Midrash, Eliza, and the Stairs
I’ve started attending local meetings of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, or DUP. This past month I volunteered to share information about my ancestor(s). Since it’s like rolling down hill for me to talk about Jonathan Holmes and Elvira Cowles, I decided to tell their story.
Early in the discussion, it came up that Elvira was treasurer in the Relief Society. Another lady in the group mentioned that her ancestor was admitted to Relief Society, but withdrew herself from membership because she felt it was a haven for gossip and slander. I responded that there was, in fact, a ring of sexual predators, and the Relief Society was a key instrument used to warn the women against the predators (when their identities were still unknown). I continued to mention my supposition that Eliza Snow, if she was pregnant in the summer of 1842, may have been a victim of that ring of predators, led by John C. Bennett.
“Eliza Snow was never pregnant!” came the reply from one of the DUP ladies, someone who has done a lot of research into the life of Eliza Snow. She referred me to an article published the winter of 1982 in BYU Studies, titled “Emma and Eliza and the Stairs.” Turns out this is an article that I have previously read, so there were no factoids to shake my midrashic view that Eliza could have been pregnant and could have been a victim of the Bennett ring. Beecher, Newell, and Avery base their assertion that Eliza couldn’t have been pregnant during the winter of 1842/1843 on the idea that a noticeably pregnant woman would not be out and about due to Victorian prudery. But 1843 in Illinois was far from the newly-minted court of Queen Victoria. The term “Victorian” would not even be used until 1851 at The Great Exhibition in London, when Victorian morals (and inventions) were shown to the world.
But the Beecher/Newell/Avery article poses excellent questions, which I must ask of myself:
- Why was [the story about Emma pushing a pregnant Eliza down the stairs] told and why is it still told?
- What does the telling say about the tellers?
- What “truths of the human heart,” their own human hearts, do people reinforce through the telling?
- How did the story get its start, and which details, if any, are based on fact?
Why was [the story about Emma pushing a pregnant Eliza down the stairs] told and why is it still told?
It appears this story was painstakingly pieced together by LeRoi C. Snow during the first half of the 20th century, long after all parties to the events of 1842/3 were dead and buried. LeRoi had a family right to the story – Eliza Snow was his aunt. Much is made of the fact that LeRoi was still a boy when Eliza died, and therefore was unlikely to have heard the story from her lips.
Consider, however, the written account alleging that “There is scarcely a Mormon unacquainted with the fact that Sister Emma… soon found out the little compromise [plural marriage] arranged between Joseph and Eliza… the harsh treatment received at Emma’s hands is said to have destroyed Eliza’s hopes of becoming mother of a prophet’s son.” The source is an 1886 anti-Mormon book by Wilhelm Wyl, citing the universal “they.” Ironically, Richard and Pamela Price claim Wyl fingered John C. Bennett in 1885 as the father of the child, saying Eliza was the woman Joseph alleged Bennett had courted and betrayed (Bennett was married at the time, a fact unknown to most of his Nauvoo associates).
There does appear to be a significant body of rumor suggesting Eliza was pregnant in early Nauvoo and that some ill treatment at the hands of Emma caused at least a miscarriage. LeRoi Snow was obsessed with chasing the truth of the story to ground, as Eliza’s kin. Since LeRoi’s time, I am aware of three significant authors who have recounted the stair story:
- Fawn Brodie told the story in her psycho-biography of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History. Most modern readers consider Ms. Brodie’s book to be more akin to fiction than history. Important historical documents, like Eliza Snow’s Nauvoo diary, were not available to Ms. Brodie.
- Sam Taylor told the story in his fictional work, Nightfall at Nauvoo. Like Brodie, Sam gets the chronology wrong. But Sam never pretended his book was history, per se. It was a rocking good story, and the vignette with Emma and the staircase makes for great storytelling.
