By Deja Earley
Deja Earley is the author of To the Mormon Newlyweds Who Thought the Bellybutton Was Somehow Involved, published by Signature Books.
Or right-click here to download the audio file: Five Fish in a Barrel: Phineas and His Wives
My ancestor Phineas Wolcott Cook didn’t learn about polygamy before he joined the Church. He and his first wife—my great-great-great-great-grandmother, Ann Eliza Howland—began to hear rumors of it as they crossed the plains to meet the Saints in Salt Lake Valley. Most of the reports came from people traveling the opposite direction—those who had grown disgruntled and were leaving the Church—and Phineas’s journal makes clear that he and Ann Eliza started out alarmed and doubtful about the stories. But as they got closer to Salt Lake, Phineas grew more convinced that polygamy was waiting for him, and began to thrill at the prospect.
Ann Eliza’s journal from these years was burned in a fire, but as I read Phineas’s journal about their progress east to west—the rumors of plural marriage they heard along the way—I imagined Ann Eliza’s response and wondered if it may have, in a way, mirrored my own uneasiness with this piece of Mormon history. Growing up, I heard rumors of polygamy that left me alarmed and doubtful. But I did not share Phineas’s enthusiasm for the practice when I learned more: I was confused, anxious for answers that never seemed to surface, even with the reality of the Principle directly in front of me. This is why, when I learned about Phineas’s journal, I read it from beginning to end, hoping to understand how such a doctrine worked itself through the life of an individual and a family.
Part of Phineas’s change of heart came from what he considered a God-given dream. At one point, the way west was particularly rough and Phineas became discouraged, and he thought of abandoning the trek all together. He recorded in his journal:
I dreamed that I had two young wives one had red hair slim in stature the other black hair not quite as tall as the other I looked at them and could hardly believe that it was so but after I had convinced myself that the ancient order was again restored and it was right I awoke being convinced. In the morning I told my dream to father Waldren and he believed that it was a true dream and that I should live to see its fulfilment This dream gave us great comfort and satisfaction and it strengthend our faith.
I hate to be hard on Phineas, but what am I to picture here? A tired, discouraged man has a dream about being married to two young, pretty wives, and then—maybe while his current wife is still asleep—he rushes out to celebrate with father Waldren? I can’t help but imagine the two men in father Waldren’s tent, whooping and hollering at the thought of these wives, then driving their wagons with renewed determination and satisfied grins. I picture Ann Eliza in the wagon bed, trying to get her baby to sleep; wondering what had gotten into Phineas, what on earth could have lifted his mood.
According to his journal, Phineas first met Ann Eliza when she “[kept] the flies off from [him]” while he lay ill in bed. In the photograph I have of her, she’s not particularly beautiful, but she strikes me as someone who could spend long hours keeping flies off a sick man; like someone who could make it across the plains and maintain control when her husband added wives to the family. She had sixteen kids, five of whom died in childhood or infancy. While Phineas dreamed of two new young wives, the wife he already had was a woman who could chew grit and keep her teeth.
I can’t help but feel a bit indignant for Ann Eliza’s sake, even though I have no concrete evidence that she felt indignant herself. All evidence points to her being perfectly patient, perfectly helpful, perfectly reconciled to the idea and practice of plural marriage. So maybe I’m imposing my twenty-first century anxieties on my innocent ancestors. Maybe my angst over being cheated on by a few boyfriends, or my long years of being single and suspicious of men are coloring my impression of this family. But whether my impressions are fair or not, I can’t stop thinking about Phineas and Ann Eliza. When I learned about the loss of Ann Eliza’s journal, I became unaccountably angry. I’m dying for the chance to talk to her for just ten minutes.
And maybe I’m not being fair to either of them. When I asked my father questions about some of Phineas’s later wives, he told me in an email, “This was not a cad,” and defended him. I don’t really think Phineas was a cad, either. I think he was a regular, everyday sort of man who didn’t mind the thought of a few more young wives. Do I judge him for it? Probably.
