Tag Archives: Polygamy

Pansy’s Most Controversial Book

1 Jun

In 1902 Isabella Alden published her most controversial book, Mara.

Mara is the story of a young woman who unknowingly marries a Mormon man with multiple wives. What made Mara controversial wasn’t the plot. Novels with similar themes of an innocent young woman duped into marrying a polygamous Mormon husband had been published for over 50 years.

Ann Eliza Young-19th Wife of Brigham Young ca 1875 age 31

An 1875 photo of Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of Brigham Young, at the age of 31.

Author Metta Victor created the sub-genre with her book Mormon Wives, published in 1856. In the book two women, life-long friends, find themselves married to and betrayed by the same Mormon man.

Cover of the 1890 edition of A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

Cover of the 1890 edition of A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

After that book’s success, an estimated fifty novels were published by 1900, vilifying the Mormon religion. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s book, A Study in Scarlet depicted Mormon President Brigham Young as a villain and the Mormon Church steeped in kidnapping, murder and enslavement of its women.

An 1899 photograph of seven of Brigham Young's Wives

An 1899 photograph of seven of Brigham Young’s Wives

So what made Isabella’s novel Mara different from all the others?

In 1902 when Mara was published, the topic of polygamy was at the forefront of American consciousness. Only a few years before, Americans believed, polygamy had been abolished; they believed plural marriages did not exist because the Mormon Church had assured the Federal Government the practice had been abolished. That assurance had been required of Utah as part of its transition from territory to state.

An 1873 cartoon shows a Union soldier prodding a Mormon man and his wives into the divorce court: "Come, come, get on into the divorce court. This polygamy business is played out. Hereafter you chaps can have only one Polly apiece."

An 1873 cartoon shows a Union soldier prodding a Mormon man and his wives into the divorce court: “Come, come, get on into the divorce court. This polygamy business is played out. Hereafter you chaps can have only one Polly apiece.”

Utah’s transition had been a long and contentious process. The Federal Government had tried numerous ways of outlawing polygamy in the past through the 1862 Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, and again in the 1882 Edmunds Anti-Polygamy Act. But the LDS Church defied the laws and continued to sanction plural marriage. Under President Grover Cleveland the Federal Government tried to enforce the laws by arresting and imprisoning men who could be proven to be polygamists.

Polygamists in the Utah Penitentiary 1885

Polygamists in the Utah Penitentiary 1885

But the Federal Government’s only effective weapon was blocking statehood, and residents of Utah keenly felt the effects. They couldn’t vote in Federal elections and their territory was ruled by a governor, secretary and judges appointed by the President of the United States.

In 1890 the LDS Church appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing the Edmunds Anti-Polygamy Act was unconstitutional because it prohibited Mormons from practicing their religion, of which plural marriage was an essential part. The U. S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Edmunds Act.

Mormon Church President Joseph F. Smith with his wives and children, circa 1900

Mormon Church President Joseph F. Smith with his wives and children, circa 1900

In 1890 Mormon Church president Wilford Woodruff published his “Manifesto,” which declared an end to the practice of polygamy in the Church. Doing so paved the way for Utah to become a state; and six years later Utah joined the Union. Protestants in America breathed a sigh of relief.

But almost immediately after the Manifesto was issued, certain members of the Mormon Church resumed the practice of polygamy clandestinely. Ranking members of the Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and other members of the Church entered into plural marriages—and sanctified plural marriages of others—in direct defiance of the Manifesto.

Senator Reed Smoot

Senator Reed Smoot

The rest of the country felt it had been duped and a wave of outrage swept across America. Some believed there was a great Mormon conspiracy to take over the U.S. government. Concern deepened when the Utah Legislature chose Reed Smoot—a member of the Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles—to be the State’s new Senator.

Protestant churches organized massive petitions against allowing Mr. Smoot a seat in the Senate; and the U.S. Senate responded by conducting a multi-year investigation into the Mormon Church and its influence in the state of Utah.

