Arraigning the Band of Brothers

[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.]

Chauncy L. Higbee
Aide-de-camp to
General John C. Bennett

If Joseph uncovered Bennett’s evil doing by January 13, 1842, we would expect to see evidence to that effect. Last week I proposed the 1842 census of Nauvoo and the formation of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo were two such evidences, but both of these lag mid-January by several weeks.

However it is only five days after January 13th that we see William Marks, Nauvoo Stake President, suggesting the bishops should have “the Priests visit from house to house…”[ref]Minutes of the High Council of the Church of Jesus Christ of Nauvoo, Illinois, 1840-45, entry for January the 18th 1842. The originals are currently in LDS church archives. Copies are available at various Utah and Western libraries.[/ref]

A member of the High Council wondered what response should be given if the bishops were to refuse this request. Apparently Saints in Nauvoo were as overwhelmed as any of us in modern times.

Hyrum Smith replied that the High Council had authority to deal with them for such a refusal, “that the Council should call on the Presidents of the Lesser Priest-hood to attend the Council & receive instruction… That it was necessary for them to go from house to house, to his house, and to every house and see that every family done their duty…”[ref]ibid.[/ref]

Apparently Joseph had nearly immediately set Hyrum Smith and William Marks on a path that might help find the wrong-doers. But Joseph had to walk a fine line. Neither Hyrum Smith nor William Marks had been read in regarding the New and Everlasting Covenant, nor had the vast majority of the members of the “Lesser Priest-hood” who would be conducting the house to house visits.

A contemporary living in Nauvoo at the time would have only experienced the census, perhaps noted the formation of the Female Relief Society, then seen this simple notice in the Times and Seasons issue of June 15, 1842:


The Subscribers, members of the First Presidency of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, withdraw the hand of fellowship from General John C. Bennett, as a christian, he having been labored with from time to time, to persuade him to amend his conduct, apparently to no good effect.


The following members of the Quorum of the Twelve concur in the above sentiments.


We concur in the above sentiment.


Bishops of the above mentioned Church.[ref]Times and Seasons, Volume 3, No. 16 of 15 June 1842, available online at, retrieved 20 March 2014.[/ref]

The recorded testimony that damned John C. Bennett implicated several women and many more men. Joseph would rail against Bennett in the months following June 1842, but Joseph would withhold evidence presented to the High Council for two years, possibly in hopes of reclaiming those who had fallen. Towards the end of May, 1844, Joseph would finally tell the public some portion of the evil that had possessed the City of Nauvoo under Bennett’s corrupted leadership.[ref]Gary Bergera has written about the trial in his article, “‘Illicit Intercourse,’ Plural Marriage, and the Nauvoo Stake High Council, 1840-1844,” published in the John Whitmer Historical Journal. Unfortunately, I have not had a chance to read this article.[/ref]

It would be too late.

Joseph Smith would be dead at the hands of a mob less than a month after publishing the damning testimony against Bennett and his chief acolyte, Chauncy Higbee.

Preaching to the Choir

The 1842 break in the public case occurred because of Joseph’s teachings against spiritual wifery. Joseph had addressed the Nauvoo Choir of Singers, speaking against sexual immorality, apparently using the kind of language we see Emma Smith using in her remarks to the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo. One member of the choir was Sarah Miller. On May 24, 1842, Sarah gave testimony that:

Some two or three weeks since, in consequence of brother Joseph Smith’s teachings to the singers, I began to be alarmed concerning myself, and certain teachings which I had received from Chauncey L. Higbee…

When he first came to my house soon after the special conference this spring, Chauncey commenced joking me about my getting married, and wanted to know how long it had been since my husband died, and soon removed his seat near me; and began his seducing insinuations by saying it was no harm to have sexual intercourse with women if they would keep it to themselves, and continued to urge me to yield to his desires, and urged me vehemently…

[Chauncy] continued to press his instructions and arguments until after dark, and until I was inclined to believe, for he called God to witness of the truth, and was so solemn and confident, I yielded to his temptations…

