Joseph Smith/Polygamy/Plural wives/Fanny Alger/Discovered in a barn

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The rumor that Emma Smith learned about Joseph's marriage to Fanny Alger by discovering them together in a barn

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)

Question: Did Emma Smith discover her husband Joseph with Fanny Alger in a barn?

William McLellin claimed to have heard a story that Fanny and Joseph were in the barn and Emma had observed them

In 1872, William McLellin (then an apostate excommunicated nearly 34 years prior) wrote a letter to Emma and Joseph's son, Joseph Smith III:

Now Joseph I will relate to you some history, and refer you to your own dear Mother for the truth. You will probably remember that I visited your Mother and family in 1847, and held a lengthy conversation with her, retired in the Mansion House in Nauvoo. I did not ask her to tell, but I told her some stories I had heard. And she told me whether I was properly informed. Dr. F. G. Williams practiced with me in Clay Co. Mo. during the latter part of 1838. And he told me that at your birth your father committed an act with a Miss Hill [sic]—a hired girl. Emma saw him, and spoke to him. He desisted, but Mrs. Smith refused to be satisfied. He called in Dr. Williams, O. Cowdery, and S. Rigdon to reconcile Emma. But she told them just as the circumstances took place. He found he was caught. He confessed humbly, and begged forgiveness. Emma and all forgave him. She told me this story was true!! Again I told her I heard that one night she missed Joseph and Fanny Alger. She went to the barn and saw him and Fanny in the barn together alone. She looked through a crack and saw the transaction!!! She told me this story too was verily true. [1]

Some critics interpret "transaction" to mean intercourse in this case and that Emma caught Joseph in the very act. But McLellin reported on the event again three years afterwards in 1875 to J. H. Beadle and makes it clear that he is talking about the wedding or sealing ceremony:

He [McLellin] was in the vicinity during all the Mormon troubles in Northern Missouri, and grieved heavily over the suffering of his former brethren. He also informed me of the spot where the first well authenticated case of polygamy took place in which Joseph Smith was “sealed” to the hired girl. The “sealing” took place in a barn on the hay mow, and was witnessed by Mrs. Smith through a crack in the door! The Doctor was so distressed about this case, (it created some scandal at the time among the Saints,) that long afterwards when he visited Mrs. Emma Smith at Nauvoo, he charged her as she hoped for salvation to tell him the truth about it. And she then and there declared on her honor that it was a fact—“saw it with her own eyes.” [2]

Ann Eliza Webb, who was born 11 years after Joseph's marriage to Fanny, claimed that Emma threw Fanny out of the house

Ann Eliza Webb, who was born in 1844, was not even alive at the time of these events, could only only comment based upon what her father told her about Joseph and Fanny. Ann apostatized from the Church and wrote an "expose" called Wife No. 19, or The story of a Life in Bondage. She described Fanny as follows:

Mrs. Smith had an adopted daughter, a very pretty, pleasing young girl, about seventeen years old. She was extremely fond of her; no mother could be more devoted, and their affection for each other was a constant object of remark, so absorbing and genuine did it seem. Consequently is was with a shocked surprise that people heard that sister Emma had turned Fanny out of the house in the night.[3]

Question: What did William McLellin say about Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger's relationship?

William McLellin said that he discussed Joseph's relationship with Fanny Alger during a visit with Emma in 1847

With a lone exception, there is no account after Joseph’s death of Emma admitting Joseph’s plural marriages in any source.[4] The reported exception is recorded in a newspaper article and two letters written by excommunicated Latter-day Saint apostle William E. McLellin.[5] McLellin addressed the letters to Emma’s son, Joseph Smith III. The former apostle claimed to have visited Emma in 1847 and to have discussed Joseph’s relationship with Fanny Alger.[6]

McLellin: Letter No. 1—1861: McLellin tells Joseph Smith III to ask his mother Emma about his father's practice of polygamy

McLellin’s first letter to Joseph Smith III arrived soon after he assumed the duties of RLDS Church president on 6 April 1860. Joseph Smith III began his tenure as president by declaring that his father could never have been involved with plural marriage. When McLellin heard of his stance, he wrote the new leader:

I do not wish to say hard things to You of your Father, but Joseph, if You will only go to your own dear mother, she can tell You that he believed in Polygamy and practiced it long before his violent death! That he delivered a revelation sanctioning, regulating, and establishing it. . . . Your Mother told me these items when I was in Nauvoo. I am not dealing in fictions, nor in ill founded slanders.