Mara was written in the climate of that time. Like other anti-polygamy novels before, Mara’s plot centered around a young woman who married a successful and gentlemanly man from Utah, only to later discover she was his latest in a string of wives. Mara was also a reminder to readers that America had to remain vigilant in ensuring polygamy as a practice was removed from American society.

Newspaper illustration of Mormon President Joseph F. Smith (seated in the white chair on the right) giving testimony to Senator George Frisbie Hoar during the Reed Smoot Senate Hearing.

Newspaper illustration of Mormon President Joseph F. Smith (seated in the white chair on the right) giving testimony to Senator George Frisbie Hoar during the Reed Smoot Senate Hearing.

Today some might think Mara’s plot is simply sensational fiction; but Isabella Alden’s novels were always rooted in a common truth: her characters lose their way only when their relationship with God wanes. She used the story to show how easy it was for a young woman to fall under a wrong influence in a time of weakness in her life.

In Mara Isabella also displayed some sympathy for the wives and children of the plural unions, which may have been one reason the book came under scrutiny. Some public libraries, including the library in Isabella’s town of Palo Alto, California, banned the book because it dealt with the topic of polygamy, which library trustees considered an immoral practice.

Article in the San Francisco Call on August 1, 1910

Article in the San Francisco Call on August 1, 1910

America, for the most part, did not share Isabella’s pity. Their abhorrence for polygamy (and all who engaged in the practice, including the wives) reached new heights during the four years it took the U.S. Senate to conduct their investigation into practices of the Mormon Church. In the end, the Mormon Church submitted to pressure and outlawed polygamy once and for all, and established a new practice of excommunicating Church members who entered into plural marriages.

Headline about Mormon President Joseph F. Smith's Senate testimony reads "I have five wives, many children, and know that I am violating the laws."

Headline about Mormon President Joseph F. Smith’s Senate testimony from The Salt Lake Tribune, March 4, 1904. His honest, straight-forward testimony shocked America.

Reed Smoot was eventually seated as a United States Senator from the State of Utah. He served his state and his country honorably for almost thirty years, and, by his conduct, helped force a profound shift in America’s perception of Mormonism.

Eventually, Mara was returned to the shelves of the Palo Alto Public Library, but many libraries and stores considered the book too controversial to stock.

Discover more about the events in this post:

Read about Utah’s Road to Statehood 

Read more about Pansy’s Banned Books

The U.S. Senate’s page about The Expulsion Case of Reed Smoot of Utah

Watch a video about Mormon President Joseph F. Smith’s testimony before the U.S. Senate

Read the testimonies of Mormon President Joseph F. Smith and Reed Smoot before the U.S. Senate

Read Mara for free.

Cover_Mara resizedClick on the book cover to read an unabridged edition of the book.

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Pansy’s Banned Books

28 May

When you think of “banned books” what comes to mind? Books that encourage radical or treasonous ideas? Fiction filled with descriptions of salacious sex or horrific violence?

Imagine, then, what must have been Isabella Alden’s first thought when she discovered her books were banned in some public libraries across the United States.

Banned Books - Pansy Covers

Banning (or “debarring”) books from circulation in public libraries was something of a regular practice in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Libraries often questioned whether they were justified in giving shelf space to “common novels.” It was even a topic of extensive discussion at the American Library Association meeting of 1894.

With only so much shelf space and limited dollars with which to purchase books, library trustees often wondered if resources should be restricted only to books that offered “instruction, or culture, or taste.”

Boston Banned Books San Fran Call 17 March 1901 headline

Headline in the San Francisco Call newspaper on March 17, 1901

 

The City of Boston Public Library devised a solution. They established a reading committee in 1895. The committee of 15-20 people was tasked to read all the fiction books the Boston Public Library was considering buying, and report their findings.

