Dr. Todd Compton is the author of a couple of books, both of them called In Sacred Loneliness, but the new one is subtitled, The Documents. So we’re going to talk a lot about both of his books, In Sacred Loneliness and In Sacred Loneliness: The Documents. These are two fantastic books. We’re going to talk a lot about polygamy, some of the early days, and get his opinions. There were some really surprising ones in this episode, dealing with people like Helen Mar Kimball and Sylvia Sessions Lyon and some things like that. I talked to Todd last month at the John Whitmer Historical Association, the 50th anniversary of that organization, so it was back in Independence. You’ll notice he’s wearing this shirt and I thought I would show it to your full view, so that you can see what he was wearing. Anyway, check out our conversation with Dr. Todd Compton. I was surpised to learn he is an accidental Mormon historian.
Accidental Mormon Historian
Todd 04:29 It is. I ended up not teaching and not knowing what I was going to do. It was a really tough period of my life. Here’s everything I worked for, and it didn’t seem to be working out. While I was in that period, a friend of mine who I had known in the singles ward in L.A., and then she went to University of Utah and did a doctorate in Mormon history. But we were talking one time and she said, “Todd, why don’t you,” I think she wrote this to me. I know she wrote this to me. But we talked also. “Why don’t you get one of the summer fellowships at the Huntington Library,” which has a fabulous library and gardens in Pasadena. They have a really great Mormon collection. Juanita Brooks was associated with the Huntington Library, for quite a while.
GT 05:42 And the weather’s really nice.
Todd 05:46 Yeah, and beautiful gardens. She [my friend] said, “Why don’t you get one of these fellowships where they pay you to study something?” She said, “They have the Eliza R. Snow journals/diaries there. So why don’t you apply to work on the Eliza R. Snow diaries, and they’ll pay you to come to the Huntington every day?” I thought it was a crazy idea, because I had no background in Mormon history.
GT 06:22 Yeah. So, your doctorate was in Greek and Latin?
Todd 06:24 Yeah.
GT 06:25 Wow.
Todd 06:26 I mean, I’d always been interested in Mormon history, but I’d never done any research in it. I’d started doing research in women in the ancient world. So, I was interested in women in religion. I had a bit of background there. So, I thought it was a crazy idea. But my friend, Janet, she sent me a letter. She said, “Here, go ahead, and this is how you submit your application. And here’s what I think you should say.”
Todd 07:06 So, I thought, “Well, she’s basically written it for me. It won’t take too much time.” So, I went ahead with the application and sent it in. I really didn’t think I was qualified to get it, because I wasn’t in Mormon history at all. I didn’t think I would get it. I totally forgot about it.
GT 07:32 The job market is not bad in Mormon history.
Todd 07:36 I wasn’t thinking about getting a job in Mormon history. I wasn’t expecting to get the fellowship. I sent it in, and then I totally forgot about it, because I was sure I wouldn’t get it. Then, I got a letter in the mail, “You’ve received the fellowship to work on the diaries of Eliza R. Snow for a couple months”.
Todd 08:06 I said, “Okay. I’ll go down, and I’ll work on Eliza Snow, and I’ll work on some of my other classic stuff that’s there, too.” But I felt obligated to work on the Eliza R. Snow diaries. So, the first day, I went there, I walked in, and went to the reading room and ordered those diaries. They are these little, small, diaries, quite small. You open it up, and there’s Eliza R. Snow’s handwriting, quite small. She’d be writing about her daily life. She’d be traveling, crossing the plains. They were her plains diaries. So, she crossed the plains during the day, and at night, I guess she’d sit by the fire and write the account of the day. It was really exciting to me to get to see someone’s actual handwriting. In Greek and Latin texts, you have copies of copies of copies of copies. Having an autograph written by one of these ancient writers is totally unheard of.
Todd 09:38 So, it was really exciting to me, and I found that the Eliza R. Snow diary had been published, like, in The Improvement Era, but it wasn’t a scholarly transcription and there were no footnotes. So, I started getting a text for that diary on my computer. I started to do footnotes and that was something that I really enjoyed doing, footnoting that diary and trying to figure out [who the people in the diary were.] History is like a detective game. There’s a word you don’t understand that Eliza R. Snow is using, and you look it up and try to find out what it means, and you understand the text better. Often, the word you don’t understand is a name. So, you need to look it up and find out who it is. One thing annotators do when you publish a text is you have a little mini biography of that person, if you can, birth date, death date, a little bit about their marriages, maybe. If they’re in any Church offices, how they made money, how they survived. You can put a lot into one of these little, mini biographies. One of my models in doing this was Juanita Brooks, who had helped get the Mormon collection going at the Huntington Library. So, she was one of my heroes and models. She wrote these wonderful little mini biographies in texts she edited. She helped edit/collaborated on the John D. Lee journals. Then she did Hosea Stout journals, wonderful, scholarly contributions. So, she was a model. Eliza R. Snow had been a plural wife of Joseph Smith. Then, she became a plural wife of Brigham Young, and lived in the Brigham Young family the rest of her life. There’s obviously a whole story there that I’m not getting into. But I felt like I was starting to try to identify some of these women she was referring to.
