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John C. Bennett Prior to Nauvoo

John C. Bennett Prior to Nauvoo

Summary: Bennett's early behavior can teach us much about how to interpret his behavior and claims from the Nauvoo period.

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John C. Bennett Prior to Nauvoo

It would seem that appearance is now considered of more moment than reality.[1]
—John C. Bennett, Mayor of Nauvoo

Probably nothing caused Joseph more difficulty in fulfilling the command to establish plural marriage than the August 1840 arrival of John C. Bennett in Nauvoo. In the short space of 20 months, Bennett would exploit the true doctrine of plural marriage for his own purposes, employing the confidentiality the doctrine then required to cloak his iniquity (see  (needs URL / links)). This inevitably pressed upon Joseph the multiple necessities of complying with the divine revelation and warning that he must implement it, denying that Bennett's teachings were authorized while unable to fully explain why, preventing the unwary from succumbing to Bennett’s seductions, protecting himself and the Saints from anti-Mormon violence, and out-maneuvering Emma Smith's attempt to use the Relief Society to oppose the doctrines she knew had been revealed to her husband, but about which she was in constant turmoil (see  (needs URL / links)).

When Bennett arrived in August 1840, he appeared to have brought with him a stellar character, a high education, and a long list of exemplary accomplishments. Publicizing these ably, and with an undeniable charm, he quickly ingratiated himself with many of the Latter-day Saints. Given the unctuous letters he had written to Joseph before his arrival, Bennett clearly had his sights set on influencing the prophet.[2]

When he extracted himself from Nauvoo less than two years later it would be apparent to all but the willfully complicit that he was a classic psychopath. The leaders and Saints would, of course, not have known that term, nor would they have been able to describe his character in clinical terms; but they were fully aware of the moral and ethical vacuum constituted by such a personality, and that John C. Bennett fit the diagnosis. They knew enough: he was a liar, a con-artist, a fraud, and a seducer of innocent women. That would have been enough for 1842 Nauvoo; but today’s readers want more detail, and we can give it to them.

Bennett's Character

As a physician with a psychiatric practice, I am skeptical of many historians' efforts to see historical figures through the lens of psychiatry (often with minimal training in psychology or psychiatry). Such historians often manifest a prescience and certainty that would make a mental health worker jealous, and they often rely on little more than warmed-over Freudianism and a mixture of pop psychology gleaned here and there. Although a writer may not intend to engage in "psychobiography," many do so anyway. This approach often obscures more than it reveals, and tells us more about the author and his biases than his subject.

I will now risk disregarding my own advice. I have sufficient training and clinical experience to render an opinion, and Bennett is sufficiently obvious that we can conclude with some confidence that he was a classic example of what we would now call an anti-social personality disorder. Even a freshman diagnostician would have no trouble recognizing that John C. Bennett "passes" with flying colors.

Anti-social personality and psychopathy

Anti-sociality is more easily diagnosed in retrospect than most psychiatric disorders because most of the criteria revolve around behaviour, rather than the patient's inner state. Sociopaths "lack any enduring sympathy or fellow-feeling…[they] evidence a remarkable degree of selfishness and egocentricity."[3]

DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for antisocial personality disorder

A. There is a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since age 15 years, as indicated by three (or more) of the following:
(1) failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest
(2) deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure
(3) impulsivity or failure to plan ahead
(4) irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults
(5) reckless disregard for safety of self or others
(6) consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations
(7) lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another
B. The individual is at least age 18 years.
C. There is evidence of conduct disorder with onset before age 15 years.
D. The occurrence of antisocial behavior is not exclusively during the course of schizophrenia or a manic episode.[4]

Of course, Bennett could fool me too, and so our diagnosis must remain provisional. We also do not have enough information to assess Bennett's behaviour before age eighteen. The record is clear, however, that as an adult he demonstrated virtually every anti-social trait.

A small subset of sociopaths can be classed as severe "psychopaths"—such individuals demonstrate a "callous and remorseless disregard for…others," coupled with an "aggressive narcissism."[5] Robert Hare's twenty-point psychopathy checklist is often used to assess these traits, and even at historical distance Bennett does not fare well.

