A Woman’s Testimony: The Road Hill House Murder

imageI have the privilege in participating in a book group. This month’s selection was The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective.

The story of the shocking murder is laid before the reader: a three-year-old boy, Saville Kent, turns up missing in June 1860. His body is found in the servants’ privy, having been murdered.

The local police force, largely composed of unpaid local volunteers, fails to determine who committed the crime after two weeks. Mr. Whicher, the most reknowned of Scotland Yard’s eight detectives, is sent to solve the disturbing case. John Whicher almost immediately comes to his conclusions: the murder was committed by individuals living in the Kent household in Road Hill, and the most likely suspects are the murdered boy’s half-siblings, teenagers Constance and William Kent. Mr. Whicher only has physical evidence to support accusations against Constance, and that is circumstantial.

The spectacle of a working class man sifting through the family’s soiled laundry to accuse a respectable middle class maiden of brutally killing her younger brother causes country-wide revulsion. Mr. Whicher’s career is destroyed, though he is able to find work as a private detective a few years later, when Constance Kent confesses to being solely responsible for the murder. Constance spends 20 years in jail.

William, freed from suspicion by his sister’s testimony, is able to inherit the thousand pounds his deceased mother had bequeathed to him upon his majority and goes on to enjoy a successful career in science. Once Constance is released, she changes her name and spends the rest of her life with or near her brother, William.

This one murder case has a profound impact on the zeitgeist of the age, manifested in the new genre of detective fiction. It popularized conlusions that had been arrived at decades earlier by those involved in the judicial system: human witness (confession or eyewitness evidence) was too subjective to be trusted. As early as 1825, Jeremy Bentham’s A Treatise on Judicial Evidence (1825) argued that testimony needed to be backed up by material proof.

Yet when it comes to matters relating to the emergence of the central doctrines regarding marriage in Mormonism, the vast majority are content to hang their interpretation on the testimony of human witnesses, ignoring the capacity of these witnesses to mislead, whether intentionally or not.

Why Constance Murdered Her Brother

The circumstances of the Road Hill House murder were created years before, when Samuel Kent contracted syphilis. During a time he was known to be suffering from an illness that at the time was unspecified, he continuned to impregnate his wife. All subsequent children died or were marked by physical symptoms unique to syphilis (Hutchinsonian teeth). The first Mrs. Kent was mentally and physically damaged in ways consistent with syphilis infection. During the final years the first Mrs. Kent spent on earth, Samuel was living in open adultery with the children’s governess. When Mrs. Kent died, the governess became the new Mrs. Kent. Ironically, the second Mrs. Kent would die prematurely of symptoms that suggest she, too, had been infected with syphilis.

Constance and William were ignored and abused once the new Mrs. Kent began to bear her own children. They first attempted to run away from home and become sailors (Constance had cut her hair to pass as a boy, discarding her feminine clothes in the servants’ privy). Then, as Constance would explain, she became obsessed with killing the woman who had caused such pain to Constance’s mother. But death seemed too quick a suffering, and so the murder of the male child (who had supplanted William Kent as the favored son) was decided upon as the proper punishment for the new Mrs. Kent and a father who had caused and allowed the suffering of the first Mrs. Kent.

Constance never openly implicated her brother, though she lived to be 100 years old. Yet the crime could not have been committed by a teenage girl working alone. The confession that sent Constance to death row[ref]Queen Victoria commuted the death penalty in the case of Constance Kent.[/ref] obviously failed to account for all the physical evidence. The widespread suspicion that Constance had taken the whole burden on herself to shield her brother can be inferred fom the plots of detective fiction of that era, where a woman confesses to save a loved man, often her brother.

Implications for 1840s Nauvoo

As already mentioned, human witnesses are notoriously prone to misrepresent truth. Evidence should be sought, where possible. Though it is impossible to obtain conclusive evidence for all children suspected of having been engendered by Joseph Smith, the evidence that can be obtained fails to support positive assertions that Joseph was the father.[ref]See Ugo Perego’s DNA analyses, contained in Volume I of The Persistence of Polygamy.[/ref] None of the children of self-described plural wives who give birth in 1842 survived past infancy, making it impossible to prove who engendered them.