- Orson Scott Card tells the story as happening to Dinah Kirkham, the heroine of his novel, Saints. Again, Card gets the chronology wrong, attributing actions to John C. Bennett after he would no longer have been in Nauvoo. Why inflict this event on his main character, including a hysterectomy Dinah awakes to find being performed on herself by Dr. Bennett? Well, it is dramatic. And Scott does tend to go for the dramatic in all his stories. At least Scott’s version is pure fiction and downplays Emma’s involvement by making Dr. Bennett’s actions so heinous.
Why is it still told? Because it’s titillating and horrific. It’s like the story of the Russian Czar and his family being murdered by the Bolsheviks or the horrific tales Shakespeare told in his plays about various royal families. Emma and Joseph and Eliza Snow are as close to Mormon royalty as it comes.
What does the telling say about the tellers?
All who have told the tale appear to have in common a willingness to write down a lurid story. Of these, fiction writers can be excused the way one would excuse a young child who eats butter from the table with their bare hands. It’s unseemly, but one can scarcely expect polite behavior from a novelist when telling “a tale.”
Ms. Brodie and Wilhelm Wyl had in common a willingness to attribute malevolence to Emma Smith and a common willingness to tell damning stories about the Smiths.
LeRoi Snow appears to have pulled together scraps of tales that allowed him to put Wyl’s account in a human perspective that was consistent with the people LeRoi had known during his life. LeRoi apparently was not willing or able to completely dismiss the possibility that Eliza had been pregnant [by Joseph].
I’m planning to tell a variant of the tale, inflicting pregnancy on the beloved Eliza Snow after she has no ability to deny my version. Even if I call my story midrash aggada (rabbinic retelling of a story to explore ethics and values), I am not pretending my version is anything more than fiction that happens to be plausible within the realm of extant fact. My fingers are still greasy with forbidden fat, like the novelists before me. All I can claim is that my greasy abuse of Eliza will impute a purpose to exposing a largely pregnant woman to public view, and an innocent telling of the staircase tragedy that accounts for all the rumors without blaming any of the good people present in those rumors.
What “truths of the human heart,” their own human hearts, do people reinforce through the telling?
I would have to say that Wyl and Brodie didn’t much care about truths of the human heart. I think Wyl cared about truth – apparently his 1885 innuendo linking Eliza and Bennett had aroused rebuttals that led him in 1886 to assert “they” all knew Joseph was the father of Eliza’s miscarried child.
LeRoi, I think, was semi-obsessed with finding out how his beloved aunt could have been involved in the twisted tale that had survived to the 20th century. His was the quest of the genealogist. We genealogists are thrilled when we think we’ve found truth, no matter how sad that truth may be.
Taylor and Card were exploring the extremes to which people are pushed under intense pressure. Who, in our modern age of innocents being shot by other children, can claim that the tale of the staircase is entirely implausible? Taylor and Card are telling cautionary tales – showing us the damage we cause when we lash out in anger and fear.
And for me? The truth of my human heart is that all individuals think they are in the right. We all think we are doing the best thing humanly possible. And yet terrible things can happen and terrible misunderstandings occur even when everyone is kind and well-meaning.
How did the story get its start, and which details, if any, are based on fact?
Here I think Beecher, Newell, and Avery make their point. The staircase altercation could easily have been between Eliza Partridge and Emma. The row needn’t have involved anything more than stupid jealousy of Joseph’s attention to a teenaged girl Emma herself had ‘given’ to her husband. No contemporary appears to have written anything that unambiguously paints Eliza Snow as a pregnant woman in Nauvoo. Certainly Eliza’s own diary makes it unlikely in the extreme that a late-term miscarriage could have occurred before March 17, 1843.
But could not such a tale have been given credence if a largely pregnant Eliza had been shielded from public view, but displayed prominently to Joseph’s inner circle and the children of those confidants? Certainly by 1885/86, there doesn’t appear to be a written rebuttal to Wyl’s writings, and Eliza Snow was still alive and very lucid.
Eliza was given a chance to deny she could ever have been pregnant. According to Joseph Smith III, Angus Cannon said “Brother Heber C. Kimball, I am informed, asked [Eliza Snow] the question if she was not a virgin although married to Joseph Smith and afterwards to Brigham Young, when she replied in a private gathering, “I thought you knew Joseph Smith better than that.””
