Wasted Seed and Spent Men: Corinne Allen Tuckerman and the Politics of Polygamy after 1890

By July 25, 2012

I am at the Schlesinger Library this week doing research in the papers of Corinne Allen Tuckerman, a woman who lived with her husband in Salt Lake City during the turn-of-the-century.  A member of the first class to matriculate at Smith College, she was also the President of the National Congress of Mothers, a founder of the Parent and Teachers Association, and a fierce opponent of polygamy.  Tuckerman wrote letters to the presidents of seminaries and colleges asking them what their classes taught about marriage, gave lectures about the evils of polygamy, and helped to found Hallock Hall in Utah as a refuge for working class girls.  Because the publication of our first edition of the ?What I learned from Jack Weyland? series is going to be a bit postponed, I thought I would give you some snippets from her correspondence:

Mrs. Corinne Allen Tuckerman,
?The Evils of the Harem Life of Mormon women”
President Utah Congress of Mothers
Written Post-1890

?The custom of secret, or Temple marriage needs here to be explained, for it has added greatly to the evil of Mormon polygamy.  The rite when consummated, is not recorded in any state office, and wives are taught to deny the ceremony even when they thus brand themselves with the stigma of unchastity.  There ceremony is of more a Pagan than religious rite.  The costumes worn are spectacular and the service might be termed an incantation where the Mormon priest exorcises the bride, tending to impress the superstitious woman, with dread of revealing what has taken place

The objection to such secret marital initiations is that they strike at that openness which is the essential of pure family life.  The very cornerstone of honorable and permanent marriage is its publicity.  The underlying reason for the elaboration of wedding festivities, which sometimes degenerate into ostentation and extravagance, is the wide-spread publicity which results from such ceremonies.  Early Americans were severe to an extreme point regarding clandestine marriages. Mormon customs foster the secret rite, and thus help to perpetuate polygamy?

?Sex Morality Code?
National Congress of Mothers and Parent-Teacher Associations
Have You Taught Your Child to be a Monogamist?
n.d., but cites material from 1899 ? 1900

?The beginning of this instruction must be in very early life.  School age is too late to begin to teach a child sexual morality.  It is this fact which renders so futile the elaborate system of sex instruction proposed, and in some places begun, in the schools.  To the normal child the publicity of such sex instruction is an invasion of inviolable personal rights; to the abnormal child it gives food for morbid mental pictures and increases a degeneracy already begun.  At a very early age children must be taught not to touch or handle sex organs, or unnecessarily expose them.  A reverence for the body as the highest gift of God should be taught, and every bodily function teaching without the unnecessary emphasis which will produce a morbid idea of sex functions.  No evasion of a child?s question concerning bodily functions should ever be employed, but the information must be suited to the child?s age and understanding.?

The Law of Monogamy ? ?Monogamy is the reservation of sex experience for the one and only mating.  The sex experience makes the marriage, and not the words of the ceremony.  A solemn and impressive rite before many witnesses is a natural human expression of the belief in the sacredness of the revelation.  ?What God hath joined together, let not man put asunder,? is a simple expression of natural law.  The mating of a man and woman who have been true to the monogamous ideal before marriage, is so strong a bond that nothing can break.  Death alone can sever the bond.  Differences of opinion, incompatibility of temper, any trifles light as air, when weighed against the great fact of real physical marriage.?

Bertha Miller to Corinne Allen Tuckerman

?Many doctors, many directors of gymnasiums are teaching young men that all eucontinence beings about actual waste of energy, that prostitution is dangerous not only because of the dread diseases but because of the drain on the system, especially weakening before the young man has attained full growth; they teach also the need of care after marriage, + how to use cold baths etc.  If all young men and boys were correctly taught the biological and the physiological facts of marriage, polygamy would die.?

?Monogamy of apes and savages is entirely without religious or ethical meaning, is sue simply to fact that types which practice whose practices led to conservation of energy, survived and developed higher attributes.  Lower types of animals illustrate results of loss of energy through over-production and waste of semen.  Among fishes, male fertilizes eggs after they are deposited w female in sand.  Great waste of semen + of eggs because of this ?careless method.?

In many ways, Tuckerman?s correspondence is a product of its time.  Its heavy emphasis upon biology is reflective of the wide popularity of eugenics and the feeling that it was important for sexual desire to be controlled and used to improve ?the race.?  She is also concerned about the possibility that Mormon men and women will gain undue influence as increasing numbers of them attended eastern universities and gained positions within the United States government. One letter was written to reassure that the correspondent had spoken to James Burrill Angell and that no Mormon proselytizing was allowed at the University of Michigan.  In fact, President Angell had taken upon himself to interview every incoming Mormon student and tell them that they were welcome but that they were to ?learn? and ?not teach.?  The result was that only one Mormon student had tried to proselytize while there and that had happened when a ?silly girl? teased a Mormon boy that he should try to ?unfold? the mysteries of his religion? to her.  What stood out the most to me about Tuckerman?s correspondence, however, was her linking of polygamy to other issues of sexuality.  Although she lived in Salt Lake City for a period of her life, she was just as concerned about the effects that premarital sex or unwise sexual education could have on national morality as she was about polygamy.  It is this last point that I am going to keep in mind as I continue my research.  Sometimes I fear I focus too much on polygamy, which although important to Mormonism, was always tied to other issues and fears.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Fascinating material! I look forward to reading more of your finds!

    Comment by Rachael — July 25, 2012 @ 7:38 pm

  2. Fascinating find, Amanda, and I think your concluding thought is an important one.

    Comment by Christopher — July 25, 2012 @ 8:06 pm

  3. Fantastic, Amanda; I really enjoyed this.

    Like you, I’m struck by how much she ties polygamy to many broader issues at the time: eugenics, morality, ethics, and, surprisingly enough to me, secrecy. Vindicates Sarah Pearsall‘s current book project on polygamy in America, in which she argues that debates over polygamy–which included both real and imagined polygamous threats–demonstrate broader issues surrounding social, cultural, political, and religious transitions.

    Comment by Ben P — July 25, 2012 @ 10:33 pm

  4. What is striking to me is how closely her reasoning follows that of some LDS women near the same period.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 25, 2012 @ 10:50 pm

  5. Thanks Chris and Rachael! Ben — I totally agree with Sarah. I think reading this correspondence has also reminded me not to assume that I know what my subjects meant by a particular term. Tuckerman’s definition of polygamy is capacious – it includes everything from premarital sex to divorce, anything where a man or woman has sex with more than one person in the span of their life. The only exception she is willing to make is in terms of death.

    J – Totally. Tuckerman ran in a lot of the same circles as Mormon women. In fact, one of her major complaints is that Mormon women have infiltrated a lot of national organizations. Interestingly, she was in attendance at the same international women’s conference where Susa met Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In many ways, I think Tuckerman is involved in an internal debate within women’s circles about the involvement of Mormon women.

    Comment by Amanda — July 26, 2012 @ 6:24 am

  6. […] An anti-polygamy Mormon in the early-20th century argues against “wasted seed and spent men.” […]

    Pingback by Sunday Morning Medicine | Nursing Clio — July 29, 2012 @ 7:53 am


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