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Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy
Volume I

How Men Nearest the Prophet Attached Polygamy to His Name
in Order to Justify Their Own Polygamous Crimes

By Richard and Pamela Price

"What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives,
when I can only find one"
—Joseph Smith (LDS History of the Church 6:411).

[ Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy Index ]

Chapter 13

Joseph Sued Chauncey L. Higbee in Court at Carthage

Joseph and Emma Smith

Joseph Smith took immediate action when he discovered that Lawyer Chauncey L. Higbee had used his name to seduce women into practicing spiritual wifery. The Prophet was so disturbed by this news that he not only brought Chauncey before the Church's High Council and had him expelled from the Church, but he took the case two steps further: He sued Chauncey in Nauvoo before Justice of the Peace Ebenezer Robinson, and later in the Hancock County Circuit Court at the county seat at Carthage. In doing so Joseph provided one of the strongest evidences that (1) he was not a polygamist, (2) that he had not had a revelation commanding the practice of polygamy, and (3) that polygamy had its origin in some other source (which was in Dr. Bennett's brand of Cochranism).

How the Chauncey L. Higbee Court Case Was Found

The records of Joseph's court case against Chauncey were kept in the Hancock County Courthouse files at Carthage, Illinois, under the title, The People vs. Chauncey L. Higbee. They were deposited in the office of the County Clerk and Recorder of the Circuit Court. These documents have remained unknown to Saints and scholars because Brigham Young and the historians, who rewrote Church history after Joseph's death, excluded the details of this court case from their history. Therefore, the Carthage records have not been previously treated in writings on the subject of polygamy.

We (Richard and Pamela Price) began seriously studying the polygamy question in the early 1950s. Our vacations were spent studying in libraries in Missouri, Kansas, Illinois, Iowa, Utah, and Washington, D.C. Notes were laboriously taken in longhand and typed later. Information on the subject of polygamy in the Church was also discovered by sending inquiries to libraries throughout the United States, and to Manchester and London, England (where thousands of Saints were converted in the 1840s). Information gathered from these sources made the story of Joseph's fight against polygamy more evident. In all of our studies, the Chauncey Higbee case was one of our most important discoveries.

Richard recorded in his journal for November 7, 1962:

In our studies in preparation of the book, Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy, ... Pamela and I felt directed that we should go to Carthage and study the court records firsthand. We sent a letter to which they replied that the records were open to the public. On the above date we ... drove to Carthage, taking two cameras and two typewriters.

Pamela's notes state:

We left Independence, November 7, 1962, after work....

We spent the next day in the Hancock County Courthouse, in the office of the County Clerk and Recorder of the Circuit Court. There we found that the archives contained the court records dating back to the beginning of the county. We searched all day long and found six indictments which were brought against Joseph in 1844 by some of the Nauvoo conspirators who brought about his death, but nothing pertaining to the question of polygamy in 1842.

During the first day we had searched through everything to no avail. We called in Mr. P______, the circuit court clerk, and asked him to help us find more information on Joseph Smith, but he was unable to do so. We were very disappointed as we left that evening and retired to the Hotel Carthage across the street south of the courthouse.

The next day we searched the [Hancock] county public library and were amazed to find so little that would be helpful. We went back with prayer to the County Clerk's archives and began searching the 1842 files again. With great surprise and delight, we found a court case in File Box 18, Case Number 40, with an innocent-looking title, "People vs. Higbee Oct. 1842 No 40."

To our amazement we found in File Box 18 a jacket of faded blue paper with the title of this case on the outside. This was Case Number 40. Inside the jacket were seven papers which were the actual court documents of the suit which the Prophet brought against Chauncey Higbee. This included an affidavit signed by the Prophet Joseph Smith. What a tremendous find! There was Joseph's signature on a sworn affidavit that his character, and also the character of his wife, Emma, had been defamed by Chauncey L. Higbee "in seducing certain females."

