[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.]
On this 172nd anniversary of the founding of Relief Society, let me tell you of the manhunt I believe Joseph and Emma Smith conducted together, trying to identify those abusing the women of Nauvoo during the fall and winter of 1841/1842. The researchers before me have been certain the artifacts of this hunt were signs either of Joseph’s sexual cupidity or Emma’s hostility. And yet to my eye the man and his wife seem knit together in the same purpose.
As Emma and Joseph became aware of the activities of Bennett’s sex ring, I suggest that Joseph went from sealing women to himself for the purpose of obeying the commandment to sealing women to himself as part of either securing their loyalty or offering them protection. As some of these women were also working closely with Emma, I believe Joseph was keeping Emma informed of the situation. She had an absolute and clear need to know, particularly after March 17, 1842.
Who could Joseph and Emma trust in this investigation? By the beginning of January 1842, Joseph had complete trust in those he had taught about the New and Everlasting Covenant. These women included his wife, Emma, and his plural wives, Louisa Beaman, Zina Huntington Jacobs, Presendia Huntington Buell, and Agnes Coolbrith. The men Joseph knew he could trust included those who had performed the marriages linking him to the women: Joseph Bates Noble, Dimick Huntington, and Brigham Young. The widower Jonathan Harriman Holmes may also have been one of Joseph’s confidants, as he was Joseph’s resident body guard.
Emma similarly had complete trust in those women who had stood by her in times of past need: Elizabeth Whitney had taken Emma in when she first arrived in Kirtland, Sarah Cleveland had sheltered Emma when she arrived in Nauvoo after fleeing Missouri. Elizabeth Davis Goldsmith Brackenbury Durfee also figures among the confidants. The Smith governess, Elvira Annie Cowles may also have been one of Emma’s confidants.
Even though Joseph eventually came to believe Mary Heron had been the first to be abused, I propose Nancy Winchester was the first victim discovered. She is one of the least well-known of Joseph’s wives, and yet she was one of the youngest of all his covenant wives. 1
Nancy Mariah Winchester
No one now alive knows the date when Joseph covenanted with Nancy, but she was still only 15 when Joseph was killed. After Joseph’s death, Heber Kimball married Nancy but would never consummate the marriage. Kimball would eventually arrange for Nancy to marry another man, Amos Arnold. Nancy would bear one child by her final husband when she was nearly 40 years old. 2
I propose Nancy was a victim of the Bennett ring during the winter of 1841/42, when she was barely 13 years old. If she had been such a victim, it makes sense that an outraged Joseph and Emma would extend her protection, a situation that would later be characterized as Nancy being one of Joseph’s wives. Similarly, Heber Kimball taking over that responsibility as protector after Joseph’s death makes sense. On December 8, 1845 Heber rushes to Steven Winchester’s homes to bless Nancy, who was having fits 3–plausible as a post-traumatic stress reaction if she was attacked during the winter three years earlier. Nancy would continue to live with her parents for the remainder of her life, even after marrying Amos Arnold and finally allowing the level of sexual contact that is required to conceive a child.
I believe those who attacked a teenage Nancy had intended to seduce Clarissa Marvel, an orphan girl who lived with Agnes Coolbrith Smith and had spread rumors about the visits Joseph Smith was making to his widowed sister-in-law. Clarissa had also lived with the Winchester family. 4
If a traumatized young Nancy was the first to come to Emma and Joseph’s attention, they would have needed to add expertise to their team.
In the following months Joseph would pull in the wife of the town druggist, Sylvia Lyon, and a respected midwife, Sylvia’s mother, Patty Sessions.
Sylvia Lyon and Patty Sessions
If Bennett’s team was using some kind of drug to assist in their seductions, it was likely laudanum, a medicine based on opium that could “initiate, sustain, or lengthen sleep.” If so, Joseph and Emma needed a set of eyes watching for who might be buying the stuff. Sylvia Sessions Lyon was wife of the town store clerk and druggist, Windsor Lyon. 7
Unfortunately laudanum was a popular remedy as it could alleviate pain, coughs, and diarrhea, in addition to calming nerves and “enhancing” sleep. 8 It would have proved difficult to determine who bought for legitimate purposes, and who bought to aid attack. 9
The next medical individual Joseph pulled into the investigation was Sylvia’s mother, Patty Sessions. Patty was in her late forties at this time, and was an experienced mid-wife, having delivered children regularly since she’d been a teenage newlywed, in 1812. 10 In approximately 1867 Patty would write in her journal that she was sealed to Joseph on March 9, 1842, with Willard Richards officiating and her daughter, Patty, witnessing the covenant. 11
Involving Sylvia Lyon in the investigation indicates Joseph and Emma feared a drug was being used to molest women. Involving Patty Sessions indicates Joseph and Emma now feared the molestations may have resulted in pregnancies.
