Plural marriage ponderings: The People vs. Chauncey L. Higbee

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In my last blog post, I mentioned RLDS Conservatives Richard and Pamela Price, and their book Joseph Smith Fought Plural Marriage.

One interesting matter which they raise is their reported discovery of a court case brought by Chauncey Higbee against Joseph Smith (chapter 13 in their book). They reportedly found these in Nov 1962.

“In 1962 when we first examined the papers pertaining to this case, no copier was available in the circuit court office where the documents were deposited. We used slide film to photograph the documents, but when the film was processed, the text was not legible. We also made typed copies of the papers, including Joseph’s affidavit, which we proofread again and again to be sure we had copied it correctly…

“In 1968 we returned to the Carthage Courthouse to try to obtain photocopies of these official papers, since a copier was then available. We requested permission to examine this file again and it was brought to us, but Joseph Smith’s affidavit (Document Number 1 above) was missing!…

“In June 1998 we went once more to Carthage to search for Joseph’s affidavit, but it had not been returned. When Richard went to view the papers, on June 22, 1998, he found none of the documents of this case in File Box 18…

“The clerks did say that all of the Joseph Smith papers had been recently microfilmed, and that they may be available through the Mormon Church. The clerks did not disclose the name of the person or persons who took the documents to Utah for study…

“It is important to be aware that the Mormon Church did not address The People vs. Chauncey L. Higbee case in its official history. It mentioned Chauncey’s promiscuity, but refrained from giving details of the case…[because] the Saints would have [thereby] discerned that Joseph was not a polygamist—and that the entire polygamy doctrine and practice was a fraud.”

Thus, the Prices report finding these papers, including an affidavit of Joseph Smith’s. The court documents (again, reportedly) make it clear that Higbee intended to call Sarah Pratt, Nancy Rigdon, and other women from Nauvoo as witnesses–presumably to rebut Joseph’s claims about plural marriage being taught.

It’s unfortunate that the Prices didn’t do one of:
a) get legible photos of the documents;
b) get notorized copies of the documents they made in the 1960s;
c) publish their work at the time

But, it was a different time. If we grant that their story is true, I’m sure they’re kicking themselves too!

Being in the wilds of Canada, I don’t have easy access to the Church archives, so I’ve not yet checked to see if microfilm copies exist there. I’ve seen no reference to them anywhere else, however.

I don’t buy the idea that the LDS Church has “suppressed” this issue, simply because Joseph’s affidavit isn’t that surprising:

…one Chancy L. Higbee has slandered and defamed the character of the said Joseph Smith, and also the character of Emma Smith, his wife, in using their names, the more readily to accomplish his purpose in seducing certain females, and further this deponont saith not.

This is consistent with Joseph either not practicing polygamy, or insisting that the version given out by Higbee and John C. Bennett was false.

If the story is true, one wonders if they’ll show up in the Joseph Smith Papers project.  So, does anyone know anything else about this court case? Anything else about these documents?

Important Note: I do not believe that anyone is currently authorized to practice plural marriage. Any comments arguing that plural marriage should be taught or practiced by the LDS Church (or anyone else) will be deleted without further warning.  Get your own blog.

12 thoughts on “Plural marriage ponderings: The People vs. Chauncey L. Higbee

  1. Robert Fields

    Richard and Pamela Price do not themselve’s address certain documents. William Clayton’s Nauvoo Journal associate’s Joseph Smith with Celestial marriage. I do not see how this one case help’s the Saint’s discern Joseph Smith was not a polygamist. Officially the leader’s of my denomination do not dispute the authenticity of his journal.

    I cannot fault our past historian’s for not commenting on document’s they did not know about. But Community of Christ historian’s of today feel Joseph Smith was involved based on certain document’s. Unless they had document expert’s to say certain document’s are fake’s they need to honestly treat them as authentic.

    I realize i don’t have any information about this case. I only know what they said in their book on it. But the case document’s does not help their case. The LDS Church not treating the case in it’s official history does not hurt it’s official position that Joseph Smith was a polygamist.

    It’s not enough to throw out a bunch of document’s supporting Joseph Smith’s innocence. One has to make persuasive comment’s on all the tough source’s, and quote’s that end up in book’s like In Sacred Lonliness. Until they can do that the church should not re-establish our old official Joseph Smith was innocent position.

