Question: Did Joseph Smith produce any children by his plural wives? The case against children

Table of Contents

Note: This material is part of a collection of draft essays on LDS plural marriage. They are provided for the use of FairMormon and its readers. (C) 2007-2017 Gregory L. Smith. No other reproduction is authorized.

Question: Did Joseph Smith produce any children by his plural wives? The case against children

Angus M. Cannon seems to have been aware of Fisher's claim to be a child of Joseph Smith, though only second hand. He told a sceptical Joseph Smith III of

one case where it was said by the girl's grandmother that your father has a daughter born of a plural wife. The girl's grandmother was Mother Sessions, who lived in Nauvoo and died here in the valley. Aunt Patty Sessions asserts that the girl was born within the time after your father was said to have taken the mother.[1]

Clearly, Cannon has no independent knowledge of the case, but reports a story similar to Josephine's affidavit. Cannon's statement is more important because it illustrates how the LDS Church's insistence that Joseph Smith had practiced plural marriage led some of the RLDS Church :to ask why no children by these wives existed. Lucy Walker reported [the RLDS] seem surprised that there was no issue from asserted plural marriages with their father. Could they but realize the hazardous life he lived, after that revelation was given, they would comprehend the reason. He was harassed and hounded and lived in constant fear of being betrayed by those who ought to have been true to him.[2] Thus the absence of children was something of an embarrassment to the Utah Church, which members felt a need to explain. It would have been greatly to their advantage to produce Joseph's offspring, but could not.[3]

Anxious to demonstrate that Joseph's plural marriages were marriages in the fullest sense, Lucy M. Walker (wife of Joseph's cousin, George A. Smith) reported seeing Joseph washing blood from his hands in Nauvoo. When asked about the blood, Joseph reportedly told her he had been helping Emma deliver one of his plural wives' children.[4] Yet, even this late account tells us little about the paternity of the children—Joseph was close to these women (and their husbands, in the case of polyandry), and given the Saints' belief in priesthood blessings, they may have well welcomed his involvement.

George Algernon Lightner and Florentine M. Lightner

Even by the turn of the century, the LDS Church had no solid evidence of children by Joseph. "I knew he had three children," said Mary Elizabeth Lightner, "They told me. I think two of them are living today but they are not known as his children as they go by other names."[5] Again, evidence for children is frustratingly vague—Lightner had only heard rumours, and could not provide any details. It would seem to me, however, that this remark of Lightner's rules out her children as possible offspring of Joseph. Her audience was clearly interested in Joseph having children, and she was happy to assert that such children existed. If her own children qualified, why did she not mention them?

Orson W. Hyde and Frank Henry Hyde

Two of Marinda Nancy Johnson Hyde's children have been suggested as possible children. The first, Orson, died in infancy, making DNA testing impossible. Compton notes, however, that "Marinda had no children while Orson was on his mission to Jerusalem, then became pregnant soon after Orson returned home. (He arrived in Nauvoo on December 7, 1842, and Marinda bore Orson Washington Hyde on November 9, 1843),"[6] putting the conception date around 16 February 1843.

Frank Hyde's birth date is unclear; he was born on 23 January in either 1845 or 1846.[7] This would place his conception around 2 May, of either 1844 or 1845. In the former case, Frank was conceived less than two months prior to Joseph's martyrdom. Orson Hyde left for Washington, D.C., around 4 April 1844,[8] and did not return until 6 August 1844, making Joseph's paternity more likely than Orson's if the earlier birth date is correct.[9] The key source for this claim is Fawn Brodie, who includes no footnote or reference. Given Brodie's tendency to misread evidence on potential children, this claim should be approached with caution.

Frank's death certificate lists Orson Hyde as the father, however, and places his birth in 1846, which would require conception nearly a year after Joseph's death.[10] A child by Joseph would have brought prestige to the family and Church, and Orson and Nancy had divorced long before Frank Henry's death.[11] It seems unlikely, therefore, that Orson would be credited with paternity over Joseph if any doubt existed. Without further data, Brodie's dating should probably be regarded as an error, ruling out Joseph as a possible father.

