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Dr. John Cook Bennett arrived in Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo in August 1840. [1] The educated newcomer swiftly rose to the pinnacle of both civic and military society of Nauvoo. Dr. Bennett was even briefly asked to be an Assistant President of the Church during the illness of Sidney Rigdon.

Dr. Bennett would be a Mormon less than two years. [2] The initial seed of conflict between Dr. Bennett and Joseph Smith appears to have involved Dr. Bennett’s desire to marry a young woman.

Dr. Bennett’s activities within the Mormon community and his public attacks after his excommunication arguably deformed Mormon history more than the actions of any other individual. If Dr. Bennett’s anger was inspired by thwarted love, it may well be said of his beloved that hers was the face that launched a thousand lies.

John Cook Bennett., MD.

John C. Bennett was born August 3, 1804 in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, a natural port near the site of the first naval battle of the Revolutionary war. The Bennetts were shipbuilders. But blockades associated with the War of 1812 destroyed the family’s fortunes. John’s grandfather narrowly escaped debtor’s prison. [3]

When John’s father died, his widowed mother returned to Ohio. In time John became an apprentice to his uncle, Dr. Samuel Hildreth. After passing his medical examination, Bennett wed Mary Barker.

There were few doctors and fewer institutions of higher learning in those days. John became an expert at setting up “universities” on the barest pretext. Bennett’s biographer suggests John might have been the first individual to run what would now be called a diploma mill. [4] It seems John was expert at self-promotion and placing himself in high positions.

Medicine in the early 1800s involved practices that today would be considered sexual abuse, such as genital massage to treat hysteria. As the years passed, Mary Bennett began to suspect her husband of infidelity, seeing marriages end as a result of what she suspected was John’s interference. Eventually Mrs. Bennett felt she had proof of John’s adulterous behavior. She asked her brothers to take her entirely from her husband, “which they immediately done, they being leading members of the country and not wishing to be connected with so base a character…” [5]

When Bennett arrived in Nauvoo, he did not inform his Mormon colleagues that he had a family. The omission is understandable. He had no wife with him. They apparently did not ask. He certainly did not tell.

Then Bennett fell in love with a young woman, a woman he reportedly wished to marry. [6] History has remained unusually quiet on the subject of which woman Dr. Bennett desired to marry. Aside from Joseph Smith’s 1842 assertion that Dr. Bennett had desired to marry a young woman, there is no documentation regarding who that young woman might have been.

It would later be reported that during this early period Dr. Bennett had interacted in a scandalous manner with two women, both married.

The first was Sarah Marinda Bates [Pratt], whose husband was apostle Orson Pratt. Orson Pratt was out of the country, serving a mission in Europe. It was arranged that Sarah would mend Bennett’s clothes and do his laundry. The Goddards, with whom Sarah lived in October 1840, would claim in 1842 that Dr. Bennett came to the house frequently. Concerning the conduct between Dr. Bennett and Sarah Pratt, Zeruiah Goddard wrote, “I would further state that from my own observation, I am satisfied that their conduct was anything but virtuous…” [7]

An 1888 account by Lyman O. Littlefield reports there was a married woman Dr. Bennett would visit in the evenings when her husband attended a Lyceum. [8] The Lyceum began in January 1841, suggesting this woman was not Sarah Pratt, whose husband was abroad until July 1841. The unnamed woman tried to dissuade Dr. Bennett from visiting. When this failed, she persuaded her husband to remain home from the Lyceum one evening. When Dr. Bennett arrived and found the husband at home, he presumably ceased his attempts to visit that married woman.

In early 1841 Joseph Smith wrote a letter to Vilate Kimball regarding a young woman and an event that apparently was deemed “painful to every lover of Truth and Holiness.” Brian Hales suggests this letter might be referring to inappropriate sexual behavior involving Dr. Bennett.

In the letter Joseph wrote:

“Whether they were guilty of crime or not I do not say, but this I must say that their imprudence was carried to an unwarranted extent.

