Eliza and the Stairs

[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.]

Eliza R. Snow, circa 1850

Eliza R. Snow, circa 1850

Eliza Snow is arguably the most prominent woman in early Mormon history. Though Emma was Joseph’s wife and help-meet, Eliza Snow would go west with the Saints. She was an adviser to Brigham Young, president of the Relief Society, and was influential in the formation of both the children’s ministry (Primary) and the youth ministry (now called Young Men and Young Women). Eliza was prominent in the campaign that won female suffrage in Utah in 1870 – fully fifty years before all women in the rest of the United States would receive the right to vote.[ref]Wikipedia article on Eliza Rocxy Snow, available online at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eliza_Snow, retrieved April 15, 2014.[/ref]

Besides all these accomplishments, Eliza Snow was regarded as a prophetess, and her hundreds of poems were treasured, whether they conveyed doctrine (e.g., the concept of a Mother in Heaven conveyed by the hymn “Oh My Father) or comforted those who had recently lost an infant.[ref]Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry, edited by Jill Mulvany Derr and Karen Lynn Davidson, 2009.[/ref]

Eliza as Deceitful Seducer

In 1984 Doubleday published Mormon Enigma, a biography of Emma Smith written by Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery. In 1984 there was great excitement about a number of previously undiscovered documents from early Mormon history, including documents painting Joseph Smith as a being committed to a magical worldview, telling of a vision of a white salamander, and documenting Joseph’s use of magic to dig for money.

As Linda Newell and Valeen Avery put together their view of Joseph’s wife, Emma, they used these new documents to inform their understanding of the man Emma loved. They found Joseph to be a flawed man who wedded and bedded women behind Emma’s back. The betrayal Val Avery felt Joseph had practiced caused her so much distress that she could only write about Joseph and these women for a few minutes before she would literally feel the gorge rise within her. Val would vomit, then go lay down to regain her composure enough to write for a few more minutes.[ref]Recounted by Jan Shipps in private conversation on May 23, 2010 in the home of Gregory Prince, documented in my post “Mormon Enigma (ex ante), available online at http://www.megstout.com/blog/2010/05/24/mormon-enigma-ex-ante/, retrieved April 15, 2014.[/ref] The women Newell and Avery believed Joseph had bedded were anathema. Of all Emma’s friends Newell and Avery said bedded Emma’s husband, Eliza Snow was the worst. She was Emma’s confidante in the Relief Society. Emma had taken Eliza into her own home. In return, the authors believed, Eliza had betrayed Emma by sleeping with Emma’s husband under Emma’s own roof.

Newell and Avery’s book won the Evans Biography Award, the Mormon History Association Best Book Award, and the John Whitmer Historical Association Best Book Award. But the mainstream Mormon community was shocked by the harsh portrayal of their founding prophet. Though Newell and Avery were not excommunicated, they were prohibited from discussing their research or book in Church meetings.[ref]Wikipedia article on Valeen Tippets Avery, available online at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valeen_Tippetts_Avery, retrieved April 15, 2014.[/ref]

In late 1985, seemingly unrelated to Newell and Avery, a bomber targeted Steven Christensen and Christensen’s employer, J. Gary Sheets. Christensen and Kathy Sheets[ref]The Sheets family lived in the Provo neighborhood where my husband lived.[/ref] were killed. Investigators initially suspected the bombings were associated with a failing investment business Sheets and Christensen had been involved in. However the bomber struck again the next day, this time severely injuring Mark Hofmann, a man who had been discovering numerous historical documents. Steven Christensen had been one of Hofmann’s clients. As the investigation proceeded, Mark Hofmann was found to be the bomber, and his documents were found to be forgeries.[ref]Wikipedia article on Mark Hofmann, available online at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Hofmann, retrieved April 15, 2014.[/ref]

Ten years after publication of Mormon Enigma, Newell and Avery issued an updated edition. The 1994 edition removed the information that had come directly from the Hofman forgeries. However the underlying structure of the book, portraying a good woman betrayed by a craven husband and deceitful female friends, remained. No doubt the authors would object. Few scholars admit the extent to which underlying paradigms shape the soft science of interpreting the hard data. However it is telling the number of women who have read Mormon Enigma and consider Eliza Snow to be a traitor, the archetype of Emma’s female friends and associates who are presumed to have lain with Emma’s husband.

Eliza and the Stairs

One of the most evocative stories regarding Emma’s alleged distress regarding polygamy involves Eliza. One late, fourth-hand account relates:

A door opposite opened and dainty, little, dark-haired Eliza R. Snow (she was “heavy with child”) came out… Joseph then walked on to the stairway, where he tenderly kissed Eliza, and then came on down stairs toward Brother Rich. Just as he reached the bottom step, there was a commotion on the stairway, and both Joseph and Brother Rich turned quickly to see Eliza come tumbling down the stairs. Emma had pushed her, in a fit of rage and jealousy; she stood at the top of the stairs, glowering, her countenance a picture of hell. Joseph quickly picked up the little lady, and with her in his arms, he turned and looked up at Emma, who then burst into tears and ran to her room. Joseph carried the hurt and bruised Eliza up the stairs and to her room. “Her hip was injured and that is why she always afterward favored that leg,” said Charles C. Rich. “She lost the unborn babe.”[ref]Leroi Snow, “Notes,” based on letter from W. Aird Macdonald, based on story told him by his mission president, Ben E. Rich, in 1906-1908. Ben is presumed to have heard the story recounted by his father, the Charles C. Rich present in the story. See Compton, Sacred Loneliness, pp. 314-315, reference on p. 715.[/ref]

