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By early 1841, Dr. John Cook Bennett had risen from Nauvoo’s newest immigrant to Mayor of the city [1] and General of the Nauvoo Legion.

By April 1841, Dr. Bennett had been installed as Assistant President of the Church. Only a select few knew Dr. Bennett was anything but an honorable man. But by the summer of 1842, hundreds if not thousands of Nauvoo’s residents would revile Bennett as “a most consummate scoundrel… a vile wretch.”

Bennett’s initial embrace of Mormonism may have been sincere. Bennett had begun by securing freedom for his adopted people. He could have been one of the greatest leaders of the Mormon movement. Yet line by line, Bennett would fall from trusted friend to foul traitor.

Solace in the Arms of the Laundress.

In the spring of 1841, Joseph Smith had quietly but forcibly put an end to Dr. Bennett’s fraudulent courtship. Meanwhile, Joseph had elevated Dr. Bennett to the post of Assistant President of the Church. Dr. Bennett was therefore installed at the highest levels of power in military circles, ecclesiastical circles, and political circles. Furthermore, he was a trained physician and the hero who had won passage of the Nauvoo charter.

Some presume that Dr. Bennett’s sexual activities were inspired by Joseph Smith’s doctrines of Celestial marriage and plural marriage. Yet Dr. Bennett was still a newcomer to Mormonism. Only two long-time Mormons had been told about plural marriage by April 1841, by which time Joseph Smith knew Dr. Bennett had a questionable past. Therefore it is extremely unlikely that Joseph Smith taught Dr. Bennett about plural marriage.

Despite Dr. Bennett’s powers and positions, he had been denied love. Bennett had hoped to love, and he wished still to love. Dr. Bennett found a partner in Sarah Marinda Bates [Pratt], the woman who had been caring for his mending and laundry. Sarah was a married woman, but her husband was absent and would be gone for months.

It seems possible the initiation of intercourse between Sarah and Dr. Bennett may have been accidental. It seems Dr. Bennett felt he needed to reassure Sarah she need not fear becoming pregnant when her husband could not have engendered the child. At some point Dr. Bennett showed Sarah the tools that are used to surgically induce abortion. There is no indication the tools were used as often as Sarah would imply in the 1880s.

It is not known how long Sarah and Dr. Bennett continued their affair, or how many times they engaged in intercourse. However the Sheriff of Hancock County would provide an affidavit in 1842 accusing “Doctor J. 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.” [2]

It seems Dr. Bennett and Sarah Pratt were reprimanded for the affair in early July, 1841. In extensive 1844 municipal court testimony regarding Francis Higbee, it is possible to glean information regarding Dr. Bennett’s disgrace in the summer of 1841.

Hyrum Smith would testify “I recall Dr. Bennett asking forgiveness of the Lodge when there was about sixty present.” [3]

Apparently referring to the same episode, Joseph Smith testified “a long time before John C. Bennet left this city… I brought Francis M. Higbee before Brigham Young, Hyrum Smith and others; Bennet was present, when they both acknowledged that they had done these things, and asked us to forgive them… Higbee had been guilty of adulterous communication, perjury, &c,; which I am able to prove by men who heard them confess it.”

Brigham Young provided the 1841 date for the confessions, testifying, “I knew of the whole affair, it was on the 4th of July, or a few days after—it was shortly after I came from England.” Continuing under cross-examination, Brigham would say, “I have heard Dr. Bennet say all these things were facts; he acknowledged that Higbee had the [pox, [4] slang for syphilis] and that he had doctored him, he acknowledged that and a great deal more.”

By 1844, Joseph and his trusted circle would not have wanted to mention Sarah’s name in connection with Dr. Bennett. Nor, indeed, would it have been necessary after the shocking public disclosures of 1842.

These statements against Dr. Bennett and Francis Higbee suggest that significant sexual misbehavior was already occurring by July 1841. However within a few days, Joseph had cause to show mercy to Dr. Bennett, sparing him public exposure.

The Widow Fuller.

Those who had traveled from England with Orson Pratt began to arrive in Nauvoo around the beginning of July. Sarah Bates [Pratt] would have been told that her husband Orson would be returning in a matter of weeks. Based on affidavits that would be sworn out in 1842, it appears that Dr. Bennett proceeded to arrange for another woman to continue as Sarah had begun.

The woman Bennett selected was a widow living on the other side of town, in the northeast quadrant of Nauvoo designated the Second Ward. [5] Joseph Smith’s home was located in the southwest quadrant of town. Sometime in June Bennett started to visit the widow, likely saying he wanted to help her. By the end of the first week, Dr. Bennett revealed his true intent.

Catherine’s Widowhood. In the fall of 1838, Catherine Laur [Fuller] and her family had lived near the banks of Shoal Creek in Missouri. Their village boasted a smithy and a mill. The mill was owned by Jacob Haun. There were roughly 30 Mormon families living in the village.

