[This post is part of a series about Joseph Smith’s Polygamy. To read from the beginning and see a list of published and planned posts in this series, go to A Faithful Joseph]
Dr. John Cook Bennett apparently came to Nauvoo in August 1840. By October 1840 he had been baptized. Less than six months after arriving in Nauvoo, he had been elected Mayor of the city. By the summer of 1842, Bennett and Joseph Smith were each alleging the other had participated in gross misconduct.
There are two prominent views of John Cook Bennett.
Those who revere Joseph Smith tend to believe Bennett was a devilish scoundrel who told vicious lies about Joseph Smith.
Those who don’t much care about Joseph Smith tend to believe Bennett was a colorful individual who possibly told the truth about Joseph Smith.
The great quandary for those who paint Bennett as an irredeemable scoundrel is the question of how Joseph Smith could have allowed Bennett to ascend to such heights.
However real people are not all good or all evil. I think of Bennett as someone who secured freedom for his adopted people and could have been one of the greatest leaders of the Mormon movement. Allow me to explain how a believing and honorable Bennett could have fallen.
Savior of the Mormons
On July 20, 1840, John C. Bennett was officially confirmed as the Quartermaster General of Illinois, an unpaid position responsible for arms and munitions throughout the state. 1 This was before the outcry over the assassination of President Garfield would lead to establishment of a civil service. 2 During this earlier period of time, political appointments were granted to friendly individuals of promise, who then used their positions to gain money and power. The same day Bennett was appointed Quartermaster, he wrote a letter endorsing Western Tonic Mixtures. 3 One presumes the company thanked Bennett for this testimonial in a manner that improved his financial or political position.
Less than a week later, Bennett wrote to Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon offering his assistance and advice. 4 He professed that happiness, not pursuit of wealth, inspired his interest. He expressed the hope that “your people will become my people, your God my God.” 5 The Mormons voted as a cohesive block. 6 Illinois had been a state for little more than twenty years. It was both raw enough for a newcomer to make himself a name and civilized enough that a prominent man from Illinois might vie for the highest office in the land. 7 Bennett’s initial, unsolicited, advice urged Smith to gather his converts into a concentrated group. The Mormon population was swelling rapidly, creating a previously untapped political force Bennett likely believed he could exploit for his own gain. 8
By August, the Mormon concern about attacks from Missouri had been realized. 9 Smith urgently needed someone who could win protection for the Mormons in their new home in Illinois. Given that Missouri still considered Joseph Smith a fugitive, Nauvoo also needed a city charter that could allow Joseph to escape the expected extradition attempts.
Bennett’s arrival in Nauvoo could not have come at a better time.
The Salvation of Bennett
Bennett’s 1842 exposé History of the Saints claimed he had never believed. But Bennett in 1842 was a wounded man full of rage, driven to hurt Joseph Smith in any way possible.
However I urge you to consider the possibility that Bennett was honestly impressed with the goodness of the people he had decided to save. Bennett’s past was littered with events of which a man might reasonably wish to repent. For a moment, let us consider that his decision to be baptized in October 1840 was sincere, despite his obvious political motivations.
For Bennett the slate was wiped clean. Unlike past efforts, he now had an unprecedented level of access to those in power. And the way Mormons had been treated in Missouri had been horrific. Illinois could show that they were better than the brutes in Missouri, that they did adhere to the best ideals of the still-new United States.
If Bennett was truly converted, however, he made two mistakes. First, he did not tell Joseph about the estranged wife who would not grant him a divorce. 10 Second, he did not admit that he had played fast and loose with people’s hopes and dreams in the past. 11 However Bennett was worlds away from the Ohio valley where his wife, Mary Barker Bennett, now lived. He’d always been able to outrun his past before. Perhaps a penitent Bennett thought his relinquished past could remain a secret.
It could be that Bennett was aware of how much Joseph was willing to forgive. William Wines Phelps had been estranged from the Church since betraying Joseph to authorities in Missouri–an evolution that nearly caused Joseph’s death. In July 1840 W. W. Phelps begged to be allowed to return. The drama of Brother Phelp’s return would have been playing out as Bennett entered Mormon society. If Joseph could forgive the deadly treachery of W. W. Phelps, why need Bennett confess of politically inconvenient facts from the past?
The Pinnacle of Bennett’s Power
Bennett’s mission to the Illinois legislature proved successful. He was able to win passage of a powerful city charter, which included a strong habeus corpus provision. Joseph and other would make use of the habeus corpus powers granted by the Nauvoo city charter to escape extradition for several years. Bennett also won passage of a charter to create a legion in Nauvoo as well as a university.
Upon Bennett’s return to Nauvoo, he was elected Mayor of Nauvoo. When the Nauvoo Legion was formed, Bennett was made General of the Legion. 12 In light of the failing health of Sidney Rigdon, the absence of most of the apostles, and the apostacy of Oliver Cowdery, there was a power vaccuum in the church. Joseph called Bennett to serve as Assistant President of the Church.
