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After the Church publicly withdrew fellowship from Dr. Bennett, Bennett approached the editor of the Sangamo Journal, a Whig newspaper in the Illinois state capital, Springfield, Sangamon County, Illinois. The editor of the Sangamo Journal, one Simeon Francis, had ruthlessly assailed Bennett in the press only weeks before. But Bennett convinced Francis that an exposé of the Mormons could shift the balance of power between the Whigs and Democrats in the upcoming election.

The initial letter contained allegations of treason, political tyranny, attempted murder, sexual misconduct, and about every other un-American deed Bennett could think of. Bennett suggested that Joseph planned to use the Nauvoo Legion to overthrow the Northwest, similar to Aaron Burr’s reported treason in 1807. But Bennett’s stories of sexual intrigue captured the imagination of the public. The most damning of these was Bennett’s tale alleging Joseph had attempted to woo the wife of one of his own apostles, Orson Pratt.

Orson Pratt

Orson Pratt was one of the original members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in Joseph Smith’s Church, ordained to his position in 1835. Half the members of the original Quorum apostatized due to the turmoil of the financial collapse in Kirtland and Oliver Cowdery’s allegations regarding Joseph and Fanny Alger. [1] One was killed in the mobbings in Missouri. Those who survived and remained faithful had been asked to serve missions abroad.

While John C. Bennett was putting in place the Nauvoo City Charter, Orson was overseas, preaching and publishing in Liverpool, Edinburgh, and Manchester. Bennett was having Sarah Pratt wash his clothing, sew his shirts, and make his outer clothing [2] while Orson Pratt was preaching without purse or scrip.

It is likely during this period of time (May-July 1841) that Bennett formed the opinion that Sarah Pratt “made a first rate go.” [3]

Orson returned from England in the summer of 1841, stopping in New York on July 1, 1841, to publish a second edition of his Edinburgh tract, History of the Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon. By July 19th, Orson was back in Nauvoo, meeting in council with other members of the Twelve Apostles. Orson returned to the arms and bed of his young wife. He apparently had no idea Sarah had betrayed him during his absence.

Bennett, Denied

Shortly before Orson returned to Nauvoo, Bennett was reprimanded strongly by Joseph Smith, apparently ending his liaison with Sarah Pratt. In 1890 Ebenezer Robinson, formerly Justice of the Peace in Nauvoo, would publish an account, relating:

In the spring of 1841 Dr. Bennett had a small neat house built for Orson Pratt’s family, [4] and commenced boarding with them. Elder Pratt was absent on a mission to England.

Sometime after this, Presidents Hyrum Smith and William Law went on a mission to the eastern states. (William Law was one of the three first Presidents of the church.) When passing through Ohio, a gentleman told them Dr. Bennett had a wife and children living, but she left him because of his adulterous practices. They wrote a letter to Joseph Smith giving him this statement, which letter, Joseph says in his history, was shown to Dr. Bennett, when he confessed he had a wife and children living.

Soon after this Dr. Bennett made an attempt to commit suicide by taking poison. It required quite an effort on the part of the physicians to save his life, as he strenuously resisted their efforts to save him. [5]

Hyrum Smith wrote from Pittsburgh on June 15, 1841 that Bennett had abandoned his wife and conducted himself in a scandalous manner. This echoed the information George Miller had conveyed to Joseph Smith in March 1841, likely arriving in Joseph’s hands before April 1841.

Joseph Smith himself had originally voiced the cover story regarding the June letter prompting the suicide. [6] However Joseph’s rebuke of Bennett covered more than just anger at Bennett’s attempt to hide the fact of his marriage. Lorenzo Wasson, a Smith relative who claimed to have overheard the interchange, recalled that Joseph gave Bennett “a tremendous flagellation for practicing iniquity under the base pretense of authority from the heads of the church.” [7] This “iniquity under… pretense of authority from the heads of the church” seems to describe the manner in which Bennett would persuade others to accept illicit intercourse.

