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Did Emma Really Kick Eliza Snow Down the Stairs?


Daniel Peterson

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Dr. Brian C. Hales, a Salt Lake physician who has become a significant authority on the history of plural marriage in Mormonism, has a nice article in the just-arrived issue of Mormon Historical Studies on the well-known story of Emma Smith's pushing or kicking Eliza R. Snow (pregnant by Joseph Smith) down the stairs. He sees serious problems with the story, and suspects it never happened.

It seems that doctors are doing some of the best work on early plural marriage. I continue to regard Dr. Gregory L. Smith's review of a bad book on Nauvoo polygamy, for instance, as invaluable:

http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=20&num=2&id=721

Certain critics and disaffected members post, from time to time, about how they detest Joseph Smith because of the way he practiced plural marriage. (The recent Kevin Garn scandal has summoned forth innumerable cynical posts on that score, in various locations.) But many of the things they think they know about Joseph's practices may not even turn out to be true. Will that affect how they feel? I'm not altogether optimistic on that score, alas.

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Dr. Brian C. Hales, a Salt Lake physician who has become a significant authority on the history of plural marriage in Mormonism, has a nice article in the just-arrived issue of Mormon Historical Studies on the well-known story of Emma Smith's pushing or kicking Eliza R. Snow (pregnant by Joseph Smith) down the stairs. He sees serious problems with the story, and suspects it never happened.

It seems that doctors are doing some of the best work on early plural marriage. I continue to regard Dr. Gregory L. Smith's review of a bad book on Nauvoo polygamy, for instance, as invaluable:

http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=20&num=2&id=721

Certain critics and disaffected members post, from time to time, about how they detest Joseph Smith because of the way he practiced plural marriage. (The recent Kevin Garn scandal has summoned forth innumerable cynical posts on that score, in various locations.) But many of the things they think they know about Joseph's practices may not even turn out to be true. Will that affect how they feel? I'm not altogether optimistic on that score, alas.

Do I think she pushed her down the stairs? No. Do I think there was a confrontation of some kind? Absolutely.

The source material for this story is pretty dicey....

Big UP!

Lamanite

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Dr. Brian C. Hales, a Salt Lake physician who has become a significant authority on the history of plural marriage in Mormonism, has a nice article in the just-arrived issue of Mormon Historical Studies on the well-known story of Emma Smith's pushing or kicking Eliza R. Snow (pregnant by Joseph Smith) down the stairs. He sees serious problems with the story, and suspects it never happened.

It seems that doctors are doing some of the best work on early plural marriage. I continue to regard Dr. Gregory L. Smith's review of a bad book on Nauvoo polygamy, for instance, as invaluable:

http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=20&num=2&id=721

Certain critics and disaffected members post, from time to time, about how they detest Joseph Smith because of the way he practiced plural marriage. (The recent Kevin Garn scandal has summoned forth innumerable cynical posts on that score, in various locations.) But many of the things they think they know about Joseph's practices may not even turn out to be true. Will that affect how they feel? I'm not altogether optimistic on that score, alas.

I'm trying to figure out if this matters because (a) it redeems Emma's tarnished reputation, (b) it knocks out another instance in which Joseph might have inseminated someone other than Emma, or © it's an opportunity to criticize a critic.

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I'm trying to figure out if this matters because (a) it redeems Emma's tarnished reputation, (b) it knocks out another instance in which Joseph might have inseminated someone other than Emma, or © it's an opportunity to criticize a critic.

Perhaps it would be more fruitful All-Seeing Eye if you asked this question to the critics who bring these stupid (often fake or out of context) things up and then give members of the Church the job of untangling the knots.

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Dr. Brian C. Hales, a Salt Lake physician who has become a significant authority on the history of plural marriage in Mormonism, has a nice article in the just-arrived issue of Mormon Historical Studies on the well-known story of Emma Smith's pushing or kicking Eliza R. Snow (pregnant by Joseph Smith) down the stairs. He sees serious problems with the story, and suspects it never happened.

It seems that doctors are doing some of the best work on early plural marriage. I continue to regard Dr. Gregory L. Smith's review of a bad book on Nauvoo polygamy, for instance, as invaluable:

http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=20&num=2&id=721

Certain critics and disaffected members post, from time to time, about how they detest Joseph Smith because of the way he practiced plural marriage. (The recent Kevin Garn scandal has summoned forth innumerable cynical posts on that score, in various locations.) But many of the things they think they know about Joseph's practices may not even turn out to be true. Will that affect how they feel? I'm not altogether optimistic on that score, alas.

Just goes to show that stories are not necessarily reliable just because they are old.

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For anyone who isn't familiar with the Emma/Eliza/Stair story, the FairWiki actually offers a pretty good summary:

Joseph_Smith/Polygamy/Emma_Smith/Eliza_R._Snow_and_the_stairsk

And this article in BYU Studies really dives in to the history of the story.

