Part 5 in a series; see the rest of the series here.
Some men have got a dozen wives and others have a score
And the man that’s got but one wife is a-lookin’ out for more,
And sing Tittery Irie-Aye, sing Tittery Irie-Oh—
Now young men don’t get discouraged, get married if you can
But take care don’t get a woman that belongs to another man,
And sing Tittery Irie-Aye, sing Tittery Irie-Oh—
—Songs of Mormon Pioneers, p. 4
Family narratives have unfortunately not been very kind to Archibald Gardner’s 4th wife, the mysterious singer known for her striking good looks that everybody called “Big Liz.”
Liz married Archie when she was 18 years old and Archie was 37. By then she had already been married and divorced; she and her husband had come from Missouri and were California-bound to strike it rich in gold country. Their route took them through Salt Lake, where Liz stayed behind and her husband headed further west without her. Maybe Liz had found something in Utah worth more to her than gold, or maybe Liz’s relationship with her husband was difficult, and she saw the Mormons as a safe, soft place to land.
Archibald first noticed Liz as she brushed past him down a church aisle, captivating onlookers in an attractive dress and “singing like a meadowlark,” family narratives say.
Delila Hughes in The Life of Archibald Gardner records Elizabeth’s life with a mixed tone of admiration but ultimate disapproval:
“She was beautiful, a good singer, and a clever entertainer, but she lacked the sterling qualities of womanhood possessed by his other wives.”
I am fascinated by Big Liz, this woman who left Missouri for gold only to find herself in the desert frontier, the fourth wife of a gristmiller. Who were you, Big Liz? Why didn’t you leave more of a record of yourself?
Hughes’ account continues,
“[Archibald] tried to save her soul as President Young told him to do, but she stirred up strife and contention in his family.”
I like to think that this narrative has been twisted over the years. I like to think that this marriage didn’t actually happen because Brigham Young told my great-great-great-grandpa to marry an 18-year-old singer in order to “save her soul,” because there is something devastatingly sad to me about the notion of marrying in the name of missionary work rather than in the name of love. Even so I suppose it would break my heart worse to think of Archie marrying the young and beautiful Elizabeth Elinor because he loved her the same way that he loved and married Margaret twelve years earlier. Alas, polygamy is a tricky cookie.
Whatever the case, Liz did not cope with frontier polygamy life like Archie’s other wives, nor did she take to Mormon teachings—particularly those concerning temperance. She also could not get pregnant. Archie tried to pamper the depressed and lonesome Liz with fine things that his other wives apparently did not receive: handsome clothing, a charming brick house all to herself, and a store-bought carpeted parlor floor that amazed Archie’s children.
After Archie’s third wife, Mary Ann, died after childbirth in 1864, her eldest child, 14-year-old Lizzie, took care of the family for one more year until she married 21-year-old William Turner, a Mormon convert from London. Mary Ann’s remaining five children (12-year-old Rhoda, 9-year-old Rawsel, 8-year-old Polly, 6-year-old Rebekah, and 3-year-old Robert) were subsequently put into the custody of Big Liz. It was Liz who raised most of these children to adulthood, and Liz who helped to bury gentle Rhoda at age 15.
In the end, Archie’s portion for his fourth wife just wasn’t enough. In 1873/74, Liz left and Archie divorced her (and records show that their temple sealing was also canceled). Mary Ann’s children were moved into Margaret and Abigail’s house (Archie’s 1st and 2nd wives), and Althea (Archie’s 5th wife) was upgraded into Liz’s abandoned brick home.
Hughes ends her narrative of Liz almost comically abruptly:
“She stayed around Salt Lake City for some time. Various unsavory rumors reached the family of the life she was living. Finally she went south with a strange man and was never heard of again.”
Where did you go, Big Liz?
Archie once said of Liz: “I lost her in this world, but come hell or high water, I’ll have her in the next.” I realize this sounds more threatening than romantic, but I also admit that I am rather touched that Archie (a) allowed for the divorce instead of trying to chase her down, and (b) that he seems to have missed her.
I’m trying not to think of Big Liz as Willie from The Temple of the Doom, because that’s just silly. But I guess I am endeared by Big Liz and Archie in the same way that I’m always endeared of Indiana and Willie hitting it off in spite of Willie’s high-maintenance lifestyle, or getting covered in positively revolting insects, or having to drink blood or eyeball soup while people get their hearts torn out of their chests. In spite of terrible trials and clearly being on each others’ nerves most of the time, they still have these rare tender moments where they seem to actually care for each other as human beings, and not just because of Willie’s smoking hot bod or Indy’s handy capabilities to repeatedly preserve her life. I guess that’s how I sort of imagine Archie and Liz. Lots of terrible hard things that didn’t jive with Liz’s ideal lifestyle, but she stuck around for a long time anyway, and Archie tried to make her happy, as well as he could as a husband of 11 wives.
I think that Elizabeth and Archibald married for sort of bad reasons (i.e. to save Elizabeth’s soul and add to Archibald’s glory). But I also think that in spite of that, they were both real people with real souls and spirits and characters and dreams and hearts. And I like to think that Archie did care for Liz. And I like to think that Liz, though she didn’t care for polygamous life or even Mormon life, cared for Archie and his family. She cared about them enough, in fact, to raise Mary Ann’s children for nearly a decade as if they were her own.
So, Elizabeth Elinor, if you are hearing this from somewhere out there in the cosmos: I am proud to be related to you, even if just through plural marriage. I honor your life.
- Hughes, Delila Gardner. The Life of Archibald Gardner. 2nd ed. Draper, UT: Review and Preview Publishers, 1970.
- “Lewis, Elizabeth Elinor – Raglin, Gardner.” FamilySearch, compiled by Paul Petersen, 2016 https://familysearch.org/photos/artifacts/10571593
- Songs of Mormon Pioneers (Polly Stewart Oral History Project). 1961. Digitized by J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah, 7 Sept 2013 https://content.lib.utah.edu/cdm/ref/collection/UtFolkLore/id/151
 I can’t figure out why Rhoda died so young, but she seems to have been born with some physical maladies, like a “crooked foot.” It’s unclear if this contributed to her death or not.
 And not just because of “nocturnal activities.”
 “I’m right here, Indiana!”