Brigham Young’s Favorite Wife

Hal Schindler
Published: 07/30/1995 Category: Features Page: J1

As forceful and dominant a figure as was Brigham Young, when it came to marriage he was as vulnerable as the next man. Some husbands are forever henpecked–others are assuredly lords of the manor; Brigham, it seems, was some of both.

As an exponent of polygamy, the Mormon prophet had more to answer to than most men. The quantity and quality of the Mmes.Young had made a handsome and lucrative career for professional wits of the period such as Artemus Ward and Mark Twain. Ward once remarked in a lecture, “I undertook to count the longstockings, on the clothesline in [Brigham’s] back yard one day, and I used up the multiplication table in less than a half an hour.” After his 1864 visit to Utah, Ward said, “I saw his mother-in-law while I was there. I can’t exactly tell you how many there is of her–but it’s a good deal. It strikes me that one mother-in-law is about enough to have in a family–unless you’re very fond of excitement.”

The precise number of Brigham’s wives remains a matter of debate for some scholars, but insofar as the church record is recoverable, he is credited with 27 spouses and 56 children. (One popular anecdote of the day held that a geography teacher asked her class to name the principal means of transportation in Utah and a boy answered, “Baby carriages.”)

Harriet Amelia Folsom was Wife No. 25 and had the reputation of being his true love, much to the chagrin and mortification of the youthful Ann Eliza Webb Dee Young, No. 27 on the list. When Amelia became part of the Young family in January 1863, she did not immediately move in with her sister-wives. In the only interview she ever granted a journalist–and that 14 years after Brigham’s death–she told The Salt Lake Tribune reporter Eugene Traughber that she remained at home for three weeks after which she “took up residence at the Lion House. His wives and children all lived there, and each wife, including myself, had her separate room. At that time, there were 75 of us in the family, including the hired help.” Amelia also dropped Harriet as her first name, since there were two other Harriets wed to the church leader.

In his 1894 copyrighted story, Traughber told how he found “the former queen of Mormon society” in the “Junior Gardo,” a handsome and comfortable two-story house at No. 6 South 1st West street in Salt Lake City. Armed with a letter of introduction from Apostle George Q. Cannon, the newspaperman called on a cold winter day and was granted an audience. “An interview is almost as difficult to obtain from Mrs. Amelia Young as from the President of the United States, as she is daily besieged by curious tourists, both in person and by letter, and when admitted these morbid curiosity-seekers always subject their hostess to humiliating and often insulting questions and comments.”

Traughber was careful not to make that mistake in framing his questions. He described Amelia as “tall and symmetrical of form, dignified and graceful of manner and a brilliant conversationalist. The silvery locks which tell of the fifty and five years of her eventful life, are mingled with the threads of gold, reminiscent of the beauty of former years, and the large blue eyes have lost nothing of their fire and expressiveness.” It was easy for him to believe she had been the most popular of Brigham Young’s wives, he said.

Brigham was in the habit of meeting incoming parties of pilgrims, Traughber said, and in October 1860 when the Folsoms reached the outskirts of the city in a company of Mormon immigrants, the church president and his first counselor, Heber C. Kimball, came out in a carriage to welcome them. Amelia Folsom was then 22 years of age, and in full bloom of her beauty, while Brigham was 59,” Traughber wrote. “Beautiful women were not plentiful in this then desert valley, the number of men greatly predominating in the small settlements.”

It seems, the newspaperman continued, to have been a well established case of love at first sight. If other writers are to be believed, then Traughber was guilty of understatement. M.R. Werner, a Brigham Young biographer, insists the church leader was lovesick. “Amelia could play the piano, and she could sing Fair Bingen on the Rhine. He was captivated by both her appearance and by her accomplishments; none of his other wives was so tall, so handsome and so refined, and none of his other wives could sing Fair Bingen on the Rhine.”

Then there was Fanny Stenhouse, an English convert who came to Utah in 1857 with her Mormon husband, newspaperman T.B.H. Stenhouse. In her unfriendly book, Tell It All, she writes that she was personally acquainted with 19 of Brigham’s wives, and well remembered Amelia’s arrival in Zion.

