Monday, August 5, 2013

Wives Made to Bow Down With Grief, (unnamed women 1838- 1839)

There is a famous story about Joseph Smith (often called "Majesty in Chains") about how, during his imprisonment in Richmond Jail, he and several other men lay on the floor unable to sleep because the guards were boasting of the murders, robbery, and rapes they had committed against the Saints. Of this experience Elder Parley P. Pratt recounted:
“I had listened till I became so disgusted, shocked, horrified, and so filled with the spirit of indignant justice that I could scarcely refrain from rising upon my feet and rebuking the guards; but had said nothing to Joseph, or any one else, although I lay next to him and knew he was awake. On a sudden he arose to his feet, and spoke in a voice of thunder, or as the roaring lion, uttering, as near as I can recollect, the following words: 

‘SILENCE. … In the name of Jesus Christ I rebuke you, and command you to be still; I will not live another minute and hear such language. Cease such talk, or you or I die THIS INSTANT!’
“He ceased to speak. He stood erect in terrible majesty. Chained, and without a weapon; calm, unruffled and dignified as an angel, he looked upon the quailing guards, whose weapons were lowered or dropped to the ground; whose knees smote together, and who, shrinking into a corner, or crouching at his feet, begged his pardon, and remained quiet till a change of guards.” (Source)
I have heard this story since I was a small girl and it has always been one of my favorites. I love the image of Joseph standing majestic and powerful, even in chains.

Still, there has always been one part of the story that has made me wonder.

Parley P. Pratt said that the men were bragging about rapes they had committed and I can't help think about what those early LDS women would have gone through during this time.  Often when we talk about the hardships that the early saints faced during the extermination order we focus on how their homes were destroyed, their crops burned, and their men shot, but we never hear about what happened to the women.

In D&C 123 Joseph Smith urged the Saints to make statements as to the abuse and sufferings they went through. He wrote: 
"It is an imperative duty that we owe to God, to angels, with whom we shall be brought to stand, and also to ourselves, to our wives and children, who have been made to bow down with grief, sorrow, and care, under the most damning hand of murder, tyranny, and oppression... Therefore it is an imperative duty that we owe, not only to our own wives and children, but to the widows and fatherless, whose husbands and fathers have been murdered under its iron hand; Which dark and blackening deeds are enough to make hell itself shudder, and to stand aghast and pale, and the hands of the very devil to tremble and palsy." (D&C 123: 7, 9-10)
I was curious to know what it was that these wives and children went through that was enough to make "hell itself shudder", and so I did a little research. I was able to find the affidavits of several of the early church leaders, including Hyrum Smith, Brigham Young, Parley P. Pratt, and Sidney Rigdon,  who testified to a court of law about what they and the Saints went through.

Reading their accounts, given in their owns words, was powerful and overwhelming. I realized as I read their testimonies that the violence the saints went through was not just the "suffering or hardship" that we often talk about. They were facing genocide-like violence. The soldiers had been commanded to drive the Mormons out of Missouri or destroy them. They had full license to use any sort of horrible means they could devise, which they did.

As I read these accounts I saw men and women literally fleeing for their lives. If they were caught they faced violence that was comparable to any of our modern day genocides--- think Congo, Sudan, Rwanda, Kosovo --- and you get a better idea of what they were facing.  And just like in any genocide, rape was one of the primary weapons.

I feel like it is important to share these early LDS women's stories.  It makes my heart ache to think about all they went through for the gospel.... and that we don't even know their names. Granted, they probably didn't want their names to be shared given the nature of their experience, but I think they need to be remembered.

Warning: Some of these accounts are hard to read and so if you are sensitive to things like this you might want to skip the rest.