McLellin wanted Joseph III to confront Emma and seemed to hope he would learn the truth from her.

McLellin: Letter No. 2—July 1872: McLellin reports that he heard story that he had heard about Joseph and Fanny Alger in a barn

Eleven years later, McLellin wrote Joseph Smith III a second letter, asserted Joseph’s polygamous teachings, and urged him to ask his “own dear Mother for the truth.” McLellin claimed that Emma would confirm his story, “if you ask her,” for “Can you dispute your dear Mother?” To believe otherwise, insisted the former apostle, “I would have to believe your Mother a liar, and that would be hard for me to do, considering my acquaintance with her.”

McLellin recounted a story that he attributed to Frederick G. Williams, an excommunicated member of the First Presidency. McLellin claimed that Joseph had been caught in immoral behavior with a “Miss Hill” in late 1832. According to McLellin, Emma called Williams, Oliver Cowdery, and Sidney Rigdon to help settle the matter. McLellin insists that “she told me this story was true!!”

McLellin also reported a tale he had heard about Joseph and Fanny Alger. He claimed that Fanny and Joseph were in the barn and Emma “looked through a crack and saw the transaction!!! She told me this story too was verily true.” In this letter, McLellin upped the ante, adding disturbing details that he claims Emma verified in 1847. He wanted Joseph III to confront his mother about at least two women with whom he claims the Prophet was involved.

McLellin: Newspaper—October 1875: McLellin claims that he heard that Emma saw Joseph and Fanny in the barn

McLellin also repeated his charges to a newspaper reporter who claimed that McLellin described how “[t]he ‘sealing’ took place in a barn on the hay mow, and was witnessed by Mrs. Smith through a crack in the door! . . . Long afterwards when he visited Mrs. Emma Smith . . . she then and there declared on her honor that it was a fact—‘saw it with her own eyes.’”

It is interesting that McLellin’s account here refers to the Fanny Alger incident as “where the first well authenticated case of polygamy took place.” Gone is McLellin’s claim that a “Miss Hill” existed and caused problems prior to Fanny. “Miss Hill” is otherwise unmentioned in either friendly or hostile sources, and some authors—like G. D. Smith—try to paper over this discrepancy by suggesting that McLellin got confused in his “old age” and mistook “Fanny Hill” in John Cleland’s 1749 novel for “Fanny Alger.” This is unpersuasive since McLellin tells both stories in the 1872 letter. His accounts are mutually contradictory on this point.

This discrepancy calls McLellin’s accuracy into question. In 1872 he told Joseph Smith III that Emma had confirmed both accounts, but in 1875 he described the second account as “the first well authenticated case.” One suspects that McLellin’s authentication may be lacking overall. McLellin is a late, second- or thirdhand, antagonistic witness whose story seems to vary in the telling. Can anything else help us assess other parts of the story?

McLellin insisted that Emma confirmed these stories in 1847, yet there is no record of Emma ever acknowledging that Joseph ever practiced polygamy

McLellin insisted that Emma Smith confirmed these tales in 1847. Yet this is a strange occurrence—there is virtually no other record of Emma admitting, following Joseph’s death, that he even taught plural marriage. Emma and Joseph Smith III would go to their graves denying that Joseph had anything to do with the practice. But we are expected to believe that she confirmed these events to McLellin, who had no personal knowledge of them but was misled, merely repeating secondhand gossip. Emma did more (in McLellin’s retelling) than confirm that Joseph practiced plural marriage—she verified a version of events that would have been intensely shameful for her personally and that sullied her dead husband’s memory.