I was introduced to the story in Orson Scott Card's mind-blowing book "Saints"; the book is historical fiction about Nauvoo polygamy (kind of like "The Work and the Glory" without the training wheels), and tells the story of the stairs incident. I read the book as a teenager, and accepted the story as an interesting and factual footnote to the whole situation.

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> Did Emma Really Kick Eliza Snow Down the Stairs?

In my view, no.

I've addressed this before here:

Let's look at the evidence for this.

1. Fawn Brodie was told by LeRoi Snow of the LDS Historian's Office that, according to a tradition in the Snow family, Eliza R. Snow had a miscarriage when pushed down a flight of stairs by Emma Smith. But he had only the tradition for this...

Source: Letter from Dale Morgan to Juanita Brooks Dated 9 December 1943 (available online here). Also noted in Fawn Brodie's No Man Knows My History, 470-471.

Reliability: Not good. We have Dale Morgan relating what Fawn Brodie heard about LeRoi Smith's recollection of "a tradition in the Snow family." Triple hearsay about a family tradition is not a very reliable source of history.

2. Fawn Brodie quotes C.G. Webb as saying the following:

There is scarcely a Mormon unacquainted with the fact, that Sister Emma, on the other side, soon found out the little compromise arranged between Joseph and Eliza. Feeling outraged as a wife and betrayed as a friend, Emma is currently reported as having had recourse to a vulgar broomstick as an instrument of revenge; and the harsh treatment received at Emma's hand is said to have destroyed Eliza's hopes of becoming the mother of a prophet's son.

Source: Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History, 470-471.

Reliability: Not good. We have to take Webb's word for it that "[t]here is scarcely a Mormon unacquainted with" this story. Further, even if Webb is to believed, he is only repeating what others have said. What others? What did they say? When? Where? Where did they get their information? How many layers of hearsay are involved in this?

3. There is an account of this story in a letter from W. Aird Macdonald, who claims to have heard the account from Ben E. Rich, the son of Charles Rich:

A door opposite opened and dainty, little, dark-haired Eliza R. Snow (she was "heavy with child") came out . . . Joseph then walked on to the stairway, where he tenderly kissed Eliza, and then came on down stairs toward Brother Rich. Just as he reached the bottom step, there was a commotion on the stairway, and both Joseph and Brother Rich turned quickly to see Eliza come tumbling down the stairs. Emma had pushed her, in a fit of rage and jealousy; she stood at the top of the stairs, glowering, her countenance a picture of hell. Joseph quickly picked up the little lady, and with her in his arms, he turned and looked up at Emma, who then burst into tears and ran to her room. Joseph carried the hurt and bruised Eliza up the stairs and to her room. "Her hip was injured and that is why she always afterward favored that leg," said Charles C. Rich. "She lost the unborn babe."

Source: The letter is now apparently lost, but it was cited in Emma, Eliza, and the Stairs: An Investigation, by Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Linda K. Newell, and Valeen T. Avery (22 BYU Studies, 87-96).

Reliability: Not good. W. Aird Macdonald heard it from Ben E. Rich around 1906-1908. Ben E. Rich presumably heard it in turn from Charles E. Rich. A lot of hearsay. A lot of years between the time of the event and the time of the account.

4. Mary A. Barzee Boyce described the event quite differently:

Emma went upstairs and pulled Eliza R. Snow downstairs by the hair of her head as she was staying there. Although she had consented to give him [Joseph] one or more women in the beginning. It was rumored while I, M. A. Barzee Boyce, was in Nauvoo that she tot [sic, got?] in such a rage about it that she left home and went down to Quincy but came back again while I was there.

Source: Reminiscences of Mary A. Barzee Boice, in John Boice Blessing Book, MS 8129, Church Archives, Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City.

Reliability: Not good. How did Ms. Boice come to know about this event? Was she present? If not, where did she hear about it? And why are her details substantively different from those purportedly given by Charles Rich, an alleged eyewitness?

5. "Bruce McKonkie's sister spoke to the Relief Society in my stake, and recounted an event involving Joseph and Emma Smith. Joseph had received revelation that he was to marry Eliza Snow. Emma did her best to keep them apart, but in the end, they were married. That didn't stop Emma, though. During Eliza's pregnancy, Emma pushed her down the stairs!"

Source: Pseudonymous online post by "Aristotle" on Jan 14 2006 (quoted here).

Reliability: Not good. Where did "Bruce McKonkie's sister" make this statement? When? What sources did she use? She's clearly not a percipient witness, so her sources become vital, and we don't know what they were.

