Wives of Sorrow

[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.]

Lucy Ann Decker around 1850

Lucy Ann Decker around 1850

The most comprehensive treatment of plural marriages during Joseph Smith’s lifetime, to my knowledge, is Gary Bergera’s article “Identifying the Earliest Mormon Polygamists, 1841-44” in Dialogue during 2005.[ref]Bergera, Gary, Identifying the Earliest Mormon Polygamists, 1841-44, available online at http://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V38N03_13.pdf, retrieved 22 March 2014.[/ref] Unfortunately, Bergera’s article was written before publication of the DNA results that have consistently debunked the rumors that Joseph fathered children[ref]All children believed to be Joseph’s children who survived to have children themselves have been evaluated.[/ref] by his plural wives – a belief that prevented Bergera and prior scholars from considering the possibility that early plural marriages could have been primarily ceremonial with little or no sexual element. Specifically, no one has seriously examined the possibility that some of these marriages could have been inspired by a need to care for the victims of Bennett’s sex ring.

Let’s start by looking at the first plural marriage that didn’t include Joseph Smith: the marriage of Theodore Turley and Mary Clift in early 1842.

Theodore Turley and Mary Clift

Theodore Turley, Sr. was born in England, then emigrated to Canada with his wife, Frances. The couple was converted to Mormonism and eventually gathered to Nauvoo, where Turley had a gun shop and filled the post of Armorer General for the Nauvoo Legion.[ref]Ann Laemmlen Lewis, Frances Amelia Kimberley and Theodore Turley: My Third Great Grandparents, available online at http://www.geocities.com/~wallyg/L2frances.htm, retrieved 26 March 2014.[/ref]

In October 1842 a baby boy, Jason, was born to Mary Clift, herself an English convert from Gloucester. In the family histories, Jason is noted as being the child of Theodore Turley, as are the three additional children Mary would go on to bear prior to her death in Salt Lake City, but only her last daughter would survive to adulthood. Mary, having buried all her previous children, died within a week of giving birth to this last child. Because of Jason’s birth, it is presumed that Theodore Turley took Mary Clift to be his plural wife in January 1842.

Unfortunately, we know that Mary Clift gave testimony in August and September 1842 attesting that she had been seduced by Gustavus Hills around the time she was involved in the Nauvoo Choir. Gustavus Hills had also spoken to Esther Smith about engaging in illicit intercourse, a fact to which Esther similarly attested in September 1842.[ref]Nauvoo High Council Minutes, 1841-1845.[/ref]

Thus the very first supposed plural marriage that didn’t involve Joseph Smith is known to be a reaction to the seductions of Bennett’s ilk.

Vinson Knight and Philinda C. Eldredge [Myrick]

Sometime before August 1842, Bishop Vinson Knight married Philinda C. Eldredge Myrick (b. 1809). Philinda had wed Levi N. Myrick on November 18, 1827. In 1838 Philinda and Levi were at Haun’s Mill when the 240-man militia from neighboring Missouri counties attacked. Levi was killed behind Mr. Haun’s home in the initial volley. Philinda’s oldest son, Charles, took shelter in the smithy with most the men. All would be shot, most dying immediately. Charles survived to see the militia enter the smithy. Charles took off running, though it is not clear if this happened before or after one militia member put his musket against one boy’s skull and blew off the top of his head. The militia shot Charles down. Charles lingered in pain for a few weeks before dying of his wounds. The third boy survived, though his hip had been blown clear away.

It seems likely that when Philinda arrived in Nauvoo, she would have remained close to Catherine Fuller, another woman widowed at Haun’s Mill. Therefore it seems possible that Philinda became involved in the illicit intercourse practiced by Bennett’s men, given that Catherine Fuller’s home was a particular gathering place for these men, and site of frequent sexual conquests.

As one of the three bishops in Nauvoo at the time, Vinson Knight became aware of the activities of Bennett’s men and the women hovering on the edge of subsistence that the men had victimized. It is possible Joseph Smith may have explained the doctrine of the New and Everlasting Covenant to Vinson, with its provision for taking more than one wife. However William Clayton recorded a conversation he’d had with Joseph in 1843 regarding delicate matters, recording that Knight “went to loose conduct and [Joseph] could not save him.”[ref]George D. Smith, ed. An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton, p. 108.[/ref] Clayton’s note raises the possibility that Vinson Knight himself had become a member of Bennett’s group, possibly being brought to believe that allowing the women to participate in illicit intercourse in exchange for food was an approved plan by Joseph for taking care of the needs of indigent women.