This affidavit has great significance when it is studied in connection with the testimonies of Margaret and Matilda Nyman, Sarah Miller, and Catharine Warren, as given in the previous chapter. The documents within the jacket were:

    1. Joseph Smith's affidavit;
    2. A warrant for the arrest of Lawyer Chauncey Higbee to have him appear before Justice Ebenezer Robinson in Nauvoo;
    3. A subpoena for three of the women named above to appear as witnesses for Joseph, before Justice Robinson in Nauvoo;
    4. Justice Ebenezer Robinson's "transcript" with which he remanded the case to the circuit court in Carthage;
    5. Chauncey Higbee's bond that he would appear before the Carthage Circuit Court;
    6. A subpoena for three of the women named above and one man to appear as Joseph's witnesses at Carthage;
    7. Another subpoena to have five women appear as Chauncey's witnesses at Carthage.

The Documents within the Jacket of the Case of People vs. Higbee

The documents have been given numbers in this chapter to assist in their identification. Documents Number 1 through Number 4 reveal that on May 24, 1842, Chauncey had a hearing before Justice of the Peace Ebenezer Robinson in Nauvoo.

 

[Document Number 1—Joseph's Affidavit]

State of Illinois
County of Hancock, ss

Before me, Ebenezer Robinson, one of the Justices of the Peace for said county personally came Joseph Smith, who, being duly sworn according to law, deposeth and saith, that at sundry times, in the City of Nauvoo, county aforesaid, one Chancy L. Higbee has slandered and defamed the character of the said Joseph Smith, and also the character of Emma Smith, his wife, in using their names, the more readily to accomplish his purpose in seducing certain females, and further this deponont saith not.

Sworn to, and subscribed before me, in the county aforesaid, this 24th day of May A.D. 1842. E. Robinson J. P.

[Signed] Joseph Smith

On another sheet inside the jacket which contained the case was written:

J. Smith's Affidavit Filed September 14th, 1842.... Davis Clerke

We were familiar with photocopies of Joseph Smith's signature, and as we viewed the document we felt certain that it was indeed the Prophet's signature. We were honored to hold in our hands a document which had been signed by the Prophet—the document upon which this entire case was based.

 

[Document Number 2—State Warrant for the Arrest of Chauncey Higbee]

State of Illinois
County of Hancock, ss

The People of the State of Illinois, to all sheriffs, coronors and constables of said State.

Greeting:

Whereas complaint has been made before me, one of the Justices of the Peace in and for the county aforesaid, upon the oath of Joseph Smith, that Chancy Higbee, late of the county aforesaid did, at sundry times, slander the character of the said Joseph Smith, and also the character of Emma, his wife.

These are therefore, to command you to take the said Chancy L. Higbee, if he be found in your county; or if he shall have fled, that you pursue after the said into any other county within this state, and take and safely keep the said Higbee Chancy L. Higbee so that you have his body forthwith before me, or some other Justice of the Peace to answer the said complaint, and be further dealt with according to law.

Given under my hand and seal this 24th day of May A.D. 1842.

E. Robinson
Justice Peace,ss

On the back of the warrant were the words:

State Warrant
State of Illinois
          vs.
Chancy L. Higbee
costs 50
Filed September 14th, 1842
J. C. Davis Clerk

I have taken the within named Chauncey L Higbee and He is know preasent [now present].

May 24th 1842. fees 31 cts, Lewis Robison Constable.

 

[Document Number 3—Subpoena for Joseph's Witnesses at Nauvoo]

STATE OF ILLINOIS,
HANCOCK COUNTY, Sct.

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS To Margaret J. Nyman, Matilda Nyman, Sarah Miller,

You are hereby commanded to appear before me at my office in Nauvoo, forthwith then and there to testify the truth, in a matter in suit, wherein The State of Illinois is plaintiff and Chancy L. Higbee defendant and this you are not to omit under the penalty of the law. Given under my hand and seal, this 24th day of May, 1842.

E. Robinson J. P. [Seal]

The following is written in longhand on this page:

Names of Witnesses in case of State of Illinois vs. Chancy L. Higbee

Margaret J. Nyman
Matilda Nyman
Sarah Miller &
Alexander McRae
Issued

The following information is written on the back of the subpoena:

Subpoena
State of Illinois
          vs
Chancy L. Higbee
costs .25 [cents]
           50
           31

Served on the witnesses named May 24th 1842 Fees 50 [cents]

Lewis Robison Constable

(Adding authenticity to this subpoena are these descriptive words, "E. Robinson, Printer, Nauvoo," which shows that Ebenezer had printed the subpoenas that were used in Nauvoo.)

