[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.]
Prior to the fall of 1841, an angel reportedly appeared to Joseph twice, commanding him to establish the principle of celestial marriage. But in the fall of 1841, the angel would return with sword in hand. Joseph had to establish the principle, or his position and very life were forfeit.
Something had changed. God could no longer permit Joseph to take his own sweet time establishing celestial marriage among members of the Church. In the final days of 1841 Joseph enlisted the aid of Dimick Huntington. Like Joseph Bates Noble, Dimick would remain true to Joseph beyond death. 1
The four women Joseph would marry in response to the angel’s threat were women who were married to other men. 2 I believe Joseph did this because he had already contracted one marriage that did not involve sex. Perhaps he was already aware of how unhappy lack of intimacy had made Louisa Beaman. It would be unreasonable to expect other single women to be satisfied with a marriage that didn’t involve physical intimacy. But these married women would be relieved if the celestial marriage were purely ceremonial.
Zina Huntington [Jacobs]
Joseph Smith had proposed to Zina Huntington in the fall of 1840, when she was still single. Zina anguished over what she should do. Ultimately, Zina Huntington refused Joseph Smith’s proposal and wed Henry Jacobs in March 1841. Dr. John C. Bennett performed the ceremony.
Some months later, Joseph sent word to Zina via her brother, Dimick. 3 Joseph’s message was simple:
Tell Zina, I put it off and put it off till an angel with a drawn sword stood by me and told me if I did not establish that principle upon the earth I would lose my position and my life.
Zina was pregnant with Jacob’s child. The sealing took place on October 27, 1841, 4 after Zina received her own witness that the principle of celestial marriage was correct. Despite this testimony, she expected that by becoming Joseph’s celestial wife she would never again be looked upon as an honorable woman by those she dearly loved. One presumes she spoke of her husband, Henry Jacobs, and those of her siblings who knew about celestial marriage: Prescendia, Dimick, William, and Oliver. 5
Presendia Huntington [Buell]
Dimick, having secured Zina for Joseph, proceeded to offer Joseph his other living sister, Presendia Huntington [Buell] (b. 1810). Presendia had married Norman Buell in the 1820s, bearing him their first child in 1828. By the fall of 1841, four of Presendia’s six children had died in infancy. The promise that celestial marriage could bind children to parents would have had a strong appeal to Presendia.
The reward Dimick desired for giving Joseph his two sisters was “that where you and your fathers family are, there I and my fathers family may also be.” 6
The five Huntington siblings would remain faithful to Joseph. Prescendia and Zina would travel to Utah and become leaders amongst the Mormon woman. 7 Dimick and William would assist in the secret burial of Joseph’s remains in the summer of 1844, and would be part of the even smaller group entrusted to relocate Joseph’s remains during the succession crisis. Oliver, the youngest, would inherit and cherish a cane containing Joseph’s death locks. 8
Agnes Coolbrith [Smith]
Agnes Coolbrith was the widow of Joseph’s brother, Don Carlos Smith. Don Carlos had died in September, 1841.
Don Carlos and Agnes had three daughters, the youngest, Josephine Anna, 9 was born only a few months before Don Carlos’ untimely death.
Agnes did not record whether the tale of the angel and the sword played a role in either Joseph’s decision to ask her to become his celestial wife, or her decision to agree. But it does seem that the marriage between Agnes and Joseph was purely based on a desire to fulfill the commandment from the angel rather than as a reaction to the activities of Bennett and his followers. On January 6th, the day of the sealing ceremony between Joseph and Agnes, Joseph wrote:
“Truly this is a day long to be remembered by the saints of the Last Days; a day in which the God of heaven has began to restore the ancient order of his Kingdom…all things are concurring together to bring about the completion of the fullness of the gospel.” 10
Notably, this was the first celestial marriage performed by someone in the Mormon ecclesiastical hierarchy. Joseph Smith had been selectively teaching the apostles about the principle of plural marriage as they returned home. 11 All who documented their reaction were horrified at the thought. 12 None would take on a plural wife in 1841. But Brigham’s participation in the ceremony between Joseph and Agnes at the least signaled Brigham’s willingness to accept celestial marriage as legitimate.
