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She Who Shall Be Nameless
“It’s a picture of your father’s mother’s mother’s mother,” was my mother’s explanation when at twelve I asked about the faded daguerreotype in the breakfront. But she would not say any more
February 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 2
The latter date I discovered by delving into Mormon history. Augusta Adams Cobb, according to official records, was “sealed for eternity” to Brigham Young at Nauvoo, Illinois. On the same day, Young, who was then forty-two, took another wife, Harriet Cook, these two marriages being his fourth and fifth. Harriet Cook was nineteen at the time, while Augusta was forty-one. Some years later, in an interview with Horace Greeley, Young stated that “some of those sealed to me are old ladies whom I regard rather as mothers than wives, but whom I have taken home to cherish and support.” One wonders whether Augusta, one year his junior but twenty-two years older than Harriet Cook, was counted among these “old ladies.” At any rate, she had no children by Young, and a notation I found in the genealogical files of the Church of Latter-day Saints indicates that the marriage of Augusta and Brigham was “for eternity only.”
And what did that mean? To understand these pti/zling terms, one must take a look at plural marriage in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Polygamy was not one of the original tenets (and is no longer permitted); it was apparently an afterthought of the Prophet, Joseph Smith. The Lord, said Smith, had pointed out to him that the elders of the Bible were polygamous; that only married people could be assured of Heaven; that most candidates for Heaven, that is, those of pure and righteous heart, were women; that in the event of a great war most of the men would be wiped out; and that, therefore, the only way to assure these women of their rightful heavenly plates was to get them married. God, according to Smith, then quoted Isaiah 4:1: “And in that day, seven women shall take hold of one man, saying, We will eat our own bread, and wear our own apparel: only let us be called by thy name, to take away our reproach.” And the more wives and children a man had on earth, the better oil lie would be Above. While marriage outside the Mormon Church was regarded as for time (life) only, the usual Mormon marriage was for time and eternity. But there were also marriages for eternity only: a man might marry (spiritually) a deceased, non-Mormon wife over again according to the Mormon ceremony; or take (spiritually) to wife a deceased former love; or, as in Augusta’s case, marry a woman solely in order to give her a hand up to Heaven.
Many Mormon women took a dim view of plural marriage, including Joseph Smith’s first wife, Emma, who, when she was shown a written transcript of this particular revelation, snatched it and threw it in the fire. Even before the Church of Latter-clay Saints decided to drop its plural-marriage doctrine in order to comply with federal law and clear the way for Utah’s admission, in 1896, to the Union, not more than three per cent of Mormon families were polygamous. But it was polygamy that gave Mormonism a bad name and turned a quiet sect of industrious, hard-working, (locifearing people into one of the anathemas of the Victorian world. “A society of fanatics, controlled by a gang of licentious villains,” wrote a Mrs. Ferris in Life Among the Mormons .
Some writers used lhe Mormons and their plural marriages as an excuse for spicy writing. “Many of the older sealed ones are women who have been seduced to leave their husbands and families in the States,” wrote Mrs. Ferris’ husband, Benjamin, in Utah and the Mormons in 1856.
These, of course, become thorough-paced strumpets, and, when too old lor use, are noted devotees. A fair type of this class is a Mrs. Cobb. … This woman was living in Boston with her husband and family when Brigham Young visited that city as a missionary. He was at that time a goodlooking man, and Madam Cobb made up her mind that to aid Brigham in building up a celestial kingdom was far preferable to the humdrum of her domestic duties. She accordingly raced off, taking one of her children [she really took two. a girl of six and a baby], was divorced from lier husband, and afterward duly sealed to Brigham. She was the reigning sultana for a time, and queened it with a high hand; but he finally tired of her. … She now talks solemnly of being sealed to Joseph Smith and other dead prophets. … Her daughter, in the meantime, has grown up handsome in face, and accomplished in the peculiar graces which belong to female Mormondom.
(Here, one hears the echo of the Victorian equivalent for “Wow!”)
Another account, though it docs not go so far as to call my unfortunate ancestor a “thorough-paced strumpet,” seconds the idea that she “queened it,” and adds that Young told her that she could not be his queen on earth but would be so when they all got to Heaven. On earth, the position of Brigham’s queen seems to have been changeable; in his last years, the honor belonged to No. 25, Amelia Folsom, who was thirty-seven years younger than he. Amelia was the only wife who was able to set up a separate ménage wilh the old polygamist: for her, Young built an imposing Gothic house, known in Salt Lake City as Amelia’s Palace. Most of the other wives lived in one of the two residences especially designed to accommodate them: the Lion House and the Beehive House. Some of the “eternity only” ladies lived alone in modest cottages.