 

[Document Number 4—Robinson's "Transcript"
Remanding the Case to the Carthage Court]

Joseph pressed the case further and Justice Ebenezer Robinson prepared the necessary papers to be entered in the records at Carthage in preparation for the trial. The documents were entered by a clerk at Carthage on September 14, 1842, in the office of the circuit clerk. The trial date was set for October 3, 1842. Robinson's transcript stated:

Slander and Defamation of Character.

State of Illinois
          vs.
Chancy L. Higbee
Justice fees $1.62 1/2
Const.    "     4 Witnesses $2.00

May 24 1842. Upon the affidavit of Joseph Smith, a Warrant issued against Chancy L. Higbee for slander and defamation committed against the said Joseph Smith and Emma Smith his wife, at sundry times in the City of Nauvoo, and county of Hancock.

May 24, 1842. Warrant executed by Lewis Robison, Constable, by bringing the Defendant [Chauncey Higbee] forward. At request of complainant [Joseph Smith] subpoena issued for Margaret J. Nyman, Matilda Nyman and Sarah Miller, and was sworn by Constable Robison and the witnesses attended.

On hearing, the Defendant is required to give bail in the sum of Two Hundred Dollars, for his appearance at the next term of the Circuit Court for said county, to answer said complaint.

Whereupon, the Defendant, and Francis M. Higbee [his brother] entered into bond accordingly.

State of Illinois
County of Hancock, ss

I, Ebenezer Robinson, Justice of the peace, do certify that the foregoing is a true copy from my Docket, of the proceedings in the above case. September 1, 1842. E. Robinson J. P.

On the cover of this important document these words are written:

Transcript
State of Illinois
          vs
Chauncey L. Higbee
      Filed in my office Septem 14th 1842 J. C. Davis Clerke

 

[Document Number 5—Chauncey's Bond, Agreement
to Appear at the October 3 Trial]

State of Illinois
County of Hancock, ss

Be it remembered, that on the Twenty-fourth day of May, in the year of our Lord one thousand Eight hundred and forty Two Chancy L. Higbee and Francis M. Higbee personally appeared before me, Ebenezer Robinson, one of the justices of the peace in and for the county aforesaid, and jointly and severally acknowledged themselves to owe the people of the State of Illinois the sum of Two Hundred Dollars, to be levied of their goods and chattels, lands and tenements, if default be made in the condition following, to wit:

The condition of this recognizance is such, that if the above bound Chancy L. Higbee shall personally be and appear before the Circuit Court on the first day of the term thereof, next to be holden in and for the County aforesaid; then and there to answer the a charge of slander and defamation against the character of Joseph Smith, and abide the judgment of the Court, and not default without leave; then this recognizance shall be void: otherwise, it shall be and remain in full force and virtue in law.

C. L. Higbee
F. M. Higbee

Taken and acknowledged before me, on the day and year first above written.

E. Robinson Justice Peace

On the outside of the above document is written:

Chancy L. Higbee's Bond.
      Filed September 14, 1842, J. C. Davis Clerke C

 

[Document Number 6—A Subpoena for Joseph's
Witnesses for the Carthage Trial]

Three women and one man were subpoenaed to appear at Carthage as witnesses for Joseph. The subpoena ordered:

STATE OF ILLINOIS,
HANCOCK COUNTY, Sct.

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF Illinois. TO THE SHERIFF OF SAID COUNTY, GREETING: WE COMMAND YOU TO SUMMON Margaret J. Nyman, Matilda Nyman, Sarah Miller & Alexander McRae if to be found in your County, personally to be and appear before the Circuit Court of said Hancock County, at the Court House, in Carthage, on the 3d day of October in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and forty two to testify, and the truth to speak, in relation to a certain matter in controversy, now depending in the said Court, between The People of of [sic] the State of Illinois Plaintiffs and Chauncey L. Higbee Defendant at the instance of the said Plaintiff [Joseph Smith] laying aside all pretences and excuses whatsoever, under penalty of what the law directs. And make due return of this writ, and of the manner in which you execute the same.