Chauncey Higbee, said it would never be known, I told him it might be told in bringing forth [a child]. Chauncey said there was no danger, and that Dr. Bennet understood it, and would come and take it away, if there was any thing.[ref]Women’s testimony available from many sources, including the May 29, 1844 issue of the Nauvoo Neighbor, and Richard and Pamela Price’s Restoration Bookstore website describing how they believe Joseph fought polygamy, available online at, retrieved 19 March 2014.[/ref]

Sarah Miller was likely Sarah Searcy, born in 1815. Her husband had died one year earlier in Nauvoo.[ref]Records for James J. Miller, LZG8-Z5X, available online at, retrieved 19 March 2014.[/ref] A few months later two other ladies from the choir would come forward and indicate they had similarly been taught there was no harm to have sexual intercourse with women if they would keep it to themselves.[ref]These two ladies were Mary Clift and Esther Smith. The man in their case was Gustavius Hills, one of the Nauvoo Aldermen.[/ref]

The Widow’s Daughters

The widow Jane Neyman had been the first person to have herself baptized on behalf of a departed loved one. In March of 1842, Chauncy Higbee stopped by Widow Neyman’s home, proposing to walk Jane’s daughters to the spelling school. The daughters in question were Margaret, almost 30, and her sister, Matilda.[ref]I do not have an age for Matilda. In the family story recorded by Rachel Neyman’s descendants, the children in the family when the Neymans left Pennsylvania in 1830 are listed as Margaret Jane [b. 1813], Cyrus Livingston [b. 1815], Annis [b. 1818], Hiram [b. 1819], Matilda, Mary Ann [b. 1822] and Jonathan [b. 1825]. This would imply Matilda was born around 1820.[/ref]

Margaret would testify:

My sister Matilda, and myself accompanied him; but, changing our design on the way, we stopped at Mrs. Fullers: During the evening’s interview, he, (as I have since learned,) with wicked lies proposed that I should yield to his desires, and indulge in sexual intercourse with him, stating that such intercourse might be freely indulged in, and was no sin: That any respectable female might indulge in sexual intercourse, and there was no sin in it, providing the person so indulging, keep the same to herself; for there could be no sin, where there was no accusor;—and most clandestinely, with wicked lies, persuaded me to yield by using the name of Joseph Smith: and, as I have since learned, totally false and unauthorized; and in consequence of those arguments, I was influenced to yield to my Seducer, Chauncey L. Higbee.[ref]Women’s Women’s testimonies published in the Nauvoo Neighbor issue of May 29, 1844, available online at, retrieved 18 March 2014[/ref]

Matilda would testify:

During this spring Chauncy L. Higbee, kept company with me from time to time, and, as I have since learned, wickedly deceitfully, and with lies in his mouth, urged me vehemently to yield to his desires; that there could be no wrong in having sexual intercourse with any female that could keep the same to herself;—most villianously and lyingly stating that he had been so instructed by Joseph Smith, and that there was no sin where there was no accuser:—Also vowing he would marry me.

Not succeeding, he, on one occasion, brought one,[ref]It seems this “one” might have been either John C. Bennett or William Smith. However the deponent did not specify in her testimony, nor is there any record that she was asked who this one was, who had tipped the balance in Matilda’s mind regarding the likelihood that Joseph had taught illicit sex to be correct. We only know that “one” was male.[/ref] who affirmed that such intercourse was tolerated by the heads of the Church. I have since found him also to be a lying conspirator against female virtue and chastity, having never received such teachings from the heads of the church; but I was at the time partially influenced to believe in consequence of the source from whom I received it.

I yielded and become subject to the will of my seducer, Chauncey L. Higbee: and having since found out to my satisfaction, that a number of wicked men have conspired to use the name of Joseph Smith, or the heads of the Church, falsely and wickedly to enable them to gratify their lusts, thereby destroying female innocence and virtue, I repent before God and my brethren and ask forgiveness.

I further testify that I never had any personal acquaintance with Joseph Smith and never heard him teach such doctrines as Higbee, stated either directly or indirectly.[ref]Women’s Women’s testimonies published in the Nauvoo Neighbor issue of May 29, 1844, available online at, retrieved 18 March 2014[/ref]

The Widow Fuller

The testimony of Margaret Neyman clearly indicated the home of Widow Fuller was the place where Chauncy Higbee had been able to interview Margaret and Matilda at length and perform his conquests.

If I am correct, the Widow Fuller was Catherine Laure, born 1807, who had married Josiah Fuller. Catherine and Josiah were living near Haun’s Mill in October 1838 when a 240-man militia from nearby Missouri counties attacked. Josiah Fuller was one of the seventeen killed, apparently having attempted to shelter in the blacksmith shop, Mercifully Josiah likely died before the militia entered the smithy and shot the remaining three boys and hacked a 78-year-old man to death with a dull blade. It seems the militia proceeded to chase down and rape many of the Mormon women who had just seen their men murdered.

In the 1840 federal census, Catherine (or Katherine) Fuller is shown as the head of her household between the ages of 30 and 40, with a boy and girl under age 5, two boys between ages 5 and 10, and a boy between the ages of 10 and 15.[ref]1840 census image, available online at, retrieved 19 March 2014.[/ref]

In May 1842 Catherine would provide extensive testimony about how Bennett and his acolytes had approached her saying illicit sex was permissible as long as no one knew about it. An excerpt of Catherine’s statement reads:

I have had unlawful connexion with Chauncey L. Higbee. Chauncey Higbee, taught the same doctrine as was taught by J. C. Bennet, and that Joseph Smith, taught and practiced those things, but he [Chauncey] stated that he did not have it from Joseph, but he had his information from Dr. John C. Bennet. He, Chauncey L. Higbee, has gained his object about five or six times, Chauncey L. Higbee, also made propositions to keep me with food if I would submit to his desires.[ref]May 29, 1844 issue of the Nauvoo Neighbor, and Richard and Pamela Price’s Restoration Bookstore website describing how they believe Joseph fought polygamy, available online at, retrieved 19 March 2014.[/ref]

The testimonies of these three women against Chauncy Higbee were published in in the Nauvoo Neighbor in May 1844, less than two weeks before Chauncy Higbee helped published The Nauvoo Expositor, the anti-Mormon paper whose destruction lead directly to Joseph’s death.[ref]Others contributing to the Expositor were men like Austin Cowles and William Law, who had sat on the 1842 High Council that cut of Chauncy Higbee and John C. Bennett, men who had been exposed to the entirety of the sordid testimony associated with the activities of Bennett, Chauncy Higbee, and the other seducers.[/ref]

A Fuller Story

Based on the testimonies published in the papers, one could glean that John C. Bennett had been cut off and Chauncy Higbee had engaged in illicit sexual intercourse with four women. An examination of the High Council Minutes and the handwritten statements collected during the investigation expand the field of visible damage.[ref]Brian Hales was kind enough to send me a transcription of the Nauvoo High Council Minutes covering 1841-1845, as well as a scan of some 15 pages of the listed 25 pages of handwritten testimonies before the High Council.[/ref]

Ten men taught that illicit sex was permissible as long as no one found out. Of these, six not only taught about illicit sex, but engaged in the proposed illicit relations with one or more of the women who testified to having ‘yealded” to the men’s teachings. There is reason to suspect that all ten listed had participated in illicit sex, and that there were others who were simply not named in the testimony of the women who testified. It seems clear from the extant testimony that Dr. John C. Bennett was the ring-leader.

*Dr. John C. Bennett, Mayor and General of the Nauvoo Legion
*Chauncy Higbee, Bennett’s Aide-de-camp and son of Nauvoo’s judge
*Joel S. Miles
*George M. Thatcher
*Jacob B. Backenstos, non-member, another Bennett Aide-de-camp and sheriff of Hancock County
*Gustavus Hills, Nauvoo alderman
Darwin Chase, member of the Seventy since the flight from Missouri
William Smith, apostle, Joseph’s brother[ref]Information about William Smith has been crossed out in the hand-written testimony, but is still adequately legible. A late account (Abraham H. Cannon Journal, 9 April 1890) indicates Brigham Young had been assigned to prefer charges against William Smith for adultery and other sins. After the trial had begun, Joseph entered the room. As the testimony concerning William proceeded, Joseph stood and cried, “Bro. Brigham, I will not listen to this abuse of my family a minute longer…” Cannon writes “A rupture between the two greatest men on earth seemed imminent.” But Brigham instantly said, “Bro. Joseph, I withdraw the charge.” I think until this last stage of the investigation and trial, it had not been clear to Joseph whether William or Bennett had been the originator of the illicit sex scheme. Once Joseph determined Bennett was the culprit, he determined to protect all others, particularly including his brother.[/ref]
Lyman O. Littlefield
Justus Morse

The women who confessed to having engaged in illicit intercourse with these men were:

Catherine Fuller Warren (10-12 times with Bennett, 5-6 times with Higbee, 2 times with Joel S. Miles, 2 times with George M. Thatcher, and 1 time with Jacob B. Backenstos)

Sarah Miller (engaged in relations with Higbee multiple times, the first time possibly in the presence of Darwin Chase)

Margaret Nyman (engaged in relations with Higbee multiple times and possibly also with John C. Bennett, this occurred at the same time as Higbee was having sex with her sister, Matilda[ref]It is not clear if Margaret meant Higbee was having sex with Margaret’s sister during the same period of several weeks, or if Higbee was simultaneously engaging in sex with both of them in a menage a trois. The name of Margaret’s mother, Jane Neyman, also appears, but I was not able to decipher the words sufficiently to be certain whether she was implicated as one who had been seduced.[/ref])

Matilda Nyman (engaged in relations with Higbee multiple times)

Mary Clift (became pregnant with Gustavius Hills’ child)

Other women mentioned as having been seen with members of the Bennett ring in a manner strongly suggestive of intercourse include:

Ms. Shindle
Miss Lucy Munjar (also mentioned in the Relief Society minutes)
Ms. Brown (also denied admittance to Relief Society on this basis)
Ms. Barris
Ms. Gee
Rachel Kingsley (seen with Higbee and Littlefield)
Elenor Kingsley (seen with Higbee and Littlefield)
Esther Smith (Testified Gustavius Hills had taught her it was acceptable to have illicit intercourse)

Other Victims?

Brian Hales said he is unaware of any evidence that Joseph’s plural wives were among those seduced by Bennett and his cronies. However as I analyze the evidence, I am not persuaded that the testimony before the High Council was complete:

  • There was no attempt to identify the “one, who affirmed that such intercourse was tolerated by the heads of the Church,” as Matilda Nyman had indicated in her testimony.
  • Catherine Fuller Warren indicated John C. Bennett was the first to seduce her, and had done so about a year earlier in July 1841 or before. Yet Sarah Miller, Mary Clift, Esther Smith and the Nymans had only been approached by the seducers that spring.
  • Mary Heron isn’t mentioned in these findings, despite the indication that she was the first woman “frigged .”
  • Sarah Pratt isn’t mentioned in these findings, despite Bennett confiding in Jacob Backenstos that “Sarah made a first rate go.”
  • Catherine Fuller Warren testified that multiple men (Darwin Chase, William Smith, Lyman O. LIttlefield, and Justus Morse) to who she didn’t yield tried to get her to have sex with them. Are we to believe that these men never tried that line on anyone else?
  • There was no attempt to get the men to yield up a complete list of the women they had corrupted.
  • There is the curious matter of the women Bennett would later assert were part of Joseph’s “harem,” characterizing the entire membership of the Relief Society as a “seraglio”[ref]Seraglio is the term for the living quarters of a harem in the Ottoman Empire.[/ref] presided over by Emma.

Bruce Nielson has reminded us of the concept of an “ice cube” from Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan. An “ice cube” a postulated explanation for extant historical events that constitute the metaphorical puddle of water from which we are forced to infer the truth. In my ice cube, Bennett seduced Sarah Pratt before coming up with a scheme for justifying illicit intercourse. After Bennett was discovered and attempted suicide, I think he began teaching the “doctrine” that illicit intercourse was permissible as long as no one became aware of the interactions. The first woman I think he seduced with these teachings was Mary Heron. From there I think he expanded the pool of men and women to whom taught his “doctrine.” I propose that he and his acolytes preferentially preyed on widows like Catherine Fuller and Sarah Miller and young women who did not have a living father, such as Clarissa Marvel, Margaret and Matilda Neyman. They could provide monies for food, and Bennett’s expertise in female medical matters could be used to prevent or remove pregnancy.

