Aidah, Eliza, and Emma: The Stairs and Domestic Abuse in Nauvoo

By April 27, 2015

One of the women in my family tree is Aidah Clements, a New York convert whose testimony is often cited as one of the sources for the idea that Emma Smith pushed Eliza R. Snow, one of her husband?s wives down the stairs. Aidah’s relationship to the Smith family has always fascinated me. Aidah participated in many important events in Mormon history. She was a part of Zion’s Camp, immigrated with some of the companies to travel to the Salt Lake Valley, and watched as her two daughters married the same man.

I was recently searching for more documents about Aidah Clements when I came across some documents in the Church History Library that provided some interesting information about her marital history. Aidah was married to Albert Clements, whom she had met in upstate New York. They had married in 1820, a full twelve years before they converted to Mormonism. According to family lore and a fictionalized history of their lives published in the Relief Society Magazine, the two divorced after Joseph Smith’s death. Aidah, convinced of Brigham Young’s claims to succession, followed the Saints to Utah, while Albert became a Rigdonite. They were later reunited when Albert came to Utah and joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

What I didn’t realize about their relationship was how tumultuous it was. The stories that were contained in the Church History Library are related to Aidah’s charges that Albert had beaten her. The following is one of the documents describing their relationship:

State of Illinois

Hancock County

City of Nauvoo

Personally appeared before me Joseph Smith Mayor, and Justice of the Peace in and for said City. Adah Clements who being duly swon according to law, deposeth and Smith, that on the seventeenth day of December A.D. 1842, an assault and battery was committed upon the Deponent by striking, dragging, pulling, and otherwise abusing Deponent in said City, whereby a breech of an ordinance of said City, entitled “an Ordinance concerning vagrants and disorderly persons” was also commited as Deponent believes, and this Deponent saith that one Albert Clements and one Nathan Tener are guilty of the facts charged, and further this Deponent Saith not.

Sworn to and subscribed before me this 17th day of December A.D. 1842

Joe Smith Mayor

And Justice of the Peace

A few days later, Aidah was brought before the city council for refusing “to abide the advice of her husband.” This was not the end of their story. Several months later, they were appeared before the court again, where they were admonished for not maintaining a Christian home.

Reading Aidah’s own history with spousal abuse against the stories that she later told about the abuse that happened within the Smith home raises interesting question about her role in perpetuating the rumor. As someone who had had a tumultuous relationship with her own husband, Aidah may have been especially attuned to the violence that could occur within nineteenth-century households. Did she see the violence that Eliza experienced within the Smith household as reminiscent as her own troubled relationship with Albert? Why did she ultimately decide to tell stories about what she had seen within the Smith home? How did her trial on December 20, 1842 change her perception of her faith and her relationship with her husband? Why was Smith willing to uphold her husband’s authority over her in one case when he had challenged it a few days earlier?

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. This is really interesting, Amanda. Is there any indication why someone else beside her husband was also listed in the complaint? Does the presence of a second non-related person complicate the narrative of domestic abuse, even if just in this instance? I see she gave birth a month earlier; could she have been suffering from childbirth-related psychiatric illness, either depression or psychosis? Is any other document about their relationship specific enough to say one way or another?

    Comment by Amy T — April 27, 2015 @ 3:02 am

  2. While spending a few more minutes looking through the genealogy to confirm that the second man listed in the complaint was not related, I saw this note in a family history.

    “The heartbreaking loneliness for their father caused many tears and aching hearts and the mother [Aida], while still not doubting her choice, grieved herself to illness on many occasions. [Her daughter] Lucy felt the weight of her burden and kept a watchful eye over her charges. The mother received many blessings from the hands of the leaders, encouraging her to carry on, and these blessings are recorded in Lucy’s personal record book. The mother was instructed to be prayerful and humble in all things…”

    In the coded way that DUP histories are written, this suggests that Aida’s descendants believed she suffered from mental illness severe enough that an adult daughter had to care for her and her younger children.

    There is an extensive body of literature on the links between mental illness and domestic abuse. Those with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of domestic abuse, and domestic abuse can trigger or worsen mental health difficulties. More than 170 years after the story you tell here, and despite advances in women’s rights and medical and psychiatric care, mental illness and domestic violence are still a pervasive and perplexing problem for society, Church, and far too many families.

    Comment by Amy T — April 27, 2015 @ 4:10 am

  3. That’s really interesting, Amy. Thanks! I haven’t found much info yet about Nathan Tener and his relationship to Albert. I need to check out the DUP information. I’ll check it out the next time I am in Utah. There’s also some suggestion that she was married a couple of times after she and Albert separated. I haven’t been able to confirm those marriages yet, though.

