Madame Lydia Mary Olive Mamreov von Finkelstein Mountford and Interpreting the Past

Thanks to the wonders of genealogy (and the marvelous Family History Library in Salt Lake), more than a few Latter-day Saints scratched their heads when they researched ancestors and learned they had been married in a polygamous union after 1890 when the Manifesto was issued. Post-manifesto polygamy has since become a fascinating topic for researchers, and was well-explored by Ken Cannon, D. Michael Quinn, and B. Carmon Hardy.

Hardy and Quinn argue that one post-1890 marriage took place on ship off the coast of San Francisco. The couple? Wilford Woodruff and Madame Lydia Mountford, a colorful, if largely forgotten character from Mormonism’s past. Madame Mountford waltzed into Salt Lake City in early 1897 as part of her speaking tour on the Holy Land. She was Russian, had lived in Jerusalem, and her background lent credence to her showmanship; her lectures on the New Testament and Christ’s life included actors and larger-than-life costumes. She met with members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. Some of the Brethren were skeptical – Anthon Lund noted that she had no foreign accent (Lund would know, speaking five languages himself). But Woodruff was enchanted by the woman. He attended most (if not all) of her lectures in the Tabernacle, and after she left Salt Lake, he continued to correspond with her.

It turns out that after their initial meeting 5 February 1897, in the next eighteen months before Woodruff’s death, no other person was mentioned as many times in his diary as Madame Mountford. In fact, only his health received more attention in his daily journal. Woodruff started referring to her only as “M” and in one entry mentioned that he benefited from her “massage treatment.” In September 1897 Wilford Woodruff departed for a vacation to the west coast. He refused to let his wife and daughter join him (although they wanted to) and he and personal secretary L. John Nutall traveled under assumed names. They arrived in Portland, Oregon first. Then they traveled to San Francisco, stayed only two days, and took a ship back to Oregon. Who happened to be staying in San Francisco at the time of their journey? Madame Mountford.

Woodruff and Nutall returned back to Salt Lake a few days later. Hardy and Quinn theorize that Woodruff married Mountford (with Nutall officiating) on the ship – a common practice of post-manifesto marriages so as to create plausible deniability. After all, they weren’t married in the U.S. but on the ocean.

It’s a fascinating tale to be sure, and one that I’ve been doing a lot of reading on. Mountford was friends with Susa Young Gates, so I’m combing her papers for any kind of a hint in the correspondence between the two that suggests Woodruff and Mountford married. When one reads Quinn or Hardy, it’s next-to-impossible to not believe the marriage took place. But this raises the grand dilemma for all historians and our quest to understand the past.

We tend to view individuals as if their lives were a series of blips on the linear radar screen. In this case, a reference to Mountford pops up, then another, then more. The dots are easy to connect, giving us the evidence that we’re looking for. But then, we forget that the people in our story aren’t blips or just colorful characters. They’re humans, living day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute.

Perhaps if Wilford Woodruff were here (and being totally candid, of course) I could ask him, and he might smile and say he did marry Mountford, and that she fascinated him. He might congratulate Quinn and Hardy on their detective work, putting two and two together. But what if he was stunned at the insinuation. What if, when questioned, he just said he doesn’t know why Mountford appeared in his diary so much. It certainly wasn’t intentional, he might insist. After, he probably wasn’t counting the number of times he referred to something, the way later historians would. And what if he said he isn’t sure why he decided to only stay two days in San Francisco, or why he doesn’t record anything about Mountford when he’s there (Quinn calls this, accurately, I suspect, a “deafening silence.”) Haven’t we all done things that, in retrospect, might not make sense to someone who views our behavior from the outside? We might have a perfectly logical explanation, or we might not even be sure ourselves. It’s human nature.

Thomas Alexander offers a nice alternate view to the Mountford-Woodruff connection. Were the two married? I don’t know. (Actually, even if they were, I’m not sure why it’s as important as others make it out to be; the two clearly never intended to share a life together or even reside in the same state, let alone act as husband and wife.) It can’t help but make me wonder, what if our visions of the past are off-base. Actually, it wouldn’t be all that bad. I’d love to sit down with Joseph Smith someday, see him smile, and tell me, “Here’s what really happened.”


  1. “it seems like orthodox LDS history leans heavily towards biography”

    It’s not just LDS history, IMHO. Biography has overtaken the study of regimes and systems as the main staple of historical interest. “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” while an amazing book, doesn’t hold a candle in terms of personal interest to modern bio-histories like “Master of the Senate” or others. That may be the result of a society that favors cults of personality and worships celebrity — we’re much more focussed on the individual than pre-tv cultures.

