Polygamy book/John C. Bennett/Bennett and Prostitution

Bennett and Prostitution


Bennett and Prostitution in Nauvoo

Note: This material is part of a collection of draft essays on LDS plural marriage. They are provided for the use of FairMormon and its readers. (C) 2007-2017 Gregory L. Smith. No other reproduction is authorized.

Sidney Rigdon, His Family, and John C. Bennett

[Joseph Smith had] a too implicit trust in [men's] protestations of repentance when overtaken in their sins; a too great tenacity in friendship for men he had once taken into his confidence after they had been proven unworthy of the friendship.…[1]

—Brigham H. Roberts

Following his departure from Nauvoo, one of John C. Bennett's first attacks on Joseph Smith accused him of attempting the seduction of Sidney Rigdon's daughter, Nancy, in April 1842. Bennett claimed that George W. Robinson (Sidney's son-in-law) and Francis M. Higbee (Nancy's boyfriend) could confirm the tale, and called on them to do so.[2] Of all the charges leveled against Joseph, this is perhaps the most convoluted. The story began with Bennett in 1841, involved Nancy by 1842, and some essential facts did not come to light until 1844.

Bennett and Prostitution

Bennett was not content with seducing the women of Nauvoo privately. Brigham Young later told him that "one charge was seducing young women, and leading young men into difficulty—he admitted it—if he had let young men and women alone it would have been better for him."[3] Young was essentially charging Bennett with prostitution.

A teacher named John Taylor, not to be confused with the third president of the Church, wrote later of Bennett's establishment of a brothel in Nauvoo: "John C. Bennett and a lot of them built an ill-fame house near the Temple in Nauvoo.... After they had built it, John C. Bennett and the Fosters,—I knew all their names at the time, they were the head men of it, after they got it built, they wrote on it in large letters what it was,—a sign declaring what it was, and what it was there for...." [4] The Mormons were not amused, since "We could not get [to meeting] without passing this house and looking right at it, and one or two thousand people would go…[past it] on a Sabbath and they didn't feel very good seeing that house there with great big letters facing them."[5] After Bennett's departure, they "took the building, and put it on rollers; and there was a deep gully there, and they pitched the house into it."[6] While mayor, Bennett also reportedly tried to prevent the city council from disposing of a "house of ill fame." [7]

Not only did Bennett encourage vice, but he took steps to ensure that his followers did not suffer the consequences. He was repeatedly accused of "embryo infanticide" and his biographer observes that this charge "was likely true."[8] The accusation is plausible, since it derives from both Mormons (Hyrum Smith, Zeruiah Goddard) and their enemies (Sarah Pratt). Bennett probably had the requisite expertise, since he had been twice professor of obstetrics or midwifery while promoting medical colleges.[9] In 1837, a medical class wrote Bennett and requested that his lecture notes be made available "for publication in pamphlet form…that the practice of obstetric medicine would be rendered much less onerous to the operator, and safer for the female."[10] The request demonstrates that others besides Bennett considered him an expert in women's issues. This is one of the few times when Bennett's help was sought, rather than aggressively self-promoted.

Bennett also used his medical skills to treat at least one patient for venereal disease—Chauncey Higbee's younger brother, Francis M. Higbee. He was unsuccessful.

"Too Indelicate for the Public"

Desperate for a cure, Higbee asked Joseph Smith for help. "A French woman," (likely a prostitute) from Warsaw caused Higbee's need for "medical assistance…Dr. Bennet[t] attended him, Joseph Smith administered unto him but it was irksome," recalled one witness. "Higbee assented that it was so, he did not contradict it, he promised to reform—he would do better, he would do so no more."[11]

Joseph would later speak of troubling events involving Bennett and Higbee which likely date to this period.[12] He claimed that it "occurred a long time before John C. Bennet[t] left [t]his city." A 1841 date seems more plausible than the spring prior to Bennett's 1842 departure. Joseph reported, "I was called on to visit Francis M. Higbee; I went and found him on a bed on the floor." At this point, the editor of the ‘‘Times and Seasons’’ felt that the material was too graphic for public consumption, and inserted the following parenthetical remark:

Here follows testimony which is too indelicate for the public eye or ear; and we would here remark, that so revolting, corrupt, and disgusting has been the conduct of most of this clique, that we feel to dread having any thing to do with the publication of their trials; we will not however offend the public eye or ear with a repetition of the foulness of their crimes any more.[13]

What, then, was so terrible that the ‘‘Times and Seasons’’ would not print it? By this time—May 1844—the war of affidavits and words against Bennett had included charges of seduction, adultery, attempted murder, prostitution, and abortion. What could be worse? Novelist Samuel W. Taylor "concluded that the only charge that was worse than what was already published was sodomy. Taylor presumed that Higbee was with Bennett on the floor."[14]

Bennett's biographer also details how after Nauvoo "he [may have] had a passionate relationship with Pierce B. Fagen."[15] Bennett certainly felt strongly about Fagen. "[T]his attraction might well have been of a passionate nature, at least on Bennett's part" but "no further information" is available.[16] D. Michael Quinn is convinced of Bennett's homosexuality, but Quinn's tendency to refract evidence through the lens of his own homosexual proclivities makes him a weak witness.[17]

The only other mention of homosexual sin in Nauvoo came from William Smith, whose no-holds-barred editorial style led him to attack Bennett as guilty of "adultery, fornication and—we were going to say (Buggery)."[18] Bennett's biographer notes that no evidence was presented, "and perhaps [this charge] was made in the heat of battle."[19] While this is possible, I think it more likely that William had at least heard rumours, though Joseph was not then willing to tell all he knew, and risk alienating Francis Higbee completely. As will be seen, Higbee was close to the Rigdon family, and the charge of buggery against Bennett appeared less than a month after Bennett's accusations regarding Nancy appeared. William's remark is perhaps best seen as a warning to Higbee, who Bennett was encouraging to attack Joseph.

Brigham Young testified that a few days after his return from England in July 1841, Bennett "acknowledged that Higbee had the [a blank is here inserted by the editor, rather than naming the venereal disease] and that he had doctored him, he acknowledged that, and a great deal more."[20] Higbee's immorality was revealed at the same time as the first accusations of seduction against Bennett (see PREVIOUS CHAPTER).[21] Anxious to placate Joseph and the other leaders, Bennett betrayed Higbee's confidence and disclosed his medical problem to the prophet. As Hyrum Smith remembered, "Francis did not say any thing about his sickness, but Dr. Bennet[t] made those observations to him [Joseph] that he had doctored him in the time of his sickness." Hyrum later insisted that eventually Higbee too "had confessed to him that he had had the [blank] !"[22]

It seems that Higbee's behaviour came to light at about the time when Bennett's seductions were first discovered in the summer of 1841. Higbee did not, reportedly, fight the charges—like Bennett, he frankly admitted them. Brigham Young recalled how downcast Higbee and Bennett were: "when I came into the room, Francis Higbee rather recoiled and wished to withdraw; he went out and sat upon a pile of wood. He said it is all true, I am sorry for it, I wish it had never happened…."[23]

Higbee's intense shame may give credence to the homosexual charges—while fornication was frowned on, it was at least understood. For nineteenth century Americans—especially religious ones—homosexual behaviour was beyond the pale. Bennett was not shy about accusing Joseph and the Mormons of every imaginary crime. They were supposedly

guilty of infidelity, deism, atheism; lying, deception, blasphemy; debauchery, lasciviousness, bestiality; madness, fraud, plunder; larceny, burglary, robbery, perjury; fornication, adultery, rape, incest; arson, treason, and murder; and they have out-heroded Herod, and out-deviled the devil, slandered God Almighty, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Angels.[24]

Despite this encyclopaedic parade of evil—including rape, incest, and bestiality—Bennett is silent on homosexual issues. Perhaps he knew that topic was best left quiet.

