Joseph Smith/Polygamy/Plural wives/Eliza R. Snow/Emma pushing Eliza down the stairs

The rumor that Emma Smith pushed Eliza Snow down the stairs, resulting in a miscarriage


Question: Was a pregnant Eliza R. Snow pushed down the stairs by a furious Emma, resulting in a miscarriage?

The historical and logistical problems with this story make it unlikely to be true

Note: This wiki section was based partly on a review of G.D. Smith's Nauvoo Polygamy. As such, it focuses on that author's presentation of the data. To read the full review, follow the link. Gregory L. Smith, A review of Nauvoo Polygamy:...but we called it celestial marriage by George D. Smith. FARMS Review, Vol. 20, Issue 2. (Detailed book review)

There is little evidence that the stairs incident happened as described.

Evidences that “Eliza had conceived Joseph’s child and miscarried,” George D. Smith, the author of Nauvoo Polygamy "...but we called it celestial marriage" tells us, are “fragmented” and “questions cloud the story.” Despite this, “the secondary sources are convincing in their own right” (p. 130). Here again, the author’s representation of the data and references to those who disagree leave much to be desired. He cites other authors while giving no indication that they disagree with his reading. For example, from an essay in BYU Studies he cites the Charles C. Rich version of a pregnant Eliza “heavy with child” being shoved down the stairs by a furious Emma. Nowhere does he tell the reader that these authors concluded that the story given the present evidence was untenable:

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 carefully on the shelf, awaiting further documentation, or the Millennium, whichever should come first.[1]

The statement that Eliza carried Joseph’s unborn child and lost it due to an attack by Emma is brought into question by Eliza’s own journal

Newell and Avery’s biography of Emma places the story into doubt:

The statement that Eliza carried Joseph’s unborn child and lost it [due to an attack by Emma] is brought into question by Eliza’s own journal. While her Victorian reticence probably would have precluded mention of her own pregnancy, if she were indeed carrying Joseph’s child, other evidence in the journal indicates that she may not have been pregnant. Eliza’s brother Lorenzo indicated that by the time she married Joseph, she was “beyond the condition of raising a family.” Also if she was “heavy with child” as the Rich account states, she would not have been teaching school, for even legally married women usually went into seclusion when their pregnancies became obvious. Eliza continued to teach school for a month after her abrupt departure from the Smith household. Her own class attendance record shows that she did not miss a day during the months she taught the Smith children, which would not have been probable had she suffered a miscarriage.[2]

RLDS perspective

The award for most humorously ironic use of a source in this section goes to the author's citation of Richard Price. The author argues that “most convincing of all is to think that these stories were circulating widely and Eliza never considered to clarify or refute them.” He attributes this insight to Price (p. 134 n. 207). He believes that the “most convincing” aspect of the story is that Eliza never rebutted it. Uncorrected rumor or gossip is more convincing than the absence of diary or behavioral evidence for a pregnancy as outlined by Newel and Avery? If I do not rebut an unfounded rumor, does this mean I give it my consent? This seems a strange standard. Joseph and the members of the church tried to rebut the rumors spread by the Hurlbut-Howe affidavits, yet the author treats them as valuable insights. The Saints, it seems, are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

The author’s citation of Price might lead the reader to believe that Price agrees with Smith’s reading—that Eliza Snow never rebutted the story because it was true. But Price claims exactly the opposite.[3]

In addition to the indignity of having his work cited for a view that is the reverse of his own, Price suffers further. An RLDS conservative, Price is committed to the stance that Joseph did not teach or practice plural marriage.[4] Far from endorsing Smith’s view of the stairs incident, Price is adamant that the story is false. Though the author spends a page explaining why Joseph and Emma may have moved to the Mansion House earlier than thought (as the stairs story requires), he ignores Price’s diagram and argument for the story’s impossibility based on the Mansion House’s layout.[5] The author can hardly have been unaware of it since the same Web page contains the argument to which he makes reference. FAIR does not agree with Price on all points—his dogged insistence that Joseph did not practice plural marriage cannot be sustained by the evidence, which often leads him to make unwarranted leaps—but the author ought to at least engage Price’s critique and fairly represent his views.


Question: If the story of Emma pushing Eliza Snow down the stairs is true, why did Eliza not make use of it?

Eliza went to considerable lengths to defend plural marriage and to insist that Joseph Smith had practiced it, so why did she never offer her pregnancy and miscarriage as evidence?

If the stairs story is true, why did Eliza not make use of it? The argument from silence cuts both ways: Eliza went to considerable lengths to defend plural marriage and to insist that Joseph Smith had practiced it. Why did she never offer her pregnancy and miscarriage as evidence? Eliza was not afraid to criticize Emma Smith for what she regarded as the latter’s dishonesty. Following Emma’s death and her sons’ publication of her last denial of plural marriage, Eliza wrote:

I once dearly loved ‘Sister Emma,’ and now, for me to believe that she, a once honoured woman, should have sunk so low, even in her own estimation, as to deny what she knew to be true, seems a palpable absurdity. If . . . [this] was really her testimony she died with a libel on her lips—a libel against her husband—against his wives—against the truth, and a libel against God; and in publishing that libel, her son has fastened a stigma on the character of his mother, that can never be erased. . . . So far as Sister Emma personally is concerned, I would gladly have been silent and let her memory rest in peace, had not her misguided son, through a sinister policy, branded her name with gross wickedness.[6]

Emma was safely dead; Eliza had no need to spare her feelings. Why not offer her alleged miscarriage or Emma’s angry assault as evidence if it were true? This scenario seems at least as plausible as the author’s weak claim that silence equals agreement. Yet more than a hundred pages later, the author asks us to “assume . . . that LeRoi Snow’s account was accurate” before asking leading rhetorical questions. Yet again, no links to the other side of the story are provided (p. 236).


See also Brian Hales' discussion: 1840—Plural Marriage Secretly Introduced
Sometime in 1840 Joseph Smith first broached the topic of plural marriage privately to trusted friends. Most of the apostles were in England and thus were unavailable for an introduction to the practice. (Link)
Emma Learns that Plural Marriage Has Been Restored
Emma Accepts Plural Marriage and Participates in Four of Joseph’s Plural Sealings
Emma’s Resistance Prompts a New Revelation
Joseph and Emma: Conflict and Agreement

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Notes

  1. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher et al., “Emma and Eliza and the Stairs,” BYU Studies 22/1 (Fall 1982): 86–96. Compare Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy, 131 n. 195.
  2. Newell and Avery, Mormon Enigma, 136. Compare Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy, 132 n. 201.
  3. Richard Price and Pamela Price, “Eliza Snow Was Not Pushed Down the Mansion House Stairs,” in Richard Price, chap. 9 of “Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy: How Men Nearest the Prophet Attached Polygamy to His Name in Order to Justify Their Own Polygamous Crimes.” (n.p.: Price Publishing Co., 2001), off-site (accessed 5 November 2008). FairMormon's consultants do not sustain Price's view, however, that Joseph Smith did not practice or teach plural marriage.
  4. On Price’s break from the RLDS (now Community of Christ) mainstream, see: William D. Russell, “Richard Price: Leading Publicist of the Reorganized Church’s Schismatics,” in Differing Visions: Dissenters in Mormon History, ed. Roger D. Launius and Linda Thatcher (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 319–37.
  5. Compare Price and Price, “Eliza Snow Was Not Pushed,” with George D. Smith’s opinion in Nauvoo Polygamy, 133.
  6. Eliza R. Snow, Woman’s Exponent 8 (1 November 1879): 85; cited in Newell and Avery, Mormon Enigma, 307–8.


Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims