The Staircase and Eliza

Tonight I came across Eliza R. Snow's Nauvoo diary on the internet. One factoid conflicts with the mental construct I had developed:

- Eliza taught school in the upper room of the Red Brick Store from Dec 12, 1842 through Mar 17, 1843 and had perfect attendance. (I knew she was teaching the Smith children during this time, but thought it was in the homestead).

In my (fictional but plausible) construct Eliza was seduced by John C. Bennett before he is kicked out of Nauvoo. Bennett left Nauvoo in mid-May 1842, the last feasible date where he could have "persuaded" Eliza of spiritual wifery. If Eliza became pregnant in May 1842, then she was due or past due on 17 March 1843.

Her perfect attendance at school means she could not have miscarried on February 11, the date she relocated from the Smith homestead to the cabin of Jonathan and Elvira Holmes.

I've also now toured the Smith homestead and the Mansion house. Neither of these two buildings has a staircase that could serve as the fabled location where Emma pushed/dragged Eliza down the steps, causing a miscarriage.

However the Red Brick Store, where class was held, has an ample staircase.

A largely pregnant Eliza could have tripped on her way down the stairs on March 17. Emma was there, Joseph was there. Any number of people could have been present to witness a stumble down those stairs.

Later events conspire to paint Emma in a poor light, but we know Emma and Eliza remained close during their shared time in Nauvoo (Elvira Holmes' stepdaughter tells of Emma and Eliza going about in the evening ministering together circa winter 1844 while Elvira stayed home telling stories to the children who stole cookies from the black cook (Jane Manning)).

The fact of a pregnant Eliza Snow harbored in the Smith home would have spoken volumes to those "in the know" about polygamy. I find it curious that it is presumed without question that Joseph slept with many or even most of the 32 "wives" he ceremonially married in addition to Emma. However there is no DNA evidence that any child begotten to those women is genetically linked to Joseph, despite literalistic interpretations of the oral history.

I am persuaded that Eliza and Emily Patridge "enjoyed" marital privileges with Joseph, and these two were specifically given to Joseph by Emma. Emma was present at the ceremonies, though Emma evicted them from her home three months later.

The other day I realized a possible reason the extremely unhappy Emma would wait three months to evict the girls. After three months she would know whether the Partridge girls' time with Joseph had resulted in pregnancy. When they remained childless three months later, she could kick them out without evicting unborn children.

Emma clearly lied in 1879 when she claimed Joseph never had any other wives. But she may have been confident Joseph didn't engender children by any other woman. The idea that that much-married Joseph could have refrained from "knowing" his wives is a possibility that never occurs to the Mormon "cognoscienti."

The story of Eliza and the staircase isn't so much important because of what it says about Emma. Rather it is important because it is the story that most graphically confirms our certainty that Joseph was as "red blooded" as the practicing polygamists during the Nauvoo era (e.g., Brigham Young) believed him to be.

[Thought about writing up something about this, but BYU Studies requires you have a PhD in the field or be mentored by a PhD in the field. Maybe some other day.]

@polygamy, writing, Nauvoo, midrash


Over the River

Spent Thanksgiving with my married daughter and her husband. It was odd, because that made only six of us in all. Possibly the smallest group I've had for Thanksgiving in forever.

One of our staples is pumpkin pie - has to be home-made. But in our Wednesday evening run to the local Walmart, there was no canned pumpkin except in a shopping cart left in the middle of the aisle. In the end we decided to refrain from raiding the apparently abandoned cart and simply cook the actual pumpkin we had. The pie was good and free of guilt.

Next year we'll strive to time the food so it all arrives at the table at a proper temperature. This time we were just pleased that we had more than enough food and almost all the traditional dishes (with only a few opportunities to clean the floor after a spill).

My son-in-law had to report to his job at Walmart at 0445. I've never participated in Black Friday, so it was fascinating to get his report of how it goes down. First, the parking lot was full when he arrived at 0430, and a driver cut him off. Since the sales didn't officially start until 0500 (with staff on hand to ensure no early runs on product) the store was filled with people just standing and waiting. At the moment shopping could officially start, it was pandemonium. Hot items were gone in under 15 minutes. By 0700 everything had calmed down to normal. They always have police on hand for the inevitable fight. This time it was between two men in the sporting goods section. (Last year it was two women fighting over the last set of pajamas.)