Ruled out by DNA Evidence: Oliver Buell, Mosiah Hancock, John Reed Hancock, Zebulon Jacobs, Moroni Llewllyn Pratt, and Orrison Smith

Scientific ingenuity has also been applied to the question of Joseph's paternity. Y-chromosome studies have conclusively eliminated Orrison Smith (son of Fanny Alger), Mosiah Hancock, Zebulon Jacobs, John Reed Hancock, Moroni Llewellyn Pratt, and Oliver Buell as Joseph's offspring.[12]

Two additional children—George Algernon Lightner and Orson W. Hyde—died in infancy, leaving no descendants to test, though as noted above Lightner can probably be excluded on the basis of his mother's testimony.

The testing of female descendants' DNA is much move involved, but work continues and may provide the only definitive means of ruling in or out potential children.

The case of Oliver Buell is an interesting one, since Fawn Brodie was insistent that he was Joseph's son. She based part of this argument on a photograph of Buell, which revealed a face which she claimed was "overwhelmingly on the side of Joseph's paternity."[13] A conception on this date would make Oliver two to three weeks overdue at birth, which makes Brodie's theory less plausible.[14]

Furthermore, prior the DNA results, Bachman and Compton pointed out that Brodie's timeline poses serious problems for her theory—Oliver's conception would have had to occurred between 16 April 1839 (when Joseph was allowed to escape during a transfer from Liberty Jail)[15] and 18 April, when the Huntingtons left Far West.[16] Brodie would have Joseph travel west from his escape near Gallatin, Davies County, Missouri, to Far West in order to meet Lucinda, and then on to Illinois to the east. This route would require Joseph and his companions to backtrack, while fleeing from custody in the face of an active state extermination order in force.[17] Travel to Far West would also require them to travel near the virulently anti-Mormon area of Haun's Mill, along Shoal Creek.[18] Yet, by 22 April Joseph was in Illinois, having been slowed by travel "off from the main road as much as possible"[19] "both by night and by day."[20] This seems an implausible time for Joseph to be meeting a woman, much less conceiving a child. Furthermore, it is evident that Far West was evacuated by other Church leaders, "the committee on removal," and not under the prophet’s direction, who did not regain the Saints until reaching Quincy, Illinois.[21]

Brodie's inclusion of Oliver Buell is also inconsistent, since he was born prior to Joseph's sealing to Prescinda. By including Oliver as a child, Brodie wishes to paint Joseph as an indiscriminate womanizer. Yet, her theory of plural marriage argues that Joseph "had too much of the Puritan in him, and he could not rest until he had redefined the nature of sin and erected a stupendous theological edifice to support his new theories on marriage."[22] Thus, Brodie argues that Joseph created plural marriage to justify his immorality—yet, she then has him conceiving a child with Prescinda before being sealed to her. By her own argument, the paternity must therefore be seen as doubtful.[23]

Despite Brodie's enthusiasm, no other author has included Oliver on their list of possible children (see Table 1). And, DNA evidence has conclusively ruled him out. Oliver is an excellent example of Brodie's tendency to ignore and misread evidence which did not fit her preconceptions, and suggests that caution is warranted before one condemns Joseph for a pre-plural marriage "affair" or other improprieties. Since Brodie was not interested in giving Joseph the benefit of the doubt, or avoiding a rush to judgment, her decision is not surprising.

John Reed Hancock is another of Brodie's suggestions, though no other author has followed her. The evidence for Joseph having married Clarissa Reed Hancock is scant,[24] and as with Oliver Buell it is unlikely (even under Brodie's jaded theory of plural marriage as justification for adultery) that Joseph would have conceived a child with a woman to whom he was not polygamously married. DNA testing has since confirmed our justified scepticism of Brodie's claim.[25]

