Inside the diaries of polygamous wives: Life as an early Mormon woman

Research has uncovered a stunning collection of writings that reveal the complexities of a polygamous life

Published May 31, 2014 6:30PM (EDT)

Ginnifer Goodwin, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Bill Paxton and Chloë Sevigny in "Big Love"    (HBO)
Ginnifer Goodwin, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Bill Paxton and Chloë Sevigny in "Big Love" (HBO)

Excerpted from "The Polygamous Wives Writing Club: From the Diaries of Mormon Pioneer Women."

By 1860, Angelina Farley, a farmer’s wife, and Henrietta Williams, a doc­tor’s wife, had plenty of opportunities to cross paths. Both had been born in the Northeast—Angelina in 1830 in New York and Henrietta in 1827 in Boston; both came west to Utah as young first wives by the early 1850s; both lived for a time in Salt Lake; and both eventually left for northern settlements—Angelina forty-five miles north to Ogden, and Henrietta twice that far north to Smithfield, from where she likely would have trav­eled with her family through Ogden in 1860. And if the two ever had the chance to meet one afternoon to share their writing, then they would have both had this in common, too: their desire to maintain their self-respect and sanity amidst their husbands’ decision to marry additional wives. Henrietta maintained her dignity by barely mentioning her husband’s other wives in her writing, while fiery Angelina wrote plenty of colorful tales to justify her anguish.

In 1860, Henrietta could have found thirty-year-old Angelina Farley and her large family living in Ogden, probably along a river, in a de­pressing shack. Although Henrietta, age thirty-three, was a doctor’s wife, she was a sympathetic soul who once complained about “the aristocratic element” among her neighbors who didn’t “concern themselves about the sick,” so she would have gladly listened to Angelina’s complaints. Angelina’s children were “in dirt and rags,” and she wrote, “I am heartsick to look about the room in which I spend my days.” On a particularly depressing day, Angelina even wrote that she was “heartily tired and sick of the filthy wearisome life” she lived and could not “avoid.”

In 1850, the family had some farmland, and her husband Winthrop had established the Winthrop Farley Shop in Ogden, located on the northeast corner of Twenty-Forth Street and Adams Avenue, where he shoed horses; made wagons, carriages, and tools; and specialized in making zinc-and-tin washboards and threshing machines. In the 1850s and 1860s, Ogden was a “rural agricultural area with small settlements” along two major rivers, but the community remained small until a dam was later built to bring water inland. In the 1860 census, Winthrop Farley listed his real estate value at $1,800 and his personal estate value at $400, a respectable amount that seems to contradict the impression Angelina gives that they were impoverished.

Both the 1860 Ogden census taker and Henrietta would have found Angelina, her husband Winthrop, his third wife Lydia, and seven children (age six and younger) all living in what Angelina felt was a shack. Four of the children were Angelina’s, one was Lydia’s, and two belonged to Winthrop’s second wife, Ellen, who had divorced him and left the previous year.

First wife Angelina had been born in New York, and her husband Winthrop had been born in Illinois, both around 1830. They were both baptized Mormons about 1849 and married the next year in Iowa, where they likely lived with other Saints. In their early marriage, they seemed happily typical. Angelina wrote one evening in her diary of her husband’s physical work and her domestic contribution: “Husband hung a door for Mr Watts, chopped wood for me, got hay and straw for his oxen to go to mill, carried David Lewis a pound of butter. I finished his vest and baked bread and pies for him to take along.” In 1851, just about the time Angelina got pregnant with her first baby, she wrote al­most romantically in her diary, “Went with husband down into the thicket. He (or we) found the tongue and forewheels of a wagon com­plete, in the river. Heard a lark. Wild geese flying.” The day after the baby was born, she wrote, “Husband home all day. Waited on me very pleas­ant.” In 1852, they left the Midwest for Salt Lake City and then went north to Ogden.

In 1853, Winthrop married second wife Ellen, who was five years older than he was. Ellen became pregnant with her second baby in early 1857. By the next January, Ellen had asked for “a bill of divorce,” and by 1859, Ellen had divorced Winthrop and married another man, leaving her two small children for Angelina to care for. It couldn’t have been easy, and Angelina alluded to run-ins she had had with Ellen. But those were small compared to what she endured with Lydia.

Winthrop was twenty-six years old with two wives and six children when he married eighteen-year-old Lydia in March 1857. Angelina wrote that Winthrop took Lydia to Salt Lake to marry her and that afterward they were “arranging house.” Over the next two months, Angelina would com­plain that Winthrop slept with Lydia every night and that she felt neglected. After three months, Angelina wrote that she was confused about “the real cause” of his neglect and that “the coldness” that existed between her and her husband would “kill” her. She wrote, “O if I knew just what he [scrib­bled out] desired me to cherish in my heart toward him I would know what course to pursue.” Angelina was hurt even more when Winthrop did something that “caused much distress” among them—but she didn’t say what it was.

