Cemetourism: William B. Smith (1811–1893)

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William the Unloved was the last surviving brother of the Prophet Joseph Smith, hanging on nearly five decades more than the rest.  I always feel a little sorry for William, since nobody liked him and nobody remembers him at all fondly.

We went to visit William’s grave a couple months ago and he will mark the first entry in a feature I’m calling “Cemetourism.”  I inherited the cemetery gene from my mother and her mother.  My uncles say of my grandmother (with a groan!) that she can never pass by a cemetery without wanting to stop and hunt for ancestors.  I share those inklings.  As we travel around the country, we like to stop and look for graves, either of ancestors, Mormon history figures, or U.S. presidents and vice presidents, along with their defeated rival candidates for both offices.  (Yes, I’ve been to the graves of Alben Barkley, Hannibal Hamlin, and Wendell Willkie!)

You won’t find William Smith’s grave by accident.  His final resting place is really off in the middle of nowhere, Iowa, and we got there only thanks to instructions from our friends and fellow researchers, Erin Jennings and Michael Marquardt.  Visiting is convenient, pretty much only if you’re doing a river tour of the upper Mississippi (as we were).  William lies in Bethel Cemetery, just south of the town of Osterdock on Osterdock Rd., which is County Road X47 (see map).  The cemetery is small, so the grave is fairly easy to find.  As you enter the gate, William lies to the rear and left of the small church.

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William was the sixth of Joseph Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith’s nine children to live to adulthood, and he was the fifth of six sons.  As his tombstone indicates, he was born at Royalton, Vermont, on March 13, 1811.  Although not one of the official Eight Witnesses to the plates, William claimed to be an unofficial witness.  Late in life he recalled, “I was permitted to lift them as they laid in a pillow-case; but not to see them, as it was contrary to the commands” his brother Joseph had received.[1] William was baptized on June 9, 1830, and Dan Vogel estimates that he was the 34th member of the church.[2]

Siblings are interesting. I’m the eldest of five children; I have three sisters and one brother.  None of us are the same, but if you know us and look closely, we all seem to have the same mix of ingredients in different proportions. I tend to see something similar in the Smith boys.  Alvin clearly had some of the same qualities that Joseph possessed. Before Alvin died, Joseph and the others seemed to be in the shadow of the charismatic, responsible, eldest son.[*]  When Alvin died, it wasn’t the second son Hyrum who became leader.  Just two years younger than Alvin, Hyrum had more the personality of a middle, peace-maker child.  Rather, it was the third son Joseph Jr. — seven years younger than Alvin and eldest of the next clump of children — who came to the fore.  Samuel and Don Carlos, like Hyrum seem ever supportive of Joseph.  William, by contrast, was a problem.  And my gut feeling is that William’s problem was that, like Alvin, he was the brother most like Joseph — both were creative, energetic (even pugnacious); both had big egos and big personalities.  But unlike Joseph, who buried Alvin’s shadow early on, William never was able to seize the spotlight as his own (try and try though he might).  And at the end of the day, Joseph had the capacity to do something terrible and still have people forgive him and love him.  Whatever ingredient made this true for Joseph, it was never true for William.  Nobody loved William.

William was ordained to be one of the original Twelve Apostles of the Restoration by the Three Witnesses on February 15, 1835.  He wasn’t their first choice, but Joseph insisted.  Ever thereafter, his relationship with his fellow apostles proved rocky.  In Nauvoo, Joseph hoped to turn William’s often nasty temperament to good ends by making William editor of the church’s political newspaper, The Wasp.[3] William also served Nauvoo as elected representative to the Illinois General Assembly.