Was McLellin the sort of man to whom she would have unburdened herself? To begin to answer this, we must briefly revisit McLellin’s history in and out of the church. McLellin was baptized 20 August 1831 and was ordained an elder four days later. On 25 October he received a revelation via Joseph Smith in which he was warned: “Commit not adultery—a temptation with which thou hast been troubled.” McLellin did not take this advice and was excommunicated in December 1832 for spending time with “a certain harlot” while on a mission.

Rebaptized in 1833, he was ordained an apostle on 15 February 1835. His problems continued. He was disfellowshipped in 1835 for writing a letter that “cast . . . censure upon the [first] presidency.” Reinstated on 25 September 1835, he attended the Kirtland Temple dedication but had lost confidence in the church leadership by August 1836. At his 11 May 1838 excommunication hearing, “he said he had no confidence in the presidency of the Church; consequently, he had quit praying and keeping the commandments of the Lord, and indulged himself in his sinful lusts. It was from what he had heard that he believed the presidency had got out of the way, and not from anything that he had seen himself.”

It seems that McLellin had difficulty with adulterous behavior. He also frequently disagreed with church leaders and did not hesitate to criticize them publicly. His penchant for believing and acting on secondhand information—as in the report about “Miss Hill” from Frederick G. Williams—was already apparent, since he attacked the First Presidency for what he had heard, not for what he personally had witnessed.

McLellin’s later life found him bouncing from one Mormon splinter group to another. He gave early support to James J. Strang but later distanced himself when it became clear that he would not get a leadership position. In a public debate with Strang, McLellin denied ever having been friendly with Strang or well-disposed toward his claims. In response, Strang produced three letters written by McLellin, which he proceeded to read. The letters “ended the debate quickly, and McLellin never mentioned these matters again, even in his own publications. . . . In their debate Strang exploited the content of those letters to demonstrate that McLellin’s verbal and other published statements were at total variance with the reality suggested in the letters.” Clearly, then, McLellin was perfectly willing to fib to others in furtherance of his religious goals. He lied about conversations he had had with Strang only to have his own letters prove his duplicity.

Question: What was the relationship between William McLellin and Emma Smith?

McLellin committed offenses against Emma and Joseph's family while Joseph was in Liberty Jail

Following his excommunication, McLellin played an active role in mobbing and robbing the Saints. Joseph was taken to Liberty Jail, and Emma returned home to find that she had been robbed of everything. A contemporary journal records that McLellin “went into brother Joseph’s house and commenced searching over his things . . . [and] took all his [jewelry] out of Joseph’s box and took a lot of his cloths [sic] and in fact, plundered the house and took the things off.” When Emma asked McLellin why he did this, McLellin replied, “Because I can.” This theft affected Emma profoundly. She received word that Joseph was suffering greatly from the cold in Liberty Jail, and he asked her to bring quilts and bedding. “Sister Emma cried and said that they had taken all of her bed cloths [sic] except one quilt and blanket and what could she do?” Emma sought legal redress but recovered nothing.

McLellin’s offenses against Joseph extended beyond robbing his family:

While Joseph was in prison at Richmond, Missouri, McLellin, who was a large and active man, went to the sheriff and asked for the privilege of flogging the Prophet. Permission was granted on condition that Joseph would fight. The sheriff made known to Joseph McLellin’s earnest request, to which Joseph consented, if his irons were taken off. McLellin then refused to fight unless he could have a club, to which Joseph was perfectly willing; but the sheriff would not allow them to fight on such unequal terms.

If we accept the late, secondhand accounts of McLellin as reliable, we must accept that Emma made her (only?) admission of Joseph’s plural marriages to a man who had robbed her and her family and had saucily insisted that he did so merely because they could do nothing to stop him. While her husband froze in Liberty Jail, Emma had to worry about her children going cold because McLellin had stolen their bedding.

