Joseph’s Wives: Mary Heron & Clarissa Reed

[By popular demand, objectionable words in this post will be blacked out as follows: objectionable words. If you feel a need to confirm that you’ve inferred the correct objectionable word(s), you can see the text by using your mouse to highlight the black rectangle.]

JEJohnsonYou’re expecting me to talk about Fanny Alger next, but something came across my desk that prompted me to jump chronological order to examine the tenuous hints people will seize upon when claiming a woman was a plural wife of Joseph Smith.

First we’ll talk about the case of Mary Heron, who some believe was either a wife or sex partner of Joseph Smith based on the testimony of Joseph Ellis Johnson (pictured to the left). Second, I’ll discuss the “hope” some have harbored that Clarissa Reed produced a son by Joseph Smith over a year after her marriage to Hancock.

by Joseph: Mary Heron

Mary Heron [Snider] was the mother-in-law of Joseph Ellis Johnson. The textual hints regarding Mary Heron and “bro. Joseph” arise in the context of Joseph Ellis Johnson’s confession to engendering a child with Hannah Goddard.

Hannah was a teenage woman who was technically married to Lorenzo Snow, but who had left his household after he departed on a mission, the marriage apparently unconsummated. While in Winter Quarters, Joseph Ellis Johnson fell in love with Hannah and engendered a child with her. The child, Josephus, was born January 1848, when Hannah was 19. She would have conceived Josephus in April 1847, when she was still eighteen.

In 1850 Joseph Ellis Johnson began to go through the Church disciplinary process so he could get right with the Church and marry Hannah. This would allow him to be sealed to Hannah and Josephus. First he went to Lorenzo Snow and settled the matter with the man who was titularly Hannah’s husband. Lorenzo sorted, Joseph Ellis Johnson next submitted himself to a Church council. I’m personally a bit fuzzy on Church discipline circa 1850, but it appears the council was composed of many of the Twelve Apostles.

Orson Hyde is mentioned in the minutes of the trial, and Joseph Ellis Johnson indicates that he knew it was wrong and is seeking forgiveness. Joseph Ellis Johnson is then apparently asked whether or not he is teaching that it is right to have sex with women as long as it isn’t known, a probably reference to the epidemic of illicit intercourse that occurred from 1841 through 1842. Teachings regarding illicit intercourse had re-emerged after Joseph’s death, notably taught by William Smith and brazenly improved upon by Warner McCary. If these teachings regarding illicit intercourse were taking hold at Winter Quarters, it would be a cause of grave concern.

Joseph Ellis Johnson tries to explain that he never taught illicit intercourse, that he just sinned. But it is in explaining his aversion to illicit intercourse, as an institution, that researchers have presumed Joseph Smith bedded Mary Heron [Snider], Joseph Ellis Johnson’s mother-in-law.

The transcript of the trial has Johnson saying:

“I never heard any conversation to say it was right to go to bed to a woman if not found out – I was aware the thing was wrong. – had been with – he sd. He was familiar with the first frigging  – that was done in his house with his mother in law — by Joseph.” 1

Another account of the trial comes from a Brother Kelly, who records:

“O.H. sd. Kelly told him John knew what he was about — it was done in his house by bro Joseph that the Ch had tried to break down bro. Babbit & the Ch Therefor — I knew at the time I was doing wrong — I never av taken any body as a excuse — I never plighted my faith on Joseph’s transactions . . . J,Kelly — It as taken me by surprise — in our conversation — Johnson introduced the subject — as to himself — & many scenes that r familiar in the Ch — he sd. It was a matter of his own concern & interested nobody else but those he wod. av to bow to him.” 2

To the mind primed to presume that any mention of a Joseph having sexual interactions with a woman must necessarily be Joseph Smith, the evidence appears clear.

“It was done in his house by bro Joseph.”

“[Johnson] was familiar with the first frigging — that was done in his house with his mother-in-law — by Joseph.”

On the basis of these two sentences, unknown thousands or even millions presume that Joseph Smith was “frigging ” Mary Heron [Snider], mother-in-law to Joseph Ellis Johnson. A recent blog post 3  on a Mormon Research Ministry site talks about the shock one formerly Mormon family, descendants of Joseph Ellis Johnson, experienced when they learned of these things.

Yet was the “bro. Joseph” mentioned in this trial necessarily Joseph Smith Jr.?

