Don Bradley is one of the funniest Mormon historians I know.  In our first conversation with Don, we’ll talk about my first memory of him, which deals with the timing of Fanny Alger’s marriage/affair with Joseph Smith.  Was Fanny pregnant?  Don Bradley thinks it is a strong possibility.  Check out our conversation….

Don:  A big part of doing history is actually just lining things up in their proper order. Once you get the sequence of events right, you can see the causation. You can watch the dominoes fall. But if you don’t have the dominoes in the right order, you can’t see what caused what or what made what to happen. Once you place Emma’s discovery of that relationship in the proper place, you can suddenly see why there are various people in Kirtland dissenting, why Joseph Smith takes off on a sudden trip and goes somewhere else for a while, why Fanny Alger suddenly takes off and goes the opposite direction to Indiana. It all lines up beautifully once you get things in the proper order. But a key piece of that evidence was actually identifying Eliza R. Snow’s contribution to Andrew Jensen’s research. It helps to show that this was a marriage that Eliza R. Snow, who was around the time was there in the house. She didn’t think that this was an affair. Her understanding was this was an early plural marriage. So it has lots of implications.

GT:  This is great. Can we stay here for a minute? Because I have a lot of questions about this. As I recall, and please correct me if I’m wrong, it seems like you are making the case that this marriage to Fanny happened after the Elijah’s visit was in March or April of 1836?

Don: So that’s a possibility that I’m raising. It was pointed out to me immediately after the presentation, actually by two Community of Christ apostles who were there, that for a woman at the time of her first pregnancy, she usually starts showing a little bit later. Fanny, the reports say, was visibly pregnant at the time Emma discovered the relationship. And so the chronology there might not work for the relationship to have begun after April 3, because Fanny would have had to have had the time to get pregnant and then start showing before Emma discovered the relationship according to some of the sources.

GT:  Wasn’t it discovered in the barn?

Don:  Yes. But she was also said to have been visibly pregnant and the people who are saying this are actually the people whose home that Fanny moved into when she was kicked out of the Smith home. So they would know. And so a likely sequence of events is Fanny is showing signs of pregnancy, maybe morning sickness. She is starting to show, right? And that makes Emma suspicious something is going on. And so she starts following Fanny’s movements more and finds Joseph and Fanny together in the barn.

We will also talk about whether Emma Smith pushed Eliza Snow down the stairs.  (Don thinks probably not.)

Oliver Cowdery has long been quoted that what happened between Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger was a “dirty, filthy, nasty affair.”  But are those really his words?  It turns out that those are not actually Oliver’s words, but the words of his nephew!  Don will tell us how he came to that conclusion!

Don:  Here you’ve got Oliver Cowdery right around the time he’s excommunicated, writing to his brother, saying, something about Joseph’s dirty, nasty, filthy affair with Fanny Alger. So people are like, “Well, there you go. Oliver Cowdery at the time thought that it was adultery. So why would we think it was polygamy?”

But I noticed when I looked at the Church Archives microfilm, is that there was something funny. The word affair was written over top of another word. And I say, “What’s that word?” Because this seems to be a key, right? If Oliver originally wrote some other word, and then affair is written over it–you have to understand the letterbook was not written by Oliver. Oliver wrote the original letter to his brother. Then Oliver’s nephew took that original letter, copied it into letterbook for Oliver and the change is made in the handwriting of Oliver’s nephew. So the nephew is changing what Oliver said to something else. So the word “affair” isn’t Oliver’s word. Oliver’s original word is underneath that word and I had to know what it was, because everybody for decades cited this like, “Here you go. We’ve got the goods, it was an affair.”

So I could read some of the letters, but I wanted to be really sure. I had Chris [Smith] go look at it and he was able to read most of the word. Then we were able to get detailed images from the Huntington Library that Brian Hales has reproduced that show definitively what the word was. The original word is not affair. The word is scrape. You know S C R A P E, scrape. So if you look at what these words meant at the time, you can actually figure out what Oliver was originally saying and why his nephew changed it. So a scrape, according to the 1828 Webster’s, so just 10 years before Oliver’s letter was [written, the word scrape meant] a perplexity, a distress. It’s like a way of saying somebody got into a jam. They were in a scrape.

So, we’re talking about Joseph and Fanny Alger having gotten themselves into this jam and they need to get out of it. However, Webster indicates that this is, in his words, a low word. So this is actually not a really polite word. It’s sort of like slang. So Oliver’s nephew writes what Oliver had originally said and then he’s like, “I’m not going to leave this slang in there. This is not a great way to speak, to preserve this history.” So he just finds another word to write over it. He writes the word affair. We look at the word affair, and that word triggers all kinds of meanings.

GT:  We think sex.

Don:  We think sex. I’d invite listeners to like explore this for yourself. Go on to Google Books or some other database of 19th century texts and look at all the uses you can find of the word affair around this time, early to mid 19th century. Then look at later uses like late 19th century, 20th century. The connotation of a romantic affair, from just the word affair does not appear until around the end of the 19th century and it doesn’t come to mean pretty much talking about people having sex outside of marriage until even later than that. The word affair, actually, at the time, is a very general word rather than a very specific word. I’m trying to remember his wording there, but Webster defines affair and he actually says a word, a very broad word, a very general and indefinite signification. It’s just a really super broad word. Basically, as Webster defines it, the word just means anything that people do. It’s like using the word thing, right? Joseph and Fanny Alger had this dirty, nasty, filthy thing. There’s something that happened. Now, Oliver is pretty clear that it’s dirty, nasty and filthy. He’s very much against it. However, if you look at Oliver Cowdery’s known views on polygamy, he’s against it. He doesn’t think it’s a clean thing. He thinks it’s a filthy thing. So there’s nothing in Oliver’s wording that would preclude him referring to polygamy there, just referring to it in a very negative way. He says..

GT:  He would normally think it was negative no matter what.

Don:  Yeah. Joseph and Fanny had a dirty, nasty, filthy scrape. Or, they had a dirty, nasty, filthy thing going on between them. What was that thing? Sure, maybe it’s adultery here. Or maybe it’s illicit polygamy as far as Oliver is concerned.

GT:  So Oliver wouldn’t have made the distinction between polygamy and adultery. Is that what you’re saying?

Don:  Not necessarily. So we know that even when Oliver returns to the Church in the late 1840s, people are telling him about polygamy. He’s having a hard time believing it. He says, “I can’t imagine.” This shows a little naivety here when you hear this. But he says, “I can’t imagine that Brigham would condone such a thing.” {Chuckling}

GT:  So it sounds like Eliza [R. Snow] believed that the relationship with Fanny and Joseph was a marriage.

Don:  Yes.

What do you think of Don’s research? Check out our conversation….