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The recent report that 19th-century Mormon poet Eliza Snow was raped by eight Missourians has aroused intense curiosity, questions, debate and some disbelief.
So historian Andrea Radke-Moss, who first described her research about Snow at a Brigham Young University conference last week in Provo, is providing more context and details for her findings on the Mormon history blog Juvenile Instructor.
Though rumors of the 1838 attack on Snow have circulated among Mormon historians for decades, Radke-Moss, a BYU-Idaho professor, found a more conclusive source within weeks of her presentation. It hails from the autobiography of Alice Merrill Horne, who was "a member of the Utah State Legislature, a board member of the [LDS] General Relief Society, and a famed art critic and patroness."
Radke-Moss notes that Horne, born in 1868, was the "granddaughter of LDS apostle George A. Smith and Bathsheba W. Smith, the fourth General Relief Society president, who was one of the original members of the Female Relief Society in Nauvoo in 1842, and close friend to Eliza R. Snow and other high leadership of the Relief Society in Utah Territory."
Here is what Horne later penned about what she, as a child, heard her grandmother and other elderly women of Mormonism discuss the early days of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"There was a saint a Prophetess, a Poet, an intellectual, seized by brutal mobbers used by those eight demons and left not dead, but worse," Horne wrote. "The horror, the anguish, despair, hopelessness of the innocent victim was dwelt upon. [W]hat [sic] future was there for such a one? All the aspirations of a saintly virgin that maiden of purity had met martyrdom!"
Horne further states, according to Radke-Moss, that when Mormon founder Joseph Smith heard about the assault on Snow and that she was unable to have children, he promised that "yet she would be a Mother in Israel. One to whom all eyes should turn, to whom all ears would listen to hear her sing (in tongues) the praises of Zion ... but her marriage to the prophet would be only for heaven."
Four years after the Missouri violence, Snow, at age 38, became a plural wife of Smith. At age 41, after Smith's martyrdom, she married his successor, Brigham Young.
Radke-Moss acknowledges the source is "problematic," because Horne wrote the story decades after she heard it and "without apparent corroboration from Eliza herself or other sources." But Horne's words fit with what other historians have believed for a while.
Plus, Horne's descriptions are not "distant and vague," but rather "personal, intimate and familiar."
Horne put her name to the story, not hiding behind anonymity, the historian notes, and her motive was not to demean Snow.
"Horne viewed Eliza's life as a triumph over tragedy," Radke-Moss writes, "and constructed it as such."
The historian also debunks the "infamous stairs story," in which Smith's longtime wife, Emma, pushed Snow down the stairs, in a fit of rage and jealousy, causing the latter to miscarry a baby and become infertile.
The stairs story has "been discounted by many historians … as apocryphal, as motivated by anti-Emma sentiments in the 1870s," Radke-Moss writes, "and as a way of sensationalizing the Nauvoo polygamy experience."
The scholar sees her work on Snow's experience not as an attempt to "defend or justify polygamy," but rather as "opening an important and ongoing conversation about the history of sexual violence in church history."
Snow's story "humanizes and feminizes an event that has always been told as a story of male war, male imprisonment, and male victimhood," Radke-Moss writes. "She [Snow] unsilences the silenced. And yet, her victimhood does not and will not define her, but this new knowledge has the potential to bring hope and healing to other victims of sexual violence among our church membership and others."
Clearly, some Mormon women are getting that message from Radke-Moss' presentation.
"We've always known women in Missouri were raped as part of the warfare and persecution the early Mormons experienced then," a guest blogger identified as Eliza N., a Salt Lake City editor, writes at Expert Textperts. But "putting a face and a name to a victim of those crimes makes them seem much more real and current."
And not just any name, the blogger writes. "For that face and name to be one that is so well-known and so beloved as Eliza R. Snow makes it feel so very personal and that much more heartbreaking."
Women "absorb and carry the trauma of the rapes that happen to our friends, our sisters to our believed foremothers," Eliza N. adds. "This is trauma that never leaves us, that lingers in the back of our minds, that is inherited across generations."
Knowing about Snow helps modern Mormon women "empathize with victims of sexual violence, to know that she somehow healed from or at least survived her trauma to overcome that experience and not be defined by it that she went on to live such an extraordinary life and make such important contributions."
For Eliza N., the lesson is improved understanding and activism.
"There is power in empathy, in speaking out and sharing our trauma and experiences," the blogger writes. "Let's make it easier for victims to speak up by believing them."
Peggy Fletcher Stack