But what I find more disturbing than Phineas’s fantasies is an encounter he had with Brigham Young. The details are a bit confusing, but it seems that Young was helping Phineas build a mill—something Phineas did all over Utah and southern Idaho. Young had brought two wives to help while Phineas had only Ann Eliza. When Phineas said something about taking the exhausted Ann Eliza home, Young jokingly replied that “he had the advantage of [Phineas] for when his women got tired he could take them home and change them for fresh ones.”
I’m assuming this was a joke, but I don’t find it particularly funny. I wonder if Young’s wives, Margarette Pierce and Lucy Bigalo, overheard his comment. I imagine Margarette and Lucy carrying boards, overhearing the remark, exchanging looks, and feeling, if not offended, then at least annoyed that he had made a tasteless remark at their expense—that he’d spoken of them as slaves or property.
But I could have it all wrong. I suppose that if they had accepted the proposal to enter into plural marriage with the Prophet, they likely had a strong feeling that the union was of God. And it’s likely enough they loved him, despite his rough nature. So when Young made this remark, maybe the looks they exchanged were blushing grins and a playful roll of their eyes—their arms full of boards, their hair ribbons trailing behind them in the breeze.
Whatever their reaction, Phineas’s response was, “give me time and perhaps I could do it too.” To which Brigham Young responded that Phineas could have as many wives as he wanted, then changed the subject. Phineas reports that the two men had a private conversation later that evening during which he asked if Young had meant what he said about Phineas getting more wives. Brigham Young said “he wanted [Phineas] to get all the wives [he] wanted, and it was his council [sic] that [he] should do so.”
These two men are fish in the barrel of history: an incredibly easy shot. I could do a feminist reading, condemning both men for talking about women as if they were property, growing chilled by this prophet of God wheeling and dealing wives. I could whittle away my faith in a single paragraph. But I don’t want to. I like my faith and my ancestors. And I think shooting them out is cheap business.
I said earlier that while reading Phineas’s journal, I learned that he was a normal man. But maybe what I really mean is that he was a normal human being. Let’s turn the tables and say that God had instituted the opposite: women were free—nay, commanded—to have more than one husband. If, while crossing the plains with my husband and children, I heard this rumor, would I not at first be rather disgusted? But perhaps as we trudged mile upon mile, might I not gradually come to think that it wouldn’t be such a bad idea? When there was so much hard work to do, not only cooking and cleaning, but driving the team and repairing the wagon, feeding the oxen, bartering for food, protecting the wagon train from attack, making camp, building fires, staving off wild animals, finding fresh drinking water, hunting, fording rivers, going for doctors when I was lying sick or birthing children, digging graves, shoving tobacco down the throat of sick oxen, navigating our route . . . on and on. Wouldn’t I start to think that more than one husband might not be such a bad thing? Wouldn’t I, when my husband smelled bad, or when I was tired of looking at the back of his head, or when he irritated me by snoring or singing off-key or badgering me to get on the trail before sunup, wouldn’t I wish there were someone else? Not just someone to share the burden of work, but someone else to bed down with, someone not so . . . something? Just plain someone else? And when I reached Salt Lake Valley and saw all these women with spare husbands helping them and loving them, when I saw them maneuver between multiple beds in a legal fashion, when more than one man chopped their wood and brought food home to their table, wouldn’t I long to plan a few more weddings of my own?
When I look at it from that perspective, I have a harder time blaming Phineas. And, come to think of it, Ann Eliza’s long-suffering makes more sense, too. She didn’t have extra husbands helping out, but she did end up with a sister-wife to share the burden. I’m sure Ann Eliza appreciated someone else doing the laundry for a change. And after a long day of baking bread, it was probably a relief to have Phineas take his sexual energy elsewhere. Not her night, not her problem.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to sell polygamy here. I whole-heartedly support the 1890 Manifesto. I’m just relieved to find that, as I think it through, in some ways polygamy might have made sense during that time period. Though I admit that I was disappointed to grow up and realize that not all the motivations to practice the Principle could have been pure and practical, I can’t blame my ancestors for being human about it. What else would I expect them to be?
