Women’s History Month at JI: Vickie Speek on Elvira Field/Charley Douglass, Strang’s Plural Wife

By March 23, 2011

Elvira Field is pretty much my favorite person in Mormon history—probably my favorite historical person ever! Elvira was awesome! She was a nineteenth century woman way ahead of her time—a feminist, a working mother, and a leader in the Strangite church.

Physically small and fragile, Elvira was not especially beautiful, but she had a brilliant mind and was unusually articulate. She loved plants and flowers, especially orchids, and knew their Latin names. She was also a dead-eye with a gun who could out-shoot most men. She frequently did, even when she was sixty-seven years old!

In 1831, when she was just a year old, Elvira’s parents were baptized into the fledgling Mormon church and moved to Kirtland, Ohio. Elvira and her family remained affiliated with the Mormon church, but moved to Michigan in 1837–38, instead of relocating to Missouri. After Joseph Smith Jr. was murdered in June 1844, the Field family supported the succession claims of James J. Strang rather than Brigham Young.

There’s no way of knowing when James J. Strang first noticed her, but by July 1849, he was head-over-heels in love with Elvira. The nineteen-year-old school teacher was intelligent, bold and sassy, and she fell crazy in love with him, too. James was already married, but this was not an especially big problem for Mormon men in the late 1840s. Initially opposed to polygamy, James eventually took four plural wives, and all of them were pregnant when he was murdered in 1856.

Elvira and James were secretly married on July 13, 1849 on Beaver Island, an island in the middle of Lake Michigan. They were so deeply in love they didn’t want to be separated that fall when James was scheduled to go on a church mission to New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington DC. So, Elvira told everyone she was going away to teach school. She sewed herself a man’s suit, cut her hair, and traveled with James disguised as his sixteen-year-old nephew and personal secretary, Charley Douglass.

Charley took the minutes of church conferences, sat in during priesthood meetings, and penned several articles for the Strangite church newspaper. One article spoke in favor of labor unions, quite a free-thinking position for a woman in the mid-nineteenth century.

Later on, after their marriage was disclosed, Elvira continued working as her husband’s personal secretary. She observed the weather on Beaver Island three times a day for six years and submitted the records to the Smithsonian Institution. She created the crown that sat on James Strang’s head when he was crowned King of Beaver Island. Elvira designed and wore the peculiar pantaloon-skirt costume that the Strangite women wore.

Elvira’s first child was born in 1851 on a Mormon holy day, April 6, almost nine months to the day of Strang’s coronation as king. The child was named Charles—after his mother. She also gave birth to three more children in the next six years.

The Strangite church basically broke apart after James Strang was murdered in 1856. The Mormons were forcibly expelled from Beaver Island with virtually nothing more than the clothes on their backs. Elvira and her children were terribly destitute for the next few years. At one time, Elvira contracted typhus and thought she was going to die. She put an ad in the local newspaper asking for kind souls to take in her young children. Then, the act of a desperate mother, she signed four legal documents putting her children into indentured servitude. Fortunately, Elvira recovered, but it took her two years to earn enough money to basically buy her children back from the people who had cared for them.

Elvira lived a long life. She remarried for convenience at the age of thirty–five. Her second husband greatly loved Elvira and frequently brought her rare varieties of orchids. I’m sure she loved John Baker, but James Strang was the passion of Elvira’s youth. Theirs was truly a love match and when he died, the remarkable fire left Elvira soul.

Elvira Field never rejoined the Strangites or any other faction of the Mormon church. In a way, she reminds me of Emma Hale Smith. The sadness of her loss became a part of Emma’s life and later personality—just as it did in Elvira’s. It’s too bad that women are often overlooked in Mormon history. Many of them have amazing stories to tell.

Vickie Cleverley Speek is a freelance writer and editor currently living in Minooka, Illinois. She is the author of ‘God Has Made Us A Kingdom’: James Strang and the Midwest Mormons.

Article filed under Biography Categories of Periodization: Origins Gender


Comments

  1. Fascinating stuff. Thanks, Vickie!

    Comment by Christopher — March 23, 2011 @ 11:42 am

  2. Great story, thanks for sharing! Is that photo James Strang or Elvira as Charley?

    Comment by anita — March 23, 2011 @ 12:12 pm

  3. That’s a photo of Elvira dressed as Charley Douglass.

    Comment by Vickie Speek — March 23, 2011 @ 1:33 pm

  4. I know very little about the Strangites, so I really appreciate this glimpse. Enough to whet my apatite!

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 23, 2011 @ 1:51 pm

  5. James was already married, but this was not an especially big problem for Mormon men in the late 1840s.

    Best line I’ve read in a while.

    Awesome post, Vickie.

    Comment by Ben — March 23, 2011 @ 3:53 pm

  6. Excellent, thank you Vickie!

    Comment by Jared T — March 23, 2011 @ 6:01 pm

  7. Thanks, Vickie. This is really quite fascinating. I know there have been studies of this type of “gender bending” (the ones I’ve heard of discuss women who enlisted in the military, for example). Do you have a sense how Elvira’s strategies compared with the other historical examples that are known?

    Comment by David G. — March 23, 2011 @ 6:02 pm

  8. Yes; thanks. Quite a story. Fascinating historical personality.

    Comment by Ryan T. — March 23, 2011 @ 6:43 pm

  9. I know of one other significant incident in Mormon history where a woman dressed as a man. In April 1841, Joseph Smith married Louisa Beaman in Nauvoo. The bride wore men’s clothing during the ceremony which took place in a grove near Main Street in full view of the public (see Todd Compton, In sacred Loneliness, 59).

    Comment by Vickie Speek — March 23, 2011 @ 8:30 pm

  10. What is the provenance for the photo?

    Comment by John Hajicek — March 24, 2011 @ 6:24 pm

  11. This photograph came from the archives at Central Michigan University. I have found reference to it in the Clement Strang and Charles Strang papers, also in the archives at Clarke. I have heard there was a photograph of Charley Douglass with James Strang, however, no one I know has ever come across it.

    Comment by Vickie Speek — March 25, 2011 @ 7:32 am


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