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.
Ina Coolbrith’s Tirade Against Polygamy
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?
If I could have whispered in Joseph Smith’s ear I would have suggested he skip polygamy altogether and maybe suggested a few concepts about consent and women having rights equal to those of men, but that’s just me. I really do appreciate Compton’s candor and careful scholarship on Joseph Smith’s wives.
Compton is great. Haven’t read the book, but I’m sure it would be great, too.
But I’ve got a problem with the term “controversial polygamy cases.” It makes it sound like regular plain vanilla just-decided-to-marry-another-woman polygamy is not really a problem, it’s just the *controversial* cases that raise a problem or present an ethical dilemma. As if there are *controversial* bank robberies, which we need to talk about, but regular plain bank robberies, waving guns and threatening tellers but not actually, you know, shooting anyone, just running off with the money, aren’t really a problem.
I’m not sure that’s really the angle Compton is taking. But critics sometimes cherry-pick the worst cases (to make the strongest criticism of the practice), perhaps unintentionally minimizing the problematics of the non-controversial cases.
Well Dave, bank robberies are so common, unless there are hostages or deaths, they often don’t get reported by the media. It’s the same with polygamy. When Joseph has 28 or 33 or 35 wives, some are going to be more controversial than others.
To be clear, Todd documents all of the wives, so the post title is my choice, not his. I chose to highlight the more interesting cases, not all 33. His book is 850 pages, so there is plenty of time to talk about the less famous cases. I’ve also found shorter posts get more comments, so yes I did some cherry picking.
My copy of Todd’s book came today and I have had it all but chained around my neck. Having read “In Sacred Loneliness” at least three times this book is the perfect companion to it. Reading ISL the first time was both difficult and illuminating for me. I came to genuinely care about the 33 wives of JS whose stories are told. In this new book the letters, diaries, life sketches, interviews, etc. of these ladies bring them to life in a way that just stating the facts doesn’t. I’m grateful to Gospel Tangents and Todd for making me aware of this book.
I have horror stories about the evils of polygamy on both sides of my family that have caused generational trauma. My generation broke the cycle by naming the evils of polygamy out loud and covenanting with each other to get the help we needed in order to stop the damage from affecting our children’s lives like it did ours. Since then I have tried to find and read every book that I can find about Mormon polygamy. Thus far I have not read one book that shows that polygamy was good for the members of the church-ever. Until we refuse to put up with the eternal polygamy that still goes on today the damage and heartbreak will continue.
“In Sacred Loneliness” was a huge driver in my disaffection. Blinders off. Mormon polygamy was bad from the get-go. I’m grateful to Compton for his research and treatment of these women as more than just chess pieces.
I read Compton’s work years ago. I also read many other books across the interpretive spectrum, including Brian Hales’ work. Hales produced a website which has much documentation. Hales does defend Joseph Smith a bit more than other interpretations of the same documents, but EVERY historian I read revealed a picture of plural marriage that most readers would find troubling. The psychological toll of the practice on many of these wives has yet to be calculated. While I fully appreciate how marriage sealing plays a role in the salvation/exaltation aspect of LDS theology and practice, it should give every believing LDS pause to realize on whose shoulders the painful burden of plural marriage was really placed.
My own family’s plural marriage heritage is bizarre. One of my great-great-grandmothers was married to four different husbands, one of who was a GA (that marriage lasted the shortest and ended in divorce). She hated plural marriage and finally found a loving relationship with my great-great-grandfather. Another ancestor was excommunicated in the 1880’s for REFUSING to take a plural wife. He was a strict monogamist and an early victim of “leadership roulette” in a small town in Utah. When I told this to my soon-to-be bride and explained I was a “one-woman guy” and that it was in my DNA, she was more than pleased!
I don’t know that I would call these “controversial” polygamy cases, but they are interesting. All polygamy is disgusting. I’m with Ina Coolidge, and I have never believed it was a good thing. It’s vile.
One slight quibble on the term pedophillia, though, that gets thrown around a lot when we are talking about victims who’ve attained the age of puberty. Adult attraction to young teens (11-14) who are undergoing puberty is correctly called hebephilia rather than pedophilia which is pre-pubescent attraction. Adults having attraction to mid-teens is called ephebophilia. Currently both hebephilia and ephebophilia (under age 18) are illegal, and any way you slice it, a teen being coerced into a sexual relationship with an adult is disgusting. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of that throughout history in which wealthy families essentially horse-traded their daughters into marriages for political power, and these marriages could be consummated as soon as the girls hit menarche. That’s not exactly what happened in Mormonism, though. It appears Ina has the right understanding of it: increasingly older men in power could satisfy their lust with an increasingly younger harem. I’m glad someone stood up to her cousing JFS whose strident views almost single-handedly ruined Mormonism for the next century.
Some of the problems with polygamy that don’t get talked about as much as older men marrying young teens who’ve barely reached full puberty are favoritism, neglecting wives and children while taking on still more wives, emotional and physical abuse (all kinds) and more. An especially pernicious doctrine was the deceitful practice called the Law of Sarah where the first wife was supposed to be consulted and give her consent first before her husband could take another wife and how church leaders came up with all sorts of creative ways for getting around it. Two cases in point are from my own family.
