Emma and Eliza and the Stairs

The Historians Corner
Categories: Nauvoo Period, Women
Journal: 22:1
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Several elements in various combinations comprise one of the most oft-told tales of Mormon biography history. The characters involved are Joseph Smith, his wife Emma Hale Smith, and a plural wife, usually Eliza Roxcy Snow. The place is invariably Nauvoo, the scene either the Homestead residence of the Smiths or the later roomier Mansion House. The time, if specified, is either very early morning, or night, in 1843, April or May, or in 1844. The action involves two women in or coming out of separate bedrooms. Emma discovers the other woman in the embrace of or being kissed by Joseph. A tussle follows in which Emma pulls the woman’s hair, or hits her with a broom, or pushes her down stairs, causing either bruises, or a persistent limp, or, in the extreme versions, a miscarriage. There may or may not be a witness or witnesses.

The anecdote is told orally more often than it is written, with details of time, scene, costume (one account has Eliza in her nightclothes), action, motivation, and results being adjusted according to the attitudes of the teller. As generally related, it takes the form of a short story, with setting, plot, and characters; and it displays the characteristics of easily defined formula fiction: the characters are “good” or “bad”, their motives oversimplified, the action predictable, the results inevitable. It is the stuff of legend, a folk tradition, perpetuated orally, and likely to continue.

For the student of Mormon culture, the prevailing questions about this story are: Why was it told and why is it still told? What does the telling say about the tellers? What “truths of the human heart,” their own human hearts, do people reinforce through the telling? But for the biographers of Joseph Smith, or Emma Hale Smith, or Eliza Roxcy Snow, there is a more awkward problem: How did the story get its start, and which details, if any, are based on fact?