Angelina would have admitted that when Mr. Farley seemed to care more for Lydia, she couldn’t hold her tongue. Angelina sometimes even felt that “an evil spirit” was “working on” her, or that she was in a bad mood, as we would say today. She wrote that in July 1857, she and Mr. Farley “had some talk.” He told her that he was “much hurt with the spirit” she’d had lately. Angelina knew she was weak and sometimes spoke too quickly. She wished she could ignore the irritations that led her “tongue astray,” or that she could, like a horse, “put a bit upon” herself. The day after their talk, she wrote that Mr. Farley was hoeing in the garden, that she and Lydia washed, and that a “good feeling” was “again restored in measure.”

However, a couple of weeks later, at the end of July 1857, four months after Lydia came into the family, Angelina saw or heard some lovemaking between her husband and Lydia, and this upset her again. In her diary, she wrote, “I had my feelings woefully wrought up by [what they supposed was] a private act of himself and Lydia which made me act and speak very unbecoming. He is hurt again.” Once again, two days later Angelina re­gretted her actions: “When I consider how I must have appeared and how odious my conduct must have looked, he not knowing the cause, I feel much ashamed.” Then a few days later, she wrote, “Mr. Farley and I get­ting more pleasant again. God grant me grace to continue so forever.”

Angelina, Winthrop, and Lydia were an example of an average country fam­ily trying to live polygamy together in the same house. Winthrop was not a Church leader, and the family didn’t seem to have the strong sense of polyga­mous “kingdom building” that Orson Pratt had envisioned. Angelina just felt that polygamy didn’t work in her day-to-day life. One Sunday Angelina wrote that she went to meeting, but that Mr. Farley and Lydia were “out again,” sug­gesting that she may have attended church without them and that they went somewhere together. Angelina felt that it was “well known” that Winthrop was “always with [Lydia] night and day, at home and abroad” and never with her.

Angelina learned, probably from neighbors, that Mr. Farley’s inequi­table treatment of his two wives had not gone unnoticed by his “superi­ors,” probably his ecclesiastical leaders: “the difference [Mr. Farley] makes in his treatment of Lydia and myself has an influence on the minds of his superiors detrimental to himself.” Angelina didn’t blame Winthrop for this; rather she believed it was, like Eve’s transgression, “the influence that Lydia [held] over him that cause[d] the Bishop to treat him with so much indifference,” and “it sinks him in the estimation of those with whom he ought to stand high.” While polygamy was touted as a high spiritual law, Mr. Farley’s manner of living polygamy was troublesome enough that it ironically “sunk” him.

Angelina thought it looked bad that a polygamous husband would allow himself to be ruled over by one of his wives. According to Angelina’s telling, the bishop and the community had seen that Winthrop had “given up entirely to [Lydia] as far as they can judge” and that she carried “the rule in the family mostly over him, as well as me as far as it is possible for a woman to rule.”

Perhaps the bishop of the North Canyon Ward, who would have felt free to counsel struggling families, suggested that the Farleys add more reli­gious feeling to their marriage by receiving religious rites and endow­ments together. After all, Winthrop already had one wife leave him. About six months after Winthrop married Lydia, the threesome went together to receive their “endowments” at the Endowment House in Salt Lake. Because receiving endowments was a holy ceremony for the devout, the three prob­ably would have had sufficiently tolerant feelings among them at that point.

Their good feelings prompted Winthrop and Angelina to sleep together again, and Angelina became pregnant with her last baby. After this, how­ever, their sexual relations probably halted and their “social communica­tion” waned. Angelina wrote that she and Mr. Farley were living “more like strangers” than like man and wife. Clearly Lydia was Mr. Farley’s “favorite” wife and took “quite too much upon herself” in “wife’s privileges.” Angelina “some times [wished] and [prayed] for some quiet lone retreat” with her children where she could “have the privilege of training them right.” She sounded like she might leave like Ellen had—but where would she go? And why would she leave the home that she had helped establish? She could only write that her life was “a cold and dreary waste” and that even her “little ones” could not “warm [her] into life.”

Perhaps Mr. Farley tried to improve the situation because within a few months of this comment, the family “[broke] up” the house and “[removed] south” to Salt Lake where Angelina gave birth to her last child at the end of May. At the end of the year, she explained that she had made it through the birth in “pretty good spirits being upheld by the strengthening power of the Almighty,” and that she was “plodding” on her way “with six little children to take the entire care of including two of Ellen’s which have been with me the last year.”

