February 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 2
“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
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.
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.
My ancestor hunt led me to both Salt Lake City and Boston, where I talked to all the cousins 1 could find—Augusta Adams Cobb has hundreds of descendants—and went over all available family data. I come from a long line of string-saving New Englanders, and among the things they saved besides string were all the letters they ever got, diaries, snapshots, report cards, diplomas, locks of hair, calling cards, dance programs, ticket stubs, menus, valentines, baby teeth, and obituaries. My own supply of these relic’s is ample, but since Augusta Adams Cobb is four generations removed from me, there was little chance that anything ol hers would find its way down to me. In Salt Lake City, I was shown some of her drawing-room furniture, elegantly carved out of packing boxes by a German Mormon immigrant; and her portrait (clone from the same daguerreotype that we used to keep in our breakfront drawer), hanging in the Pioneer Museum. Jn Boston I found her referred to in an old diary, kept in 1849 by her eldest daughter, Mary Eli/abeth (my greatgrandmother), who stayed in Boston. Mary Elizabeth was not an exciting diarist (“Snowed. Went to church … Rain in afternoon. To the druggist for oil of cloves. Worked on my bonnet.”) and I got more information from what she did not say than from what she said. There were a number of entries like these: “When f saw my clear friend Lulu’s sweet mother, so loving and devoted to her children, I thought of —————and could scarce keep back the tears.” “Last night 1 dreamed of Her Who Shall Be Nameless.”
There were occasional references in the diary to “Ma.” The word was always set in quotation marks. ” ‘Ma’ did not come clown to breakfast, but tarried in bed, as usual.” “I had a disagreeable talk with ‘Ma,’ and resolved somehow to bear the future in silence.” A check of family vital statistics revealed that Henry Cobb took a second wife, Cordelia Dana, a few years after Augusta’s decampment. I gathered, from the diary, that there was little love lost between “Ma” and her stepdaughter, Mary Elizabeth, and my mother was able to confirm this. “From what I always heard, those Cobb children were mean to the new mother. They’d leave her sitting in the corner on a straight chair, while Mary Elizabeth, as eldest daughter, took her mother’s place by the fire.” I set down “Ma” in my mind as a mousy little creature, until one of my cousins supplied me with a different version of the story. “I always understood that Great-grandpa Cobb was in love with that woman for years, and that was what drove Augusta oft!” (“Ma” comes out of her corner; her cheeks grow pink, her hair curly, and she begins to smile a sly little smile.)
I finally despaired of ever really knowing why Augusta married Young, but I now had three possibilities to choose from: Either she was so devout a Mormon that for her the word of the Prophet, Joseph Smith, was an order; or she was in love with Brigham Young; or her life in Boston was, for whatever reason, so unbearable to her that she felt she must leave, but could not do so without male protection (“… let us be called by thy name, to take away our reproach”). Of course, to her Boston family and friends, Brigham Young’s protection was no better than Beelzebub’s, but then, they did not believe in the Mormon religion, and Augusta, indisputably, did.
But all of this is conjecture. Augusta’s Boston family rejected her so utterly that, except for the dim daguerreotype, no trace of her remained. In 1900, Augusta’s daughter, Charlotte, the daughter who had gone with her as a child to Salt Lake City, returned to Boston and attempted to call on one of her cousins. When she rang the bell and identified herself, the cousin exclaimed, “We wrote you oft the family tree fifty years ago! Goodbye!” and banged the door in her face. In Boston, the city founded by nonconformists, it would appear that not conforming was punishable by Casting into Outer Darkness.
The few bare facts I shall ever know about Augusta’s westward odyssey are contained in Brigham Young’s diary, which I was shown when I visited Salt Lake City. The diary shows that Young spent the summer of 1843 in the eastern states, proselytizing and gathering funds for the building of a temple at Nauvoo, Illinois, which was the center of Mormonism before the trek to Utah. From September 5 to 29, he was preaching in Boston and vicinity. He then returned to Nauvoo, travelling by the most expeditious route, which was: train to Albany; canal boat to Lake Erie; lake steamer to Cleveland; canal boat to Beaver, Pennsylvania; Ohio riverboat to Cincinnati and Louisville; Mississippi riverboat to St. Louis and Nauvoo. He made this entry in his diary on the twelfth of October: “Arrived Cincinnati. The river was low and we lay on a sand bar. Sister Cobb had a child very sick. It died in Cincinnati. She had it put in a tin box and took it with her.” (This must have been the youngest of Augusta’s seven children.)
