When 28-year-old Ann Eliza Young, the 19th (by her reckoning) wife of Mormon leader Brigham Young, collapsed from fatigue while she was working in the boarding house she ran in Salt Lake City in 1872, she awoke to fuel a national firestorm. For she found among her boarders and their friends a small cadre of non-Mormon men and women—the first Gentiles (as the Mormons called nonbelievers) she had ever known—willing to hear her story of the “bondage” of polygamy. Eventually they helped her tell that story to the nation. As a consequence, the Poland Law (named for Vermont Rep. Luke Potter Poland) federalizing prosecution of polygamy was passed by Congress and signed by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1874. According to scholars, passage of the law represents the turning point in the nation’s long battle to stamp out legal polygamy, viewed as a scourge by American mainstream Christian morality.
Drama in Utah
Ann Eliza Young was hounded by journalist paparazzi of her day; she was a popular lecturer, a passionate crusader against Mormon polygamy, and the celebrated author of a memoir and exposé published in 1875, Wife No. 19, or a Story of a Life in Bondage, Being a Complete Expose of Mormonism, and Revealing the Sorrows, Sacrifices and Sufferings of Women in Polygamy. Her story has all the drama of a modern screenplay: a post-Civil War nation enflamed by lurid stories of a “harem” in Utah Territory, a daring nighttime escape from Utah, incidents of sabotage and rumormongering by her many Mormon foes, more than a whiff of real scandal, and a triumphant reception in Washington, D.C. Yet she would die in obscurity, with no accurate record today of where, when, or how, after the battle she helped win faded into the background of the tumultuous 20th century.
Politicians and moralists had taken shots at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly referred to as the Mormon church, ever since rumors surfaced in the 1830s that charismatic founder Joseph Smith practiced and sanctioned polygamy. In 1856, the Republican Party platform pledged to eradicate the “twin relics of barbarism—Polygamy and Slavery.” Local vigilantes took real shots at Smith, murdering him in the jail at Carthage, Ill., in 1844. The precipitating incident was Smith’s high-handed destruction of an opposition printing press, but persistent rumors of polygamy fueled outrage as well.
Although polygamy was not illegal under federal law until 1862 (the U.S. Constitution is silent on the rules of marriage), the pervasive Christian American practice recognized marriage only between one man and one woman. Ann Eliza Webb was born the year of Smith’s death—1844—in the Mormon religious capital of Nauvoo, Ill., to prosperous wagon builder Chauncey Webb and his devout wife, Eliza. In her memoir, Ann Eliza recalls only happy memories of the Mormon exodus in 1847 and 1848—without parallel in human history, according to one historian—from the political and religious dangers of Nauvoo across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains to the distant safety of the Salt Lake kingdom of Deseret (a word from the Book of Mormon that means honeybee). She also recalled her youth near Salt Lake City as being idyllic, with Utah Territory booming under Brigham Young’s vision, genius for organization, and passion for self-sufficiency. Indeed, Deseret soon became as hard-working, cooperative, and prosperous as a beehive, ruled by Young, the acknowledged prophet and successor to Joseph Smith.
Then Young brought polygamy into Ann Eliza’s family.
Upon first hearing in 1843 Joseph Smith’s revelation that “celestial marriage,” as he called polygamy (or plural marriage) was a requirement of Mormon men, loyal convert Brigham Young said he “desired the grave, and I could hardly get over it for a long time,” as quoted by Irving Wallace in his 1961 biography The Twenty-Seventh Wife. Although the revelation caused a permanent schism in Mormon circles, Young soon accepted it as a religious obligation and grew to view it as “within the pale of duty.”
Young soon entered a marathon of marriages, wedding 11 women in 23 days in early 1846, including several former wives of Joseph Smith, just before beginning the trek to Utah. That same year, according to Ann Eliza, he demanded that her father accept the revelation of plural marriage and “exercise his privileges.”
After anxious prayer and consultation, the Webbs reluctantly agreed, eventually adding four other wives to the household. Seeing her mother’s unhappiness, and the sometimes laughably awkward operation of a polygamous household, the headstrong Ann Eliza vowed as a teenager that she would never enter a polygamous union.
Plays and pageants had been popular among Mormons from their time in Illinois, but once the Mormons were settled in Utah, the theater arts flourished and companies organized in nearly every town. While she was acting in the company at Young’s Salt Lake Theatre, 19-year-old Ann Eliza fell in love with and married fellow actor James Dee. But within a month she encountered her husband’s “furious fits of anger,” she wrote in her memoir, and noted that “he still considered himself, and was considered, an unmarried man . . . and he soon became quite a noted gallant among the young girls . . . treating me in the indifferent, matter-of-fact manner . . . which most Mormons assume toward their helpless wives.”