After the deaths of his three remaining brothers Joseph, Hyrum, and Samuel in 1844, William claimed the office of Presiding Patriarch/Evangelist of the church. This anomalous position had been created for Joseph Smith Sr., who passed it on his deathbed to his eldest living son Hyrum.  As sole surviving son of Joseph Sr., William successfully argued to his fellow apostles that the Patriarchate was his “by right” of lineage.[4]  Once ordained, William was immediately prolific in giving blessings.  In his Early Patriarchal Blessings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints volume, Michael Marquardt includes over 300 of William’s blessings given in less than a six-month period.  William’s tone and content differ greatly from the blessings conferred by Hyrum. Often his inspiration verged on the scriptural, as in his prophecy to Abigail Abbott:

One of thy posterity named after the name of his father…shall be a mighty warrior, and be led on to avenge the blood of the Prophets and Patriarchs, he shall lead a mighty people from the wilderness and one mighty among them who shall be also a mighty warrior by the name of Nishcosh, he shall be a descendent of one of the name of Nimrod, who was also a descendant of that Nimrod, who was a mighty hunter in the days of old, by way of the Jaredites upon this country, who founded a city and called it the city of Gnoalum, this city now lying in ruins the wreck of which only appears as the last descriptive monument of a people that has fallen, and the remnants of whom have become barbarous, wild and uncultivated.[5]

Prolific and scriptural as his blessing might have been, William quickly clashed with his fellow apostles over the scope of his new position. Rather than call William “Patriarch of the Church,” Brigham Young insisted William was “Patriarch to the Church.” Unwilling to compromise, William insisted he was now “Patriarch over the Church.”[6] It was a power struggle William was doomed to lose and by October 1845, the patriarch was forced to flee Nauvoo, prepositions and all.  After toying with founding his own Mormon church organization, William investigated the claims of James J. Strang, who was quickly becoming Brigham Young’s most significant rival for church leadership.  Pragmatically, William was willing to recognize Strang as Church President, so long as Strang, in turn, recognized William as “Presiding Patriarch over the Whole Church.” It was a deal both could make.

This union also did not last. William had long been practicing celestial (plural) marriage on his brother’s model, i.e., being sealed to wives in secret while publicly denouncing the practice of “polygamy.” Strang did not embrace the practice until 1849[7].  William’s activities among the Strangites of Voree, Wisconsin, were consequently regarded as “adultery,” and William was excommunicated from Strang’s organization on that basis.[8]

Not one to be discouraged, William decided to go solo.  In 1847, William and a small group of Mormons in Lee County, Illinois, founded the “Palestine Grove Stake” of the church.  From this base, William asserted his claim to both his brothers’ offices, ultimately styling himself: “First President, Prophet, Seer, Revelator, Translator, and Patriarch over the whole church”![9]  William looked to New Testament precedent, cleverly arguing that Jesus’ successor was not Peter (the chief apostle) but James (the brother of Jesus). Although he had some success, plural marriage once again led to William’s downfall.  By now the practice had split Mormonism and the Midwestern Latter Day Saints of William’s flock were committed opponents.  William’s public denunciations of polygamy fit well, but privately he continued to follow Joseph’s model of taking wives in secret.  His church ultimately collapsed when one of his plural wives — the teenaged daughter of two committed supporters — filed charges with the Lee County sheriff of statutory rape.[10]

Given that background, it’s little wonder that when those same Midwestern Latter Day Saints, at a meeting in Lee County, Illinois, “reorganized” their church and ordained William’s nephew Joseph Smith III as their prophet in 1860, William was not welcome.  Instead, after one last stab at organizing his own church with Martin Harris in Kirtland and trying his hand at being a Baptist preacher, William flirted (vainly) with the idea of joining up with Brigham Young in Utah.  Having finally rid himself of William, Young had zero interest in taking the defrocked patriarch back.[11]

After a lengthy correspondence with his nephew Joseph III, William was eventually accepted as a member of the RLDS Church in 1878.  But his claims to the offices of apostle and patriarch were ignored; only his ordination as a High Priest was recognized.  By now living near Osterdock, Iowa, the last Smith brother ended his days as an RLDS preacher, frequently called upon to administer to the sick and to give funeral orations.[12]  He died November 13, 1893.

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[1] Dan Vogel, ed. Early Mormon Documents, 5 volumes (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996) 1:497.

[2] Ibid., 5:366.

[*] If one reads the Lehi family narrative as containing elements inspired by Joseph Smith Jr.’s own life story, it is tempting to see in Nephi elements of Joseph himself.  This reading might imply a certain degree of lingering resentment in Joseph against the eldest son Laman (Alvin) and his side-kick Lemuel (Hyrum).