WITNESS, J. C. DAVIS, Clerk of our said Circuit Court, at Carthage, this14th day of September in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and forty-two.

J. C. Davis, Clerk.
By [ ] Avise D. C.

This information was recorded on the back of this subpoena:

1st Day.                      No.
Pltffs [Plaintiffs] SUBPOENA FOR Matilda J. Nyman et als
IN THE CASE OF
The People of the State Ills
                vs
Chauncey L. Higbee
HANCOCK COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, ILL.
To October TERM, A. D. 1842
SHERIFF'S FEES:
4 Services of Subpoena $1.00
72 Miles travel                       .50
4 Returning Subpoena         .50
                                           $6.00

William Backinstos SHERIFF, H. C. ILL
by Henry Marks [ ]

"I have served the within writ by reading the same to the within named Margaret Neiman, Matilda Neiman, Sarah Miller, Alexander McRae Sept. 17th 1842

William Backinstos
SHERIFF, H. C. ILL
by Henry Marks [ ]

 

[Document Number 7—A Subpoena for Chauncey's Witnesses to Appear at Carthage]

To defend himself, Chauncey had five women subpoenaed to testify against Joseph. That subpoena ordered:

STATE OF ILLINOIS,
HANCOCK COUNTY, Sct.

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS,
TO THE SHERIFF OF SAID COUNTY, GREETING:

WE COMMAND YOU TO SUMMON Nancy Ridgon, Sarah Pratt, Emeline White, Amanda Gee and Melissa Schindle if to be found in your county, personally to be and appear before the Circuit Court of said Hancock County, at the Court House in Carthage, on the 3d day of October in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and forty-two to testify, and the truth to speak, in relation to a certain matter in controversy, now depending in the said Court, between the People of the State of Illinois Plaintiffs and Chauncey L. Higbee Defendant at the instance of said Defendant, laying aside all pretences and excuses whatsoever, under penalty of what the law directs. And make due return of this writ, and of the manner in which you execute the same. WITNESS, J. C. DAVIS. Clerk of our said Circuit Court at Carthage this 19th day of September in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and forty-two.

J. C. Davis Clerk.
By [ ] Avise D. C.

On the outside of this subpoena was written:

1st Day. No. 23. Defts [Defendant's] SUBPOENA FOR Nancy Rigdon, Sarah Pratt, Emeline White, Amanda Gee & Melissa Schindle IN THE CASE OF The People vs C. L. Higbee Hancock Circuit Court, Ill. TO October TERM, A. D. 1842 ... SHERIFF, H. C. ILL.

 

The Case Was "Disposed of" Because Joseph Was Forced into Hiding

Unfortunately, this case never came to court because Dr. John C. Bennett caused charges to be brought against Joseph, which forced the Prophet into hiding until January 1, 1843—long after the court date had passed. The case was closed with this one-line entry:

Circuit Court Record: P; page: 4, file no.: 18; plaintiff: People; Defendant: C. L. Higbee; kind of action: indictment; Term disposed of: Oct. 1842.(Index to Court Papers A, listed under index H)

It should be remembered that on May 6, 1842, Lilburn W. Boggs, the ex-governor of Missouri, was shot and severely wounded at his home in Independence, Missouri. Boggs had been the governor at the time the Saints were driven out of Missouri in 1838–39, and had given the cruel extermination order that the Saints must leave Missouri or die. Though Boggs had many political enemies (at the time of the shooting he was a candidate for the Missouri state senate), Joseph Smith was blamed for the attempted assassination.

Dr. John Bennett was expelled from the Church May 11, 1842 (see Times and Seasons 3 [June 15, 1842]: 830). He soon left Nauvoo and began publishing letters filled with accusations against Joseph and the Church in an attempt to bring about the downfall of both. The accusation which caused law officials to seek Joseph's arrest, and forced the Prophet into hiding was Bennett's claim that Joseph had told him that he had sent Orrin Porter Rockwell to Independence to assassinate ex-Governor Lilburn Boggs. A letter from Bennett was published in the Sangamo Journal of Springfield, Illinois, in which Bennett boasted, "I am now going over to Missouri to have Joe [Smith] taken to justice" (Sangamo Journal, July 15, 1842).