The second quote, which I had not seen before today, gives an interesting clue. Brother Kelly is mentioned several times in Joseph Ellis Johnson’s 1850 journal. 4

Brother Kelly’s name was Joseph.

Now, the person who e-mailed me still couldn’t initially wrap their mind around this. This is because people forget that John C. Bennett and Chauncy Higbee and many others were wandering around Nauvoo convincing women to yield and telling men that illicit intercourse was permitted. When a particular woman would prove recalcitrant, Bennett or Higbee would haul in William Smith to affirm that such behavior was tolerated by the heads of the Church. This is a matter of documented fact in the Nauvoo High Council Minutes for May 1842, along with additional hand-written testimonies from the women who had been seduced. 5

For Joe Kelly, seducing Mary Heron [Snider], a woman in her thirties who had not born children for almost a decade, would be par for the course. The facts of the matter would have come out as Joe Kelly and Joe E. Johnson spent time together in Orson Hyde’s Company in 1850, with Joe Johnson anguishing about what he should do about Hannah Goddard. Joe Kelly’s account hints at this, that he hadn’t raised the issue, it had been Joe Johnson who brought up the subject of his transgression and the well-known history (“scenes that r familiar in the Ch”) regarding such matters.

The fact that Joe Kelly had been able to win forgiveness may have played a role in Joe Johnson’s willingness to come forward to the authorities, to claim the woman he loved and the couple’s child, Josephus. What we have forgotten, but what the LDS faithful knew all too well in 1850, is how much sin had occurred, and how willing Joseph and others were to quickly forgive the repentant.

For Mary Heron [Snider] we have the following:

Woman Mary Heron [Snider]
Husband John Snider
Joseph Smith as seducer Highly speculative
Joseph Kelly as seducer Disturbing, but fully consistent with all versions of the testimony given during the 1850 trial and the presence of Joseph Kelly at the proceedings. Also consistent with the nature of the illicit intercourse described in May 1842 by multiple women before the Nauvoo High Council.

I came up with pretty icons to describe the various stages of marital involvement, but in this case I maintain that there is no contemporary account indicating Joseph Smith was actually the one who “frigged ” Mary Heron in her own home, seemingly with John (Snider or Bennett) knowing what Bro. Joseph (Kelly) was about. It doesn’t appear that Mary Heron [Snider] conceived as a result of the sexual contact implied by the term “frigging ,” thus there is no independent way to determine who might have been performing the alleged sexual interaction.

[I will note that the term used in this testimony is not a nice word, which should be another clue that individuals submitting to a Church court for the express purpose of getting right with the Church would not use this term to describe the behavior of Joseph Smith.]

Our Mosiah: Clarissa Reed

Clarissa ReedClarissa Reed left the Smith household to marry Levi Hancock on March 29, 1833. In 1896 Mosiah Hancock wrote:

At that time Clarissa Reed was working at the Prophet’s. She told the Prophet She loved brother Levi Hancock. The Prophet had the highest respect for her feelings. She had thought that perhaps she might be one of the Prophet’s wives as herself and Sister Emma were on the best of terms… 6

There is a journal entry relating a grave illness Mosiah experienced during childhood, where Clarissa told Joseph Smith “Our Mosiah is dying.” To Mormons who adore Joseph Smith, such as Mosiah’s descendants, it was thrilling to believe that this short sentence confirmed that Joseph was Mosiah’s father. For someone hoping this might be true, it’s easy to see how they might have looked at Mosiah’s picture and imagined a likeness to paintings of Joseph Smith.

Ugo Perego has performed DNA analyses of the cases where modern individuals believe they might be descended from Joseph Smith, if the “hopes” of those wanting to locate children by plural wives are to be believed.

An individual descended from Mosiah Hancock was found who already had obtained DNA analysis, specifically a 12-marker Ycs profile. Ycs genetic material passes directly from father to son, with mutations being rare. However 12-markers aren’t usually enough to be confident in a conclusion.