Whether Vinson was providing Philinda food as a plural wife or as a spiritual wife, as Bennett and his men termed their female sexual partners, Vinson’s wife, Martha McBride, allegedly “knew some thing was worr[y]ing her husband and he couldn’t seem to tell her about it. One evening as she was sitting in the grape arbor behind the house Vinson returned home carrying a basket. He explained to her that he had taken some fruit and vegetables to the widow, Mrs. Levi Merrick, whose husband had been killed at Haun’s Mill, M[iss]o[uri]. He also explained to her that he had been told to enter Plural Marriage.[ref]As this is a late account written by someone from within the Mormon faith tradition, I question whether the original term used was “enter Plural Marriage.”[/ref] That if he had to, this Sister Merrick would be the one he could help best. He must have been greatly relieved when Martha replied, ‘Is that all.'”[ref]Quoted in Bergera: The Earliest Mormon Polygamists, from Delia Belnap, “Martha McBridge Knight,” typescript, not paginated, LDS Church Archives; courtesy Todd Compton.[/ref]

Vinson wouldn’t take care of Philinda for long. Towards the end of July 1842 Vinson became suddenly ill. He passed away on July 31, 1842. Joseph Smith delivered the eulogy at Vinson’s funeral. I have not found a full account of the funeral comments, but Joseph apparently said Vinson Knight was the “best friend he ever had on earth.”[ref]Lisa Wood, Biography For: Martha McBride Knight Smith Kimball, available online at http://www.mypioneertrek.com/Biographies.aspx?PioneerName=Martha%20McBride%20Knight%20Smith%20Kimball, retrieved 26 March 2014.[/ref]

Martha McBride Knight would become one of Joseph’s plural wives the month after Vinson’s death. Philinda Eldredge would remarry in 1843. Neither Martha nor Philinda would have themselves sealed to Vinson in the Nauvoo temple, possibly corroborating Clayton’s record regarding Vinson’s loose conduct.

Heber C. Kimball and Sarah Peake [Noon]

Sarah Peake was born in 1811 in England. Sarah married William Noon in 1829, and William accompanied Sarah and her children to Nauvoo when Sarah converted to Mormonism. After arriving with his family in Nauvoo, however, William abandoned Sarah and his children, returning to England. It seems extreme for William to make the trip from England only to turn around and go back. Something powerful must have happened to alienate him.

The converts arriving in Nauvoo from England and elsewhere were not rich. We know the Bennett’s seducers were targeting widows, but they had also shown a taste for new or prospective converts fresh off the boat, as attested to with regards to Elenor and Rachel Kingsley. These new converts would have less experience with the gospel and would more easily accept illicit intercourse as a possible secret teaching.[ref]The Expositor, put together by Chauncy Higbee and several of the men who had sat on the High Council proceedings in May 1842, devotes quite a bit of space to the manner in which these new female converts were seduced, “It is a notorious fact, that many females in foreign climes, and in countries to us unknown, even in the most distant regions of the Eastern hemisphere, have been induced, by the sound of the gospel, to forsake friends, and embark upon a voyage across waters that lie stretched over the greater portion of the globe, as they supposed, to glorify God, that they might thereby stand acquitted in the great day of God Almighty. But what is taught them on their arrival at this place?- They are visited by some of the Strikers, for we know not what else to call them…” available online at http://en.fairmormon.org/Primary_sources/Nauvoo_Expositor_Full_Text, retrieved 26 March 2014.[/ref] If Sarah had been induced to participate in illicit intercourse, perhaps to ensure enough food for her family, the discovery of this betrayal could certainly have prompted William Noon to leave.

Allegedly Joseph Smith asked Heber C. Kimball to take a plural wife early in 1842. Heber settled on a plan to approach one or two spinster friends of his wive, Vilate. The two spinsters were Laura Pitkin (52) and Abigail Pitkin (45).[ref]Stanley B. Kimball, Heber C. Kimball: Mormon Patriarch and Pioneer, p. 95.[/ref] When Heber told Joseph his plan, Joseph commanded Heber to marry Sarah Peake Noon, who was 31. Sarah gave birth to a son, Adelmon, in October or November if 1842. This puts the date of conception when Bennett and his men were at the peak of actively attempting to seduce women.

It has been commonly presumed that Joseph’s command to marry Sarah Peake Noon in lieu of the Pitkin spinsters was an indication that plural marriages were for the purpose of producing children. However if Joseph ordered Heber to marry Sarah Peake Noon because she had become pregnant as a result of illicit intercourse taught by Bennett or his men, the “cherished” belief that polygamists should marry young, fertile women is debunked.

