Plural marriage/Parley P. Pratt's marriage and murder

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Parley P. Pratt's marriage and murder

Summary: It is claimed that Parley P. Pratt's practice of polygamy was responsible for his murder, partly because he married a woman who hadn't been divorced from her first husband.

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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: Was Parley P. Pratt murdered because he stole another man's wife?

Parley Pratt is accused of being sealed to Eleanor Mclean without her having divorced her husband

Pratt’s last wife, Eleanor, “was sealed to him without divorcing her legal husband, who fatally shot Parley near Van Buren, Arkansas” (p. 333). There is, however, much that we are not told. Eleanor’s husband was a heavy drinker, which in 1844 resulted in separation. The couple was reconciled, and the family moved to San Francisco. While in California, Eleanor discovered the church. Her husband forbade her to join and “purchased a sword cane and threatened to kill her and the minister who baptized her if she became a Mormon.” [1]

It is therefore claimed by critics of Mormonism that Parley P. Pratt's practice of polygamy was responsible for his murder, partly because he married a woman who hadn't been divorced from her first husband.

  • Was Parley P. Pratt building a "harem" of wives?
  • Did Parley P. Pratt "induce" another man's wife to join the Church simply so that he could add her as a polygamous wife?

Eleanor's husband Hector physically abused her

Eleanor attended LDS meetings, and one Sunday at home, “while Eleanor was singing from a Mormon hymn book she had purchased, Hector tore the book from her hands, threw it into the fire, beat her, cast her out into the street, and locked the door.” [2]

Eleanor declared herself divorced from Hector

Eleanor lodged a complaint of assault and battery against Hector and planned to leave him until prevailed upon by local church members and her physician. At that point, said Eleanor, “I presume McLean himself would not deny that I then declared that I would no more be his wife however many years I might be compelled to appear as such for the sake of my children". [3]

Eleanor was not baptized until 1854, and she had the written permission of her husband to do so. However, he forbade her to read church literature or to sing church hymns at home. It is not clear, then, why G. D. Smith feels Eleanor owed an observance of all the twentieth-century legal niceties to a violent, abusive, tyrannical drunkard. Through it all, as a church leader, Parley Pratt had tried to help the couple reconcile.

Eleanor's husband Hector erupts over baptism of children and tries to have her declared insane

Eleanor had her children baptized, and Hector responded by filing a charge of insanity against his wife so he could have her committed to an asylum. Hector sent her children by steamer to their maternal grandparents’ home, confined Eleanor to the house, and again threatened to have her committed for insanity. Eleanor eventually found her children at her parents’ home, but they refused to let her take them. [4] Eleanor went to Salt Lake City and married Pratt on 14 November 1855. As we have seen, she considered herself divorced from Hector from the time he violently threw her from their home in San Francisco. They never received a civil divorce, however.

Nineteenth century marriages did not always end in a formal divorce

It is assumed that nineteenth century marriages always ended in a formal divorce. They did not--this was often impossible. From which authority, exactly, would G. D. Smith prefer that Eleanor receive a divorce? She was in Utah; Hector was in San Francisco. He had abused, beaten, confined, and threatened to institutionalize her. As we have seen, notions of divorce were also more fluid in the mid-nineteenth century, especially on the frontier. It is unlikely that most contemporaries would have insisted that Eleanor required a formal divorce.

After Eleanor married Parley, Hector pursued and shot him six times and stabbed him twice

Pratt was arrested on trumped-up charges, freed by a non-Mormon judge, and pursued by Hector, who shot the unarmed apostle six times and stabbed him twice. He was left to bleed to death over the course of two hours. [5] In G. D. Smith’s worldview, are men like Hector entitled to hold women emotionally or martially hostage, civil divorce or no? One suspects not. But in his zeal to condemn the church, he does not provide his readers with the facts necessary to understand the Pratts’ choices.

Question: Was it normal not to obtain a formal civil divorce in 19th century America?

To remarry without a formal divorce was not an unusual thing in pre-Civil War America

Some critics of Mormonism like to emphasize that some LDS members did not receive civil divorces before remarrying—either monogamously or polygamously. They either state or imply that this shows the Saints' cavalier attitude toward the law.

The Saints were often poor and spent most of their time on the frontier, where the legal apparatus of the state was particularly feeble. Women who had joined the church and traveled to Zion without their husbands were particularly likely to be poor, and also unlikely to be worried about property rights. Critics usually tell us nothing of all this—with the result that some credulous readers might be horrified by the “loose” marriage practices of the Saints. It also should be remembered that because Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and other Latter-day Saint leaders exercised exclusive jurisdiction over celestial or plural marriages, marriages conducted under their supervision had as much (or more) formal oversight as many traditional marriages in America during the first half of the nineteenth century.

“From the standpoint of the legal historian,” wrote one expert who is not a Latter-day Saint, “it is perhaps surprising that anyone prosecuted bigamy at all. Given the confusion over conflicting state laws on marriage, there were many ways to escape notice, if not conviction.” [6]

Bigamy or, rather, serial monogamy (without divorce or death) was a common social experience in early America. Much of the time, serial monogamists were poor and transient people, for whom the property rights that came with a recognized marriage would not have been much of a concern, people whose lives only rarely intersected with the law of marriage. [7]

Nor, not incidentally, were their husbands available for a formal divorce.

Marriage in 19th century America was not a "free-for-all"

Does this mean that marriage in America was a free-for-all? Hardly, notes Nancy Cott:

When couples married informally, or reversed the order of divorce and remarriage, they were not simply acting privately, taking the law into their own hands. . . . A couple about to join or leave an intimate relationship looked for communal sanction. The surrounding local community provided the public oversight necessary. Without resort to the state apparatus, local informal policing by the community affirmed that marriage was a well-defined public institution as well as a contract made by consent. Carrying out the standard obligations of the marriage bargain—cohabitation, husband’s support, wife’s service—seems to have been much more central to the approbation of local communities at this time than how or when the marriage took place, and whether one of the partners had been married elsewhere before. [8]

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


  1. Steven Pratt, “Eleanor Mclean and the Murder of Parley P. Pratt,” BYU Studies (Winter 1975): 226.
  2. Steven Pratt, “Eleanor Mclean and the Murder of Parley P. Pratt,” 226.
  3. Pratt, “Eleanor Mclean and the Murder of Parley P. Pratt,” 226, emphasis in original, citing Millennial Star 19:432. (italics in original)
  4. Pratt, “Eleanor Mclean and the Murder of Parley P. Pratt,” 228–31.
  5. Pratt, “Eleanor Mclean and the Murder of Parley P. Pratt,” 241–48.
  6. Beverly J. Schwartzberg, “Grass Widows, Barbarians, and Bigamists: Fluid Marriage in Late Nineteenth-Century America” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Santa Barbara, 2001), 51–52.
  7. Hendrik Harlog, Man & Wife in America: A History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 87
  8. Nancy F. Cott, Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 37.