Johnson and Johnson
Two women with the maiden name Johnson next enter the story. As will be true of most women who become “plural wives” in 1842, very little is known of the circumstances under which they entered into a covenant with Joseph.
Marinda Johnson Hyde was the wife of Orson Hyde, an apostle who was serving as a missionary in Palestine. In December 1841 Joseph Smith became concerned about Marinda Johnson Hyde, who was living in life-threateningly poor conditions. In an uncanonized revelation, Joseph was advised to “say unto my servant Ebenezer Robinson, & To my handmaid his wife, Let them open their doors and take [Marinda Johnson Hyde] and her children into their house…” Ebenezer Robinson managed the Nauvoo paper, the Times and Seasons. His family lived on the ground floor of that establishment. 12
On Christmas Eve Willard Richards escorted Marinda to a holiday party with several of the twelve apostles, including Orson Pratt and his wife Sarah. It appears Marinda may have been invited to represent her absent husband, as their host, Hiram Kimball, proceeded to give “each of the 12, a Lot of Land & supper of Turkeys.” 13
On January 13th Willard Richards moved from the home of Brigham Young to live with Joseph. I propose this is the date when Joseph discovered abuses that required the attention of a doctor. Two weeks later, Joseph received another uncanonized revelation, directing the Twelve Apostles to take charge of the Times and Seasons. Robinson and his family were evicted, but Marinda remained. Willard Richards moved into the lower floor of the Times and Seasons, barring the windows, and shooting off his gun. These actions are usually interpreted through the eyes of those who thought Willard and Marinda were having an affair. However if the Times and Seasons had become a location frequented by Bennett’s ring, the shooting could have an alternate interpretation, one of Willard warning everyone that there was new management in the building, and that they could take their unholy business elsewhere.
By April, Marinda was assisting Joseph’s investigation. 14 On April 9th, Marinda invited Nancy Rigdon to her home at the printing office to meet with Joseph Smith. Nancy believed she was being propositioned. However if you read the correspondence between Joseph and Nancy with the idea that Joseph was hunting out guilty men, who had enthralled Nancy as her “suitors,” it becomes clear that he was desperately trying to win her soul back from the corrupted path she was beginning to take. 15
The widow Delcena Johnson Sherman was another Johnson woman who may have been caught in the web of the either the seducers or the investigators. Delcena Johnson Sherman was sister of Joseph Ellis Johnson and had been a widow since Lyman Sherman’s death in 1839. Joseph’s concern for women living without protection (as in Marinda’s case) might be the reason he asked Delcena to move in with Louisa Beaman, already his plural wife.
However Joseph had to have learned of the seduction of Mary Heron Snider 16, mother-in-law of Delcena’s brother, in some fashion. I propose that the abusers had swept up the widow Delcena in their predations, and that Delcena was the individual who informed Joseph of what had happened to her and to Mary Heron. If such damage had been done to Delcena, Louisa stepped up to become Delcena’s protector. Louisa provided a home, shared the resources she had, and could provide Delcena an understanding of the New and Everlasting Covenant to combat the tales of the seducers.
The Census of Nauvoo
A crucial step in the investigation was to determine who lived where. Nauvoo was constantly changing as new converts streamed in. A federal census had been conducted in 1840, but that information was nearly useless for investigative purposes, even assuming it was available to Joseph Smith and Emma. The federal census had merely identified the head of household and the number of individuals associated with the household. 17
A city census would serve two purposes. It would document, in detail, which persons lived in each property. It would also provide a pretext for gaining access to each home. The census was conducted by regular male members of the Church, and was done with almost military precision during the first two weeks in February. 18
Even though priesthood members had visited members in their homes since the earliest days of the church, the census provided a complete snapshot in time. 19 The census itself contains no information about who might have been abused, but sending the priesthood into the homes would be an opportunity for unusual circumstances to be noted.
The census was formally presented to the Church authorities on March 1, 1842.