The Scotland Yard detective force was not created until 1842 in London. Therefore those seeking to uncover illicit intercourse in Nauvoo,[ref]It is this widespread heresy of illicit intercourse that putatively caused the 1842 children and a need to provide support for so many widows and other vulnerable women.[/ref] led by Joseph Smith and Emma Hales [Smith], could not have benefitted from procedures that moderns take for granted. The shape of any investigation conducted in Nauvoo would not look like what we now think an investigation should look like. Similarly, the measures Joseph and Emma would have taken to cleanse the Church from the heresy would not resemble “traditional” investigation and judicial proceedings that had yet to be established.

By the late 1860s, the Road Hill House murder and the fictional works that arose in its shadow would have been known to the inhabitants of Utah, who by then had openly embraced polygamy. Specifically, the women who had covenanted with Joseph would know the power of silence and misdirection to hide an inconvenient truth.

As the women who had covenanted with Joseph met together often (usually on the anniversaries of his birth and death), there was plenty of opportunity for them to decide what Joseph’s legacy would be. For these women, a Joseph who had not fulfilled the commandment to consummate plural marriages would be a Joseph that inspired doubt regarding the Church’s current course, despite having laid in place all the teaching and doctrine to support the course of uniting the families of the Saints forever in one great Christian family. This possibility for doubt was personified in Joseph’s sons, who came to Utah in the late 1860s and early 1870s attempting to convert the Utah Mormons away from polygamy. The women who had covenanted with Joseph had decades to prepare for the time when Joseph F. Smith and Andrew Jensen would ask them for their affidavits regarding Nauvoo.

When Emma gave her dying testimony, asserting that she had been Joseph’s only [real] wife, Eliza Snow did not claim Emma had lied. Rather, she responded, “She knew better.”

Those who had covenanted with Joseph were distressed when Sarah Lawrence publicly affirmed that her relationship with Joseph had not included sex. Again, they never claimed she lied.[ref]To my knowledge. If anyone knows I err on this point, please let me know what statement causes you to believe Lawrence was lying.[/ref]

Time and again the women who had covenanted with Joseph used the fact of that covenant to persuade their own daughters to embrace the New and Everlasting Covenant. I know of these instances in my own family history, though I have not amassed a catalogue of these instances across all the families that arose from the women with whom Joseh covenanted.

Once we get to the 1880s, members of the LDS Church had becomed hardened in their defense of what they believed to be their constitutional right to freedom of religion. They were willing to die, if need be, to defend the principle of plural marriage as an aspect of the New and Everlasting Covenant. They were certainly willing to obscure truth and even lie as required to protect what they felt to be their liberties. Polygamists and their wives went underground. Men dressed as women. Pregnant women took on aliases. No one asked, and no one told.

The key testimonies used to affirm women had sexual relations with Joseph were given in 1893, to prove Joseph had been a practicing polygamist. The feared penalty for failing to uphold such a finding was loss of the Missouri Temple Lot to Joseph’s sons.

The Shape of the Data

Mr. Whicher was roundly derided for allowing circumstantial evidence to guide him in accusing a “refined” young lady.

I am derided for allowing the shape of events and documents in 1840s Nauvoo to guide me, given that honored Saints appear to have been touched by scandal based on journals written by themselves or their trusted colleagues.

If anyone wishes to dissuade me from my path, show me data that proves I am wrong. Do not merely state that you hope [insert name of honored Saint] never engaged in the activity suggested by contemporary writings. At the very least, persuade me that there is a current widespread need to avoid talking about the possibility that Joseph was faithful to Emma in defiance of God’s commandment.

I have as much family right to this story as any other researcher. For the sake of our children, let us come together to acknowledge the likely truths of Nauvoo, rather than maintaining our forebears on pedestals of perfected regard which implicitly damn our religion to ridicule and scorn.