Bennett and Francis Higbee had been found guilty of adultery around July 4, 1841. [8] Dr. Bennett had been called in to treat Francis Higbee, [Nancy Rigdon’s suitor and brother of Chauncey Higbee] and found him suffering from the ——. This was most likely a reference to “the pox,” or syphilis. [9] Bennett and Higbee had confessed before a group of 60-70 individuals on the third floor of the Nauvoo Cultural Hall. [10] Joseph may have only learned of Dr. Bennett’s adultery with Sarah Pratt as a result of the July 1841 accusations and confessions.

Orson, the Dutiful

Given Orson Pratt’s involvement in the activities of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, it seems likely that Orson was aware Church leaders had withdrawn Sarah’s food allotment prior to his arrival home. However it is not clear Orson Pratt realized Sarah had been unfaithful. It is possible Sarah implied she had merely had a falling out with Joseph, to explain the lack of support. Orson’s later actions convey complete shock, as though he was completely blindsided by the disclosures Bennett and Joseph would make in July 1842.

Public documents allow us a window into Orson Pratt’s life after returning to Nauvoo. Less than a month after Orson’s return, it was announced that “The department of English literature and mathematics, of the University of the City of Nauvoo, is in operation under the tuition of Professor Orson Pratt.” [11] Bennett was the one who had created the University charter and gotten it approved by the Illinois State legislature. When Orson learned of Bennett’s care for Sarah while Orson was absent, he insisted Bennett come live with them. [12]

Bennett had been a “getter up” of colleges several times previously. [13] The formation of the University of the City of Nauvoo shows signs of his involvement, often promising more than was actual. For example, it was fully two weeks after the announcement that Orson Pratt was heading the department of English literature and mathematics that “Orson Pratt was elected professor of mathematics in the University of the City of Nauvoo, and the degree of master of arts conferred on him by the chancellor and board of regents.” [14]

Orson was working hard on the University project during the fall of 1841, almost certainly working closely with Dr. Bennett, who was living near Orson in Nauvoo’s First Ward. In the Nauvoo census, the names of Orson and Sarah Pratt are adjacent to the name John C. Bennett, indicating that they were at the very least close neighbors.

When Joseph Smith identified Dr. Bennett as a key participant in the illicit intercourse being conducted in Nauvoo in May 1842, Joseph drew up the notice withdrawing fellowship from Dr. Bennett. Over the next several days, Joseph had the leaders of the Church who were in town sign the notice. Everyone did so with the exception of Orson Pratt. Based on sealed testimony and journal entries, at least two of the men who did sign the notice had engaged in illicit intercourse themselves. But Orson Pratt’s refusal to sign the notice withdrawing fellowship seems to have been inspired by Orson’s honest regard for Bennett. Bennett had been Orson’s  friend and labored with him on the University project.

When Joseph printed the notice withdrawing fellowship from Bennett, there is no doubt Dr. Bennett noted that Orson’s signature was missing. The missing signature was a sign Orson was not hardened against Bennett, the way the other men had become. [15]

Bennett Prepares His Attack

Dr. Bennett’s initial letters to the Sangamo Journal spewed numerous accusations at Joseph and his people. But one item hit home. It was the allegation that Joseph had seduced hundreds of single and married females, more than the great Solomon. [16] Bennett specifically named Pamela [Michael], Nancy Rigdon, Martha Brotherton, and Sarah [Pratt].

Pamela [Michael]. Pamela (Pamelia) Mitchell [Michael] was about 28 years old and appears to have been a widow. In August 1842 Pamelia provided an affidavit denying Bennett’s charges and condemning his use of her name. Pamelia would pass away in 1844 of a bilious fever. Bennett’s accusation, Pamelia’s rebuttal, and Pamelia’s Nauvoo obituary are apparently all that is known of Widow Michael.

Nancy Rigdon. Nancy was the daughter of Joseph’s long-time colleague, Sidney Rigdon. Nancy was also being courted by Francis Higbee around this time. A letter Joseph allegedly wrote to Nancy, published by Bennett, makes it appear Joseph may have been attempting to explain to Nancy the difference between adultery and acceptable sex outside of monogamous marriage:

“That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another…”

Yet this letter may have been a fabrication. Later that summer Sidney Rigdon would hesitate to share correspondence from Bennett, causing Joseph to fear Sidney was implicated in the illicit sex ring. It does not appear that Nancy Rigdon wanted the letter published. Her lack of support for Bennett reduced the utility of her tale for Bennett’s purposes.