The Female Relief Society of Nauvoo
On March 4, 1842, days after the census was complete, Sarah Kimball, wife of the non-member businessman who had gifted land and turkeys to the Twelve, got together with Eliza Snow and others to discuss a benevolent female society and develop a constitution for the organization.
The men working on the temple were sometimes ill-clothed. Sarah Kimball may have been inspired by the way women during the Revolutionary War had assisted the Continental Army by sewing shirts. 20
When Sarah Kimball and Eliza Snow approached Joseph Smithwith their draft constitution for a female benevolent society, Joseph counter-proposed a woman’s organization that was a formal arm or auxiliary of the Church. At the founding meeting of the organization, Joseph said the “restored Church of Jesus Christ could not be perfect or complete without [an organization for the women].” In addition to the power of organizing women for charitable purposes, I suspect the priesthood census had been less effective than hoped at uncovering instances where women had been abused. A group of women might be much more effective. Joseph and Emma could instruct them directly, and the members of the Relief Society would in turn minister to the women of Nauvoo.
Around this time Joseph attempted to talk with Sarah Kimball about the New and Everlasting Covenant, likely as a prerequisite for formally involving her in the investigation. But Sarah Kimball refused to hear such talk from him at that time. 21
The first meeting of the women’s organization was held March 17, 1842. Joseph Smith and John Taylor were present, but the reigns were soon turned over to the women. Sarah Cleveland suggested that Emma lead the new organization. Emma selected as her counselors her two particular confidants, Elizabeth Whitney and Sarah Cleveland. She nominated Elvira Cowles to be treasurer. Eliza Snow was nominated to be secretary 22 a nod to the group of women who had originally proposed the organization.
At the second meeting of Relief Society, the matter of scurrilous rumors attributed to Clarissa Marvel was brought before the group. Clarissa had allegedly claimed Joseph was spending an inappropriate amount of time in the company of Agnes Coolbrith Smith. Mrs Markam and Mrs. Billings were ultimately assigned to investigate the matter. They reported back that Clarissa was innocent. Then Mrs. Durfee and Mrs. Allred were sent to investigate the two young women who had claimed Clarissa Marvel had talked with them. Interestingly, it is Sarah Cleveland, Emma’s counselor, who reports back, saying the matter of Clarissa Marvel is settled.
By April 28th, women seeking admittance are being individually voted upon – and some are being denied entry. However by mid-May, large groupings of sisters are being admitted without any objection.
On May 19th, Emma (Mrs. Prest.) states:
this day was an evil day— that said she would that this Society were pure before God— that she was afraid that under existing circumstances, the sisters were not careful enough to expose iniquity— the time had been when charity had covered a multitude of sins— but now it is necessary that sin should be expos’d— that heinous sins were among us— that much of this iniquity was practiced by some in authority, pretending to be sanction’d by Prest. Smith.” Emma “continued by exhorting all who had err’d to repent and forsake their sins— said that satan’s forces were against this church— that every saint should be at the post.” 23
Lucy Ann Munjar was then “suspended for a time.”
On May 26th, Joseph and Emma both attended the Relief Society. Joseph was clearly aware of gross iniquities, saying:
they are our fellows— we lov’d them once. Shall we not encourage them to reformation?
We have not forgiven them seventy times— perhaps we have not forgiven them once. There is now a day of salvation to such as repent and reform— they should be cast out from this Society, yet we should woo them to return to God lest they escape not the damnation of hell!
Emma took a different tack. If Joseph and Emma were playing good cop, bad cop that day, she clearly had the role of the bad cop:
all idle rumor and idle talk must be laid aside yet sin must not be covered, especially those sins which are against the law of God and the laws of the country— all who walk disorderly must reform, and any knowing of heinous sins against the law of God, and refuse to expose them, becomes the offender— said she wanted none in this Society who had violated the laws of virtue.
The very next day over a hundred women seeking membership in Relief Society showed up at the meeting. Membership in Relief Society was perhaps becoming seen as tantamount to a declaration of virtue. Lucy Ann Munjar was re-admitted to the membership.
By the beginning of June the bar had been raised. New members would now not be admitted “but by presenting regular petitions signed by two or three members in good standing in the Society— whoever comes in must be of good report.” Even so, again more than a hundred women qualified to become members of the Relief Society that day.