[3] See Peter Crawley’s introduction to The Wasp (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2003), v-vi.

[4] Irene M. Bates and E. Gary Smith, Lost Legacy: The Mormon Office of Presiding Patriarch (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 72-83.

[5] H. Michael Marquardt, ed., Early Patriarchal Blessings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Smith-Pettit Foundation, 2007), 244.

[6] Bates and Smith, 84.

[7] Vickie Cleverley Speek, “God Has Made Us a Kingdom”: James Strang and the Midwest Mormons (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2006), 68.

[8] Gospel Herald (Voree, Wisconsin) 2, no. 30 (October 14, 1847).

[9] Kyle R. Walker, “William Smith’s Quest for Ecclesiastical Station: A Schismatic Odyssey, 1844-93,” in Newell G. Bringhurst and John C. Hamer, eds., Scattering of the Saints: Schism within Mormonism (Independence, MO: John Whitmer Books, 2007), 107.

[10] Erin B. Jennings and Connell O’Donovan, “The Wives of William Smith,” presented at the 38th Annual Conference of the John Whitmer Historical Association, September 25, 2010.

[11] Walker, 110-111.

[12] Ibid., 113.

Comments

  1. Cool, John. Do we know who designed the headstone?

  2. Mark Brown says:

    Interesting work John. I also have the cemetoury bug.

    Rather than call William “Patriarch of the Church,” Brigham Young insisted William was “Patriarch to the Church.” Unwilling to compromise, William insisted he was now “Patriarch over the Church

    This reminds me of Dwight Shrute, arguing with his boss over whether “Assistant Regional Manager” or Assistant to the Regional Manager should be printed on his business cards.

  3. David (#1): Offhand I don’t know. I need to read his obit in the Saints Herald; that might say who he left behind to make the tombstone.

    Mark (#2): Exactly. Which do you want on your business card? “Assistant to the Church President,” or “First President, Prophet, Seer, Revelator, Translator, and Patriarch over the whole church”?

  4. Brilliant stuff, as always, John. William has always struck me as a fascinating figure. I can’t wait for more installments of this series.

    Did I hear correctly that a biography of William is in the works by Jennings and o’Donovan?

  5. Fascinating

  6. Ben (#4): I think so — they have mini-bios of all of William’s plural wives on the model of Todd Compton’s book. It would be great to see those tied together with a biography of William.

  7. This is wonderful, John. You have skillfully over-viewed William’s life in a very succinct and engaging manner. I like “the unloved” as well. For some reason I have the image of “crazy uncle Willie” in my head, but I’m certain that is not charitable or particularly accurate.

  8. “And my gut feeling is that William’s problem was that, like Alvin, he was the brother most like Joseph.” I agree.

  9. very interesting commentary.

  10. Great post and fascinating history — thank you for putting this out here for our education!

  11. Thanks, J (#7): The “crazy Uncle William” bit is how he’s remember in the RLDS / Community of Christ tradition. Joseph Smith III’s great grandson titled his mini-biography of William, “A Wart on the Ecclesiastical Tree,” in the Differing Visions volume.

  12. pdmallamo says:

    Salt Lake City Cemetery up in the Avenues during spring & summer is an inexhaustable trove for cemetourists but relatively few ever think to go there, which I find amazing. Very beautiful and the view is tremendous. (Wikipedia’s SLCC entry includes a long list of of “notable burials” that does not contain a single female, unless I’ve overlooked one or two. Porter Rockwell’s up there, but so is Larry H. Miller. Surely there’s an LDS/Utah woman more “notable” than LHM.) In my neck of the woods (Independence area) there are any number of lonely little plots, off, as Hamer says, “in the middle of nowhere” that just break your heart, tragic or elegaic depending on the weather.

  13. Any idea why there is a GAR marker next to his stone? He would have been in his 50s during the Civil War and not likely to have been a soldier, or if he was, that fact would probably be remarked in any history written about him.

    This headstone — the material, overall design, and lettering style — looks much more like 1940s or ’50s than 1893. I suspect it is a late replacement for whatever was there originally.