While we are discussing Agnes, let me note Agnes was assisted by a hired girl, Clarissa Marvel, who had also worked in the Winchester household. Clarissa’s observations about Joseph’s attentions to his brother’s wife would later prove controversial.
Mary Elizabeth Rollins [Lightner]
Joseph had been impressed with Mary Rollins from the time she was a pre-teen, in 1831. While in Zion folks were speaking in tongues, but without interpretation. Mary provided the interpretation–mobs would drive the Saints from Jackson County. The leaders were upset, and wrote Joseph, asking that she be reprimanded. Instead, Joseph backed her up. 13
A few years later Mary was on hand when the mobs did attack. Their target was the printing press. Mary and her sister, Caroline, saw the mob throw the folios out the window as they set the press ablaze. Mary ran to the precious sheets, containing the initial pages of the Book of Commandments. The mob saw the girls and gave chase. Mary and Caroline dove into the cornfields, clutching the pages to their bodies. Somehow the mob failed to locate the girls. 14 I seem to remember that when copies of the Book of Commandments from the rescued pages were bound, Joseph presented one to Mary for her bravery.
That would have been 1833-1834. This was the year Joseph would say he was strongly prompted to ask Mary to be his plural wife, the first year he indicates the angel appeared and commanded him to act. But Joseph would fail to act at that time. 15
In the fall of 1841, when Joseph finally set about collecting those women he’d felt prompted to marry in years past, Mary Rollins Lightner was one of those he spoke with. She would refuse him until February 1842, when she agreed to allow Brigham Young to perform the ceremony linking her to Joseph Smith.
In 1905 Mary Elizabeth Lightner stood before a group at Brigham Young University and spoke of her interactions with Joseph Smith.
“An angel came to him [Joseph Smith] and the last time he came with a drawn sword in his hand and told Joseph if he did not go into that principle, he would slay him. Joseph said he talked to him soberly about it, and told him it was an abomination and quoted scripture to him. He said in the Book of Mormon it was an abomination in the eyes of the Lord, and they were to adhere to these things except the Lord speak… [The Prophet reported that] the angel came to me three times between the years of 1834 and 1842 and said I was to obey that principle or he would slay me.” 18
But there was more.
In the summer of 1905 Mary wrote to Emmeline Wells, saying:
“I could tell [Joseph F. Smith] a great many Some things about his Father that Joseph said he does not know about the early days of the Church…” 19
Elsewhere Mary would also write:
“I could tell you why I stayed with Mr. Lightner. Things the [current] leaders of the Church does not know anything about. I did just as Joseph told me to do…” 20
By February 1842, as Mary Elizabeth Lightner was finally persuaded to enter into the New and Everlasting Covenant with Joseph, it appears Joseph may have learned that terrible liberties were being taken with women in Nauvoo.
The Seduction of Mary Heron
Sometime in January or February Joseph would learn of the evil Bennett and his followers were perpetrating. But as the initial hints of devastation came rolling in, Joseph only knew that the abusers were highly placed. Everyone was under suspicion.
As the investigation unfolded, Joseph came to suspect one woman of being the first to be seduced by the unknown band of evil-doers.
Her name was Mary Heron [Snider], born 1804, the wife of John Snider since 1822. Mary had three children between 1824 and 1828. Mary’s last child was born when she was less that thirty years old. 21 In 1840-41, the Sniders lived in Nauvoo. 22
I believe Mary came to the attention of Dr. Bennett because she was still in her thirties, yet had not produced children for more than a decade. He had to have a first victim. He also had to train his acolytes how to seduce women without causing pregnancy. The barren Mary Heron would not conceive if the man assigned to seduce her failed to follow Bennett’s instructions on having sex without risk of procreation. This kind of sex may have included the sometimes synonymous practices of onanism , petting , vulvar massage , frottage , and frigging .