After causing much animosity against Joseph in Illinois, Bennett went to Jefferson City, the capital of Missouri, where he assured authorities that Joseph was the perpetrator behind the attempted murder of Boggs. As a result, Governor Reynolds of Missouri requested that Governor Carlin of Illinois extradite Joseph to Missouri for trial. On October 2, the day before the Higbee trial was to take place at Carthage, Joseph learned of a plot to capture him while he was attending the court. It is recorded that

About ten o'clock in the forenoon, a messenger arrived [at Nauvoo] from Quincy, stating that the governor [Carlin of Illinois] had offered a reward of $200 for Joseph Smith, Jun., and also $200 for Orrin P. Rockwell. This report was fully established on receipt of the mail papers. The Quincy Whig also stated that Governor Reynolds [of Missouri] has offered a reward, and published the governor's proclamation offering a reward of $300 for Joseph Smith, Jun., and $300 for Orrin P. Rockwell. (LDS History of the Church 5:167)

Sidney Rigdon, who was visiting in Carthage,

ascertained that [Governor] Carlin had intentionally issued an illegal writ, expecting thereby to draw President Joseph to Carthage to get acquitted by habeas corpus before [Judge Steven A.] Douglas, and having men there waiting with a legal writ to serve on Joseph as soon as he was released under the other one, and bear him away to Missouri, without further ceremony. (ibid., 168)

Judge Elias Higbee, father of Francis and Chauncey, reported to Joseph that he [Elias] had

been informed that many of the Missourians are coming to unite with the militia of this state voluntarily, and at their own expense; so that after the court rises at Carthage, if they don't take me [Joseph] there, they will come and search the city [Nauvoo], &c.(ibid., 168–169)

In view of these reports Joseph had to make a choice—to go to Carthage and risk being captured, or go into hiding. He chose the latter. The words after the court rises in Judge Higbee's statement is in reference to Joseph's court case against Chauncey. If Joseph had appeared at Chauncey's trial at Carthage on October 3, the Prophet could have been captured by civil authorities and extradited to Missouri; or perhaps he would have been captured or killed by bounty hunters eager to collect the $500 reward, which was a large sum of money in that day. Joseph dared not go to Carthage under these circumstances, and therefore the case of The People vs. Chauncey L. Higbee was "disposed of."

The question has been asked: Why didn't Joseph renew the suit against Chauncey at a later time? The answer is, because Joseph only lived eighteen months longer, and had to remain in semi-hiding during that time because the Missouri officials considered him to be a fugitive from justice. He narrowly escaped being taken to Missouri in June 1843, when he was kidnapped by Jackson County Sheriff Joseph H. Reynolds and Constable Harmon T. Wilson of Carthage, Illinois, after they disguised themselves and posed as "Mormon elders" (see RLDS History of the Church 2:657; LDS History of the Church 5:439–440).

The Fate of Joseph's Affidavit

In 1962 when we first examined the papers pertaining to this case, no copier was available in the circuit court office where the documents were deposited. We used slide film to photograph the documents, but when the film was processed, the text was not legible. We also made typed copies of the papers, including Joseph's affidavit, which we proofread again and again to be sure we had copied it correctly.

We realized that the papers were of great value; therefore, we took The People vs. Chauncey L. Higbee case (Case #40 in File Box 18) to a clerk in the office. After explaining their value to her, we suggested that they put the documents into a vault for protection, which she did immediately.

In 1968 we returned to the Carthage Courthouse to try to obtain photocopies of these official papers, since a copier was then available. We requested permission to examine this file again and it was brought to us, but Joseph Smith's affidavit (Document Number 1 above) was missing! We immediately reported the absence of that document to a clerk, who informed us that one of the county commissioners had taken it home for study. Richard requested her to give him the name of the commissioner, so we might contact him and ask the privilege of making a copy of the affidavit, but she refused. However, we still had our 1962 copy of Joseph's affidavit. We did make photocopies of all the other documents at that time (1968).

In 1979 we again returned to the same office and examined the files. Joseph's affidavit was still missing.