The Fall Begins
At some point “shortly after Bennett’s baptism,” Joseph Smith received a letter documenting a sordid past for Bennett. 13 I imagine Joseph’s conversations with Bennett gently probed the past before Joseph took the step of commissioning an investigation. This would be the first point after baptism when Bennett could have come clean and retained Joseph’s trust. However Joseph remained concerned enough that he sent George Miller to look into the accusations.
George Miller wrote Joseph Smith on March 2, 1841. Bennett reportedly was “able to push himself into places and situations entirely beyond his abilities… his wife left him under satisfactory evidence of his adulterous connections… he used her bad otherwise… it has been Dr. Bennett’s wish that his wife should get a bill of divorcement, but as yet she has not… in fine, he is an imposter and unworthy of the confidence of all good men.” 14
Joseph would have talked with Bennett again after receipt of George Miller’s March 2nd letter. The text of the letter is damning, so Bennett must have done something to retain Joseph’s good will. It’s even possible Bennett didn’t overtly lie. 15
Why would an honest Bennett allow Joseph to reach a wrong conclusion? The key may have been love. Joseph would later accuse Bennett of having courted a woman under false pretenses. 16 Bennett could have confessed to feckless behavior before his baptism without significant damage. But he could not admit he was still married and hope to continue courting his newly beloved.
Even if Joseph wasn’t ready to censure Bennett openly, Bennett had clearly kept important information hidden. Assuming the young woman Bennett had been courting was known to Joseph, he could easily have put her on her guard against Bennett. Bennett was persuaded to leave the homestead around May, hinting that the young woman in question was a frequent visitor to or intimate of the Smith homestead. Despite Joseph’s likely misgivings, Joseph defended Bennett when Thomas C. Sharp attacked Bennett’s character in May. 17 Joseph wrote Sharp a pointed letter to the editor asking for a cancellation of his subscription. This was the beginning of Sharp’s antipathy towards the Mormons, a hatred that would lead to Joseph’s death. 18
It appears Bennett’s next lodging was the home of Sarah Pratt, wife of apostle Orson Pratt. Sarah was a young woman and mother, and was likely emotional about her husband being gone on a foreign mission. Later reports alleging Bennett and Sarah were intimate early on could have arisen from professional treatment of her “hysteria.” 19
It isn’t clear when Bennett and Sarah Pratt became fully intimate. Bennett was later reported to have claimed “Sarah Pratt made a first rate go.” 20 I imagine Bennett was heartbroken at being cut off from his beloved. Sarah was likely still anxious about the absence of her husband, Orson. The professional treatment for hysteria in Bennett’s day was vulvar massage, something we would see as intensely sexual. Bennett and Sarah Pratt lived in the same house, a house not nearly as crowded and public as the Smith homestead where Bennett had been living. It is little wonder that the two lonely adults ended up in bed together.
Even now, it would have been possible for Bennett to confess all to Joseph. But he didn’t.
Suicide and Secret Disgrace
In June a storm of accusing letters began to arrive. 21 The first and most significant was a letter from Hyrum Smith, Joseph’s older brother. Hyrum had met Mary Bennett and confirmed all that George Miller had written.
Joseph called Bennett in and tore into him. I believe it is during this discussion that Bennett confessed to his adultery with Sarah Pratt. 22 Bennett begged Joseph to not openly shame him. Sarah was evicted from the house she had been granted and sent back to board with the Goddards. Bennett may have moved to a public house at this point. Certainly Joseph would not have brought Bennett back to the homestead.
Alone, disgraced, despairing, Bennett apparently took a lethal dose of medicine. I believe Bennett’s suicide attempt was sincere. But Bennett was discovered and his life saved.
As angry as Joseph would have been at Bennett, he had compassion on the fallen man. As soon as practicable, Bennett was again involved in the duties of his offices. No mention was made publicly at this time of his abandoned wife and children, his shady past, or the adultery with Sarah Pratt.
Desperation and Desire
By July Bennett was stripped of all real power. But few realized how hollow his positions were.
In July Orson Pratt returned to Nauvoo after a successful mission to the Holy Land. Orson was perturbed to find his wife living as a tenant, without the level of support other missionaries’ wives were receiving. However no one told Orson at that time about Sarah’s infidelity. Orson re-established his household and looked to re-integrate himself into the excitement that was Nauvoo. Orson’s interest in founding a University led him to Bennett. When Orson learned of Bennett’s care for Sarah while Orson was absent, he insisted Bennett come live with them. 23
Bennett was forced to be friends with a man he’d cuckolded, forced to endure while that man enjoyed all the benefits of being back home. Bennett had to go through the performance of his duties knowing that Smith would never permit him any more opportunities for advancement. The woman he loved was in the city, forever in sight, but never to be his. All the while he was surrounded by the righteous who were forever attending Church meetings in the groves of Nauvoo. 24
Bennett was likely at one of these church meetings one morning during the fall of 1841. Joseph was preaching, and mentioned that when the gospel was taught in Turkey or India it might be necessary for the Saints to embrace the possibility of a man having multiple wives. 25 After lunch the meeting reconvened, and Joseph recanted his words. But the sermon may have planted the seed of an idea in Bennett’s mind.
