Melissa Lott Willes: A Different Story

I stumbled across this account from Joseph Smith III of an interview he had with Melissa Lott Willes (he has her last name as “Willis”) in Lehi, Utah, in 1885. It’s strikingly different from Melissa’s testimony in the Temple Lot case, and it differs substantially from her own account of the interview. In the Temple Lot testimony, she specifically denies Smith’s version of the interview, saying that what she told him was the same as what she testified to under oath. I will make no comment about the veracity of Smith’s account other than to note the careful construction of his questions. And I will say that his portrayal of a weepy, timid woman contrasts rather sharply with the quick-witted and self-confident woman reflected in the court testimony.

In the evening we held a service in the Music Hall of the city [Lehi, Utah]. We went early to the room and were met and welcomed by a number of our own members, as well as other friends and citizens. In chatting before the services somebody came and told me that Mrs. Ira Willis was present. I referred to this woman in the early part of these Memoirs.

This news was of interest for I had frequently been told that she, who used to be Melissa Lott, claimed to have been a wife to my father and would so testify, and that I would not dare to visit and interview her for she would tell me unwelcome things. I had, of course, seen the affidavits which she and others made, published by Joseph F. Smith to bolster up his statement that Father had more wives than one.

I at once went to Mrs. Willis, was introduced, and promptly asked the privilege of calling upon her for an interview. This permission she very cordially granted. (The Memoirs of President Joseph Smith III (1832-1914), p.244)

By appointment I went to the home of Mrs. Willis at ten o’clock on the Tuesday following our meeting in the Music Hall. As I have already stated in connection with this woman, she was a daughter of Cornelius P. Lott, a man who had come to Nauvoo from the East, his family consisting of wife, sons John and baby Peter, and daughters Melissa, Martha, Mary, and Alzina. They lived in a house on the farm belonging to Father, just east of the city, and I knew them all in a general way. I was fairly well acquainted with Melissa and with her history and movements up to the time of their departure from Nauvoo, when they all emigrated to Utah.

Melissa married Ira Willis, as I have related—a kind, shrewd Yankee and most excellent man. I had heard that they had had two sons, but when I went to call on her she was living alone. One son had died as he approached manhood, and the husband and the other son had together met death in an accident occurring when they were coming down from the mountains with a load of wood. So she was left a widow and childless at the same time.

Her home was a one-room cottage, and when bidden to enter I found her sitting by the fireside preparing things for the midday meal. It was an old-fashioned fireplace such as I was used to seeing, with broad hearth and wide-throated chimney in which were the traditional hooks to support the kettles swung over the fire, the big dogs on which the logs rested, and nearby the fireshovel, tongs, and poker. Ira Willis had always been a thrifty and handy man-of-all-work and loved to make and provide many conveniences and accessories for his home. I have told how Ira Willis once released my tongue from a frosty axe by pouring warm water on the imprisoned member. He had a hearty laugh at my expense, and for several hours I nursed an extra mouthful of swollen tongue. Mother too had laughed at the occurrence when she heard of it and told me it would be well for me if I could learn some things without trying too many experiments for myself! I have never forgotten that instance and even today, as I retell the story, my stenographer and I have had a hearty laugh over the predicament of an excited boy rushing into the house with his tongue glued to a frosted axe!

I was well received by Mrs. Willis whom I knew by the old familiar name of Melissa. I told her I had a great desire to talk with her for I had been informed she knew things I would not dare to question her about. I said I wanted to know the truth, whatever it was, and believed that in answer to my questions she would be willing to tell me what she knew.

She answered that she would be glad to grant the interview, but explained that some unexpected company was coming for lunch and she would prefer if I could call in the afternoon instead, when she would be more at liberty and with leisure for a conversation. Of course this was agreeable to me, and after exchanging a few reminiscences I left her.

Returning in the afternoon I found her guests had gone, and she was ready for a chat, willing, as she said, to answer any question I would ask about conditions in Nauvoo of which she had any knowledge. I began by asking:

“Did you know of the teaching of plural marriage or polygamy at Nauvoo?”

“I had heard of it in private but not publicly.”

“Did you know of any woman having been married to, my father and living with him as his wife, besides my mother?”

“No; and nothing of the kind occurred to my knowledge.”

“Do you have any reason to believe such a thing took place and that my mother knew of there being another woman besides herself who was wife to my father?”

“No,” quite emphatically, “I am sure she did not.”

“Now, Melissa, I have been told that there were women, other than my mother, who were married to my father and lived with him as his wife, and that my mother knew it. How about it?”

She answered rather tremulously, “If there was anything of that kind going on you may be sure that your mother knew nothing about it.”

I then asked her what was her opinion of my mother’s character for truth and veracity. She replied that she considered my mother one of the noblest women in the world, and that she had known her well and knew her to be as good and truthful a woman as ever lived.

“Then you think I would be justified in believing what my mother told me?”

“Yes, indeed, for she would not lie to you.”