Anti-Mormon, Wilhelm Wyl, recounted in 1886 a version of the same tale, where Emma feels “outraged as a wife and betrayed as a friend” and so takes a broom to Eliza in revenge.[ref]Compton, p. 314, allegedly cited in Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy, p. 58, but I do not find the story on that page in my edition.[/ref] Eliza’s nephew, LeRoi Snow, said Emma knocked Eliza down the stairs, causing a miscarriage.[ref]Compton, p. 314, from Brodie, No Man Knows My History, p. 447.[/ref] Mary Barzee Boyce recounts a rumor from her son-in-law’s mother, Aidah Clement, saying Emma pulled Eliza R. Snow downstairs by the hair of her head.[ref]Compton, p. 315, from John Boice Blessing Book, CA, MS 8129, p. 40. Also Beecher, Newell, and Avery, BYU Studies, Vol 22, No 1 (1982), p. 93. I personally feel this particular story is more likely to have involved Eliza Partridge, not Eliza R. Snow.[/ref]

In a Utah where Eliza was respected and Emma had flouted leaders of the Utah Church, these stories painted Emma Smith as crazed and violent. But once Eliza was herself gone from living memory, a humanized Emma is seen as the victim, reacting in an understandable manner to finding her friend’s unborn child is the get of Emma’s husband, Joseph.

While Mormon Enigma and an earlier article on this subject in BYU Studies (Vol 22, No 1, p. 93 (1982)) cast doubt on the reliability of these staircase reports, nowhere do the authors provide an alternative to the fundamental betrayal Emma would have experienced if Eliza were sleeping with Joseph within a plural marriage of which Emma was uninformed and not consulted.

Eliza as Victim

As discussed in Wives of Sorrow, there is a strong pattern suggesting nearly all the women who became plural wives in 1842 had been victims of false teachings regarding spiritual wifery, the anything-goes-if-no-one-finds-out illicit intercourse Bennett and his Strikers were urging women of Nauvoo to participate in.

Eliza provided an affidavit in 1869 stating she had been sealed to Joseph Smith on June 29, 1842, placing her “marriage” to Joseph in the middle of the fall-out related to John C. Bennett’s departure from Nauvoo. Our regard for Eliza and her righteousness prevents most from easily accepting the possibility that Eliza could have fallen prey to Bennett. Ironically, no one seriously challenges the thought that this same honorable and righteous Eliza could have been secretly having sex with Joseph behind Emma’s back, even if she didn’t get pregnant and lose the child in a fall down the stairs.

Let us consciously open our minds, however, to the possibility that Eliza, this wise, good woman, could have been seduced. I propose Bennett’s purpose for seducing Eliza was not Eliza herself.

We know Bennett had been courting a young woman, someone he had promised to marry.[ref]Times and Seasons, 1 Jul 1842.[/ref] But after April 1841 it would have been impossible for Bennett to marry the woman he loved, since now Joseph Smith was informed of Bennett’s wife Mary, who still lived and was still married to Bennett. I propose the “young” woman Bennett loved was Elvira Annie Cowles, nearly a decade younger than Bennett, and an intimate of the Smith household where Bennett had initially lived in Nauvoo. By the time Bennett was ready to approach his beloved with a tale of spiritual wifery which might have won her to his bed, the Relief Society had been formed, and Elvira was ensconced in the heart of the new organization teaching women to hold to virtue no matter who the messenger.

Bennett might easily have hesitated to approach Elvira without knowing if his line was plausible. Eliza served with Elvira and was also single. Eliza could therefore serve as a dress rehearsal, allowing Bennett to refine his tale one last time before approaching his beloved. I suggest Bennett took the raw line that had succeeded with Catherine Fuller and clothed it in portentious language suggesting an eternal purpose. Bennett would go on to describe a Mormon Seraglio with three levels of females.[ref]from Bennett, History of the Saints, The Mormon Seraglio, pp. 217-225.[/ref]

  • The initial “order” Bennett described were allegedly Cyprian Saints, women who had lost their virtue and been discovered by the Relief Society. The women Bennett styled as Cyprian Saints resemble those women who were not allowed into Relief Society, like Lucy Ann Munjar, based on the investigation of those acting as detectives on behalf of Joseph and Emma, seeking to uncover the full truth about Bennett and his seducers.
  • The second “order” in Bennett’s female sexual hierarchy were allegedly the Chambered Sisters of Charity. Bennett wrote: “This order comprises that class of females who indulge their sensual propensities, without restraint, whether married or single, by the express permission of the Prophet… [They] are much more numerous than the Cyprian Saints. This results naturally from the greater respectability of their order.” This second group bears an astonishing resemblance to the many women, like Catherine Fuller, that Bennett and his Strikers had seduced.
  • The highest “order” in Bennett’s female hierarchy, then, were Consecratees of the Cloister or Cloistered Saints. “This degree is composed of females whether married or unmarried, who, by an express grant and gift of God, through his Prophet the Holy Joe, are set apart and consecrated to the use and benefit of particular individuals as secret, spiritual wives… When an Apostle, High Priest, Elder, or Scribe, conceives an affection for a female, and he has satisfactorily ascertained that she experiences a mutual flame, he communicates confidentially to the Prophet his affaire du Coeur and requests him to inquire of the Lord…”

Let us imagine that Bennett wished to practice this tale, that a woman could become a secret, spiritual wife for the “use and benefit” of a particular individual. How might Eliza react, to being told Bennett wished her as a secret wife, and that Bennett had won the permission of Joseph Smith himself to partake of Eliza’s affections, if only she, too, was willing to accept this gift of human companionship.

Eliza’s Poems and Journal

Eliza would write:

“Dearest, the hour approaches,
Our destinies to twine
In one eternal wreath of fate,
As holy beings join…

I would not sell thy confidence,
For all the pearls that strew
The ocean’s bed or all the gems
That sparkle in Peru.”[ref]Eliza R. Snow, The Bride’s Avowal, contained in Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry, pp. 210-211.[/ref]

This poem appears to accept the proposal that someone, perhaps Eliza, become a secret bride. In the poem the bride has not yet been bedded.

It is not certain when Eliza wrote this poem, or when the woman in the poem agreed to be bedded.