Mary Heron was also a desirable first victim because of her connections to important Mormon families. Her daughter was the wife of Joseph Ellis Johnson – a son of the large Johnson family with whom Joseph Smith had lived near Kirtland, Ohio. If Mary could be persuaded and seduced, it might be possible to use Mary to gain access to other women of importance in the Mormon community.
I believe Bennett and his ring succeeded in gaining access to members of the Johnson family, including Delcena, Marinda, and Almera.
The story is only known because of Joseph Ellis Johnson. Long after Joseph Smith was dead, when the Saints had fled Illinois, Joseph Ellis fell in love with a Miss Goddard. Unfortunately the young lady in question was already married to Lorenzo Snow. In an echo of Bennett’s affair with Sarah Pratt, Joseph Ellis took her to himself, even though she was the wife of an apostle missionary. 23
Unlike Bennett, Joseph Ellis came forward. He wanted to set things straight, so he could marry Miss Goddard legally, and so he could have their children sealed to the two of them in eternity.
The church court was staffed by most of the apostles of the day. Joseph Ellis’ audacity was a horrific echo of 1842 Nauvoo, when Bennett and his ilk were teaching women and men that illicit sex was no sin, so long as it was kept secret. The transcript of the matter reads as follows:
“O. Hyde [speaking] there is a matter of bro: Johnson to be laid before the Council—this matter was brot. before Council in Kanesville his Priesthood was required to be laid down until he came here – a Miss Goddard wife of Lorenzo Snow became in a family way by Bro Johnson – she was living in his house – we deemed it improper for her to be there he sent her away to a retired place – she was delivered of a child – she is again living at his house in Kanesville – he wishes to retain his fellowship in the Church. He says he has bro: Snow & he was satisfied.
“Joseph E. Johnson [speaking] – I am come purposely if possible to get the matter settled & atone for the wrong I av done – I av neglected to lay it before you before this – bro Hydes statements r all correct – true – all I can do is beg for mercy – I became acquainted with the girl, & the consequences r as the r – I saw bro. Snow at Kanesville & he was satisfied – I am come here to atone for the wrong I av done. 24
In response to the church court’s concern about Joseph Ellis’ motives, and the possibility that the seduction of Miss Goddard was the beginning of another wave of sexual misconduct, Joseph Ellis replied:
“I never heard any conversation to say it was right to go to bed to a woman if not found out – I was aware the thing was wrong. – had been with – he sd. He was [made] familiar with the first frigging [slang for external sexual relations] – that was done in his house with his mother in law — by Joseph.” 25
The transcript is not verbatim. The number of missing words allows multiple interpretations.
I believe Joseph Ellis was trying to explain the abhorrence he personally felt, explaining that he rejected the notion that it was OK to bed a woman out of wedlock as long as it was not found out, that part of his rejection of this behavior is because his own mother-in-law had been a victim. I propose the transcript could read “I was made familiar by Joseph Smith with the story of the first frigging. The bastards frigged my mother-in-law, Mary Heron Snider, around the time I was married to her daughter, in the same house where we stayed there in Nauvoo before moving back down to Ramus.”
But when Michael Quinn came across this record in 2009, he read it differently. Here, he believed, was proof of yet another of Joseph Smith’s sexual conquests. Never mind that it makes no sense for Joseph Ellis to tell the apostles, “By the way, I know we’re in the middle of my church hearing for adultery and I’ve just told you seducing people secretly is abhorrent to me. But did I tell you I am familiar with the fact that Joseph Smith secretly externally shagged my mother-in-law, Mary Heron, in my house in Nauvoo. She was the first, you know. Random factoid I thought you’d like to know.”