Hare Psychopathy Checklist—Revised

1. Glibness/superficial charm
2. Grandiose sense of self-worth
3. Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom
4. Pathological lying
5. Conning/manipulative
6. Lack of remorse or guilt
7. Shallow affect [i.e., restricted emotional range]
8. Callous/lack of empathy
9. Parasitic lifestyle
10. Poor behavioral controls
11. Promiscuous sexual behavior
12. Early behavioral problems
13. Lack of realistic long-term goals
14. Impulsivity
15. Irresponsibility
16. Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
17. Many short-term marital relationships
18. Juvenile delinquency
19. Revocation of conditional release
20. Criminal versatility[6]

Given the insidious characteristics of the psychopath, it is not surprising that even the astute and prescient B.H. Roberts, with the benefit of hindsight, would later write:

[t]here is a strong temptation, when the whole truth about this man is known, to regard him as an adventurer and a wicked man from the beginning. But those who had, perhaps, the best opportunity to know him held that his motives for coming to Nauvoo were honest, that his intentions in life at that time were honorable, but that he fell into transgression and would not repent.[7]

And Elder Roberts may even have been right, though I doubt it. Psychopaths have been known to use a change in location and occupation in a fruitless attempt at a “new start.” We should not ignore the possible influence of the Holy Spirit, which could have urged Bennett to shed what even he knew was a deeply flawed character. In any event, giving him the benefit of the initial doubt does the historian no harm, although it devastated the Latter-day Saints at Nauvoo.

Given the amazing deceptive abilities of the practiced psychopath, it is not surprising that he could charm B. H. Roberts in spite of all he knew of what came later. Bennett charmed the equally guileless Joseph Smith, who had none of Robert’s historical hindsight. Given Joseph’s open and welcoming nature, it would have been surprising had he not made Bennett his friend at once. His amazing ability to accept people at face value, never doubting that their motives were as pure as his own, has many exemplars. The case of W.W. Phelps is one.

W.W. Phelps case

Phelps had betrayed Joseph and the Church during the Missouri persecutions, and contributed to Joseph's confinement in Liberty Jail. His signature was on the petition that resulted in the extermination order which led to the Saints' murder and dispossession. After receiving a penitent letter from Phelps, Joseph quickly responded

I must say that it is with no ordinary feelings I endeavor to write a few lines to you… I am rejoiced at the privilege granted me… when we read your letter—truly our hearts were melted into tenderness and compassion when we ascertained your resolves… It is true, that we have suffered much in consequence of your behavior… we say it is your privilege to be delivered from the powers of the adversary, be brought into the liberty of God's dear children, and again take your stand among the Saints of the Most High, and by diligence, humility, and love unfeigned, commend yourself to our God, and your God, and to the Church of Jesus Christ…

Believing your confession to be real, and your repentance genuine, I shall be happy once again to give you the right hand of fellowship, and rejoice over the returning prodigal…

"Come on, dear brother, since the war is past,
For friends at first, are friends again at last."[8]

So it was that Joseph, while willing to do almost anything―from taking up arms, to petitioning presidents, to launching a campaign of disinformation―to protect the revealed Restoration and the Latter-day Saints, repeatedly opened himself to abuse and worse because of his total inability to think the worst of someone in advance of the evidence. Joseph assumed that all men were as purely motivated as he was. “It takes a con to know a con,” and Joseph wasn’t a con.[9] Bennett gained himself the trust of the prophet and the confidence of the Saints, and in his wake left seduced women, broken hearts, and a prophet with a tarnished reputation.

Bennett's Pre-Nauvoo Career

If ever a wolf wore sheep’s clothing, none ever wore it as stylishly or better fitted than had John C. Bennett. He sowed confusion and weakened faith in 1840–42 Nauvoo, and he continues to do so even today, as those as hostile to Joseph's mission as Bennett himself still rely uncritically on his perjury. We are compelled, then, to turn to the tawdry details, since a brief review of Bennett's history before he joined Joseph Smith is essential to assessing the evidence which he provides, and for understanding the dynamics of Nauvoo. Bennett's Career Before Nauvoo

If history hadn’t taught us better, there is no question that Bennett’s early career looked both altruistic and promising. It would have taken a practiced observer with his attention trained on Bennett’s every move to appreciate what was really going on. Small wonder that the state of Illinois made Bennett a quartermaster, or that the Mormons were glad to have such an accomplished citizen in Nauvoo.

Born in 1804, Bennett completed a medical apprenticeship and began practice at age twenty-one.[10] Bennett simultaneously worked as a Methodist preacher, and tried to use his Methodist connections to support the establishment of a university in Ohio. When the Methodists were not enthusiastic, Bennett abandoned their church and became one of Alexander Campbell's Christian Disciples—one suspects with the same goal in mind. When Ohio firmly rejected the proposed institution, Bennett changed his field of operations and immediately used the Disciples as sponsors to solicit Virginia to establish a university and medical college.[11]

Virginia yielded and the institution was established, but trouble beset the university almost at once. As part of his promotional effort, Bennett had presented the state with an impressive roster of faculty and trustees. The problem was, however, that "Bennett had not obtained permission to use all the names listed as faculty and trustees." Unable to live up to his representations, within a few months, Bennett abandoned the area and moved on, thus presaging a course of hit and run misrepresentation that he would follow for life.[12] Those familiar with sociopaths will find little surprising.

