Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith married Emma Hale on January 18, 1827.

On the night of March 24, 1832 Joseph was dragged from bed by an angry mob. They stripped, scratched and beat him and then smeared his bleeding body with tar. They then ripped open a pillow and plastered him with feathers. They attempted to choke him and to pour poison down his throat.

Many Mormons will have heard this much of the story and ascribed the mobs anger to religious differences (as well as economic factors) . There may be more to the story.

It is written that Eli Johnson demanded that Joseph be castrated. (The evidence for the existence of an Eli Johnson is tentative. Brodie referenced a late source for this. However there are other sources that describe the motivation of the mob, I have posted about them here.) "Dr Dennison had been employed to perform a surgical operation, but he declined when the time came to operate" (Journal of Discourses, Vol. XI pp.3-4).

Eli Johnston (it would be more correct here to say the Johnson boys, John Johnson's sons) suspected Joseph of improper relations with his sister Nancy Marinda Johnson (or Marinda Nancy Johnson) who was 17 years old at the time.

Nancy became Joseph's plural wife in April 1942.

Nancy bore two sons whilst in Nauvoo. It is possible that Joseph Smith was their father.

(I read about these things in Fawn M. Brodie's 'No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith'. See pp. 119, 462-464. You can find her sources therein.)


  1. Brodie's source for this (Clark Braden) is quite late, and not very reliable. There's no evidence that Marinda had any relationship with Joseph prior to 1842. In fact, she didn't even have a brother named Eli.
    A more reliable source (S. F. Whitney) reports that the dispute was over property - specifically, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon had persuaded John Johnson Sr. (Marinda's father) to donate his land, to the vigorous objection of his sons. This same John Johnson came to rescue Joseph from the mob, and later held high positions in the Church.

  2. Excellent! thank you Cavalcanti. I will check this out. I am very surprised to hear that Eli does not even factor in. I will look further.

    So I just did a few searches and I am going to have to do more research before I post again about Joseph's plural wives.

    It would seem then that I have retold info from a source considered by some people to be unreliable. This is very interesting to me. I don't however feel that the case is closed on the matter. When I first read in 'Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith' (by Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippets Avery) about the planned castration by Dr Dennison it did cross my mind that such and act seemed to suggest that the mob were at least partially angered by some sexual crime.

    As for Marinda's testimony, it is hard for me to take much comfort in it. She asserted that Joseph never did anything to make her believe that he was not a prophet. If she had been approached by Joseph about polygamy and had it explained to her as a commandment from God maybe she saw that as part of the prophets role and thus not inappropriate.

    Joseph seems to have been quite a charmer. Maybe part of the success of early polygamy was that the women enjoyed being linked to Joseph even if it was so unusual. Heck, some of them may have had husbands that they were not fond of and Joseph may have been a bit of fun for them. It comforts me somewhat to think of things this way since otherwise it looks very dismal for the women.

    So the inappropriateness in 1832 may have just been Joseph explaining polygamy to Marinda. He did later marry her even though she already had a husband and of course he had his Emma, ever faithful Emma.

    I am grateful to you for pointing out the economic interests in the dispute. As I re-read Mormon Enigma I am reminded of these factors. I did not mean to imply that sexual misconduct was the only reason for the mobbing, it appears to me thought that it did play a part.

    For those who are new to the topic, Joseph's early marriages were kept secret, only a few people were aware of them. There is a lot of information to wade through to try and determine just who he married and when. It is however an undisputed fact that Joseph married additional wives and that some of them already had husbands when he married them.

  3. "I did not mean to imply that sexual misconduct was the only reason for the mobbing, it appears to me thought that it did play a part."

    That's fine, but with Braden as the only source for 'sexual misconduct', and him thoroughly unreliable, there isn't much of a reason to believe anything happened at all between Joseph and Miranda in the 1830s.

    For what it's worth, neither Van Wagoner nor Compton believe there's any substance to this account.

  4. I agree that the evidence surrounding the 1832 incident is not very solid. Miranda's later marriage to Joseph is agreed upon though. My opinion of the 1932 incident is speculative. However, the secrecy that surrounded plural marriage makes it quite difficult to expose. I am very interested in any small sign of it's beginnings. I think the castration incident is very noteworthy. From my reading it appears to be very possible that Joseph was talking of plural marriage as early as 1831. I speculate that he spoke to Miranda about it.

    Here's where I'm at with Miranda. The fact that she became one of Joseph's plural wives at all is disgusting to me. The practice of polygamy in the Mormon church was carried out very secretively and I believe from evidence quite coercively. Women were told that they would lose their eternal inheritance if they did not accept Joseph as their husband.

    Secondly, Miranda already had a husband.

    Thirdly, and this is purely my own speculation now, the intention to castrate Joseph Smith speaks to me of members of the mob being upset by some inappropriate sexual act on Joseph's part. Even if this just means that he spoke to Miranda about becoming his plural wife then that is significant.

  5. Hey Maureen,

    Just so you know, the 'other source' in your notes for the mob's motivation actually uses the same primary source as Brodie. Here's a shortcut: if they get her name wrong (i.e. they refer to her as Nancy Marinda) then they're relying on Braden's account.

    Between the time difference, the unknown provenance of the story, the incorrect names (Eli and Nancy) and the contradictions with older primary sources, the Braden account is pretty much worthless.

    The -only- evidence at all is the aborted castration, but that was a fairly common feature of 19th century mob violence anyway, regardless of the "crimes" of the victim.