“Well, Melissa, my mother told me that my father had never had any wife other than herself, had never had any connection with any other woman as a wife, and was never married to any woman other than herself, with her consent or knowledge, or in any manner whatsoever. Do you consider I am justified in believing her?”

Without hesitation she answered, “If your mother told you any such thing as that you may depend upon what she said and feel sure she was telling the truth, and that she knew nothing about any such state of affairs. Yes, you would be entirely justified in believing her.”

Our conversation continued for some time. Finally I asked, plainly, “Melissa, will you tell me just what was your relation to my father, if any?”

She arose, went to a shelf, and returned with a Bible which she opened at the family record pages and showed me a line written there in a scrawling handwriting:

“Married my daughter Melissa to Prophet Joseph Smith—” giving the date, which I seem to remember as late in 1843.

I looked closely at the handwriting and examined the book and other entries carefully. Then I asked:

“Who were present when this marriage took place—if marriage it may be called?”

“No one but your father and myself.”

“Was my mother there?”

“No, sir.”

“Was there no witness there?”

“No, sir.”

“Where did it occur?”

“At the house on the farm.”

“And my mother knew nothing about it, before or after?”

“No, sir.”

“Did you ever live with my father as his wife, in the Mansion House in Nauvoo, as has been claimed?”

“No, sir.”

“Did you ever live with him as his wife anywhere?” I persisted.

At this point she began to cry, and said, “No, I never did; but you have no business asking me such questions. I had a great regard and respect for both your father and your mother. I do not like to talk about these things.”

“Well, Melissa, I have repeatedly been told that you have stated that you were married to my father and lived with him as his wife and that my mother knew of it. Now you tell me you never did live with him as his wife although claiming: to have been married to him. You tell me there was no one present at that purported marriage except the three of you and that my mother knew nothing about such an alliance. Frankly, I am at a loss to know just what you would have me believe about you.”

I was about to make still closer inquiries in order to find out if she ever had any relations of any sort with my father other than the ordinary relations that may properly exist between such persons under the usual conditions of social procedure, when just then there came a rap on the door, and in walked her sisters Mary and Alzina.

Alzina lived rather near Melissa, but Mary, the older, was living some twenty-five or thirty miles away. Hearing I was in Lehi she had hitched up her team andt come to see me, stopping at Alzina’s on the way and bringing her along.

They expressed great pleasure in meeting me again, and I was glad to see them. Our talk was general for a while, for their entrance had changed my line of inquiry somewhat. Then, urged to put to Melissa a question of importance, I asked:

“Melissa, do you know where I can find a brother or a sister, child or children of my father, born to him by some woman other than my mother—in Illinois, Utah, or anywhere else?”

She answered that she did not, whereupon Mary broke in and said:

“No, Brother Joseph, for there isn’t any!”

Then she went on to say, “For twelve years I have made it my business to run down every rumor I have heard about the existence of children born to the Prophet by those women who were reputed to have been his wives. I have traveled a good many miles here and there for the purpose of finding out the truth about such statements, and not in one single instance have I ever found them substantiated or any evidence presented that had the least bit of truth in it. I have never been able to find a single child which could possibly have been born to Joseph Smith in plural marriage.”

At this juncture Alzina snapped in with an explosive and characteristic exclamation:

“No, Brother Joseph, there is none, and what’s more, I don’t believe there ever was any chance for one!”

The earnestness of her manner and the snap with which she pointed her remark caused a ripple of laughter among us, in which, however, Melissa did not join. Noticing this, I turned to her and said:

“Melissa, how about it? You hear what your sisters are saying?”

Tears began to trickle down her face as she said, “Yes, Brother Joseph, I hear them.”

“Well, what do you say? Can I believe as they do?”

She drew a deep breath, as if making a sudden decision, and then, with a sigh with lips trembling:

“Yes; you can believe that they are telling you the truth. There was no chance for any children.”

Mary then explained in more detail about certain places she had gone to make inquiries directly of the persons involved (whom she named) and to see the women and the children who, it was stated, were wives and offspring of the Prophet. She said in every instance she proved the report false, either as to the woman claiming to be such a wife or as to children being there as claimed.

I thanked her and the other girls for the statements they had made. Our conversation on this and other topics continued for some time. We recalled many incidents of old times, and I learned from them of the deaths of their parents and the whereabouts and fortunes of others of the family.

I left these sisters feeling well repaid for my persistence in obtaining the interview with Mrs. Willis. In spite of what I had been told, she had neither been able to “face me down” nor to convince me that my father had done reprehensible things which I would be unwilling to believe. Instead, I left her presence and that of her sisters with my previous convictions more firmly established, if such a thing were possible. The interview had convinced me that the statement made in an affidavit of this Melissa Lott Willis, published by Joseph F. Smith along with others of similar import, to the effect that she had been married to Joseph Smith, was not true, provided the word married be construed as conveying the right of living together as man and wife, a relation she had unequivocally denied in my presence. I was convinced that wherever the word married or sealed occurred in such testimonials regarding my father it meant nothing more than that possibly those women had gone through some ceremony or covenant which they intended as an arrangement for association in the world to come, and could by no means have any reference whatever to marital rights in the flesh.

