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Dating Fanny Alger (Part 1 of 12)

Don Bradley is one of the funniest Mormon historians I know.  In our first conversation with Don, we’ll talk about my first memory of him, which deals with the timing of Fanny Alger’s marriage/affair with Joseph Smith.  Was Fanny pregnant?  Don Bradley thinks it is a strong possibility.  Check out our conversation….

Don:  A big part of doing history is actually just lining things up in their proper order. Once you get the sequence of events right, you can see the causation. You can watch the dominoes fall. But if you don’t have the dominoes in the right order, you can’t see what caused what or what made what to happen. Once you place Emma’s discovery of that relationship in the proper place, you can suddenly see why there are various people in Kirtland dissenting, why Joseph Smith takes off on a sudden trip and goes somewhere else for a while, why Fanny Alger suddenly takes off and goes the opposite direction to Indiana. It all lines up beautifully once you get things in the proper order. But a key piece of that evidence was actually identifying Eliza R. Snow’s contribution to Andrew Jensen’s research. It helps to show that this was a marriage that Eliza R. Snow, who was around the time was there in the house. She didn’t think that this was an affair. Her understanding was this was an early plural marriage. So it has lots of implications.

GT:  This is great. Can we stay here for a minute? Because I have a lot of questions about this. As I recall, and please correct me if I’m wrong, it seems like you are making the case that this marriage to Fanny happened after the Elijah’s visit was in March or April of 1836?

Don: So that’s a possibility that I’m raising. It was pointed out to me immediately after the presentation, actually by two Community of Christ apostles who were there, that for a woman at the time of her first pregnancy, she usually starts showing a little bit later. Fanny, the reports say, was visibly pregnant at the time Emma discovered the relationship. And so the chronology there might not work for the relationship to have begun after April 3, because Fanny would have had to have had the time to get pregnant and then start showing before Emma discovered the relationship according to some of the sources.

GT:  Wasn’t it discovered in the barn?

Don:  Yes. But she was also said to have been visibly pregnant and the people who are saying this are actually the people whose home that Fanny moved into when she was kicked out of the Smith home. So they would know. And so a likely sequence of events is Fanny is showing signs of pregnancy, maybe morning sickness. She is starting to show, right? And that makes Emma suspicious something is going on. And so she starts following Fanny’s movements more and finds Joseph and Fanny together in the barn.

We will also talk about whether Emma Smith pushed Eliza Snow down the stairs.  What do you think of Don’s research?

Historian Don Bradley thinks Fanny Alger may have been pregnant.

Don’t miss our previous conversations about Fanny Alger with Brian Hales.

047: Fanny Alger Part 2:  Marriage or Adultery? (Hales)

046: 1st Plural Wife Fanny Alger: Time or Eternity Polygamy?  (Hales)

18 thoughts on “Dating Fanny Alger (Part 1 of 12)

  1. “Dating” Fanny Alger…I can’t stop giggling.

  2. Thanks for this! Also I probably have a twisted mind, but I first read the title as meaning “Taking Fanny Alger Out on Dates.” Seriously though, in light of Lindsay Hansen Park’s latest YOP podcast, I’ve always wondered how courtship in plural marriage worked. The usual narrative uncomfortably echoes some of the current day proposal discourse I hear about at BYU (revelations of future matrimony, taking your “date” to “gaze at the temple” while talking about celestial exaltation, talk of destiny, etc.), but I wonder if there were more widespread pre-marriage “dates” and even physical intimacy in the world of plural marriage.

  3. Yes, the title of Don’s presentation was intentionally supposed to have a double meaning!

  4. I have long wondered whether Fanny was confessing sin to JS in the barn, and was pregnant. And JS simply was protecting her by not objecting to the dispersions against him from Emma, rather than the person who caused the condition. Seems to me that is a more plausible version of reality than, he was adulterous and got caught and then claimed marriage to cover the birth of a child, or even he was trying out polygamy. If it was that, then why would JS have claimed to all those involved, contemporaneously with the actual act, that Beman was the first plural marriage

  5. Did you listen to the interview? Fanny’s family said it was a marriage. Eliza R. Snow said it was a marriage. Oliver Cowdery accused Joseph of a “dirty, nasty, filthy, affair/scrape” with Fanny. Joseph never denied a relationship with Fanny. There is nothing in the historical record to support your supposition at all.

  6. “Fanny’s family said it was a marriage.” What is the source of that?

  7. To say Joseph never denied it is untrue.

    In 1838, one of the charges against Oliver in his High Council trial was “seeking to destroy the character of President Joseph Smith jr, by falsly insinuating that he was guilty of adultry &c.”

    Oliver Cowdery had accused Joseph of adultery with Fanny. Witnesses before the High Council provided testimony of Oliver spreading this lie. Joseph provided an explanation of the “girl business” to the High Council and explained what he believed were Oliver’s motives for the lie.

    Joseph did in fact deny the relationship Oliver was accusing him of. And he did so effectively, because he convinced the High Council that Oliver was lying. The High Council excommunicated Oliver.

  8. Joseph and Oliver discussed plural marriage back when they were translating the BoM – Jacob 2-3. Plural marriage was discussed later in 1831 when they were doing missionary work with the Indians – inter-marrying with them. In each case, Oliver was pro and Joseph felt it to be a true principle but argued they should wait, or at least Oliver should wait.

    But by 1836, with Fanny, the evidence pretty strongly that Joseph and Fanny were married. And that they dodnt consider it adultery. They knew the true Biblical definition.

  9. Thanks for answering my question on FV and pointing me here, Rick. There’s so much to learn, and I love the work you’re doing here, which is why I’m a subscriber. Thank you!

  10. Thank you for support Gospel Tangents! I appreciate it!

  11. Sounds like adultery to me.
    No sealing powers “resored” at that point, and It was illegal to be married as such.
    And IF such a marriage did exist, where did it end? She left and married some other man in a hurry and declined to speak of her relation with Joseph… If married, that’s adulterous, if not married, that is categorically adulerous behavior from Joseph if one is to beleive the evidence and Oliver’s word. Obviously joseph would deny it, just as he denied polygamy later in life and had the navoo expositor destroyed for printing of it… triggering a series of events that resulted in his (not martyrdom) death.

    I’m just calling it how I see it. If there was something going on between joe and Fanny… and there’s evidence that there was and so it apears that way… Adultery.

    Adultery from the “Prophet?”
    A true believing member would call that blaspheme and heretics then curse the thought becsuse it breaks the image.

  12. I believe that Don is really stretching here. The only source that is reliable in the least that he could be referring to in order to establish this theory is a statement published by a rabid anti-Mormon Wilhelm Wyl in 1886 in which he purports to quote Chancey Webb (the household where Fannie Alger went after she was evicted by Emma from the household) to the effect that: “In Kirtland (Joseph Smith) was sealed there secretly to Fannie Alger. Emma was furious and drove the girl, who was unable to conceal the consequences of her celestial relation with the prophet, out of the house.” Quoted in Mormon Portraits p. 57.

    But concluding that Fannie was pregnant from this source is beyond irresponsible. First, the source is not reliable and it is late. But even if taken at face value, it does not refer to intercourse. Using the term “celestial relation” to refer to sexual intercourse would have been the single most unique and inappropriate use of the term in history. In fact the source tells us what the “celestial relation” amounted to: it was a sealing. We have corroboration from other sources that Emma saw the sealing through a slat in the barn. We know that Mosiah Hancock claimed that his father sealed Fannie and Joseph in a ceremony in the barn.

    The best hypothesis most explanatory of all of the evidence is that Emma saw the sealing ceremony and was so upset that she turned Fannie out. We can be sure that Oliver Cowdery knew from both Emma and Joseph what she experienced because he was called in by them to mediate the dispute. If Emma had asserted that she saw Joseph having sexual relations with Fannie then the entire scope of testimony at the 1837 Council Trial would have made no sense because the accusation rested on what Oliver claimed Joseph had admitted himself. Oliver could have just asserted that he heard from Emma herself what she saw. But we know from the minutes of the High Council proceedings that is not the accusation made by Oliver — the claim was that Oliver had insinuated that Joseph himself had admitted to adultery.

    Further, we can be sure that Oliver did not back off because Joseph explained that it was an instance of polygamy. When Oliver returned to the Church in 1848 he was still entirely and existentially against polygamy. If Oliver believed that Joseph did not admit that Joseph had committed adultery because he was married in a polygamous relationship to Alger, then Oliver would never have admitted that such a relation was not an admission of adultery. Such a view just does make sense of the evidence.

    Further, whatever Joseph told the High Council mullified them about the “girl business”. So what did he tell them? Joseph admitted at the trial that he had confided in Oliver and shared with Oliver the facts about “the girl business”. If Joseph had told the council that he had intercourse with Fannie but it was OK because he was married to her in a polygamous relation we can be absolutely positive that there would have been an uproar and apostasy — immediately. But that isn’t what happened.

    So what did Joseph say? It seems quite likely that Joseph confided in the council regarding the power that had been restored to seal families and couples and that he had been sealed to Fannie because he considered her to be part of his family. He was her legal guardian after all. It is the only scenario I can see that makes sense of the council’s treatment of what Joseph actually said (by not discussing it further) and being satisfied with what Joseph said about the “girl business”.

    One point seems clear to me: my good friend Don Bradley (for whom I have both affection and respect) appears to have jumped to unwarranted conclusions about Fannie being pregnant. This theory is not supported by any reliable evidence and the “evidence” that Don has cited in the past (Wyl’s 1886 report of Webb’s statement) appears to me to just misunderstand the evidence.

  13. Blake, thanks for weighing in. I was under the impression that there were other family members who concluded Fanny was pregnant. Is this not true, or are you saying these reports are not credible?

  14. No other credible sources for this notion exist. There was a lot of rumor mongering in Kirtland at the time suggesting as much — but it was nothing more than 3rd and 4th hand rumor.

  15. Bill get a clue. The sealing between Joseph Smith and Fannie Alger had to occur sometime in the summer of 1836, after he sealing power was restored. First, we know from Eliza Snow that she was present when Fannie was living with the Smith — and that limits when the matter could have occurred. She lived with the Smiths in the summer of 1836. Further, we know that Joseph and Oliver Cowdery were on very good terms on 3 April 1836 because they had a vision of Christ and Elijah in the Kirtland temple on that date. It is one of the best attested events in the Restoration because the event was recorded almost immediately and Oliver Cowdery confirmed it several times. But what is just maddening is that Don Bradley has already given the evidence for dating when Emma kicked Fannie out of he house — and it is on this very website! That means that the evidence is compelling that the Fannie Alger sealing to Joseph Smith happened after the sealing power was restored.

  16. Blake, I talked to Don today and he says there are more sources than you mention. You might want to check out his essay in the Persistence of Polygamy Volume 2 on this topic.

  17. Rick I have read vol. 2 of the Persistence of Polygamy and I am well aware of the other supposed sources — but they are even less reliable and less supportive of the assertion that Fanny Alger was pregnanat when she was excluded from the Smith household. There is the statement by Ann Eliza Webb to the effect that she did not know of any “living” children that were begotten by Joseph Smith. See Young, Wife No. 19, 66–67; discussed by Bachman, “Mormon Practice of Polygamy”, 83n102; see also Ann Eliza Webb Young to Mary Bond, 24 April 1876 and 4 May. Don surmises that the qualifier “living” would not have been used unless there were some that did not live. But that is beyond a stretch. It does not say anything about a pregnancy or children and is a surmise that is even less reliable than the assertion that Chauncey Webb’s statement somehow supports that Fanny Alger was pregnant.

    I repeat, the notion that there is any reliable evidence that Fanny Alger was pregnant when Emma kicked her out. The rumor mill in Kirtland and the statements so far removed from personal knowledge that they cannot be given any credibility should not be considered evidence.

    DNA evidence demonstrated conclusively in 2005 that Fanny Alger’s illigatimate son, Orrison Smith (born sometime between 1834 and 1836 when Fanny was in Kirtland), is not Joseph Smith’s offspring. Ugo A. Perego, Natalie M. Myers, and Scott R. Woodward, “Reconstructing the Y-Chromosome of Joseph Smith Jr.: Genealogical Applications, Journal of Mormon History Vol. 32, No. 2 (Summer 2005) 70-88.

    Look at it this way. By far and away that most reliable evidence we have regarding Jospeh’s relation to Fanny Alger consists of Oliver Cowdery’s letter to his brother where he calls the fight among Emma and Joseph a “dirty, nasty scrape” and the 1838 High Council minutes where we know that Oliver did NOT assert that Joseph Smith had in fact had intercourse. If Fanny were showing and that is why Emma kicked her out, Oliver would undoubtedly have asserted that Emma was upset because she could see that Fanny was expecting and because Joseph Smith and Fanny engaged in sexual relations. All of the arguing over whether Joseph Smith admitted that he committed adultery would have been completely unnecessary and quite beside the point.

  18. Whoops, “illegitimate” mot” illigitimate”.

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