She Who Shall Be Nameless

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I was about twelve years old when I discovered, to my great pleasure, that our family had a skeleton in its closet. In our case, the skeleton was represented by a dim daguerreotype showing an old lady in a cap. Framed in red velvet, the picture inhabited the upper left-hand drawer of our breakfront and came to light every once in a while, when one was rummaging through the drawer for a paper clip or an eraser. Attached to the frame was a bit of yellowed paper with a verse written on it in a spidery hand:

Hundreds of stars in the heavenly shy. Hundreds of shells on the shore together Hundreds of birds that go singing by Hundreds of birds in the sunny weather. Hundreds of dewdrops to greet the dawn Hundreds of bees in the purple clover Hundreds of butterflies on the lawn But only one Mother the Wide World over.

“Who is she?” I once asked, and my mother said, “Oh, she’s some old ancestor. She lived ever so long ago.”

“But whose mother ? And when did she live?” I persisted.

“She was your father’s mother’s mother’s mother,” said my mother, and sent me off on an errand. I asked about this lady on several occasions, and always had a funny feeling that I was getting short answers. Then, one day, a year or two later, Life Magazine arrived at our house with pictures in it of most of the twenty-seven wives of Brigham Young. There, right in the top row, and labelled “Augusta Adams” was this same little old lady in a cap. I confronted my mother at once, Life in one hand, the daguerreotype in the other.

“Yes, it’s true,” my mother admitted. “It was a great scandal in the old days and no one in your father’s family ever spoke of it. You see, Augusta Adams was first married to your great-great-grandfather, Henry Cobb, of Boston, and they had seven children. Then, so the story goes, Brigham Young came to Boston, Augusta heard him give a lecture, and what does she do but leave her husband and five of the children and take oft for Salt Lake City to marry Brigham Young. Packed a valise, took the two youngest children, and just walked out of the house, so we always were told. Jumped into a cab and off she went.”

“You mean, she took a cab all the way to Salt Lake City?” I asked, fascinated.

“It wouldn’t surprise me. That side of your father’s family was known for its extravagance. Now run along. I suppose it’s silly of me-after all, this happened way back in the eighteen-forties—but I really don’t like talking about it.”

But why, I wondered, did Augusta Adams do it? And what happened to her afterward? In Boston, in those days, it must have taken enormous courage and unshakeable conviction to make such a drastic move, and I could not help but feel that I had a remarkable ancestor. Not long ago, never having received any answers to my questions, I decided to make a systematic effort to find them for myself.

As a first step, I wrote to the Historian of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City, who very kindly sent me a photostat of my great-great-grandmother’s obituary. Augusta Adams Cobb Young died in Salt Lake City at the age of eighty-four, on February 3, 1886—more than forty years after her departure from Boston.

“History bears record of few lives such as hers,” said the obituary in the Descret News , the official paper of the Mormon Church.

Like a shock of corn fully ripe has she laid clown this mortal life, full of good works. … She died, as she has lived, a Latter-clay Saint, and with her closing breath attested to the truth of the Gospel, for which, over forty years ago, she sacrificed all worldly honors and the tender ties of children and friends, of home and all that word implies. She was the first woman in New England who espoused this Gospel, and at that time the Church, which now numbers its thousands, could not count its tens. She was a lady richly endowed by birth and education and with a highly spiritual nature, and great strength of character, which gave her courage to carry out her convictions. … She left a home of luxury in the city of Boston to dwell in a tent in the wilderness, and endured the early privations incidental to a life in these valleys uncomplainingly, and this for her religious faith. While some may disagree with her religious views, certainly no one can question her motives. She sealed her purity of motives with her sacrifices, and would have done so with her blood, had necessity required it.

I felt relieved at being able to deduce from this evidence that Augusta’s conversion to Mormonism had not been spur of the moment, and that she had not casually changed the course of her life by leaping into the nearest cab. Instead, she must have been thinking it over for quite some time, because the Mormon movement in New England dates from the early 1830’s, while Augusta’s marriage to Brigham Young took place on November 2, 1843.