<<< Prior Chapter >>> Next Chapter Notes

There is no doubt Joseph Smith began covenanting with women in 1841, eventually entering into dozens of such covenants. The history of Mormon polygamy for the decade between 1831 and 1841 is less clear.

Marinda, Tar, Feathers, and Death.

On February 16, 1832, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon had a glorious vision of a three-tiered heaven. [1] This appears to be the answer to the question Joseph had asked in 1831, the answer God had promised in D&C 45:60-62. Joseph’s 1831 question may have involved plural marriage, inspired as it was by the Genesis account of the Abrahamic Covenant. Therefore the February 1832 revelation marks the beginning of when we might expect to see Joseph seeking a plural wife.

Nancy Marinda Johnson was a marriageable single woman in the Johnson household in Hiram, Ohio, where Joseph was living at the time of the February 1832 revelation. Years later, Joseph would covenant with women he reportedly had felt prompted to marry during the 1830s. In 1843 Nancy Marinda Johnson [Hyde] would covenant with Joseph instead of the good man she married in 1834, Apostle Orson Hyde.

It is possible Joseph’s suspected intentions towards Nancy were part of the motivation for a violent attack on Joseph Smith mere weeks after receiving the revelation regarding heaven (D&C 76). Joseph Smith was pulled from his bed into the dark night. The attackers attempted to pour tar down Joseph’s throat, attempted to administer poison, and had a physician on hand to castrate Joseph. The murderous violence could have been caused by any of a variety of perceived wrongs. The attempted castration suggests the attack could have been inspired by some sex-related provocation. [2]

The story of this mobbing is well known. Emma was terrorized by the brutal attack and the resulting death of their adopted son, Joseph Murdock Smith. Sidney Rigdon was badly beaten and would never fully recover. Joseph escaped castration, but the mob broke his front teeth in the beating. The hair the ordeal ripped from Joseph’s head never did grow back on the side of his face. When Emma saw her tarred and feathered husband, she though he was covered in blood [3] and near death.

It is reasonable to suggest Joseph and Emma saw this attack as a direct result of an early attempt to practice plural marriage. If so, it would be no wonder they would subsequently approach plural marriage as though it could lead to Joseph’s death.

Mr. Smith.

According to the recorded genealogies, Miss Hannah Dubois married a John F. Smith and bore him two children during the 1830s. Mr. Smith allegedly died circa 1840 in Nauvoo. Hannah Dubois then married widower Philo Dibble, to whom she was sealed in the Nauvoo temple in January, 1846.

Despite this history, family rumors have persisted that there was no John F. Smith. Hannah’s descendants claim the children born in the 1830s were the result of liaisons between Hannah and Joseph Smith. [4] Historians have typically discounted the assertion that Hannah was a wife of Joseph Smith. However explanation of this dismissal involved discussion of the children born in the 1840s during Hannah’s marriage to Philo Dibble. [5]

It was a descendant of the mysterious John F. Smith who told me they are descended from Joseph Smith. They cited the inability to find a John F. Smith [6] and the close relationship between Hannah’s oldest children and members of the Smith family, such as Joseph’s mother, Lucy Mack [Smith]. There is also a patriarchal blessing William Smith, Joseph’s brother, pronounced on the head of one of these early children, a blessing reported to be closely held at Church Headquarters. Benjamin Winchester proposed that a Mrs. Smith had been Joseph’s lover and then married Dibble. [7] Another unnamed man alleged in 1969 that Dibble’s household was one of three in which a wife of Joseph was harbored. [8]

If the mysterious John F. Smith and his descendants did not share ancestors with the sons of Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack, it might be possible to determine who fathered Hannah’s children using DNA analysis. But Hannah’s descendants have not submitted their claim to DNA testing. This demonstrates a problem related to unraveling the tangle of Mormon polygamy. Far from being horrified at the thought of a Joseph Smith who loved many women, some Mormons would love to find that they had a biological link to Joseph Smith. A list of children allegedly engendered by Joseph Smith with various women is found in Appendix C. Most are simple speculation, based on the mere possibility that a woman might have been in the vicinity of Joseph Smith.

Time and again, then, situations and statements that have a non-sexual explanation have been imbued with sexual significance. Despite the number of amateurs hoping to prove a biological link to Joseph Smith, prominent Joseph Smith scholars who have written regarding this earlier period of Joseph’s life are skeptical of the popular view that Joseph was a sexual opportunist. [9]

Zion’s Camp, Cholera, and Wishful Thinking.