Angus Cannon was the appellant in the case of Cannon v. United States, which was decided by the United States Supreme Court in 1885, so he had a vested interested in the tale he told. He was also old enough to remember if Eliza had been pregnant, as member of the circle of children likely to have been either pupil of Eliza or playmate of Eliza’s pupils. Let us introduce two seemingly innocent twists to the quote and place it in 1885 around the time of Wyl’s written speculations about Eliza and John C. Bennett.
“Heber  Kimball (son of Heber C. Kimball, age-mate of Angus Cannon and another inner-circle 7-8 year old child in Nauvoo) asked Eliza Snow in a private gathering the question if she had been [celibate] in her marriage to Joseph Smith. [Young Heber and young Angus could have been eye-witnesses to Eliza’s pregnancy, if she had been pregnant while teaching school in the Red Brick Store during the winter of 1842/3. Asking her if her marriage to Joseph had been celibate would be a semi-discreet way of getting her to rebut Wyl’s tale circa 1885.]
” ‘I thought you knew Joseph Smith better than that,’ Eliza replied.”
Eliza’s reply to Heber Kimball, if correctly reported, has the beauty of confirming nothing yet implying worlds. Her reply is equally vague and brillant whether in response to Heber C. Kimball asking about virginity before his death in 1868 or to the younger Heber Kimball asking about celibacy in a specific marriage to clarify the truth or error of a troubling accusation.
I don’t know that Eliza was ever pregnant. Nor, therefore, do I know whether she was impregnated by John C. Bennett. But her pregnancy is still plausible, and the possibility that John C. Bennett was the father is also still plausible. In fact, certain extant factoids from 1842/3 Nauvoo make the Bennett connection more than merely plausible. Consider Eliza’s poem, The Bride’s Avowal (Inscribed to Miss L. for her bridal morning.), published in The Wasp on August 13, 1842:
My lord, the hour approaches, Our destinies to twine
In one eternal wreath of fate; As holy beings join.
May God approve our union, May angels come to bless;
And may our bridal wreath be gemm’d With endless happiness…
The world has smil’d upon me– I scorn its flattery;
For naught but thy approving look, Is happiness to me.
I would not sell they confidence, For all the pearls that strew
The ocean’s bed, or all the gems That sparkle in Peru.
Maybe there really was a Miss L. getting married that week in Nauvoo. (note to self – check the cool book on Nauvoo deaths and marriages next time you’re in the history center to verify if any “Miss L.” was getting married that month). But the language of the poem goes well beyond the normal mushy love stuff.
Let us consider the possibility that Eliza wrote this poem in April/May 1842, while Bennett could have been ensnaring her with his vision of secret spiritual wivery and promiscuous liaisons. If Bennett mislead Eliza, he had surely deceived the very elect of Israel. Her poem fits as a private missive to a prospective lover or secret spouse.
Eliza’s later writings regarding plural marriage have a completely different quality. Examples include the love poem she writes for Jonathan and Elvira in September 1842, the text to “O My Father” in 1845, and the muted journal entry on the day Eliza became covenant wife of Joseph Smith.
The poem talks of holy beings, confidences, keeping faith though bribery be applied–all factors in the spiritual wivery scheme Bennett’s crowd used to seduce women. It is not the typical stuff of poems written by maidens for their maidenly friends. We also know that the very day this poem appeared in The Wasp, Eliza was evicted from the home where she was staying (with Sarah Cleveland). Her father, Oliver, recently estranged from the church, brought a carriage to Nauvoo to fetch Eliza home. And Emma Smith sent Elvira Cowles that day to invite Eliza Snow to come live with the Smiths. Busy day, that. To my novelist’s eye, the events are very suggestive. For better or worse, the events of August 1842 have never previously been convolved with the legend of the staircase. But it all fits together in a coherent narrative.
So maybe my new DUP buddies will shun me. But I don’t see any particular reason to shy away from a midrash aggada where Eliza is pregnant by Bennett and loses the child after March 17, 1843.