“I do not desire that you should turn the young woman out of doors, far be it from me to advise any such course. I think it would be well for her to remain with you at least until Bro Kimball comes home, because I think that your advise [sic], may be a blessing to her, and your council and advise such as will tend to her future welfare and happiness…” [9]

Unfortunately, the letter does not specify who the young woman was or whether she was married or single. The letter is silent on the identity of the other individual(s) who had exhibited an imprudence bordering on the criminal. Therefore it is not certain the imprudence was sexual, much less whether Dr. Bennett was involved in the matter of the young woman boarding with Vilate.

It is possible that Dr. Bennett’s early interactions were legitimate. He was a trained physician specializing in the treatment of female complaints, particularly hysteria. It should not be surprising that he might attend to women. Given the kind of massage used to treat hysteria in the 1800s, Dr. Bennett’s efforts to treat female patients could well have seemed inappropriate to an observer commenting after the scandal of 1842.

Certainly neither Sarah Pratt nor the woman whose husband frequented the Lyceum could have believed Dr. Bennett intended to marry them. Who, then, was the woman Dr. Bennett had courted?


As will be discussed later, Joseph Smith would learn in early 1841 that Bennett was still married. He immediately acted to end Bennett’s relationship with the young woman to whom Bennett had proposed marriage. In the spring of 1841, Bennett moved out of the Smith household. The young woman was therefore likely living in the Smith home. If not, Bennett’s departure would have increased, rather than decreased, the opportunities for him to continue the courtship.

The Face that Launched a Thousand Lies?.

It appears Elvira Annie Cowles may have been the woman who was taken from Dr. Bennett in spring 1841. She was 27 years old to Dr. Bennett’s 36 years of age.

Elvira Annie Cowles was the eldest daughter of Austin Cowles by his first wife. In the spring of 1840, Elvira Annie had been hired to be the governess for the Smith children. She would eventually agree to covenant with Joseph Smith. But in 1840, Elvira Annie was simply a single woman in the Smith household, a woman of health, position, skill and learning. Other young ladies living in the Smith household during those months were orphaned or otherwise disadvantaged. When Bennett arrived in Nauvoo and was welcomed into the Smith household, Elvira Annie and Bennett became housemates.

It is suggestive that Elvira’s name was allegedly missing from a petition decrying Dr. Bennett. [10] In addition, Elvira is specifically called out in a letter from a man who would later align himself with known seducers. [11] Most intriguing, it appears Elvira Annie was protected within a pretend marriage solemnized by Joseph Smith in December 1842.

Several unmarried or abandoned women were pregnant in 1842. Married men opened their households to at least three such women: Mary Clift, Sarah Peak [Noon], and Lucina Roberts [Johnston]. Jonathan Holmes, as a widower, would have been in a position to stand as public husband for one of these women so there would be no hint of impropriety. Yet Jonathan wed Elvira Annie rather than any of the several pregnant woman where the cover of a monogamous marriage could have been useful.

Though neither Jonathan nor Elvira Annie ever wrote theirs was initially a pretend marriage, their descendants and neighbors would clearly indicate a belief that the marriage between Jonathan and Elvira Annie was not consummated until after Joseph’s death.

In 1931 John Fish Wright’s son, William, brought a letter to LDS Church Headquarters. The letter read:

“I was well acquainted with two of Joseph’s wives, LaVina and Eliza… [12] Before Joseph was shot, he asked Jonathan Holmes if he would marry and take care of LaVina, but that if LaVina wanted him to take care of her he would take her. He would fill that mission to please his Father in Heaven.” [13]

Jonathan’s descendants, including daughter Phebe, clearly understood that it was only after Joseph’s death that Elvira had become Jonathan’s wife, “probably at his direction.” Daughter Phebe Holmes [Welling] wrote:

“I heard my mother testify that she was indeed the Prophet Joseph Smith’s plural wife in life and lived with him as such during his lifetime. [14] The Prophet Joseph Smith held Jonathan H. Holmes in the highest regard and he acted as one of the ‘bodyguards’ of the prophet.” [15]