It seems an enormous leap of faith in McLellin—who clearly does not deserve such faith—to presume both that he was truthful and that Emma disclosed humiliating details about Joseph and Fanny to him of all people. Todd Compton acknowledges that McLellin may have “‘bent’ the truth in this case,” but if the account is false, the truth has not been bent but shattered.[7]

It is worth noting that some, such as Michael Quinn, have argued that after Joseph’s death Emma had a high opinion of McLellin. Quinn writes that “[i]ronically between his receipt of these two letters, Emma . . . wrote Joseph Smith III on 2 February 1866 and highly praised McLellin.” Quinn reads too much into his source or does not represent it properly. Emma’s exact words were “I hope that Wm. E. McLellin will unearth his long buried talents, and get them into circulation before it is everlastingly too late . . . for he is certainly a talented man.”[8]</ref> This does not strike me as high praise. It sounds instead as if Emma is claiming that McLellin had great potential but that he has squandered it or left it untapped.

Question: What did hostile witnesses say regarding Joseph Smith, Fanny Alger and Emma Smith?

The bulk of the evidence seems to show that Fanny and Joseph were regarded as married, even by hostile witnesses

While he spends considerable time on the McLellin letters, G. D. Smith (like many other critics) never comes to grips with some of the difficulties identified by Compton and others. These issues are worthy of consideration in some detail. The bulk of the evidence seems to show that Fanny and Joseph were regarded as married, even by hostile witnesses. It seems likely that their involvement became more widely known when someone (perhaps Warren Parrish?) spied on Joseph and Fanny, and other church leaders then became involved. We can say little with confidence of the circumstances surrounding their discovery and nothing of Emma’s knowledge (or lack thereof) beforehand, though she almost certainly became hostile if she did not start out that way. I suspect that the bare bones tale to which Johnson alludes—perhaps no better than gossip itself—is the kernel around which McLellin and the Webbs embroidered exaggeration, drama, and even outright fabrication. The evidence for a pregnancy is weak.

The textual evidence deserves more attention and care than G. D. Smith has given it. His analysis is superficial and inadequate, and it contributes nothing new.

There are other versions of the relationship between Fanny and Emma.

The Webbs

The first relies on a much later account attributed to Chauncey G. Webb,[9] whose account was first given in the notoriously anti-Mormon Wilhelm Wyl’s 1886 work. Wyl had Webb claim that Joseph “was sealed there [in Kirtland] secretly to Fanny Alger. Emma was furious, and drove the girl, who was unable to conceal the consequences of her celestial relation with the prophet, out of her house.” Webb’s daughter, Ann Eliza, added a few details, claiming that “it was with a shocked surprise that the people heard that sister Emma had turned Fanny out of the house in the night.”

As a source, Wyl cannot be used without the greatest care. On the same page as Webb’s account, Wyl has another witness imply that Joseph concocted the idea of plural marriage while consorting with Latter-day Saint females at a brothel. Such a claim matches no historical data whatever, and contradicts a great deal of what we know about Joseph and the Mormons.

Compton insists that although Webb might be mistaken about the pregnancy, “this seems unlikely, if Fanny lived in his home after leaving the Smith home.” Compton does not acknowledge that Webb need not have been mistaken—he might have simply lied, and he had reason to do so. By contrast, G. D. Smith, after quoting Webb, says only that “there is no evidence to corroborate the claim that Fanny was pregnant,” but this soft-pedals the evidence (p. 42). There is reason to doubt this claim, not merely to regard it as unconfirmed.

Webb was in a position to know about Fanny’s pregnancy, so why does he tell us nothing else? Why do we hear no tragic tale about the despoiled maiden’s child being stillborn or the heartrending scene of the mother required to give up the Prophet’s bastard offspring for someone else to raise in secret? Either scenario would have suited the tone and tastes of the late-nineteenth-century exposé in which Webb’s words appeared. The opportunities for him to use his “knowledge” are legion, and yet Webb simply teases his audience with a sly hint and drops the matter.