In October 1838 a militia of roughly 250 men threatened to attack the Mormons living near Haun’s Mill. A truce was called, and negotiations appeared to have secured a reprieve. Even so, the Mormon villagers gathered to the relative safety of the village center. Earlier attacks on solitary Mormon households showed that Mormons were very vulnerable when isolated. Animals were scattered or killed, homes were burned, and other unspeakable horrors were reported. [6]

On the afternoon of October 30, 1838, the militia attacked. The women and children fled to the woods. The men and boys in the village took shelter in the smithy, a crude log structure with hardly any chinking. At least seventeen Mormon men and boys would be shot and killed that day. In later months men who had participated in the attack on Haun’s Mill would brag of their actions to their Mormon prisoners. Hyrum would testify that the guards boasted of “their great achievements at Haun’s Mill and at other places, telling us how many houses they had burned… how many rapes they had committed.” [7]

Josiah Fuller was one of those killed. Catherine may have been one of the women reportedly raped that day. Those who had not experienced the brutality were slow to believe it was not mere boasting. When the truth was known, delicacy forbade mentioning the names of the victims.

The survivors at Haun’s Mill gathered the dead and placed their bodies in the well. Catherine’s son would later mark the spot with the old mill stone. Catherine gathered her five children and fled Missouri with the rest of the Mormon refugees. She and her children settled in the flat lands northeast of the bend in the Mississippi that would become Nauvoo.

Unlawful Intercourse. During Dr. Bennett’s third visit to Catherine’s home, he explained that he desired to have sex. He wished to have the widow grant his desires.

Catherine attempted to refuse, saying it was contrary to her feelings.

Bennett assured her there were others of higher standing than she who “would conduct in that way.” Bennett was presumably referring at least to Sarah Pratt. In case this was not persuasive, Bennett assured Catherine there was no harm in it. If the behavior was sinful, and he undoubtedly assured her it was not, Bennett claimed any sin would fall upon his head, not hers.

Catherine told Dr. Bennett that she was not a loose woman. He was undeterred, continuing to press her to yield to his desires.

Catherine finally fell back on what she no doubt thought was her sure defense. She explained that were she to become pregnant, the scandal would bring disgrace on the Church. As Bennett was a Church official, she must have supposed he cared.

Bennett had her. He was a medical doctor. He knew how to avoid pregnancy. She would later testify “I understood that he would give me medicine to prevent it.” [8] She allowed Bennett to have his way with her.

Dr. Bennett now had a comfortable mistress, one who had no husband who might inconveniently return, one who was not in a position to make demands. Bennett could be mayor and general and Church leader by day, then visit “the needy” at night and have his desires satisfied.

The Suicide Attempt.

Dr. Bennett may have originally planned to keep Catherine Fuller as his personal mistress. But as Catherine would testify, George Thatcher came to her home in mid-July 1841 and insisted she have sex with him. We do not know what arguments Thatcher brought to bear. Catherine had already yielded to Dr. Bennett. She never mentions whether she attempted to resist George Thatcher’s advances.

Thatcher had his way with Catherine. At some point he would return and have his way with her again.

In mid-July Dr. Bennett would attempt suicide. It seems Bennett’s despair had arisen from difficulties related to love. A remembered mock epitaph was inscribed “In memory of Major General John C. Bennett; who died at the seoge [sic] of Philter,[9] in the defence of the cause of Venus, July 17, 1841.” [10]

The public story, related by Joseph Smith in the Times and Seasons in July 1842, was that Hyrum Smith and William Law had sent a letter, recounting that Dr. Bennett was rumored to have a living wife. [11] Joseph implied the June 1841 discovery of Bennett’s attempted bigamy was the cause of Dr. Bennett’s despair. Many years later, Ebenezer Robinson would repeat this explanation for Bennett’s suicide attempt.

However Lorenzo Wasson would write a letter in 1842 reporting that he had overheard Joseph shouting at Bennett in the summer of 1841. Joseph dished out “a tremendous flagellation for practicing iniquity under the base pretense of authority from the heads of the Church.” Lorenzo’s letter was one of many published to document Dr. Bennett’s bad behavior. But Wasson’s letter does not match the tale about Hyrum’s letter.

The tremendous flagellation Lorenzo overheard was most likely associated with the July discipline involving Dr. Bennett and Francis M. Higbee. From Joseph’s language during the reported “flagellation,” Bennett had apparently used his authority as a Church leader to coerce someone, presumably Sarah Bates [Pratt], to yield to him.

Another possible cause for Dr. Bennett’s suicide attempt was the mid-July interaction between George Thatcher and the widow Fuller. What might have started as Bennett’s personal wish to have his desires granted had ballooned. If Thatcher’s intimacies prompted Dr. Bennett’s suicidal despair, it is unknown what Dr. Bennett felt his death would accomplish.