Before the end of 1832, Bennett's was the first name on a petition for the formation of yet another college—this time in Indiana—and again claiming that the Christian Disciples were sponsors. As in Virginia, the college was founded, but also as in Virginia, problems arose almost immediately. Two prominent Disciples were listed as sponsors, but one startled man said he "had no knowledge, nor hint" that such a college was contemplated, and another regarded the inclusion of his name on the petition as "an absolute forgery and 'declined every and all connection' with the college."[13]

Alexander Campbell himself was taken by surprise, since "the members of the Christian Disciples had not been contacted [by Bennett] before the proposal was submitted."[14] The understandable lack of enthusiasm by the Disciples doomed the new scheme, since Bennett had counted on their ability to raise funds to procure the money he needed. Bennett raised $54, which he kept, claiming it was due to him for out-of-pocket expenses of $150 he said he had incurred.[15] Never easily discouraged or unresourceful, Bennett then set out to raise money by selling bogus degrees from Christian College.

A medical diploma mill

Most physicians of the era, like Bennett, learned their craft via an apprenticeship, and had not attended medical school. For a doctor to have a degree was thus relatively rare and prestigious. Those with degrees enjoyed an advantage in the building of a practice. Having thus correctly assessed the market for degrees—and not holding a degree himself—Bennett set out to satisfy the demand by providing degrees to "anyone who passed examinations or was otherwise obviously qualified."[16] If he ever had good intentions, Bennett quickly abandoned them and began bestowing a variety of medical, legal, and other degrees on virtually anyone almost immediately. He gave free degrees to anyone of influence with whom he could thus curry favour, and sold degrees to anyone who wanted one and could pay the price. One observer complained that Bennett "rained down his [degrees] like a shower of hail," while another charged that the diplomas went to "any ignoramus who could raise ten dollars to buy one…though they were not worth a cent."[17] Some students graduated after only a few days, and other degree recipients were not even aware they had been granted a degree.[18] Bennett thus has the dubious distinction of operating the United States' first diploma mill.[19]

Not surprisingly, when the New York County Medical Society heard of Bennett’s lucrative trade in degrees, they denounced both the degrees and Bennett. Also not surprisingly, by the winter of 1833–1834, Bennett had petitioned for another university. What is amazing is that it was back in Ohio—the people of which, Bennett apparently thought, had remarkably short memories. Bad memories or not, fortunately for Ohio, the Medical Society's complaint reached the Ohio senate, and notwithstanding Bennett’s persistence, this scheme also failed.[20]

Throughout much of the period of this fascinating failure, Bennett had been a Mason, which increased both his influence and respectability. By February 1834, however, the Masons had got wind of Bennett’s shenanigans, and were not amused. Bennett was brought up on charges before the brotherhood. From those charges we learn that along with fraudulent financing and fake diploma peddling, Bennett had likely been busy at other activities. "The charges included gambling, lying, vending diplomas for money to persons who [were unqualified] and professing to be an officer or surgeon in the U.S. Army when he was not." Bennett apparently felt it was either undignified or impossible to answer those charges, and by July 1834 was promoting yet another university, without ever addressing the issues raised by the Masons.[21]

By this time Bennett appears to have learned that it was unwise to strike twice in the same place, and so had turned his charms upon the trustees of Willoughby College, Lake Erie, who permitted him to solicit funds in its behalf. Indeed, in a remarkable change of fortune Bennett was soon made a professor, and entrusted with the establishment of the institution's medical college. Never one to allow reality to impede his enthusiasm, Bennett touted the new college in glowing terms, insisting that its "facilities [were] equal to any other college in the Union," though it occupied only a single two-level building.[22] Bennett further claimed that all the faculty held M.D. degrees, which was true, to a point. Three had earned legitimate M.D. degrees; the rest had obtained theirs from Bennett’s Christian College diploma mill.[23]

Bennett's opponents from the Christian College debacle[24] soon realized what he was up to. They complained that he was signing his name as "J.C." instead of "John Cook" to avoid detection, and again went after Bennett for his practice of granting unearned diplomas. It appears that they may have been just in time. In fact, "Bennett [seems to have] examined students alone and then agreed to graduate them. An alumni directory for Willloughby University published years later did not list the names of students who received degrees during the first year, implying that these first-year degrees were considered bogus."[25]