In this case, however, a search of the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation database yielded six exact matches to the 12-marker Ycs profile who also shared the Hancock name. When the family trees for these individuals were examined, it was found that they all had a common Hancock ancestor in Mosiah’s paternal grandfather, Thomas Hancock (1763-1844). Further, it was found that the 12-marker Ycs profile for Joseph Smith is substantially different from the 12-marker YCS profile possessed by the legal descendant of Mosiah Hancock. 7

It is true that so-called Non-Paternity Events (NPEs) can disrupt DNA analyses such as this. But for these results to have been obtained with Joseph Smith as the biological father of Mosiah, we would have to presume that an intervening boy child was not merely produced by a NPE (e.g., an affair with someone other than the legal husband), but that the man involved in the NPE was himself a direct male line descendant of Thomas Hancock. Beyond that, Mosiah went on to have dozens of children, and it would not be credible that all the descendants of these children had similarly been the seed of an NPE, with all these NPEs involving a man who was a direct male line descendant of Thomas Hancock. So for those wishing to maintain a shred of hope, future testing can easily determine whether that hope lives or dies.

Therefore, despite the “solid evidence” provided by Clarissa’s mention of “Our Mosiah” to Joseph Smith, DNA indicates that she was probably not using first person plural inclusive, but first person plural exclusive in addressing Joseph with her concern about her first-born child.

By the way, it turns out I didn’t just make up those terms about inclusive and exclusive first person plural forms. Check out the Wikipedia article on clusivity.

Summary

Despite the giddy excitement people have experienced, thinking that Joseph Smith had sex with Mary Heron [Snider] and Clarissa Reed [Hancock White], the genetic evidence doesn’t support the hope that Mosiah Hancock is Joseph’s love child, nor does textual analysis of the accounts support the confidence that is so often proclaimed on the internet. “Joseph” is hardly a unique name, and clusivity ambiguity more than explains how Mosiah Hancock could have been engendered by his legal father, despite hopes that Clarissa was sleeping around with another man while wed to Levi Hancock.

Notes:

  1. Misc Minutes, Brigham Young Collection, d 1234, CHL, Sept. 2, 1850, restricted; excerpts transcribed by D. Michael Quinn, bx 3 fd 2, Quinn Collection, Yale Library. This document is available on Richard E. Turley, Jr. Selected Collections from the Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Provo, Utah: BYU Press, vol. 1, DVD #18 , but that entry is blacked out, restricted because it deals with Church disciplinary proceedings.
  2. Notes from Brian C. Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy.
  3. Sharon Lindbloom, A Mormon “Detective Story”, Mormon Coffee Blog, Mormon Research Ministry, 16 April 2015, available online at http://blog.mrm.org/2015/04/a-mormon-detective-story/, retrieved 30 April 2015.
  4. Sources for Joseph Kelly of the 1850 Orson Hyde Company, Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel database, available online at https://history.lds.org/overlandtravels/pioneerDetail?lang=eng&pioneerId=42994, retrieved 30 April 2015.
  5. Dinger, John S., The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes, High Council entries for May 1842, see footnotes. Also the Valeen Avery Papers at the University of Utah.
  6. Mosiah Hancock, an addition written in 1896 to the “Autobiography” of his father, Levi Ward Hancock, Ms 570, microfilm, 61-65. Transcribed by Don Bradley, available online at http://josephsmithspolygamy.org/mosiah-hancock-an-addition-written-in-1896-to-the-autobiography-of-his-father-levi-ward-hancock/, retrieved 30 April 2015.
  7. Ugo Perego, Joseph Smith Jr., the Question of Polygamous Offspring, and DNA Analysis, in The Persistence of Polygamy, Volume 1, pp.248-249.
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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but may have privately defied the commandment for love of his wife, Emma.

13 thoughts on “Joseph’s Wives: Mary Heron & Clarissa Reed

  1. Excellent analysis. People who want to find fault with the prophet will find it no matter what, they will look at the evidence with their biased eyes and make their biased conclusion. As I read your post, I was also thinking that Joseph was such a common name and there were probably lots of men in the church with that name. Thanks for posting your thoughts. Joseph Smith will thank you one day for your faith in his proper behavior not withstanding he was human with weaknesses like the rest of us.

  2. I think dealing with the most unlikely candidates at the onset of discussing Joseph Smith Jr.’s supposed wives makes sense even if it is not in chronological order. It would have been fun to see the icon chart with regard to these two women.

  3. I, like many others I’m sure, am under the impression that “Bro. Joseph” was a title that referred to The Prophet.
    However, it also seems that, unlike our usage today, Brother and Sister were used in conjunction with first names more often than surnames, or at least with some regularity: Brother Brigham, Brother Hyrum, Sister Emma, etc.
    Synthesizing these two ideas, I would think that Joseph Johnson’s testimony referred to Joseph Smith, Jr. as well unless I learned that another acquaintance was in the room named Joseph. I can imagine the court reporter putting in a comment that the witness indicated by a nod of the head toward Joseph Kelly. I can also imagine that the recorder, aware of another Joseph in the room of whom all present were aware, and not divining how much future generations would wring their hands so, failed to indicate for our lack of faith that the Joseph in question was not Joseph the Prophet.