Dr. Bennett was discovered before perishing. It is reported Dr. Bennett struggled mightily to thwart the efforts of those attempting to save him.

Joseph had been undeniably furious with Dr. Bennett based on the adultery with Sarah [Pratt]. But Joseph had compassion on the suicidal man. As soon as practicable, Bennett was again involved in the duties of his offices. No mention was made publicly at this time of Bennett’s abandoned wife and children, his shady past, or the adultery with Sarah [Pratt].

Joseph was apparently not aware in July 1841 that Bennett had seduced Widow Fuller. If he knew Bennett and others were taking responsibility for the temporal needs of widows and orphans, Joseph likely thought they were merely doing their Christian duty. Joseph was apparently ignorant of the burgeoning heresy regarding illicit intercourse, which was spreading through his people.

Colleagues, Friends, and Neighbors.

Catherine Laur [Fuller] first slept with Dr. Bennett around June 1841. She subsequently slept with George Thatcher in mid-July 1841. It is not clear when Catherine slept with the others she would name as sex partners.

Several of the men were colleagues of Dr. Bennett in the Nauvoo Legion. The testimony of Jacob Backenstos, non-Mormon sheriff of Hancock County and an aide-de-camp in the Nauvoo Legion, had provided an affidavit affirming that he found John C. Bennett:

“having an illicit intercourse with Mrs. Orson Pratt, and some others… and further this deponent saith not.” [12]

Catherine Fuller would list Jacob Backenstos as one of the several men with whom she had illicit intercourse. This suggests a scenario where Bennett, discovered in the midst of intercourse by some colleague from the Nauvoo Legion, lied to prevent disgrace. The spread of the promiscuity is explained if Bennett made his lie plausible by promising the colleague that he, too, could participate in free access to female charms. In addition to the obvious temptation of “legitimate” promiscuity, it appears several high profile men came to believe they had a duty to care for widows, a supposed duty that reportedly included sexual liberties.

A key portion of Backenstos’s testimony was “having an illicit intercourse with…some others.…” Among the unpublished notes recording Matilda Nyman’s confession, Matilda would say “Widow Fuller is guilty of the same [engaging in illicit intercourse]. Dr. Bennett was with her… Saw Bennet in the act with Sis Fuller.” [13]

Unlike the amusing testimony where Joseph Bates Noble was forced to admit he had not actually seen what he presumed must have occurred, it appears there were those who had actually seen sexual acts being performed by their fellows in the home of Widow Fuller.

By the summer of 1841, girls in Nauvoo were reportedly referring to one another as “spirituals” and engaging in “spiritual wifery.” This is reflected in the recollections of several who were young people in 1841, including Bathsheba Bigler [Smith] during the Temple Lot trial, Emily Partridge [Smith Young] in her reminiscences, and Orange Wight in a letter. [14]

The Honorable Higbee Family.

By July 1841, Dr. Bennett had discovered Francis Higbee was actively seducing women in his own right. Francis was the son of Nauvoo’s judge, Elias Higbee. The other scion of the Higbee family was Chauncey Higbee, a handsome young man who was an aide-de-camp in Dr. Bennett’s Nauvoo Legion unit. Catherine Fuller would later indicate that Chauncey Higbee had bedded her five or six times.

John Higbee, uncle to Francis and Chauncey, was an honored and staunch member of the community and a member of the Nauvoo Legion. Though his involvement in illicit intercourse was not as extensive, there is a record that by the summer of 1841 he was living with two wives.

The Higbees had been part of the Mormon movement since the early 1830s. It is unclear how Francis, Chauncey, and John became involved in Bennett’s brave new world of no-consequence sexuality. However it is certain that the Higbees would play a significant role in persuading others that “spiritual wifery” was acceptable.

Fall of the Doctor – Notes.

Dr. John C. Bennett had, in the course of a mere year, gone from simple adulterer to leader of a sexual underground.

Bennett’s seductions may not have started until after Joseph terminated his courtship, likely in the April 1841 timeframe. Bennett’s affair with Sarah Bates [Pratt], wife of Apostle Orson Pratt, likely started in May, possibly by accident. Likely aware that Orson Pratt would soon return to Nauvoo, Bennett cultivated a safer liaison with an obscure widow, Catherine Laur [Fuller]. Bennett’s affair with Catherine Laur [Fuller] likely began in June 1841.

What might have started as a private arrangement for personal sin quickly ballooned. By mid-July at least one other man had slept with Catherine Laur [Fuller].  Soon others around Dr. Bennett began to  learn about the supposed acceptability of sex without commitment. Despite Dr. Bennett’s suicide attempt, Dr. Bennett’s network of friends and colleagues began to spread the heresy of illicit intercourse through all levels of Nauvoo society.