Unfortunately we can never positively determine who fathered Adelmon, as he passed away in April 1843. Intriguingly, Sarah Peake Noon would not have another child until July 1845, raising the possibility that Heber and Sarah refrained from sexual relations until after the death of Joseph Smith.

Reynolds Cahoon and Lucina Roberts [Johnston]

Lucina Roberts was born in 1806 in Lincoln, Vermont. She married fellow Vermont native Peter Henry Johnston in 1824. By the time Lucina reached Nauvoo, her husband had died[ref]Familysearch.org merely lists “1838, Ohio River” as the date and place of death.[/ref] and she had lost three of her six children to death.

The date when Lucina married Reynolds Cahoon is vague, reportedly during late 1841 or early 1842.[ref]Mary L. S. Putnam and Lila Cahoon, eds. and comps., Reynolds Cahoon: His Roots and Branches (Bountiful, Utah: Family History Publishers, 1993.[/ref] The birth of Lucina’s daughter, Lucina Johnson Cahoon, is given as “abt 1843.”[ref]familysearch.org.[/ref] However Gary Bergera lists Lucina Cahoon as one of the four children born to plural wives prior to Joseph Smith’s death.[ref]Bergera doesn’t count Jason Turley since it is clearly documented Jason was fathered by Gustavus Hills as part of the Bennett illicit intercourse scheme.[/ref]

Again we have a widow in Nauvoo as a plural wife with an unusual lack of detail regarding either the marriage itself or the date when the child supposedly produced by that marriage was engendered.[ref]Nauvoo Temple carpenter David Moore relates that Lucina Johnson was living with Charles A. Chase, who was first cousin of Darwin Chase. Catherine Fuller named Darwin Chase as one of those who asked her to have illicit intercourse. Darwin Chase was also named by Sarah Miller related to her experience with illicit intercourse. So Lucina was living in a circumstance that would have brought her into the circle of one of the ring of seducers. David Moore, Compiled Writings of David Moore, pp. 19-20, cited in Brian Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, Volume 1, Chapter 22.[/ref]

Brigham Young and Lucy Ann Decker [Seeley]

Lucy Ann Decker Seeley, born in 1822, was abandoned by her first husband, William, a non-Mormon who was allegedly abusive and an alcoholic. William left Lucy with the couple’s three tiny children, leaving her a widow for all intents and purposes.

With Lucy we have an echo of Sarah Peak Noon – a young mother abandoned by a husband who had accompanied her to Nauvoo. It’s possible that William Seeley merely left and Brigham Young extended the young Lucy his protection. Or it’s possible that William left because Lucy had been induced to participate in illicit intercourse as a means to supplement the food and funds William was squandering with his drunken ways. A third option, that the drunken, abusive William Seeley would have been recruited to participate in Bennett’s band, seems unlikely. Bennett seemed to recruit men of power, influence, and discretion.

Brigham and Lucy would not produce children for at least two years after their alleged marriage in the summer of 1842. As in the case of Heber C. Kimball and Sarah Peake Noon, this hints at the possibility that Brigham and Lucy did not engage in sexual relations until after Joseph’s death.

Joseph’s 1842 Wives

In last week’s post I reviewed the women who either testified they had submitted to pressure to engage in illicit intercourse or women who were seen in compromising situations with men known to teach Bennett’s theories regarding the acceptability of illicit intercourse.

The review above of women who became plural wives to men other than Joseph Smith shows a strong pattern suggesting these women could have also been victims of Bennett and his men.

Let us now look at the women Joseph Smith may have married in 1842.