Helen Mar Whitney/Reject Pedophile Label?
Todd continues to discuss how he documented Joseph Smith’s wives and writing “In Sacred Loneliness.” I also asked him about Joseph’s marriage to Helen Mar Kimball, and whether Todd accepted or rejected the pedophile label for Joseph Smith.
Todd 48:47 I went to [Brian Hales’] session at Sunstone, and it was just an overview of Joseph Smith’s polygamy. I missed the first half. But he mentioned during his main talk, he said, “If it were…” This is interesting, because he’s known as a defender of Joseph Smith, which I think he is overall. But he said, “If it were up to me, and I could go back and whisper in Joseph Smith’s ear, I would advise him to do polygamy in different ways.” He just said that and went on.
Todd 49:40 But during the question and answer [portion,] someone raised their hand and said, “Could you be more specific about what ways you would advise Joseph Smith not to do his polygamy. So, he said someplace, either in his website or one of his books, he has gone through the things he would have done differently. But he, himself, right there, he went through five things. One was, he would have advised him not to marry really young teenagers. And he would have advised him not to marry women who are married to other men.
GT 50:20 Right.
Todd 50:22 So, where were we? Are we still talking about Helen Mar? So, there was definitely that dynastic connection. Heber C. Kimball wanted this family connection with Joseph Smith, and they used sealings to do that.
GT 50:39 And you would reject the pedophile label?
Todd 50:46 Yeah. I wouldn’t use the pedophile label.
GT 50:49 So, this was more of a dynastic sealing?
Todd 50:52 We don’t have it documented that it was consummated. He might have gone through the pattern that we find in Utah, sometimes, of waiting before there was sexual relations. However, I think it is problematic that he would marry someone at that age. I think it’s problematic this idea of men saying, “Well, we’re going to use a marriage to a daughter to connect ourselves.” I think it’s not fair to the daughter, definitely.
GT 51:30 Didn’t Helen feel that way?
Todd 51:31 Yes, she was very, very disturbed by it. The mother, Vilate, was disturbed by it, [Helen’s] mother, the wife of Heber C. Kimball. And Helen Mar left a wonderful memoir of her marriage to Joseph Smith, and it was addressed to her kids.
As we continue our conversation with Dr. Todd Compton, we’ll discuss some of the more controversial marriages of Joseph Smith. Fanny Alger was just 16 years old inn 1833. Was her marriage to Joseph that early, or as late as 1836 as some claim?
Todd 28:37 So, because these Hancock autobiographies were published, in a non-scholarly way, I wanted to see the originals. I love seeing the misspellings, and often the way they wrote was how they talked. And they talked differently than, obviously, modern people, but it’s really wonderful how they talked. And that comes through and sometimes modern researchers who aren’t doing it exactly the way it should be done, they correct. Like, “Oh, they’re using the word, ain’t. We don’t want that. We’ll change that, too.” So, it’s now a nice, modern grammatical text.
Todd 29:40 Anyway, so that’s why I was looking at the Hancock journals, because he had just mentioned briefly Fanny Alger. Joseph Smith asked him when they left Kirtland, “Will you keep an eye on Fanny,” which is kind of odd because Fanny’s family was still there. She could have traveled with her parents. So that shows special interest Joseph Smith had. It’s one of these little problems that you want to figure out what’s going on. Why [is there] this special interest? By the way, at this point I had accepted Fanny Alger, as a wife of Joseph Smith. She was on Jenson’s list, and I had accepted her. Another early insider in Nauvoo polygamy was Benjamin Johnson and he talked about her being a plural wife of Joseph Smith. And it’s late, but again, [I don’t reject late sources.] Of course, at that point, it’s secondhand. He talked about Joseph Smith’s marriage to his sisters as a firsthand witness, but he wasn’t a firsthand witness of Fanny Alger marrying Joseph Smith. Anyway, I’m saying there were other sources for Fanny being married to Joseph Smith. So, I had accepted it at that point.
Todd 31:04 But I wanted to see. [In the Hancock memoirs,] are there primary documents behind these typewritten sources that had been published? And there were. So, you could have said, “Well, this may not be that important.” Because I had limited time. Because, this isn’t Fanny writing. It isn’t her brother writing. Anyway, I decided to look through [the Hancock autograph documents] and see what I could find. And the Levi Hancock document was about the same. It had that bit about, “Joseph asked me to take care of Fanny, when they left Kirtland.” But the Mosiah Hancock document, he had the section where he’s talking about his father. And he’s talking about his father being in Kirtland. Then, he started telling the story of how his father performed the marriage of Fanny Alger to Joseph Smith. I had never seen it anywhere else, so this was an exciting discovery for me. It wasn’t like I had made some adventurous journey to a long lost relative of Fanny Alger in Illinois or something like that. It was just there in the Church Archives. I was checking a document that had been published in a non-scholarly way. But, anyway, there’s this whole story, and the person who had published that Mosiah Hancock diary…
GT 33:03 They had left it out.