Whatever the truth of the homosexual charges, the matter of Higbee's immorality in 1841 seems to have been handled quietly by Joseph and a few leaders; no formal record of Church discipline has been found. We have already seen the same approach with Bennett and Sarah Pratt (see  (needs URL / links)).

Notes

  1. Brigham H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 6 vols. (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1965), 6:358.
  2. John C. Bennett, Sangamo Journal (7 July 1842); cited in Charles A. Shook, The True Origin of Mormon Polygamy (Cincinnati: The Standard Publishing Company, 1910), 57..
  3. Brigham Young testimony in Multiple, "Municipal Court," ‘‘Times and Seasons’’ 5/ 10 (15 May 1844): 539.
  4. Richard and Pamela Price, Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy: How Men Nearest the Prophet Attached Polygamy to His Name in Order to Justify Their Own Polygamous Crimes, Volume 1 (Price Publishing Co, 2000), chapter 11.; citing John Taylor in Anonymous, ‘’Complainant's Abstract of Pleading and Evidence in the Circuit Court of the United States, Western District of Missouri, Western Division of Kansas City. The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Complainant, Vs. The Church of Christ at Independence, Missouri ... Respondents’’ (Lamoni, Iowa: Herald Publishing House and Bindery, 1893), 192.
  5. Vesta Crawford "Notes on Emma Smith," [typewritten notes of interviews with descendants of Emma Smith], University of Utah; cited inTemplate:Book:Newell Avery 2.
  6. Price. ‘’Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy’’ [Vol. 1], chapter 11; citing John Taylor in Anonymous, Pleading and Evidence, 192.
  7. ‘‘The Wasp’’ 1 (2 October 1842): 2 reports Bennett's opposition; the decision to destroy the house is described in "The Neusance [sic]," ‘‘Times and Seasons’’ 3/2 (15 November 1841): 599–600.
  8. Andrew F. Smith, The Saintly Scoundrel: The Life and Times of Dr. John Cook Bennett (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 113.
  9. Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, 10, 32.
  10. Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, 45.
  11. H.J. Sherwood testimony in Multiple, "Municipal Court," 540.
  12. Richard Price believes that the event described by Joseph occurred when he went to administer to Higbee. If so, I suspect that Joseph was making an unannounced visit; if Higbee had been expecting the prophet, he would not have been found in such a compromising position.
  13. Joseph Smith testimony in Multiple, "Municipal Court," 538.
  14. Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, ed. Brigham H. Roberts, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1980), 113.
  15. Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, 113.
  16. Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, 148–149.
  17. For devastating critiques of Quinn's disappointing attempt to homosexualize 19th century Mormons, see George L. Mitton and Rhett S. James, "A Response to D. Michael Quinn's Homosexual Distortion of Latter-Day Saint History," FARMS Review of Books 10/ 1 (1998): 141–263 and Klaus J. Hansen, "Quinnspeak (Review of Same-Sex Dynamics among Nineteenth-Century Americans: A Mormon Example by D. Michael Quinn)," FARMS Review of Books 10/ 1 (1998): 132–140.
  18. ’’Nauvoo Wasp’’, Extra (27 July 1842): 2; cited in Mitton and James, "Homosexual Distortion," 157.
  19. Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, 112.
  20. Brigham Young testimony in Multiple, "Municipal Court," 539.
  21. We recall that Joseph had first received a letter warning of Bennett's abandoned family in early July 1841. See History of the Church.
  22. History of the Church, 6:434–436 (10 June 1844). Volume 6 link
  23. Brigham Young testimony in Multiple, "Municipal Court," 539.
  24. John C. Bennett, The History of the Saints, or an Exposé of Joe Smith and Mormonism (Boston: Leland & Whiting, 1842), 257. (Bennett examined)