I propose that Bennett, having asserted his teachings came from Joseph, began to notice patterns that supported his claims. This could have been as simple as noting a pattern in certain rejections. Many would have simply declined to yield, the way Catherine Fuller didn’t have sex with every man who came at her with the story about illicit sex being fine. But those who had been taught about the New and Everlasting Covenant would reject Bennett’s heresy by stating they knew that wasn’t what Joseph taught.[ref]Some researchers suppose additional details might have leaked to Bennett via Nancy Rigdon, who Joseph interviewed. Nancy’s beau was Francis Higbee, Chauncy’s brother. Those not vested in the idea that Joseph was innocent of Bennett’s activities presume that Bennett learned about Joseph’s plural marriage activities from Joseph himself, however the gross difference between the seducer’s rationale and Joseph’s teachings makes this unlikely, in my opinion.[/ref]

From January 13th until May 20th, I propose that Bennett and William were engaged in a terrible game of chess with Joseph and Emma. Joseph and Emma were conducting a sting to ensure they identified the true source of the heresy while simultaneously warning as many innocents as possible to reject the arguments of the seducers.

I think Bennett, with the assistance of William Smith and Chauncy Higbee, was trying to gain access to a particular woman, one who knew he was still married, a woman ensconced in the bosom of the Smith family and well-versed in the teachings Joseph had been sharing with the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo.

It is unclear if Bennett was ever able to sleep with the woman he’d been targeting. But with the public withdrawal of fellowship from Bennett, Joseph and Emma were left with the responsibility to care for the wives of sorrow, the women who’d been involved with Bennett and his men.

Future Planned Posts:

Wives of Sorrow
Sangamo and Pratt
The Apostles and their Wives
Eliza and the Stairs
Healing Wounded Hearts
Emma’s Ultimatum
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

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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.

18 thoughts on “Arraigning the Band of Brothers

  1. Alas, I accidentally posted this on Saturday while doing final edits. I pulled it back immediately, but the twitter feed from Millennialstar and ldsblogs had already gone out.

    So here’s an apology to anyone who wanted to read this post, but was met by a “Huh?” screen between Saturday and Monday morning.

  2. Meg,

    Again good stuff.

    I want to clarify that the ice cube analogy is not mine. It’s from Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan. I just reuse it because he’s right. (My original use of it was in a post where I quoted it from his book.)

    A question comes to my mind. So you are making an assumption that several of Joseph’s later wives were victims. But what if the ones we do know about that you list above? What was done for them to try to protect them or help them out after they had been taken advantage of?

  3. Simply scandalous. Because I’m never read “In Sacred Loneliness” and other such books on polygamy, I can only go off what’s run rampant in the bloggernacle. You seam to be the only one telling the Bennett story with such detail. Is that because others have had a bit of an agenda in telling their version of history, or is the connection more attenuated than you make it out to be? I’m not criticizing your analysis. You have been very candid where you’ve had to make assumptions, which is all one can do after the fact. I’m just wondering why other writers put all the blame on Joseph’s shoulders. This really the first time I’ve heard any significant detail of Bennett et al.’s philandering ways.

  4. As an aside, the details and nuances of these events, and even things that occurred after Joseph and Hyrum’s death, are why I don’t blame the church for not giving some 1,000 volume history of every word or action of every person that ever lived relevant to controversial topics. I believe our ancestors in the gospel had a better grip on some of this stuff as it occurred or immediately after it was discovered, but as it was experienced contemporaneously, it wasn’t nearly the big deal we make it to be today. For instance, already memory of the 1978 revelation opening up the priesthood to all males is already dimming in many people’s minds. Sure, there is some interest in how the revelation came about, a book written here or there. But, 100 years from now? The discussion will largely be matter of fact and academic. Anyway, it is interesting getting into the nitty gritty details of this stuff, particularly when it is, how do I say it — so colorful. I can see why church leaders wouldn’t want to get into the sexual stuff that was happening in Nauvoo if they could focus on other good things instead.

