Women’s History Month at JI: Todd Compton on the Impact of Losing a Child

By March 29, 2011

Todd Compton’s name should be familiar to most serious students of Mormon history. For those unfamiliar with his work, see here.

While my book In Sacred Loneliness: the Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Signature 1997) looks carefully at Joseph Smith’s plural wives in Nauvoo, most of the book deals with their lives before and after their marriage to Joseph. Many themes emerged as I wrote those biographies–the experience of living in polygamy in Utah, feminine sisterhood, feminine ritual administration (a theme recently treated in Jonathan Stapley and Kristine Wright’s magnificent paper in the latest Journal of Mormon History), widowhood, mother-daughter relationships, mother-son relationships. In this post I would like to look at one theme from In Sacred Loneliness that really haunted me: loss of a child or children.

For example: Louisa Beaman, the wife of Brigham Young, bore twins, Joseph and Hyrum, in early 1846; they are not well documented but they evidently died very young. Next she bore Moroni, in January 1847, but he died seven months later, in August, of “teething and canker.” In July 1848, while traveling to Utah, Louisa bore two more twins, Alma and Alvah. In Salt Lake City, one boy died on October 11, the other on November 16, of “bowel complaint” and “canker”–probably bacterial dysentery. “I am led to think at times their is not much else but sorrow and affliction in this world for me” she wrote in a letter to a sister-wife. Other women in my book who lost a number of children, or who wrote remarkable memoirs of losing children, were Patty Bartlett Sessions, Helen Mar Kimball Whitney, Presendia Huntington Kimball, and Eliza Partridge Lyman.

I wrote In Sacred Loneliness when I was single; now I’m married and we have two kids, and I’m even more amazed at the incomprehensible loss these women somehow experienced. I realize that modern parents sometimes lose children. However, back then, children died more frequently. I suppose losing children was often due to pioneer circumstances. Health care was not modern, even rudimentary health care was in short supply on the frontier. Sometimes dwellings were primitive and chilly, and good food was not plentiful. Sometimes children died in accidents, by drowning or burning (both attested in Presendia Kimball’s life experience). In cholera epidemics on the overland trail, children and infants had the least resistance to this dreaded sickness. In my Jacob Hamblin research, one woman, Amanda Hatch Tietjen, lost a child (a burning accident), blamed herself for the child’s death, and seemingly lost the will to live, dying not long after. I can understand this psychological reaction.

Sometimes pioneers had large families, and though they lost a number of children, large families (by modern non-Mormon standards) remained. While this would undoubtedly be a comfort, and the surviving children would be a reason to go on living, the toll of all those deaths would still be devastating. Mary Minerva Dart Judd, wife of Zadok Knapp Judd, in an autobiography, after the death of her last child, wrote, “I have had another boy this is the 14[th] child we have had 9 boys & 5 girls and now we must give this boy up to the monster death and 7 of our 14 teen [fourteen] are buried beneath the sod and what is earth but a plase to mourn. But if it would only give us power to be as Abraham of old[,] to [be] saintes in deed then we mite rejois in all our sorrow and death in this life. The Lord alone knowes how deap the sorrow has been in my heart. No other one could tell off [of] all I have felt and past thrue in so much death.” “What is earth but a plase to mourn?” Mary Minerva seems to need to dwell on the seven children lost, rather than the joys of her seven living children. Hopefully she felt some increased peace after writing so movingly of those deaths; and hopefully reading about these marvelous women and their experiences in the depth of grief can help us also.

Article filed under Biography Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Gender


  1. Thanks for the thoughts, Todd (and the nod to the paper). Like you, the various details regarding child and infant mortality are some of the most haunting aspects of my research. I think that you are absolutely right to place this centrally. It also cuts across the sexes (and across socio-economic and hierarchical demographics), but as you note, the materials relating to women are extraordinarily rich.

    As a side note, one thing that I would like to see is if there is a difference between mortality rates among female based health care in Utah and the professionalized health care in the East. In many ways, LDS health care diverges from American trends in this area.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 29, 2011 @ 10:45 am

  2. great reminder of the misery they experienced. Canker was probably necrotizing stomatitis. A miserable diagnosis probably related to malnutrition and poor oral care. there’s some great work on these phenomena among evangelicals in this period as well.

    Comment by Smb — March 29, 2011 @ 2:25 pm

  3. Thanks, Todd. I found Louisa Beaman the most poignant chapter in ISL — it’s very moving.

    I also find Hosea Stout’s passages about the loss of his family members bracing.

    Comment by John T. — March 29, 2011 @ 8:26 pm

  4. Thanks for this, Todd. This is the human element that too often gets pushed aside for narratives of Joseph or Brigham “unfolding the restoration.” I think a great challenge, in history-writing generally and in Mormon history specifically, is finding ways to incorporate these stories into narratives that aren’t simply bracketed off as “women’s history,” but are instead understood as part of the broader picture.

    Comment by David G. — March 30, 2011 @ 7:12 am

  5. I too would be interested in seeing whether there are significant differences in infant mortality between pioneer-era Utah and the East. My hunch is that there wasn’t much of a difference–most of what physicians did in the 19th century was useless, if not worse.

    Comment by Mark B. — March 30, 2011 @ 12:39 pm

  6. #5 Mark B.

    That would be interesting to know. The death rate probably would have been different from place to place depending on the sanitary conditions. I read in a book entitled Little Known Facts in Mormon History byk geroge Givens

    The death rate in Mormon Nauvoo, especially among children, is well known in Latter-day Saint history. According to the Sexton’s death list published in the Nauvoo Neighbor, forty-four percent of all deaths in that river town were of children five and younger. A study was made years later of the age of persons interred in the municipal cemetery in St. George, Utah. During St. Georges first twenty years, ending in 1881 sixty-four percent of all deaths were of children four and under. The author of the study concluded that although the death rate declined over the next forty years, it remained high until the residents discontinued drinking water from open irrigation ditches.


    Comment by rk — March 31, 2011 @ 9:56 am

  7. Thanks for the excellent comments, everyone. I enjoy the historical diagnoses from people who know something about medicine. Jon, I’m sure than men suffered comparably to women when their children died. But I suspect that they didn’t write about it as much. In the case of Zadok Knapp Judd, he left a short autobiography that emphasizes other things.

    Comment by Todd Compton — April 1, 2011 @ 12:54 am


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