While at the library yesterday hunting through old books for Wondermark source material, I came across this article in the 1891 volume of a magazine called The Illustrated American. Entitled “Is Polygamy a Success?”, it’s letters from readers responding to a previous article written by a self-described “ex-Mormon,” in which the writer denounces Mormonism with claims that its members practice polygamy.
These letters were just the beginning of a huge outcry by Mormons and others against the magazine. In later issues, the editors of The Illustrated American comment on a libel suit brought against them by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints; later still, they print a letter from Wilford Woodruff, the president of the church at that time, who defends the Church against what he perceives as mischaracterizations in the article by the “ex-Mormon.” The whole exchange is fascinating, because it really shows how fiercely polygamy was a hot-button issue for religious leaders at the time.
Due to time constraints, I didn’t scan pages from the later issues; anyone interested in this particular wrinkle in the history of the Mormon church can look up 1891 issues of The Illustrated American. But this letters column, in which many parties defend polygamy, was particularly interesting to me because of the window it affords into the state of family relationships in the late 19th Century — how the institution of marriage used to be considered, what’s changed, and interestingly, what hasn’t (how many wives today still feel like “school-masters” treating their husbands like “truant pupils”?).
Full transcript after the jump.
IS POLYGAMY A SUCCESS?
CURIOUS LETTERS FROM LADIES WHO SUBSCRIBE TO “THE ILLUSTRATED AMERICAN” — DENUNCIATION AND DEFENCE OF MORMONISM
Our articles on Mormonism have attracted far more attention than we anticipated. There is not a city, hardly a country town, in the United States from which we have not received communications on the subject. And, strange to say, the tone of these communications is very different from what might generally be expected.
Are the women of this country in favor of polygamy? We may unhesitatingly assert that the majority are not. Delicate women sicken at the thought. Mrs. Stenhouse’s book on Mormonism expresses what most of her sex wish to believer about the subject — that the male Mormons are vulgar sensualists, and that the female Mormons are their unfortunate victims.
The minority dissents. There are women who regard the immaculate lives lived by the Mormon peasants, and contrast them with the immoralities that beset their own homes. We cannot pretend to sympathize with this view of the case. We merely record it as helping to complete the evidence. Here is a food for our legislators to digest.
The columns of THE ILLUSTRATED AMERICAN will be open to all who care to write it on the subject. Do not shrink from speaking frankly. The only value of a symposium such as this comes from its entire candor.
Let us read the first batch of letters — six selected from hundreds.
NO. I. A CHANGE OF HEART.
To the Editor of THE ILLUSTRATED AMERICAN.
The articles of THE ILLUSTRATED AMERICAN on the subject of Mormonism interested me so much that for two reasons I feel impelled to do what I have never done before in my life — to write a letter for publication. The two reasons are: First, that I once was an active member of a society for the suppression of Mormonism; and, second, that I have since learned more about the Mormons than I knew when I was ignorantly denouncing them. You see it is my conscience that urges me to speak in their defence.
It is easy to denounce the Mormons; it is difficult to prove any of the accusations. Indeed, save on the one question of polygamy, there is hardly a definite accusation made. As a woman, I am most interested in this question of polygamy; it was this practice that led me, years ago, to join in the outcry against the settlers of Utah; it is now my better knowledge of the results of polygamy that makes me write this letter.
I have been married eighteen years. I have a comfortable home. I see my husband as often as a schoolmaster sees a truant pupil, and I am obliged to keep up appearances. I am obliged to be blind, refrain from doing the one thing that might give me back my self-respect — accept the situation openly. A woman’s husband should be, above all things, her friend. How can a husband be the friend of his wife, with such a pretence between them? Therefore I am practically widowed, yet bound by the most galling chains; free, yet confined within the limits of narrower than the woman whose waking hours are bought for a pittance. Such is my lot. What is the lot of the Mormon woman mated with a polygamist husband?
The part I took in the war against Mormonism brought me in contact with such women, to-day I feel bitter sorrow at the thought that my puny efforts helped to break up happy homes. One of these women was one of seven wives of a bishop at the Mormon Church. Although ignorant, uncultivated, and unattractive in appearance, she was eminently kind and companionable in disposition. “If polygamy can make good use of such rough material,” one of my friends said of her, “there must be some good in it.” And she was entirely happy until Congress chose to punish in one section of the country what is permitted in every other section. Another Mormon woman spoke to me of the friendly relations existing between the different members of one family. I could go on at great length giving such testimony of polygamy in Utah. I will merely add one word about the children of polygamous unions. So far as I have been able to learn, they are more sound physically, mentally, and morally than the average of those born in non-Mormon communities.
If I cold, I would persuade my husband to join the Mormon Church.
Very sincerely yours,
G. P. W.
KALAMAZOO, MICH., January 6th.
NO. II. A SOLITUDE OF TWO
My Dear Mr. Editor.
I wanted to say a word in favor of polygamy. Perhaps that opening sentence will make you start. But, after all, polygamy is not all bad — indeed, it has a great many features that recommend it. In the first place, it keeps a woman from being too lonely. She may always find friends and acquaintances in her own household, or even (happy thought) an enemy with whom to fight and squabble and make things lively, in place of the dreary monotony of home life in a monogamous country.
And, second, it prevents your seeing too much of your husband. Now men are very charming until you know them too well, and then they are simply unbearable. I don’t know which solitude is the worst, a solitude of entire loneliness or a solitude of two, of man and wife after each becomes a juiceless orange to the other, and has no particle of sap or flavor left — only the rind which grows drier, and more and more tasteless day by day.
It doesn’t pay to have a husband let a wife see too much of him. Indeed, I think men must be naturally a great deal more stupid than even we married women are conscious of. We cannot quite get over the early teaching that man is superior to the animal. In domestic life we find that he is not our superior, but very humdrum, very stupid. Nevertheless, we make excuses for him. We say the bow must be unbent sometimes. We imagine it unbends at home in order that it may be fitter for the duties of the morrow, in that arena of conflict in which in demonstrates its real usefulness. Well, I don’t know about that. A bow that relaxes so completely as some men that I wot of cannot recover its suppleness even when the string is drawn taut.
I fancy that the real reason that a few men get along so well in the world is not that they are so clever, but that they come into competition with such a stupid lot of fellowmen.
Wait until women invade the business field, as they have been invading other fields of activity!
How I have been rambling all along! I started out to say a few good words for polygamy, and here I have turned round and given you a lecture on woman’s rights, and on the inferiority of the male.
But, really, any system of household economy that would enable us women to see more of each other and less of our husbands would, I think, be beneficial to our intelligence, to our temper, and to our happiness.
BOSTON, MASS., January 8th.
NO. III. CHARITY BEGINS AT HOME.
To the Editor of THE ILLUSTRATED AMERICAN.
Your articles upon Mormonism have interested me very much. I perfectly recognize the danger to this country of an imperium in imperio, but we have to concede but one thing to the Mormons and they will become good citizens.
I wish to speak of that “one thing” that prevents those hard-working of Mormons (I have lived among them and know what thy have done with brain and brawn) from becoming dutiful subjects of Uncle Sam.
Polygamy is the only charge we can bring against them. The politicians who throw polygamy into the faces of the Saints are worse than the men they accuse. The Mormons practised polygamy until lately in public. The politicians have always practised polygamy in private. The Saints were honest. The politicians are hypocrites.
Nay, I will go further. Ninety per cent of the married voters in this country practice polygamy in private.
I am a married woman, not so young as I once was, but still comely. I provide my husband with board and lodging; in fact, with everything except pin-money. I have proof positive that he is a polygamist. Once upon a time I objected to his being so. But I found that the husbands of every one of my friends — without a single exception — were the same. So I came to the conclusion that all married men were polygamists, although, in case I may have missed the pure man, I have allowed that of ten per cent. of them kept the vows they made at the altar or to some police justice.
I judge therefore that polygamy among men is inevitable. If the Almighty of the Scriptures did not think so, he would not have “chosen” Abraham, nor would his inspired writers have placed David upon a pedestal.
So far as I am concerned, I object to my husband being a polygamist. But as I have failed to discover any means of preventing his being so, I prefer his polygamy being legalized, and that the law shall not make him a liar and a hypocrite.
No amount of laws will eradicate the brute from the man. Modern legislation tends to make him a liar. A liar is more dangerous to the community than a brute.
I fear I have failed to express myself properly, for, like all women, I am illogical; but I know what I want to say, and that is, that we have no right to disfranchise the honest, hard-working lot of men like the Mormons, simply because they are breaking the same commandment that most of our husbands are.
NEW YORK, January 9th
NO. IV. MISS OR MRS.?