Both Angelina’s and Lydia’s lives must have been largely occupied with pregnancy, giving birth, and caring for children in the same house—yet it doesn’t seem they helped each other. Angelina once complained that Lydia slapped one of Ellen’s children. Lydia, in her twenties, was constantly preg­nant: a year after marriage, she had her first baby in February, another the following February, another the following January, another the following February, another the following March, another the following September, another the following November—seven babies in seven years. Within twenty years, she would have carried twelve children, and, unfortunately, almost half died before she did in 1916, at age fifty-seven. But neither Lydia’s pregnancies, nor her children, nor their deaths, found sympathetic words in Angelina’s diary. The day that Lydia’s third baby was born in January 1860, they must have had a run-in. Angelina wrote, “Well am I all in the blame and no one else wrong? The devil is up with us again and Mr. Farley has gone to his room twice without prayer, completely over board again, and all because I am weak enough to notice and care for his one sided treatment.”

Their dysfunctional threesome limped along, each trying to one-up the other. One January, Angelina went to “a dance over to Isaac’s” with her father, and as though she meant to gain something with this night out, she finished her entry—“ha! ha.” But, as if Angelina’s night out had given them permission to retaliate, two days later Winthrop took Lydia to a dance at the Council House, probably in Salt Lake. Angelina reported, “Mr. Farley and his darling Lydia went to a dance at the council house. Wonder if he thinks he will always have the privilege of treating me in this off hand way; if he thinks he can always make me the drudge and the tail of such women.” Had Lydia asked Mr. Farley to take her to a dance?

Angelina even hoped Mr. Farley would take a fourth wife so that Lydia could see what it was like to believe that you were the focus of your husband’s love and then not be. Angelina didn’t like the way that Winthrop was bonding with Lydia’s brother, either. Angelina explained that Mr. Farley went hunting with Lydia’s brother, and Angelina resented how that relationship put Lydia forward even more. Angelina wrote, “[I] wonder if they will be as good and clever when he gets another wife, eh? Wonder if he will always hug liars and deceivers to his bosom night and day and make them his bosom confidents. Well, well, the lord’s ways are not our ways.” Here Angelina suggests that her marriage relationship was fine until Mr. Farley married a second wife; the same could happen to Lydia.

In the midst of these bad feelings, Angelina reported that Winthrop left to find work in Bridger “to procure the necessaries of life for his family” and also to get away from “the contentious spirits of his two women.” Angelina confessed that “matters” had come to “a shameful point” between Lydia and herself—“worse than ever [existed] between” her and Ellen.

Angelina used her diary to make a self-improvement plan. She re­solved to not “quarrel in [Mr. Farley’s] absence” so that Lydia would have “no just grounds of complaint.” She resolved to keep an “every day account of doings of both” her and Lydia, on paper, because she thought Lydia sometimes lied and exaggerated. For example, Lydia complained that Angelina kept the coffee locked up “when it was lying in the cupboard.” Lydia complained that Angelina didn’t divide the milk and butter fairly. Lydia also complained to someone that it made her “so devilish mad” that she couldn’t “do more as she [pleased].” Angelina ended her entry that day complaining that Lydia had used the garden hoe all day, resulting in Angelina not getting a chance with the hoe!

Although Angelina tried during Winthrop’s absence to be “sociable” with Lydia and not “make a fuss,” when he returned she couldn’t stand the way Lydia received all his attention: “I declare I have not power to stand calm by the way she tags him from place to place and sticks as tight as though she could not get a part from him while I must stand back like a whipped dog. I fear I shall not stand it.” Although no photographs of the two women have been found, they might fit two opposite female stereo­types described in an 1878 Atlantic Monthly satire: Angelina as the stereo­typical “New England Woman,” and Lydia as the stereotypical “French” (or Italian, in this case) woman. According to the stereotype, a married “New England Woman” valued work, her family, and Puritanical religious exact­ness; hated “cheating”; and “flirtation would give her a headache.” On the other hand, a “French” woman loved to flirt and “be coquette in every movement and action” but could still be a “comforting, good woman in her way.” Although two stereotypes, a reader can imagine the Puritan versus European culture clash that sometimes filled the Farleys’ little place.

Eventually, Lydia got her own house, and Angelina didn’t complain as much when she couldn’t witness Winthrop and Lydia together, but Angelina never recovered her place in her marriage. Like some other first wives, she missed the “oneness” between husband and wife and would have preferred “a whole husband” because “try as I might,” as one first wife wrote, she couldn’t help but feel like “the neglected wife, the sap who was left to work her life out so that others might enjoy their life together.” But Angelina had been right about vacillating affections—Winthrop mar­ried two more wives, which might have changed his relationship with Lydia, too. Angelina died in 1901, at age seventy-one in Ogden, having spent her later years helping her children and grandchildren.

Just as a visit from someone like Henrietta would have been thera­peutic for Angelina, so must have writing also helped her cope. Angelina coached herself sometimes in her diary. Once after writing critically about polygamy, she reminded herself that she’d been counseled to overlook injustices and “rejoice always in the [daily] blessings” she received. Remembering this, she felt “unthankful” for not noticing more beautiful things. Perhaps she was so harsh in her writing because writing was a way to release the anger and confusion that she didn’t want to blurt out. Women who wrote from the margins of official discourse could use their diaries as a way to “talk back” to their culture. Her refreshing candor was a quiet, acceptable way to have the last word.

Of course, Angelina told her story from her viewpoint, and that’s why scholars read autobiographies and diaries as “literary texts” rather than as “documentary histories.” Autobiographical writing is, according to bell hooks, a “unique recounting of events not so much as they have hap­pened, but as we remember and invent them.” When hooks wrote her own diary, for example, she discovered that as she wrote, she felt that she “was not as concerned with accuracy of detail as [she] was with evoking in writ­ing the state of mind, the spirit of a particular moment.” In Angelina’s case, certainly her mood and voice help us understand what it felt like to be her at the moment when she “selected, deselected, [forgot], rearranged, blurred, emphasized, or de-emphasized” certain details from all that she could have written.

Angelina, as all autobiographers purposefully or accidently do, created herself as a character in her own story. She chose to transgress cultural expectations that would have dictated that she represent herself as the “ideal woman who embodi[ed] the characteristics and enact[ed] the roles assigned her in the fictions of patriarchal culture.” Rather, Angelina came across as a shrew but also as a woman with self-respect. She was fighting to hang onto who she knew herself to be and not what Winthrop and Lydia wanted to make her.

By keeping an emotion-packed diary, she took the risk of alienating any potential reading audience, who would discover that she was violating un­spoken Mormon women rules that she always defend her faith and, in a way, also violating Christian women rules that she be more self-effacing. But in some ways, Angelina was the good Christian woman who wouldn’t put up with the excesses of polygamy and who would “go tell it on the moun­tain.” She seems unconstrained from tattling on the Mormon system or at least tattling on Winthrop and Lydia, who she believed weren’t playing fairly.

Besides asserting her self-respect and telling the reader that she was the only woman Winthrop ever had whom he could trust, Angelina sounds curiously fragile. She would sometimes admit to having demons in her head, and even the belief that the devil was getting power over her, as Arthur Miller wrote of the early Salem Puritans, would be disturbing. In 1874, still troubled, Angelina wrote, “I fear I shall break down in mind as well as body. It is terrible. Unaccountable fear and terror creep over me. Strange things and vague fancies flit through my mind. My head aches.”

Polygamous marriage was obviously too much for her, and if anything, she needed stability rather than the constant instability and insecurity that came with settling a new place—raising too many children in a dirty house— and sharing her husband with four wives who came and went throughout her life. As her children got older, she learned to forge her primary relation­ships with them. Angelina later wrote that she spent every “nerve and sinew” to exhaustion raising her children and helping with her grandchildren.

Angelina’s raw perspective is all the more pronounced because she kept a diary in which she immediately recorded what she was feeling, rather than an autobiography in which she might have more calmly reflected in her old age. On the subject of polygamy, Angelina’s “loud” personal diary pro­vides a contrast to Henrietta’s “quiet” autobiography that was meant for a larger audience—Henrietta wrote very little about her experience as a po­lygamous wife.

The more even-tempered Henrietta could have told that three years previous in February 1857 her husband had married “our wife Electa Jane,” as she called her, but then would offer no details about how the marriage came about or what the effects of that marriage were. In 1857, Henrietta’s husband Ezra was thirty-three, Henrietta twenty-nine, and Electa Jane seventeen.

Henrietta and Ezra had arrived in Salt Lake City in October 1849 with their baby girl and Ezra’s widowed mother, Rebecca Swain Williams, who never remarried, probably by choice. In Salt Lake, Henrietta and Ezra first lived in a log cabin and then, Henrietta explained, the “Doctor,” her hus­band, “built a seven room adobe house.” As “emigrants rushed in,” she said, and the doctor’s “large practice” increased,” the adobe house became a hospital, and the family moved “to the block north of the temple block.”