Elvira’s granddaughter Roxie Welling [Taylor], wrote:

“After the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Elvira Annie Cowles (Smith) married young widowed, Jonathan Harriman Holmes, who had served faithfully as a bodyguard of the prophet.” [16]

Elvira’s grandson, Congressman Milton Holmes Welling, wrote:

“When Joseph Smith was martyred, [Jonathan with others] buried his body and later moved it to a more secure resting place. Certain it is that after the Prophet’s death, probably at his direction, my grandfather married one of his (Joseph Smith) plural wives, Elvira Annie Cowles Smith.” [17]

Parted Lovers.

Whoever Dr. Bennett had desired to marry, his courtship was abruptly terminated once George Miller confirmed Dr. Bennett’s wife was still living. As Joseph would explain in 1842, a respectable person had written that:

“ [Bennett] was a very mean man, and had a wife…

Joseph would continue:

“[Dr. Bennett] intended to marry [a young lady, one of our citizens]… I, seeing the folly of such an acquaintance, persuaded him to desist; and, on account of his continuing his course, finally threatened to expose him if he did not desist. This, to outward appearance, had the desired effect, and the acquaintance between them was broken off.” [18]

Showing Forth Afterwards an Increase of Love.

The initial attempt to end Dr. Bennett’s courtship likely occurred in the latter portion of March 1841. Joseph Smith had been unquestionably harsh with Bennett in order to end the fraudulent courtship.

Two years earlier, Joseph had written a letter from Liberty jail, containing divine guidance on wielding power within the Church:

Power ought only be maintained “by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness and pure knowledge…

“Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy…” [19]

Aside from the fraudulent courtship, Dr. Bennett’s past questionable activities had either been washed away by baptism or had a seemingly innocent medical explanation. With the courtship ended, Joseph showed forth an increase of love by publicly appointing Dr. Bennett to stand as Assistant President of the Church, a position which Sidney Rigdon was no longer able to fill due to ill health.

He hath requited me evil for good…

Despite Joseph’s public show of favor, Dr. Bennett would proceed to indulge in extreme depravity. Joseph would apparently remain ignorant of the extent of Dr. Bennett’s “base and wicked conduct” until the following year. When the extent of the damage was known, Joseph would refer to Dr. Bennett as “a being totally destitute of common decency, and without any government over his passions… that others had been led by [Bennett’s] conduct to pursue the same adulterous practice.” [20]

There never would have been a good time to restore the principle that plural marriage was permissible. However Dr. Bennett’s campaign of wanton seduction would cast a pall over the topic that continues today.

A Doctor and His Beloved – Notes.

Dr. John C. Bennett arrived in Nauvoo, Illinois, around August 1840. He immediately came to the defense of the Mormons, succeeding in getting a powerful city charter passed. Reports that Dr. Bennett behaved badly during these first months could have arisen from medical procedures to relieve hysteria. Though Dr. Bennett may have initially been innocent of sexual sin in Nauvoo, he did fraudulently pass himself off as a bachelor.

By February 1841 Joseph Smith received a damning report regarding Dr. Bennett’s past sins and poor treatment of his wife, to whom Bennett was still married. When the report was verified, Joseph forced Dr. Bennett to break off his engagement with a young woman, possibly housemate Elvira Annie Cowles.

Joseph resorted to threats to break off the engagement between Dr. Bennett and his beloved. Perhaps as a show of kindness, Joseph elevated Dr. Bennett to the position of Assistant President of the Church. Joseph may have hoped this public honor would retain Dr. Bennett’s friendship despite the harsh rebuke. But Dr. Bennett began a campaign of secret seduction that would eventually corrupt unknown numbers of Joseph’s followers, male and female.

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[1] The August date is given by Joseph Smith in the July 1, 1842 issue of the Times and Seasons.

