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The most comprehensive treatment to date of plural marriages during Joseph Smith’s lifetime is Gary Bergera’s article “Identifying the Earliest Mormon Polygamists, 1841-44,″ published in Dialogue during 2005. [1] Unfortunately, Bergera’s article was written before publication of the DNA results that have consistently contradicted the rumors that Joseph engendered the children [2] of the women with whom he covenanted. Bergera and prior scholars therefore had no incentive to 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 covenants and marriages were inspired by a need to care for the victims of Bennett’s sex ring.

Previous chapters examined some of these covenants and marriages from the standpoint of the men involved. This chapter focuses on the women, to explore common themes. The first plural marriage that did not include Joseph Smith was the marriage of Theodore Turley and Mary Clift, supposedly occurring in early 1842.

Mary Clift and Theodore Turley

Mary Clift was an English convert, born 1815 in Gloucester. Theodore Turley, Sr. was born in England in 1801, then emigrated to Canada with his wife, Frances. The Turleys converted to Mormonism and eventually gathered to Nauvoo. Turley had a gun shop and filled the post of Armorer General for the Nauvoo Legion. [3]

On October 20, 1842, Mary Clift gave birth to a baby boy, Jason. 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. [4] Mary died within a week of giving birth to her last child, the only one to survive to adulthood. Because of Jason’s birth, it is presumed that Theodore Turley took Mary Clift to be his plural wife in January 1842.

However 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. [5]

Thus the very first supposed plural marriage that did not involve Joseph Smith is known to be a reaction to a seduction by a Striker.

Philinda C. Eldredge [Myrick] and Vinson Knight

Philinda was born in 1809 and married Levi N. Myrick or Merrick on November 18, 1827. In 1838 Philinda and Levi were at Haun’s Mill when a militia of roughly 250 men 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, likely before a militia member put his musket against another boy’s skull and blew off the top of his head. The militia shot Charles down but did not follow up to finish him off. Charles lingered in pain for a few weeks before dying of his wounds. A third boy survived, though his hip had been blown clear away.

It seems likely Philinda would have remained close to Catherine [Fuller], another woman widowed at Haun’s Mill. It is therefore possible that Philinda became involved in the illicit intercourse practiced by Bennett’s men, given that Catherine’s home was a particular gathering place for these men, and site of many sexual conquests.

Vinson Knight was one of the three bishops in Nauvoo in 1841/42 and lived very near the Times and Seasons offices. Suggesting how Vinson Knight might have become involved in spiritual wifery. As bishop, Vinson was responsible for widows and orphans in his congregation. These are the population of women most vulnerable to Bennett and his Strikers .

It is possible Joseph Smith 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 had had with Joseph in 1843 regarding delicate matters, recording that Knight “went to loose conduct and [Joseph] could not save him.” [6] Clayton’s journal entry raises the possibility that Vinson Knight himself had adopted the practices 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.

Vinson was providing Philinda food. It is unclear whether he regarded Philinda as a plural wife or as a spiritual wife. Vinson’s legal wife, Martha McBride, reportedly “knew some thing was worr[y]ing her husband and he could not 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, [7] 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 [take responsibility for a woman in need]. [8] 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.’ ” [9]

Vinson would not care for Philinda long. By March 1842 Philinda was receiving assistance from the Relief Society. In July 1842 Vinson became suddenly ill and passed away on July 31, 1842. Joseph Smith delivered the eulogy, saying Vinson was the “best friend he ever had on earth.” [10]

Martha McBride Knight would covenant with Joseph the month after Vinson’s death. This echoes Joseph’s covenant with Sylvia Sessions [Lyon], whose husband had been excommunicated. Philinda Eldredge would remarry in 1843. Neither Martha nor Philinda would have themselves sealed to Vinson in the Nauvoo temple, an eternal rejection consistent with Clayton’s journal entry regarding Knight’s loose conduct.