Martha Brotherton. Martha was an English convert who arrived in the Nauvoo area around November 1841. Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, and Parley P. Pratt were the missionaries that brought the gospel to Martha’s family. [17] The Nauvoo census lists Martha Brotherton and parents Sarah and Thomas as living in the Nauvoo 3rd Ward in February 1842.

The Brothertons had left England on September 21, 1841 aboard the Tyrian. [18] The presiding Elder on board was Joseph Fielding. Years later Fielding wrote of the immigrants’ arrival in St. Louis in November 1841:

“Here we saw some poor faithless Saints, something like spider webs set to catch flies. They came to us with fair words as our best friends, but their council was that of enemies, but did not prevail to stay any of our company, except two. Most of them had been to Nauvoo but had not faith enough to live there.” [19]

It seems the “council” may well have been at least infused with rumors of the sexual heresy that was infesting Nauvoo at the time. Those who stayed were likely converts like the Longstroths, [20] who are known to have stopped in St. Louis rather than gathering to Nauvoo.

According to Martha’s tales, Brigham approached Martha and asked if she would be his wife. Martha would indicate her interaction with Brigham Young occurred three weeks after her arrival in the Nauvoo area. It is not clear if Martha meant her November 25th arrival at Warsaw in the vicinity of Nauvoo or her actual arrival in the city of Nauvoo. [21] It seems likely Martha traveled to Nauvoo with her sister Mary and brother-in-law John McIlwrick on December 6th, as she specifically mentions visiting with them in her affidavit. The conversation between Brigham and Martha must have occurred in the latter half of December, 1841.

Martha’s father wrote home at the beginning of December, concluding as follows: “Give our love to all friends, and tell them that after all we have suffered in losses, sea sickness, and toils, by land and sea, if I had it to do again, I should be more willing to do it than when I left Manchester.” [22]

Yet by January, Joseph Fielding wrote to England, warning “some… will send home an evil report, such as a brother B. from Macclesfield,” a clear reference to Martha’s father. [23] Elizabeth Brotherton wrote that her father only stayed with the Church nine weeks after arriving in Nauvoo, moving south to Warsaw and eventually St. Louis before returning to England. [24] The extended Brotherton families arrived at St. Louis via New Orleans in May 1842 with a company of 200 English Saints aboard the Hanover. [25] Fifty persons were dissuaded from continuing on to Nauvoo, likely in large part due to the tale Martha Brotherton was telling.

Martha’s tale of being coerced to be a secret wife was sufficiently noised about in Nauvoo that the matter was explicitly refuted during the April 1842 General Conference. The rebuttal was published in the newspaper record of the proceedings of Conference. The original rumor claimed Martha had been locked in a room for days by Hyrum Smith, Brigham Young, Heber Kimball, and other apostles. Months later, at the request of Dr. Bennett, Martha wrote an affidavit describing her ordeal in more detail. In the affidavit, Martha claimed the door had been locked only ten minutes rather than multiple days. Martha wrote her original affidavit while Dr. John C. Bennett was visiting St. Louis, and clearly indicates that she is writing it at his request. Bennett may have influenced Martha to craft her statement for maximum damage, inserting Joseph Smith in the tale. Bennett had cast Joseph Smith as the villainous character in other stories where more contemporary testimony indicates Bennett had been the seducer. Martha Brotherton’s affidavit was published July 16th [26] and was quickly reprinted in newspapers around the country. Martha’s story was powerful, a tale of coercion told from the woman’s point of view.

Martha’s sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, and her brother-in-law, John McIlwrick, [27] would testify Martha had lied and that she herself had behaved in a wanton manner. But the damage was done.