    Comment by Amanda — April 27, 2015 @ 5:09 am

  4. Very interesting, Amanda. Could you say a bit more about the second time they appeared before the court?

    Comment by David G. — April 27, 2015 @ 6:45 am

  5. Hi David,

    Here’s what Dinger has: February 4, 1843 ? ?The case of John Blazzard and Mrs Pool was again take[n] up for a rehearsing as they wished to adduce additional testimony, when it appeared that the former husband of Mr Pool was an adulterous man by the evidence. After which it was decided that they be again admitted to fellowship by baptism.

    The following charges were then read[,] viz[:]

    To the High Council of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints at Nauvoo, I prefer the following charges against Albert Clements & wife. For unchristian-like conduct in not abiding the decision of the Bishop?s Court which they [had originally] agreed to do ? and for family difficulties. February 4th 1843. Winslow Farr.

    Two were to speak on [each] side[,] viz[.] ^N[ewel]^ Knight[,] ^G[eorge] W.^ Harris in the place of Norton[,] L[eonard] Soby[,] and [Joseph] Kingsberry. The charge was decided to be illegal as it did not come as an appeal from the Bishops? Court and was rejected by the Council unanimously.
    After which, as the difficulties lay between Br[other] Clements and his wife, and not from any hardness & c on the part of Bro[ther] Farr, the parties (ie. Clements & his wife), agreed to submit all their ^difficulties^ to the decision of the High Council and abide their (445) advise, which if they did not do they were to be no longer members of the Church. The case was then investigated at length[,] and it appearing that the grounds of difference between them were that Sister Clements was not willing to abide the advice of her husband in the in some of his views in his temporal concerns &c. The Council decided that it was her duty to be in subjection to her husband according to the Scriptures & also, gave him some instruction relative to his duty towards his wife. Adjourned till next Saturday at 10 oclock A.M. Hosea Stout Clerk. (446)

    Comment by Amanda — April 27, 2015 @ 8:30 am

  6. “Nathan Tener” is Nathan Tanner (1815-1910) and he was, like the Clements and Winchell families, from Washington and Warren counties in New York, and was also a member of Zion’s Camp. I don’t know much about him personally, but his presence in the story suggested that there may have been more going on here than just a disagreement between spouses since the Tanners weren’t much for disorderly conduct. (Still aren’t.)

    Comment by Amy T — April 27, 2015 @ 8:50 am

  7. Haha… a relative?

    Comment by Amanda — April 27, 2015 @ 8:52 am

  8. WOW. This is really, really interesting. I wonder if Aidah’s recollections reflect her opinions on plural marriage at large. I.E. she identitied Emma Smith with those who hurt others and opposed the branch of Mormonism Aidah subscribed to. After all, Eliza Snow and Emma Smith were ideological opposites so far as polygamy was concerned. I imagine they were justaposed against one another in Brighamite Mormonism in the 19th century. This may be one such evidence.

    Comment by J Stuart — April 27, 2015 @ 9:20 am

  9. Amy T., I am doing some searching at the CHL. Do you know anything about Nathan Tanner, Jr.’s excommunication by the Weber Stake High Council? I assume he’s the son of the Nathan Tanner mentioned. (Edit: Link removed because it was playing with the browser)

    Joey, that’s an interesting point. It certainly suggests that she had a fraught relationship with the church hierarchy. I find the point about not abiding Albert’s advice in temporal affairs interesting. I’m not sure what that refers to. She was also a member of the Relief Society.

    Comment by Amanda — April 27, 2015 @ 9:30 am

  10. While at Nauvoo a few years ago, I asked the tour guide about the allegation of Emma pushing Eliza. As I recall from reading the account, the witness was at the front door. The tour guide pointed out that it would have been impossible to witness the pushing because the top of the stairs cannot be seen from the front door. It’s been a little while, so I may not remember the whole scenario perfectly. I just remember that the claimed would have been impossible to witness due to line of sight issues.

    Comment by Brian T — April 27, 2015 @ 9:35 am

  11. That link screws up window width making things hard to read. (Edit: Thanks! I’ll try to fix it.)

    Comment by Clark — April 27, 2015 @ 9:42 am

  12. One correction needs to be made above. Aidah was brought before the High Council (not the city council) for refusing to abide her husband. There was actually a significant amount of domestic abuse in and around Nauvoo. Court records, justice of the peace records, and high council records all support this. One of the most progressive on this matter was Hyrum Smith.