By mid-June, 1842, Joseph Smith made a decision to publicly cut Bennett off from the Church, reversing his earlier inclination to show Bennett mercy. Eliza describes her father’s decision to leave Nauvoo as well the next day, though it would take Oliver Snow a week to arrange all his affairs in support of the departure.[ref]Eliza R. Snow’s Nauvoo Journal, edited by Maureen Ursenbach, BYU Studies Vol 15:4 (1975), p. 394. Available online at https://byustudies.byu.edu/showtitle.aspx?title=5186, retrieved 16 April 2014.[/ref]

Eliza decided to remain in Nauvoo and moved into the home of Sarah Cleveland, one of Emma’s Relief Society counselors. I proposed that by this point she was already carrying Bennett’s child, possibly conceived mere days before Bennett’s exposure in the paper.

On June 29, 1842, Eliza records the first entry in the journal she’d been given at the formation of the Relief Society on March 17, 1842. She writes:

This is a day of much interest to my feelings. Reflecting on past occurrences, a variety of thoughts have presented themselves to my mind with regard to events which have chas’d each other in rapid succession in the scenery of human life…

I am contemplating the present state of society—the powers of darkness, and the prejudices of the human mind which stand array’d like an impregnable barrier against the work of God.[ref]Eliza R. Snow’s Nauvoo Journal, edited by Maureen Ursenbach, BYU Studies Vol 15:4 (1975), p. 394-5. Available online at https://byustudies.byu.edu/showtitle.aspx?title=5186, retrieved 16 April 2014.[/ref]

Eliza would later affirm that this was the day she became sealed to Joseph Smith, with Sarah Cleveland standing as witness. To me this passage not only hides the fact of her sealing to Joseph Smith, it reads like the musings of a misled woman who was taken in sin, and is reflecting on her confession of those sins.

On August 12th Elvira Cowles visited Eliza, a social call that might not have been noted had it not immediately preceded disturbing events.

On August 13th Eliza’s poem, The Bride’s Avowal, was published in The Wasp, the newspaper William Smith edited. William had been accused of having been complicit in Bennett’s seductions, and was almost certainly sympathetic to the exiled Dr. Bennett.[ref]I propose that Bennett got the poem to William and asked his friend to publish the poem in the Wasp to discredit Joseph.[/ref] Eliza’s first-person language and talk of secret marriage could be read as confirming all that Bennett was alleging about Joseph Smith. Eliza writes Sarah Cleveland made it clear that her future plans would not be consistent with Eliza remaining in the Cleveland home, “Mrs. Cleveland having come to the determination of moving on to her lot; my former expectations were frustrated…”[ref]Eliza R. Snow’s Nauvoo Journal, edited by Maureen Ursenbach, BYU Studies Vol 15:4 (1975), p. 396. Available online at https://byustudies.byu.edu/showtitle.aspx?title=5186, retrieved 16 April 2014.[/ref]

I imagine Elvira Cowles pleading with Emma Smith to take Eliza Snow into the arms of the Smith family. At any rate, Emma sent for Eliza Snow, her Secretary, author of the damning poem in William’s paper.

Plausible Deniability

Example of 1840s female dress

Example of 1840s dress

If Eliza was pregnant by this point, the fashions of the day would continue to hide the fact for several months. Eliza could comfortably mingle in society for up to five months after the date of conception before there was risk of being identified as pregnant.

We know of at least one 1842 plural marriage that was arranged to care for a woman, Mary Clift, impregnated by one of Bennett’s men, Gustavus Hills. If Eliza was pregnant, we should expect to see someone who steps forward to offer Eliza public marriage.

The next poem in Eliza’s diary may provide such evidence. On September 17, 1842, Eliza composed the following:

To Jonathan & Elvira.

Like two streams, whose gentle forces
Mingling, in one current blend—
Like two waves, whose outward courses
To the ocean’s bosom tend—

Like two rays that kiss each other
In the presence of the sun—
Like two drops that run together
And forever are but one,

May your mutual vows be plighted—
May your hearts, no longer twain
And your spirits be united
In an everlasting chain.[ref]Eliza R. Snow’s Nauvoo Journal, edited by Maureen Ursenbach, BYU Studies Vol 15:4 (1975), p. 399. Available online at https://byustudies.byu.edu/showtitle.aspx?title=5186, retrieved 16 April 2014.[/ref]

Jonathan had been a fixture in the Smith household ever since his wife, Marietta Carter [Holmes], had been killed in August 1840. He had never re-married. Eliza’s presence in the Smith home for the past month provided the surface possibility that the widower could have fallen in love with the formidable spinster. All this could have been part of the discussion Elvira Cowles had with Eliza Snow on August 12th.

I have not examined the original journal, but I propose Eliza may have altered her journal, possibly after November 15, 1842. Consider the poem again as Eliza might originally have written it:

[To Jonathan and Marietta]

Like two streams, whose gentle forces
Mingling, in one current blend—
Like two waves, whose outward courses
To the ocean’s bosom tend—

Like two angels that kiss each other
In the presence of the sun—
Like two drops that run together
And forever are but one,

May your mutual vows be plighted—
May your hearts, no longer twain
And your spirits be united
In an everlasting chain.[ref]My original hypothesis regarding this poem was disproved by examination of the manuscript. However the poem had obviously been tampered with, with the original word scraped off the paper and replaced with “rays.” The original word appears to begin with a and ends in s, and is roughly the same length as another instance of “angels” that appears later in Eliza’s journal.[/ref]

Whether Jonathan was to marry Eliza or Elvira, he had to get busy. The property he owned, just east of the Smith Homestead, was almost certainly not a fit abode for a wife, as the cabin had been burned by the mob in August 1840. Jonathan had his body guard duties and his business as a cobbler to tend to. A possibly-pregnant Eliza would not need to disappear from public view until the end of November. Time enough for Jonathan to re-build a log home on the site of the one the mob had destroyed.