To the Editor of THE ILLUSTRATED AMERICAN.
When you denounce Mormonism and polygamy with such fury, did it never occur to you that there were two sides of the question? You represent one side; I represent another.
I am called Mrs. _____. I fancy I detect a smile on the lips of the persons who so address me. Were polygamy possible, I could defy that smile.
Among other Christmas presents I received two bracelets, one of turquoises and pearls, and the other of matched diamonds; they cost six thousand dollars or more. I mention this to show that, whatever my troubles may be, want of money is not among them.
I have other jewelry, worth at least thirty thousand dollars; I have bonds registered in my own name — my real name — to the amount of sixty-eight thousand dollars; I have in bank eight thousand dollars in cash. Such is my position.
I have no husband.
My life is very lonely, very sad. He who is accepted as my husband has another part to play in life, another household to display the world. He showers gifts upon me; but the gifts I desire he cannot give me.
These are companionship and a good name.
I have never been a wicked girl; that people smile when they address me as “Mrs. _____” is no more to be imputed as blame to me than the bird should be blamed when it falls into the snare of the fowler. Yet I am suffering a wrong which cannot be righted.
When polygamy is denounced, is the case such as I remembered? I am only one of many.
My life is very lonely; how can I have friends when I have no husband? The only acquaintances open to me are such as my refined nature nature revolts at. The church is closed to me while my sin endures.
Why do I not terminate my fault? you ask. How can I give up all that the world holds for me? I reply.
Purity, the sacredness of the marriage tied, seem the greatest things in the world to me. For me they are unattainable.
In my case, would it not be in the furtherance of purity and the sanctity of marriage to permit polygamy?
I am a wife in fact, but not in name. My rival, as I call her, is a wife in name, but not in fact. Is not this polygamy in fact, though not in name? I do not believe that his wife begrudges his attention to me. But he and I are unhappy.
Do you understand now what I meant when I said that there were two sides to the question of Mormonism and polygamy?
A. L. B.
NEW ORLEANS, January 5th.
NO. V. BIRDS OF A FEATHER.
To the Editor of THE ILLUSTRATED AMERICAN.
I have been greatly interested in the reminiscences of a Mormon elder published in THE ILLUSTRATED AMERICAN. I am not afraid of the Mormons fighting, but I think it is interesting to read anything which relates to the question, “Is marriage a failure?” Whatever you say, you do not show that it is a failure among the Mormons; but, on the contrary, even where there is more than one wife, they seem to live happily. The wives, even the plural wives, seem to live fuller and better lives than we do. What is the reason of this? Among Gentiles few wives are ever able to form a close, enduring, and sympathetic friendship with another woman. They try, in many cases, to expend their entire sympathy upon their husbands, and the result is dismal failure. Women can express volumes to one another by look; it would be simply impossible for a woman in a lifetime to make her husband comprehend that she an communicate to a woman by that one look. Still, women will try to make men comprehend, with the result that both the man and the woman become irritated, the one by the dullness of comprehension of the other; the other, by the foolishness which cherishes such ideas. Now, when there are several women in a household, as among the plural families of the Mormons, one woman sustains another, and gives her the sympathy she needs. This, at least, is the lesson that I have read from the story of the Mormons.
S. S. W.
PENSACOLA, FLA., January 6th.
NO. VI. THE GREEN-EYED MONSTER.
Dear Mr. Editor.
Will you allow a poor lone wife to put in a word about the Mormon question which you have been ventilating in your very charming paper?
I have had no personal experience of polygamy, but I have been in Utah, and I am quite sure that the wives of the wicked Mormons are quite as cheerful and contented as the wives of the good Gentiles who inhabit the rest of this happy country. They know little or nothing of the real horrors of jealousy. And there is no pain, no grief, more bitter than the genuine article. They may, indeed, know that this or that wife is engrossing the choicest affection of their lord and master. But all is open and above board. There is no secrecy, no mystery. The horrors of doubt, of gradual disillusionment, of final contempt, and disbelief in one’s ideal — these are not theirs to bear. They may suffer heart-burnings, their vanity may be hurt, but the final touch — the insult added to injury, the feeling one’s self disgraced before the world.
You may say that few women go through these experiences. Well, that is what is considered to be the proper thing to say in print. But you men know you own sex better than we do. What do you say among yourselves, when you are speaking in good faith and not necessarily for publications?
M. B. M.
EAU CLAIRE, WIS., January 5th.