[2] This does not include the time Dr. Bennett spent in LDS sects after Joseph’s death.

[3] Smith, Andrew, Saintly Scoundrel: The Life and Times of Dr. John Cook Bennett, University of Illinois Press, 1997 pp. 2-3.

[4] Smith, Saintly Scoundrel. Chapters 2 and 3 are titled “The Diploma Peddler” and “The ‘Getter Up’ of Colleges”, pp. 13-33.

[5] Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, p. 79.

[6] “To the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and to All Honorable Part of Community,” Times & Seasons, 1 July, 1842, online 22 Feb 2014 at http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/NCMP1820-1846/id/9200.

[7] Goddard, Stephen H. and Zeruiah N., sworn before George W. Harris, Alderman of the City of Nauvoo on July 23rd, 1842. Published in Affidavits and Certificates on August 31, 1842.

[8] Lyman Omer Littlefield, Reminiscences of Latter-day Saints: Giving an Account of Much Individual Suffering Endured for Religious Conscience, The Utah Journal Co., Printers, Logan Utah, 1888, p. 158. Cited by Brian Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, Greg Kofford Books, 2013, Volume 1, Chapter 19, p. 519.

[9] Joseph Smith, letter to Vilate Kimball, March 2, 1841, in Helen Vilate Bourne Fleming Papers, MS 9670, Box 1, Folder 25, CHL.

[10] Nauvoo Female Relief Society, Petition to Thomas Carlin, circa July 22, 1842; CHL (MS 15535).

[11] “Justin [sic] Brooks to Joseph Smith,” 7 Nov. 1842 in Journal History of the Church; see Times and Seasons 4 (Jan 2, 1843):63.

[12] From use of “LaVina” for Elvira, it seems the person writing the letter tended to switch around sounds or words. The elided portion of the transcription reads “I came to Utah in ’69, and rented LaVina Holmes farm.” As John Fish Wright emigrated to Utah in 1852 as a ten-year-old boy, the sentence makes sense if it was supposed to read “I came to Utah and in ’69 rented LaVina Holmes farm.” John Fish Write came to Paradise, Cache County, Utah in 1869, after living elsewhere in Cache County, Utah. Jonathan Holmes had a daughter who lived in Millville, Cache County, Utah, just 10 miles north of Paradise, suggesting the “LaVina Holmes farm” was a place Elvira [Holmes] stayed, rather than owned.

[13] D. Michael Quinn papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, WA MSS S-2692. William Wright, Letter to unidentified addressee but stamped as received in the First Presidency Office on June 2, 1931. Cited by Brian Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, Volume 1, p. 329.

[14] Phebe’s belief that her mother lived with Joseph as a wife was likely formed in 1868, when Phebe was refusing to marry Job Welling, who had previously married her older sister. Elvira’s may have been assuring Phebe plural marriage was an appropriate form of marriage, rather than confirming that Elvira had engaged in conjugal relations with Joseph Smith.

[15] Welling, Phebe Louisa Holmes, Feb 9, 1938, The Ancestors and Descendants of Job Welling : Utah Pioneer from England, 9 Jan 1833 – 7 Mar 1886, pp. 25

[16] Taylor, Roxie Welling, undated, The Job Welling Family Organization, The Ancestors and Descendants of Job Welling : Utah Pioneer from England, 9 Jan 1833 – 7 Mar 1886, pp. 20.

[17] Welling, Milton H., Jan 25, 1938, The Job Welling Family Organization, The Ancestors and Descendants of Job Welling : Utah Pioneer from England, 9 Jan 1833 – 7 Mar 1886, p. 19.

[18] “To the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and to All Honorable Part of Community,” Times & Seasons, 1 July, 1842, online 22 Feb 2014 at http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/NCMP1820-1846/id/9200.

[19] D&C 121: 41-43.

[20] “To the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and to All Honorable Part of Community,” Times & Seasons, 1 July, 1842, online 22 Feb 2014 at http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/NCMP1820-1846/id/9200.