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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for 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. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but that Emma was right to assert she had been Joseph's only true wife.

17 thoughts on “A Woman’s Testimony: The Road Hill House Murder

  1. By the way, if you don’t think the current view of Joseph Smith’s polygamy is causing problems, check out the comments to Ploni Almoni’s Satire on How to be a Successful Millennial Ex-Mormon. In my scan of these comments, it appears cognitive dissonance arising from portrayals of Joseph as a practicing polygamist are without question the predominent “evidence” the exmos cite as their rationale for “waking up and embracing truth.”

    Brian Hales and Richard Bushman are specifically cited as authors who introduced these exmos to their current view of Joseph’s activities.

    Alas, comments are apparently closed on the Pioni Almoni satire piece (either that, or I’m inept at figuring out how to comment).

  2. Meg,

    There you go again. And this time with a claim that if we don’t respond with a critique of your assertions we are endangering the youth and damning our religion. Nonsense!

    She who asserts must prove. The burden of providing evidence and argumentation that Sasquatch is an actual creature is on those who assert that such a creature exists. The burden is not on those chuckling at the scraps of evidence, faulty analysis and silly assertions that Bigfoot proponents provide.

    You have the right to tell stories on a blog. The rest of us have the right to determine if that story meets the “sniff test.” You do not have the right to to assert anything you want and shout “Prove me wrong!” and then make the claim that since no one has sacrificed the time to prove you wrong, it must have merit. For scholars and students of history to take your work seriously, it must be credible. And there is a process for establishing credibility which involves scholarly publication and peer review, which you steadfastly ignore. Why? If your theories are as important as you think, why don’t you engage the scholarly community as a scholar and stop engaging the world as a blogger?

  3. Hi Old Man,

    There is a reason I haven’t used the channel of peer review to introduce my theories:

    1) I have an autistic daughter who has been delusional and oppositional this past summer due to Graves’ Disease. This has involved such delights as physically dragging her from public venues as she attempts to find “her real self,” such as the young woman in the college choir who she tearfully identified as being what she would have been without autism.

    2) Despite how much I post here, I have a full-time job as sole breadwinner.

    3) I have other volunteer obligations that consume significant time.

    These obligations aside, I am working to assemble my writing and submit it for peer review. A minor challenge is that the work I am submitting is not a mere pamphlet, but an full paradigm that spans hundreds of persons and decades of time. I am also working on papers.

    I do think my theories are important, because I have gotten consistent feedback that my writings have helped people who were bothered by the topic of polygamy understand how it could have manifested in the dozens of covenants Joseph made with women in Nauvoo. Meanwhile, scholars like Bushman and Hales are cited as the source of cognitive dissonance by people who no longer affiliate with the Mormon Church except to attack it.

    Though I didn’t intend to achieve any Search Engine Optimization by consistently posting here on M*, I now find that when I am looking for a reference to some aspect of Nauvoo polygamy, I often find my posts in the top 5-10 listings on google. Since I have been including references to where I located original information, this has been quite useful. I presume that someone who is concerned about Joseph Smith and polygamy therefore also has a chance to tumble upon my posts. And since no one has yet given me any data to prove me fundamentally wrong, I think that is good.

    By the way, I don’t moderate comments to my posts, so anyone who wishes to slam me with facts is free, nay, encouraged to do so. This has been the case for almost two years. Surely if my paradigm is so inconsistent with the data, it should have been easy for someone to decisively point out the fundamental flaw in my reasoning.

    Instead, we see people, such as yourself, tell me I should just stop posting.

  4. Give Meg Stout a break!
    I am in academics and it is well known that a considerable amount of academic writing is initially not fully subject to peer review. Academics often posit theories and ideas that are not initially reviewed. All major theories and most minor ideas do eventually go through the peer-review process, but it is not initially so. Even after peer review has occurred, truth is not necessarily established. Wiki the Schön scandal to see a prominent example. Meg Stout certainly has the right to say “Prove me wrong!” Isn’t that what all academics do in their writing? They posit a theory based on facts as they see them, and then ask their peers to prove it wrong. This is the embodiment the scientific process.

