Question: What did hostile witnesses say regarding Joseph Smith, Fanny Alger and Emma Smith?

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Question: What did hostile witnesses say regarding Joseph Smith, Fanny Alger and Emma Smith?

The bulk of the evidence seems to show that Fanny and Joseph were regarded as married, even by hostile witnesses

While he spends considerable time on the McLellin letters, G. D. Smith (like many other critics) never comes to grips with some of the difficulties identified by Compton and others. These issues are worthy of consideration in some detail. The bulk of the evidence seems to show that Fanny and Joseph were regarded as married, even by hostile witnesses. It seems likely that their involvement became more widely known when someone (perhaps Warren Parrish?) spied on Joseph and Fanny, and other church leaders then became involved. We can say little with confidence of the circumstances surrounding their discovery and nothing of Emma’s knowledge (or lack thereof) beforehand, though she almost certainly became hostile if she did not start out that way. I suspect that the bare bones tale to which Johnson alludes—perhaps no better than gossip itself—is the kernel around which McLellin and the Webbs embroidered exaggeration, drama, and even outright fabrication. The evidence for a pregnancy is weak.

The textual evidence deserves more attention and care than G. D. Smith has given it. His analysis is superficial and inadequate, and it contributes nothing new.

There are other versions of the relationship between Fanny and Emma.

The Webbs

The first relies on a much later account attributed to Chauncey G. Webb,[1] whose account was first given in the notoriously anti-Mormon Wilhelm Wyl’s 1886 work. Wyl had Webb claim that Joseph “was sealed there [in Kirtland] secretly to Fanny Alger. Emma was furious, and drove the girl, who was unable to conceal the consequences of her celestial relation with the prophet, out of her house.” Webb’s daughter, Ann Eliza, added a few details, claiming that “it was with a shocked surprise that the people heard that sister Emma had turned Fanny out of the house in the night.”

As a source, Wyl cannot be used without the greatest care. On the same page as Webb’s account, Wyl has another witness imply that Joseph concocted the idea of plural marriage while consorting with Latter-day Saint females at a brothel. Such a claim matches no historical data whatever, and contradicts a great deal of what we know about Joseph and the Mormons.

Compton insists that although Webb might be mistaken about the pregnancy, “this seems unlikely, if Fanny lived in his home after leaving the Smith home.” Compton does not acknowledge that Webb need not have been mistaken—he might have simply lied, and he had reason to do so. By contrast, G. D. Smith, after quoting Webb, says only that “there is no evidence to corroborate the claim that Fanny was pregnant,” but this soft-pedals the evidence (p. 42). There is reason to doubt this claim, not merely to regard it as unconfirmed.

Webb was in a position to know about Fanny’s pregnancy, so why does he tell us nothing else? Why do we hear no tragic tale about the despoiled maiden’s child being stillborn or the heartrending scene of the mother required to give up the Prophet’s bastard offspring for someone else to raise in secret? Either scenario would have suited the tone and tastes of the late-nineteenth-century exposé in which Webb’s words appeared. The opportunities for him to use his “knowledge” are legion, and yet Webb simply teases his audience with a sly hint and drops the matter.

Even Ann Eliza, who should have known if Webb knew, leaves the explosive matter of a child by Joseph unmentioned—a curious omission since the purpose of both accounts is to attack Joseph’s character. Her account is also questionable because it portrays Oliver Cowdery as a staunch ally in Joseph’s deception, while Oliver’s hostility on the subject of Fanny is based on contemporary documents.

Ann Eliza’s version does not agree with McLellin’s “Miss Hill” account in his 1872 letter either—McLellin claimed that Cowdery, Frederick G. Williams, and Sidney Rigdon were all called in to help calm Emma. But in McLellin’s version, both Emma and Oliver eventually “forgave him,” implying that both had to be placated, while Ann Eliza has Oliver worried about his own polygamy being exposed. Even if we assume that “Miss Hill” existed—an existence attested to by no other source and contradicted by McLellin’s other accounts—why would Oliver be upset about “Miss Hill” and worried about exposure in the case of Fanny?