By 1834 tensions had arisen in Missouri, prompting Joseph to raise a force to defend the members of the Church in Missouri, or Zion. The defenders were called Zion’s Camp. A little known event associated with Zion’s Camp was the cholera-induced death of John Sims Carter.

John Sims Carter had been a widower, so care for his seven orphans (six of them girls) fell on his surviving brothers, Gideon and Jared. Jared appears to have caught wind of plural marriage. He had a double family now, with several young women. It seems he hoped to get a second wife to help handle the young people.

Jared was so confident that he could obtain another wife that he built a second home in preparation. But his hope was ill-founded. In September 1835 Jared was chastised. [10] Of interest, Jared’s ward Marietta Rosetta  Carter is sometimes listed as one of Joseph Smith’s wives, possibly because her surviving daughter would become a member of the Smith household. [11]

Exchange of Women.

It appears Joseph Smith entered into a covenant relationship with Fanny Alger by the summer of 1836. In September 1836 Fanny left the Mormon community amidst a storm of controversy. It is unclear if Fanny conceived a child as a result of her interactions with Joseph during this period of time.

Todd Compton makes a solid circumstantial case for the involvement being an actual marriage, an example of what anthropologists refer to as trading women. It seems Joseph offered to help Levi Hancock obtain the hand of Clarissa Reed. Levi, in turn, would “get Fanny Alger” for Joseph as a wife. [12] Compton proposes the relationship between Fanny and Joseph occurred around the time of the marriage between Levi Hancock and Clarissa Reed, in March 1833. It does appear that Fanny began to work as a servant in the Smith home around 1833. [13]

When Fanny fled the Smith household in 1836, she stayed with the Chauncey Webb family. Chauncey Webb’s family would later characterize Fanny’s relationship with Joseph as a marriage. [14]

Don Bradley, like Compton, finds that the relationship between Fanny Alger and Joseph Smith was probably a marriage, likely solemnized after 1835. A marriage would explain all the accounts. An illicit affair would not be able to explain the accounts asserting the relationship was honorable. [15]

Both Compton and Bradley lend credence to the idea that sexual intercourse occurred between Fanny and Joseph. They suggest Emma’s report of an encounter between Joseph and Fanny caused Oliver Cowdery’s belief that Joseph had committed adultery. Bradley cites Chauncey Webb’s 1872 assertion that Fanny was pregnant when she stayed with the Webbs just prior to leaving Kirtland.

However Oliver Cowdery was not an eye-witness to the scene that caused Emma such distress. Chauncey Webb was an embittered opponent of Mormonism when he reported that Fanny had been pregnant. His understanding of the matter could have been caused by circumstances other than actual pregnancy. [16]

Another plausible reason exists for Emma’s rage and Fanny’s stress. Jonathan Harriman Holmes was an eligible bachelor living in the Smith home during the sixteen months prior to Fanny’s departure from Kirtland. It is conceivable Jonathan asked Fanny to become his wife. Had Fanny asked Joseph for a release from their covenant in order to marry another, an informed Emma might well have raged. Oliver Cowdery, the most obvious officiant at a plural marriage at that time, would have been outraged that a supposedly eternal union could be cast aside in a matter of mere weeks.

Whatever the initial cause of the controversy, the Algers left Kirtland in September 1836. The family stopped in Indiana on the way to Missouri. There Fanny met and married Solomon Custer, who was not a Mormon. She remained in Indiana for the rest of her life. In later years, Fanny would neither confirm nor deny whether she had been married to or intimate with Joseph Smith. [17] Neither Joseph Smith nor Emma Hale would ever document the nature of the situation with Fanny. DNA analysis disproves the tradition that Fanny had a child, Orrison, sired by Joseph Smith.

Apostasy and Prison.

Oliver Cowdery had known the Smiths for almost ten years and was possibly Joseph’s most trusted associate. Joseph had turned to Oliver when Emma became upset about the situation with Fanny Alger.

But Oliver’s brother, Warren Cowdery, had been a neighbor of Jacob Cochran. Thus Oliver may have been predisposed to suspect immoral behavior from a religious leader. Oliver, without having seen anything, inferred an inappropriate sexual relationship between Joseph and Fanny. Oliver’s belief in an affair eventually caused Oliver to break with Joseph and the Mormons. Oliver relocated to Missouri.