In his testimony Hyrum Smith spoke of his time in Richmond jail and said that:
The same men sat as a jury in the day time, and were placed over us as a guard in the night time. They tantalized us and boasted of their great achievements at Haun's Mills and at other places, telling us how many houses they had burned, and how many sheep, cattle, and hogs they had driven off belonging to the "Mormons," and how many rapes they had committed, and what squealing and kicking there was among the d——b——s, saying that they lashed one woman upon one of the damned "Mormon" meeting benches, tying her hands and her feet fast, and sixteen of them abused her as much as they had a mind to, and then left her bound and exposed in that distressed condition. These fiends of the lower regions boasted of these acts of barbarity, and tantalized our feelings with them for ten days. We had heard of these acts of cruelty previous to this time, but we were slow to believe that such acts had been perpetrated. The lady who was the subject of this brutality did not recover her health to be able to help herself for more than three months afterwards.
Parley P. Pratt testified, how when he was being transported by a group of soldiers: 
"...our ears were continually shocked with the relation of the horrid deeds they had committed and which they boasted of... They also named one or two individual females of our society, whom they had forcibly bound, and twenty or thirty of them, one after another, committed rape upon them. One of these females was a daughter of a respectable family with whom I have been long acquainted, and with whom I have since conversed and learned that it was truly the case. Delicacy at present forbids my mentioning the names."
Brigham Young also stated in his testimony that:
"A part of these mobs were painted like Indians; and Gillum, their leader, was also painted in a similar manner, and styled himself the "Delaware Chief;"... That there were "Mormon" citizens wounded and murdered by the army under the command of General Lucas; and he verily believes that several women were ravished to death by the soldiery of Lucas and Clark.
... The next morning, General Lucas demanded and took away the arms of the Militia of Caldwell county, (which arms have never been returned), assuring them that they should be protected. But as soon as they obtained possession of the arms, they commenced their ravages by plundering the citizens of their bedding, clothing, money, wearing apparel, and everything of value they could lay their hands upon; and also attempting to violate the chastity of the women in sight of their husbands and friends, under the pretence of hunting for prisoners and arms."

 In Sidney Rigdon's testimony he recounted what he had heard from soldiers while being held prisoner:
I heard a party of them, one night, telling about some female whose person they had violated; and this language was used by one of them: "The d—b—, how she yelled! " Who this person was, I did not know; but before I got out of prison I heard that a widow, whose husband had died some few months before, with consumption, had been brutally violated by a gang of them, and died in their hands, leaving three little children, in whose presence the scene of brutality took place. 

After I got out of prison and had arrived in Quincy, Illinois, I met a strange man in the street who inquired of me respecting a circumstance of this kind, saying that he had heard of it, and was on his way going to Missouri to get the children if he could find them. He said the woman thus murdered was his sister, or his wife's sister, I am not positive which. The man was in great agitation. What success he had, I know not.
Sidney Rigdon also told about how, while he was in prison, he heard men planning to specifically target his wife and daughter and the wife of the prophet, Emma Smith (just to clarify, Joseph Smith, Jr's father had died before these testaments were made and so he was legally recognized at this point as Joseph Smith, Sen.). He said: 
During the time that Clark was examining the military law, there was something took place which may be proper to relate in this place. I heard a plan laying among a number of those who belonged to Clark's army, and some of them officers of high rank, to go to Far West and commit violence on the persons of Joseph Smith, Sen's wife and my wife and daughter.  

This gave me some uneasiness. I got an opportunity to send my family word of their design and to make such arrangements as they could to guard against their vile purpose. The time at last arrived, and the party started for Far West. I waited with painful anxiety for their return. After a number of days, they returned. I listened to all they said, to find out, if possible, what they had done. One night—I think the very night after their return—I heard them relating to some of those who had not been with them the events of their adventure. Inquiry was made about their success in the particular object of their visit to Far West. The substance of what they said in answer was that they had passed and trepassed both houses, and saw the females; but there were so many men about the town, that they dare not venture, for fear of being detected; and their numbers were not sufficient to accomplish anything, if they made the attempt; and they came off without trying.
I have often thought that Emma Smith must have been a special target for violence or persecution because of her relationship to the prophet, and so I wasn't too surprised to read that she indeed was. This would have been the time period when Emma crossed the not-quite-frozen- Mississippi river with her four small children and the prophet's translation of the Bible hidden under her skirts. Understanding now the type of violence she faced-- and must have witnessed--  my heart just aches for her and for the additional burdens she must have been carrying in her heart as she crossed that river.