  14. I enjoyed the write-up esp how William was so tainted by polygamy in the minds of his fellow “Prairie Saints”. Polygamy seemed to be a real dividing line between those that went west and those that stayed in the midwest. I have some RLDS distant cousins whose ancestors rejected polygamy and stayed in Iowa when the rest of their large extended family went west.

  15. Thanks, John. I find it interesting that the headstone inscription identifies him as Joseph’s brother, rather than as patriarch, etc., which tells us a bit about how whoever paid for it wanted to frame William’s memory. Also, the lack of a “Mormon” modifier for “the prophet Joseph Smith” suggests that the inscriber felt visitors to the grave would know who JS was.

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    “prepositions and all” FTW!

    Great stuff, as usual, John.

  17. Ardis, good eye on the dating of the headstone.

  18. Wow! An engaging mix of historical biography and personal essay. Loved it, thanks.

  19. David and Ardis (#13 and #15): Good points! All those clues look like RLDS fingerprints to me.

    Concerning the Grand Army of the Republic indicator, I have this impression that, although old, William mustered and maybe did some kind of non-combat service? But I’ve looked through the various mini-bios and I don’t see any reference, so I might be dreaming that.

  20. Answered one of my own questions: Gracia Jones says Buddy Youngreen placed the stone there “several years ago” (this in 2002). Still curious about the GAR star, though.

  21. Thanks, John. Sorry to clutter with so many comments, but I’m a sister cemetourist and loved this report of your visit. I have more dead friends than live ones by several orders of magnitude!

  22. Thanks, Ardis (#20 and 21): According to the essay you linked to, “To those who may wonder about the initial ‘B’ in William’s name: We find that when William joined the military during the Civil War, there were so many William Smiths, he added the initial to distinguish him from the others.”

  23. Do we have a photo of William?

  24. “William flirted (vainly) with the idea of joining up with Brigham Young in Utah. Having finally rid himself of William, Young had zero interest in taking the defrocked patriarch back.”

    I would like to learn more about this. Did Brigham Young refuse to let William Smith be baptized into the LDS church?

  25. We find that when William joined the military during the Civil War, there were so many William Smiths, he added the initial to distinguish him from the others.”

    Yeah … um … I still wonder. That statement doesn’t account for Lavina’s claim that his middle name was Bunnell; even without that, the quoted line has the vagueness and vibe of other tidy explanations proclaimed by amateur historians: “The government changed their name at Ellis Island” and “county marriage bonds guaranteed a bride’s virginity.”

    There *is* one William B. Smith from Iowa in the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System database, but a little googling shows that man immigrated from Nova Scotia in the 1850s.

    That a man who had not been a career soldier would have served in uniform in his 50s is so extraordinary that I suspect somebody somewhere along the line has mixed up “our” William with someone else.

  26. Didn’t he run into the brethren over the selling and pocketing of monies for plots above the Nauvoo temple?

  27. Wow! This was great. I too can’t wait to hear more in this series.

  28. Kevin Barney says:
  29. Very cool stuff, John.

  30. John Mansfield says:

    Did anyone else look at the first photo and think of Saint-Gaudens?

  31. Thank you, John. This is fascinating. I also have the cemetoury bug. So many stories waiting to be told. Thank you for telling this one. You have effectively derailed my plans for doing my taxes this morning.

  32. a) awesome
    b) I heart William
    c) some people call this “dark tourism” or “taphophilia,” and there are now entire i) conferences, ii) specialists, iii) journals devoted to it.

  33. ps though I guess cemetourism is a subset of dark tourism, i sort of like your phrase better than the semi-established one.

  34. Erin Jennings says:

    #25—I have William’s complete pension file and it only lists a letter B with no middle name. We also have the accounts from BH Roberts and Joseph Smith III who both say that the B doesn’t stand for anything; that it was added because of the Civil War. Additionally there is an 1883 letter from William to JSIII and William makes the comment, “Joseph you will notice that the letter B in my name on record in the Revelation apointing the Twelve. The statement to which my name is attached is true”

    The only Bunnell-Smith connection I have ever been able to discover is past CoC president Wallace Bunnell Smith, and in his case Bunnell was his mother’s maiden name. So we have William Wallace Smith marrying Rosamond Bunnell, hence Wallace Bunnell Smith. From what I recall, Lavina’s only indication to me about where she got Bunnell was that it was supposedly a family name. Yes, indeed it is a family name in the Smith line, but several decades after William B. Smith’s time.