Certain members of the Church, including Jared Carter and Sidney Rigdon, believed Oliver’s alienation was dangerous to the cause of the Gospel. They decided that Oliver must be driven from the society of the Saints and even killed. Verbal hostility between members of the Church and non-Mormon residents of Zion would cause Missourians to attack numerous homesteads. The Mormon town of DeWitt was put under lethal siege. Three Mormons died at the Battle at Crooked River. Governor Lilburn Boggs of Missouri sided against the Mormons and issued the Extermination Order. Mormon men and boys at the settlement of Haun’s Mill would be brutally murdered. Throughout the area Mormons were hunted and killed, their women raped, their homes burned. Claims that Mormons inflicted similar outrages on their Missouri neighbors were rarely substantiated. [18]

Joseph was taken into custody, as supposed instigator of the Missouri troubles. Though General Doniphan refused to execute Joseph in cold blood, Joseph was imprisoned for months in the jail in Liberty, Missouri.

As Joseph languished in Liberty, he cried out,

Oh God, where art thou? [19]

In answer, Jesus responded,

Peace be unto your soul… you are not yet as Job. [20]

God shall give unto you knowledge… that has not been revealed since the world was until now, which our forefathers have awaited with anxious expectation to be revealed… which their minds were pointed to by the angels. A time to come in the which nothing will be witheld. [21]

The Joseph languishing in Liberty jail had not embraced the commandment to teach plural marriage. Even if Fanny Alger had been a fully conjugal plural wife, she departed under a cloud of secrecy. Nothing had happened to model the acceptability of plural marriage.

Mormon Polygamy Prior to 1841 – Notes.

It is uncertain whether Joseph Smith asked any woman to be a plural wife prior to 1841. Later events suggest Joseph may have considered asking Marinda Johnson to be a plural wife in 1832. Modern descendants of Hannah Dubois claim she had children in the 1830s by Joseph Smith, but scholars dismiss these claims.

It is likely that Joseph married Fanny Alger by 1836, but Fanny left the Mormon community amidst suggestions the relationship was improper. Despite later allegations asserting Fanny had become pregnant, it is unclear if the relationship between Joseph and Fanny included a sexual element.

Oliver Cowdery’s disgust over the Fanny Alger matter fueled existing tensions with inhabitants of Missouri. Violence escalated and Joseph was jailed. While in prison, Joseph was told he would be given knowledge which the forefathers were anxious to see revealed, presumably related to the promise of Malachi that the hearts of the children would turn to the fathers.

<<< Prior Chapter >>> Next Chapter Top

[1] D&C 76

[2] Compton, Todd, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith, Signature Books, Salt Lake City, UT, 1997, p. 231.

[3] The wood-based tar the attackers used would have been a deep red, the color of dried blood.

[4] I first became aware of this in conversation with one of Hannah’s descendants. Hales also recounts one such story from an earlier generation, though Hales thought the liaison was supposed to have produced one of Hannah’s 1840s children.

[5] Compton lists Hannah as one of the supposed wives where he did not believe the data supported the earlier claims.

[6] Examination of the death records for Nauvoo shows no one who matches the particulars for the supposed John F. Smith

[7] Hales, Volume 1, Chapter 3, pp. 77-83.

[8] Hales, Brian C., Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, Volume 1, Chapter 11, p. 291.

[9] Brian Hales devotes Chapter 3 of his Joseph Smith’s Polygamy to this lack of contemporary sexual rumors. Neither Todd Compton, George Smith, nor Richard Bushman lend credence to the idea that Joseph was sexually opportunistic during this early time frame.

[10] Compton, Sacred Loneliness, p. 39.

[11] The suggestion that Rosetta Marietta Carter was Joseph’s wife may have arisen because her daughter, Sarah Holmes, lived in the Smith household after Marietta was killed.

[12] Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, p. 32.

[13] Compton, Sacred Loneliness, p. 26, suggests Fanny became Joseph’s wife in 1833.

[14] Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, Vol.s 1 & 2, Chapters 4-6 and Appendix D.

[15] Bradley, Don, Weighing the Case of Fanny Alger, Persistence of Polygamy, Vol. I, p. 56.

[16] Chauncey Webb’s belief that Fanny was pregnant could have been caused by amenorrhea, or cessation of menstruation. This can occur in times of heightened stress, such as the stress Fanny might have experienced as a result of the intense controversy regarding her time in the Smith home. However amenorrhea is insufficient to explain the lack of children in the Nauvoo timeframe, due to the sheer number of women involved.

[17] Bradley, Don, “Weighing the Case of Fanny Alger,” Persistence of Polygamy, Vol. I, p. 44.

[18] For example, Missourians claimed Mormons had killed ten of their number during the fighting at Crooked River. However subsequent evaluations indicated only one Missourian was killed while three Mormons were killed.

[19] D&C 121:1

[20] D&C 121:7, 10

[21] D&C 121:26, 27