Sister Wives Series #5: Elizabeth Elinor Lewis (the 4th wife)

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Elizabeth Elinor “Big Liz” Lewis Raglin Gardner (1832–1879?)

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[1].

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[2] or Indy’s handy capabilities to repeatedly preserve her life[3]. 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.

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I’m not sure what Big Liz used to sing, but I thought I would include a couple of songs from Polly Stewart’s 1961 collection of Songs of the Mormon Pioneers. I wonder if Elizabeth had heard songs like these before entering the Salt Lake Valley—if she was shocked by family customs there. I wonder if part of what made Archie’s other wives contentious with her was because she sang songs like these.

Sources consulted:

[1] 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.

[2] And not just because of “nocturnal activities.”

[3] “I’m right here, Indiana!”

Comments

  1. Michael Austin says:

    This was my favorite one yet. It’s the music, I think. It really adds to the story and makes it seem more tangible.

  2. The Other Aussie Mormon says:

    Michael, me too!

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    I love the name Elinor; makes me think of Sense and Sensibility.

  4. Another lovely, sad story. How old were the children when she left? I wonder if what kept her there so long was raising them. I also imagine her beauty, talent and Archie’s gifts to her made it very difficult for her to connect to the other (older?) wives.

  5. ReT, when Liz left Archie, Rawsel was 17, Polly was 16, Rebekah was 14, and Robert was 11. So they were all pretty much out of their early childhood years. Most of Archie’s wives ended up being younger than Liz, actually, though she might have still been considered the prettiest. In fact, now that you mention it, just a few years before Liz left, Archie married his 11th wife (Mary) in 1869 who was a full EIGHTEEN YEARS younger than Liz (Mary was 19, Archibald was 55, and Liz by this point would have been 37 years old). But I do think that Archie’s gifts likely made it harder for her to connect with her sister wives—that, and the physical distance between them.

    Thanks for reading!

  6. I am both loving and hating this series. I have always considered it a blessing not to have polygamous ancestors, and yet I grew up in the church, so I have been through the mental gymnastics of what it would mean to share a husband. So much of this is beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time.

  7. I wouldn’t underestimate the impact that her infertility would have had on the entire situation as well. In the stories of Old Testament polygamy, the infertility of one of the wives never boded well when it came to relationships amongst the various family members. I’m infertile myself and have always thought that to be a plural wife and watch the other wives popping out babies would have been a special kind of hell. I can easily see myself being angry and causing contention as a result.

  8. Also, it wasn’t always the infertile wife that initiated the problems. In the story of Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel, it was her husband’s other wife, Peninnah, that appears to have done the provoking.

  9. Thank you for chiming in, Lisa. This is a tension in the narrative that is given no voice in the family records, and I agree that this must have been a huge factor in where Liz placed in the family hierarchy. I keep wondering what it must have been like for Abigail to lose her daughter Mary Ann only to have Liz adopt the children instead of herself. I wonder how the decision was made. I wonder if Liz’s mothering style was constantly critiqued by the other mothers. I can’t imagine the scrutiny and supervision she must have had with every choice she made.

  10. Stoddard, Chris says:

    Emily, how can I email you directly? I am also a direct descendant of Archibald and Margaret Livingston. I’d like to communicate offline and may have some other resource materials to send. I’m Chris Stoddard (my mother is the Gardner) and you can email me at chrisstodd at gmail