After Dee choked her in a fit of rage, Ann Eliza returned home and divorced him with Brigham Young’s assent and assistance. She lived a happy interlude at her parents’ house with her two children, although she was distressed by her beloved mother’s conundrum as a plural wife.
As for herself, she wrote, “I had vowed that I would not become a plural wife, and, with my past experience, I was afraid to try even a monogamic alliance again; for I knew in Utah the step from monogamy to polygamy is very short, and very easily taken.”
One summer day in 1867 she and her family welcomed the visit of Young on one of his triumphant, 100-wagon tours around the territory. But, she recalled, “I had noticed, during the morning service that memorable Sunday at Cottonwood that Brigham looked often at me,” and she began to feel “a little uneasy under his scrutiny.” After the service he greeted her “very cordially” and asked to walk her home, which pleased her, as her parents had been Young’s next-door neighbors in Nauvoo.
That afternoon Young returned on a matter of “important business” and talked with Ann Eliza’s parents behind closed doors. After Young left, her father told her that Brigham Young had proposed to him to marry Ann Eliza. Even her beloved but devout mother talked of her “duty” to “her spiritual father” and said that “the doctrines of the church teach you to marry” for “your good here and hereafter.” Brigham Young was 66; Ann Eliza was 24.
The ‘plural wife’ life
The apparent difficulties of plural alliances can seem humorous now. According to Ann Eliza, “I had an early visit from my affianced husband, and during that visit he told me his plans. We were to be married very secretly as, he said, he wished to keep the matter quite quiet for a while, for fear of United States officials. I found out afterwards, however, that it was fear of Amelia [his dominant wife], for she had raised a furious storm a few months before when . . . he married Mary Van Cott . . . and did not dare so soon encounter another such domestic tornado.”
Ann Eliza was soon to learn that Amelia—also a reluctant plural wife—did indeed have a terrible temper, and used it much to her advantage to keep Brigham mostly under her control. But she recalled being treated kindly by the other wives, most of whom she had known since childhood, and many of whom were old and intimate friends of her mother’s. There were 18 other wives, by Ann Eliza’s count, 26 or more by other counts.
Young eventually moved her to a small house in the city with her mother. Ann Eliza soon found out “what a position a neglected wife has,” having been reduced to begging Young for basic needs. She took in boarders, and soon her house was filled with non-Mormons—called Gentiles—entering Utah Territory to seek economic or spiritual headway among the Mormons.
In her last meeting with Young, according to Ann Eliza, she appealed to the Mormon leader at his office for a larger cooking stove to serve her boarders and was rebuffed—rudely, she felt. Mrs. Albert Hagan, the wife of a Gentile lawyer, recognized her distress, and Ann Eliza spilled out her anguish. Attorney Hagan and others agreed to help her sue Young for divorce and alimony.
Another Gentile who came to Ann Eliza’s aid was James Burton Pond. After mustering out of the Civil War as a major for the Union, having won the Medal of Honor for bravery in a fight with the Confederate guerrilla Quantrill’s Raiders, Pond found himself a 35-year-old widower working for the nascent Gentile-owned Salt Lake Tribune and managing a furniture store. A passionate abolitionist whose poor Wisconsin farm family operated a station on the Underground Railroad, he joined the Hagans, prominent Salt Lake Methodist minister C.C. Stratton, and others in Ann Eliza’s cause.
Young immediately contested the divorce petition, leaving Ann Eliza feeling like a virtual prisoner in the Walker House, the major Gentile hotel in Salt Lake. By giving up her husband she gave up not only her only means of support but her religion, too: She was viewed as an “apostate” —one who has abandoned the faith—without hope of sympathy in Utah Territory. Even her beloved mother wrote to her, “Death would be better than this betrayal.”
After reports in the local papers, the divorce petition became a national sensation. Ann Eliza was soon besieged by reporters from New York, Chicago, and San Francisco on fire to tell the story of an “apostate” from the Mormon “harem.” Offers for her to lecture also came from P.T. Barnum and James Redpath, the leading lecture manager of the day and an acquaintance of Pond’s when they both knew abolitionist John Brown. When negotiations with Redpath fell apart, Pond said he would manage her.
Ann Eliza and her allies feared she was being watched in her hotel by the Danites, a rumored Mormon secret police accused of silencing enemies of Mormonism. Under cover of night, she fled by the back door and drove by carriage to Uintah rather than Ogden, the logical train station. Pond joined her a few days later.
‘Harem rebel’ speaks
Ann Eliza’s first big lecture was scheduled for Denver, and the evening brought a terrible blizzard. She and Pond feared no one would attend, yet they found a full house with hundreds turned away. Her speech electrified the audience. “To be the 19th wife in the 19th century is wrong,” she declared.