  5. Ah – made the correction in the post, for posterity.

    Just for you, the draft of next week’s post is available at:

    I first examine the women who became plural wives in 1842 who were not married to Joseph Smith. Then I do a quick run through the women who became plural wives to Joseph Smith. My conclusion is that all the women who became plural wives of other men had been victims of the Bennett ring. The women we characterize as Joseph’s wives are a mixture of victims, detectives, and one who appears wholly untouched by the crisis (even though I think Joseph began approached both Mary Elizabeth Rollins and Agnes Coolbrith before he became aware of Bennett’s activities, they both appear to have been insiders as the investigation proceeded, based on their independent communications regarding secrets they knew about Nauvoo that Joseph F. Smith was unaware of, and wouldn’t believe).

    As for the victims who confessed, we know of the following outcomes (from memory – I’ll refine/update after confirming this against the records):

    Matilda Nyman appears to have died in 1843. Her death is not recorded in the Nauvoo documents that would typically report such a death. While my active imagination conjures images of suicide or pregnancy-related death in some location distant from Nauvoo proper, it’s more likely she simply passed away of any of the many things that was killing people in those days, like malaria. Her married sister, Annis, similarly died in 1843.

    Margaret Nyman married a man named Egan in 1843. She and Egan moved up north (either Wisconsin or Michigan), separating themselves from the larger Mormon community. Her sister’s descendants wrote “Margaret Jane married Steward Agan, and disappeared.” Therefore she was likely not in Nauvoo when the article containing her confession was printed.

    Catherine Laure Fuller had married William Warren at the end of April – a marriage several of her seductors wanted to prevent, offering her food if she would remain unmarried (and available to them, one presumes). You can look her up in (Catherine Laur, born 1807, married to Fuller). No one had made the connection between Catherine Laur and “Widow Fuller” and the Catherine Fuller who married William Warren before I did the research for this post.

    I think Sarah Miller went west with the Saints but died before reaching Salt Lake City. Again, you can confirm this in I’m not remembering anything about her re-marrying after the scandal.

    Mary Clift married Theodore Turley and had three more children after the baby (Adelmon Turley) engendered by Gustavus Hills. All Mary’s children died as infants except for her last child. Mary died in Salt Lake a few days after giving birth to her final child. Again, is your friend if you want dates and places.

  6. Having sat in on a disciplinary meeting long ago involving gay prostitution and food/service for sex with a catholic priest I can only imagine how tragically “colorful”, to us IDIAT’s words, some modern cases with the internet, etc. would seem to future readers.

    What obviously makes the waters murky is the fact that this was going on while the foundations for the temple and plural marriage were being theologically built. It doesn’t surprise me that just as we have communism and socialism as a perversion of the law of consecration, we have spiritual wifery, and the like as a perversion of what Joseph was struggling to reveal.

    It’s not a palatable answer for someone looking to dismiss Joseph, just as some die hard progressives in the gospel can’t seem to grasp the world of difference between socialism and consecration.

  7. I read over the sisters’ testimony, and note with a bit of irony there was an advertisement for Chauncy Higbee’s legal services I think on page 4.

  8. Hi IDIAT,

    I think Joseph and Emma tried really hard to keep these events private, except where they absolutely had to broadcast something to protect the Church.

    I similarly think these events were kept confidential to the point that the vast majority of the men and women later associated with Joseph’s variant of plural marriage had no idea any of this had happened.

    When Fawn Brodie wroter her psychobiography of Joseph Smith, she interpreted every detail as prejudicial to Joseph Smith. She didn’t have access to the DNA results and original documents researchers have access to now. Fawn’s book, written as it was by an individual from within the Mormon community, has been given continued credence. Those rebutting the negative view protrayed by Fawn Brodie and her ilk have been hampered because they were merely going on the defensive. Those who were simultaneously trying to avoid the data discussing Nauvoo sexuality simply came off looking like brain-washed silly people.