  • Agnes Coolbrith [Smith] (m. Jan 6, 1842): Agnes’ was a levirate marriage and the journal entry recorded for the presumed wedding day indicates this marriage was “a day in which all things are concurring together to bring about the completion of the fullness of the gospel.” There is no hint on January 6th that Joseph’s marriage to Agnes was a reaction to Bennett. However Agnes fit the profile of the kind of woman Bennett and his men sought out. Clarissa Marvel would be questioned for spreading rumors about Agnes’ character. And Agnes would later write Joseph F. Smith hinting that she could tell him things he knew nothing about.[ref]Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, pp. 166-167.[/ref]
  • Mary Elizabeth Rollins [Lightner] (m. Feb 1842): Mary Elizabeth was someone Joseph had attempted to persuade of plural marriage late in 1841, before he appears to have learned about Bennett’s activities. However the circumstance of Mary’s sealing to Joseph smacks of the investigation. The sealing is performed by Brigham Young with Heber C. Kimball in attendance. Mary also hinted that she could tell Joseph F. Smith things about the past that he didn’t know.[ref]Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, pp. 226.[/ref]
  • Sylvia Sessions [Lyon]: Sylvia would never attest to having been married to Joseph during his lifetime.[ref]Sylvia did tell her daughter, Josephine, that Josephine was Joseph’s daughter. However Josephine was the only one of Sylvia’s children who had married outside of the temple, the location where adoptive or posthumous sealing relationships to Joseph would have been revealed. Sylvia had been sealed to Joseph posthumously in the Nauvoo temple.[/ref] She was allegedly present when her mother, a midwife, entered into covenant with Joseph in March 1842. As wife of the druggist, Sylvia was in a position to assist the investigation into the activities of Bennett’s men, either as they sought drugs to assist in seductions (e.g., laudanum) or drugs and herbs to inhibit pregnancy.
  • Patty Bartlett [Sessions] (m. March 6, 1842): Patty, as a midwife and mature woman, was in a prime position to identify women who had been seduced and help them if they had become pregnant as a result of the seduction.
  • Nancy Winchester: The date when Nancy married Joseph is unknown. However the fact that she never consummated her marriage with Heber C. Kimball and remained in her parents home for the rest of her life, even after bearing a child with a third husband when she was nearly 40, hints that something traumatic happened to her. I hypothesize this could have occurred if Nancy happened upon an illicit liaison between one of Bennet’s cronies and Clarissa Marvel. If Nancy was abused or seduced by the Bennett ring before May 1842, she would have been only 13 years old at the time.
  • Marinda Nancy Johnson [Hyde]: Marinda helped Joseph’s investigation by inviting Nancy Rigdon to be interviewed in April 1842. Marinda herself would attest that she wasn’t sealed to Joseph Smith until May 1843. This paints Marinda Nancy Johnson as a trusted agent in 1842, but not a plural wife in this tumultuous year.
  • Elizabeth Davis [Goldsmith Brackenbury Durfee]: Outsiders came to believe Elizabeth had been one of Joseph’s wives and Elizabeth would have herself sealed to Joseph in the Nauvoo temple after his death. However Elizabeth’s main role appeared to be questioning young ladies regarding what they thought about spiritual wifery, and helping Emma to determine the worthiness of women applying to join Relief Society or questioning those spreading rumors. Later, when Elizabeth saw how Brigham Young was conducting Church affairs, she left in disgust and returned to Quincy to be near her good friend, Emma Smith.
  • Sarah Maryetta Kingsley [Howe Cleveland]: Researchers have inferred Sarah was married to Joseph Smith prior to July 1842 because she stands as witness for other women who marry him. Sarah, like Elizabeth Davis Durfee, would have herself sealed to Joseph Smith posthumously. However Sarah’s role appears to be that of an investigator rather than a lover.
  • Delcena Diadamia Johnson [Sherman]: Delcena was a widow with six children to feed. Delcena was also related to Mary Heron, who appears to have been the first woman seduced by Bennett, increasing the likelihood that Delcena had been seduced as well, widow that she was. Delcena’s brother returned to Nauvoo in July 1842 and described the marriage between Delcena and Joseph to be “tacitly admitted,” with Delcena living in the home of Joseph’s plural wife, Louisa Beaman. I posit Joseph Smith intervened to protect Delcena and remove any reason for her to submit to those seeking illicit intercourse.
  • Eliza Roxy Snow (m. 29 June 1842): We do not know when Eliza learned about “plurality,” other than that it occurred in Nauvoo. Sometime in 1842 Eliza penned a poem titled “The Bride’s Avowal” that concludes “nought but thy approving look is happiness to me. I would not sell they confidence, for all the pearls that strew the ocean’s bed or all the gems that sparkle in Peru.”[ref]Jill Mulvay Deer and Karen Lynn Davidson, ed.s Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry, pp. 210-211.[/ref] This poem would be published in August 1842, a time when the only possible interpretation was that Snow was proclaiming herself Joseph’s plural wife. This publication coincided with Eliza being asked to leave the home of Sarah Cleveland, where she had been staying. Such a poem could only have been inserted into the paper by someone wishing to harm Joseph, implying that Eliza had presented to poem to someone previously involved in Bennett’s group engaging in illicit intercourse. Eliza would attest that she became Joseph’s wife on June 29, shortly after Bennett’s departure from Nauvoo, with Sarah Cleveland as witness and Brigham Young officiating. Wilhelm Wyl would assert in 1885 that Snow had become pregnant with Bennett’s child, an assertion Snow would never openly deny.
  • Sarah Ann Whitney (m. 27 July 1842): This is the only one of the marriages Joseph Smith enters into in 1842 that seems untouched by the Bennett scandal. Sarah was daughter of Elizabeth Ann Whitney, Emma’s Relief Society Counselor, and Newel K. Whitney was the senior Bishop in the Mormon Church. Sarah’s father performed the ceremony linking his daughter to Joseph Smith. A month later, Sarah’s parents were sealed to one another–the first couple that was already married to have their vows solemnized for eternity. Much is made of the letter Joseph writes the Whitneys from hiding, telling them that if Emma isn’t there they can come to him in perfect safety. It is always presumed Emma is the danger, as if she isn’t aware of Joseph’s marriages. However the obvious reason Emma would represent danger to Joseph in hiding would be the enemies who would attempt to tail Emma in hopes of locating Joseph.
  • Martha McBride [Knight] (m. August 1842): I’ve already discussed Martha, but to summarize, it appears her husband had gone “to loose conduct” and was possibly one of the members of Bennett’s group, engaged in illicit intercourse. Thus Joseph’s marriage to Martha would have been similar to the marriage of Theodore Turley to Mary Clift – a goodly man protecting a woman who had been connected with a scoundrel.