John Hyrum Buell, Son of Prescinda Huntington Buell

Bachman mentions a "seventh child" of Prescinda's, likely John Hyrum Buell, for whom the timeline would better accommodate conception by Joseph Smith. There is no other evidence for Joseph's paternity, however, save Ettie V. Smith's account in the anti-Mormon Fifteen Years Among the Mormons (1859), which claimed that Prescinda said she did not know whether Joseph or her first husband was John Hyrum's father.[26] As Compton notes, such an admission is implausible, given the mores of the time.[27]

Besides being implausible, Ettie gets virtually every other detail wrong—she insists that William Law, Robert Foster, and Henry Jacobs had all been sent on missions, only to return and find their wives being courted by Joseph. Ettie then has them establish the Expositor.[28] While Law and Foster were involved with the Expositor, they were not sent on missions, and their wives did not charge that Joseph had propositioned them. Jacobs had served missions, but was present during Joseph's sealing to his wife, and did not object (see Chapter 9). Jacobs was a faithful Saint unconnected to the Expositor.

Even the anti-Mormon Fanny Stenhouse considered Ettie Smith to be a writer who "so mixed up fiction with what was true, that it was difficult to determine where one ended and the other began,"[29] and a good example of how "the autobiographies of supposed Mormon women were [as] unreliable"[30] as other Gentile accounts, given her tendency to "mingl[e] facts and fiction" "in a startling and sensational manner."[31]

Brodie herself makes no mention of John Hyrum as a potential child (and carelessly misreads Ettie Smith's remarks as referring to Oliver, not John Hyrum). No other historian has even mentioned this child, much less argued that Buell was not the father (see Table 1).

Scant evidence: Sarah Elizabeth Holmes, Hannah Ann Dibble, Loren Walker Dibble, Joseph Albert Smith, and Carolyn Delight

A few other possibilities should be mentioned, though the evidence surrounding them is tenuous. Sarah Elizabeth Holmes was born to Marietta Carter, though “No evidence links her with Joseph Smith.”[32] The Dibble children suffer from chronology problems, and a lack of good evidence that Joseph and their mother was associated. Loren Dibble was, however, claimed by some Mormons as a child of Joseph’s when confronted with Joseph Smith III’s skepticism.[33]

Joseph Albert Smith was born to Esther Dutcher, but the available evidence supports her polyandrous sealing to Joseph as for eternity only. Carolyn Delight has no evidence at all of a connection to Joseph—the only source is a claim to Ugo Perego, a modern DNA researcher.[34] No textual or documentary evidence is known for her at all.

Fanny Alger and Eliza R. Snow: Miscarriages?

We have elsewhere seen the tenuous basis for many conclusions about the Fanny Alger marriage (see here and here). The first mention of a pregnancy for Fanny is in an 1886 anti-Mormon work, citing Chauncey Webb, with whom Fanny reportedly lived after leaving the Smith home.[35] Webb claimed that Emma "drove" Fanny from the house because she "was unable to conceal the consequences of her celestial relation with the prophet." If Fanny was pregnant, it is curious that no one else remarked upon it at the time, though it is possible that the close quarters of a nineteenth-century household provided Emma with clues. If Fanny was pregnant by Joseph, the child never went to term, died young, or was raised under a different name.

A family tradition—repeated by anti-Mormon Wyl—holds that Eliza R. Snow was pregnant and shoved down the stairs by a jealous Emma before being required to leave the Smith home.[36] The tradition holds that Eliza, "heavy with child" subsequently miscarried. While Eliza was required to leave the home and Emma was likely upset with her, no contemporary evidence points to a pregnancy.[37] Eliza's diary says nothing about the loss of a child, which would be a strange omission given her love of children.[38] It seems unlikely that Eliza would have still been teaching school in an advanced state of pregnancy, especially given that her appearance as a pregnant "unwed mother" would have been scandalous in Nauvoo. Emma's biographers note that "Eliza continued to teach school for a month after her abrupt departure from the Smith household. Her own class attendance record shows that she did not miss a day during the months she taught the Smith children, which would be unlikely had she suffered a miscarriage."[39] Given Emma's treatment of the Partridge sisters, who were also required to leave the Smith household, Emma certainly needed no pregnancy to raise her ire against Joseph's plural wives.