  5. By the way, what are you asserting is my Sasquatch?

    The rash of illicit intercourse in Nauvo during 1841-1842 is well documented.

    The lack of children proven to have been engendered by Joseph Smith is also nicely documented.

    The recent biography of William Smith, despite persistently inserting “polygamy” in lieu of “spiritual wifery,” leaves no room to pretend William wasn’t completely inappropriate when it came to his understanding of the New and Everlasting Covenant.

    Eliza Snow’s journal has been digitized and should still be available for view, where you can read her September 1842 poem titled Conjugal and her November 1842 poem that talks about the vile wretch.

    William Clayton’s journal, though not available in its entirety, includes the entries I discuss.

    When Joseph Ellis Johnson talked about his mother-in-law being frigged by someone, adding “by Joseph,” he had in the room one Joseph Kelly, whose own account of the trial indicates he was the one who slept with Mary Heron. (These mentions are in Hale’s book in footnotes, though Brian fails to include Joseph Kelly as the possible “Joseph” mentioned by Joseph Ellis Johnson).

    The priesthood visits to Nauvoo homes that was turned into the 1842 census of Nauvoo was initiated by Hyrum’s concern about the households in Nauvoo needing to be taught righteousness.

    The Relief Society Minutes are replete with discussions of virtue, with extreme measures enacted to ensure only those purified from corruption could become members of the Society.

    The women who testified before the High Council affirmed that it was Joseph’s teachings regarding chastity that convinced them they’d been misled.

    The rumor that Eliza had been pregnant in Nauvoo is real, published during her lifetime, and promulgated beyond her death, even if many modern scholars choose to treat it as something that has been disproved.

    So what exactly is this Sasquatch of which you acuse me of promulgating?

  6. Meg,

    I am neither an historical scholar nor an academic (I did teach a short stint at a private secondary school however) but I have been following your various “Polygamy” posts almost since the first, and have to say that after looking at all the evidence (especially the footnotes) your overall thesis (as well as many minor ones) seems to make sense. At least as plausible as Hales and Bushman.

  7. Aotonbo,

    You say your work in academia, but you did not reveal which field of study. But imagine that there is a person outside your field who has never published a single work in your field. In fact, they had never completed an academic course in your field outside of an undergraduate general education class. They have never attended a symposia nor (as far as I know) have they ever even joined an professional association connected with your field.

    While speculating and writing a work of fiction connected with your field, this individual creates a “full paradigm” within your discipline which spans vast quantities of data, interpretations of that data, and overthrows established interpretations within your field from a multitude of experts. Experts roll their eyes, knowing full well no single expert, much less a layperson, can establish such a paradigm without legitimizing their research through standard procedures. Laypersons, such as myself, have great difficulty discerning where the fiction ends and non-fiction begins in the writings of this individual. She is asked to produce a coherent paper on just a single aspect of her visionary thesis and submit it for publication and peer review. She has not done that, citing family burdens, all the while spending an enormous amount time writing over 100,000 words on her theories on a blog. She derides those who refuse to take her seriously or who give more consideration to those academics who have actually done the work in their discipline.

    Experts have critiqued this individual’s work, and to put it lightly, they have found it flawed and needing serious revision to even be addressed within the scholarly community. This individual claims that she is in the process of complying.

    But this individual takes it a step further. She accuses those who do not take her theories seriously of endangering children and damning their religion.

    Now where exactly does Meg need a break?

  8. Meg,

    All you have to do to leave a comment on Ploni Almoni’s Satire on How to be a Successful Millennial Ex-Mormon post is hit the comment button. It is at the bottom of the page.

  9. Brian Hales is an anesthesiologist and Laura Hales a degree in international studies, and this makes them history and plural marriage experts how?

  10. Hi Old Man,

    I had been trying to use the reply links from an iPad.

    From the tenor of your comments,it seems you converse with the experts who you claim roll their eyes. That is wonderful.

