent on missions abroad.
Orson had been in Europe as a missionary during the first months of John C. Bennett’s presence in Nauvoo. While John C. Bennett was putting in place the Nauvoo City Charter, Orson was in England, preaching and publishing in Liverpool, Edinburgh, and Manchester. While Orson Pratt was preaching without purse or scrip, Bennett was having Sarah Pratt wash his clothing, sew his shirts, and make his outer clothing. 1
It is likely during this period of time (May-July 1841) that Bennett formed the opinion that Sarah Pratt “made a first rate go.” 2
Orson returned from England in the summer of 1841, stopping in New York to publish a second edition of his Edinburgh tract History of the Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon on July 1, 1841. By July 19th, Orson is back in Nauvoo, meeting in council with other members of the Twelve Apostles. Orson returned to the arms and bed of his young wife, likely never suspecting she’d betrayed him during his absence.
Shortly before Orson returned to Nauvoo, Bennett was reprimanded strongly by Joseph Smith, apparently ending his liaison with Sarah Pratt. In 1890 Ebenezer Robinson, Nauvoo Justice of the Peace, would publish an account, relating:
In the spring of 1841 Dr. Bennett had a small neat house built for Orson Pratt’s family, and commenced boarding with them. Elder Pratt was absent on a mission to England.
Sometime after this, Presidents Hyrum Smith and William Law went on a mission to the eastern states. (William Law was one of the three first Presidents of the church.) When passing through Ohio, a gentleman told them Dr. Bennett had a wife and children living, but she left him because of his adulterous practices. They wrote a letter to Joseph Smith giving him this statement, which letter, Joseph says in his history, was shown to Dr. Bennett, when he confessed he had a wife and children living.
Soon after this Dr. Bennett made an attempt to commit suicide by taking poison. It required quite an effort on the part of the physicians to save his life, as he strenuously resisted their efforts to save him. 3
Hyrum Smith wrote from Pittsburgh on June 15, 1841 that Bennett had, indeed, abandoned his wife and conducted himself in a scandalous manner. This echoed the information George Miller had conveyed to Joseph Smith in March 1841, likely arriving in Joseph’s hands by early April 1841.
However Joseph’s rebuke of Bennett covered more than just anger at Bennett’s attempt to hide the fact of his marriage. A Smith relative who claimed to have overheard the interchange, recalled that Joseph gave Bennett “a tremendous flagellation for practicing iniquity under the base pretense of authority from the heads of the church.” 4 This “iniquity under… pretense of authority from the heads of the church” seems strikingly similar to the teachings about illicit intercourse Bennett would later weave for others.
Joseph Smith and Brigham Young would later testify 5 that Bennett and Francis Higbee had been found guilty of adultery around July 4, 1841, past history that had bearing on a matter before the municipal court in 1844. Dr. Bennett had been called in to treat Francis Higbee, [brother of Chauncy Higbee and boyfriend of Nancy Rigdon] and found him suffering from the ——-. This is likely a reference to the clap, slang for gonorrhea. 6 Somehow Bennett had become engaged in illicit activities as well. Both Bennett and Higbee eventually confessed before a group of 60-70 individuals. 7 Joseph maintained that he had said nothing against Francis since that time.
Joseph became aware of the interactions that had taken place between Bennett and Sarah Pratt because Sheriff Backenstos brought it to Joseph’s attention, accusing Bennett of “an illicit intercourse with Mrs. Orson Pratt…” There is no record of exactly what Joseph said to Sarah regarding her participation in the illicit intercourse.
Sometime that summer, Bennett allegedly attempted suicide.
We know from Catherine Fuller’s testimony that Bennett first seduces her no later than the beginning of July 1841. Catherine’s written testimony from May 1842 reads, in part:
Nearly a year ago I became acquainted with John C. Bennett after visiting twice and on the third time he proposed unlawful intercourse being about one week after first acquaintance. He said he wished his desires granted. I told him it was contrary to my feelings he answered there was others in higher standing than I was who would conduct in that way and there was no harm in it. He said there should be no sin upon me if there was any sin it should come upon himself. I told him I was not guilty of such conduct and thought it would bring a disgrace on the church if I should become pregnant. He said he would attend to that. I understood that he would give medicine to prevent it. Sometime last winter I became alarmed at my conduct and told him I did not wish his company any longer…
About the middle of July Thatcher was at my house – came twice – has not been since… He had unlawful intercourse with me twice…
John C. Bennett was the first man that seduced me – no man ever made the attempt before him. 8
So Bennett had approached Catherine Fuller no later than the beginning of July, perhaps just after Joseph received the damning letter from Hyrum, and possibly after his life had been saved against his will. 9
Orson, the Dutiful
Given Orson Pratt’s involvement in the activities of the Quorum of the Twleve Apostles, it seems likely that Orson was aware Church leaders had withdrawn Sarah’s food allotment prior to his arrival home. It also seems possible he was aware she had been accused of committing adultery with John C. Bennett 10 However the timing of events leaves a possibility that he was not informed of his wife’s infidelity. Sarah could have implied that she’d merely had a falling out with Joseph, to explain the situation without betraying her guilt. Joseph and the several dozen men who had heard the testimony of Bennett’s romp with Sarah declined to inform their honored brother he’d been cuckolded. Orson’s later actions convey complete shock, as though he was completely blindsided by the accusations Bennett, Sarah, and Joseph would make in July 1842.
