Welcome back to our series, wherein we answer questions from our readers about plural marriage. Where possible, I’ve linked to all the available sources for readers, so that others can investigate each question more fully, if they wish. Today’s question addresses the rumor concerning a physical altercation between Emma Hale Smith and Eliza R. Snow in Nauvoo.
In the 1982 issue of BYU Studies, three important Mormon women’s historians – Maureen Beecher, Val Avery, and Linda King Newell – explored the “oft-told tale” that Joseph Smith’s wife Emma pushed Eliza R. Snow down the stairs in a fit of jealousy. The story as they construct it is one that has several variants: “The characters involved are Joseph Smith, his wife Emma Hale Smith, and a plural wife, usually Eliza Roxcy Snow. The place is invariably Nauvoo, the scene either the Homestead residence of the Smiths or the later roomier Mansion House. The time, if specified, is either very early morning, or night, in 1843, April or May, or in 1844. The action involves two women in or coming out of separate bedrooms. Emma discovers the other woman in the embrace of or being kissed by Joseph. A tussle follows in which Emma pulls the woman’s hair, or hits her with a broom, or pushes her down stairs, causing either bruises, or a persistent limp, or, in the extreme versions, a miscarriage. There may or may not be a witness or witnesses.”The sheer multiplicity of contradictory details suggests much of the uncertainty surrounding that particular episode in Mormon history. Although the story is frequently retold in Mormon folklore, literature, and popular histories, there is little evidence for the event from that time period. The story presents historians of Mormonism with a series of interesting questions. The first, and perhaps the most basic, is what parts, if any, have a basis in reality. It also asks us, however, to consider why a story that has so many conflicting details has become an important part of the mythology surrounding Nauvoo polygamy. In this blog post, I will take each of these questions in turn.
First, what if any parts of the story are true?
There have been several historians who have attempted to determine which if any elements of the story are true. The most thorough of these accounts is in Val Avery and Linda King Newell’s Mormon Enigma. They begin by examining each of the accounts and the problems with each one. They point out, for example, that LeRoi Snow’s account comes from Charles C. Rich, not from his Aunt Eliza who died when he was eleven. The account from Mary Ann Barzee Boice was also secondhand and was annotated with note “this I give as rumer only.”
After thoroughly examining the evidence, Avery and Newell conclude that something probably happened in spite of the fact that the earliest accounts of the story do not appear until forty years later. When Emma initially learned of Eliza’s relationship with her husband, she was undoubtedly hurt. She and Eliza had been close friends and had worked together in the Relief Society. Emma had been called to serve as a President of the society, but hadn’t realized that her husband had slowly been alienating her from many of the women who had joined the society, taking them as wives and then asking them to keep his marriage to them a secret. Although it is impossible to know exactly when Emma learned of Eliza’s betrayal of their friendship, they point to mid-February 1843 as a likely time for the incident to have occurred. On February 11, 1843, Eliza wrote in her journal that she “took board and had my lodging removed to the residence of br. [Jonathan] Holmes.” They suggest that the terse entry and the five weeks before the next journal entry are evidence of the strain that Eliza was under during this time period and suggest that some event likely forced Eliza from the Smith home. The two women, however, argue that it was unlikely that Eliza was pregnant at the time. They point out that she was teaching school at the time that the incident likely occurred and that Victorian sensibilities would have prevented her from teaching while heavily pregnant. Her brother Lorenzo also commented that she was “beyond the condition of raising a family” by the time that she married Joseph.
Avery and Newell are also unwilling to verify any of the particulars of the folklore concerning the details of the argument between the two women. There is simply not enough information to know whether Emma pushed Eliza down the stairs, beat her with a broom, or pulled her by the hair. We cannot say for sure that the altercation was physical, although Avery and Newell suggest that it was likely was.
Most historians follow Avery and Newell in their analysis. Richard Bushman, for example, footnotes Mormon Enigma in his telling of the story and notes that the resentment that individuals in Utah felt towards Emma for her decision not to follow Brigham Young to the West should make us skeptical of any evidence from that time period. Lawrence Foster also approvingly points to their analysis. Brian Hales, on the other hand, agrees with Avery and Newell that it is unlikely that the specific event occurred. He is less certain than they are, however, that the relationship between Joseph and Eliza involved sexual intercourse. While Avery and Newell argue that it is likely that Joseph’s relationships with his plural wives did involve sex, Hales points to conflicting statements from Eliza about whether or not she knew Joseph “carnally” to cast doubt on the nature of their relationship.
So, why if the story has so many conflicting details did it become a part of Mormon folklore?
I think this question has a couple of answers. One of the most interesting comes from Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling. In his analysis of the story, Bushman suggests that we should be skeptical of some of the accounts that are often used to reconstruct the story because they originate in the 1880s, a time when sentiment against Emma was high. Bushman’s caution here points to one of the reasons why the story likely circulated in Utah in the late nineteenth century. Beginning in the 1860s, the Mormons who had followed Brigham Young to Utah found their legitimacy constantly challenged by members of the RLDS Church. Members of the latter church believed that Joseph Smith’s son was the legitimate heir to his prophetic authority and denied the divine origins of polygamy. In retelling the story, Emma became a stand-in for the RLDS Church and Eliza, for the Brighamites. Emma’s aggression delegitimizes her and the church that had coalesced around her son. It essentially served as a piece of propaganda – a faith-promoting story.
There are other reasons, of course, why it was so popular and remains so to this day. I think one of the reasons why the story has remained popular is that it plays into our assumptions about the tensions that must have existed in the polygamous household. For women who are troubled by polygamy, it is all too easy to imagine the hot flush that Emma must have felt in her cheeks when she saw her husband kissing another woman at the top of the stairs. It is easy to imagine ourselves yelling at our husband and angrily pushing our rival. For me, although perhaps not for women with gentler spirits, there is a sense of momentary vindication – a sense that we too might have pushed that woman down the stairs. It is a sense of vindication that is lost, however, at the mere suggestion of miscarriage. That detail changes the story from one in which the first wife is triumphant into a tale of sorrow. The story also humanizes the people within it. I think that one of the reasons that it is often included on anti-Mormon websites is that it powerfully demonstrates that Joseph, Emma, and Eliza were not untouchable figures but men and women who felt jealousy, anger, and dismay. They were human too.
Maureen Beecher, Val Avery, and Linda King Newell, Emma and Eliza and the Stairs
Val Avery and Linda King Newell, Mormon Enigma
Richard Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling
Lawrence Foster, Women, Family, and Utopia
For other posts in this series, see
Samuel Brown and Kate Holbrook (Embodiment and Sexuality)
WVS (D&C 132 Questions)