Sarah Peak [Noon] and Heber C. Kimball

Sarah Peak was born in 1811 in England. Sarah married William Noon in 1829. William accompanied Sarah and their two daughters to Nauvoo when Sarah converted to Mormonism. The Noons arrived in Nauvoo on July 1, 1841, just as Dr. Bennett’s illicit intercourse activities began. Sarah would subsequently part from William because of his “drunken and dissolute habits,” according to Sarah’s step-daughter, Helen Mar Kimball. [11]

We know Bennett’s Strikers were targeting widows. They had also shown a taste for new or prospective converts fresh off the boat. This was attested to with regards to Elenor and Rachel Kingsley and alleged in the case of Martha Brotherton. These new converts would have less experience with the gospel and would more easily accept illicit intercourse as a possible secret teaching. [12]

Heber C. Kimball had told Joseph Smith of his plan to approach spinsters Laura Pitkin (52) and Abigail Pitkin (45) to be his wives. [13] When Heber told Joseph his plan, Joseph commanded Heber to not marry the Pitkin sisters. At some point thereafter, Heber was asked to marry Sarah Peak [Noon], who was 31.

Sarah gave birth to a child, Adelbert (or Adelmon), in October or November of 1842. Heber Kimball is usually presumed to be Adelbert’s father. But Adelbert was conceived when Bennett and his men were actively attempting to seduce women. Alternately, Adelbert could have been engendered by William Noon if Sarah Peak [Noon] felt it necessary to part with him only after conception.

Unfortunately we can never positively determine who fathered Adelbert, as he passed away in April 1843. Sarah Peak [Noon] would have another child in 1844, making it possible that Heber and Sarah refrained from sexual relations until after Emma Smith embraced the New and Everlasting Covenant in May 1843.

Lucina Roberts [Johnston] and Reynolds Cahoon

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 [14] and she had lost three of her six children to death.

The date when Lucina married Reynolds Cahoon, born 1790, is vague, reportedly during late 1841 or early 1842. [15] The birth of Lucina’s daughter, Lucina Johnson Cahoon, is given as “abt 1843.” [16] However Gary Bergera lists Lucina Cahoon as one of the children born to plural wives prior to Joseph Smith’s death. [17]

With Lucina, 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. [18] Again the window of possible conception overlaps the peak of illicit intercourse activity in Nauvoo.

Lucy Ann Decker [Seeley] and Brigham Young

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

With Lucy we have an echo of Sarah Peak [Noon], a young mother constructively abandoned by a husband who had accompanied her to Nauvoo. Brigham Young took responsibility for Lucy Ann in 1842.

Brigham and Lucy would not produce children for at least two years after their reported marriage in the summer of 1842. This suggests the possibility that Brigham and Lucy did not engage in sexual relations until after Joseph’s death.

Joseph’s 1842 Wives

The prior chapter, Arraigning the Band of Brothers, 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 covenanted with men other than Joseph Smith shows a pattern of women who had either been seduced or women who were vulnerable due to having been widowed or abandoned. This suggests these women were unusually vulnerable to Bennett and other Strikers.

Having seen this pattern, it is revealing to consider the women Joseph Smith may have married in 1842.

Agnes Coolbrith [Smith] (m. Jan 6, 1842): Agnes entered into a levirate marriage with Joseph Smith after her husband’s death. Joseph Smith’s journal entry 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 positive indication on January 6th that Joseph’s marriage to Agnes was a reaction to Bennett, other than the participation of Brigham Young. However it appears the Strikers had approached Agnes’s late husband in an attempt to get him to participate in spiritual wifery. Clarissa Marvel would be questioned for spreading rumors about Agnes’s character. Agnes would later write Joseph F. Smith hinting that she could tell him things he knew nothing about. [19]

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 Mary’s sealing to Joseph was performed by Brigham Young with Heber C. Kimball in attendance. Later in life Mary would specifically indicate she could tell Joseph F. Smith things about his father, Hyrum, of which Joseph F. Smith was unaware. [20] Mary’s sealing appears to have provided her information about all three men directly implicated in the initial rumors related to Martha Brotherton.