Emma fleeing with her family from Missouri

I didn't find any more accounts of rape among the testimonies, but I was extremely touched by several of the other accounts of the suffering LDS women went through.

Both Hyrum Smith and Lyman Wight recounted the story of Agnes Mouton Coolbrith, who was the wife of Don Carlos Smith.

 Hyrum said:
On the evening that General Parks arrived at Diahman, the wife of my brother, the late Don Carlos Smith, came into Colonel Wight's about 11 o'clock at night, bringing her two children along with her, one about two and a half years old, the other a babe in her arms. She came on foot, a distance of three miles, and waded Grand river. The water was then waist deep, and the snow three inches deep. She stated that a party of the mob—a gang of ruffians—had turned her out of doors and taken her household goods, and had burnt up her house, and she had escaped by the skin of her teeth. Her husband at that time was in Tennessee, [on a mission] and she was living alone.
Lyman Wight said:
The night previous to his arrival, the wife of Don Carlos Smith was driven from her house by this ruthless mob, and came into Adam-ondi-Ahman—a distance of three miles, carrying her two children on her hips, one of which was then rising of two years old, the other six or eight months old, the snow being over shoemouth deep, and she having to wade Grand river, which was at this time waist deep. The mob burnt the house and everything they had in it.
It is interesting to me that both of these men included her story in their testimonies, indicating that it must have left a strong impression upon them.

Agnes Mouton Coolbrith

There were also several stories of women who gave birth in the midst of all this violence, and since I have a soft place in my heart for pregnant women, their stories really touched me.

Lyman Wight testified that:
"... I was chased by one of these gangs across an open prairie five miles, without being overtaken, and lay three weeks in the woods, and was three days and three nights without food. In the meantime my wife and three small children, in a skiff, passed down Big Blue river, a distance of fourteen miles, and crossed over the Missouri river, and there borrowed a rag carpet of one of her friends and made a tent of the same, which was the only shield from the inclemency of the weather during the three weeks of my expulsion from home... Here, on the banks of the Missouri river, were eight families, exiled from plenteous homes, without one particle of provisions or any other means under the heavens to get any, only by hunting in the forest. I here built a camp, twelve feet square, against a sycamore log, in which my wife bore me a fine son on the 27th of December. The camp having neither chimney nor floor, nor covering sufficient to shield them from the inclemency of the weather, rendered it intolerable.
He also recounted:
"... I saw one hundred and ninety women and children driven thirty miles across the prairie, with three decrepit men only in their company, in the month of November, the ground thinly crusted with sleet; and I could easily follow on their trail by the blood that flowed from their lacerated feet on the stubble of the burnt prairie! This company, not knowing the situation of the country or the extent of Jackson county, built quite a number of cabins, that proved to be in the borders of Jackson county. The mob, infuriated at this, rushed on them in the month of January, 1834, burned these scanty cabins, and scattered the inhabitants to the four winds; from which cause many were taken suddenly ill, and of this illness died. In the meantime, they burned two hundred and three houses and one grist mill, these being the only residences of the Saints in Jackson county.

The most part of one thousand and two hundred Saints who resided in Jackson county, made their escape to Clay county. I would here remark that among one of the companies that went to Clay county was a woman named Sarah Ann Higbee, who had been sick of chills and fever for many months, and another of the name of Keziah Higbee, who, under the most delicate circumstances, lay on the banks of the river, without shelter, during one of the most stormy nights I ever witnessed, while torrents of rain poured down during the whole night, and streams of the smallest size were magnified into rivers. The former was carried across the river, apparently a lifeless corpse. The latter was delivered of a fine son on the banks, within twenty minutes after being carried across the river, under the open canopy of heaven; and from which cause I have every reason to believe she died a premature death." 