  35. Of course do you know why William is not remembered very fondly? It’s because he was the only Smith to be excommunicated from the church. However it wasn’t because of something he did wrong, but his attempt at doing something right in calling out Brigham Young on altering the temple endowment from what Joseph had revealed and what the church had done in Kirtland. B.Y. didn’t take that well.

    As a side note, B.Y. didn’t take anyone disagreeing with him well in general. My great x5 grandfather was his personal secretary and ended up being excommunicated over a salary issue. Since that happened, it doesn’t surprise me that he excommunicated William Smith, leading his name to be dragged through the mud.

  36. Thanks, Erin. Can you summarize William’s service from the pension file — his unit, and the approximate dates of his service so I can learn more? (I’m studying the GAR in Utah and this might make an interesting connection to that.)

  37. Dave P., that is not an accurate characterization of William’s excommunication.

  38. Erin Jennings says:

    1864
    Feb 25—enrolls at Rock Island, company G, 126th regiment of Illinois volunteers, for three-year term with Lt. Colonel Birdsell, residence listed as Aledo, Clayton, IA, with occupation of minister, stationed at DeVall’s Bluff, AR
    Mar 21—mustered into service as private at Springfield, IL
    Jun 25–26—action at Clinton, AR
    Jul 20—starts 30 day furlough
    Aug 15—stays at home longer, being reported on sick leave
    Sep—at home on sick leave absence
    Oct—at home on sick leave absence
    Nov—muster rolls report him present for duty for rest of service time
    Dec 17—fought at DeVall’s Bluff, AR
    Feb 12—mouth of White River—AR
    Mar 9—fought at Steamer Celestia, White River—AR
    Jun 12—duty at Pine Bluff, AR
    Jul 12—mustered out of service at Pine Bluff, AR by Lt. Hussey

  39. Erin Jennings says:

    Feb 25, 1864–July 12, 1865
    Total of one and one-half years of service in the military.

  40. Mapman (#24): According to Kyle Walker (op. cit. 110-111), William wrote Brigham Young annually between 1854 and 1856 and William was even baptized LDS in 1860. However, William’s full participation was predicated on the idea that his positions as apostle and patriarch would again be recognized by the LDS Church. Walker says that Young did not reply to William’s letters (and Young presumably had less than zero interest in getting William out to Utah on those terms).

    JAT (#26) and Dave P (#35): I didn’t really want to get into the charges and countercharges in this post. The one point I was making is that William lacks defenders not only in the LDS tradition (normal enough for the excommunicated), but also in the RLDS/Community of Christ tradition (even though he died as a member in good standing).

    Erin (#34 and #38): Thanks for stopping by and clearing that up! And thanks again for the directions. As you see from my picture, it rained when I was visiting William just like it did for you!

  41. Thanks again, Erin. (Egads — that unit’s history says they lost 6 men on the battlefield during the full four years of the war, but 196 more to disease — William may have been very lucky to get home when he was sick.)

  42. This is fascinating, John – and the comments are just as enlightening.

  43. Erin Jennings says:

    Ardis (#41), you’re very welcome. William may have survived the war but he was eligible to draw his pension from the day he was discharged. The ailments he continued to suffer for the duration of his life due to the sickness he incurred while in the war pretty much completely debilitated his health.

    John (40), I chuckled to myself when I saw your picture. Same exact scene. Maybe William is trying to tell us something? ; )

  44. Kevin Barney says:

    Erin, very cool additions from the pension file. I love when threads like this pull together even more information on a topic in the comments.

  45. reed russell says:

    John, you are one creative Mensch. I enjoyed this.