It was three weeks later, in Nauvoo, that Young was married to Sister Cobb and to Sister Harriet Cook. After that, there are only two more references to Sister Cobb in Brigham Young’s letters and diaries. The first, in a letter that Young wrote in 1844 to his fourteen-year-old daughter Vilate, who had gone to stay with a Mormon family in Salem, Massachusetts, shows that Augusta went back East after the Nauvoo marriage: “See Sister Cobb often and hearken to her instruction. She is a good woman and will not tell you anything wrong.” In Salt Lake City, one of the Young family told me that Vilate, as an old lady, used to reminisce about her trip to Salem, chaperoned by Sister Cobb: on the train, Sister Cobb had made Vilate crouch down low in the seat so that the conductor would not suspect her of being over twelve. The second mention of Augusta is contained in a letter that Young wrote to Harriet Cook in 1847, while he was leading the first party of Mormon pioneers across the plains and mountains to Salt Lake: “Tell Sister Augusta Cobb I hope she will be blest. I want to see her again but it is a mater (sic) of doubt whether I due (sic).”
As “a mater” of fact, he did. We know that Augusta and her daughter Charlotte were in Salt Lake at least by September 1, 1852, because church records show that on that date Charlotte, aged sixteen, was “blessed” in the Temple.
A Mrs. C. W. Waite, who visited Salt Lake City during the i86o’s and wrote a book about it, The Mormon Prophet and His Harem , has left us this account of Augusta:
Mrs. Augusta Adams Cobb Young is a large, fine-looking person with dark hair, gray eyes, and a clear complexion. She is very stylish in appearance and of dignified demeanor. She was converted to Mormonism at Boston, left her husband and a very interesting family of children, and with one little girl, Charlotte, came to Utah and took up her residence at the Harem, as a plural wife of Brigham Young.
She is high-spirited and imperious. She once returned to her family and remained two years, but was too deeply involved in the meshes of Mormonism to be satisfied away from Zion. She now lives in a neat little cottage near the Lion House, and is supported by Young. Her son, James Cobb, after finishing his course of study in the East [Dartmouth] came to Salt Lake, and after some years, through the influence of his mother, joined the church. Previous to becoming a Mormon, he expressed much anxiety about his mother and sister Charlotte—now an interesting young lady —and used many arguments and entreaties to induce them to leave, but finally himself yielded to the seductive influences which surrounded him.
Charlotte at one time enjoyed the proud title of “the belle of Salt Lake.” She has steadfastly opposed polygamy, and hence has remained unmarried.
Mrs. Cobb formerly occupied Room #3 of the Lion House (the second room behind the parlor, on the ground floor). A three-ply carpet, red and yellow, common bedstead, standing in a recess, fall-leaf table, chairs of painted oak, oilshades with white curtains, a small mirror, also a small closet and a fireplace, constitute the furniture of this room. This was the home of a woman who had lived in a comfortable and commodious house in Boston, as its mistress and head, with a large and interesting family around her.
James Cobb confined himself to one wife at a time. By his second wife he had nine children. James, who is said to have been handsome, dashing, and impecunious, kept up a correspondence with Oliver Wendell Holmes, whom he had known when they were both young men in Boston. As for Charlotte, “the belle of Salt Lake,” she overcame her objections to plural marriages and became one of two wives of the leader of a small splinter group of Mormon heretics. She later divorced him and married again, this time to become the one and only wife of one of the wealthiest men in Salt Lake City, who was twenty years younger than herself. Belle she must have been, indeed.
When Brigham Young died, in 1877, he was a millionaire and provided generously for each one of his surviving wives and children. The widow Augusta’s share was a valuable piece of property in the center of town and seventy-five dollars a month (then a substantial sum) for life. In Salt Lake City, I talked to a very old lady who had been a little girl when Augusta Adams Cobb Young was a very old lady in a wheel chair.
“She was a beautiful woman, even then,” said my informant. “And proud! Oh, my! How she and Charlotte used to talk about their blue blood. Nothing was too good for them. Every first of the month, when Grandma Cobb got her regular check, Charlotte would cash it and order in the very best steaks and things like oranges from California and fancy preserves from S. S. Pierce way back in Boston. And, oh, the two of them had lovely clothes. She’d always be wearing a fresh lace cap and a lovely cashmere shawl and a lovely brooch with diamonds in it. Grandma—that’s what everyone called her—she couldn’t move from her wheel chair and everyone had to run round waiting on her.”
The same old lady told me that Augusta’s son James (“Handsome and a perfect gentleman”) had a daughter who grew up to marry the eldest son of Brigham Young.
Augusta was buried in Brigham Young’s cemetery plot, along with the other wives. But some years later, Charlotte, who objected to the constant coming and going of tourists visiting Young’s grave, bought another plot and had her mother’s body removed to it. And so, even in death, this determined woman has gone her own way.