Agnes Coolbrith

Joseph Smith's 6th Spiritual Wife

Without knowing it, Agnes’s story is the one I taught as a missionary in that Joseph Smith would marry widows so that he could take care of them. However, this case of a “Levirate Marriage” actually only occurred four times out of the thirty times he took on spiritual wives.

 Agnes was born in Maine on July 9, 1808. She was the third of eight children. In 1832, at the age of 23, she was boarding with an Augusta Cobb in Boston. August Cobb obtained a Book of Mormon and Agnes came to believe in it. 

Todd Compton suspects that Agnes and her friend Mary (both boarding at Sister Cobbs) may actually have sent to Kirtland asking for missionaries to visit after accepting the Book of Mormon. Orson Hyde and Samuel Smith both came to Boston and Agnes was baptized into the Church on July 30th.

Compton also made an interesting remark when he said concerning Pratt and Smith’s mission to Boston: “If there were male converts in Boston, they are not mentioned” [Compton, 147]

After their baptism, Agnes and her friend Mary left Boston and joined the saints in Ohio. They boarded with Father Smith and Mother Smith. 

Agnes (27) and Don Carlos (just 19) were married on July 30, 1835. Don Carlos served two missions and during this time they had two children. 

Don Carlos’ second mission was to raise money to help the saints leave Missouri. Missouri proved a very hostile place for the Mormons.

Todd Compton tells that “On October 18th, at 10:30 p.m., a mob approached Agnes’s house after sunset, turned her out, looted it, then burned it to the ground. Gathering her two-year-old (also named Agnes) and her six-month-old (Sophronia) in her arms, she fled in terror through three -inch deep snow. After running three miles, she waded waist deep through the icy Grand River, they found safety on the other side at the home of Lyman Wight [Compton, 149].

Don Carlos appears to have loved his wife and children deeply. Letters tell us that he was often worried for them. In one of his letters he wrote Anges a poem in which he called her “The choice of youth Anges my bride” and his “pearl of price,” his “precious jewel” and even “the richest prize.” 

In one of his letters he sent her money and was concerned about her health. He said “you are entwined around my heart with ties that are stronger than death, and time cannot sever them.”

There are mixed accounts of whether or not Don Carlos accepted polygamy. According to some sources Don Carlos adamantly opposed polygamy. 

Ebenezer Robinson remembers him saying, “Any man who will teach and practice the doctrine of spiritual wifery will go to hell; I don’t care if it is my brother Joseph.”

Robinson also wrote that Don Carlos “was one of the most perfect men I ever knew” but that “He was a bitter opposer of the ‘spiritual wife’ doctrine, which was being talked quite freely, in private circles, in his lifetime.”

Their daughter Ina (born Josephine in 1841) later reported that her dad “quietly made plans to go back to Kirtland in 1842, and was only prevented by his death.” Evidently his stance on spiritual wifery caused a lot of tension in the Smith family. 

Ina’s first cousin, Joseph F. Smith, was firm in his opinion that Don Carlos was, in fact, a supporter of the practice. He and Ina never did see eye to on on this matter.

While working in the damp printing cellar, Don Carlos caught sick and passed away on August 7th, 1841, at the age of twenty-five.

According to his daughter Ina (who was just five months old at this time and would have had no memory) says that her father made one final request to Joseph Smith. “Joseph, I want you for the rest of your life to be an honest man.”

Yet, her cousin Joseph F. Smith (who was born at the end of 1838, two years old) called this story “contemptible in its falsity.” And in the Temple Lot Case in 1893, Mary Ann Sheffield gave testimony that Agnes did indeed become Joseph Smith’s plural wife. It was also reported that “Her husband she said wished her to marry Joseph and she did so.”

On January 6, 1842 (five months after Don Carlos’s death) Brigham Young wrote a journal entry in Masonic code which reads: “I was taken in to the lodge J Smith was Agness”

“was” is probably a code word meaning “wedded and sealed to.” 

In Joseph Smith’s own journal for this day (written by a scribe) it reads: “Truly this is a day long to be remembered by the saints of the Last Days; a day in which the God of heaven has began to restore the ancient <order> of his Kingdom unto his servants & his people: a day in which all things are concurring together to bring about the completion of the fullness of the gospel.”

Within the story of Agnes becoming a plural wife of Joseph Smith, we see the difficulty that Emma went through as polygamy unfolded without her knowledge.

As the president of the Relief Society (which was organized on March 17th, 1842), Emma Smith had heard a report that her sister-in-law Agnes had married Joseph. On the March 24th meeting she announced that a Clarissa Marvel “was accused of [telling] scandalous falsehoods on the character of Pres. Joseph Smith without the least provocation” and asked if Relief Society members “would in wisdom, adopt some plan to bring her to repentance.”

Agnes came to Clarissa Marvel’s defense saying “Clarissa Marvel lived with me nearly a year and I saw nothing amiss of her.”

Nevertheless, Emma assigned Hannah Markham to interview Clarissa. 

Hannah Markham interivewed Clarissa and found her innocent of any wrongdoing. Sarah Cleveland, the second counselor to Emma Smith, moved that Elizabeth Durfee and Elizabeth Allred investigate the persons who had accused her (a Laura Jones and Hannah Burgess). However, both Sarah Cleveland and Elizabeth Durfee were probably already plural wives of Joseph Smith (both of them taken as wives in June). 

Elizabeth Durfee was reluctant to pursue the matter (as is understandable since she herself was hiding her polygamous union from Emma) but Emma insisted.

Three days after the meeting, Clarissa Marvel signed the following statement: “This is to certify that I never have at any time or place, seen or heard anything improper or unvirtuous in the conduct or conversation of either President Smith or Mrs. Agnes Smith. I also certify that I never have reported any thing derogatory to the characters of either of them.”

After the death of Joseph Smith, Agnes was married to Don Carlos’ cousin George Albert Smith. However, when the saints moved to Utah. Agnes seems to have been almost left behind.

A theme in Agnes’ life is that of being abandoned. With the unfortunate deaths of Don Carlos and Joseph Smith, she was abandoned by her first and second husbands. With George Albert moving to Utah with the saints, Agnes was again abandoned. In the Spring of 1847, Agnes found a fourth husband (who was unfortunately an alcoholic) who abandoned her a number of times until he finally left her and the kids permanently in 1870, in California. 

In a letter to Joseph F. Smith, Agnes wrote “I could say more things to you Joseph that I know and that has been told me by those that are dead and gone but perhaps you would not believe me no I know that you would not so it is best for me to keep silent.”

In 1876, David and Alexander Smith two of Joseph Smith’s sons (both part of the anti-polygamist Reorganized Latter Day Saint church) came and visited Anges. They certainly had no idea that Anges had been a polygamous wife of their fathers. According to Lucy Walker, Anges “told them that what they had seen, and heard in Salt Lake was Truth that those women were their fathers wives, and it was useless to promulate falsehood to the World and advised them to desist.”

“David was struck dumb and Alexander said he would not take anybodys word -not even Aunt Agnes.”

Agnes’s daughter Ina (or Josephine) became a poet. She married an abusive husband who nearly killed her, they divorced, and she spent the rest of her life with her mother, writing poetry and working in a library that she called her prison.

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