Public documents allow us a window into the Orson Pratt’s life after returning to Nauvoo. Less than a month after Orson’s return, it was announced that “The department of English literature and mathematics, of the University of the City of Nauvoo, is in operation under the tuition of Professor Orson Pratt.” 11 Bennett was the one who had created the University charter and gotten it approved by the Illinois State legislature. Bennett had been a “getter up” of colleges several times previously, 12 and formation of the University of the City of Nauvoo show signs of his involvement, often promising more than was actual. For example, it was a full two weeks after the announcement that Orson Pratt was heading the department of English literature and mathematics that “Orson Pratt was elected professor of mathematics in the University of the City of Nauvoo, and the degree of master of arts conferred on him by the chancellor and board of regents.” 13
Orson was working hard on the University project during the fall of 1841, likely working closely with Dr. Bennett. When Joseph and Emma began investigating the troubling rumors regarding illicit intercourse, there is no indication Orson was either questioned or included in the investigation.
When Joseph Smith identified Dr. Bennett as a key participant in the illicit intercourse being conducted in Nauvoo in May 1842, Joseph drew up the notice withdrawing fellowship from Dr. Bennett. Over the next several days, Joseph had the leaders of the Church who were in town sign the notice. Everyone did so with the exception of Orson Pratt. Based on sealed testimony and journal entries, at least two of the men who did sign the notice had been engaged in illicit intercourse themselves. But Orson Pratt’s refusal to sign the notice withdrawing fellowship seems to have been inspired by Orson’s honest regard for Bennett, who had been his friend and labored with him on the University project.
When Joseph printed the Notice withdrawing fellowship from Bennett, there is no doubt Dr. Bennett noted that Orson’s signature was missing. The missing signature was a sign Orson was not hardened against Bennett, the way the other men had become.
Bennett Hones His Attack
Dr. Bennett’s initial letters, exposing Joseph Smith, spewed numerous accusations at Joseph and his people. But one item hit home. It was the allegation that Joseph had seduced not only hundreds of single married females, but more than the great Solomon. 14 Bennett specifically named Pamela Michael, Nancy Rigdon, Martha Brotherton, and Sarah Pratt, among others.
- Pamela (Pamelia) Mitchell [Michael] was about 28 years old and appears to have been a widow. In August 1842 Parmelia provided an affidavit denying Bennett’s charges and condemning his use of her name. Pamelia would pass away in 1844 of a bilious fever. Aside from Bennett’s accusation, Pamelia’s rebuttal, and her Nauvoo obituary, I can find nothing else about Pamelia Mitchell Michael.
- Nancy Rigdon was being courted by Francis Higbee around this time. A letter Joseph wrote to Nancy at this time, published by Bennett, makes it clear to me that Joseph was attempting to win Nancy’s soul back from a dark place. Nancy’s comportment, combined with her father, Sidney Rigdon’s, hesitation in sharing correspondence from Bennett later that summer, caused Joseph to fear that Sidney was implicated in the illicit sex ring. It doesn’t appear that Nancy Rigdon wanted the letter published. Her lack of support for Bennett’s disclosures reduced the utility of her tale for Bennett’s purposes.
- Martha Brotherton was a recent English convert who arrived in the Nauvoo area in November 1841, settling near Warsaw with the rest of her family. Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, and Parley P. Pratt were the missionaries that brought the gospel to Martha’s family. 15 Brigham Young would later indicate that they’d heard an evil report regarding Martha, which would have provided cause for Brigham to approach Martha in the January/February timeframe. Martha soon sent a tale back to friends in England where she reported that she’d been locked in a room for days, under duress, as Joseph Smith and Brigham Young attempted to force her into plural marriage. The tale had a chance to cause an uproar in England and be reported back to Nauvoo by April 1842. Several months later, when Martha recorded her statement to support Bennett’s campaign, she amended the time she claimed to have been locked up down to ten minutes. Intriguingly, Martha’s original statement has not been found. It’s possible Bennett edited her statement for heightened effect. Whether Martha Brotherton’s testimony as published in the Sangamo Journal was true to her original statement or edited, the piece was powerful, a tale of coercion told from the woman’s point of view. Even though Martha’s sisters and brother-in-law would testify she had lied, the damage was done.