    Thank you Sister Meg!

  4. ” It doesn’t appear that Mary Heron [Snider] conceived as a result of the XXXXXXXX , thus there is no independent way to determine who might have been performing the alleged XXXXXXXX .”

    You understand what “XXXXXXXX ” is a euphemism for, correct? And while they did sometimes use the other word even back then, it’s still a harsh and loose word for the sexual act and your cavalier use of it outside of quotations is disappointing.

  5. Hi EmJen,

    I could change it to:

    ”It doesn’t appear that Mary Heron [Snider] conceived as a result of the sexual contact implied by the term “XXXXXXXX,” thus there is no independent way to determine who might have been performing the alleged sexual interaction.”

    As for what that term means, I think I captured that in an earlier post where I wrote “This kind of sex may have included the sometimes synonymous practices of XXXXXXX, XXXXXXX, XXXXXX XXXXXXX, XXXXXXXX, and XXXXXXXX.” If the term means something else that what I’ve put here, please let me know.

    My previous exposure to the term was in the context of working for the Navy, where the term seemed to be used as a euphemism for the more common sexual slang term. Since it was a term I heard daily, often many times a day, my sensibilities aren’t as offended as they likely ought to be when I hear or read the term.

    [Update: I figured out how to black out the objectionable words in my posts. Can’t do anything about it in the comments, which is why you see XXXXX in the comments. So if you don’t want to read objectionable crude terms, I’m on it. However there is no way to avoid discussing certain topics, even if I avoid all crude terms associated with those topics. In fact, I would argue that the very reticence to speak plainly regarding these matters is a substantive factor in how we’ve so thoroughly lost our history and are now vulnerable to the slings and arrows of those who attack.]

  6. Hi Joel,

    The Church itself redacts testimony in cases such as this, so the scribe would not have had a reasonable expectation that later generations might be confused, since later generations would not have ever read this account under normal circumstances.

    I’m sure that most normal people wouldn’t want the transcript of their Church disciplinary interactions to be made public record. Certainly the Snider and Johnson families (and now the Kelly family) probably wish the record of this interaction had been burned or otherwise lost before Michael Quinn transcribed it and began advertising his “discovery.”

  7. “In fact, I would argue that the very reticence to speak plainly regarding these matters is a substantive factor in how we’ve so thoroughly lost our history and are now vulnerable to the slings and arrows of those who attack.”

    To be clear, I was not objecting to the use of it in the quote and blacking it in the quote out makes it worse, imo. It was your use, which as you explain could be ascribed to your previous and more familiar interactions with the word. I don’t think it needs to be xxxx or blacked out. Just put in quotations and not used off-the-cuff as a descriptive word. I have a feeling if it was the other word, this would not have been a problem.

  8. Hi EmJen,

    If you’d read my prior posts that used this word, I have flung that word around a bit, in part because it is shocking and I am utterly appalled that anyone could seriously believe an action described by faithful people using that word was performed by Joseph.

    It isn’t just a euphemism for illicit intercourse – the term implies particular modifications to the sex act that have to do with the latin term fricare.

    I rather like being able to brown bag terms that would make my family members upset if I said them at dinner table when we have the missionaries over. Also, I have family members who stopped reading when they felt they would be exposed to terms they didn’t like. So now they can read, and it will be just like when we read the fairy tale book where my mother had taken a black marker to the objectionable words and scenes. As I recall, an entire page of the sleeping beauty story was simply ripped out of the book.

    Anyway, I got e-mail from someone else asking that I do something about use of that term, so when I say “by popular demand,” I wasn’t just reacting to your comment.

  9. Fricare is not that naughty. For those who do not know, it mans “to rub.” It is the root for friction, for example.

  10. Dear DD,

    You are funny. Think about it. That word, deriving from fricare, is indeed rather naughty.

  11. Meg,
    I know I’m funny, but looks aren’t everything.

    I was going to comment further, but I can’t think of any way to say it in a way that I would be happy for my mother to read. So, thank you for your response.

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