Her opinion of their romance? “One thing is very certain–he was as crazy over her as a silly boy over his first love, much to the disgust of his more sober brethren, who felt rather ashamed of the folly of their leader.” Amelia’s version is less colorful. The courtship, she said, began immediately after her arrival in Great Salt Lake Valley, and it lasted for two years, until August 1862 “when we were engaged.” The marriage took place the following January After the marriage, was she immediately accepted into the “family?”

“No,” Amelia replied, “I remained at home three weeks, when I took up residence in the Lion House We all dine at the same table, over which President Young presided. Every morning and evening all gathered in the large room for prayers, and here also my husband presided, I afterward took up quarters in the Beehive House, but returned to the Lion House later, and remained there until the death of President Young, August 29, 1877.”

But in her notorious expose of polygamy Brigham Young-style, Wife No. 19, (the title implied she was the 19th living spouse), Ann Eliza complained that Amelia had established certain ground rules before becoming another Mrs. Young. Among them was the condition that she did not have to live as did the other wives.

From the day of their marriage, it became clear that Amelia ruled the roost. For instance, Ann Eliza said, in the dining room Amelia and Brigham sat by themselves while the rest of the family occupied a large table, and that the couple shared delicacies which were not served to the rest of the general multitude. “Polygamist, as he professed to be, he is, under the influence of Amelia, rapidly becoming a monogamist in all except the name,” she said. Clearly, Amelia was his favorite, Ann Eliza sniffed.

Amelia had jewelry, fine clothes, a carriage of her own and she played the piano. She also was allowed to travel. Whenever they went to the theater, she occupied the seat of honor next to her distinguished husband in the box, while the other wives sat in the special row of chairs reserved for them in the parquet. Ann Eliza pointed out that when Amelia was ensconced in her “beautiful new elegantly furnished house,” Brigham nearly deserted the Beehive, except during business hours, spending most of his time at Amelia’s. That home, the Gardo House, was Amelia’s pride and joy, her palace. She planned it herself, as she did the Junior Gardo which became her residence after Brigham’s death.

As for being his favorite, she skirted the question with Traughber. “I can’t say he had any favorites. He was equally kind and attentive to all in his lifetime, and left each surviving wife an equal legacy. I was absent from home at long intervals during the 15 years of my married life, having visited several times in the East, and having taken an extensive tour of Europe.”

Then Traughber asked the question: “Do you still believe in polygamy?”

“Certainly I do. If polygamy was once right, it is still right. There is no reason why a polygamous marriage may not be as happy as the ordinary marriage, if it is entered understandingly.” That was not quite the way Ann Eliza felt about it when she fled Utah and slapped Brigham with a major divorce action.

In Wife No. 19, she reveals that Brigham wanted their marriage to be kept as secret as possible out of concern that federal officers would find out. But it was Amelia’s reaction he feared. “She had raised a furious storm a few months before when he married Mary Van Cott and he did not dare so soon encounter another such domestic tornado.”

“Amelia and I rarely spoke to each other,” Ann Eliza said. “Since Amelia’s marriage, she ruled Brigham with a hand of iron. She has a terrible temper and he has the benefit of it,” Ann Eliza remarked. “On one occasion he sent her a sewing machine, thinking to please her; it did not happen to be the kind of a one which she wanted; so she kicked it down stairs, saying, What did you get this old thing for? You knew I wanted a Singer.’ She got a Singer at once.”

Once Ann Eliza bolted and dragged Brigham Young’s name through the courts in the late 1870s, newspapers around the world played hob with the story. After seven years of polygamous marriage, Ann Eliza charged Brigham with neglect, cruelty and desertion. She asked for huge alimony. “He is worth $8 million,” she announced, “And has an income of $40,000 a month!” Balderdash, retorted the church leader, his fortune did not exceed $600,000 and his income was but $6,000 a month.

He offered to pay her $100 a month to settle. When she refused, he retaliated by pointing out his marriage to the former Miss Webb was not legal because in the eyes of the law he was the husband of Mary Ann Angell [first wife]. . .unless, of course, the courts would recognize Mormon plural marriage, something it had stubbornly refused to do for lo, these past 30 years!

Ann Eliza, Brigham railed, was nothing but an extortionist and that was that. The case dragged on through the courts, but in the end it was found that Ann Eliza was not legally married to Brigham Young, so there could be no divorce–and no alimony. A judge tried to force Brigham to pay $9,500 alimony in arrears while the suit was being adjudicated, but he refused. Ann Eliza settled for court costs and $100 a month, Brigham’s original offer.