In May, as Joseph and Emma were alternately urging the ladies to expose sin yet inviting sinners to repent and reform, various women and men were coming forward and confessing before the Church’s High Council to having extramarital sexual liaisons with multiple partners. On 20 May, the victims of Chauncy Higbee, for example, would testify he’d taught them “it was right to have free intercourse with women if it was kept secret &c…” 24 One of Chauncy’s victims, Catherine Fuller Warren, testified she had engaged in intercourse not only with Chauncy, but also with John C. Bennett and William Smith, Joseph’s youngest brother. 25
Interviewing Suspected Victims
Some small trace remains in the extant record of the means the investigators used to determine what damage had been done.
We know Joseph tried to talk to the teenaged Emily and Eliza Partridge during this timeframe. Emily reports Joseph talked to her, saying:
Emily, if you will not betray me, I will tell you something for your benefit.
When Joseph was unable to find a time to talk with Emily, he offered to give her a letter, provided she would promise to burn it after reading it. 26 Emily refused the letter. Elizabeth Durfee was sent in next, and invited Eliza and Emily Partridge to her home. Mrs. Durfee then struck up a conversation with the girls about what they might think of spiritual marriage. The girls said nothing. However the very attempt to determine if they’d been caught in Bennett’s web raised suspicions in the girls’ minds. There is no indication the Partridge girls ever suspected the questioning was in service of apprehending evil-doers.
Nancy Rigdon was famously interviewed by Joseph Smith as has been previously mentioned. 27 Martha Brotherton was similarly interviewed by Brigham Young. 28 Each of these two believed they were being propositioned. Their reactions indicated that they did not perceive themselves to have been abused by members of the sex ring. To the converse, Nancy and Martha looked on extended members of that ring as their suitors. Nancy and Martha may have therefore been key to determining the identities of certain of the young men involved, all unknowing.
It appears there was a third category of interviewees: those who had been seduced but who were now penitent. The extant record does not allow us to determine conclusively who these were, or how many women had been taken. But the record is nevertheless suggestive. With the exception of Sarah Whitney, I suspect all the women who became plural wives in 1842 either served as detectives in the hunt for the abusers or were among the population of women who had been abused.
For the most part, those who had been innocently seduced were protected from exposure. But not all the women could hide their involvement. Some of the women, like Catherine Warren, had to testify, to ensure the ring of seducers was brought to justice.
Future Planned Posts:
Arraigning the Band of Brothers
Wives of Sorrow
Sangamo and Pratt
The Apostles and their Wives
Eliza and the Stairs
Healing Wounded Hearts
Revealing the Revelation
Those Virtuous and Pure
Daughter of Hope
The Prodigal Returns
Conferring the Mantle
Collecting the Sorrowful
For Eternity and Time
Fifty Years in the Wilderness
Days of Defiance
God’s Strange Act: A Legacy
- Nancy Winchester was born in August 1828, a couple of weeks before Helen Mar Kimball, who would marry Joseph Smith when she was only 14 years old. ↩
- Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, particularly p. 608. ↩
- Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, p. 607 ↩
- I have been unable to find information about Clarissa Marvel outside of the minutes of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo during March and April of 1842, see the Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, available online at http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperDetails/nauvoo-relief-society-minute-book, retrieved 13 March 2014. ↩
- Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, p. 236. ↩
- Thomsonian medicine focused on herbal remedies in contrast to the bleedings, purgatives, and surgeries used by mainstream physicians of the day. ↩
- Joseph F. Smith prepared two affidavits for Sylvia’s signature. One was dated February 8, 1842. The other was dated February 8, 1843. It appears Joseph F. Smith derived the date from the birthday of Sylvia’s daughter, Josephine, born February 8, 1844. However Sylvia never signed an affidavit attesting she had been sealed to Joseph during his lifetime. Sylvia would choose to be sealed to Joseph Smith after his death, on January 26, 1846. A late assertion by Sylvia that her daughter Josephine was Joseph’s child could be attributed to the nature of the covenant into which Sylvia entered in the temple after Joseph’s death. Josephine was the only one of Sylvia’s children to marry outside of the temple, where the information that an individual was sealed to Joseph was usually revealed, as knowledge regarding such a relationship would be considered sacred. ↩
- Laudanum included opium and from 1820 included morphine. As laudanum was highly addictive, individuals would sometimes continue to use it after their symptoms had abated. ↩