  46. One of my favorite spots in Nauvoo is the Old Pioneer Cemetery. If you visit Nauvoo, drive uphill on Parley a couple of miles. Go after 5 PM. The main sites in Nauvoo generally shut down then, so you won’t be missing any of the 3 B’s (Bakery, Browning, Brickyard) by going later in the day.

    I recently took my daughter to the St. Louis History museum to see “Vatican Splendors” – a traveling exhibit from The Vatican. One reliquary they had on display purported to have tiny bone fragments of Peter, Paul, Mark, James, and a few other early Saints. I was telling my boss and a co-worker about the exhibit later on, and one of them heard about that and said “Wow. Those are Witnesses of the Ascension.” I’ve thought about that a great deal since – we have people in our recent Church history as well, like Joseph Smith, who also serve as Witnesses of the Ascension. And William the Unloved here, even if not an official Witness of the Plates, was certainly a Witness of the Restoration, and from a very close-at-hand position. I’d hazard a guess that he heard about the First Vision the day it happened.

  47. I’m wondering if John or anyone else can point to a reference for the Three Witnesses not wanting William in the Twelve (or his not being their “first choice”), but Joseph insisting?

  48. John Hamer (40):
    Thank you!

  49. Craig M (#47): David Whitmer recalled that story in an 1885 interview with Zenas H. Gurley Jr. Asked “Do you know how the first Twelve was chosen?” Whitmer replied, “Yes. Cowdery and myself were appointed a com[mittee to choose] the Twelve but Jose[ph Smith] insisted that his brother William Smith should be put in as it was the only way by which he could be saved, otherwise we would not have chosen him.”

    Also, Oliver Cowdery recalled the same story in a letter to Brigham Young in 1848 and he indicated that William’s place was supposed to go to Phieneas Young. Wrote Cowdery:

    At the time the Twelve were chosen in Kirtland, it had been manifested that brother Phineas was entitled to occupy the station as one of that number; but owing to brother Joseph’s urgent request at the time, Brother David [Whitmer] and myself yielded to his wishing and consented for William to be selected, contrary to our feelings and judgment, and to our deep mortification ever since.

    Both texts are cited by Michael Marquardt in his The Rise of Mormonism: 1816-1844, pp. 383-84. Since the original Twelve were ordered by age and since Phineas was several months older than Thomas B. Marsh, had Phineas been selected, he would have been the original President of the Quorum of Twelve and all of Mormon history would be significantly different.

  50. “…and trying his hand at being a Baptist preacher.”

    John, is there anything else you can tell us about this episode in William’s life? Did he simply abandon his long-held restorationist beliefs to become a Baptist, or was there some syncretism in his preaching?

  51. Rigel Hawthorne says:

    Wonderful post to read over a quick break. Thanks so much John. Always love your pictures that you include.

  52. Tgt (#50): It looks like William had pissed off every Latter Day Saint left, but he still decided to try to make a living preaching in Baptists clothing. Rather than truly renouncing Mormonism, it seems the problem was he was too imbued with Mormonism to be a proper Baptist preacher. According to his own recollection, he was “about to be tried by its vestrymen for teaching what they considered…heresy,” so “he resigned his pastorate and came out openly for ‘mormonism.'” (See Walker, op. cit., 109.)

  53. “Came out openly for ‘mormonism'”

    Would have loved to see that. He throws off his hood, announces he’s a mormon, winks at the shocked crowd, and runs out into the night.

  54. Thanks John (49) – Fascinating!

  55. The more I think of it the more interested I am…liek the polygamy. It is sure interesting and instructive to consider my thoughts on William’s polygamy v. Joseph’s polygamy.

    birth order and personality differences and leadership…fascinating

  56. john Harvey says:

    Thanks to the OP and the commentators! Fascinating stuff. :-)

  57. Pedro Olavarria says:

    Hamer Time:)

  58. Gilda Sundeen says:

    http://olivercowdery.com/smithhome/1883Wilm.htm#comments

    Last Page: The picture I prefer of William.

    I thought it inaccurate to say “since nobody liked him and nobody remembers him at all fondly.”

    Eliza Elsa Sandborn was married to William for 32 years, until her death. They had children. There is a lot you don’t know about William. I love William.

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