On 18 December 1853, Phineas got his wish and married two young wives—both of them literally half his age at seventeen years old. Ann Eliza was thirteen years older than they were and must have felt more like a mother than a fellow wife.
So Phineas’s wish was fulfilled. But to read the remainder of his journal is to read the writings of a desperate man crushed beneath the burden of supporting two more families. His journal describes his labors to scrape together funds and food and shelter, having steady employment for only brief periods. He often writes about generous gifts of food from members of the community that save his family from starving. It starts to read as if someone was always sick or hungry, probably because someone always was.
Which means, of course, that it wasn’t peaches, ribbons, and light for his wives either. Amanda (their name for Polly, the second wife) seems to have had a particularly difficult time initially. Phineas reports that soon after their marriage, she left him and lived with her parents for three months, only returning after much coaxing. I get the impression that she came back more because of her friendship with Ann Eliza than because of any love for Phineas.
Catherine, the third wife, didn’t stick at all. In fact, she seems to have lost her mind. Phineas’s journal tells of hysterical fits—sometimes three in a day. She would refuse to leave her bed, insisting that Ann Eliza wait on her. Sometimes she would stick her hand in the fire and blame the burns on Phineas, or claim that he had beat her legs until welts arose as big as her hand.
Finally Phineas decided that the only thing that would help Catherine would be to baptize her seven times. This solution sounds odd to the contemporary Mormon ear, but the practice of baptizing people multiple times comes up more than once in his journal.
So Phineas loaded Catherine into a rocking chair, recruited some of his friends, and they hauled her down to the river. When she realized they were going to baptize her, she threw a terrible fit. Picture the seventeen-year-old girl strapped to a rocking chair as Phineas and a few other men struggled to fully immerse her seven times. Phineas’s journal describes Catherine shouting hallelujah and screaming and clawing at his face, the veins of her neck taut and straining. She would have been soaked, shouting, and sobbing. Out of her mind, perhaps, but also hysterically sad.
Soon enough, Catherine divorced him—a fact I had to glean from her history, as his doesn’t mention it—lived with her parents for a while, married another man, and had four kids. At age thirty-three, she contracted a fever and died in a covered wagon on her way to see a doctor in Southern Utah.
By the time Phineas married his last wife, Johanna Christina Poulson, he only had two others: Ann Eliza and Amanda.
Johanna was essentially a mail-order bride. At that time, the Saints in Utah were funding the passage of converts who wanted to join them in Zion. Phineas funded Johanna, a widow twenty-six years younger than he, living in Sweden with her three children.
My father remembers his grandmother telling him about the stir, about how upset her grandmother was when Phineas married this younger woman. When my dad told me that Phineas wasn’t a cad, he said the family’s only problem was with how much younger Johanna was. But I think it might have been more than that: According to an appendix in Phineas’s journal, when Johanna arrived, Phineas had the money to set Ann Eliza and Amanda up in their own houses next door to each other (remember, the two wives were friends). He divorced Ann Eliza and Amanda, then married Johanna and took his new family to live in Star Valley, Wyoming.
While we don’t have the journal that Ann Eliza kept in her younger years, we do have the one she kept just before she died, and during the several years she wrote in it, she only mentions Phineas once: when she marks the day that would have been her 46th wedding anniversary. From what the journal says, it doesn’t look to me like Phineas ever saw her again after he left for Wyoming. I don’t think he even came to her funeral.
As I read Ann Eliza’s journal, I thought I detected a submerged sadness in her entries. She begins every one with a report on the weather, which most of the time she says is “quite pleasant.” The rest of the entries consist of reports on her health (poor), letters she writes or receives, illnesses of those in the community, church meetings at her house, and domestic tasks—picking berries, doing laundry, mending clothes, etc. Very occasionally, she mentions being lonesome or sad, but I got the feeling she hated to admit it and wrote about it as rarely as she could bear to.
In Phineas’s defense, by the time Johanna arrived, the pressure from the United States government to end polygamy had become intense. If he wanted to marry Johanna, he had to get rid of his other wives. That future likely looked appealing to a man who had spent his whole life being Mr. Responsible, taking care of multiple families, scrambling for work. When he had a little money in his pocket and a grateful, not to mention pretty, Swedish woman close at hand, I assume he liked the thought of taking off with her, starting over again. Three wives had been a world of trouble. Maybe he thought he could handle just one.