I was also convinced from the statements of Mrs. Willis that the entry in the Bible which she showed to me was a line written by her father, or some other person, recording an untruth. When I asked her in plain language how it happened she had not lived with my father as his wife if she had really been married to him, she had answered in equally plain language, that she had not lived with him in that manner because it was not right that she should do so.

I had made up my mind when I went to Utah that whenever and wherever I found opportunity I would converse with those women who had claimed, or were reputed, to be wives of my father— wives in polygamy, plural marriage, celestial, sealed, or any kind of arrangement—and in so doing I would subject them to as severe a cross examination as was within my power, to get as near as possible to the actual truth of the circumstances and the reports. It was for this reason I had called upon this woman, and I should have questioned her still further and in a more specific manner had not the entrance of her sisters turned the trend of conversation in a measure.

After my visit south, to Beaver, we passed through Lehi again on our way back to Salt Lake City, at which time I tried to have another conversation with Mrs. Willis, but learned she was not at home. I knew it would have been entirely useless to question her in the presence of an elder of their church as she would either evade my questions or refuse utterly to answer. Indeed, it is possible she may have been so far under domination and surveillance as to have stated, in such a contingency, that which was not true. As it was, I felt I had secured truthful statements from her, for she had betrayed some real depths of emotion as we conversed. She had stated that I might believe what my mother had told me for she regarded my mother as an honest, upright woman who was absolutely truthful. She had also stated that notwithstanding the “marriage” entry scribbled in her Bible, purported to be written by her father, she had not lived with Joseph Smith as his wife, believing it was “not right” to do so, and further, that he had never urged her to do so. I had also learned from her and her sisters that so far as their knowledge went there had been no issue of any polygamous marriages made by Joseph Smith, such as had been alleged. (The Memoirs of President Joseph Smith III (1832-1914), pp. 245-246)

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7 Responses to Melissa Lott Willes: A Different Story

  1. yaanufs says:

    I’m sure glad the JS III got the answer he was looking for.

    • runtu says:

      Indeed, we see his dedication to truth in a letter to his uncle, William Smith, who was writing a book about his life as a Mormon leader. Remember that William Smith had himself been involved in plural marriages.

      “I have long been engaged in removing from Father’s memory and from the early church, the stigma and blame thrown upon him because of Polygamy; and have at last lived to see the cloud rapidly lifting. And I would not consent to see further blame attached, by a blunder now. Therefore, Uncle, bear in mind our standing today before the world as defenders of Mormonism from Polygamy, and go ahead with your personal recollections. … If you are the wise man I think you to be, you will fail to remember anything [but] referring lofty standard of character at which we esteem these good men. You can do the cause great good; you can injure it by vicious saying” (J. Smith to W. Smith, 11 March 1882, Letterbook 3).

  2. yaanufs says:

    Those two Smith family members were continuing the family tradition of lying through their teeth about polygamy.
    Just like the prophet himself.
    When you are willing to lie so blatantly about things that are easily provable, what else are you willing to lie about?
    What else can you be trusted about?

    • runtu says:

      Notice how he joins two questions: they lived with Joseph as his wife and Emma knew about it. I can’t think of any of the spouses who lived with him as his wife and Emma knew about it, unless you count the Partridge sisters, and that only lasted a few days, apparently.

  3. grindael says:

    It seems that Joseph Smith III took his own advice to William.

    • runtu says:

      That’s how I read it. It’s one of those things that, unless you’re paying attention, seems to “vindicate” Joseph Smith, as his son put it.

  4. Joe_Sm says:

    > At this juncture Alzina snapped in with an explosive and characteristic exclamation:
    >
    > “No, Brother Joseph, there is none, and what’s more, I don’t believe there ever was any chance for one!”
    >
    > The earnestness of her manner and the snap with which she pointed her remark caused a ripple of laughter among us, in which, however, Melissa did not join. Noticing this, I turned to her and said:
    >
    > “Melissa, how about it? You hear what your sisters are saying?”
    >
    > Tears began to trickle down her face as she said, “Yes, Brother Joseph, I hear them.”
    >
    > “Well, what do you say? Can I believe as they do?”
    >
    > She drew a deep breath, as if making a sudden decision, and then, with a sigh with lips trembling:
    >
    > “Yes; you can believe that they are telling you the truth. There was no chance for any children.”

    To me, this sounds like a woman who is completely broken. Everyone is laughing about the absurdity of Joe Jr marrying an impregnating his sister wives. That is everyone is laughing except for Melissa.

    Why does she seem so broken? Is it because she is hurt her sisters are laughing about her (secret) marriage to Joe Jr? Does Melissa know that Joe Jr’s wives did become pregnant, but she also knows the babies were (possibly) aborted (as has been reported). Did Melissa get pregnant as well? And was she forced to have an abortion… to hide the indiscretion?

    As Yaanuffs said, “At least Joe III got the answer he was looking for.” It is just too bad he had to ignore all of the non-verbal communication to get there.

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