Rediscovering Fanny Alger Custer

By July 31, 2018

In Mormon history circles, we know Fanny Alger Custer by her birth name, Fanny Alger, and almost exclusively speak of her relationship to Joseph Smith in terms of the early history of plural marriage. She has mattered to Mormon history because of controversy surrounding this relationship, and just as briefly as the relationship may have lasted, so briefly does Fanny make an appearance in the history of the Kirtland period. The question of early Mormon polygamy overshadows the collective concern over Fanny’s life as an early Latter-day Saint woman.

But some sources do allow us to consider her independently of Joseph Smith and even get a sense of a more complete biography. I’m working on a paper that gives priority to Fanny’s perspectives and life details, and then reconsiders her relationship to Mormonism and Joseph Smith in light of those perspectives. Here is a highlight from the longer essay, something stunning from Fanny herself—her own voice.

Biographical details about Fanny have been scarce. Of obituaries, researchers had found previously only a purported transcription of one posted to an online forum without citation. A grave marker and census records were the only contemporaneous, first-hand sources; practically everything else we know of Fanny comes from secondhand accounts. A remarkable obituary, however, appears in the Cambridge City Tribune near Fanny’s adult residence in Dublin, Indiana. It confirms she died in Indianapolis and was buried in Dublin with her husband, Solomon Custer, and more interestingly, it describes her as practicing spiritualism: “She has for some years been a strong and prominent spirit medium and many of her communications that have come through her are filed away by O.C. Green, who was her manipulator.” This one detail opens several new lines of discovery.[1]

Indiana newspaper printing a spirit communication to Fanny and Solomon Custer

Another newspaper published in nearby Hagerstown seven years prior reported how Fanny and Solomon had begun “diving into matters concerning the spirit land” and claimed “to be receiving daily intelligence under spiritual control.” The report included a revelation, a “correct reading of [Muhlenberg]’s hymn, ‘I Would Not Live Always,’” that revised the theme of impending judgment with language celebrating Universalism: “Away with the doctrine of hell and the tomb, / For the light of God’s gospel will dispel all the gloom. / We do not, we can not, live far from our God, / Away from some Heaven, some blissful abode, / In some bright sunny dreamland—in some region afar— / We must all live where God is, since God is everywhere.”[2]

Extrapolating from these and other sources about the Custer family, the Fanny Alger story altogether shifts from mostly a Joseph Smith/Kirtland episode to a more informed biography. Solomon Custer kept up a tavern with his father and brothers and was known for giving evening entertainment to tavern guests by storytelling. The tavern was located on the National Road in Dublin where several Latter-day Saints passed on their way to Missouri from Ohio, including the Algers. How Fanny met and married Solomon, as well as their family’s time in Dublin, was not marred in controversy, but followed a rather regular path for the time and their community. Other contextual details about Fanny Alger Custer present a different, richer story of a Mormon-Universalist-Spiritualist woman who helped her husband manage a tavern, sawmill, and grocery store and even composed revelatory and spiritual communications with some degree of public repute.

This means we have a historical figure who apparently lived a fascinating religious hybrid between earliest Mormonism, frontier Universalism, and early feminist spiritualism. For Mormon history, Fanny is evidence of an active spirituality, of women asserting spiritual charisma to revise prevailing theology. How did Mormonism influence Fanny’s spiritualism? Or did Mormonism attract Fanny and her family for its early emphasis on spiritual gifts and its cultural openness to spiritual charisma? When we hear Fanny’s story beyond the confines of a strained debate over Joseph Smith’s polygamy, we not only rediscover Fanny, but we see, perhaps, greater proof of an element of female spirituality taking inspiration from both Mormonism and Universalism.

[1]: “Dublin Items,” The Cambridge City Tribune 25, no. 34 (December 5, 1889): 2.

[2]: “Local Matters,” Hagerstown Exponent 7, no. 9 (August 2, 1882): 3. Compare with William Augustus Muhlenberg, “I Would Not Live Alway,” https://www.bartleby.com/248/109.html.

Article filed under Biography Gender Polygamy Women's History


Comments

  1. Very interesting, D Golding!

    Comment by David G. — July 31, 2018 @ 6:26 am

  2. Thanks, this is fascinating stuff! Appreciate added depth and context to her life.

    Comment by anita — July 31, 2018 @ 3:28 pm

  3. Looking forward to this. It’ll be nice to have something that goes farther than Todd Compton’s brief biography of her.

    Comment by Clark — July 31, 2018 @ 6:10 pm

  4. Very intriguing. Thank you for illuminating such a pivotal woman and managing to pull her from the Bechdel-test-failing narrative she is hopelessly trapped in.

    Comment by Hawkgrrrl — August 2, 2018 @ 1:07 pm

  5. Fantastic work, Dave.

    Comment by JJohnson — August 2, 2018 @ 1:24 pm

  6. Okay, so was she married to Joseph Smith, or not?

    Just kidding. This is great to see her story revolve around her actual life rather than what she meant to a particular dude.

    Comment by Ben P — August 3, 2018 @ 11:40 am

  7. Great work, I look forward to the paper. I have an obituary for Fanny, but not the Cambridge City Tribune obit. The spiritualism is really interesting. It was in the air, in the east, but also in Utah. We all know about Amasa Lyman. However, I’ve been researching Peter Shirts, a southern Utah explorer/settler, and there are family traditions that he was involved with spiritualism. I write, “According to historian of Iron City, Kerry William Bate, though the town was begun by Mormons, it became a hotbed of spiritualism.” Kerry William Bate, “Iron City: Mormon Mining Town,” UHQ 50 (Winter 1982): 47-58.

    Comment by Todd Compton — August 12, 2018 @ 11:25 pm


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