This month I am highlighting a controversial woman who refused to be silenced.
Ann Eliza Young went up against the most powerful man of her times. He was the leader of her church, the undisputed head of the pioneer territory, and a man whose authority was unquestioned. He was also her husband.
Divorce was not an option, as long as she was living under the rules of his household. But after several years of plural marriage, Ann Eliza Young left Brigham Young. He was then seventy-six and the highly respected leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon).
With the help of non-Mormon acquaintances, she was able to flee Utah and file for divorce in 1875. Her goal was not only to achieve her own personal freedom, but to travel to Washington D.C. and speak with President Ulysses S. Grant. She wanted to elicit his help in making polygamy illegal in America.
Ann Eliza was Brigham Young’s fifty-second wife—he would go on to have a total of fifty-five. Because of the vague definition of Mormon plural marriage at the time, it did not mean that Brigham necessarily lived with all his wives, some of them could have been married to him in name only.
I am not writing to cast aspersions on the religion into which Ann Eliza was born, but rather to highlight the bravery of a woman disputing the idea that a husband could legally have absolute and total authority over his wife and offspring.
It might help to read this very brief background of the Church of Latter Day Saints, often referred to as Mormon.
In the 1820s a young man in western New York State named Joseph Smith experienced spiritual visions leading him to establish the religion based on the early principles of Christianity. He led his band of initial converts in 1830 to Ohio, and then Missouri, with the purpose of establishing a permanent community. However, from 1831 to 1839 the Mormons met with resistance and persecution for their beliefs. The group moved again and converted a swampland on the banks of the Mississippi River for their new home and christened it, Nauvoo, Illinois. Only a few years later in 1844, Joseph Smith was assassinated by non-Mormons, and the church was thrown into the tumultuous process of establishing a new leader.
The man who would rise to prominence would be forty-three year-old Brigham Young. In 1847 he decided to lead his people west, eventually to the unsettled area called the Utah Territory. Here they would be free to practice their religion. It was also at this time that he began to publicize the positive aspects of plural marriage, or polygamy, that Joseph Smith had endorsed years before.
In a period of a few years, over 60,000 Mormons would move to Utah. Brigham Young incorporated the Latter-day Saints Church as a legal entity, pronounced himself as both the President of the church and the leader of the Utah Territory. Together, this gave him unprecedented power.
Ann Eliza Webb was born to Mormon parents in 1844. Impetuous by nature and with striking good looks, she eloped at the age of nineteen with a Civil War soldier who provided her with two sons but not much of a stable future.
Divorce followed within a few years and Ann Eliza decided to take her two small boys and reunite with her parents, now living in Salt Lake City, Utah. With no viable means of support, her father urged her to accept the proposal of becoming one of Brigham Young’s wives.
She was twenty-four and Brigham Young was sixty-seven.
It is hard to say from our modern viewpoint if Ann Eliza had any idea of what matrimony would be like with a man who had already wed fifty-one times and was currently supporting fifty-six children. All too quickly she must have learned that a marriage involving one man and over fifty women can be fraught with jealousy, bickering, and inevitable favoritism.
At first Ann Eliza lived in Brigham’s large house in Salt Lake City, but then he sent her to manage one of his farms outside the city and only came to visit her on a sporadic basis. Two years later she was brought back to Salt Lake and given a modest house in which to live, but with no financial support beyond basic necessities. In desperation she asked to be allowed to rent out rooms in the house as a way of supporting her two children and her mother, who was living with her at the time.
Who can say for sure what finally forced her to leave. But in 1875 she fled in the middle of the night, bound for the East and freedom. Her two sons were eventually sent to live with relatives.
She was at once excommunicated from church, friends, and family members. Even her mother asked her to reconsider her actions and return to Utah. But there was no turning back.
If Ann Eliza had simply stated that she wanted to live as a free woman, it might have worked. But she went on the speakers’ circuit and publicly accused the Latter-day Saints Church, Brigham Young, and polygamy as being evils that threatened the stability of society.
She wrote and published a book titled, Wife Number Nineteen: the Story of a Life in Bondage. It was met with great success as Americans hungered to read all about Brigham Young and his perceived scandalous polygamy.
Her sensational story accompanied by her impassioned stage delivery and her personal beauty made her a star on the lecture circuit. Her goal, however, to end polygamy was serious. She campaigned relentlessly and in 1882 a bill was passed in Congress which signaled the coming end of polygamy in America.
Brigham Young only lived a few more years after Ann Eliza filed for divorce. To the end, he was engaged in his own campaign to discredit her.
Although she persevered and lived to see the end of polygamy, she became estranged from most of her family, she married and divorced a third time, and eventually died in ambiguity.
Today, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has over 15 million in membership and ranks as the fourth largest denomination of Christians in the United States.
Polygamy is still illegal in America.
Thank you, Ann Eliza Young for being a strong woman.
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Thank you for reading about strong women who persevered to make this world a better place. During this holiday time, I wish for peace on Earth.