She and Pond decided to work their way to Washington, D.C., to influence Congress to tighten the legal noose on what they considered Mormon “slavery.” Along the way, a thousand people greeted her in Leavenworth, Kan., and she reduced the Wisconsin legislature to tears.
From the beginning Pond and Ann Eliza traveled with her friend and chaperone, a Mrs. Cooke, which assured the propriety essential to her credibility at the lectern. She was usually sponsored along the way by Christian groups who already were taking a risk by associating with a woman some newspapers were calling a “concubine” or “rebel of the harem,” for Ann Eliza was still the plural wife of Brigham Young.
Rumors of an inappropriate alliance with Pond, who often introduced her at the lectern, blossomed into a story in the Chicago Times just as she prepared for a series of Boston lectures crucial to her cause’s success. Pond immediately hired a detective who tracked down the anonymous author of the story, a Mormon lawyer named Bates, and his sources, who recanted. Ann Eliza believed from the first moment that Brigham Young’s money was behind the newspaper story, and indeed $20,000 reportedly changed hands for the printing of the story.
Poland Law passes
Now wary of any perceptions of a close relationship with Pond, Ann Eliza was introduced in Boston’s sold-out Tremont Temple by the fiery James Redpath, who reminded the audience of the nation’s failure to root out the remaining “twin relic of barbarism.” Now a national sensation, Ann Eliza finally arrived in Washington, D.C., where Utah Territory Rep. George Q. Cannon or his aides had sown the salacious newspaper stories against her. But at her appearance at the Capitol, congressmen flocked to meet her, in “a stampede on the floor,” Pond later recalled. President Grant and his wife, Julia, heard her passionate tale at her second lecture in Washington, and Grant personally congratulated her afterward. A few weeks later the long-delayed Poland Law was passed by Congress and signed by President Grant.
We can only imagine what happened next. At the moment of triumph, Ann Eliza and Pond had to choose their ways. Were they in love after all? Rumors have filtered down through their families, but Pond’s grandson James B. Pond II claims there was no romance.
What is certain is that Ann Eliza had found a crusade while Pond had found a vocation. Ann Eliza determined to return to her beloved Utah and to carry her battle to her accusers and write her book. Pond took a position with Redpath and then opened his own lecture management agency in New York City.
Ann Eliza enjoyed a 10-year lecture career. She pursued and was granted a divorce in February 1875 after legal machinations that became front-page news themselves. Brigham Young refused to pay the adjudged alimony and was later fined and jailed for a day for contempt of court. Ann Eliza eventually married a third time and lived for a while in Manistee, Mich., unhappily so, and divorced yet again. In 1908 she republished her memoir, revising and updating the story. Only 1,000 copies were printed, and sales were few. By then “polygamy had become a curiosity, not a cause,” according to Wallace.
After 1908 the trail of her life grows cold, with no record anywhere of the date or location of her death. Wallace ends his biography with this tribute: “The gravestone is missing, but Ann Eliza Young’s monument still stands. Susan B. Anthony gave women the vote. Victoria Woodhull gave women a career. But Ann Eliza Young, twenty-seventh wife, gave women the best gift of all—monogamy triumphant.”
Pond died unexpectedly in 1903, having only just begun his own memoir. But in his 1900 book, Eccentricities of Genius: Memories of Famous Men and Women of the Platform and Stage, he gives Ann Eliza her due: “In all my experience, I have never found so eloquent, so interesting, so earnest a talker. I have heard a great many, too. She had a cause.”
Pond did not suffer Ann Eliza’s fate of obscurity. The New York American ran a front-page obituary, calling him “the most remarkable manager of celebrities the world has ever known.” His most celebrated client, Mark Twain, said of him, “Major Pond’s best gift was his heart—I think he did not know how to do an unkind thing.”
James P. Lenfestey wrote about Hopi Indians imprisoned at Alcatraz in the July/August 2004 issue.
Definitions of ‘Plural Marriage’
Polygyny—the state or practice of a husband having more than one wife at the same time. Mormon church founder Joseph Smith’s revelation of “celestial marriage” required men to take “plural wives” to achieve the highest degree of glory in heaven. Mormons preferred the term “plural marriage.”
Polyandry—the practice having more than one husband at the same time, also sanctioned by Joseph Smith.
Polygamy—an umbrella term encompassing both polygyny and polyandry, although by American custom used only to describe plural wives.
Bigamy—illegally having a second marriage while the first remains valid.
Note: A survey of world cultures described in the 1996 book Polygamous Families in Contemporary Societies indicates that 78 percent practiced polygyny, less than 1 percent practiced polyandry, and 21 percent were strictly monogamous.