The Willoughby trustees fired Bennett. As he had with Christian College, Bennett claimed to have raised less money for Willoughby than he had spent fund-raising, and so kept all the money he had received. He was soon charged with "financial impropriety and dishonesty." [26]

All the while continuing to sell bogus degrees, still bearing the imprimatur of Christian College, Bennett—whose repertoire of cons appears to have been limited for the moment to fraudulent fund raising and the selling of fake sheepskins—tried to establish still another school in Massillon: which is in Ohio! It came to naught.[27] By September 1835, he approached Allegheny College with what was probably a forged letter from Ripley College—also in his beloved Ohio. The letter claimed that Ripley (which was, in fact, "little more than a prep school,") had granted Bennett authority to grant diplomas and start a medical college at Allegheny in association with Ripley.[28]

Bennett publicized his planned college, but the Allegheny trustees countered by publicizing their refusal to have anything to do with Bennett. Bennett then announced that a medical college would be founded at Erie, back in Ohio, in association with the bogus Ripley College of the same state. (Here we see Bennett branching out to a third con: using one bogus institution to raise funds for another.) Duly organized, the Sylvanian Medical College followed the same template as Bennett's other educational undertakings. Four students graduated during the four months of the college's operation. Some of the faculty were granted bogus MD and LLD degrees—from Bennett's stock of Christian College diplomas.[29]

Frequent moves

Between 1835–1838, Bennett lived in at least six different towns in three states.[30] By the winter of 1838–1839, he was ready to plough new ground, and moved to Illinois. Perhaps not coincidentally, records show that someone proposed the establishment of a medical college in Warsaw, Illinois, the following year. Any chance of a coincidence evaporates when we learn that "[t]he effort failed and was considered a humbug…No direct connection between the college and Bennett has been uncovered, but most names connected with it were pseudonyms, and the college was an exact replica of Bennett's earlier efforts…right down to the selling of degrees."[31]

Bennett was appointed quartermaster general for Illinois on July 20, 1840. Five days later, he wrote to Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon, informing them that to their great good fortune he was moving to Nauvoo.[32] As we shall soon see, he was forsaking the cons that had failed him for so long, and was set to enter into what we may be forgiven for assuming he saw as “the religion business.” Con number four had begun.

Bennett On The Couch

The foregoing sketch is sufficient to establish Bennett's sociopathy beyond all reasonable doubt. Bennett's diploma mill scheme and repeated financial improprieties clearly violated social norms. He repeatedly forged documents or signed others' names to petitions, and may have used multiple pseudonyms on petitions. His casual sale of bogus medical degrees evinces a callous disregard for the safety of untrained physicians' future patients. A law unto himself, "Bennett granted diplomas in numerous academic areas, including law, divinity, and the arts and sciences. Bennett had few, if any qualifications that justified his examining anyone or conferring degrees in these areas."[33] These facts alone meet the requirement for three anti-social traits under DSM-IV (see above).

Bennett's entire life was characterized by a singular lack of remorse, which is perhaps the defining characteristic of the sociopath. "Despite a life of serial intrigues," wrote his biographer, Bennett "expressed no regrets or remorse for the ones that failed or harmed others…He craved public recognition and was often more interested in promoting his image than in making substantive contributions."[34] Bennett was a master of self-promotion and self-justification; no lie or stratagem troubled him. While certainly a skilled publicist, Bennett was erratic and easily distracted. Upon marrying, he moved five times before 1831,[35] another five times between 1831–1835,[36] and at least six times before joining the Saints at Nauvoo.[37] His frequent moves suggest an unwillingness to consistently accept and meet financial and professional obligations:

The normal practice of staying at one job and living in one place is often too confining for sociopaths. Should it not suit them, they simply may not go to work; quitting one job after another or being fired for insubordination is common…“Moving on” is a common theme. Some sociopaths travel from town to town and state to state; roots are not put down; being transient becomes a way of life…[38]

In fact, of all the potential sociopathic criteria, only violence seems absent from Bennett's character.