Even Ann Eliza, who should have known if Webb knew, leaves the explosive matter of a child by Joseph unmentioned—a curious omission since the purpose of both accounts is to attack Joseph’s character. Her account is also questionable because it portrays Oliver Cowdery as a staunch ally in Joseph’s deception, while Oliver’s hostility on the subject of Fanny is based on contemporary documents.

Ann Eliza’s version does not agree with McLellin’s “Miss Hill” account in his 1872 letter either—McLellin claimed that Cowdery, Frederick G. Williams, and Sidney Rigdon were all called in to help calm Emma. But in McLellin’s version, both Emma and Oliver eventually “forgave him,” implying that both had to be placated, while Ann Eliza has Oliver worried about his own polygamy being exposed. Even if we assume that “Miss Hill” existed—an existence attested to by no other source and contradicted by McLellin’s other accounts—why would Oliver be upset about “Miss Hill” and worried about exposure in the case of Fanny?

Cowdery and Parrish

Despite the use made of him by G. D. Smith and others, McLellin is clearly a witness who cannot be accepted without great caution. At best his report likely draws on second- or thirdhand gossip. I doubt that Emma ever confirmed the stories he tells. The Webbs are likewise hostile witnesses—as members in Ohio, they took Fanny Alger into their home and yet said nothing about these events (including Fanny’s supposed pregnancy) to anyone for decades. These supposedly scandalous events were not enough to keep Chauncey Webb from following Joseph to Nauvoo and the Saints to Utah.

Is there, then, no truth at all to these accounts? One corroborated detail comes from Benjamin F. Johnson, who repeated Warren Parrish’s claim that Oliver Cowdery and Parrish had known that Joseph was involved with Fanny since “they were spied upon and found together.” This version says nothing about Emma and contains none of the details contained in McLellin’s or the Webbs’ accounts. And, Oliver's reaction is well known: he characterized it as a "dirty, nasty, filthy affair" in an angry letter to his brother Warren.

Marriage or affair?

G. D. Smith avoids labeling Fanny a wife since this weakens his thesis that Joseph was sexually driven. He quotes Johnson as saying that Joseph had “Fanny Alger as a wife.” Anxious to protect his theory, Smith informs his readers that this phrase “employs a Victorian euphemism that should not be construed to imply that Fanny was actually married to Joseph” (pp. 41–42). Yet it is not clear why we should not so construe it. G. D. Smith does not tell us that Johnson then insisted that “without a doubt in my mind, Fanny Alger was, at Kirtland, the Prophet’s first plural wife.” G. D. Smith provides no evidence or citation to enforce his reading over Johnson’s clear view of the relationship. (The various accounts are compared in the Table 2 of this 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) .)

Summary of varied accounts

There is little that agrees between the accounts. The facts seem to be that Emma became aware of the marriage at some point, probably involved Oliver and perhaps other church leaders, and was upset enough to eventually insist that Fanny leave her home. Todd Compton argues that these accounts can be harmonized since regardless of “whether Emma saw her husband in the barn or discovered evidence of Fanny’s pregnancy, her reaction was the same.” This stance glosses over a key point—it may well be that both the Webbs and McLellin are either mistaken or lying.[10] That Emma was upset is certain. But the contradictions and problems with these two hostile accounts give us no reason to conclude that the truth must be that Emma discovered either Joseph and Fanny in the barn or a pregnancy. Above all else, one’s attitude toward Joseph, the church, and plural marriage will influence how such contradictory and biased testimony is interpreted.

Emma would later give her permission for Joseph to marry two sisters who also lived in the Smith home—Emily and Eliza Partridge. Yet Emma was soon to change her mind and eventually compelled these wives to leave her home. It is thus consistent with her later behavior for her to have agreed (if only reluctantly) to a marriage with Fanny only to have second thoughts later.