  2. Joe Geisner

    I looked at two articles by Gary Bergera one is found here:
    http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3945/is_200301/ai_n9170043/pg_1
    and the other is in JWHJ 23 2003 called “Illicit Intercourse”. Both articles seem to be the best research on Chauncey Higbee. In fact the best research on this convoluted subject about Joseph Smith and his struggles with the Higbee’s and his private and public statements on polygamy.

    Gary relies on the Price’s for the civil proceedings. I would think these court documents are not available to the public or Gary would have quoted directly from them.

  3. Greg Smith

    Thanks Joe, that’s very helpful.

    I look forward to Bergera’s new book on Nauvoo plural marriage (in April, IIRC). I doubt I’ll agree with everything in it, of course, but books are always more fun when that’s the case. :-)

    I particularly disagree with Bergera’s denial that the Fanny Alger relationship was a marriage. But, that’s probably not surprising.

  4. Robert Fields

    I don’t see Fanny Alger married to Joseph Smith either. I am aware of all the documentation used to say that, but remain unconvinced. Perhap’s a seperate discussion could be started to discuss the information regarding all 33 reputed wive’s.

  5. Greg Smith Post author

    I don’t see Fanny Alger married to Joseph Smith either.

    The difference between you and Bergera, though, is that he sees it as essentially an affair, while you probably don’t think there was a relationship at all. :-)

    Perhap’s a seperate discussion could be started to discuss the information regarding all 33 reputed wive’s.

    That would probably be interesting. I’ll see what I can dig up.

  6. Robert Fields

    I feel an affair between Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger happened. I am just not convinced she was married to him.

  7. Greg Smith Post author

    I feel an affair between Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger happened. I am just not convinced she was married to him.

    Sorry, serves me right for telling you what you thought. ;-)

    Why do you feel the Algers were happy about being connected to Joseph’s family (as per Ann Eliza and Chauncery Webb; two disgruntled apostates and anti-Mormons if there ever were some) if it was only an affair?

  8. Robert Fields

    The only Alger i know of that was proud of it was Fanny Alger’s brother. But he had convinced himself Fanny Alger had been married to Joseph Smith. Fanny Alger was uncomfortable clarifying exactly what happened. I get the idea her family didn’t know, or why ask her for clarification? As far as her other realative’s i don’t have further information what they thought.

    I doubt Mosiah Hancock’s claim his father arranged this marriage for Joseph Smith. His source was online at the Book of Abraham project. In it also he claim’s Levi said Joseph Smith had given a prophecy Joseph Smith 3rd would become a false prophet. I think his storie’s involving his father Levi arranging that marriage might be fiction. So i question Todd Compton’s belief Mosiah Hancock’s writing is unquestionable proof this was polygamy.

    I am not certain how good William McLellin interviewed Emma. She could have told him his story was true. But i doubt she told him it was polygamy.

    I don’t see Benjamin Johnson as anything, but a second hand witness, or maybe even third hand witness. He never talked to Fany Alger, or Joseph Smith on what happened. He got information it was polygamy from Warren Parrish. And his big proof for polygamy was that Joseph Smith and Fanny were found together. He claimed Oliver said it to, but he called it an affair in his own word’s.

    I myself would like a quote from Samuel Alger’s fanny’s father. Her father would have been in the know. That is if Levi had arranged that marriage with him for Joseph Smith. But i am not sure fanny’s brother ever talked to him about what happened. So he got his information on everybody who was not first hand witnesses of what happened themselve’s.

    I want to know who performed the ceremony? Who acted as witnesses for the ceremony? Was she married to him without some of her family being present?

    Ann Eliza Webb i read was born in 1844. I used to have this tape by RLDS Apologist Jim Reeve’s he said she was about two year’s old in 1834. It was entitled Restoration Apologetic’s. I do not consider her a first hand witness of anything, but a rumor mongeror.

    I am not sure what medical expertise Chauncey Webb had. But i found his claim Fanny Alger had been pregnant a made up story without proof. I am not one who think’s just because Chauncey Webb say’s it it must be true. I don’t know anything about the man’s character. I do know if he passed along a false pregnancy story to his daughter that weaken’s his credibility in my eye’s.

    I do not have a testimony she was married to Joseph Smith. She could have been, but that’s a mystery of history to me.

  9. Greg Smith Post author

    I am not certain how good William McLellin interviewed Emma. She could have told him his story was true. But i doubt she told him it was polygamy.

    I’m not persuaded Emma told McLellin anything. I think he’s the last person she would have told.