Good times. Good food. Another holiday spent with family. Life is as it should be.


The problem with writing about Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith wasn't just a man. He was a man with thousands of people who counted him a dear friend. And these people either wrote in journals or had children.

It becomes nigh unto impossible to know enough about a milieu that includes Joseph to avoid conflicting viewpoints.

And that is just with the people who love Joseph, whether then or now.

Just imagine the millions who despise or hate Joseph. It's enough to make a writer curl up and want to clean house or pay bills or do any number of productive (or even unproductive) things rather than write.

On the other hand, I am reminded of an experience I had on my mission. I was in Quartu Sant'Elena on the island of Sardinia (Sardegna as I still call it). My companion and I took a break and ducked into the shop of a man we met in the piazza that week.

Our new friend was a jeweler, and that day he was smelting gold. Specifically, he was purifying a bit of gold for a piece.

He started out with a lump that looked perfectly fine. But when the metal liquefied in the crucible, it glowed bright red. I'd seen movies of molten iron, so I didn't realize the red was a sign of impurity until later.

Our jeweler friend the proceeded to drop a pinch of white powder into the molten gold. The liquid gold burned bright and then the jeweler was able to draw off bits of junk. "Impurities," he said in Italian when we asked.

After many repetitions of this process, I was shocked to see a gleam of pure molten gold. No red, no glowing on that small patch. Just pure liquid shimmering gold peeking out from the angry sea of red.

The gold patch grew over time until finally the entire surface was metallic liquid shimmering gold. Now the surface burned red only when the white powder was first cast into the crucible, until eventually even this became the briefest flash of red, localized to the bits of white powder.

This was pure gold.

I feel similarly with respect to the story of Joseph in Nauvoo, specifically the events regarding Joseph and the woman who were his "plural wives."

When I was first introduced to the idea that Joseph had wives other than Emma, it was as though my soul were burned in the crucible. I was angry, untrusting, shaken from my childish certainty. I was fourteen at the time.

I didn't leave the church, but there was a wedge in my heart and mind against Joseph. During those years it was God I trusted, the God who told me to stop kicking against the pricks, who spoke peace to my soul, who assured me my faith was enough.

I was in my late thirties before the gold began to shine for me. My husband was reading the book Mormon America to write a review for Dialogue. As is his habit, he read aloud to me. It was in the course of that process, hearing the words of a non-Mormon try to explain Joseph's theology, that I first understood how much of my worldview was only possible because of Joseph Smith.

But I still didn't like the polygamy thing.

When I first felt the compulsion to write about Joseph and his wife Elvira Cowles, my rationale mind balked. "I like being Mormon!" I cried in my mind. At the time I took it for granted that no good could come of such an endeavor. That was in April 2001.

It's more than eight years later. I have focused persistently, consistently and in some ways obsessively on polygamy. To my surprise, I have discovered a Joseph who desperately loved his wife, Emma. My Joseph did not go behind Emma's back.

And this Joseph, my Joseph, is fully consistent with the extant record.

That is not to say he did not covenant with dozens of woman. But my Joseph did not consummate those marriages with one exception--the two girls who Emma specifically granted to him in May of 1843. The Partridge girls, Emily and Eliza, who Emma promptly turned out of her house.

Every once in a while I learn a new tidbit and I am unsettled. But I have not come across a factoid since August 2008 that has run contrary to my Joseph. This includes the entirety of George D. Smith's book, Nauvoo Polygamy, Todd Compton's more excellent work, In Sacred Loneliness, Richard Bushman's work, Rough Stone Rolling, or even today's challenge: friends who are sure their ancestor was Joseph's love child from a 1832 fling.

All the factoids from which baser Josephs are inferred are consistent with my Joseph.

The problem with writing about Joseph Smith is the sea of facts touching his life. I will not live long enough to understand the entirety of the complex web of human relationship in which he existed. As today, I'm sure the future will bring new information.

That said, I am confident that "my Joseph" will be consistent with the entirety of the data that exists or will emerge.