Sarah [Pratt]. Bennett’s most explosive claim was his charge that Joseph Smith had attempted to seduce Sarah [Pratt], wife of his own, trusting apostle. Bennett would fail to mention his own dalliances with Sarah. Instead Bennett would allege that Sarah had been pressured to become Joseph’s lover during pastoral visits, visits Joseph may have made as a result of the adultery allegations of July 1841. Supposedly when Sarah refused, Smith cut off Church support.

It appears Bennett sent Orson an advance copy of the Sangamo Journal exposé in mid-July. Based on the timing of subsequent events, it seems Orson shared the text with Joseph. Orson knew the fact about withdrawal of church support was true. How much else of Bennett’s tale was therefore also true?

Orson Reacts

Orson had the tale from Bennett and Sarah, alleging Joseph was the one who had attempted to seduce Sarah. Orson also had the tale from Joseph, supported by an horrific number of witnesses, alleging Bennett had been intimate with Sarah. He had to choose between believing himself cuckolded in fact, or follower of a man who had tried to seduce his wife.

Brigham Young would write:

“Br. Orson Pratt is in trouble in consequence of his wife [Sarah]. His feelings are so wrought up that he does not know whether his wife is wrong, or whether Joseph’s testimony and others are wrong, and do lie, and he [Orson] deceived for 12 years or not; he is all but crazy about the matter. You may ask what the matter is concerning Sister [Pratt]. It is enough, and Doct. J.C. Bennett, could tell all about himself and his ***** enough of that. We will not let Br. Orson go away from us. He is too good a man to have a woman destroy him.” [28]

Joseph called a meeting in the grove on 14 July 1842, the day before the Sangamo Journal article was scheduled to run. Joseph laid out the story of Bennett’s seduction of an honorable woman, but did not name Sarah. The next day the Journal article appeared. Joseph called another meeting and confirmed that the woman he had spoken of, who had been seduced by Bennett, was Sarah [Pratt]. [29]

Orson went missing the day the article appeared. Joseph “caused the Temple hands and the principal men of the city to make search for him.” [30] Orson was found five miles south of Nauvoo, next to the Mississippi River. Considering Brigham Young’s comments, it seems possible Orson was contemplating suicide as he stood at the edge of the river. [31]

Orson remained in Nauvoo. A week later he voted against Joseph, presumably when officers of the church were being sustained. When Orson was questioned about his opposition, he admitted he had no personal knowledge of any immoral act on Joseph’s part. [32] From that time Orson did not oppose Joseph. But neither did he openly support Joseph. To do so was to proclaim Orson believed his wife, Sarah, had committed adultery.

By August Joseph Smith went into hiding, concerned that deputies from Missouri would attempt to extradite him. [33] In Joseph’s absence, Brigham and other members of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles attempted to get Orson to come out in open support of Joseph Smith. When Orson refused, the Apostles excommunicated Orson and Sarah on August 20, 1842. Cut off from the work that had been his life for the past decade, Orson wrote that he spent “Much of my leisure time in study, and made myself thoroughly acquainted with algebra, geometry, trigonometry, conic sections, differential and integral calculus, astronomy, and most of the physical sciences. These studies I pursued without the assistance of a teacher.” [34]

In September 1842, leading men and women in Nauvoo drew up certificates attesting that “Bennett’s ‘secret wife system’ is a disclosure of his own make.” [35] Orson Pratt’s name was conspicuously missing. [36]

Joseph had tried to protect those who were guilty. Now he watched from hiding as an innocent man was excommunicated for the crime of standing by his wife. Joseph was determined to save Orson.

Sangamo and Pratt – Notes

Dr. Bennett attacked Joseph Smith by publishing a series of letters accusing him of all manner of evil. The most explosive charge was that Joseph had attempted to seduce Sarah Bates [Pratt].

Martha Brotherton provided an affidavit claiming Brigham Young had attempted to coerce her to be his bigamous wife, an interview that must have occurred in December 1841 based on the November 1841 arrival of the Brothertons in the Joseph Fielding party and the inclusion of the Brothertons in the February 1842 Nauvoo census.

