Sunday, February 20, 2011

In Prison for Polygamy

President George Q. Cannon, seated center, George C. Wood, my Great-Great-Grandfather behind 
Pres. Cannon over right shoulder next to prison guard James A. Doyle in civilian dress.
Utah Territorial Prison, November 1888.
I've been working on a family history project with a cousin to transcribe the prison diary of our 2nd-Great-Grandfather, George C. Wood.  (My confession, unlikely to lead me to prison, is that I'm way behind on my part of the task. But as I haven't heard from my cousin for some time, she must be too. I'll get on it.)

It is an absolutely amazing story that is difficult to fathom. George C. Wood needs to have a book written about him which I may get to someday if I can get organized besides figuring how to get it past the family censors. It isn't really that scandalous - at least not by Utah family history standards. 

As appears apparent from the photo, Grandpa Wood was imprisoned for "unlawful cohabitation" otherwise known as plural marriage or polygamy. The facts are as follows. He was born in 1854. In 1879, he married Adelaide Ridges (whose father built the Tabernacle Organ). They had three daughters, the oldest, Addie May, born 1880, was my Great Grandmother. In 1886, George C. married Juliaett Howard, born 1870 (you can do the math). Juliaett and my Great Grandmother were good friends. On April 1, 1886 he was arrested, eventually convicted, and was in the Utah Territorial Prison until pardoned by President Benjamin Harrison, November 2, 1890! Family tradition has it that he served the second longest sentence for "unlawful cohabitation." After the pardon, he returned home to his two wives and had several more children by both.  He died in 1923, "survived by his two widows" as noted in his obituary.

The purpose of this posting is not to discuss plural marriage - maybe at a later time. But I note that while perhaps not in compliance with at least the spirit of his Presidential pardon, Grandpa Wood was in technical compliance with the Manifesto declaring an end to the "contracting" of plural marriages. It obviously took some time for the people and the church to fully end the practice of polygamy. I don't think even President Harrison would want to see families abandoned by their fathers. Some, of course, never ended it and they were eventually excommunicated from the LDS Church for violation of Church policy and the laws of the land. For Grandpa Wood's part, he did not enter into any additional marriages and provided a good life for his two, large families as he continued faithful to his two wives. He served in the church and was well-respected in the community.   

The purpose of this posting is that in reading Grandpa Wood's prison diary, it is surprising only in its normality. Polygamy is hardly mentioned. That's not what his life was about. He wrote about the reading he was doing, musical performances, lecture presentations, the living conditions, the guest preachers (whom he generally had fun with), and how much he missed his family and wet his pillow with tears every night in prayer for their safe keeping. The most striking of all is that here he was in a federal penitentiary convicted of a federal crime for his religious practices and he frequently mentioned his patriotic love for the United States and his belief in the inspired Constitution. He was not vindicated in his hope that his religious practices would be protected under the First Amendment. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled several years before that the Congressional bans on bigamy or polygamy (directed specifically at Utah Territory), were constitutional and not in violation with the First Amendment. See, Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (1878). And the Church eventually accepted that ruling as the will of the Lord.

The Saints have never won their battles with government (unless you count their overwhelming presence in Utah State government from the extremely conservative side of the culture due to the caucus and convention system of the Utah Republican party easily manipulated by motivated partisans - but we're working on that). And I'm still trying to understand this strange disconnect between belief in an inspired Constitution and the failure of that Constitution to protect people holding that belief in their other religious practices. Don't get me wrong, most modern Mormons are quite relieved that both Church policy and the laws of the land prohibit polygamy. But it can't possibly be right that Grandpa Wood deserved those three years in the penitentiary. And while not totally without some fault due to horrible misunderstandings, his people certainly did not deserve what happened in Missouri.

For my part, I can't rationally resolve all the contradictions in my own soul, much less the complexities of civil and religious society. I remain firmly committed by choice and exercise of Faith to the gospel of Jesus Christ and his church here on earth. Because of my federal employment, I also have sworn an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States. I will continue to do my best in both regards because with the cloudy image I see through the dark glass, all I have left to fall back on are Faith, Hope, and Charity. And the greatest of these is the Lord's Charity.

March 26, 2012

For more blog posts on George C. Wood's experiences in the pen, see the links:


  1. Hey, Passionate Moderate Mormon! I just stumbled onto your site. George Cotton Wood is my second great grandfather also, my great grandfather being George Cotton Wood Jr.

    I would be happy to help with the prison diary transcription.

  2. Cousin Anonymous!
    Good to hear from you! We'd be glad to share a copy of the disk we have with scans of the diary. We could figure out a way to have you help. My cousin is working from the front, I'm working back to front to meet in the middle. (I know! you can help with my part! yeah!)

    Anyway, get a hold of me at grant[dot]vaughn[at]gmail[dot]com

  3. I just stumbled on your post and recognized one of my own ancestors. James A. Doyle is the jailer who is in the suit, with the big mustache and hat. I would love to hear if any of the journals you write from, specifically mentions our James. He was a U S Marshall, and I have found many articles in old newspapers that mention him.

    1. Yes, Doyle does appear in Wood's diary. I'm on a family history trip in Wales for a couple of weeks. But when I'm back home I'll look for some references to him.

    2. I, too, stumbled into this while looking up information regarding James Aloysius Doyle! He is my great, great grandfather. Any relevant information would be a godsend. Cheers!

  4. Nice to come across your writing. I'm not sure how all the "relations" work with the plural marriage aspect of Mormon History. I believe we share the same gr...grandfather, Daniel Wood born 1800. I believe George is a son from Daniel's marriage to Peninah. I come from Daniel's marriage to Emma. Thanks for sharing this piece, I found it very interesting.

  5. Not sure how the "relations" work with plural marriage. I believe we share the same great...grandfather, Daniel Wood born 1800. George I believe was the son of Daniel's marriage to Peninah. I come from Daniel's later marriage to Emma, who was the first school teacher in the room built on the back of Daniel's home in Woods Cross. I appreciate your writing and sharing this piece of history. I'd be curious is you know more about the situation leading up to Peninah and Daniel's adoption of the three Native American children?


Comments are welcome. Feel free to disagree as many do. You can even be passionate (in moderation). Comments that contain offensive language, too many caps, conspiracy theories, gratuitous Mormon bashing, personal attacks on others who comment, or commercial solicitations- I send to spam. This is a troll-free zone. Charity always!