  • Footnotes have not all been transcribed. The complete references can be seen in the original article here: 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) .

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


  1. William McLellin, Letter to Joseph Smith III, July 1872, Community of Christ Archives
  2. William McClellin, quoted in J. H. Beadle, “Jackson County,” 4
  3. Ann Eliza Webb Young, Wife No. 19, or The story of a Life in Bondage, 66.
  4. D. Michael Quinn says that this account was “her only post-1844 admission of her husband’s polygamous arrangements.” As will be seen, I believe Quinn (like G. D. Smith) gives it far too much credence. See D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Salt Lake City: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1994), 147. Quinn also neglects to mention a possible second reference to Joseph’s marriages by Emma. “Joseph Coolidge, onetime executor of Joseph [Smith]’s estate, told Joseph F. Smith that Emma ‘remarked to him that Joseph had abandoned plurality of wives before his death.’ Smith said that Coolidge told her she was wrong. ‘She insisted that he had, Coolidge insisted that he . . . knew better.’ Coolidge told Joseph F. Smith that at this news Emma responded, ‘[Then] he was worthy of the death he died!’” This is a thirdhand source at best; if accurate it suggests that Emma was admitting that she knew of Joseph’s practice, even if she believed he had eventually discontinued it. Joseph F. Smith interview with Joseph W. Coolidge, Joseph F. Smith diary, 28 August 1870; cited in Newell and Avery, Mormon Enigma, 292. See also Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy, 238.
  5. McLellin told Joseph Smith III that it happened “at your birth,” that is, around 6 November 1832.
  6. In a disturbing example of failing to adequately characterize a source, Newell and Avery describe McLellin as “a member of the Twelve [who] wrote in an 1872 letter” about Fanny. These authors fail to inform the reader that McLellin was excommunicated for apostasy and immoral behavior and had not been an apostle for more than thirty years. See Newell and Avery, Mormon Enigma, 65.
  7. Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 35. See also Compton, “Fanny Alger Smith Custer,” 197 n. 170: “In the aggregate, these stories [Fanny Brewer, cited in Bennett’s History of the Saints; McLellin’s 1872 account of Miss Hill; and Martin Harris’s posthumously published and attributed claim in Ten Years Before the Mast establish only that three individuals were willing to publish their belief that Joseph Smith had been sexually involved with a woman other than his wife during the Kirtland period; but no one story is completely convincing.”
  8. Emma Smith to Joseph Smith III, 2 February 1866, RLDS Library-Archives; cited in Newell and Avery, Mormon Enigma, 291. Newell and Avery likewise believe this “reinforced McLellin’s credibility.” As noted in the main text, I disagree.
  9. As noted above, Webb’s daughter, Ann Eliza Webb Young, made similar claims, but she should not be regarded as an independent witness—born in 1844, she can be a witness only to what her family later said about Joseph and Fanny. Compton claimed that Ann Eliza “was nevertheless an eyewitness to the latter part of the Smith/Alger story” (Compton, “Fanny Alger Smith Custer,” 192). Ann Eliza’s birth in 1844, well after Fanny’s remarriage to a non-Mormon and settlement in Indiana in November 1836, precludes her being anything but a secondhand witness of her parents’ account. See Young, Wife No. 19, 33. Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 645, corrects this error. By contrast, Smith cites Ann Eliza for events that occurred in 1842 and then adds a footnote claiming that “some of the events she related depended upon the ‘experience of those so closely connected with me that they have fallen directly under my observation.’” Smith does not explain how events two years prior to her birth qualify as being under her? observation (Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy, 263 n. 254).
  10. The failure to consider other possibilities is an example of “the fallacy of false dichotomous questions” since it suggests “a false dichotomy between two terms that are neither mutually exclusive nor collectively exhaustive.” See David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought, 1st ed. (New York: HarperPerennial, 1970), 9–11.