Apostrophe to Death: Extracting Eliza’s history from her Poetry

The many stories about Eliza and the staircase were written by people who no longer lived in Nauvoo. They appear to have forgotten that their stories were impossible for either the Homestead or the Mansion House, which was under construction in 1842. There is no central staircase in the Mansion House like the one in the story. The staircase in the Homestead is a small, enclosed stair.[ref]It is impossible to see the head of the stairs from the bottom of the stairs in the Homestead.[/ref]

However the scene works for the Red Brick Store, with a broad open staircase running from the back of the store up to Joseph’s office. Allow me to spin some midrash.

I imagine Eliza and Emma stopping in to visit Joseph’s office located in the upper floor of the Red Brick Store. It is the middle of November, almost time for Eliza to go into seclusion if she is to maintain the appearance that the child she will bear could have been engendered by the man who will become her public spouse. Joseph gives Eliza a pastoral hug. Eliza and Emma turn to descend the stairs.

Then Eliza trips. The staircase in the Red Brick Store is too wide and open for her to break her fall the way she could have done in a narrow, enclosed staircase. I imagine Charles C. Rich at the base of the stairs, looking up at the commotion to see Eliza tumbling down towards him, Emma still at the top of the stairs, horrified by the fall Eliza is experiencing. Emma darts into Joseph’s office, to get his help.

Joseph bounds down the stairs and gathers the battered Eliza in his arms. He carries Eliza gently to the empty Mansion House. Emma meets him there, along with Patty Sessions. They work to ease Eliza’s pains, but the damage is too great. The tiny, perfect baby miscarries. Eliza holds the small girl-child in her hands and names the child Eliza, after herself.

Following November 15 we find a series of four poems in Eliza Snow’s journal. This portion of Eliza’s journal contains no dates, so we only know these poems are written sometime between 16 November and 30 November 1842.

The first poem, which lacks regular meter and rhyme, is an address to Death. The poem is shot through with imagery from the Book of Mormon and evokes John Donne’s poem, Death, be not proud.[ref]John Donne, Death, be not Proud, available online at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173363, retrieved April 16, 2014.[/ref] My resident expert in English criticism suggests that Eliza is trying to convince herself in this poem.

What art thou, Death?–I’ve seen thy visage and
Have heard thy sound–the deep, low, murm’ring sound
That rises on thy tread!

Thy land is called
A land of shadows; and thy path, a path
Of blind contingence gloominess and fear–
Thy form, comprising all that’s terrible;
For all the terrors that have cross’d the earth,
Or crept into its lower depths, have been
Associated with the thoughts of Death!

…Seen as thou art, by inspiration’s light,
Thou hast no look the righteous need to fear,
With all thy ghastliness–amid the grief
Thy presence brings. I hear a thrilling tone
Of music, sweet as seraph notes that ride
Upon the balmy breath of summer eve.
Art thou a tyrant, holding the black reins
Of destiny that binds the future course
Of man’s existence? No: thou art, O Death!
A haggard porter, charg’d to wait before
The Grave, life’s portal to the worlds on high.[ref]pp. 222-223, published in Times and Seasons, 15 December 1842.[/ref]

The second work is similarly free verse, without regular rhyme or rhythm, and gives Eliza’s testimony. Scholars of Eliza’s life will know this work, as it is one of the two Eliza used to conclude her autobiography in 1885, titled “Sketch of My Life.” Viewed through the lens of Historicism,[ref]In analyzing texts, the Historicist considers the culture and social forces that influence and are revealed in the text. See The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, second edition, p. 202. A psychoanalytical criticism of these texts may also be used to reveal Eliza’s mental processes and mood.[/ref] Eliza is clearly in a personal relationship with the man she refers to as a vile wretch. Eliza uses the term innocence to describe herself, and speaks of how the vile wretch fed himself, face to face, on the peace and blood of [her] innocence. This poem also shows Eliza as very alone and abandoned.

It is no trifling thing to be a saint…
To stand unmov’d beneath the with’ring rock
Of vile apostacy, when men depart
From the pure principles of righteousness–
Those principles requiring man to live
By ev’re word proceeding from the mouth
Of God.–To stand unwav’ring, undismay’d
And unseduc’d, when the base hypocrite
Whose deeds take hold on hell, whose face is garb’d
With saintly looks, drawn out by sacrilege
From a profession, but assum’d and thrown
Around him for a mantle to enclose
The black corruption of a putrid heart.–

To stand on virtue’s lofty pinnacle,
Clad in the heav’nly robes of innocence,[ref]Eliza’s reference to herself as innocence.[/ref]
Amid that worse than every other blast–
The blast that strikes at moral character
With floods of falsehood foaming with abuse…–
Thrown side by side and face to face[ref]This imagery clearly evokes sexual intimacy.[/ref] with that
Foul hearted spirit, blacker than the soul
Of midnight’s darkest shade, the traitor,
The vile wretch that feeds his sordid selfishness
Upon the peace and blood of innocence–
The faithless, rottenhearted wretch, whose tongue
Speaks words of trust and fond fidelity,
While treach’ry, like a viper, coils behind
The smile that dances in his evil eye.–

…to be a saint, requires
A noble sacrifice…the grand consummation,[ref]This is a reference to Christ’s atonement.[/ref] will
Repay the price however costly…

…Then let me be a saint, and be prepar’d
For the approaching day, which like a snare
Will soon surprise the hypocrite [and] expose
The rottenness of human schemes…

In the third poem during these three weeks, I see an Eliza for whom past concerns: pregnancy, exposure, and marriage, are gone, but gone also is the sweet life of the one she carried, the possible girl child named Eliza. In Eliza’s convalescence she is alone to rest and think about the lingering and eternal spirit of the individual who might have been entrusted to her to raise. This poem, alone of the four that make up this quartet, would never be published during Eliza Snow’s lifetime.

O how sweet is retirement! how precious these hours
They are dearer to me than midsummer’s gay flow’rs.
Their soft stillness and silence awaken the Muse–
‘Tis a time–’tis a place that the minstrel should choose
While so sweetly the moments in silence pass by
When there’s nobody here but Eliza and I.

