I’ve written before about sexuality in Joseph Smith’s plural marriages, but until now there seemed to be definite evidence that one of his polyandrous marriages, that with Sylvia Sessions Lyon, involved sexual relations. If we are to believe Sylvia’s statements (and I have no reason not to do so), it is highly likely that her daughter Josephine was the biological daughter of Joseph Smith.
LDS apologist Brian Hales has done some pretty thorough work on Joseph’s practice of polygamy, but he believes that the polyandrous relationships were not sexual. I won’t go into detail about his support for this belief, as it can be found on his web site, but Michael Quinn has delivered a devastating response to Hales’s presentation on this subject at the Mormon History Association’s conference in June of 2012. Some highlights:
There is strong evidence for sexual polyandry in the case of Mary Heron Snider, a married LDS woman living in Nauvoo. Mary’s son-in-law Joseph Johnson testified in 1850 before a council of apostles that he “was familiar with the first frigging — that was done in his house with his mother in law — by Joseph.” Hales suggests that the statement was a fabrication to justify Johnson’s own sexual behavior. Quinn refutes that statement by noting Johnson’s statement just before the “frigging” sentence: ”I never heard any conversation to say it was right to go to bed with a woman if not found out–I was aware the thing [with Mrs. Snow] was wrong.”
Johnson’s testimony was given before a council of apostles, presided over by Brigham Young. Although at least one member of the council said the statement had “taken me by surprise,” no one denounced Johnson for saying what he did. Quinn notes that in June of 1841, Mary Isabella Horne stated that ”the prophet with Sister Snyder called in his buggy upon Sister Clev[e]land” in Quincy, Illinois.” This statement is significant for a couple of reasons: First, Sarah Cleveland, one of Joseph’s wives, had “served as [Joseph's] “intermediary” in the spring of 1842 for introducing the idea of polygamous marriage to Eliza R. Snow.” At that time Mrs. Snider was living alone with her son. This visit does not definitively corroborate Johnson’s statement, but it does refute Hales’s statement, “Despite intensive research, I have found no additional evidence linking Mary Heron Snider with Joseph Smith.” Later that year Joseph Smith sent John Snider to England, as he done with other polyandrous husbands, who may or may not have been aware of their wives’ relationships with Joseph Smith.
Another polyandrous wife was Flora Ann Woodworth Gove, who married Joseph Smith at age 16 and then married Carlos Gove. Smith’s secretary, William Clayton, notes that Joseph met with Flora alone at Clayton’s house “while Clayton was intentionally absent.” Flora regretted marrying Gove and as Quinn puts it, “two subsequent trysts with the 37-year-old Prophet in Clayton’s house on consecutive days showed how much she regretted marrying a younger man earlier in the week.”
A third wife Quinn mentions is Esther Dutcher Smith, who married Joseph Smith in 1843. Although married for 10 years, Esther had not conceived a child by her husband, but at the time of Joseph Smith’s death, she was six months pregnant with a son, Joseph Albert. Her marriage to Joseph was noted by Brigham Young’s counselor Daniel Wells in 1877, who wrote that Esther “nearly broke his heart by telling him [her legal husband] of it, and expressing her intention of adhering to that relationship” with the prophet. Wells further wrote that Albert Smith “got to feeling better about it” seven years later. Wells’s wording shows that Esther was married to Joseph without Albert Smith’s knowledge, and had this been an “eternity only sealing,” Albert would not have been upset about the relationship, and her plans to “adhere” to it would not make sense. (Quinn further notes that there is no record of any “eternity only” sealings performed in the LDS church throughout the entire nineteenth century.
A fourth wife Quinn mentions is Philo Dibble’s wife, Hannah Ann Dubois Smith Dibble, who is mentioned in an 1857 anti-Mormon book as having been Joseph’s wife. Quinn notes that in 1843, Joseph was accused of “improper conduct” with Hannah Dibble and Agnes Smith, who was Don Carlos Smith’s widow. Agnes Smith was later acknowledged as Joseph’s plural wife, and Benjamin Johnson’s autobiography states, “At this time [May 1843,] I knew that the Prophet had as his wives … Sisters Lyon and Dibble.”
Finally, Hales states that evidence was “ambiguous” for Joseph’s marriage to Elvira Ann Cowles Holmes, wife of Jonathan Holmes, although Hales cites the following statement from Elvira’s daughter Phebe:”I heard my mother [Elvira Ann Cowles Holmes] testify that she was indeed the Prophet Joseph Smith’s plural wife in life and lived with him as such during his lifetime.” That doesn’t sound ambiguous to me (or to Quinn). And, as Quinn puts it, “I find it difficult to believe that Elvira’s 37-year-old widower-husband Jonathan stopped having sex with her only six months after their civil wedding, simply to accommodate the Prophet’s sexual relations with her (which in June 1843 seemed likely to continue for many years).” This is an important point. If we are to believe that there was no sexual polyandry in this case, there are only two options: Jonathan Holmes stopped having sex with his wife, or Joseph “lived with” Elvira as a wife but did not have sex with her. I’m with Quinn on this one.
Regrettably, Quinn’s paper is not available online so far as I know, but I have a copy in my possession and can provide citations as needed. For me, there is no question that Joseph’s marriages included sexual polyandry, as the evidence is quite clear.