Of these, the account of Charles Rich is probably the most persuasive, as he claims to have been an eyewitness (at least to seeing Eliza fall down the stairs and Emma's countenance at the top of the stairs). However, this article argues that Rich's account must be false:

Apostle Rich's Account Proven False

LeRoi Snow states that Apostle Charles C. Rich of the LDS Church saw Emma and Eliza at the head of the stairs, heard a commotion, then saw Eliza come tumbling down the Mansion House stairs. LeRoi's notes state:

Charles C. Rich called at the Mansion House, Nauvoo, to go with the Prophet on some appointment they had together. As he waited in the main lobby or parlor, he saw the Prophet and Emma come out of a room upstairs and walk together toward the stairway which apparently came down center. Almost at the same time, a door opposite opened and dainty, little, dark-haired Eliza R. Snow (she was "heavy with child") came out and walked toward the center stairway. When Joseph saw her, he turned and kissed Emma goodbye, and she remained standing at the bannister. Joseph then walked on to the stairway, where he tenderly kissed Eliza, and then came on down stairs toward Brother Rich. Just as he reached the bottom step, there was a commotion on the stairway, and both Joseph and Brother Rich turned quickly to see Eliza come tumbling down the stairs. Emma had pushed her, in a fit of rage and jealousy; she stood at the top of the stairs, glowering, her countenance a picture of hell. Joseph quickly picked up the little lady, and with her in his arms, he turned and looked up at Emma, who then burst into tears and ran to her room. Joseph carried the hurt and bruised Eliza up the stairs and to her room. "Her hip was injured and that is why she always afterward favored that leg," said Charles C. Rich. "She lost the unborn babe." (Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery,
Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith
, 135).

When the stairways at both the Homestead and the Mansion House are examined, it is obvious that the event could not have happened at either place. The stairs in the Homestead are very narrow and they turn sharply near the bottom, so the top of the stairs cannot be seen while standing in the room below.

Neither can the hallway at the top of the stairs in the Mansion House be seen as Charles Rich described it. The stairway is narrow (only three feet wide) and at the top there is only a small landing three feet square,with a blank wall on the right, a small door straight ahead, and small hallway on the left. When standing at the foot of the stairs, one can only see the small door. It is straight ahead and it is the door to a small split-level room where the Smith children slept. The door to Joseph and Emma's room cannot be seen from the bottom of the stairs. No other door is visible, though Rich testified he "saw the Prophet and Emma come out of a room upstairs" and "a door opposite opened and dainty, little, dark-haired Eliza" came out of it. There was no "door opposite."

The shape of the stairways in both the Homestead and Mansion House makes Charles Rich's account false.

mansionstairs.jpg

A diagram of the Mansion House stairs, showing that Charles C. Rich could not have seen Emma and Joseph coming from one bedroom and Eliza Snow coming from another.

mansionstairsdiagram.gif

A diagram of the Mansion House stairs, showing that Charles C. Rich could not have seen Emma and Joseph coming from one bedroom and Eliza Snow coming from another.

Probably the most comprehensive treatment of this story is Emma, Eliza, and the Stairs: An Investigation, by Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Linda K. Newell, and Valeen T. Avery (22 BYU Studies, 87-96) (I have it in .pdf, so email me - spencer97 at gmail dot com - if you want a copy of it). Here's that article's conclusion:

So there we are. But where are we? Faced with a folk legend with genuine documents that tell no tales, and dubious ones that contradict themselves and the contemporary accounts, perhaps it is best for us to respond as we must to many paradoxes of our history: consider thoughtfully and then place all the evidence carefull on the shelf, awaiting further documentation, or the Millennium, whichever should come first.

Sage advice, I think.

-Smac

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Dr. Brian C. Hales, a Salt Lake physician who has become a significant authority on the history of plural marriage in Mormonism, has a nice article in the just-arrived issue of Mormon Historical Studies on the well-known story of Emma Smith's pushing or kicking Eliza R. Snow (pregnant by Joseph Smith) down the stairs. He sees serious problems with the story, and suspects it never happened.

It seems that doctors are doing some of the best work on early plural marriage. I continue to regard Dr. Gregory L. Smith's review of a bad book on Nauvoo polygamy, for instance, as invaluable:

http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=20&num=2&id=721

Certain critics and disaffected members post, from time to time, about how they detest Joseph Smith because of the way he practiced plural marriage. (The recent Kevin Garn scandal has summoned forth innumerable cynical posts on that score, in various locations.) But many of the things they think they know about Joseph's practices may not even turn out to be true. Will that affect how they feel? I'm not altogether optimistic on that score, alas.