Joseph only shared the minimum information required to counter Dr. Bennett’s claims, including his reticence to explain the actual reason Dr. Bennett was believed to have attempted suicide in July 1841. But when Dr. Bennett accused Joseph of attempting to seduce Sarah [Pratt], Joseph was forced to set the record straight. Orson Pratt was torn, not sure whether to believe himself cuckolded in fact, as Joseph claimed, or follower of a would-be seducer, as Bennett claimed. Orson chose silence. In Joseph’s absence, the apostles excommunicated Orson for failing to defend Joseph.

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[1] Six of the apostles turned against Joseph around 1837, some openly calling for his death. Five were excommunicated. The sixth, Joseph’s younger brother, William Smith, remained a member of the Quorum despite his vocal attacks on Joseph.

[2] Rick J. Fish, Orson Pratt in Nauvoo, 1839-1845, May 1993, online 27 Mar 2014 at http://jared.pratt-family.org/orson_histories/orson_pratt_in_nauvoo2.html.

[3] “Affdavit of J. B. Backenstos,” Affidavits and Certificates, Disproving the Statements and Affidavits Contained in John C. Bennett’s Letters. Nauvoo, Illinois, Aug. 31, 1842, “Personally appeared before me Ebenezer Robinson acting Justice of the Peace, in and for said county, J. B. Backenstos, who being duly sworn according to law, deposeth and saith, that some time during last winter, he [Backenstos] accused Doctor John C. Bennett, with having an illicit intercourse with Mrs. Orson Pratt, and some others, when said Bennett replied that she made a first rate go, and from personal observations I should have taken said Doctor Bennett and Mrs. Pratt as man and wife, had I not known to the contrary, and further this deponent saith not.” Online 27 Mar 2014 at http://www.josephsmithspolygamy.com/JSImproperProposals/16ImproperProposalsAccusations/SarahPratt2.html.

[4] The Goddards would indicate that the home itself was built by Foster, though it is possible the home was built by Foster at the behest of Dr. Bennett.

[5]  The Return, Vol. 2. No. 11., Davis City, Iowa, November, 1890, p. 362, online 27 Mar 2014 at http://www.sidneyrigdon.com/RigWrit/M&A/Return1.htm.

[6] Times and Seasons, Vol. 3, No. 17, July 1, 1842, online 27 Mar 2014 at http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/NCMP1820-1846/id/8375.

[7] Lorenzo D. Wasson, son of Emma Smith’s sister, in a letter to Joseph and Emma dated July 30, 1842, printed in the August 15 edition of the Times and Seasons, quoted in Andrew F. Smith, The Saintly Scoundrel: The Life and Times of Dr. John Cook Bennett, p. 79. Online 27 Mar 2014 at http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/NCMP1820-1846/id/9200.

[8] Times and Seasons, Vol. 5, No 8, of May 15, 1844, “Municipal Court” Online 27 Mar 2014 at http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/NCMP1820-1846/id/8375.

[9] Francis Higbee, or Frank, appears to have refuted the implication that he had a sexually acquired disease, countering that he did not have that sort of “pox.” Per discussion with Joseph Johnstun in February 2015.

[10] The individuals may have later become Nauvoo Masons. The confession likely occurred on the third floor of the Nauvoo Cultural Hall, later site of the Nauvoo Masonic Lodge.

[11] Documentary History of the Church, vol. 4, 400.

[12] Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, pp. 80-83. Bennett is listed in the 1842 census as living in Ward 1, his name near the names of Orson Pratt and Sarah Bates [Pratt].

[13] Chapter 3 of Andrew Smith’s biography of Bennett, Saintly Scoundrel, is titled “The ‘Getter Up’ of Colleges”, p. 26.

[14] DHC, vol. 4, 414.

[15] In addition to William Smith and Vinson Knight signing the notice of excommunication, Chauncey Higbee and Francis Higbee would sign affidavits  in 1842 exonerating Joseph.

[16] Sangamo Journal, 15 July 1842, quoted in Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, p. 101.

