This past April, while the news was covering a high-profile raid on a fundamentalist Mormon sect in Texas, we happened to be surveying a segment of historical Utah dictations, many from Mormon church members and leaders. Some of these dictations discussed polygamy and/or fundamentalism within that church, which is ideologically separate from the mainstream church.
Since most of the personal narratives were from men, I began to wonder about the women who participated in these practices, especially because of the news stories and recent controversy. At the end of the section of Mormon dictations, I discovered the remarkable papers of Mary Powell.
Writing to UC Berkeley English professor and author George Rippey Stewart in the 1950s, Powell conveys in her emotionally-charged letters a vulnerability rarely seen in donor correspondence. In some of the more touching passages, Powell-- at first showing much trepidation-- can be witnessed slowly warming to the idea of her collection- and therefore her memories- being available to the public at the Bancroft.
Following are some excerpts found among the letters; one letter in particular contains several postscripts, showing the intensity with which Mary Powell needed to share her story. Excepting the author, names have been changed to protect individual privacy.
Mary Bennion Powell, Experiences as a member of a polygamous family in Utah after the Manifesto in 1890 : Murray, Utah, 1952-1963. Collection number P-F 362. (Also available on microfilm.)
April 14th, 1952
Dear Dr. Stewart,
Have you had time to read the material I sent you a month or two ago (a continuation of the material sent previously -- the story of my experience as a member of a polygamous family)?
I have been wondering what you think of what I have written. Would it be asking too great of a favor if I asked you to write me some of your ideas regarding it?
I hope some use can be made of it, sometime in the indefinite future. If history is useful, my story should be. Of course I would not wish the bad things Aunt Joanne and Aunt Linda did made known as acts of theirs. If I did, I would be almost as cruel as they were. But someone might, someday, be able to teach the reading public a very valuable lesson; I can't help hoping for some such eventuality. Do you understand why? You must, since you, too, have the good of society at heart and have told some of your experiences and ideas in an effort to help people to be more kind and just.
May I hear from you as soon as convenient to you?
Mary B. Powell
P.S. I would like to add a few items now to what I have already written.
For instance, I remember the pity in my mother's voice, once, as she said, "Poor Aunt Emily. Her husband married two beautiful young Danish girls when she herself was getting old, and all her children had left home. She had to tend the babies of the plural wives, and they used to talk in Danish all day as they worked and laughed together." (Aunt Emily was Grandpa Fellows' oldest sister.)
Father once said, "For forty years Fellows sulked in his tent, so to speak -- wouldn't go to any church meetings. He was angry because of how Apostle Joseph treated his sixteen year old sister Sylvie."
I stopped as I was passing through the diningroom and heard this. It was news to me. Father paused uncertainly, looking at me, but I stayed to hear what might come next. I guess he felt he owed me some explanation. At any rate, he went on, his eyes on my face, "Sylvie was married to Apostle Olen Joseph when he had many other wives. She said that he wouldn't live with any of them after marrying her. He took her with him on all his trips about the State. She was broken-hearted. She said he abused her."
I could stand no more. I walked quickly out of the room without speaking, as I usually did when other such things had been told in my presence. It makes me sick to think about it now. But I won't think of it anymore, since I am telling it to you.
Later I learned that my great aunt Sylvie had divorced her first husband, Apostle Joseph.
A few days ago, two schoolteachers from the city came, as is their tri-weekly custom, to buy a supply of fresh eggs from our son Jeremiah. The father of the older one, Miss Thomas, was a member of the Granite Stake High Council of the Mormon Church along with my father. I asked her if her father had been a polygamist. She said no, but one of her grandfathers had been. I asked if she believed in "the principle." She said, "Of course -- it was a revelation." I only smiled, as I feared she (and my husband too) would be annoyed if I pursued the subject further. But, to my surprise, she began to tell me about a funeral she had recently attended of a plural wife who had been a member of the famous (or infamous) Fundamentalists (of Mormon origin). She said it lasted two hours and almost the entire time was used in a defense of polygamy by sympathizers. Her [the deceased woman's] son was the most earnest speaker in the group.
Then she said that another schoolteacher, a friend, had made the statement, "Polygamy killed my mother. She died of a broken heart." This young woman was the daughter of William Scott Sr. of whom I have written before. Her mother was one of his two plural wives -- Anne-- a sister to her husband's first wife.
I add these items because if I don't, they will remain in my memory and may at any time start a chain-reaction that could drag my mind into the quick-sand of the memory of my life in a polygamous family.
May I be free to add others as they come to my attention?
And one comes to my attention as I am about to fold these pages and put them in an envelope.
I phoned my cousin Amelia a week or so ago, inquiring if she had a picture of Grandpa Fellows when he was young. (She has since sent me two magazines containing stories and pictures of members of the Fellows family - including one of Grandpa, stern and handsome in an army uniform.) I asked her if her mother had been happy in polygamy. (Her mother was Wynona Fellows Anderson- a plural wife of Pres. Jedediah R. Anderson of the Mormon Church.) She said, "Very happy, always." "Why," I ventured timidly, "do you suppose she was happy, yet my mother suffered so terribly because of polygamy?" Amelia's voice was smooth and unruffled, as I have heard my own when guardedly telling my young children "the facts of life," hoping they wouldn't be too deeply inquisitive.
"My mother was converted to polygamy and your mother must not have been." I couldn't go into an argument over the telephone, on such a taboo subject, so I said something inane and hung up the receiver. But before I did so Amelia added, "My whole idea in writing and publishing the story of mother's life is to show that polygamy needn't have hurt anyone, and wouldn't, if it were lived properly."
When I told this to Mr. Lee Smith, who came and sat by me, on a bus, a few days ago, he fairly snorted with indignation. "That Wynona Anderson! She had everything that money could buy, and a life of ease and entertainment. Besides, she wasn't a 'first' wife." I chuckled with agreement.
-- D. Miller
The Bancroft Survey Project began in February 2008. Funded by grants from the Andrew W. Mellon and the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundations, the survey project is intended to be a simultaneously broad and in-depth survey of all manuscript holdings of the Bancroft Library, which has been collecting for over a century. Four archivists were hired to scour the collections for a three year term, during which they will review the vast myriad of manuscript materials and use a survey instrument designed to gather data on collection scope, subject categories, and physical condition. The survey archivists are Marjorie Bryer, Amy Croft, Dana Miller, and Elia Van Lith, and they are also the authors of this blog.