Ann Eliza was beautiful, divorced and feisty, and had two children. She didn’t want to be Mormon leader Brigham Young’s 19th wife but was forced into it by circumstances at age 24. He was 67. The relationship was rocky from the start, and then blew up over buying a new kitchen stove.
She was born in 1844 in Nauvoo, Ill., less than three months after Joseph Smith, founder of the Latter-day Saints Church (LDS) was murdered by an enraged mob. Her father, Chauncey Griswold Webb, and mother, Eliza Jane Churchill, raised their daughter during turbulent times for the Mormons — and for America.
Young appointed Webb in charge of building the handcarts used by many early Mormons to carry their worldly possessions to Utah beginning in 1846 to escape the unending persecution that dogged them since the church’s founding.
Ann Eliza was just a toddler in 1848 when the family made the arduous trek with the final group of 397 wagons and 1,229 people.
She would grow up to suffer heartbreak, three failed marriages, excommunication, and years of struggle in a nationwide crusade to outlaw the early Mormon practice of polygamy, before ending life in poverty and obscurity.
Plural marriage was a concept quietly promoted by Joseph Smith and later boldly recommended by his successor Brigham Young. It was not well received, however, by many Mormons and particularly enraged single non-Mormons — “gentiles” — looking for mates when women were scarce on the western frontier.
Britain proved to be a good recruiting ground for young, single women the Church was seeking, as the Second Industrial Revolution (1840-1870) with the new steam-powered technology was driving many rural women to toil in city factories and sweatshops.
Mormon missionaries from America brought a message of hope for a better life in the New Jerusalem that they were creating in far off Utah.
Dorothy Gray in her book “Women of the West” writes, “When they reached Salt Lake it was literally too late to turn back or to resist. Friendless and poor in a desert land, they were in a real sense trapped. To many an impoverished woman in the wilderness, polygamy must have seemed the lesser of evils.”
Ann Eliza’s mother and father agonized over participating in plural marriages but after being personally counseled by Brigham Young, reluctantly gave in — her father eventually taking five wives.
Then Young sought to make Ann Eliza his next wife. She abhorred the suggestion and told her mother, “To give myself to a man older than my father, from whom I shrink in aversion when I think of him as my husband, who is already the husband of many wives, the father of children older, by many years, than myself … I can’t, I can’t!”
For two years the matter was put off, though Young kept her close by, working as an actress in his new Salt Lake City theater. She spent most nights at Lion House, a dorm for a dozen of Young’s wives that was attached to the Bee Hive where he lived.
Then Ann Eliza married James L. Dee — the union “sealed” by Young himself “for time and for all eternity” — but Dee was an abusive husband and “eternity” lasted just two years. While she was pregnant with their second son, “He seized me by the throat,” and he threatened to take on more wives, Ann Eliza said. Her father threw him out of the house and in 1865, Brigham Young canceled the sealing.
Ann Eliza vowed not to marry again — “Never in my life,” she said — but Young was undeterred.
Author Dorothy Gray continued, “Young spoke to her in a fatherly way in the guise of a counselor but, upon leaving her, he immediately went to her parents to request her in marriage.” He promised to give her a well-furnished house of her own, with $1,000 a year pocket money, but she spurned the offer and for the next two years was content to live peacefully on the family farm and raise her two boys.
Then everything changed when her elder brother’s business deal with Young turned sour and pushed him into debt.
Young threatened to ruin him and drive him out of the church. Ann Eliza’s family was devastated. Then Young said all that unpleasantness could be avoided if Ann Eliza would consent to marriage. She was trapped.
“There was nothing but ruin in store,” Ann Eliza wrote years later. “My religion, my parents — everything was urging me on to my unhappy fate.”
To spare the trauma to the family, she married Brigham Young on April 7, 1868 — the ceremony conducted by leader Heber C. Kimball, who once warned him, “Some day there’ll be one new wife who’ll give you trouble.”
Young took his bride to her father’s house after the wedding ceremony and then slept alone in his room.
He set Ann Eliza and her two sons up in a small house that was ill-furnished and never gave her the $1,000 yearly spending money he promised. Her mother joined them, leaving Chauncey with his other wives.
Young barely provided her with enough food and clothing, and at social functions she felt alienated when he paid her little mind.