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[1] Dr. Bennett was elected Mayor of Nauvoo on February 1, 1841.

[2] Backenstoes, Jacob B., “Affidavit of J. B. Backenstoes,” Affidavits and Certificates, Disproving the Statements and Affidavits Contained in John C. Bennett’s Letters, Nauvoo, Illinois, Aug 31, 1842. Online 27 Mar 2014 at http://www.josephsmithpolygamy.com/ JSImproperProposals/16ImproperProposalsAccusations/SarahPratt2.html.

[3] Times & Seasons, May 15, 1844, “Municipal Court,” p. 539. The Masonic Lodge was not established until May 1842. Hyrum may have been talking about a gathering where the Masonic Lodge later met and men who would later be Masons. The context of the 1844 testimony suggests Hyrum was not describing Dr. Bennett‘s May 1842 confession.

[4] Personal conversation with Joseph Johnstun. Frank Higbee tried to claim he may have had pox, but not that sort of pox. The newspaper did not include the word for Frank’s disease.

[5] The civil wards and the ecclesiastical wards had different boundaries. Catherine Laur [Fuller] and her children were enumerated in the second ward, in the northeast quadrant of the city. According to Lyman De Platt, “The streets separating the wards were Wells, which ran north and south, and Knight, which ran east and west. Ward 1 was in the northwest, Ward 2 the northeast, Ward 3 the southeast and Ward 4 the southwest quadrants of the city.” De Platt, Lyman, Nauvoo: Early Mormon Records Series, Vol. 1, Highland, UT, 1980.

[6] See History of the Church, Vol. 3, pp. 149-160, also p. 428. On October 2, 1838, a mob of 30-50 men began to fire at the Mormon village of DeWitt in Carroll County. The Mormons attempted to defend themselves, while knowing that if there were a single death amongst the mob members, thousands of the residents of Missouri would raise arms against the Mormons. By October 6 the Mormons’ provisions were nearly exhausted and the mob had grown to two or three hundred men. By October 9 homes were being set on fire, forcing the residents of DeWitt to live in the center of town in their wagon boxes. Any who tried to venture out for food were shot. The Mormons had petitioned Governor Boggs for assistance. Boggs ignored the plea, then said they “might fight it out.” When the state militia arrived, they sided with the mob. A woman who had recently given birth died of exposure and starvation. In another incident, a man’s brains were knocked out. Multiple gang rapes involving a dozen or more men upon each woman were boasted of openly, which the Mormon leaders were horrified to learn had actually occurred.

[7] History of the Church, Vol. 3, p. 422. “Affidavits of Hyrum Smith et al. On Affairs in Missouri, 1831-1839; Officially Subscribed to Before the Municipal Court of Nauvoo The First Day of July, 1843.”

[8] Catherine Fuller statement before the Nauvoo High Council, LDS Archives MS/d/2375/Box 8/fd. Nauvoo, copied and included in the Valeen T. Avery Papers USU_COLL MSS 316, Box 24, Fd 14, Special Collections and Archives, Utah State University Merrill-Cazier Library, Logan, Utah. Queen Anne’s Lace may have been the medicine Dr. Bennett gave Catherine Fuller.

[9] A philter was a potion or charm with power to arouse sexual passion.

[10] The Wasp, Vol. 1, Number 15, Nauvoo, Hancock Co., Sat., July 23, 1842, an issue devoted to Bennettania. One description of Bennett’s 1841 suicide attempt reads “This reminds us of the time when the Doctor undertook to poison himself to death, but some good Samaritan-like Mormons saved his life; though a wag or two fixed a pile of sand, [as a] monument and fingered on it the following epitaph; ‘In memory of Major General John C. Bennett; who died at the seoge of Philter, in the defence of the cause of Venus, July 17, 1841.’ ” Online 23 Mar 2016 at http://www.sidneyrigdon.com/dbroadhu/LDS/wasp1.htm. The description of Bennett’s suicide attempt is also mentioned in Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, but the date of the suicide attempt is given as July 27, 1841 (see p. 80).

[11] Times and Seasons, Volume 3, No. 17 of 1 July 1842, online 20 Mar 2014 at http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/NCMP1820-1846/id/9200.

[12] Backenstos, Jacob B., sworn to the 28th of July, 1842, before Ebenezer Robinson, J. P., contained in Affidavits and Certificates Disproving the Statements and Affidavits Contained in John C. Bennett’s Letters, August 31, 1842.

[13] Backenstos, Jacob B., sworn to the 28th of July, 1842, before Ebenezer Robinson, J. P., contained in Affidavits and Certificates Disproving the Statements and Affidavits Contained in John C. Bennett’s Letters, August 31, 1842.

[14] Autobiography of Orange Wight. Online 3 Apr 2016 at http://www.boap.org/LDS/Early-Saints/OWight.html.