And maybe he could have if he hadn’t been pushing sixty when he married Johanna, and already exhausted. Johanna and Phineas had seven kids together, bringing their grand total to ten, and ultimately he couldn’t hack it. He lost his cattle, tried and failed to build a sawmill, tried his hand at carpentry; but eventually Johanna had to support the family by taking in washing. This must have been humiliating for a man who had always felt such a burden of responsibility.
Phineas died in Wyoming the summer of 1900. I picture him old and spent, feeling strange in a house full of much younger people—his wife bustling around a steamy kitchen, washing and ironing, jostling a screaming baby on her hip; a summer rainstorm pattering against the window; his kids outside in the yard, turning their tongues up to see who could catch more raindrops. And he slips off.
Shortly after reading Phineas’s journal, I was asked to share a story about my ancestors in Relief Society. As this family was fresh in my mind, I decided to tell about them. Briefly, I talked about Ann Eliza, about her crossing the plains and hearing rumors of polygamy, about Phineas’s dream and how he baptized one of his wives seven times in a rocking chair, about the divorces and the young Swedish bride. But when I came to the end, I realized from the looks on everyone’s faces that I was telling the wrong sort of story. I should have told the one about my great-great-grandfather giving his last five dollar bill to the tithing office, then finding another crisp shiny five in his pocket as he walked down the street. I realized that the story of Phineas and his wives had no closure, no faith-building stamp, and I could feel the whole room waiting for it—even me. I sat down feeling foolish.
This story—the story of my ancestors—is not really the story I want to hear about polygamy, either. It doesn’t give me any satisfying definition or closure on an issue that has shadowed my sense of the Church my whole life. I’m longing to wrap it up neatly. I want to feel that Phineas was a cad, but I can’t seem to. And if I don’t feel that, I’d like to point to Brigham Young in his historical barrel and convince myself he was as shady as his comment implies, but I can’t manage that either. I’d settle for indignance on behalf of the women involved, but—though I can imagine all day—I’m painfully and disappointedly aware that I don’t have a clue how they felt.
Barring all of those conclusions, I wouldn’t mind seeing this as a family that was somehow happy, as one that made a livable and productive arrangement from a situation ripe for conflict and despair. I’d love for them to be a family that would make for an appropriate story to tell during the month of July in Relief Society.
But maybe this speaks to what will never be reconciled between me and polygamy: despite my studies, despite my thinking, despite my reading, polygamy remains a mystery—broken in fragments, maddeningly ambiguous. And yet I can’t leave it alone. It’s the paradox I come up against again and again in my faith: my upbringing taught me to believe in and long for a black-and-white world, but—even within the organization itself—I can never find it.
And so I hold onto these stories: these details from Phineas’s journal, the phrases from Ann Eliza’s. And most of all, I hold onto my own conjured images of how these scenes may have looked and felt. The images are a kind of comfort: they make me less afraid of those confused and longing faces in my Relief Society; though sometimes the confused and longing face is my own. For how little I know of this family, my imagination has drawn me to them, and that closeness consoles.
I once stopped by the Brigham Young University art museum between classes, and came across an exhibit focused on the artist’s polygamist ancestors. The most memorable part of the installation was a piece that used paperclips to represent the descendents of this family. Each wife had her own paperclip mobile suspended from the ceiling—a clip for each descendent. A few were heavy, massive clumps, swaying slightly in the breeze of the air conditioning. But one wife’s mobile had only two clips—hers and one other. I wondered what happened to that wife. I wondered if she and her baby died in childbirth. When the security guards scolded me for wearing my precariously large backpack in a gallery and asked me to leave, I was standing in front of the meager one, concentrating on those two clips. As I left the gallery, I kept my eyes on the mobiles, resisting the urge to reach up and run my hand through the ones that were as thick as banana bunches. I longed to know how they would have felt, slipping through my fingers.