Eliza repeatedly testified to the physical nature of her relationship with Joseph Smith (see Chapter 9), and was not shy about criticizing Emma on the subject of plural marriage.[40] Yet, she never reported having been pregnant, or used her failed pregnancy as evidence for the reality of plural marriage.

In the absence of further information, both of these reported pregnancies must be regarded as extremely speculative.

Notes

  1. Angus M. Cannon, Statement of an Interview with Joseph Smith, President of the ‘Reorganites,’ October 12, 1905," LDS Archives; cited by Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy, 44n43}}
  2. Lucy Walker Kimball, "Recollections," LDS Archives, 41; cited in Bachman, "Mormon Practice of Polygamy," 139.n165}} from Rodney W. Walker and Noel W. Stevenson, Ancestry and Descendants of John Walker [1794–1869] of Vermont and Utah, Descendants of Robert Walker, and Emigrant of 1632 from England to Boston, Mass. (Kaysville, Utah: Inland Printing Co., 1953), 35. Portions also cited by Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy, 44n43
  3. This need remains to the present. Despite the fact that most RLDS historians have accepted that Joseph Smith did teach and practice plural marriage, some members remain unconvinced. Reorganization conservative and voice for many "fundamentalist" members of the Reorganization Richard Price continues to insist that "The truth [that Joseph did not teach plural marriage] is found in Joseph's denials, and the fact that he had no children by any woman but his wife Emma." – Richard and Pamela Price, Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy—Vision Articles [from Vision Magazine, Vol. 32–46, 48–51, 53–56], vol. 2 (E-book: Price Publishing Company, n.d.)
  4. Bachman, "Mormon Practice of Polygamy," 140–141.; citing Lucy M. Smith, written statement (18 May 1892), in Papers of George A. Smith family, Special Collections, Marriot Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City. Bachman notes that a second, undated, signed statement exists which tells "essentially the same story" in the Wilford C. Wood Museum in Bountiful, Utah. (See Bachman, "Mormon Practice of Polygamy," 140–141n175.)
  5. Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, "Remarks," given at BYU 14 April 1905, typescript, BYU.
  6. Compton, "Fawn Brodie on Joseph Smith's Plural Wives," 165.
  7. Brodie, No Man Knows My History, 345, 464. gives his birth as 1845, though there is no footnote indicating her source. Frank's death certificate lists his birth in 1846}} Compton follows the date of 1846, citing Howard H. Barron, Orson Hyde: Missionary-Apostle-Colonizer (Salt Lake City: Horizon, 1977), 134 and Ancestral File.
  8. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 6:286. Volume 6 link Times and Seasons 5 (15 September 1844): 651}}
  9. Andrew Jenson, LDS Church Chronology: 1805–1914 (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 1914), entry for 6 August 1844. GospeLink (requires subscrip.).
  10. Frank H. Hyde, State of Utah--Death Certificate, State Board of Health File No. 967300}} Online at <http://wiki.hanksplace.net/index.php/Image:FrankHHyde.jpg>
  11. Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 249.
  12. Ugo A. Perego and Scott R. Woodward, "Reconstructing the Y-Chromosome of Joseph Smith" (paper presented at the Mormon History Association Conference, 28 May 2005); see also Ugo A. Perego et al., "Reconstructing the Y-Chromosome of Joseph Smith Jr.: Genealogical Applications," Journal of Mormon History 32/ 2 (Summer 2005); Carrie A. Moore, "DNA Tests Rule out 2 as Smith Descendants," Deseret Morning News 10 November 2007): Michael DeGroote, "DNA solves a Joseph Smith mystery," Deseret News (9 July 2011). Don Alonzo Smith was likewise ruled out; see letter from Perego to Hales on 6 December 2011 cited in Hales, Joseph Smith's Polygamy Vol. 1, 296, note i.
  13. Brodie, No Man Knows My History, 301. Brodie includes the picture between 298–299}}