Sylvia Sessions [Lyon]: Sylvia was the wife of Windsor Lyon, an apothecary. [21] Sylvia would never clarify when she covenanted with Joseph, apparently refusing to sign either of the affidavits Joseph F. Smith prepared in 1869. Sylvia did tell her daughter, Josephine, that Sylvia was sealed to Joseph Smith after Windsor was cut off from the Church. [22] Sylvia was reportedly 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 or drugs and herbs to inhibit pregnancy.

DNA analysis confirms Sylvia’s daughter, Josephine, could not have been Joseph Smith’s biological child and was instead the child of Windsor Lyon. Some scholars persist in believing Sylvia had sex with Joseph Smith, but was sufficiently unaware of her reproductive state that she became confused regarding whether Windsor or Joseph had fathered Josephine. [23] Meanwhile, review of Sylvia’s deathbed testimony indicates that she told both Josephine and another daughter, Phebe Jane Clark [Ellis], about Joseph being their father. As Phebe was conceived long after Joseph’s death, it appears Sylvia was talking of a covenant relationship rather than a biological relationship.

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. If they became pregnant, she would be able to help them.

Nancy Winchester: The date when Nancy married Joseph is unknown. She never consummated her marriage with Heber C. Kimball. She 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. The trajectory of her life hints that something traumatic may have happened to her, possibly in January 1842, around the time her brother, Benjamin Winchester, was excommunicated.

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 was not sealed to Joseph Smith until May 1843. This suggests Marinda Nancy Johnson was a trusted agent in 1842 rather than a covenant wife.

Elizabeth Davis [Goldsmith Brackenbury Durfee]: Bennett would assert in 1842 that Elizabeth had been one of Joseph’s wives. Elizabeth would have herself sealed to Joseph in the Nauvoo temple after his death. However there is no primary document indicating Elizabeth covenanted with Joseph prior to his death. Elizabeth’s main role appeared to be questioning young ladies regarding what they thought about spiritual wifery. Elizabeth also helped Emma, determining 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 returned to Quincy to be near 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 there is only supposition to support a possible covenant between Sarah Cleveland and Joseph Smith during Joseph’s life. Either way, Sarah’s role appears to be that of an investigator rather than wife or lover.

Delcena Diadamia Johnson [Sherman]: Delcena was the widow of almost-apostle Lyman Sherman. She had seven children to care for. Delcena was also sister of Mary Heron’s son-in-law, putting her within the circle of a woman possibly seduced by one of Bennett’s Strikers. As a widow, Delcena may have been pressured to yield to a Striker in exchange for food.

Delcena’s brother, Benjamin, returned to Nauvoo in July 1842. He would later describe the marriage between Delcena and Joseph as “tacitly admitted.” Delcena was living in the home of Louisa Beaman, who had covenanted with Joseph in April 1841. Joseph Smith may have been trying to protect Delcena from the Strikers.

Eliza Roxy Snow (m. 29 June 1842): We do not know when Eliza learned about “plurality,” other than that it occurred in Nauvoo. Eliza would attest that she covenanted with Joseph on June 29, shortly after Bennett’s departure from Nauvoo, with Sarah [Cleveland] as witness and Brigham Young officiating. Eliza is considered to have been entirely virtuous.

Yet sometime in 1842 Eliza had penned a sensuous and secretive 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.” [24]

This poem would be published in August 1842, a time when the only possible public interpretation was that Snow was proclaiming herself Joseph’s mistress. This publication coincided with Eliza being asked to leave the home of Sarah Cleveland, where she had been staying after her father left the fellowship of the Saints one week after Dr. Bennett’s departure.

The poem was probably inserted in the paper by someone wishing to harm Joseph. This implies Eliza had originally presented the poem to Bennett or one of his Strikers.

In November 1842 Eliza would write of a “vile wretch that feeds his sordid selfishness upon the peace and blood of innocence…” Due to Eliza’s prominence, her experiences and writings will be covered in more detail in a later chapter. It is sufficient to note that Eliza Snow exhibits traits suggesting she may have been vulnerable to the Strikers.