This is truly a moment peculiarly fraught
With unbound meditation and freedom of thought!
Such rich hallowed seasons are wont to inspire
With the breath of Parnassus[ref]A mountain in Greece that was believed to be sacred to Apollo and home of the Muses – a reference to how this solitude is reviving in Eliza the desire to once again return to her gift for poetry.[/ref] the languishing lyre
For sweet silence is dancing in Solitude’s eye
When there’s nobody here but Eliza and I.

O thou fav’rite retirement! Palladium[ref]Palladium was the wooden statue of Pallas that Athena had given to the founder of Troy that was believed to protect Troy as long as it remained in the city. According to Virgil’s Aeneid, Odysseus stole the Palladium and Aeneas took the Palladium to Rome, where it protected that great city. In Christianity since 1600 the term came to represent any relic that protected a city, people, or nation from military attack. Though this term falls awkwardly on our ears, Eliza may well have seen herself as the erstwhile virgin who provided protection to the enemy (Bennett) during a time of “nonsense and noise” and has now been removed from that enemy to the new spiritual empire of Joseph’s New and Everlasting Covenant, while Bennett wages his attack on the people of God. Pallas, who Athena looked on as a sister, was the one killed when Athena was protected. If my supposition is correct, that Bennett was targeting Elvira and seduced Eliza as part of his campaign to have Elvira, then Elvira, like Athena, was protected while Eliza, like Pallas of the Palladium, was wounded.[/ref] of joys
Remov’d from the bustle of nonsense and noise
Where mind strengthens its empire–enlarges its sphere
While it soars like the eagle or roams like the deer
O these still, sober moments, how swiftly they fly
While there’s nobody here but Eliza and I.

In the final of Eliza’s poems written in her November seclusion, Eliza embraces the forgiveness of Christ, the ability to return to “conscious innocence.”

The noblest, proudest joys that this
World’s favor can dispense,
Are far inferior to the bliss
Of conscious innocence…

It makes the righteous soul rejoice
With weight of ills opprest;
To feel the soothing “still small voice”
Low whisp’ring in the breast…

And when in Christ, the Spirit finds
That sweet, that promis’d rest;
In spite of ev’ry pow’r that binds
We feel that we are blest.

Though vile reproach its volumes swell
And friends withdraw their love;
If conscience whisper “all is well,’
And God and heav’n approve.

We’ll triumph over ev’ry ill
And hold our treasure fast;
And stand at length on Zion’s hill,
Secure from ev’ry blast.


With a possible November death of the child Eliza carried, there would no longer be a need for Jonathan to marry Eliza. But the cabin was built, and a marriage was expected. Elvira Annie Cowles, Eliza’s friend and the woman who had cared for Jonathan’s daughter since the death of Marietta Carter [Holmes], would stand by Jonathan’s side when Joseph performed the ceremony on December 1, 1842. Eliza’s poem, as it now appeared in Eliza’s journal, had indicated Jonathan and Elvira should be together. But as the marriage between Jonathan and Elvira would not seem to be consummated for several more years, the reason for the public wedding is not known. One clue might be a letter from a Gustin Books to Joseph Smith, asking Smith to convey Gustin’s regards to Elvira.[ref]If Gustin Books wished to marry Elvira, it could have been difficult explaining why she was unwilling to leave Nauvoo and Joseph. Census records from after the Nauvoo period show a G. W. Books born 1815 residing in Pennsylvania, hinting at the possibility that a marriage to Gustin Books would have taken Elvira away from the Mormon community.[/ref] Or if Elvira had been Bennett’s beloved, the marriage might have been intended to end Bennett’s hopes of ever possessing Elvira.[ref]Elvira’s name is notably missing from the affidavit from the women of Nauvoo in summer 1842 attesting to the innocence of Joseph Smith. As Bennett had attempted to kill Joseph in May 1842 during a mock battle of the Nauvoo Legion, Elvira may have been trying to keep a low profile, to avoid provoking Bennett, particularly as Bennett still had allies in Nauvoo itself who could hurt Joseph. A marriage to Jonathan would end Bennett’s hopes of possessing Elvira without inciting Bennett’s hatred of Joseph.[/ref]

By 12 December Joseph and Emma had persuaded Eliza to break her solitude. A school had been organized that would be held in the Masonic Hall, and the Smiths asked Eliza to be an instructor in the school. Eliza was initially skeptical, describing it as an “arduous business with my delicate constitution, at this inclement season of the year…” Eliza would teach the school every day until classes were released on March 17, 1843. This would begin a notable tradition of Eliza’s concern for the youth in the gospel.[ref]Eliza R. Snow’s Nauvoo Journal, edited by Maureen Ursenbach, BYU Studies Vol 15:4 (1975), p. 402. Available online at https://byustudies.byu.edu/showtitle.aspx?title=5186, retrieved 16 April 2014.[/ref]

On 11 February 1843 Eliza “Took board and had my lodgings removed to the residence of br. J. Holmes.”[ref]Eliza R. Snow’s Nauvoo Journal, edited by Maureen Ursenbach, BYU Studies Vol 15:4 (1975), p. 402. Available online at https://byustudies.byu.edu/showtitle.aspx?title=5186, retrieved 16 April 2014.[/ref] This date, so often given as the timing of the incident with the stairs, appears to have coincided with Joseph’s activity of “changing furniture in the house to receive Mother Smith in the family…”[ref]Faulring, American Prophet’s Record, 303.”[/ref] Jonathan, Eliza, and Elvira, friends who had supported one another the previous summer, were re-united again for a period.[ref]On July 20, 1843, Eliza writes of an unnamed Sister who came to her, with forbidding and angry looks, her “appearance very plainly manifested the perturbation of her mind.” The next day Eliza would leave Nauvoo to live with the Leavitt’s in the Morley Settlement. While at the Morley Settlement, Eliza would also associate with Sylvia P. Lyon, writing a poem for Sylvia upon the death of Sylvia’s daughter. On April 5, 1844, Eliza returned to Nauvoo to attend Conference. She writes she was counseled to remain in Nauvoo, and by 14 May had been invited to lodge with the Markham family. Eliza was living with the Markhams when Joseph was killed, would travel with the Markhams when the Saints were forced to leave Nauvoo, and would live with them once the exodus arrived at Winter Quarters.[/ref]