    In my experience, there is great power in crowd-sourcing. We see this in the Church’s approach to indexing and family history. For that matter, this originated as family history for me, and it continues in that vein.

    In my work as an engineer and program manager, we solicit new technology to keep a competitive edge. After agreeing that a proposal is of interest, we encourage an initial study which demonstrates the feasibility of the proposal using “open” data sets. This is analogous to the data on polygamy a family history researcher might have access to when not geographically located near any of the various LDS/RLDS/COC repositories.

    Once the proposal appears to “work” using these “open” data sets, we invest in effort on the part of our subject matter experts (SMEs) , who then evaluate the proposed update in light of the full set of data.

    When it comes to Joseph Smith and polygamy, there aren’t many “closed” data sets. Most of the data is available for anyone engaging in historical research. The full Nauvoo diary of William Clayton is an exception.

    When it comes to invitations for me to submit papers to peer-reviewed journals, it is not entirely accurate that I have been asked to do so and refused. Rather, when I initially approached Interpreter about publishing something there, an initial review of my blog posts was provided. At that time I had only just posted my piece on Eliza and the Stairs. The response from Interpreter was along the lines that they would not a priori reject an article just because it was from me.

    In discussions with two other historians during the past year, they recommended I submit an article to one of the two major Mormon Historical journals. This isn’t exactly as you characterized it. Certainly I didn’t feel that there was some deadline that, if I missed it, would necessarily be used to claim I was an imposter fiction writer.

    By the way, my name is Meg Stout. what is yours?

  11. Old Man, a few questions:

    1) have you read Meg’s entire Faithful Joseph series yet? Your assertions keep indicating that you haven’t. (brian and Laura’s responses indicate that they haven’t either, because they ascribed things to Meg that were not in her posts. ie. Brian essentially responded to a strawman.)

    2) am I correct in summarizing your objections as follows:
    —- A) Meg says joseph likely didn’t have sex with anyone but Emma, but
    —— you say he did have sex with at least some of the women (apart
    —— from Emma) to whom he was married for _time and eternity_.

    —– B) Meg says Eliza _may_ have been pregnant by one of the Strikers, and then miscarried, but you say she definitely was not. (i don’t remember why that part was germaine to her thesis, but I’ll have to reread her original series of posts.)

    3) you and Meg both (along with the Hales, I presume) agree that JS did not have sex with any of the women with whom he covenanted for _eternity only_. Am I correct in this understanding?

    Is the above the entire essence of your disagreement with the _substance_ of the interpretations as Meg puts forth?

    brian’s response argued against positions that Meg does not hold. Laura’s summary was entirely “meta discussion” and listed no actual substance of disagreements either of fact or of interpretation.

    Your three comments in at least two threads also “attacks the messenger”, or I’ll call it more “meta discussion” to be nice, without stating WHAT supposed facts or interpretations you are disagreeing with. iN my book, any “attack the messenger” posts/comments tend to disqualify the speaker.

    In my opinion, Meg’s weaving together of polygamy, Joseph’s delay in implementing polygamy, the Striker mess/spiritual wifery, the Expositor, the conspiracy to kill Joseph, and the martyrdom is sheer genius! Of course they were all intertwined!

    Even when you unravel the “eternity only” versus “time and eternity” sealings/covenants, which I think everyone, including the more rational critics of the church agree upon, there is still more that needs to be explained. It’s more complicated than just knowing the distinction between “eternity only” versus “time and eternity”.

    Moreover, the vehemence of your and Laura’s denunciations (“non-credentialed!”, “not peer reviewed!”, “an apostle said stop talking about it!”) isn’t justified by the mere disagreement of “Maybe Joseph didn’t have sex with x, y & z” versus “Yeah, Joseph probably did have sex with x, y & z.”)

    is that it? is that and meg’s theory of Eliza Snow’s pregnancy/miscarriage the only source of all the chest-beating?