    Ironically, the Nymans and Catherine Fuller all refuted the idea that Joseph had been the source of Bennett’s scheme. However even mentioning Joseph’s name in this context appears to have led some to say, “Sure. Right. Yeah, he had *nothing* to do with it.”

    We’ve all had experience with something that wasn’t obvious until someone pointed it out, after which point one could never look at the piece again without seeing that which had previously been hidden. I was a young mother when Little Mermaid came out, with the big posters of Ariel in front of her father’s sea kingdom. We had the video, as did most every other family with young children. Then someone pointed out that the artwork included an extremely “correct” phallus. It was gold and slightly obscured with sparkles, but once you’d seen it, you could never see that cover again without being aware that there was a glittering phallic symbol smack dab in the middle. It was apparently the work of a disgruntled artist who was being let go, if I remember the story correctly.

    At any rate, I hope that my pointing out this “alternate” interpretation of the data will allow folks to get their heads out of the “Joseph was a seducing slimeball” rut. I truly hope people will never be able to look at these events again without being aware of the huge shadow Bennett cast on things. Joseph and Emma were not perfect. But this rut has prevented us from seriously investigating the dynamics of an important part of the history of one of the world’s great religions, even if you aren’t one who (like me) believes the Mormon Church is uniquely authorized to perform ordinances on behalf of mankind.

    For a glimpse into the possible worldview of the men and women engaging in illicit intercourse in Nauvoo, it’s instructive to read Gary Bergera’s account of Albert Carrington, the apostle who didn’t understand that Onanism is adultery/fornication, rather than merely indiscretion. In the reaction of Albert’s fellow apostles we can see an echo of how Joseph may have felt: horrified and yet compassionate towards the offender.

    I actually think Carrington was arguably the last high profile victim of Bennett’s sophistry. Carrington arrived in Nauvoo after Bennett left, but he was there in time to read the Times and Seasons article about Chauncy’s victims. And since Joseph merely beheaded Bennett’s “illicit sex” band without aggressively exposing everyone, its possible someone too low on the totem pole to have been brought before the High Council had shared “how it is done” with Carrington, either in Nauvoo or during a subsequent interview, perhaps even an interview with someone confessing. I frankly find it a bit amusing that people were so shocked by Bergera’s article. I kept waiting to learn of something truly bizarre. But it was just an old guy who figured it wasn’t sex if it couldn’t get the girl pregnant.

    On a serious note, it’s entirely possible that a subculture of Bennett’s teachings has continued to our day. I remember reading the book “Paper Dolls” with my husband shortly after we were married. Paper Dolls was written by women who declined to provide their names but documented a pervasive culture of sexual abuse on the part of individuals who appeared to be faithful LDS men. Now that I’ve learned about Bennett and Carrington, I’m left wondering how much of that culture of sexual abuse had its roots in Bennett’s teachings, and what portion was merely the evil that has been committed by all too many in our day.

  9. I’ve heard of rogue branches and wards, even stakes, that end up misconstruing some gospel principle, then rationalizing the belief, covering it up, etc. I don’t think it happens nearly as often today, but there’s still a chance for dark practices to occur, from the oldest ward in Utah to the newest branch in Africa. Occasionally I’ll read of secret combinations (possibly too strong a description) occurring in other faiths, mostly focused on sexual stuff. Satan really knows where to find our weaknesses. From Jimmy Swaggart to the Branch Davidians to the FLDS to (insert name of some other televangelist or priest) it seems like there are always people who use religion to seduce instead of save.

  10. Hi IDIAT,

    I’ll bet Chauncy was mad. I mean, it’s one thing to be outed as a seducing opportunist in the first place. But in an issue of the paper where you had paid good money for advertising your law practice?

    Looking at that page, I also see that Chauncy’s brother, Francis, was looking to sell his home, and Chauncy was facilitating sale of a 160 acre farm. Perhpas they were eager to cash out before the Expositor ripped the town apart.

  11. IDIAT,

    At some level, I think it partially just boils down to Joseph Smith being far more of interest than Bennet. No one really doubts he was a scoundrel (well, actually Meg does! At least for a while…) and so no one really tries to say “well, what impact did he have?” It just hasn’t been that much interest.