In February 1857, when Ezra married Electa Jane, the settlers were suffering from famine and Church leaders were pushing polygamous marriage as one way to care for all their people—perhaps this situation motivated Ezra to marry Electa Jane. But the Williams family sometimes experienced need themselves. Once when Ezra was about to depart on one of his missions, he cried because his family hardly had any food. While he was gone, Henrietta tried to collect on medical services her husband had performed. Henrietta wrote that when Ezra returned, he was “glad to find his family happy in trying to do the very best they knew how and not com­plaining.” Perhaps Henrietta was cheerful by nature, and perhaps she was influenced by Brigham Young’s preaching against complainers—Young felt “he had given everything to the church and expected everybody to do the same.” At first the Williams intergenerational and polygamous family lived together. Henrietta explained that she, her husband Ezra, their wife Electa Jane, Ezra’s widowed mother Rebecca, Henrietta’s six children aged one month to eleven years, and Electa Jane’s two-year-old had been living to­gether in Great Salt Lake Ward 14. In 1880, twenty years later, the census takers would find husband Ezra living in Ogden City with Electa Jane and next door to her only son, Hyrum Royal, a married carpenter. In 1883, Electa Jane died at age forty-three, and nine months later, Ezra probably married a third wife who was never mentioned in Henrietta’s autobiog­raphy. In 1900, at age seventy-two, about the time that Henrietta finished her autobiography, she was living with Ezra in a house attached to a farm that they owned. In 1905, Ezra died, and in 1922, Henrietta died at age ninety-five, outliving her husband by seventeen years.

Henrietta probably wrote her autobiography around 1900 when she was seventy-three and when Electra Jane had been dead for seventeen years. It is, again, most notable, for what it does not say about the younger wives. She mentioned Electa Jane only a few times. Two of those times, Henrietta briefly compared her experience with the easier one of Electa Jane’s, letting the reader know that she, Henrietta, had not always had the advantage. For example, Henrietta wrote that when she had her son Joseph in 1858, she “was alone.” She compared this to Electa Jane’s baby son’s birth a month later: Electa Jane had “her mother, sister, and her husband Dr. Williams, her father, and administer to her.” Henrietta also wrote of her subsequent annoyance that “some officious person” had told Electa Jane that “the first son born in polygamy ruled the father’s though,” Henrietta facetiously wrote, “the father was to turn imbecile and could not rule his own house.” Evidently, someone must have congratulated Electa Jane for having the first son born in po­lygamy, and Electa Jane took it to heart. Henrietta wrote, “what rubbish some people can invent, giving it for a principle of the gospel.”

In a second example, Henrietta wrote that Electa Jane had brought whooping cough from Salt Lake and unfortunately given it to Henrietta’s children: “Our wife Electa Jane Barney Williams spent the summer in Salt Lake with her parents returning late in the fall with her only child, Hyrum Royal starting out with whooping cough.” Henrietta sarcastically con­tinued, “She loaned it to my young family which was a great favor to me,” and the house rang with coughs “all those long winter nights.” Henrietta lost one of her little twins that winter to whooping cough because they couldn’t get medicine “that time of the year in that snowy country and no travel out of the valley to relieve them from their distressing situation.”

Henrietta probably wrote about Electa Jane’s birth and delivery of her only boy because Electa Jane had received so much attention compared with her, and Henrietta probably wrote about the whooping cough trouble to show how much she endured that winter. But Henrietta also referred to Electa as “our wife” and shared a humorous vignette that showed Electa Jane could bring fun to the family, too. One April Fool’s Day, Electa Jane made a “candle out of a turnip”: “The black end was its nose. She handed it to Dr. Williams to light. He could not think what was the matter with the candle.” They had a good laugh and shared the “candle” with the neighborhood.

Henrietta’s use of occasional humor and sarcasm to portray stories about Electa Jane was mild compared with Angelina’s “transgressive writ­ing.” Polygamous wives who produced this kind of transgressive writing were willing to expose what they really felt compared with what they believed their audience wanted to hear. Angelina attempted to “write [her] way through and out of ” the complications of “theological, social, and personal dilemmas” when they ran up against “Mormon culture and doctrine.” Sitting by that river on her dirty farm, she wrote stories about her messy world, quietly undermining those Salt Lake women.

Excerpted from "The Polygamous Wives Writing Club: From the Diaries of Mormon Pioneer Women" by Paula Kelly Harline with permission from Oxford University Press USA, © Paula Kelly Harline, 2014.

By Paula Kelly Harline

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