    I want to know who performed the ceremony? Who acted as witnesses for the ceremony? Was she married to him without some of her family being present?

    Are any of these things necessary for a marriage? (I’m not saying they weren’t present; I’m just asking why you think they are necessary.

    To insist on such things is presentist. Many couples (especially lower class ones) in the US (and earlier, in Europe) were not married by any clergyman or justice of the peace. Mutual consent and agreement to marry was sufficient.

    Ann Eliza Webb i read was born in 1844. I used to have this tape by RLDS Apologist Jim Reeve’s he said she was about two year’s old in 1834. It was entitled Restoration Apologetic’s. I do not consider her a first hand witness of anything, but a rumor mongeror.

    I am not sure what medical expertise Chauncey Webb had.

    Ann Eliza was born in Nauvoo; she wasn’t even alive in 1834.

    Ann Eliza and her father Chauncey I would see as two witnesses of the same thing. Obviously, Ann Eliza cannot be an independent witness. However, Fanny did live with Webb’s family after leaving Joseph’s household.

    This is not to say I think the Webbs ought to be taken at face value. Hardly. But, they were both out to make Joseph look bad. Yet, both Ann Eliza (Wife No. 19) and Chauncey (Wyl’s Mormon Portraits) both talked about how happy Fanny’s parents were that Fanny was part of Joseph’s family. Both referred to the relationship as a “sealing.”

    Now, the “sealing” may be anachronistic, but it shows both the Webbs (and the Alger family) considered it more than an affair.

    Why believe the Webbs’ on this? Well, they took every opportunity to make Joseph look bad. Here they have the perfect opportunity–report his infidelity. But, they don’t do it. Instead, they try to work up the reader’s dander against Joseph’s temerity at being sealed and adding this woman to his family. Why not go the whole hog? Why not simply make it an affair? Because, being close to Fanny and her family, they knew that it wasn’t seen as an affair–and, it may not have occurred to them that the truth would be less offensive to their readers than a lie. If Joseph really taught plural marriage, in their eyes, that was sufficient to damn the whole restoration.

    Little did they suspect that later historians would actually benefit.

    So, when such authors attack Joseph and the Mormons, one has to be very skeptical–they are hostile witnesses. But, when they say something that exonerates, or praises the Mormons, then I think we can have more confidence that this is true. They were willing to lie to make the Mormons look bad; why would they lie to make them look better?

    So, I think the Webbs are quite strong evidence that something more was going on than an affair. Other more friendly witnesses reinforce that, but I would be more skeptical in the absence of the Webbs’ unintentional help.

  10. Robert Fields

    Reader’s of Wyl’s book were fascinated with wanting to read polygamy stories. I don’t know when her mother died, but i bet she wasn’t around to confirm what he said. Polygamy was bad to the Anti-polygamist reader, so it made Joseph Smith look bad in their eye’s. To me did he know it was polygamy based on his knowledge, or did he rely on what he heard to come to that conclusion?

    What part of the Alger family knew it wasn’t just an affair? Did they get that information from people in the know? Knowledge can grow when you have other’s tell you stuff that they don’t know anything about personally. I want to know of her parent’s were in the know not person’s not born at the time, or to young to know anything. It would be different if the parent’s told them that, but i don’t know that.

    I don’t think Fanny’s parent’s had time to be to happy. It was a terrible situation. It was a happy situation until the incident happened. And i don’t like person’s like Chauncey Webb speaking for them. I recall that statement, but will have to see if i can find it. I hate to interpret thing’s based only on my memory.

    I was aware she moved in with them. That does not mean she, or Joseph Smith told them it was polygamy. That could be an interpretation he later developed. If she was not pregnant that story is a lie. I watched the Godmaker’s 2 and they had some horrid stories about Gordon Hinckley’s homo-sexual activities. To me Mormon Portrait’s is no different than the fiction in the Godmaker’s 2.

    If these people were alive i would like them cross-examined in a more legal way. I don’t think historian’s are alway’s careful.

  11. jgtown

    I realize this thread has pretty much died out, but in response to a post about what Fannie Alger’s relatives thought about or could clarify with regards to her marriage to Joseph Smith I found the following thread interesting…

    http://archiver.rootsweb.com/th/read/ALGER/2003-03/1046830466

    It appears that this person is a descendant of Fannie Alger and it appears that she has information that could be interesting with regards to Fannie’s relationship with Joseph Smith…perhaps someone should contact her

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