My dad’s mother’s paternal grandma was a young Danish convert who was among the first Danes to come to Utah. She was beautiful and had no end of suitors vying for her hand in marriage. A particular young man who was high up in the church and in civic matters swept her off her feet and married her after a very short engagement. Because of his church duties and civic responsibilities he told her that he’d be gone quite a bit. She soon got pregnant with my great-grandpa. Her husband was away when the baby was born. It was a long and perilous labor and delivery.
The morning after the birth Great-grandma’s neighbor who was helping her and the baby heard a pounding on Great-grandma’s door. It was the local sheriff and a woman whom she didn’t know telling her that she and the baby were illegally living in the house and that she was being evicted. It turned out that the other woman was the first wife of Great-grandma’s husband, and that her best friend who’d been the midwife at the delivery went to tell her afterwards that her husband had a secret wife who’d just given birth to a son. Naturally she and Great-grandma were both furious that they’d both been deceived by this husband. The house had been part of wife #1’s dowry which automatically went to her husband upon marrying him. He was basically using her “old age insurance” to house another, secret family. The sheriff then showed Great-grandma the eviction notice and gave her 15 minutes to get her clothes and the baby’s things together and leave the house. Her parents lived 15 miles away, so a neighbor took her and the baby in until her parents could come them home. Because she was just learning English she didn’t understand what was going until her neighbor who was also Danish explained to her what was happening. When the husband returned from his business trip he cruelly cast off Anna and her baby. My great, great-grandparents tried to sue their now former SIL for lying about his marital status to their daughter and for taking advantage of her ignorance. They tried first to deal with the problem through the local church authorities, but they all sided with the husband. When the case went to court the judge and jury were composed of friends and ward members of the husband so there was no justice for either woman. Great-grandma went up Big Cottonwood Canyon on the east side of the SL Valley to cook for the silver miners. The miners were very kind to both her and her baby. When she finally married again she purposely married a non Mormon because she no longer trusted the men in the church to tell the truth and treat her with respect. My great-grandpa refused to be sealed to his birth father and promptly had nothing to do with the church until he met future his wife to be.
The 2nd story is even worse. My maternal grandmother’s parents were married in 1890 in the Endowment House on Temple Square. Ten years and five kids later my great-grandfather told his wife and kids that he’d just gotten a new job in Colonia Dublan, Mexico and that he would send for them as soon as he could find a decent home for them. (He’d never held a job for very long so his family saw this as a fresh start.). Imagine what my great-grandmother and her children felt when they arrived in Mexico to discover that their husband and father had recently married an 18 year old girl from their ward back in SLC. Not only that but he freely admitted that he’d wanted to marry this girl ever since he’d been called to be her Sunday School teacher when she was 13. He’d been grooming the girl for the 5 years that he’d been her teacher at church! Naturally Great-grandma and the kids were shocked and very angry. This was post Manifesto #1 in 1900. The bishop told my great-grandmother that SHE was in the wrong for complaining about the new situation. Great-grandpa (we great-grandkids refer to him as Big, Bad Ben) didn’t even get a slap on the hand.
He lived with his 2nd wife much of the time and only came home to his first family when the other wife was pregnant. What money he made mostly went to the other family so that my great-grandma had to take in a lot of washing and ironing in order to support her children. Again the bishop and SP took BBB’s side when she asked for help and accused her of not “sustaining her husband in his Priesthood duties”! He got off scot free.
When my grandma and her older sister turned 8 their father began to sexually abuse them on a regular basis up until menarche and threatened them with terrible consequences if they dared to tell on him. Great-grandma already knew what was going on and tried to stop BBB. Again her appeals to both the bishop and the sheriff who was also LDS to stop this monster failed. They refused to arrest him or excommunicate him.
The final indignity was when Pancho Villa went on the warpath in 1913 and was targeting Americans to harass and murder. BBB took his other family to El Paso, Texas on a train as soon as word spread about PV while his first family had to make the long and very dangerous journey on foot traveling at night and resting by day. When the family finally returned to SLC they refused have anything more to do with BBB. By this time all of the kids except the oldest sister were thoroughly messed up. She somehow managed to be the only child that wasn’t warped by her horrible abuse, but she was never able to have children because of the terrible internal damage she suffered at the hands of her father. My sibs, cousins and I adored her. Our grandma became a horrible, toxic person who lived to make life a misery for everyone she knew. This affected my mom and her sibs and they took out their own rage and frustration out on my generation. (My grandpa died at an early age, but did what he could to mitigate the damage his wife was inflicting on the entire family. Again, this was all kept secret.).
What upsets me the very most about both of these heartbreaking family stories is that both husbands never had to be held accountable for and deal with the consequences of their evil actions while both wives bore the brunt of their sins and were not believed and were disrespected and labeled as “angry nags” over and over again by church and civil authorities. Not once did the church, which had promulgated this barbaric and evil practice, ever come to the rescue of the women and children who’d been cruelly treated and damaged by these men. Naturally the church never apologized either. Unfortunately, both of these stories were not as unusual as you would think. Polygamy caused and perpetuated abuse of all kinds and left a legacy of broken and permanently damaged wives and children. And God supposedly commanded Joseph Smith and other men to do this? I don’t think so!