To me it appears that almost all the plural marriage activity in 1842 was associated with cleaning up the incredible mess Bennett and his acolytes had caused by rampantly persuading men and women to engage in illicit intercourse. Unfortunately it would not be enough to cover over the wounds Bennett had caused in Nauvoo.

When Bennett was cut off in June 1842, without any other man or woman being subjected to public scorn, Bennett was enraged. He immediately set in motion a plan to destroy Joseph Smith, Emma Smith, and the Mormon Church.

Future Planned Posts:

Sangamo and Pratt
The Apostles and their Wives
Eliza and the Stairs
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.

30 thoughts on “Wives of Sorrow

  1. Meg, I think you are building your case very well and very methodically. Side note: Theodore Turley is my great-great-great grandfather and I don’t know much about him so you have inspired me to do some digging.

  2. “Thus the very first supposed plural marriage that didn’t involve Joseph Smith is known to be a reaction to the seductions of Bennett’s ilk.”

    Whoa! Okay, that was very interesting.

    “This poem would be published in August 1842, a time when the only possible interpretation was that Snow was proclaiming herself Joseph’s plural wife. This publication coincided with Emma being asked to leave the home of Sarah Cleveland, where she had been staying. Such a poem could only have been inserted into the paper by someone wishing to harm Joseph, implying that Eliza had presented to poem to someone previously involved in Bennett’s group engaging in illicit intercourse. ”

    Need more explanation here.

    “9.The Expositor, put together by Chauncy Higbee and several of the men who had sat on the High Council proceedings in May 1842, devotes quite a bit of space to the manner in which these new female converts were seduced,”

    So you’re suggesting that Higbee, having learned about these foreign seductions by Bennett then claimed Jospeh was the one that did it?

    “Intriguingly, Sarah Peake Noon would not have another child until July 1845, raising the possibility that Heber and Sarah refrained from sexual relations until after the death of Joseph Smith.”

    That is intriguing, but what would be the significance?

  3. Remarkable work of detection. You’ve really spilled the beans, or should I say ‘can of worms’ on Bennet and his band of seducers. If your hypothesis is accurate, Joseph and the others who joined him in the rescue of misguided victims of Bennet’s schemes deserve belated credit as amazingly compassionate men and women.

  4. I find it amazing how you were able to piece all of this evidence (much of it circumstantial) together to create such a big and whole picture of what went on in Nauvoo. Yet each piece of evidence you toss on the pile seems to make for a more and more impressive story.

    I always wondered why Emma approved some of the plural marriages to Joseph, but later was so adamant against it. It seems that it may have been bad publicity (Bennett’s spiritual wifery being compared to Joseph’s plural marriage) that affected her most, and I look forward to future posts to see if my suspicions are correct.

  5. I hope at the end of this series you give us your opinion on why – if your non-sexual hypothesis regarding these marriages is correct – the Church (after Joseph) switched gears so completely. Amazing work.

  6. To Bruce,

    I’ll elaborate on Eliza Snow in the future post, Eliza and the Stairs. As for Chauncy Higbee, he was one of those seducing women fresh off the boat, which would make it quite easy for him to guide whichever editor composed that piece. As for the significance of the lack of children for these women between the first infants conceived during Bennett’s heyday and after Joseph’s death, it is merely sparse data consistent with the possibility that Young and Kimball were caretakers and not true spouses to these ladies until the summer of 1844. There’s more information on the reason Young and Kimball might have hesitated in next week’s post.

    As for some of what was going on with Emma, the post Emma’s Ultimatum and later posts will go into that. If we could have an alternate history where Joseph lived well past 1844, I predict that he would not have entered into any additional marriages, and we would have seen some who had been married to Joseph formally separated and allowed to marry others while Joseph still lived. I believe we would also have seen select wives of Joseph begin to conceive, who would bear children who could have been linkable to Joseph using DNA analysis.

