Blind Spots

Sarah Elizabeth Holmes (right) was a tiny child in Nauvoo when her mother died.

As I was piecing together the history of my ancestors, I read accounts of how Sarah’s mother died as a result of mob violence, which is how Sarah eventually became the step-daughter of my ancestor, Elvira Cowles.

Todd Compton, in writing about Elvira Cowles, related that the death of Sarah’s mother, Marietta Carter Holmes, had reportedly resulted from a mob driving Marietta out of her cabin. 1 The records associated with Sarah Holmes at the Nauvoo Land and Records office tell of a mob attack during a heavy storm, leaving a burned cabin in its wake. Marietta died in August 1840. Her infant daughter died a month later.

This past weekend I was in Nauvoo. During a discussion of violence, I mentioned the tale of Marietta Carter Holmes being attacked by a mob in her cabin. The Holmes cabin where Marietta likely lived at the time of her death was located two blocks from Joseph Smith’s home.

To my surprise, Joseph Johnstun (whose historical probity I adore), claimed the tale was bunk, that the woman’s skirts had caught fire and caused the conflagration that destroyed the cabin.

While the story of a mob attacking Marietta Carter Holmes isn’t core to my thesis regarding Joseph Smith’s activities regarding plural marriage, it is a story I have repeated multiple times. To have someone I respect as much as Joseph Johnstun refer to the story as bovine excrement took me aback.

In later correspondence, Joseph clarified that he was merely supposing the woman’s skirt had caught on fire and requested forgiveness for assuming there was a house fire. But he held firm to his confidence that no mob attack on a Nauvoo household was credible for August 1840.

Further, Joseph provided me a contemporary document written by John Smith (uncle to Joseph Smith, Jr.) which strongly suggests that Marietta Carter Holmes died of disease.

Joseph Smith’s concerns about potential attacks by Missourians can be attributed to the fact that Illinois Mormons had been abducted in the summer of 1840 by Missouri mobs and tortured, an event that was documented in the national newspapers of the day, including the Warsaw newspaper. This is germane as I had taken the documentation of Joseph’s concern about being attacked by Missourians as evidence bolstering my prior confidence that Marietta had been attacked by a mob immediately prior to her death.

A review of Sarah’s verbal account, 2 transcribed by her daughter, reveals that Sarah was suggesting her mother had become weakened because of the mob attacks, resulting in her death. While ambiguous, this is consistent with a woman suffering persecution and becoming frail during the subsequent flight from western Missouri, only to die of disease in the swampland east of the Mississippi at Nauvoo.

Later accounts written by descendants provide details of the mob attack. However the provenance of those details is unclear. It appears someone, possibly Marietta, was attacked and a cabin was burned and the small family took shelter with neighbors until the woman’s husband arrived. But it is not clear any of these events occurred in August 1840 within short blocks of the Smith homestead.

Specifically, Joseph Johnstun pointed out that a lethal attack on a woman in Nauvoo circa August 1840 would have certainly made the national news. His argument is strong.

Blind Spots

Each of us has stories we believe and repeat. No doubt many of these stories include much truth, or at least contain a kernel of truth.

But when it becomes clear that the provenance of a tale is not solid and the tale appears to conflict with reason, then it is appropriate to deprecate the importance of that tale in the prior narrative.

Given that my narrative requires that people on all sides give up stories they treasure, stories they have never had reason to question, it would obviously be inappropriate for me to retain a story once the basis had been shown to be inconsistent with fact and reason.

I am sad to lose the story about Marietta dying as a direct and immediate result of a mob attack. But I now see that the story is sufficiently unlikely that I must step away from it, at least when it comes to Nauvoo in August 1840.


  1. Todd Compton, “Elvira Annie Cowles” in <em>In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith</em>, Signature Books,1997, p. 546. Todd relates the tradition that Marietta was driven from her cabin in Missouri, reportedly causing Marietta’s death.
  2. Accounts of Sarah are attached to her record [KWNF-DQT] at
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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 may have privately defied the commandment for love of his wife, Emma.

3 thoughts on “Blind Spots

  1. Meg, I am wondering who composed the mob that attacked the home? Illinois citizens in general and Hancock County citizens in particular seemed to initially be sympathetic towards the Saints. I have been able to find no record of Illinois mob activity in 1840. Was it a rogue mob from Missouri?


  2. Hi Glenn,

    Given my initial conflation of the mob attack and the death, the details seemed to support a small band of Missourians coming up the Mississippi from the Warsaw area – which isn’t a large distance. Recall that Nauvoo itself is south of the northern boundary of Mississippi – it is just that the Iowa border snakes down along the Des Moines river in the immediate vicinity of Nauvoo, so that the state on the other side of the Mississippi at Nauvoo happens to be Iowa.

    I had taken the tales at face value and presumed that when it was said the attack by a mob of Missourians had resulted in Marietta’s death, that the attack had occurred within a short time of her death.

    In light of Joseph Johnstun’s insight, I can now see that I was wrong to presume the reported mob attack had immediately preceded Marietta’s death.

    This is part of why I want to retired to Nauvoo, because there are certain things you just don’t know when you’re an armchair researcher living a thousand miles from the place you are researching.

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