History Features

Shedding the Cross of Polygamy

Ann Eliza Webb, wife of Brigham Young, spoke out against plural marriages.

She did the unthinkable—divorcing the powerful leader of the Mormon Church, a man labeled a “living prophet” who was believed to speak directly with God. But Ann Eliza Young could not tolerate her position as “Wife No. 19” to Brigham Young, and in her rebellion, she exposed the horrors of polygamy.

She was born Ann Eliza Webb on September 3, 1844, in Nauvoo, Illinois, a settlement founded by Mormons. Her father, Chauncey, was a carriage maker who would eventually—reluctantly at first—take other wives until he had five. When she was two, her family joined the Zion exodus that eventually settled them in Utah Territory.

Her childhood wasn’t happy, she’d later write in her book, Wife No. 19, mainly because of the “blight of polygamy.” She had watched her own mother suffer and early on, recognized the pain that plural marriage brought to a family. Of her mother, she wrote “that misery came to her as it came to all the [Mormon] women then, under the guise of religion—something that must be endured ‘for Christ’s sake.’ And, as her religion had brought her nothing but persecution and sacrifice, she submitted to this new trial as to everything that had preceded it, and she received polygamy as a cross laid upon her.”

Ann Eliza never intended to enter into plural marriage, and she left her first husband when he flirted with the practice. She took her two sons to her parents’ home. She was a beautiful 24-year-old and quickly caught the eye of 68-year-old Brigham Young. Although she was repulsed, the church leader used his powers to blackmail her into marriage. Her brother had entered into a business contract with Young that failed, and Young threatened to ruin him and drive him from the church—unless Ann Eliza agreed to be his bride. To save her brother and his family from expulsion, she agreed to marry the “Lion of the Lord” in 1869.

What happened next makes you wonder if this marriage wasn’t just a power trip for the old, unattractive grandfather. He never moved his new wife and her boys into his grand “Lion House,” but instead into a shabby, small and ill-furnished home where there never was enough food or clothing. Despite having been forced to marry the wealthiest man in Utah—if not the entire West—Ann Eliza realized she would have to make her own money to support herself and her sons. She started taking in boarders to make ends meet.

The final straw came when she asked her rich husband for money to buy a cookstove and he refused. After five years of enduring this ridiculous marriage, she decided she would take no more. Before Brigham knew what had happened, Ann Eliza sold off her meager furniture, left him and was sheltered by gentile friends—the dreaded “enemy”—in a Salt Lake City hotel.

The first night, she reports she stayed awake all night, fearing a violent revenge for her impertinence. By the next day, her story had been leaked to the media, and reporters from around the country came seeking interviews with the woman with the guts to walk out on Utah’s ultimate power. Her friends convinced her to speak freely with the media and to address a crowd in the hotel that had come to support her. That experience led to her new life.

Her father helped her escape from Salt Lake City in the dead of night, and Ann spent the next decade lecturing around the country in her quest to end polygamy. In 1875, she wrote the best-seller, Wife No. 19.

“Her impact in rallying public opinion against polygamy was not only effective, but she herself became a successful lecturer, earning remarkably high fees for the time,” historian Dorothy Gray notes in her 1976 Women of the West.

Brigham Young and the Mormon hierarchy tried unsuccessfully to smear Ann with charges that she was a loose woman. One happy backfire of their efforts was that Ann’s mother—initially begging her daughter to return to the church and her husband—finally left her religion and moved from Utah to Ann’s home in Michigan.

Ann’s message eventually got trampled in the struggle for the vote, Gray reports. Non-Mormons found polygamy the most obnoxious aspect of Mormonism and believed if Mormon women had the vote, they would repudiate the practice. A bill was introduced in Congress demanding the vote for Utah women.

“The Mormons in Utah realized that the ... basic assumption was wrong—Mormon women obeyed their church and were held in bondage in polygamy by religious conviction and not by lack of political power,” Gray notes.

The Utah Legislature gave women the vote in 1870. It was a brilliant political move—not only deflating the criticism from Washington, but also assuring thousands more Mormon-friendly votes at the very time non-Mormon settlers were moving into Utah.

“Ignorant of the politics of the state, a number of suffrage leaders in the East now looked with friendly eyes on Mormony,” Gray notes. “As a consequence, the champion against polygamy, Ann Eliza Young, found herself being attacked in the women’s rights press for taking issue with the Mormons. To suffragists in the East, the right to vote outweighed even the obnoxious condition of polygamy.”

In 1890, the federal government forced the Mormon Church to give up polygamy as the price of statehood. In 1909, when Ann Eliza wrote her second book, A Life in Bondage, she found the public no longer interested in polygamy.

There is no record of her after 1908; when and where she died has never been discovered. Although some historians would try to dismiss her as a “shrew,” in the history of polygamy, her name still burns bright.

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