Sidney Rigdon also mentioned the death of a mother He said:

"The first evening after we left, we put up for the night in a grove of timber. Soon after our arrival in the grove, a female who a short time before had given birth to a child, in consequence of exposure, died. A grave was dug in the grove, and the next morning the body was deposited in it without a coffin, and the company proceeded on their journey, part of them going to Daviess county, and part into Caldwell."

I am sure that if I dug deeper I'd find even more stories and that these are just a small sample of what LDS women went through in this period. 

I can't help but think that we sometimes miss the mark when talking about the "suffering" of the early saints. We tend to focus on their hardships when crossing the plains from Nauvoo to Utah, but I am sure that to many of the women who survived the extermination order in Missouri, crossing the plains would have seemed like a cake walk. I am not trying to minimize the challenges of the trek West but there wasn't any one pursing them, raping them, murdering their husbands or torturing their children. That journey must have felt like glorious freedom after what they had been through. 

I hope that as you read and think about these women's experiences, their sacrifices and their sufferings, that you think about your own commitment to the gospel.  Would you have the faith to stay true to the church, the prophet, and to Jesus Christ if you or your daughter had been gang raped, if your children had starved to death, if your best friend died from exposure in childbirth, or if your husband had been tortured till his bowels fell out? Could your testimony withstand persecution and violence like many early LDS women went through?

I'd like to think that mine could, but I hope I never find out for sure! 

Unless otherwise indicated all quotes were taken from: History of the Church, Volume 3, pages 422 & 428. Affidavits Of Hyrum Smith et al. On Affairs In Missouri, 1831-39; Officially Subscribed To Before The Municipal Court Of Nauvoo The First Day Of July, 1843.  (link)


  1. Heather, thank you so much for posting this.

  2. I am in tears. And so grateful for their unshakable faith.

  3. Thanks so much for sharing this. Rape and sexual abuse are topics that most people would rather avoid. It is so important that we recognize that this is not only a part of our past, but many sisters (and brothers) suffer from the same wounds today. One in three women, and one in six men are sexually abused before they are 18. LDS therapists say there is no reason to believe this number is any different within the church.

    Because of the shame so many suffer silently. Hurting, grieving and asking questions about God that are difficult to find answers to. How can we best help those who suffer? We could start by not ignoring the problem past and present.

    That is why this blog post is so valuable to me. Thank you for bringing some light to this important topic. We can't help our sisters that suffered from this pain in the past, but we can reach out to help those around us who suffer now.

    1. You are right, Leslie- sex in general isn't always easy to talk about, nevermind the trauma of sexual assault.

      This post really helped me understand the horrors, not just "trials and tribulations" our ancestors/predecessors went through. I knew about the tar/feathers, burning of homes... but I didn't realize the mob had been so brutal.

  4. Humbling to read. Thanks for posting.

  5. Uncomfortable as it is, I do think it is important to remember the trials that the pioneer women went through. Thanks for posting. :)

  6. It reminds me of when Alma and Amulek had been imprisoned and were brought forth to witness the fiery deaths of those who believed. The answer seems to lie in Alma 14:11.

    Thank you Heather for a sorrowfully humbling reminder or the price paid by our pioneer mothers. God must weep.

  7. There is a tradition (through the George Albert Smith family) that Eliza R. Snow also endured rape at the hands of the Missourians. She wrote a disproportionate amount about the Missourians, often with a great deal of rage. She, like many who came to Utah, seemed traumatized by what they had been through and almost wanted nothing to do with people outside the faith. Which seems only natural.

  8. A timely time for me to read this... on the heals of general conference in which one speaker spoke of the persecutions of the early saints with the warning that the saints will once again endure persecution... We most certainly need to shore up our faith and be prepared.