Bennett also scores high on Hare's measure of psychopathy (see above). Historical distance makes it difficult to assess his affect or juvenile behaviour (points #7, #12, and #18), and different standards of law enforcement and incarceration make the legal issues (points #19, 20) less relevant. He easily scores positive, however, on at least fourteen of Hare's points. Prominent among these are his glib charisma and grandiosity. (The analyst encounters an embarrassment of riches when Bennett compares himself to Napoleon, and comes out on top: "And how much more superior was my object than his!"[39] The frontispiece of his book even shows him in a Napoleonic pose.[40]

His Nauvoo-era sexual adventurism, involvement in prostitution, medical exploitation of patients, and possible homosexuality further flaunted social norms. His wife had already left him because of his serial infidelities.[41] His post-Mormon history further illustrates his willingness to cynically use religious belief as a lever for his own power.[42] Even apostate Mormons rejected Bennett as utterly untrustworthy, though his account was leavened with some facts.[43]

Bennett's more sedate later years also support my diagnosis, since "the majority of [sociopaths] seem to 'burn out' by the age of 45. After that, the frequency of antisocial acts is quite low."[44]

Nauvoo member Joseph Fielding summed Bennett in an apt sentence:

"no description of this Man's Characture could be to[o] bad, he was a vile Man…."[45]

  1. Mayor John C. Bennett's inaugural address (3 February 1841); printed in John C. Bennett, "MISCELLANEOUS. Inaugural Address. City of Nauvoo, Illinois, Feb. 3rd 1841," Times and Seasons 2/8 (15 February 1841): 317; also cited in 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), 4:289–290.
  2. History of the Church, 4:168–172. Volume 4 link
  3. David P. Moore and James W. Jefferson, Handbook of Medical Psychiatry, 2nd ed. (Mosby, Inc., 2004), chapter 137.
  4. American Psychiatric Association. and American Psychiatric Association. Task Force on DSM-IV., Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders : DSM-IV, 4th ed. (Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 1994) as cited in J. Reid Meloy, "Antisocial Personality Disorder," (10 April 2006), Table 81-81
  5. Meloy, "Antisocial Personality Disorder."
  6. From Robert D. Hare, The Hare Psychopathy Checklist—Revised Manual (Toronto, Ontario: Multi-Health Systems, 1991); cited in Meloy, "Antisocial Personality Disorder," Table 82-82.
  7. History of the Church, 5:xviii. Volume 5 link
  8. Joseph Smith to William W. Phelps, "Dear Brother Phelps, 22 July 1840, Nauvoo, Illinois; cited in {{HC|vol=4|pages=162–164.
  9. On the evident sincerity of Joseph in his personal writings, see Paul H. Peterson, "Understanding Joseph: A Review of Published Documentary Sources," in Joseph Smith: The Prophet, the Man, ed. Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1988), 109–110.
  10. Andrew F. Smith, The Saintly Scoundrel: The Life and Times of Dr. John Cook Bennett (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 3–4.
  11. Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, 8–10.
  12. Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, 11–12.
  13. Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, 16.
  14. Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, 17.
  15. History does not record whether he presented receipts.
  16. One of the qualifications was, of course, payment of Bennett’s fee.
  17. Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, 19.
  18. Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, 22. Bennett presumably awarded these "free" degrees because granting a degree to a prestigious person was good advertising.
  19. Frederick C. Waite, "The First Medical Diploma Mill in the United States," ‘’Bulletin of the History of Medicine’’ 20 (November 1946): 495–504.
  20. Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, 23–24.
  21. Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, 25.
  22. Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, 26–27.
  23. With, or without paying for them, we do not know. One is entitled by this time, however, to have one’s suspicions.
  24. He had not had the prescience to have the college name on the degrees changed.
  25. Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, 31.
  26. Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, 32–33.
  27. Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, 33.
  28. Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, 42.
  29. Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, 43–44.
  30. Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, 42.
  31. Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, 49–50.
  32. Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, 49.; History of the Church, 4:168–169. Volume 4 link
  33. Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, 188.
  34. Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, 187.
  35. Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, 4–6.
  36. Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, 10, 12, 23, 28, 30.
  37. Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, 42.
  38. Moore and Jefferson, Handbook of Medical Psychiatry, chapter 137.
  39. John C. Bennett, The History of the Saints, or an Exposé of Joe Smith and Mormonism (Boston: Leland & Whiting, 1842), 7–8. (Bennett examined)
  40. Bennett, History of the Saints, 2. (Bennett examined)
  41. Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 411..
  42. Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, 142–165.
  43. "There is, no doubt, much truth in Bennett's book…but no statement that he makes can be received with confidence." T.B.H. Stenhouse, Rocky Mountain Saints: a full and complete history of the Mormons, from the first vision of Joseph Smith to the last courtship of Brigham Young (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1873), 184n.
  44. Moore and Jefferson, ‘’Handbook of Medical Psychiatry’’, chapter 137. See Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, 166–186 for a discussion of Bennett's later, more sedate preoccupation with poultry breeding and medical publishing.
  45. Andrew F. Ehat, ""They Might Have Known That He Was Not a Fallen Prophet"—the Nauvoo Journal of Joseph Fielding," ‘’Brigham Young University Studies’’ 19/2 (Winter 1979): 143–144; citing p. 20–21 of the journal, dated December 1843, spelling as original.