The Secret Combination
Bennett was apparently not alone. A small group of individuals came together over this idea. 26 Some one or more of them was familiar with Jacob Cochran’s explosive teachings related to spiritual wifery. Bennett was an obvious individual to guide the group for good or ill. He could have called them all to repentance or asked Joseph to instruct them more perfectly in what he’d meant with his sermon about the Turks and Indians.
I submit that Bennett saw an opportunity to possess the one he desired. If he could convince her that it was right to sleep with someone who was not acknowledged as her husband before the world, he might taste the pleasure of her embrace. If he could convince her that it was right to be his secret, spiritual wife even though he was still legally married to another, he could have the joy of her devotion.
He could not risk approaching his beloved first, however. It needed to be bigger than him, something that neither his beloved or Joseph would see as the object of the group’s activities. 27
With luck Bennett would secure the heart and body of his beloved before Joseph discovered the matter. Joseph had forgiven men who had plotted to kill him. 28 Bennett himself had not suffered terribly even though he had bedded the wife of an apostle. What then if a few men tasted the pleasures of the fair ladies of Nauvoo, as long as it was done in secret without exposing those involved by unexplained pregnancies?
Surely, Bennett must have reasoned, Joseph would forgive.
Future Planned Posts:
The Angel, the Sword, and the Heron Seduction
Hunt in the City Beautiful
Arraigning the Band of Brothers
Wives of Sorrow
Sangamo and Pratt
Eliza and the Stairs
Healing Wounded Hearts
Revealing the Revelation
Those Virtuous and Pure
Daughter of Hope
The Prodigal Returns
Conferring the Mantle
Collecting the Sorrowful
For Eternity and Time
Fifty Years in the Wilderness
Days of Defiance
God’s Strange Act: A Legacy
- Andrew Smith, The Saintly Scoundrel: The Life and Times of Dr. John Cook Bennett, p. 49. ↩
- See The Assasination of James A. Garfield, available online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assassination_of_James_A._Garfield, retrieved 2 March 2014. The man who shot Garfield was a disaffected office seeker. ↩
- Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, p. 49. ↩
- Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, p. 54. ↩
- ibid. ↩
- The tendency of Mormons to vote as a block was a characteristic that had fueled opposition in Missouri from the old settlers, i.e., those who had arrived in Missouri a mere ten years before the Mormons. ↩
- If Bennett had hoped for political power, Abraham Lincoln’s career demonstrates that Bennett’s hopes were not foolish. ↩
- Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, p. 55. ↩
- The attack on the heart of Nauvoo caused the death of Marietta Holmes and is more thoroughly documented in my previous post, <a href=”https://www.millennialstar.org/six-funerals-and-a-blessing/”Six Funerals and a Blessing. ↩
- Miller’s letter ↩
- Saintly Scoundrel, like the whole book. ↩
- Joseph Smith was made Lieutenant General, one rank higher than Bennett. ↩
- Times and Seasons, 1 Jul 1842. ↩
- ibid. ↩
- I like to imagine Bennett could have said truths that allowed Joseph to infer an untruth. I love the idea of a news clipping documenting the death of Elizabeth Bennett, beloved wife of Dr. J[esse] Bennett. Such a clipping would explain both Mary’s certainty John was a bigamist and Joseph’s failure to act on Bennett’s betrayal of his wife as reported in Miller’s letter. ↩
- Times and Seasons, 1 Jul 1842. ↩
- Warsaw Signal, May 1841. ↩
- Sharp was one of the five men tried for the conspiracy leading to the death of Hyrum and Joseph Smith, see Carthage Conspiracy. ↩
- Testimony of the Goddards published in Times and Season, 1 Jul 1842. ↩
- Testimony of Jacob Backenstos, Affidavits and Certificates Disproving the Statements and Affidavits Contained in John C. Bennett’s Letters, August 31, 1842, available online at https://restorationbookstore.org/articles/nopoligamy/jsfp-visionarticles/sarahprattcase.htm, retrieved 2 March 2014. ↩
- Many of these are included in the 1 July 1842 issue of the Times and Seasons ↩
- Lorenzo Wasson, Emma Smith’s nephew, overheard the exchange but his summary doesn’t mention Sarah Pratt. ↩
- Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, p.80-83. ↩
- There was never a church building, per se, in Nauvoo. Congregations met in the groves or in homes. ↩
- Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy. Hales does not specify which date this sermon occurred, but includes fall 1841 as one possibility. ↩
- Bennett’s ring of co-conspirators would grow to include William Smith, Francis Higbee, and Jacob Backenstos ↩
- My midrashic view that Bennett could have fostered this scheme for the sole purpose of ensnaring the woman he had been courting is based on the 2002 DC Sniper. John Allen Muhammad created a cloud of shootings with the intent of hiding the intended murder of his wife. By the time John Allen Muhammad and his accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, were apprehended, they had terrorized the capital of the United States for months, shooting twenty seven people, of whom seventeen died. John Muhammad had not yet gotten around to shooting his wife. ↩
- William Wine Phelps had betrayed Joseph to the Missouri authorities, along with Hinckle. Bennett was living in Joseph’s home in Nauvoo when WW Phelps sent a letter to Joseph requested rebaptism. ↩