- Bennett’s most explosive claim, however, was his charge that Joseph Smith had attempted to seduce Sarah Pratt, wife of his own, trusted apostle. Clearly Joseph would have talked with Sarah in conjunction with the adultery allegations of July 1841. Bennett would fail to mention his own dalliances with Sarah and allege that Smith had demanded Sarah become his lover during his pastoral visits. Supposedly when Sarah refused, Smith cut off Church support. It appears Bennett sent an advance copy of the text scheduled to run in the Sangamo Journal in mid-July. Based on the timing that followed, it appears Orson shared the text with Joseph, possibly demanding to know how Joseph could explain such behavior. Orson knew the fact about withdrawal of church support was true. How much else of Bennett’s tale was therefore also true?
Orson had the tale from Bennett and Sarah, alleging Joseph was the one who had attempted to seduce Sarah. Orson also had the tale from Joseph, supported by an horrific number of witnesses, alleging Bennett had been intimate with Sarah. He had to choose between believing himself cuckolded in fact, or believing the religion he had dedicated himself to had been created by man who had tried to seduce his wife. Brigham Young would write, “Br. Orson Pratt is in trouble in consequence of his wife [Sarah]. His feelings are so wrought up that he does not know whether his wife is wrong, or whether Joseph’s testimony and others are wrong, and do lie, and he [Orson] deceived for 12 years or not; he is all but crazy about the matter. You may ask what the matter is concerning Sister [Pratt]. It is enough, and Doct. J.C. Bennett, could tell all about himself and his *** enough of that. We will not let Br. Orson go away from us. He is too good a man to have a woman destroy him.” 16
Joseph called a meeting in the Grove on 14 July, the day before the Sangamo Journal article was scheduled to run. He didn’t name Sarah at the time, but laid out the story of Bennett’s seduction of an honorable woman. The next day the Journal article appeared. Joseph called another meeting and confirmed that the woman he’d spoken of, who had been seduced by Bennett, was in fact Sarah Pratt. 17
The day the article appeared, Orson went missing, though I’m not certain if he was discovered missing before or after Joseph’s address describing Sarah Pratt as an adultress. Joseph “caused the Temple hands and the principal men of the city to make search for him.” 18 Orson was found five miles south of Nauvoo, next to the Mississippi River. It seems reasonable that Orson could have been contemplating suicide as he walked alone down the riverbank. 19
Orson remained in Nauvoo. A week later he voted against Joseph, presumably in a venue where the officers of the church were being sustained. When Orson was questioned about his opposition, he admitted he had no personal knowledge of any immoral act on Joseph’s part. 20 From that time Orson did not oppose Joseph. But neither did he openly support Joseph. To do so was to proclaim that Orson believed his wife, Sarah, an adulteress.
By August Joseph Smith had gone into hiding. There was grave concern that deputies from Missouri would attempt to extradite Joseph. 21 In Joseph’s absence, Brigham and other members of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles attempted to get Orson to come out in open support of Joseph Smith. When Orson refused, the Apostles excommunicated Orson and Sarah on August 20, 1842. Cut off from the work that had been his life for the past decade, Orson wrote that he spent “Much of my leisure time in study, and made myself thoroughly acquainted with algebra, geometry, trigonometry, conic sections, differential and integral calculus, astronomy, and most of the physical sciences. These studies I pursued without the assistance of a teacher.” 22
With Joseph still in hiding in September, the leading men and women of the city drew up certificates, attesting that “Bennett’s “secret wife system” is a disclosure of his own make.” 23 Orson Pratt’s name is conspicuously missing. 24
Joseph, who had tried so hard to protect those who were guilty, watched from hiding as an innocent man was excommunicated for the crime of standing by his wife. Joseph was determined to save Orson, but he needed those who had excommunicated Orson to sustain their wounded brother with their whole hearts. Joseph would resort to extreme measures to reunite the apostles once again.