    When Henry Cook was brought before the High Council on January 21, 1843 for selling his wife, Hyrum brought up the fact of physical abuse.

    “President Hyrum Smith spoke at some length on the subject,
    and, after giving Cook a very appropriate and severe reprimand for using the rod whipping his wife, he thought that Cook had acted as well as could be expected under his circumstances and decided that he should be acquited.”

    I think the worst punishment I have found for domestic abuse was justice of the peace Ebenezer Robinson fined a man $5. Sexual crimes, however, were punished much harsher.

    Comment by John D. — April 27, 2015 @ 11:39 am

  13. I don’t know too much about Nathan and his descendants, Amanda.

    I just looked at the newspaper accounts about Nathan Jr’s excommunication, and I’d like to know what happened, too! It sounds like he was mistakenly identified in General Conference as the writer of certain apostate letters to the First Presidency. The high council excommunicated him despite his protests that it was a case of mistaken identity.

    I would be inclined to believe his account since the family has a very strong culture of strict moral integrity and support of the leadership of the Church.

    Back to the Clements and Winchell families, I just checked the New York county histories and see a few mentions of the family names. Do you know if they were Baptist or Seventh-day Baptist before they joined the Church like the Tanners were?

    Comment by Amy T — April 27, 2015 @ 1:27 pm

  14. Thanks for this, Amanda. First, as an aside, I tend to raise an eyebrow at the Eliza-stairs story, mostly because the so-called event is used to explain a miscarriage and Eliza’s subsequent infertility. I have my own suspicions about Eliza’s infertility that I won’t elaborate on here, so as not to derail your important discussion.

    But my question relates to research that I am pursuing in regards to cases of mental illness in Mormon women who experienced the persecutions and violence in Missouri. I am collecting any and all examples of female “veterans” of the Missouri War who later experienced depression and/or PTSD. Do you find any reference to Missouri as a cause or factor in Aidah’s mental illness? That would be another interesting line of questioning.

    Comment by Andrea R-M — April 27, 2015 @ 5:11 pm

  15. Andrea (#14) Hopefully you do a post on Eliza elsewhere.

    John (#12) for those not up on this history, by selling his wife do you mean prostitution? Very confused by this including Hyrum’s actions regarding using a rod on a person.

    Comment by Clark — April 28, 2015 @ 12:20 pm

  16. Clark — wife selling was a folk practice in Great Britain and early America. It was essentially a form of divorce in which a husband offered his wife for sell and then someone (usually prearranged) offered to buy her. Sometimes the sum was close to the dowry that had initially been given to her. Sometimes it was a pittance that was more symbolic than anything else.

    People tend to balk at the practice, but quite often, it offered women an escape from marriages they no longer wanted. And, the men that bought women were quite frequently their lovers or relatives.

    Comment by Amanda — April 28, 2015 @ 12:51 pm

  17. I’d read about wife selling in GB. E.P Thompson had an article. (Wild). But I had no idea it was done in the US. Thanks Amanda, fascinating.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 28, 2015 @ 12:57 pm

  18. And if I recall, the cases Thompson found in GB, it was done among the working class and the husband would lead his wife into the town market, with a kind of bow or collar to signify what he was doing. Then the auctioneer would ask the wife if she agree to be sold and she would say yes. The husband would then make some kind of sales pitch and the auction would begin and take the higher bidder. The new husband who purchased the wife would then lead his new wife home. Sometimes husbands would sell their children with their wives. It was in this book if I recall

    Thompson called it working-class divorce. Did they do anything like that in the US, Amanda?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 28, 2015 @ 1:08 pm

  19. Yep… I don’t know many of the specifics, but one of Michigan’s prospective students was going to do her dissertation on American wife selling. Apparently, the practice lasts well into the 19th C–although it is always much maligned and viewed as a working class, fringe practice. We discussed the cases in Dinger’s book during the meeting I had with her. The dissertation and book will be fascinating. She ended up going elsewhere.

    Comment by Amanda — April 28, 2015 @ 1:41 pm

  20. That’s fascinating Amanda. I’d never heard of that. Thanks for bringing that up.

    Comment by Clark — April 28, 2015 @ 2:26 pm

  21. I’m glad Clark said something because I missed that reference to wife selling.

    The common wisdom in the genealogical world is that it was an English practice only, but it only makes sense that it made its way to the United States, and it’s curious to learn that there were enough cases to write a dissertation. Learn something new every day at JI!

    And just in case anyone’s interested in a fictional treatment of the practice, Thomas Hardy’s “The Mayor of Casterbridge” is always worth a read.

    Comment by Amy T — April 28, 2015 @ 5:39 pm


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