I have pretty much always accepted the basic facts behind the story, but with my own personal interpretation of the event that had the effect of softening the degree of culpability one might ascribe to Emma Smith: I suspect a confrontation did occur, and that it is likely Eliza went down the stairs (have you seen the scary steep stairways in those old houses!?), but that it was probably an unintended consequence of the confrontation rather than an intentional act. Whether or not Eliza was "with child" at the time is, in my judgment, another issue altogether. Perhaps this is the issue that Dr. Hales addresses in his article?

I'm am quite sure the introduction of plural marriage in Nauvoo was attended by some ugly scenes. I don't think any less of those people because of it--or at least I acknowledge the human weakness that would have necessarily accompanied the early institution of the practice. I think it's pretty apparent that Emma vacillated rather violently over the issue. That said, there weren't many women who, after knowing her well in Nauvoo, were subsequently much inclined to impugn her name in later years in Utah. That says something, too.

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Thanks Smac, That's what I was remembering. I guess we can add Brian Hales work to this as well and the conclusion is 'no'.

Believe me, I understand (and, to an extent, I even appreciate the reasons behind) the ongoing effort among many people in the Church to "rehabilitate" the image and reputation of Emma Hale Smith after what was well over a century of pretty rough treatment.

But to confidently proclaim any solid conclusions is simply not realistic, in my estimation.

That said, I'll read Hales's article with an open mind. It could very well be that he has something new to offer. Even so, it won't make me jump on the bandwagon with the people who love to portray Emma (and Joseph, for that matter) as some kind of cherubic demigods, replete with hair lighting and softening filters in every scene. (Gag me!)

I've read enough of the source materials to know that she definitely had her flaws--as most of us do. (I grant the remote possibility that you and Emma Smith may constitute some of the rare exceptions, along with my wife, of course. :P )

At any rate, I'm all for "the facts" coming out once and for all--to the extent that is really possible. But I'm not going to join the hagiographic chorus when it comes to "Saint Emma." There are already enough singers in that choir.

I'll save any hagiography of my own for Porter Rockwell. ;)

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I think it was an untrue rumor. I think Emma ordered Eliza out of the house once she found out her husband had married her but I don't think Emma physically assaulted her by pushing her down the stairs. I think Emma was much more proficient with verbal abuse. ;)

As I recall, there are a few accounts of Emma "getting physical."

Why do you think Joseph was so afraid of her?

I've learned in my own marriage that, since I am utterly incapable of "getting physical" with either my wife or daughters (and I absolutely fume with outrage when I hear of men who abuse women or girls in any way!), they will occasionally take advantage of my virtual defenselessness against their assaults and batteries.

And I have the bruises and scars to prove it. :P

(Why isn't there a battered husbands/fathers shelter?)

P.S. Just kidding. Kind of. At least they haven't broken any bones. Yet.

Edit: Is it right for an almost-12-year-old female Karate student to practice round-house kicks on her father? Ouch!

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For anyone who isn't familiar with the Emma/Eliza/Stair story, the FairWiki actually offers a pretty good summary:

Actually? Really?

You mean that FAIR can actually do a pretty good job - despite what our enemies contend?

We must have messed up....so I actually felt compelled to make a few changes in that article. :P

WW

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Would it be wrong for a wife to physically confront another woman if she founds out that A.) That woman is having sex with her husband? B.) That woman is pregnant with her husbands child? C.) That woman plans to continue an intimate relationship with her husband despite her objections.

I would suspect that most people here, if put in a similar situation with their spouse, could imagine themselves having a similar response.

So even if she did could you blame her?

Phaedrus

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Next time you visit Nauvoo, take the tour of the Mansion House. It takes about an hour or 1.5 for a 20 minute tour, but it might shed light on this. The tour guide told us, and she otta know, she's from Moscva on a work permit, that the house was modified by Bidamon and, if I remember correctly, JS III in later years. The whole rear wing was added on, so the possibility of the stair geometry being different originally should be considered.

Wood

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Would it be wrong for a wife to physically confront another woman if she founds out that A.) That woman is having sex with her husband? B.) That woman is pregnant with her husbands child? C.) That woman plans to continue an intimate relationship with her husband despite her objections.

I would suspect that most people here, if put in a similar situation with their spouse, could imagine themselves having a similar response.

So even if she did could you blame her?

Phaedrus

Yes, I could blame her because it would still be a crime. I would only shove a person down the stairs if I they were trying to harm me.

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He sees serious problems with the story, and suspects it never happened.

Well, my anti-Mormon friend told me that if she didn't do it, that she probably did something far worse.

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As I recall, there are a few accounts of Emma "getting physical."

Why do you think Joseph was so afraid of her?

Do you have any examples of Emma assaulting anyone other than her husband? Maybe there are, but I only remember descriptions of extreme verbal chastisements from some of Joseph's young wives. One part of this story that I find utterly ridiculous is the part where Joseph walks over to Eliza and kisses her tenderly right in front of Emma. Right...

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