Personally, I don’t think Michael Quinn’s interpretation makes sense. But I am grateful for his constant vigilance. The tale of Mary Heron allows us to pinpoint when Joseph Smith could have learned of the abuse Bennett and his followers were systematically inflicting on women in Nauvoo, the beginning of the desperate hunt for the seducers in Joseph’s City Beautiful.
Future Planned Posts:
Hunt in the City Beautiful
Arraigning the Band of Brothers
Wives of Sorrow
Sangamo and Pratt
The Apostles and their Wives
Eliza and the Stairs
Healing Wounded Hearts
Revealing the Revelation
Those Virtuous and Pure
Daughter of Hope
The Prodigal Returns
Conferring the Mantle
Collecting the Sorrowful
For Eternity and Time
Fifty Years in the Wilderness
Days of Defiance
God’s Strange Act: A Legacy
- Dimick and his brother, William, were among the four men Emma would entrust with the secret reburial of Joseph’s remains in February, 1845. The other two trusted men were Jonathan Harriman Holmes and Gilbert Goldsmith, son of Elizabeth Durfee. ↩
- In one case, Agnes Coolbrith Smith, the husband had died. ↩
- In some accounts the identity of the brother who relayed the message is unclear, but at least one account indicates the brother who reported to Zina was Dimick (b. 1808) rather than William (b. 1818), or Oliver (b. 1823). ↩
- Dimick would perform the sealing between Joseph and Zina. ↩
- Dimick and William would remain close to Joseph and Emma, and would be two of the four men Emma trusted to relocate Joseph’s body in February 1845. ↩
- Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, p. 123. ↩
- Zina would become president of the Relief Society until her death in 1901. Zina was the third president of the Relief Society. She was also the third and last of Joseph’s wives to head that organization. ↩
- The Coffin Canes, available online at http://www.josephsmithjr.org/index.php/history/joseph-smith-jr/201-the-coffin-canes, retrieved 10 March 2014. ↩
- Josephine would grow up to be known as Ina Coolbrith, the first poet laureate of any American state. ↩
- Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, p. 154. ↩
- It does not appear that Joseph taught Orson Pratt the principle of plural marriage until around the time that Bennett was exposed. ↩
- Brigham famously reported seeing a funeral procession shortly after learning of plural marriage, and wishing that he could take the place of the dead man. ↩
- Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, pp. 208-209. ↩
- Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, p. 209. ↩
- Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, p. 210. ↩
- ibid. ↩
- Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, p. 211. ↩
- 1905 BYU Testimony of Mary Elizabeth Lightner, available online at http://user.xmission.com/~plporter/lds/merlbyu.htm, retrieved 10 March 2014. ↩
- Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, p. 226. ↩
- Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, p. 213 ↩
- Brian Hales, Alleged Sexual Impropriety between Joseph Smith and Mary Heron, available online at http://www.josephsmithspolygamy.com/NonWivesSexualRelations/24Accusations/MaryHeronSniderACC.html, retrieved 10 March 2014. ↩
- In October 1840 Joseph Ellis had married Harriet Ellen Snider in a ceremony in Nauvoo, officiated by Joseph Smith. A few months later John Snider was named a member of the Nauvoo House committee on January 19, 1841, see D&C 124:22. ↩
- It does not appear Lorenzo consummated the marriage with Miss Goddard before leaving on his mission. Before she began sleeping with Joseph Ellis, Miss Goddard apparently decided she didn’t want to be Lorenzo’s wife. It is unclear if she attempted to have her sealing to Lorenzo annulled before she took up with Joseph Ellis. ↩
- Misc Minutes, Brigham Young Collection, d 1234, CHL, Sept. 2, 1850, restricted; excerpts transcribed by D. Michael Quinn, bx 3 fd 2, Quinn Collection, Yale Library. This document is available on Richard E. Turley, Jr. Selected Collections from the Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Provo, Utah: BYU Press, vol. 1, DVD #18 , but that entry is blacked out, restricted because it deals with Church disciplinary proceedings. ↩
- ibid. ↩