Cowdery and Parrish

Despite the use made of him by G. D. Smith and others, McLellin is clearly a witness who cannot be accepted without great caution. At best his report likely draws on second- or thirdhand gossip. I doubt that Emma ever confirmed the stories he tells. The Webbs are likewise hostile witnesses—as members in Ohio, they took Fanny Alger into their home and yet said nothing about these events (including Fanny’s supposed pregnancy) to anyone for decades. These supposedly scandalous events were not enough to keep Chauncey Webb from following Joseph to Nauvoo and the Saints to Utah.

Is there, then, no truth at all to these accounts? One corroborated detail comes from Benjamin F. Johnson, who repeated Warren Parrish’s claim that Oliver Cowdery and Parrish had known that Joseph was involved with Fanny since “they were spied upon and found together.” This version says nothing about Emma and contains none of the details contained in McLellin’s or the Webbs’ accounts. And, Oliver's reaction is well known: he characterized it as a "dirty, nasty, filthy affair" in an angry letter to his brother Warren.

Marriage or affair?

G. D. Smith avoids labeling Fanny a wife since this weakens his thesis that Joseph was sexually driven. He quotes Johnson as saying that Joseph had “Fanny Alger as a wife.” Anxious to protect his theory, Smith informs his readers that this phrase “employs a Victorian euphemism that should not be construed to imply that Fanny was actually married to Joseph” (pp. 41–42). Yet it is not clear why we should not so construe it. G. D. Smith does not tell us that Johnson then insisted that “without a doubt in my mind, Fanny Alger was, at Kirtland, the Prophet’s first plural wife.” G. D. Smith provides no evidence or citation to enforce his reading over Johnson’s clear view of the relationship. (The various accounts are compared in the Table 2 of this link Gregory L. Smith, A review of Nauvoo Polygamy:...but we called it celestial marriage by George D. Smith. FARMS Review, Vol. 20, Issue 2. (Detailed book review) .)

Summary of varied accounts

There is little that agrees between the accounts. The facts seem to be that Emma became aware of the marriage at some point, probably involved Oliver and perhaps other church leaders, and was upset enough to eventually insist that Fanny leave her home. Todd Compton argues that these accounts can be harmonized since regardless of “whether Emma saw her husband in the barn or discovered evidence of Fanny’s pregnancy, her reaction was the same.” This stance glosses over a key point—it may well be that both the Webbs and McLellin are either mistaken or lying.[2] That Emma was upset is certain. But the contradictions and problems with these two hostile accounts give us no reason to conclude that the truth must be that Emma discovered either Joseph and Fanny in the barn or a pregnancy. Above all else, one’s attitude toward Joseph, the church, and plural marriage will influence how such contradictory and biased testimony is interpreted.

Emma would later give her permission for Joseph to marry two sisters who also lived in the Smith home—Emily and Eliza Partridge. Yet Emma was soon to change her mind and eventually compelled these wives to leave her home. It is thus consistent with her later behavior for her to have agreed (if only reluctantly) to a marriage with Fanny only to have second thoughts later.

  • Footnotes have not all been transcribed. The complete references can be seen in the original article here: Gregory L. Smith, A review of Nauvoo Polygamy:...but we called it celestial marriage by George D. Smith. FARMS Review, Vol. 20, Issue 2. (Detailed book review) .


  1. As noted above, Webb’s daughter, Ann Eliza Webb Young, made similar claims, but she should not be regarded as an independent witness—born in 1844, she can be a witness only to what her family later said about Joseph and Fanny. Compton claimed that Ann Eliza “was nevertheless an eyewitness to the latter part of the Smith/Alger story” (Compton, “Fanny Alger Smith Custer,” 192). Ann Eliza’s birth in 1844, well after Fanny’s remarriage to a non-Mormon and settlement in Indiana in November 1836, precludes her being anything but a secondhand witness of her parents’ account. See Young, Wife No. 19, 33. Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 645, corrects this error. By contrast, Smith cites Ann Eliza for events that occurred in 1842 and then adds a footnote claiming that “some of the events she related depended upon the ‘experience of those so closely connected with me that they have fallen directly under my observation.’” Smith does not explain how events two years prior to her birth qualify as being under her? observation (Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy, 263 n. 254).
  2. The failure to consider other possibilities is an example of “the fallacy of false dichotomous questions” since it suggests “a false dichotomy between two terms that are neither mutually exclusive nor collectively exhaustive.” See David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought, 1st ed. (New York: HarperPerennial, 1970), 9–11.