  12. Maybe I should’ve chosen the anonymous designation of ‘really old woman’ although I think anyone reading my posts would make that assumption . As I have stated before I have found the vehemence of objections to Meg’s hypothesis interesting. Why all the sturm and drang?
    As I understand her proposal it consists of the following (elaborated by my interpretation):
    1. In Doctrine and Covenants Section 132 Joseph received a revelation that several Old Testatment patriarchs and prophets were sanctioned by God to have several wives. Although in Jacob 2, in the Book of Mormom, the prophet condemns the taking of excess wives he also says Jacob 2:30 “For if I will, sayeth the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command it-” Apparently Joseph had been so commanded as early as 1831.
    2. Joseph was reluctant to follow this commandment requiring his involvement in polygyny either because of his own Yankee scruples or because his wife was not willing to participate and give her sanction. It seems likely that Emma’s objections were the primary consideration.
    3. For almost a decade Joseph made sporadic attempts to obey the law but without full investment, as indicated by the lack of DNA evidence of progeny . As is usually true with reluctant endeavors, delay only complicated the situation.
    4. In my opinion Satan took advantage of Joseph’s failure to proceed with definite and identifiable measures toward the institution of polygamy and the plague of ‘spiritual wifery’ began in Nauvoo spurred by indefinite rumors.
    4. I liken the organization of the Relief Society to First Nephi, Jacob, and the ‘small books’ preceding the Book of Mosiah. God knew that remedies for wrongdoing were required. In one case scriptures would be lost and replacement would be needed. As a result we have the beautiful scriptures such as the dream of the Tree of Life, Nephi’s soliloquy and the parable of the olive tree which may not have been part of the book of Lehi that was lost due to Lucy Harris’s plotting. Would Joseph have seen the need for the women’s Relief Rociety as an official organization within the church if he had not needed a remedy for the growing stain created by the ‘Strikers’? Yet the Relief Society is certainly far more than a mere remedy for what was happening in Nauvoo.
    5. Many individuals who later achieved great prestige and due honor for their contributions to the Church may have been initially misled by scoundrels.
    What right does Meg Stout have to write about Nauvoo? The people she writes about are her ancestors and their close friends. One ancestor shed blood in Carthage Jail, another was sealed to Joseph. Emma and Lucinda are family names because of deep friendships established in Nauvoo. Unfortunately Austin Cowles who joined with the Law brothers in becoming Joseph’s enemy over the issue of polygamy is another ancestor. Perhaps Meg should simply call it Family History.

  13. Hi Pat,

    I was actually reflecting on the fact that Eliza and Roxcy (Roxie) have been family names in every other generation since Eliza Roxcy Snow lived with Elvira Cowles and Jonathan Holmes during that important year of 1843.

    It is ironic that people would attack my interpretation of what happened to Eliza, since she was an intimate of my family during the particular timeframe in question.

    To Bookslinger, I call into question whether a woman who said “time and eternity” necessarily intended to imply “sex and covenant.” I suggest that this is an interpretation imposed on such stated after the women had died, without any positive indication that the women would agree with our ex post facto inferences.

    I dislike ignoring reports regarding Nauvoo. I sometimes choose to call a report into question if I have compelling reason, such as Emily Partridges Temple Lot testimony versus the August entry in the Clayton journal and Joseph’s willingness to distance himself from the Partridge girls. With Eliza, I am exploring an alternative to the standard narrative that can explain:

    1) George Albert Smith’s report of Joseph washing his hands after helping Emma deliver a child born to one of Joseph’s plural wives,

    2) the widespread stories that Eliza had been pregnant in Nauvoo and then lost the baby,

    3) Eliza’s Sep 1842 original poem that appears to celebrate the post-mortal Union of a man and his deceased wife, which was then modified to hide this interpretation,

    4) Eliza’s Nov 1842 poems that indicate someone, possibly Eliza, had lain side by side and face to face with a vile wretch who had fed upon the blood of innocence.

    Pat, you capture my thesis pretty well.

    In retrospect, I wish I had been able to be at the 50th anniversary meeting of the Mormon History Association. Alas, the past cannot be altered.

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