  14. Bachman, "Mormon Practice of Polygamy," 138.
  15. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 3:320–321. Volume 3 link
  16. Compton, "Fawn Brodie on Joseph Smith's Plural Wives," 168–171.
  17. See Clark V. Johnson, "Northern Missouri," in S. Kent Brown, Donald Q. Cannon, Richard H. Jackson (editors), Historical Atlas of Mormonism (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 42}}
  18. Compton, "Fawn Brodie on Joseph Smith's Plural Wives," 170.
  19. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 3:320–321. Volume 3 link
  20. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 3:327. Volume 3 link
  21. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 3:315, 319, 322_323, 327. Volume 3 link
  22. Brodie, No Man Knows My History, 297.
  23. Bachman, "Mormon Practice of Polygamy," 138 makes similar points.
  24. See Compton, "Fawn Brodie on Joseph Smith's Plural Wives," 164–165.
  25. Michael DeGroote, "DNA solves a Joseph Smith mystery," Deseret News (9 July 2011).
  26. Nelson Winch Green, Fifteen Years among the Mormons: Being the Narrative of Mrs. Mary Ettie V. Smith, Late of Great Salt Lake City; a Sister of One of the Mormon High Priests, She Having Been Personally Acquainted with Most of the Mormon Leaders, and Long in the Confidence of The "Prophet," Brigham Young (New York: H. Dayton, Publishers, 1860 [1858]), 34-35.
  27. Compton, "Fawn Brodie on Joseph Smith's Plural Wives," 166.
  28. Green, Fifteen Years Among the Mormons, 34-35.
  29. Mrs. T.B.H. [Fanny] Stenhouse, "Tell It All": The Story of a Life's Experience in Mormonism (Hartford, Conn.: A.D. Worthington & Company, 1875 [1874]), 618, the footnote confirms the identity of the author as Ettie V. Smith..
  30. Stenhouse, "Tell It All", x.
  31. Stenhouse, "Tell It All", xi-xii.
  32. Hales, Joseph Smith's Polygamy Vol. 1, 298.
  33. Hales, Joseph Smith's Polygamy Vol. 1, 298. Hales cites Joseph Smith III to Bro. E.C. Brand, 26 January 1894, 65}}
  34. Hales, Joseph Smith's Polygamy Vol. 1, 298.
  35. Wilhelm Wyl, Mormon Portraits Volume First: Joseph Smith the Prophet, His Family and Friends (Salt Lake City: Tribune Printing and Publishing Co., 1886), 57. Ann Eliza Young, Wife No. 19, or the Story of a Life in Bondage, Being a Complete Exposé of Mormonism, and Revealing the Sorrows, Sacrifices and Sufferings of Women in Polygamy (Hartford, Conn.: Custin, Gilman & Company, 1876), 66–67. Discussed in Bachman, "Mormon Practice of Polygamy," 140. Also in Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 34–35.
  36. Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 314–315.
  37. This bit of folklore is explored in Maureen Ursenbach Beecher et al., "Emma and Eliza and the Stairs," Brigham Young University Studies 22/ 1 (Fall 1982): 86–96}} RLDS author Richard Price also argues that the physical layout of the Mansion House makes the story as reported by Charles C. Rich unlikely, in "Eliza Snow Was Not Pushed Down the Mansion House Stairs," in Richard Price. "Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy: How Men Nearest the Prophet Attached Polygamy to His Name in Order to Justify Their Own Polygamous Crimes." (n.p.: Price Publishing Company, 2001), chapter 9 <http://restorationbookstore.org/jsfp-index.htm > Price's dogmatic insistence that Joseph never taught plural marriage, however, cannot be sustained by the evidence.
  38. See discussion in Bachman, "Mormon Practice of Polygamy," 140n73.
  39. Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, 2nd edition, (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 136.
  40. See, for example, Eliza R. Snow, Woman's Exponent 8 (1 November 1879): 85: "So far as Sister Emma personally is concerned, I would gladly have been silent and let her memory rest in peace, had not her misguided son, through a sinister policy, branded her name with gross wickedness [by quoting her as denying plural marriage]."