He then ordered her to manage his farm outside Salt Lake. She took her mother with her to help. The assignment wore both of them out. After the job ended and they returned to the city, he demanded that her mother leave because it was too expensive to support her too, and forced Ann Eliza to repay him expenses for her mother’s board.
To make ends meet, she took in boarders — mostly non-Mormons — and they opened her eyes to the world outside of the LDS Church.
Then came the matter of a new stove. When he refused to buy her one, she decided she’d had enough and plotted her next move.
First she sent her older son to a relative, then sold the house furniture for some survival money before being spirited out to Walker House — Salt Lake’s best non-Mormon hotel — terrified of retribution when her husband found out.
News spread quickly and on the following day, “She was besieged almost immediately by newspapermen seeking interviews with the woman who dared walk out on the mighty Brigham,” Gray wrote.
While still fearing for her life, Ann Eliza decided she would start a battle to free other women enslaved by polygamy. Rarely leaving her room, she first talked to small groups at Walker House, and then one of the residents offered to be her manager, urging that she take her message across America.
But first she had to get out of Utah safely.
Her departure was announced, but with her father’s help, she sneaked out in the dark of night a day earlier. At dawn, she boarded a train heading east at a flag-stop outside of Salt Lake City.
Overcome by the enormity of what she had done, she asked a traveling companion named Mrs. Cooke what should she do?
“Keep up a brave heart and think of the work before you,” she answered. And that’s what Ann Eliza did.
She filed for divorce from Brigham Young and a smear campaign from Salt Lake quickly followed in newspaper headlines—at one time claiming an illicit affair between her and her manager. But two years later after lengthy court proceedings and all the smears, she won a divorce from Brigham Young, and was drawing standing-room-only crowds at her lectures across the country.
She testified before Congress in 1875, and also wrote to several U.S. presidents and their wives asking for their support in stopping polygamy. President Grant even came to hear her. On March 22, 1882 President Chester A. Arthur signed the Edmunds Act, followed later by additional changes finally prohibiting the practice.
In 1890, the LDS Church abandoned the practice of plural marriages, issuing the “Mormon Manifesto” commanding church members to obey the nation’s anti-polygamy laws.
Ann Eliza married again, to a wealthy Michigan timber man named Moses R. Denning in 1883, but soon divorced him on grounds of adultery.
She won her crusade, but lived her final years in poverty in Sparks, Nev. She died of pneumonia in 1917 and was buried in a pauper’s grave.
Ann Eliza indeed kept up a good heart.
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Syd Albright is a writer and journalist living in Post Falls. Contact him at email@example.com.
Brigham Young’s legacy…
“Brigham Young, the Mormon Moses, led his church safely through the most vulnerable period in its history. A visionary who built canals, cities, temples and universities, including the one that bears his name today, Young fiercely protected his flock, who have indeed flourished and multiplied.” (Latest membership—U.S.: 6,531,656, worldwide: 15,634,199.)
---Claudia Glenn Dowling, “American History”
“Sealings,” performed by Mormon church authorities linking a man and a woman, could be of two types:
Most common and now the only one practiced seals the couple for time (mortal life) and eternity.
Called a proxy marriage in the early Mormon Church, “A second form could seal a woman to one man for time and another for eternity,” according to Jeffery Ogden Johnson, "Determining and Defining `Wife': The Brigham Young Households." Children by the second husband would be considered the progeny of the first.
What number was she?
In her autobiography, “Wife No. 19, or The Story of a Life in Bondage,” Ann Eliza called herself Brigham Young’s “19th Wife,” but historians say she was number 27 or 52. The quandary may be because of what “wife” meant in early Mormon practices.
Brigham Young (1801-1877)
House built by Brigham Young for Ann Eliza where she lived before fleeing from the marriage.
LATTER-DAY SAINTS CHURCH
Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith (1805-1844).
LDS Church founder Joseph Smith quietly recommended plural marriages.
LDS Church founder Joseph Smith and brother Hyrum were shot in Carthage jail, June 27, 1844, about 5 p.m. by an armed mob of 150 to 200 persons painted black.
Brigham Young assigned Ann Eliza’s father Chauncey G. Webb to supervise building handcarts for Mormons heading west to Utah.
Beehive House on East Temple Street, Salt Lake City, one of Brigham Young’s official residences.
Lion House in Salt Lake City where Ann Eliza stayed while an actress before marrying Brigham Young.
President Ulysses S. Grant attended one of Ann Eliza's lectures against polygamy.