By March the last of the men and women directly impacted by Bennett and the Strikers had been gathered in and counseled in secret. But thousands had been wounded by Bennett’s accusations. Of particular concern were those women who had been questioned during the desperate investigation, the ones who didn’t know the difference between spiritual wifery and the New and Everlasting Covenant. These young ones suspected they knew what was going on, and it appeared to them Joseph was everything Bennett had hinted.

Future Planned Posts:

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.

20 thoughts on “Eliza and the Stairs

  1. I hadn’t intended to post this until Monday. However since I clicked the “Publish” button instead of the “Save Draft” button, the little tweets have flown, and I decided I didn’t want them to have flown in vain. Even it it is the weekend, with the likelihood that everyone is living life rather than surfing the web. And even though it is Easter, almost guaranteeing people have better things to do than read posts on Millennial Star.

    Besides, if I am right that Eliza was victim, as her poetry clearly suggests, I am the more touched by her devotion to the Savior, His power to heal us and bring us forth from the grave. Hopefully my choir director won’t mind if I cry during every song we sing today, as I think of an Eliza whose innocence had been so deceitfully taken, whose tiny infant now lay in the grave, an Eliza who threw herself on the hope of Christ to right every wrong and save every soul from the cruel prison of death.

  2. Meg, another great article. It does put the “pushing down the stairs” incident in a new light, if it happened at all.
    Clearly, Bennett’s circle destroyed Nauvoo’s unity from the inside-out. A clear warning for us members today, to ensure we are not ensnared in sin that masquerades as righteousness.

  3. Meg, I find it interesting that nobody has yet contradicted any of the major points you have made in this series. The supposition has always been that Joseph Smith is the bad guy, whereas you show a.very interesting possibility that he is even a better guy than many people think.

  4. Elvira was known as an entertaining story teller to children in her charge but she did not write things down. Eliza, in contrast wrote a lot but it was often veiled.

  5. I forgot to mention in the text, but there is a late record in May 1892 from Lucy Meserve [Smith], who recounted an experience her late husband, George A. Smith, had in Nauvoo:

    “He [George A. Smith] related to me the circumstance of his calling on Joseph late
    one evening, and he was just taking a wash [–] and Joseph told him that one of his wives had just been confined [for childbirth] and Emma was the Midwife. He [George A.] told me this to prove to me that the women were married for time, as [i.e., because] Emma had told me that Joseph never taught any such thing [–she said that] they were only sealed for eternity [–] they were not to live with them and have children …”

    The details are included in Hales’ rebuttal to Michael Quinn, p. 26, note 38. Lucy’s statement was recorded after the RLDS church headed by Emma’s boys sued for possession of the Temple Lot in Independence, Missouri (Aug 6, 1891). In 1896 the courts threw out the case, leaving the Temple Lot in the possession of the Temple Lot Church, also known as the Hedrickites.

    I propose that the situation George A. Smith happened across fits the situation with Eliza Snow possibly having a miscarriage/early delivery of a child she might have conceived with Bennett. This would have occurred around the time Joseph was challenging the apostles to give him their wives, so Joseph would have had a motive to portray himself as a full polygamist at the time.

  6. I wrote the following poem after the birth of my fourth child, less than a year following the death of an infant daughter:

    To those who have know the ache of separation,
    In their hearts confronted death.
    A sleeping child sometimes raises fear.
    You lean to hear the precious sound of breath.

    To me and Meg as well, for a similar reason, Eliza’s poem about the possible death of a child resonates with clarity.
    Accepting Joseph as a prophet of God, not perfect, but struggling to do right as he understood it, and succeeding more often than not, this view of how things happened in those years is affirming. However, whatever rumors flowed, particularly during the Hofman conspiracy to delude an audience eager for original Mormon historical documents, I have continued to feel a loving kinship for the young prophet who brought a ‘Marvelous Work and a Wonder’ to me and others. While listening to the Messiah Easter performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir I was once again reminded of how the Restoration he supervised for nearly a decade returned us to a state of belief where statements from the Old Testament such as “though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh I shall see God” are illustrative rather than confusing.

  7. Hi Geoff,

    I’m benefitted from having read the Expositor and pretty much all the recent credible books on the subject (Sacred Loneliness and Rough Stone Rolling and Nightfall at Nauvoo and Mormon Enigma and Hales’ Joseph Smith’s Polygamy and Polygamy: A History and Saintly Scoundrel). Not to mention all the other odd bits and newspapers (e.g., Bergera. Love Bergera.). I must admit I’ve never bothered reading No Man Knows my History – it seems all Ms. Brodie’s credible claims are more expansively covered by later authors. Of course, the way things are, many print documents can now be found on google books.

    The problem with most who attempt to defend Joseph is they don’t know the facts or don’t have a holistic theory to underpin the facts. So when critics roll out their barrage of insinuations based on the facts, the ignorant defenders are left defenseless.

    Joseph and Emma and Eliza and the rest did us no favors. They were actively attempting to hide the history. I don’t think they ever foresaw the crisis the combination of a mangled history and the internet would pose to the faithful in our age. But God did.

    Assuming God intended me to uncover this interpretation of the history, I’m interested to know how He would describe my qualifications for such a task. This task was too low for a praiseworthy person, too “female” oriented for a male person, too convoluted for a transparently honest person. It likely helps that I’m a bit autistic in my dogged pursuit of a task that has captured my interest. And then there’s the hubris or chutzpah that allows me to think I might see truths that have evaded millions of faithful (not to mention hundreds of prophets, apostles, and scholars) before me.

    The thing is that I would be thrilled to have someone come at me and show where my hypothesis is flawed. With facts, that is, not merely claiming I’m stupid.

  8. So, Meg, distilling the timeline down, here’s what I get:

    Eliza Snow conceived John C. Bennett’s child in April or May of 1842. Joseph Smith became aware of the situation (and Eliza’s relative innocence) and married her that June, mostly to protect her from further advances by Bennett. To save Eliza’s reputation, Joseph also brokered a public marriage between her and Jonathan Holmes, which was anticipated to occur sometime in late autumn or early winter of 1842 after Holmes had established himself.

    But Eliza had an accident on the stairs of the Red Brick Store, and subsequently miscarried, in November 1842–before the marriage could take place. The marriage to Holmes was no longer necessary; and he later proceeded to marry Elvira Cowles.

  9. Regarding Elvira, a Brother William Wright wrote a letter to the First Presidency in 1931 claiming “Before Joseph was shot, he asked Jonathan Holmes if he would marry and take care of LaVina, but that if LaVina wanted him to take care of her he would take her. He would fill that mission to please his Father in Heaven.”

    The story likely comes from William Wright’s father, John Fish Wright (1841-1932, kwnx-zxl) who settled in Cache Valley and married in 1864. John Fish Wright may have rented a farm from Franklin Weaver, Elvira’s son-in-law, where Elvira’ had previously stayed for a period towards the end of her life.

    I like to think the statement should have actually read: “Before Joseph was shot, he asked Jonathan Holmes if he would marry and take care of Eliza, but Eliza refused. Then Joseph asked if Jonathan would marry and take care of Elvira. Jonathan replied that if Elvira wanted him to take care of her he would take her. He would fill that mission to please his Father in Heaven.”

    Of course, the bit about Eliza wouldn’t have been Elvira’s to confide, but it could explain the odd way the extant story was written.

    John Fish Wright’s grandson was seriously obsessed with marrying my grandmother, Elvira’s great-granddaughter. Grandma eloped with my grandfather even though she had been engaged to Mr. Wright (yes, sounds like “Mr. Right”). Wright was the kind of obsessed where you meet with a woman who is about to celebrate her fiftieth wedding anniversary and suggest she divorce her husband and be sealed to you instead – having already secured the promised compliance of your current wife to her necessary part (i.e., civil divorce) to make the scheme possible. So I can believe that the Wright family was seriously into this cult of Elvira, where they felt loyalty to her and a responsibility to make sure her story was not lost.

  10. Hi JimD,

    You’ve pretty much nailed it.

    My timeline:

    Fall 1840: Joseph asks Elvira to become a plural wife. Elvira agrees with the condition that Emma agree. Emma doesn’t agree at that time.

    March 1841: Bennett decides to marry Elvira. Elvira counsels with Joseph, who warns her to be cautious. At this time Joseph has already sent George Miller out to determine the facts behind accusations against Bennett.

    April 1841: Joseph learns Bennett is still married. He warns Bennett to stay away from Elvira.

    May 1841: Bennett is called to treat Francis Higbee and finds him infected with the clap. Finding corruption in Francis tears at Bennett’s fragile resolve to suppress his sexual urges. This may be around the time Bennett seeks out Catherine Laur Fuller. This may also be when Bennett frigged Mary Heron.

    June 1841: Bennett begins creating a network of men and women who believe his tales that sex is allowable as long as it remains undiscovered. However Backenstos tells on Bennett, saying he has found Bennett with Sarah Pratt. Bennett turns evidence against Francis Higbee in an effort to mitigate his own disgrace.

    July 1841: Higbee and Bennett are arraigned before several dozen men of the Masonic Lodge. Later that month Bennett attempts suicide. Meanwhile other men have begun having sex with women Bennett has already seduced.

    August-December 1841: Bennett’s ring of Strikers grows to include more than a dozen men, who go on to seduce many more willing women.

    January 1842: Something goes wrong and Nancy Winchester happens upon an assignation. Someone (Francis Higbee?) rapes Nancy in an attempt to keep her quiet. Bennett dreams up his three-tiered scheme of Cyprians (whores), Chambered Sisters of Charity (those like Catherine Fuller who have been giving in to the Strikers’ demands) and now Cloistered Saints. He prepares his seducers for the possibility of winning a Cloistered Saint for themselves, with the object of reducing the excesses that led to the incident with Nancy Winchester. For the first time, he conceives a hope that he could win Elvira to himself. Francis Higbee sets his cap for Nancy Rigdon, while both William Smith and Chauncy Higbee set their caps for Catherine Fuller. Bennett bides his time, willing to allow the other men to work out the rough edges of this new line of seduction. Meanwhile Joseph gets wind of Nancy’s rape and sets the High Council in motion to find the wrong-doers.

    Feb 1842: The Cloistered Saint line doesn’t work with Catherine Fuller. She rejects both Chauncy and William, deciding to marry someone else entirely, a Brother Warren.

    Mar 1842: Joseph creates the Relief Society, and Emma calls Elvira to be treasurer. It immediately becomes clear that the Relief Society is investigating women who may have been seduced by Bennett’s Strikers. Bennett revises his definition of “Cyprian Saint” to include anyone unwise enough to be detected by the Relief Society.

    April 1842: Bennett decides to do his own trial run. He begins to talk with Eliza Snow about plurality. He also begins a plot for a mock battle, where Joseph might “accidentally” be shot.

    May 1842: Joseph declines to participate in the mock battle. After much soul-searching, Eliza writes her poem, The Bride’s Avowal, to Bennett. Meanwhile the High Council begins hearing testimony from women, like Catherine Fuller, who had been seduced by Bennett. Unbeknownst to Bennett, Joseph has drawn up papers announcing Bennett is to be cut off from the Church and is circulating the papers among the leaders of the Church. Bennett is called in and confronted. Bennett writes out a confession. Joseph begins to hope he need not cut Bennett off. Meanwhile Bennett goes to Eliza and beds her.