Sarah Ann Whitney (m. 27 July 1842): The marriage of Sarah and Joseph Smith is the only 1842 plural marriage covenant that initially seems untouched by the Bennett scandal. Sarah was daughter of Elizabeth Ann Smith [Whitney], Emma’s Relief Society Counselor, and Newel K. Whitney, 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 Whitneys were the first married couple known to have their vows solemnized for eternity. Much is made of a letter Joseph writes the Whitneys from hiding, telling them that if Emma is not there they can come to him in perfect safety. It is usually presumed Emma was the danger, as if she were not aware of Joseph’s marriages. However the obvious reason Emma would represent danger to people visiting Joseph in hiding would be the possibility that enemies would attempt to tail Emma.

Though Sarah herself seems untouched by the Bennett scandal, it was feared her brother, Horace, would turn against Joseph Smith. On May 12, 1842, [25] Horace was sent away to live with relations in Connecticut and Ohio. His wife, Helen Mar Kimball, would write:

“Joseph feared… the Higbee boys would embitter Horace against him, as they had already caused serious trouble, and for this reason he favored his going east, which Horace was not slow to accept.” [26]

Martha McBride [Knight] (m. August 1842): It appears Martha’s husband had gone “to loose conduct” and was possibly influenced by Bennett’s group to engage in illicit intercourse. Joseph’s marriage to Martha would have been similar to the marriage of Theodore Turley to Mary Clift, a man protecting a woman who was believed to have been with a scoundrel.

Esther Dutcher [Smith]: In 1888 Daniel Wells wrote to Joseph F. Smith, asserting Esther Dutcher [Smith] had been a plural wife to Joseph Smith. Esther Dutcher [Smith] was almost certainly the same Esther Smith mentioned in the High Council minutes of fall 1842. It is not entirely clear if Esther rejected the teaching regarding illicit intercourse or if she was a victim. Esther’s covenant with Joseph may have occurred in spring 1842 soon after Gustavus Hills attempted to seduce her.

Lesser-Known Wives: There are other women who are reported to have covenanted with Joseph Smith, where there is little information. But we see important patterns.

  • Mary Houston and Sarah Scott [Mulholland] were respectively single and widowed. Like so many of the women known to have covenanted with Joseph Smith, they accepted Heber Kimball’s protection after Joseph’s death.
  • Lucinda Pendleton [Morgan Harris] and Phebe Watrous [Woodworth] would each have themselves sealed to Joseph Smith in January 1846 with their husbands standing proxy. This is markedly similar to how Esther Dutcher [Smith] asked her loving husband to stand proxy as she was sealed to Joseph Smith for eternity. Given the several men known to have sinned who repented and went on to live honorable lives, it must be considered that these three women felt their husbands had in some manner lost the mandate to retain them in eternity. This is similar to the behavior of Martha McBride [Knight], who would decline to be sealed to her husband Vinson, though to all public appearance Vinson had died an honorable man.
  • Sarah Rapson [Poulterer] may have been the “Miss B*****” or Bapson Dr. Bennett indicated was a wife to Joseph Smith. Like Sarah Whitney and Sarah Scott [Mulholland], Sarah Rapson [Poulterer] appears to have been related to a male teenager among “the youth that [Dr. Bennett and his Strikers] had influence over.”

All plural marriage activity in 1842 appears associated with cleaning up the secret mess Bennett and his strikers had caused by persuading men and women to engage in illicit intercourse. For those who believe in a God who might send the sword-wielding angel, every plural marriage after April 1841 was potentially precipitated by Bennett’s secret activities. Unfortunately the spate of 1842 covenants 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.

Plural Wives of 1842 – Notes

The plural wives of 1842 either manifest characteristics reflecting vulnerability to Bennett or his Strikers, or were known to have been assisting Emma and Joseph to combat the influence of the Strikers.

Three women bore children engendered during 1842: Mary Clift, Sarah Peak [Noon], and Lucina Roberts [Johnston]. Mary Clift confessed to being seduced by Gustavus Hills. It is not clear which men engendered the children of Sarah Peak [Noon] and Lucina Roberts [Johnston].