  2. john fowles says:

    Dave and Steve, you’re thinking along the lines of great minds. I heard an NPR story a few months ago in which an Oxford professor was interviewed about his work on WWI and he said the same thing as you: that biography is gaining as the carrier of history.

  3. Dave, the answer to your question is simple: Ms. Mountford’s name! That’s an enchanter if I’ve ever heard one. They don’t name ’em like they used to.

    Also, as a person that views history as the accumulation of personal narratives, I don’t see a great deal of difference between “interpreting the person” rather than “interpreting the past.” What’s the essential contrast between the two?

  4. Ever wondered what we’ll be doing in the afterlife? Waiting in line behind about 20 billion or so other people to talk to Joseph Smith, Nephi, Moses, etc.

    Oh well, what is eternity for if not a chance to finally meet all your favorite celebrities in the (resurrected) flesh!

    Sorry for being supercilious, but this is always the image that comes to my mind whenever someone says at church “I can’t wait to meet [insert favorite dead prophet here] in the afterlife”

  5. Rosalynde Welch says:

    I can see why biography is popular in Mormon historiograpy and in mainstream historiography, but I think the reasons are distinct: in Mormon scholarship, biography usefully deploys our theologies of human agency, eternal identity, moral choice, and the like; in mainstream history, biography is a retreat from the “master narrative” approach–that is, providential teleology, or Marxian historical materialism–that has fallen out of favor in these postal times.

    John H., I don’t know what to make of the whole M. Mountford episode, but if I were to be persuaded that any sort of personal intrigue existed between WW and MM, Quinn would have to produce substantially more evidence than you’ve suggested here; the San Francisco episode sounds to me like a wholly plausible coincidence.

    Your interesting post, though, reminds me a lot of Tom Stoppard’s fabulous play “Arcadia,” in which present-day literary historians construct various absurd theories about a sexual intrigue of Byron’s, juxtaposed against the actual ninteenth-century events which turn out to be hilariously different. Seeing that play was perhaps the most enjoyable theater experience I’ve ever had.

  6. I’d be willing to concede that there must be a measure of the producer and her motivations taken into account — after all, it’s the artists that define the tastes of the masses. But outside of starting new trends on occasion, it’s all about giving people what they want.

  7. Intresting. HJG wrote love letters to my great aunt. Many, many love letters.

  8. John H, I see this as a “figuring out what happened” challenge, not an “interpreting the past” exercise. Most of Mormon history, in my view, is just trying to figure out what really happened, especially with polygamy, given how secretive and duplicitous the participants were. And for biography, even the subsequent interpretive inquiry should be narrower I think, “interpreting the person” rather than “interpreting the past.”

    Did WW’s journal entries reveal what he found so “enchanting” about Ms. Mountford?

  9. John, I share your feelings; someday I look forward to sitting down with these guys and have them tell me what really happened. I have a feeling the truth is stranger than what our records tell us.

  10. LOL Jared!! That’s great. Maybe I can score a chance to talk with some B-list prophets like Omni or Hosea.

  11. Much like blog threads. BCC — your adamic source on the Internet.

  12. Rosalynde Welch says:

    oops, should be “elicit”, not “illicit” above. Freudian slip?

  13. Ros, I don’t know what you just said, but it sounded correct.

    I don’t attribute the popularity of biography to the complex reasons to describe, though, because I refuse to believe that the modern mormon is fundamentally any different in reading tastes than your average christian American.

  14. Rosalynde Welch says:

    So from your perspective, the market drives it all: consumer tastes illicit literary product. Plausible. But I think that the motivation of the producer need to be taken into account: Sheri Dew has different objectives and assumptions, I think, than, say, David McCullough.

    Once again, the capitalist focus on consumption squares off against the Marxist focus on production. (Unfortunately for me, we know who wins this debate.)

  15. Speaking as a fan but not a practitioner of history, my impression is that one interprets the past in terms of larger social and cultural themes, whereas biography or interpreting the person tends to measure the subject against his or her own culture, with the culture as a given. A few figures might be so influential they redefine their culture or country (e.g., Martin Luther or Alexander the Great) but most are interesting for other reasons.

    Interestingly, it seems like orthodox LDS history leans heavily towards biography. Anyone else notice this?

  16. Well, NPR and Oxford are notorious for following in the wake of BCC, so I’m not surprised.

  17. D. Fletcher says:

    Yeah, but the Adamic language is multi-threaded communication, making it possible to converse with as many as 10 million at once.

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