    Alas, Joseph died in 1844, so we will never know what would have happened if Joseph could have lived long enough to face the consequences of his earlier willingness to enter into a frankly excessive number of plural marriages.

  7. These truly were “wives of sorrow” if they never got to have sex with their husbands. If there really was no sex involved in Joseph-era polygamy, I don’t know why we would feel any sense of relief. To withhold sex from a wife is abusive in the extreme, so why would we celebrate such abuse, or think Joseph “better” because of his neglect? I understand in the case of polyandrous marriages, where the women had previous husbands with whom they could have sex, but what about all those who didn’t have husbands? Take them off the market and neglect them? That sounds horriffic. Giving sexual prefrence to 1st wives? That is miserably prejudiced.

  8. John Swenson Harvey,

    I case you missed it in Meg’s comment, the answer to your question is that Joseph did teach that the marriage should be sexual in nature and he encouraged the apostles to do so and had intended to do so himself, but (according to Meg’s theory) various things (such as Bennett) interfered and either removed or minimized (Meg is open to certain cases) consumating many of those first marriages.

    Nate, you are right to some degree. But you’d have to remove several situations from your analysis: a) too young so not consummated, then Joseph dies and they remarry about on schedule, b) polyandrous (as you already mention), c) abused and not ready for a while, d) those that were in fact sexual and thus not a problem.

    Part of the issue is that we’re looking at very circumstantial evidence. Meg offers up the possiblity that maybe so-and-so sister refrained from sex with BY, for example, until Joseph died. Her evidence is a lack of births.

    Well, that’s a real possiblity. And if it happened, it happened. Or maybe it’s just the whims of nature. So we play a sort of branching game. “What if BY didn’t consumate the marriage at first, why?” then we answer “perhaps she felt abused and wasn’t ready…”

    But of course we might be wrong right at the outset. She may in fact have consumamted the marriage right away and we’re already off on a wrong path. There is no way to be sure given the scant evidence.

  9. Nate, you write: “To withhold sex from a wife is abusive in the extreme, so why would we celebrate such abuse, or think Joseph “better” because of his neglect?”

    I really take issue with these types of comments. You default position always seems to be “Joseph Smith or XX church leader is wrong” rather than “let me try to understand how Joseph Smith or XX church leader may have been acting with charity.”

    Of course the conjugal view of marriage is the LDS norm and something to be celebrated, and of course this includes mutually satisfying consensual sex. But do you really think that a few dozen women who had just been sexually molested by Bennett and his followers were all hot and bothered to get it on? If so, I think you show a lack of charity towards these women.

    It would really help your comments if you adopted the default position that perhaps Joseph Smith may have had reasons for what he did rather than the default position that Joseph Smith was wrong.

  10. Geoff,

    I’m going to mildly defend Nate on this. I *think* he is not so much saying Joseph Smith was wrong as Meg’s theory about Joseph Smith is wrong. i.e. he’s trying to say, “I don’t see why this theory is better than the more traditional historical view.”

    I’m not sure I agree with Nate on that. As some one that Meg has only partially convinced, I can say with conviction that her theory is going to be almost across the board more palatable than the “traditional view” for most members for quite a number of reasons. The very fact that it isn’t so wild and woolly alone makes it come across far better. And I think Nate is wrong on this assumption that withholding of sex is truly a significant issue to Meg’s theory for the reasons I give in my previous comment. It depends on who isn’t having sex and what their reasons are.

    However, I do not think Nate is claiming here at least that Joseph Smith did something wrong. He’s just taking exception to Meg’s theory.

  11. Bruce and Nate, decent point, but I still would appreciate comments on this site that made it clear that the writer is not criticizing Joseph Smith but rather criticizing the theory of Joseph Smith. However, we know that 1)Bennett and his followers molested many women and 2)Joseph Smith later married or asked his followers to marry many of these women, so my point that conjugal sex would not have been the greatest thing in the world for these women (at least in the short term) is pretty easy to believe.

  12. Since this theory revolves around allegations of abuse by Bennett and his men, has it been considered that maybe some of these women were complicit in the sex and enjoyed the orgies or whatever was going on? And how exactly would a non-sexual polygamous marriage save them from their own sexual desires and Bennett’s allure? Maybe polygamy was to be sort of like a nunnery, becoming a bride of Christ or something like that. If they stop having orgies with Bennett they get to have sex with Joseph Smith, but only in the afterlife. To me the sex ring sounds more appealing. You can repent of fornication and still get married to some available man you love. But enforced celibacy and eternal polygamy compromises your self-determination for this life and eternal eons to come.