The Boston Public Library, circa 1908

The Boston Public Library, circa 1908

The Boston Public Library was always careful to say that the reading committee did not select books for the library; they merely gave an opinion about whether a book was “worthy.” But thanks to the reading committee’s reports, the Boston Public Library passed on most of the best-selling fiction books of the time. Jules Verne’s An Antarctic Mystery didn’t make the cut; neither did David Harum by Edward Noyes Westcott, even though it was the best-selling novel of 1899.

David Harum Cover

Where the Boston Public Library led, other libraries followed. The New York Public Library implemented a similar plan, and libraries in small and large cities across the country followed suit.

Public Library in Dayton, Ohio, 1906

Public Library in Dayton, Ohio, 1906

Unhappy readers complained, arguing that libraries should supply books the public wanted to read, but their complaints made little difference. Instead, the Boston Public Library added members to the reading committee and increased the number of books they reviewed each year.

Books

Adding fuel to the fire: libraries refused to give reasons books were banned or removed from circulation. Newspapers, publishing houses, and writers who deplored the practice were left to guess at the reason a particular book was banned.

In 1901 Isabella Alden’s books fell under the scrutiny of the Boston Public Library’s reading committee. Here’s an excerpt of an article that ran in the San Francisco Call on March 17, 1901:

Excerpt from the New York Times, March 2, 1901

Excerpt from the New York Times, March 2, 1901

In their annual report for that year the Boston Public Library didn’t specifically mention Isabella Alden’s books, but it did give some insight into the reading committee’s reports about books they reviewed. Here’s what the reading committee said about these fiction books:

Cover To Have and To HoldTo Have and to Hold, the best-selling novel of 1900, by Mary Johnston would have been better “if some of the agony had been reserved for another occasion.”

Unleavened Bread by Robert Grant was characterized as a “very disagreeable and excellent story against women’s clubs.”

The Soft Side by Henry James was “an interesting puzzle for one who cares to see how a clever writer can hide plot, expression, style, clearness and force under a rubbish heap of senseless words.”

Cover BlennerhassettBlennerhasset, the 1901 best-selling historical novel by Charles Felton Pidgin, was rejected because “the author conveys the impression that Aaron Burr was a gay Lothario, and nowhere indicates reprobation of his conduct.”

The annual report summed up what the committee believed made a good novel:

“People generally want something which is restful, interesting and will take their thoughts away from themselves, and something that ends well.”

That guiding principle of the reading committee may have influenced the library’s decision to ban Isabella’s books from their shelves. Unfortunately for Isabella, she wrote books that made readers think, search their hearts and examine their own actions. And sometimes Isabella’s books didn’t necessarily end on a happy note.

Interior of the Boston Public Library, 1896

Interior of the Boston Public Library, 1896

By 1902 The Boston Public Library gave up trying to hide the fact that they were not interested in stocking works of fiction:

“The trustees … are of the opinion that most of the books of this character now published have little permanent or even temporary value.”

Interior of Westmount Public Library undated

In other words, reported the Daily Sun on November 1, 1902:

“The library is no longer attempting to meet the demand, where the demand is for trash, and the word trash has been made to include a considerably larger class of stories than formerly.”

Indianapolis Public Library, 1905

Indianapolis Public Library, 1905

Because many libraries took their lead from the Boston Public Library, authors like Isabella Alden had good cause to be concerned.

Palo Alto Public Library, circa 1907

Palo Alto Public Library, circa 1907

In 1910 Isabella was living in Palo Alto, California when the local public library took exception to one of her books (that had been published eight years earlier).

From the San Francisco Call, August 1, 1910

From the San Francisco Call, August 1, 1910

It must have been shocking for Isabella to have one of her books labeled as “immoral” when the message of God’s love and plan for salvation was a strong and consistent theme throughout her novels.

We can only guess what action Isabella might have taken. Two weeks later, however, the Palo Alto Library reversed their decision and Isabella’s books were once again on the library’s shelves.

But Isabella had to remain vigilant to ensure her books, including her most controversial book, remained available in libraries for everyone to read.

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