[17] Martha’s sister, Elizabeth Brotherton, would become a plural wife of Parly P. Pratt in June 1843. Martha’s sister, Mary Brotherton [McKilrick], bore her first child in May 1842. After the death of John McIlwrick/McKilrick, Mary would also become a plural wife of Parley P. Pratt. After Martha passed away, Brigham Young had her sealed to him by proxy.

[18] Pratt, Elizabeth Brotherton, Women’s Exponent, December 1, 1890, V. 19, #12, pp. 94-95.

[19] Joseph Fielding, Diary (1843-1846), Church Archives in “ ‘They Might Have Known That He Was Not a Fallen Prophet’–The Nauvoo Journal of Joseph Fielding,” transcribed and edited by Andrew F. Ehat, BYU Studies 19 (Winter 1979). Online 24 Nov 2015 at http://www.boap.org/LDS/Early-Saints/JFielding.html.

[20] Willard Richards would reach out to the Longstroths, teaching them of plural marriage and covenanting with two of the Longstroth girls in 1843 and possibly a third in 1845.

[21] Brotherton, Thomas, 7 Dec 1841 letter to son, Edward. See Millennial Star vol 2 no. 10 (February 1842): 156, cited by Paul B. Pixton, “The Tyrian and its Mormon Passengers, Mormon Historical Studies, Spring 2004, vol 5, no. 1, p. 45, online 27 Dec 2016 at http://files.lib.byu.edu/mormonmigration/articles/TyrianMormonPassengersMHS_Spring_2004.pdf. Thomas writes of their arrival at Warsaw on 25 Nov 1842, John and Mary’s departure for Nauvoo on 6 Dec 1842, and his own intention to travel to Nauvoo the following week. Martha is not mentioned in the letter.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Millennial Star vol 3 no. 4 (August 1842): 76-80, online 27 Dec 2016 at http://www.latterdaytruth.org/pdf/100302.pdf, excerpt cited by Pixton, “The Tyrian and its Mormon Passengers, Mormon Historical Studies, Spring 2004, vol 5, no. 1, p. 40.

[24] Pratt, Elizabeth Brotherton, Women’s Exponent, December 1, 1890, V. 19, #12, pp. 94-95.

[25] Mormon Migration website, searching for John Brotherton, then the Hanover. Online 30 Dec 2016 at https://mormonmigration.lib.byu.edu/mii/voyage/159. From “A Compilation of General Voyage Notes,” Amos Fielding left Liverpool 12 Mar 1842 with the Fourteenth Company, composed of  about 200 Saints. He arrived in Nauvoo 14 May 1842 with about 150 of his company.

[26] Affidavit first published in the St. Louis American Bulletin on 16 Jul 1842, reprinted by Bennett in History of the Saints, pp. 236-240, online 29 Dec 2016 at http://mormonpolygamydocuments.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/JS0966.doc.

[27] John McIlwrick married Mary Brotherton in England. Their first child was conceived before the Brothertons left England on September 21, 1841.

[28] Journals of Orson Pratt, 561-2. Online 7 Apr 2014 at http://jared.pratt-family.org/orson_histories/orson_pratt_in_nauvoo2.html#_edn52.

[29] DHC, vol. 5, 60-61.

[30] DHC, vol. 5, 60-61.

[31] Times and Seasons, vol. 2, 363. Also David J. Whittaker, Early Mormon Pamphleteering, A Dissertation Presented to the Department of History, Brigham Young University, 1982, p. 101.

[32] DHC, vol. 5, 60-61.

[33] One of Bennett’s early assertions in the Sangamo Journal was the charge that Joseph had instigated the the nearly-fatal May 1842 shooting of Governor Boggs.

[34] Whittaker, Early Mormon Pamphleteering, p. 101. Online 7 Apr 2014 at http://jared.pratt-family.org/orson_histories/orson_pratt_in_nauvoo2.html#_edn56.

[35]  Times and Seasons, Vol. 3, No. 23. of 1 October 1842, pp. 939-940. Online 28 Mar 2014 at http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/NCMP1820-1846/id/9200.

[36] Of interest, the name of Elvira Annie Cowles, Relief Society Treasurer, was allegedly not included on the certificate signed by other members of the Relief Society presidency.