In June 1998 we went once more to Carthage to search for Joseph's affidavit, but it had not been returned. When Richard went to view the papers, on June 22, 1998, he found none of the documents of this case in File Box 18. This fact was reported to the clerks, who made an unsuccessful search for them. Richard then explained to them that the case involved Joseph Smith—whereupon they replied that many papers which had to do with Joseph had been recently taken to Salt Lake City, Utah, but had been returned. Further searching in a locked vault produced the packet of documents which the clerk said had been taken to Salt Lake City. The papers were fragments from several court cases, all mixed together and in great disorder. Among them Richard found the jacket for The People vs. Chauncey L. Higbee case. Only two other documents of the case were there—the subpoenas for Joseph's witnesses (Margaret, et al) and Chauncey's witnesses (Nancy, et al). The clerks did say that all of the Joseph Smith papers had been recently microfilmed, and that they may be available through the Mormon Church. The clerks did not disclose the name of the person or persons who took the documents to Utah for study. The remainder of the documents concerning this case were not found at that time.

Mormon Church Writers Purposefully Avoided Reporting Chauncey's Case

It is important to be aware that the Mormon Church did not address The People vs. Chauncey L. Higbee case in its official history. It mentioned Chauncey's promiscuity, but refrained from giving details of the case.

Of course Apostle Brigham Young, his first cousin Apostle Willard Richards, and the others who were involved in writing the LDS Church's history after Joseph's death, knew all of the facts of the Chauncey Higbee case. For example, Brigham and Ebenezer Robinson were brothers-in-law, for they had married sisters. (Brigham's first wife, Miriam Works, and Ebenezer's wife, Angeline Works, were sisters.) If the LDS historians had written that Joseph had sued Chauncey for falsely stating that Joseph had received a polygamous revelation and "the heads of the church" were practicing polygamy, the true facts would have destroyed their false claims that Joseph had plural wives. In other words, if the Saints had been told how emphatically Joseph had denied having a polygamous revelation, and that he had brought a charge of slander against a prominent member of the Church for saying that he had, the Saints would have discerned that Joseph was not a polygamist—and that the entire polygamy doctrine and practice was a fraud.

The Significance of the Chauncey Higbee Case

Even though the case against Chauncey L. Higbee did not come to trial at Carthage on October 3, 1842, it was a very significant factor in Joseph Smith's fight against polygamy. It showed that Joseph vigorously contended against that evil doctrine in private and in public. If Joseph had been guilty, he certainly would not have sued a competent lawyer and insisted that the case be tried at Carthage among his enemies. Would a man with plural wives sue a lawyer—in the state of Illinois, where polygamy was a crime at that time (see Statutes of Illinois, Criminal Code,Section 121–122)? If Joseph had been guilty, Chauncey could have easily proven it, and no doubt Joseph would have gone to jail for that crime.

One needs to be aware that the women Chauncey chose for his witnesses were a part of "Bennett's clique." As already stated, his witnesses (those who were members of the Church) had suffered the shame of an investigation before the Nauvoo High Council. Dr. John C. Bennett published their names in newspapers across the land, and in his book, claiming that Joseph had attempted to take them as his plural wives. No doubt Chauncey hoped that by using these women as witnesses, he could convince the world that he was innocent and that Joseph was a polygamist, so the blame would be on Joseph and not himself. The cases of these women are to be treated later.

Because Joseph was innocent, he did not hesitate to have Chauncey arrested and charged. The case of The People vs. Chauncey L. Higbee attests to the innocence of the Prophet, and to his courageous fight to clear his and Emma's names of the fraudulent charges that he had received a polygamous revelation and had plural wives.

 

[ Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy Index ]

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Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy—Volume I, by Richard and Pamela Price, can be purchased at the Restoration Bookstore or from our online store.  Articles on this subject continue to be published in Vision magazine, which also can be purchased at the Restoration Bookstore or online. It is planned that this additional material will be compiled in future volumes.

For a general understanding of both the origins of polygamy among the Latter Day Saints and the several conspiracies to falsely implicate Joseph in polygamy, read the article on our Web site, "Joseph Smith: Innocent of Polygamy," by Richard Price.

 
 

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