    I guess the question I am asking is what is worse: enforced celibacy through non-sexual polygamy, or Bennett’s sexually active spiritual wivery? Were I a woman I’d take Bennett and his group any day over the nunnery and eternal Smith harem.

    Also it’s not a valid argument that Joseph died soon so they were released. They didn’t think Joseph would die, nor would they have celebrated his death as a freedom. And they where not released from him for eternity, thereby forfeiting their chances to find an eternal companion of their choice.

    I like Joseph Smith better than Bennett because I believe Joseph ultimately believed in the egalitarian principle of eternal polyandry, a sexual Law of Consecration. But under Meg’s theory, Bennett looks a lot better to me.

  13. Meg,

    Any plans to take all of these posts (and the future planned posts) and turn them into a book?

  14. I think when it’s between consenting adults it’s called foreplay, not molestation. But frankly I’m in the dark about exactly what it meant to be in Bennett’s sex ring. So maybe Meg will enlighten me.

  15. Bennett and his group apparently enjoyed the milk without buying the cows as a rather silly old saying went. Those women who entered into plural marriage were in a covenant relationship in which the husband and his wive accepted the new wife as a family member with all that implies including support of children. I am puzzled by Nate’s assumption that a woman would prefer being used by a group of men with no committment over a marriage that might involve delay of consummation. As a woman with 6 daughters who have married at least once and chosen to remain chaste if divorced, I find that many if not most woman regard conjugal rlations with enthusiasm but reject the notion of sex as recreation. The initial question Meg confronted as she began this journey of discovery was the probability that Joseph had consummated his marriage to her ancestor, Annie Elvira Cowles. This was several years ago. Meg wanted to base her ‘historical novel’ on the best evidence she could obtain. Most faithful Mormons had steered clear of the subject and most who wrote about Joseph and his introduction of polygamy took the view that he was a scoundrel and a libertine. Early on, as a result of anecdotal evidence provided by one of Elvira’s daughters, Meg assumed that the marriage had been consummated. As she began to uncover more information Meg backed off from that assumption. One must ask what the term ‘marriage’ means in a given culture to members of either sex. I propose that sexual relations are less important to many than are material support and shared parenting. Trauma of the kind suffered by most if not all of Bennett and his cohort’s victims could easily account for initial reluctance. On the other hand, the iniation of polygamy was met with shock and dismay by most of the men Joseph asked to participate, most of whom seem to have been engaged in satisfying marriages that were modeled on an ideal provided by a mix of Victorian romanticism and Yankee virtue. In time initial reluctance yielded to a more instinctive acceptace of what is, after all, a very normal form of marriage for the majority of human cultures.

  16. A factoid important to this topic is venereal disease.

    Something I should have included last week, but didn’t twig to until preparing for next week’s post is the 15 May 1844 assertion in the newspaper by Joseph Smith that John C. Bennett and Francis Higbee had been called up before the Masonic Lodge (60-70 men) for sexual indiscretions in the beginning of July 1841.

    Bennett had been found having sex with Sarah Pratt, wife of Orson Pratt.

    Bennett turned evidence that he’d been treating Francis Higbee for the ——. Given common venereal diseases and slang for same, Francis Higbee likely suffered from “the clap,” or gonorrhea. Gonorrhea manifests in 50% of women infected and 90% of men infected. As this was before anti-biotics, the treatment for the clap was use of metals (mercury, silver nitrate, arsenic, gold wire, etc.).

    If were a red-blooded man and had been asked to protect a woman who’d been involved in Bennett’s sexual circle (which included Chauncy Higbee, brother of gonorrhea man), I’d be a wee bit leery of dipping my stick in the polluted pond. Particularly if the women had given birth to children that then became sick and died with symptoms suggestive of infant infection with gonorrhea (eye problems are the most common (hello silver nitrate drops as mandatory treatment for all modern children) but other gonorrhea-related causes of infant mortality and fetal miscarriage are present.

    Having tumbled to Francis’ infection, my midrashic treatment of this will likely include Francis having punitive sex with Nancy Winchester as consequence of her interrupting a liaison between Clarrisa Marvel and someone (Chauncy) to which Francis had been merely an observer (a behavior Bennett mentions in his accusations against Joseph – therefore likely as something his own folks were doing). An infected Nancy Winchester would need protection, and it would therefore make perfect sense for Heber Kimball to refrain from having sex with her during their two decades of marriage, as contracting gonorrhea from an infected Nancy would put all his other wives and their future children at risk. It also explains why he would have made a big point of telling Nancy’s third husband that he, Heber, hadn’t been Nancy’s sexual partner. If third husband came down with the clap, it wouldn’t be Heber’s fault.