    I think ultimately people that write about Joseph Smith always have some sort of axe grind whether they realize it or not. No non-believing history of JS would be complete without at least an attempt to make the story palatable for non-members, for example. (i.e. explain it naturally.) One doesn’t have to be a frothing mouth anti to still be heavily biased.

    On the other hand… obviously everything I said applies in reverse as well.

  12. What I love (in whatever realm I’m in) is when a paradigm fits the data so well that it continues to fit even as new data surfaces.

    In 2009 I think I came to at least a midrashic perspective that Joseph might have been faithful to Emma, and that Elvira Annie’s child was conceived in some dramatic thing associated with the second burial of Joseph’s remains. I was delighted to find an obscure record in Nauvoo documenting that the reburial took place in February 1845, nine and a half months before Elvira gave birth to her first child. Then in 2010 I re-read Rough Stone Rolling, Mormon Enigma, and In Sacred Loneliness. The authors’ opinions about Joseph fell away and I could see how the facts beautifully supported my hypothesis – that is when I twigged to the strangeness of Nancy Winchester’s story.

    For this post, I knew it was part of the story just from reading Van Wagoner’s Mormon Polygamy: A History. I hadn’t even read the High Council notes or the women’s handwritten testimonies until this week. And yet everything fits. That’s when you know you’ve got a good theory.

  13. This is a late comment, but the thought occurred to me – what if Joseph Smith and Bennett et all were competing for women? Joseph Smith – it’s okay to have sex if you’re married. God’s laws of marriage supercede earthly laws. Marry me (polygamy) and then we can have sex. Bennett et al – Once you’ve lost your virginity, God doesn’t care if you have sex with whoever, as long as you keep it low key, even secret. Sex makes us happy, God wants us to be happy, so it’s okay to have sex. Even the prophet is out there having sex with women.

    I know that’s a gross oversimplification of the possible arguments made by Joseph Smith and Bennett, and I know you don’t believe Joseph Smith had much sex, if any, with any of the women to whom he was sealed. But, do you see where there might have been infighting between Joseph Smith and Bennett if they were both in some sort of competition to be king of the herd? Maybe this will get addressed in some other post.

  14. Bennett’s folks, “Strikers” as the Expositor terms the men who would prospect for vulnerable women, didn’t seem to care if a woman was a widow or married or single.

    As I examine the 1842 wives of Joseph Smith and the faithful men who would travel to Utah, I see no indication of sexuality, and almost every woman appears to be either someone assisting the investigation or a likely (or known) victim of Bennett et al.

    I don’t see any case where someone who had become Joseph’s plural wife then turned around and opted for Bennett’s teaching. So if there was competition, Bennett lost from the standpoint of winning any females away from Joseph.

    There’s an interesting story about Bennett proposing a mock battle in early May 1842. Supposedly there was a plot to “accidentally” kill Joseph during the battle. But Joseph declined to participate in the battle. One could definitely make the case that Bennett, who had secured the loyalty of William Smith (Apostle), Vinson Knight (Bishop), Chauncy Higbee (Bennett Aide-de-Camp), Jacob Backenstos (Bennett Aide-de-Camp), and Darwin Chase (Seventy), felt that he could assume leadership of the Mormon movement if Joseph were dead.

    So Bennett apparently was in competition with Joseph. However I see no evidence that Joseph was “competing” with Bennett other than in the sense of attempting to clean up a huge mess and identify the culprit.

    That said, we have well over a hundred years of folks vested in the idea that Joseph was having bouncy sex with every woman he could lay hands on. So I’ve no doubt there are those who will argue that Bennett was merely doing what Joseph did, except without authorization.

    All interpretations are possible if you ignore the data.

  15. I don’t comment often, but I wanted to chip in here with thanks for this excellent series of posts.

    I’m an analyst (black box QA) rather than a trained engineer, but I’m used to poking holes in theories that don’t fit the data. What I’ve seen from you so far is a better model of the Nauvoo period than any I’ve seen to date. I look forward to more!

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