    June 1842: Confident now that Eliza has succumbed, Bennett approaches Elvira. However Elvira is not persuaded by Bennett’s story, since Joseph himself had proposed to her in fall 1840. Drama happens. Joseph learns of Bennett’s perfidy in the face of Joseph’s leniency. Joseph publishes the notice cutting Bennett off. When Oliver Snow announces he will leave Nauvoo, Emma becomes aware of Eliza’s plight. Emma asks Sarah Cleveland to take Eliza in. Sarah accompanies Eliza to confess to Joseph, in the meeting Eliza would later characterize as the date of her sealing to Joseph.

    July 1842: Bennett goes on the attack. Eliza becomes concerned that she may be pregnant.

    August 1842: Elvira discusses the possibility of Jonathan becoming Eliza’s husband, to provide a plausible father for the child. The poem is published, and Sarah Cleveland demands Eliza leave her home. Elvira comes to Eliza, having secured Emma’s agreement to have Eliza live in the Smith home with the idea that Jonathan could “propose” after a decorous amount of time has elapsed.

    September 1842: Jonathan dutifully proposes. Eliza writes a poem accepting Jonathan’s proposal. Jonathan proceeds to begin re-building his cabin in anticipation of a marriage in early December.

    November 1842: Emma and Eliza go to the Red Brick Store, possibly to make purchases for the upcoming wedding. Eliza trips. The baby miscarries. Eliza decides she will not go through with the marriage to Jonathan. Joseph tells Eliza Jonathan will be marrying Elvira instead. Eliza makes of that what she may. She modifies the poem.

    December 1842: Joseph performs a ceremony wedding Elvira and Jonathan, though Jonathan is clear that Elvira is intended for Joseph. When Eliza has recovered from the fall and miscarriage, she is invited to teach the school at the Masonic Hall.

  11. I think God knew it would take someone who combines literary skills honed by tutelage by such as Orson Scott Card and Dave Farland with the dogged persistance of a research scientist and engineer who must pursue all possible errors in interpretation of facts while designing and supervising the design of devices that are used in national defence, where a mistake could cost lifes, to work out this tangled and deliberately obscured story. Your life path has included challenges that further prepared you. You have intimate knowledge of scoundrels, fools, the self deluded and true saints that informs your understanding of the people involved in this curious condition.

  12. Meg, this is obviously the most speculative of your posts so far. But as always there is just enough there to be very suggestive that we’ve been misreading the story. I’m not sure if you’re right or not on this but I also can’t come up with any strong counter argument either.

    This is a great example of what I’ve said previousl about Meg’s point of view. Meg challenges us to not assume the worst.

  13. Meg, many thanks for the sum-up.

    How far could a (tardy) marriage really go in nineteenth-century America to cover up a situation like this? Would Eliza really have maintained her social standing if she had given birth four months after a wedding?

    As I recall, John Turner’s biography of Brigham Young mentions that his civil marriage to Mary Ann Angell in March of 1834 was followed, seven months later, by the birth of their first son. (Turner charitably surmised that perhaps an unrecorded religious ceremony preceded the civil marriage.)

  14. John Turner’s biography was astoundingly uncharitable towards Brigham Young. It was essentially a caricature of the man. I doubt he was being charitable; more likely it was dry sarcasm.

  15. Hi JimD,

    When we look at the large number of other marriages (plural marriages) where no wedding date was even mentioned, it seems clear that it was possible in those days to significantly obfuscate marital information. I see Eliza as having been given a unique privilege in being potentially accorded a public husband who was not married. Winter was coming on, so it would not have been remarked upon that Eliza wasn’t out and about. There were other Mormon settlements to which Eliza and Jonathan could move once the baby was born, where it would not be known when the parents had married.

    The marriage between Elvira and Jonathan was publicized. But there is no reason to think the wedding of Jonathan and Eliza, had it occurred, would have been as public.

    It’s also possible that both Elvira and Eliza were pregnant, and that Jonathan was asked to marry both of them. One would remain the public wife and the other a secret plural wife. However Eliza’s history contains multiple stories regarding a miscarriage and we have her poetic record supporting a November date for losing the child and escoriating Bennett. Eliza would never have other children.

    Elvira, on the other hand, did go on to bear children, like clockwork. Her later reproductive history shows no hint of trouble with pregnancy. And so to assert that Elvira was pregnant by Bennett becomes one of those assertions without data that I threatened to ridicule. Besides, my mother told me she wouldn’t read the midrash I wrote if I show Bennett raping Elvira. Drama does happen in my midrash, but it stops short of conjugal interaction between Bennett and Elvira.

    The important point with Eliza is that if she was ever pregnant, there is more than speculation to support the idea that the father of the child was Bennett, the “vile wretch that feeds his sordid selfishness upon the peace and blood of innocence.”

  16. I just got caught up to you on this series, and have enjoyed reading it. I wish I had the background to critique what you’ve done but I don’t. Sorry, the best I can do is talk about the impression that I have of your series, not from an uninformed point of view, but from one that is not informed by as much of the scholarship that has been put out there in the last few decades.

    That’s not to say that I consider myself ignorant. I’ve just focused my personal study on the scriptures and the public teachings of Joseph Smith. Through this I’ve come to know Joseph as a prophet of God (of which I have no doubt) and a human being who was by no means omniscient, and who sincerely meant well in all he did. Your portrayal of Joseph and others fits what I know about Joseph.

    Meg says: “Joseph and Emma and Eliza and the rest did us no favors. They were actively attempting to hide the history. I don’t think they ever foresaw the crisis the combination of a mangled history and the internet would pose to the faithful in our age. But God did.”

    In this respect, I don’t think that any of us would do any differently, but it certainly gives a new understanding to the maxim that our sins will be shouted from the rooftops.

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