- Chloroform was invented in 1831 in an attempt to develop a cheap pesticide. In 1841/42 chloroform was not yet sold for use on humans. The first attested discovery that chloroform was an effective anesthetic was documented to have occurred on 4 November 1847 at the hands of Scottish obstetrician James Young Simpson. Intriguingly, Dr. John C. Bennett published his findings regarding chloroform less than a year later, in 1848. ↩
- Sylvia’s earlier records were lost, but from 1867 until her death in 1892 at age 97, Patty delivered nearly 4000 children. ↩
- Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, p. 179. Date of journal entry in Compton, p. 682. ↩
- Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, p. 236. ↩
- ibid. ↩
- Belief that Joseph married Marinda in April 1842 is based on cryptic notes in Joseph’s journal history. Marinda herself would indicate she was not sealed to Joseph Smith until Mary 1843 in the presence of Eliza and Emily Partridge. ↩
- The letter Joseph writes to Nancy Rigdon is in Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, Chapter 17. Martha Brotherton would have a similar experience with Brigham Young, believing him to be entrapping her. Again, I contend these conversations were held in hopes of identifying the men who were abusing the women of Nauvoo. ↩
- The seduction of Mary Heron Snider was covered in my previous post regarding A Faithful Joseph. To read more, see Hales’ article on Mary Heron, available online at http://www.josephsmithspolygamy.com/NonWivesSexualRelations/24Accusations/MaryHeronSniderACC.html, retrieved 16 March 2014. Note that Hales only considers the possibilities where Heron was a sexual partner of Joseph Smith, where I read the incomplete minutes as clearly indicating Joseph as the man who told Joseph Ellis Johnson about the frigging to which his mother-in-law was subjected. ↩
- A blank copy of the 1840 federal census form is available online at http://www.mymcpl.org/_uploaded_resources/MGC-1840censusblank.pdf, retrieved on 13 March 2014. ↩
- Maurine Carr Ward, 1842 Census of Nauvoo: Identification of Members: Civil Ward One, available online at http://mormonhistoricsites.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/NJ5-1_Ward2.pdf, retrieved 13 March 2014.reference. The timing of the census is not specified in the census itself, but the early February timing was reconstructed by Dr. Lyman Pratt based on extensive analysis. ↩
- For a history of Home Teaching, see Rex Anderson, A documentary history of the Lord’s way of watching over the church by the priesthood through the ages, available online at http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/MTAF/id/2337, retrieved 14 March 2014. On page 24 Anderson relates the story of William F. Cahoon, who was assigned to be a teacher to Joseph Smith and his family when Cahoon was only seventeen. As Cahoon was born in 1813, this must have been around 1830. ↩
- The women had offered funds to assist the Continental Army, but General Washington refused monies, as this gave the impression the new nation had to rely on women for finances. Shirts, however, were deemed acceptable. The story of the shirt women sewed during the revolutionary war is contained in Cokie Roberts’ Founding Mothers, as noted in the Kirkus review of the children’s version of Roberts’ book, available online at https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/cokie-roberts/founding-mothers/, retrieved 13 March 2014. ↩
- Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, Chapter 10. Sarah Kimball would be one of the many who requested to be sealed to Joseph after his death, being sealed to him on March 2, 1877 in the St. George temple. ↩
- Phebe Wheeler was also nominated to be secretary the day Relief Society was founded. Phebe Wheeler and Hanna(h) Ells would record minutes of the Relief Society at times, but Eliza Snow recorded all of the sermons Joseph Smith delivered to the Relief Society during his life. Phebe Wheeler was a domestic in Hyrum Smith’s home, then married Oliver Olney, brother-in-law to Marinda Nancy Johnson Hyde. Olney was excommunicated the day Relief Society was founded, and would go on to print anti-Mormon pamphlets. Hence Phebe Wheeler drops out of the stream of well-documented Mormon history. Hannah Ells, on the other hand, would apparently become one of Joseph’s plural wives in 1843, before her untimely death in the home of Sarah Kimball in 1845, with Eliza Snow at her bedside. ↩
- This and subsequent Relief Society quotes are from the Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, available online at http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/nauvoo-relief-society-minute-book?locale=eng&p=63, retrieved 13 March 2014. ↩
- Richard S. Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History, p. 24. ↩
- ibid. ↩
- Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, p. 406. ↩
- Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, Chapter 17. ↩
- In John Bowes’ Mormonism Exposed indicates Joseph Smith sent Brigham Young to interview Martha because they had heard “an evil report of her.” See Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, Chapter 17. ↩