Future Planned Posts:
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
- Rick J. Fish, Orson Pratt in Nauvoo, 1839-1845, May 1993, available online at http://jared.pratt-family.org/orson_histories/orson_pratt_in_nauvoo2.html, retrieved 27 March 2014. ↩
- “Affdavit of J. B. Backenstos,” Affidavits and Certificates, Disproving the Statements and Affidavits Contained in John C. Bennett’s Letters. Nauvoo, Illinois, Aug. 31, 1842, “Personally appeared before me Ebenezer Robinson acting Justice of the Peace, in and for said county, J. B. Backenstos, who being duly sworn according to law, deposeth and saith, that some time during last winter, he [Backenstos] accused Doctor John C. Bennett, with having an illicit intercourse with Mrs. Orson Pratt, and some others, when said Bennett replied that she made a first rate go, and from personal observations I should have taken said Doctor Bennett and Mrs. Pratt as man and wife, had I not known to the contrary, and further this deponent saith not.” Available online at http://www.josephsmithspolygamy.com/JSImproperProposals/16ImproperProposalsAccusations/SarahPratt2.html, retrieved 27 March 2014. ↩
- The Return, Vol. 2. No. 11., Davis City, Iowa, November, 1890, p. 362, available online at http://www.sidneyrigdon.com/RigWrit/M&A/Return1.htm, retrieved 27 March 2014. ↩
- Lorenzo D. Wasson, son of Emma Smith’s sister, in a letter to Joseph and Emma dated July 30, 1842, printed in the August 15 edition of the Times and Seasons, quoted in Andrew F. Smith, The Saintly Scoundrel: The Life and Times of Dr. John Cook Bennett, p.79. Available online at http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/NCMP1820-1846/id/9200, retrieved 27 March 2014. ↩
- Times and Seasons, Vol. 5, No 8, of May 15, 1844, “Municipal Court” available online at http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/NCMP1820-1846/id/8375, retrieved 27 March 2014. ↩
- Clap, as a term referring to veneral disease, originated in 1580-1590 and seems to come from the Provencal term for a pile of stones. Perhaps this indicated that someone found to be infected with clap was promiscuous and deserved the biblical punishment of stoning. ↩
- These individuals were almost certainly Nauvoo Masons, as the confession occurred on the third floor of the Nauvoo Cultural Hall, which was the location of the Nauvoo Masonic Lodge. ↩
- Testimony of Catherine Fuller Warren before the High Council of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in the City of Nauvoo May 25th 1842 against John C. Bennett & others, copy of holograph in Valeen Tippitts Avery Collection USU, MSS 316, bx 24, fd 14. ↩
- A contemporary account of Bennett’s possible suicide was contained in the Wasp on 27 July 1842, dating the suicide attempt as occurring exactly one year earlier. Given the heightened rhetoric of the time, I suspect the date in the Wasp was not as exact as portrayed. ↩
- Richard S. Van Wagoner and Steven C. Walker, A Book of Mormons, Signature Books, 1982, p. 211, cited by Richard and Pamela Price, Vision Article 34, The Sarah Pratt Case, available online at https://restorationbookstore.org/articles/nopoligamy/jsfp-visionarticles/sarahprattcase.htm, retrieved on 27 March 2014. ↩
- Documentary History of the Church, vol. 4, 400. ↩
- Chapter 3 of Andrew Smith’s biography of Bennett, Saintly Scoundrel, is titled “The ‘Getter Up” of Colleges”, p. 26. ↩
- DHC, vol. 4, 414. ↩
- Sangamo Journal, 15 July 1842, quoted in Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, p. 101. ↩
- Martha’s sister, Elizabeth Brotherton, would become a plural wife of Parly P. Pratt in June 1843. ↩
- Journals of Orson Pratt, 561-2. Available online at http://jared.pratt-family.org/orson_histories/orson_pratt_in_nauvoo2.html#_edn52, retrieved 7 April 2014. ↩
- DHC, vol. 5, 60-61. ↩
- DHC, vol. 5, 60-61. ↩
- Times and Seasons, vol. 2, 363. Also David J. Whittaker, “Early Mormon Pamphleteering,” A Dissertation Presented to the Department of History, Brigham Young University, 1982, p. 101. ↩
- DHC, vol. 5, 60-61. ↩
- One of Bennett’s early assertions in the Sangamo Journal was the charge that Joseph had instigated the the nearly-fatal May 1842 shooting of Governor Boggs. ↩
- Whittaker, “Early Mormon Pamphleteering,” 101. Available online at http://jared.pratt-family.org/orson_histories/orson_pratt_in_nauvoo2.html#_edn56, retrieved 7 April 2014. ↩
- Times and Seasons, Vol. 3, No. 23. of 1 October 1842, pp. 939-940. Available online at http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/NCMP1820-1846/id/9200, retrieved on 28 March 2014. ↩
- Of interest, the name of Elvira Annie Cowles, Relief Society Treasurer, is not included on the certificate signed by other members of the Relief Society presidency. ↩