Todd 33:03 Yeah, they had edited it out.
GT 33:11 Wow.
Todd 34:03 So, Joseph Smith said to Levi, “Levi, will you help me marry Fanny? And if you do, I will help you marry Clarissa Reed.” So, Joseph Smith was making an agreement. You know, “I’ll help you with this, if you help me with this.”
Todd 34:25 And Levi Hancock said, “Yes. Okay. I’ll help you, Joseph.” I think. And it says, explicitly, that Levi performed a marriage ceremony.
GT 34:40 Does it have a date in there?
Todd 34:41 No, no date.
GT 34:43 Okay.
Todd 34:44 But it is linked with this Levi Hancock’s marriage, where Joseph Smith helped him marry this other woman.
GT 34:51 The quid pro quo, alright.
Todd 34:53 Right. So, it’s linked with that marriage and that marriage is well documented as [taking place in] 1833. Here’s part of the problem which we have with polygamy, providing that we accept that Levi Hancock account — is the regular civil marriage is well documented. Lots of people come to the wedding, and often it’s written in the family Bible, and all kinds of ways it’s documented for a regular marriage. But the Fanny Alger marriage wasn’t documented at all like that. It wasn’t public. It was secret.
We’ll also discuss Sylvia Sessions Lyon. Was she havinng sexual relations with both Joseph Smith and Windsor Lyon when Josephine Lyon was conceived? Todd seems to think so. But it was really interesting to hear Todd tell about Ina Coolbrith.
Todd 1:09:27 [Ina has] become fairly famous and there have been a couple of biographies written about her by non-Mormons. But she was the daughter of Don Carlos Smith, Joseph Smith’s brother. So, she was the niece of Joseph Smith, I guess. Her mother, Agnes Coolbrith Smith Smith Smith Pickett, she had been the wife of Don Carlos Smith. He died in Nauvoo. Then, she married Joseph Smith, and he died. Then she married, who was it? Was George A. Smith?
GT 1:10:32 Who was a cousin, right?
Todd 1:10:38 Yeah. And then she married a kind of a lapsed Mormon, or a Mormon who became a lapsed Mormon, named William Pickett. She had twins with him, and they grew up in California, and followed after their father in some ways. So, William wanted to go to California to the Gold Rush. That’s why Ina ended up in California. So, we have some really great fun letters written by her when she was living in California, Los Angeles. And she’s written a letter to Joseph F. Smith, who was her cousin, and he was on a mission in Hawaii. So, they were able to exchange these letters to each other, and they’ve been saved. So, in Los Angeles, not too far away from San Bernardino, and before 1857, there was a big Mormon community in San Bernardino. So, Agnes and Ina would go visit. So, we have accounts of them visiting from the diaries of the people there. They had visited Utah for a while, but they came with Pickett to California, and were living there, at the time of the letter [that] I’m going to read from, in 1857. So, it would be interesting to have a long interview with Ina about how she felt about what was happening with her Mormon background. Later in her life, people didn’t know she had a Mormon background. She was just this famous poetess. However, in this letter she wrote to Joseph F. Smith, in 1857, she went on a tirade against polygamy, and it’s pretty interesting. This paragraph was a really interesting passage. And you can see, she was a brilliant, bright person, and lively writer. And I include these whole letters. You don’t have just the paragraph. You have the whole letters. So, it’s fun, obviously, to read the whole letters.
Todd 1:13:32 She writes to Joseph F. Smith, who later became a full polygamist with, like, six wives and something like 40 kids or something like that. “Is it right for a girl of 15 and even 16 to marry a man of 50 or 60? Can there be any love there? And has not God willed a woman to love, honor and obey her husband? And can it be right, thus, to pledge false vows at the altar, in perfect mockery of all that is good and pure in God’s most holy laws? I think I see myself vowing to love and honor some old driveling idiot of 60, to be taken into his harem and enjoy the pleasure of being his favorite sultana for an hour and then thrown aside whilst my godly husband is out sparking another girl in hopes of getting another victim to his despotic power. Pleasant prospect, I must say.” [There’s] a lot of underlining through all of this, even some double underlining. “And this Joe, this is of God?” So, Joseph F Smith to her is Joe.
GT 1:14:43 Oh, really?
Todd 1:14:45 “And this Joe, this is of God, is it? No, never, never, never. You may preach. You may talk to me from now to eternity, but you never will make me believe that polygamy is true.”
GT 1:14:58 Wow.
Todd 1:14:59 So, you wonder, did she talk with her mother about polygamy? Did she have a bad experience, seeing polygamy happening in Utah, when she spent a year or two in Utah? It’s hard to tell. So, we have Joseph F’s responses. And he’s a very devout Mormon, and he very strongly defends polygamy. But that was a 16-year-old girl writing. She was a brilliant person. And Joseph F. was a very strong-minded, and a very well-educated person, too. So, they were interesting cousins.
We talk about several other cases. What are your thoughts on Todd Compton’s work on Joseph Smith’s wives? Have you read his books?