Joseph appears to have covenanted with a woman (Martha [Knight]) whose husband was reportedly involved in illicit intercourse and possibly a woman (Esther [Smith]) who had been pressed to participate in illicit intercourse.

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[1] Bergera, Gary, “Identifying the Earliest Mormon Polygamists, 1841-44,” Dialogue, online 22 Mar 2014 at http://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/


[2] Most who can be tested have been evaluated. See Appendix C.

[3] Ann Laemmlen Lewis, Frances Amelia Kimberley and Theodore Turley: My Third Great Grandparents, online 26 Mar 2014 at http://www.geocities.com/~wallyg/L2frances.htm.

[4] Mary’s second child, Ephraim Turley, was born 11 Feb 1845, suggesting conception occurred in May 1844, just prior to the death of Joseph Smith.

[5] The Nauvoo City Council and High Council Minutes, John S. Dinger editor, Signature Books, Salt Lake City, 2011, pp. 424-5.

[6] Clayton, William. In George D. Smith, ed. An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton, p. 108.

[7] Mention of fruit and vegetables implies the conversation occurred in the fall.

[8] Account says “enter Plural Marriage.” As this is a late account written by someone from within the Mormon faith tradition. I question whether Vinson used that term.

[9] Quoted in Bergera, “The Earliest Mormon Polygamists,” Dialogue, from Delia Belnap, Martha McBridge Knight, typescript, not paginated, LDS Church Archives; courtesy Todd Compton.

[10] Lisa Wood, Biography For: Martha McBride Knight Smith Kimball, online 26 Mar 2014 at http://www.mypioneertrek.com/Biographies.aspx?PioneerName=Martha%20McBride%20Knight%20Smith%20Kimball.

[11] Our Pioneer Heritage, Vol. 10, p. 388.

[12] The Nauvoo Expositor, put together by Chauncey Higbee and men involved in 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…” Online 26 Mar 2014 at http://en.fairmormon.org/Primary_sources/Nauvoo_Expositor_Full_Text.

[13] Stanley B. Kimball, Heber C. Kimball: Mormon Patriarch and Pioneer, p. 95.

[14] Familysearch.org merely lists “1838, Ohio River” as the date and place of death.

[15] Mary L. S. Putnam and Lila Cahoon, eds. and comps., Reynolds Cahoon: His Roots and Branches (Bountiful, Utah: Family History Publishers, 1993.

[16] familysearch.org.

[17] Bergera does not count Jason Turley since it is clearly documented Jason was fathered by Gustavus Hills as part of the Bennett illicit intercourse scheme.

[18] 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.

[19] Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, pp. 166-167.

[20] Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, pp. 226.

[21] The Nauvoo City Council and High Council Minutes, John S. Dinger editor, Signature Books, Salt Lake City, 2011, p. 431.

[22] Sylvia was sealed to Joseph posthumously on September 9, 1844, with Heber Kimball standing proxy and Brigham Young officiating.

[23] Perego, Ugo, Was Joseph Smith the Biological Father of Josephine Lyon? The Genetic Evidence, presented June 11, 2016 at the 51st Mormon History Association Conference. Scientific data online 14 Jun 2016 at http://www.josephsmithdna.com/josephine-lyon.html. For earlier results, see Joseph Smith and DNA, The Persistence of Polygamy, Volume I, pp. 233-256.

[24] Jill Mulvay Deer and Karen Lynn Davidson, ed.s Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry, pp. 210-211.

[25] Helen’s article gives the date as May 1843, but then says that he left a year before she herself was introduced to the principle of plural marriage. This indicates Horace left in May 1842, right before Dr. Bennett was exposed for fomenting illicit intercourse. See Helen Mar Kimball [Whitney], “Scenes and Incidents in Nauvoo,” Woman’s Exponent 11 (1882-83), online 24 Nov 2015 at http://www.boap.org/LDS/Early-Saints/HWhitney.html.

[26] Helen Mar Kimball [Whitney], “Scenes and Incidents in Nauvoo,” Woman’s Exponent  11 (1882-83), online 24 Nov 2015 at http://www.boap.org/LDS/Early-Saints/HWhitney.html.