    Given the venereal disease aspect, it’s actually incredibly brave of Brigham, Heber, and others to then continue and go on to eventually have sexual relations with women who might have been infected during their involvement with Bennett and his “Strikers” as they were termed in the Expositor.

  17. “Maybe polygamy was to be sort of like a nunnery, becoming a bride of Christ or something like that.”

    Interestingly, Nate, if we’re talking about plural marriage to one of the big Utah church leaders, I’m not so sure this is a bad characterization. It looks to me like many of the women that, say, married Brigham Young, did so as a sort of Mormon equivalent to a nunnery, with the obvious difference being that you spent your time and energy raising your own children.

    I think you’re too quick, Nate, to assume that everyone feels like you and every age is like today. I’m not so sure a Catholic nunnery is an abuse of women or a lonely life. Much less the even less lonely Mormon plural marriages. These are lifestyles that I’m coming to respect in their own right.

  18. “Any plans to take all of these posts (and the future planned posts) and turn them into a book?”

    If I had one ‘complaint’ about Meg’s posts, it’s that to make these all ‘blog sized’ she is forced to assume some level of prior knowledge on the subject. I would love to see the ideas she is explaining blown out into a full length history more similar to Todd Compton’s book, but with a faithful slant.

    However, in case you’ve missed it, Meg is planning to write up her version as a historical fiction, which frankly might be even a better idea as it allows her to play midrashicly (is that a word?) with a lot of ideas and gives a satisifying whole picture of how she believes it unfolded.

    I have had the pleasure of reading her outline to her book, and it’s very exciting. As you can imagine just from reading these posts, its going to be an outright page turning soap opera full of heroes, fallen heroes turn villians, innocence lost, and just about everything else you can imagine in a good book. We should all do internet funding for her book of something. 😛

  19. Adding STDs to the mix more than justifies an evident tendency to reluctance regarding consummation on the part of new polygamists who had taken these women under their protection.

  20. About a book,

    I have a literary agent, courtesy of having written the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Aquaponic Gardening. I talked with her about my planned polygamy historical fiction stuff at the time I signed to have her be my agent and we agreed that she was somewhat interested. So when those are written, I will send them to her to consider. If she doesn’t feel like representing them, I’ll be free to approach another agent about them.

    At that time I had no intention of doing a historical treatment. I figured the work required to do a history would be overwhelming. But I think by the time I’m done, these posts will total something like 75,000 words. Pad this with enough background to be comprehensible to those unfamiliar with Mormon history, folkways, etc., and it could easily become a nice 100,000 word work. I’ve realized that simply putting the (very fun) historical fiction/midrash out there will merely stir the pot without convincing the open-minded of the reason the midrash holds up.

    For example, knowing that there is a contemporary document asserting sexually transmitted disease, and other historical documents documenting many seductions (both the closed history from the High Council trials and the more open newspaper accounts) makes a reader more likely to realize I’m not just taking Peyton Place and substituting Nauvoo names.

    So at some point I’ll be putting together a proposal for my agent to consider on the book that is based on these posts. Once that’s out of my hair, I’ll revamp the midrash synopsis and get chomping on getting the first novel of the trilogy into submittable shape.

  21. So first a history complete with a bibliography and then a fiction trilogy? Will it focus only on Elvra’s story or will you do a generational treatment?

  22. So the first book I’ll propose to my agent would be a refinement of these posts, fixed so all the footnotes are lovely and I’ve evened out factoids so it makes sense (and adds details an interested reader with no knowledge would not know).

    The trilogy is about Nauvoo. The first book is from the standpoint of Elvira Cowles and John Bennett, and takes us from 1840 to May 1842. The second book is from the standpoint of Jonathan Holmes and Eliza Snow, and takes us from June 1842 to April 1843. The final book is from the standpoint of Jonathan Holmes and Elvira Cowles (with cameo from Bennett’s POV) and takes us from May 1843 to February 1845, with an afterwards during January 1846.

    After that’s done, I’ll see if I want to fuss with other books, per se. I’ve written short stories about later events, so maybe it could be a series of short stories that illuminate important micro-stories regarding the odd misunderstandings that occurred with the years surrounding the manifestos and the rise of fundamentalism due to misunderstanding the New and Everlasting Covenant. Or there are other stories and books and projects that might tempt me away, like creating a multi-acre aquaponics farm in Lehi… Been having a great time here in Apopka, FL with eldest daughter taking the Pentair Aquaponics Short Course. Fun, fun, fun.

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