Eliza Snow Pushed Down Stairs By Emma Smith

MYTH: In a jealous rage Emma Smith pushed Eliza Snow, allegedly a polygamist wife to Joseph Smith Jr., down a flight of stairs causing her to have a miscarriage.


It has been a long standing tradition in Mormon culture that Eliza R. Snow was a polygamist wife of Joseph Smith. Since the mid 1800s a story has circulated throughout the Mormon community that while Eliza was living with the family in the Smith mansion house she was impregnated by Joseph. After discovering the marriage and resulting pregnancy, Emma flew into a rage and attacked Eliza, knocking her down the stairs and causing her to have a miscarriage. This tradition has long been held by many Mormons as proof that Joseph was practicing polygamy, citing Emma’s obvious anger and jealous reaction to the news.

The enigma is that, despite a long standing tradition quoted in many books, the original sources are either unreliable or falsifiable. The Eliza and Emma dispute story allegedly arises from two eye witnesses, brother Foster Solon and Brother Charles C. Rich. (Ironically, both witnesses claim to be the only witness, and both describe separate stories.) These stories are described by Leroi C. Snow (nephew of Eliza and son of LDS President Lorenzo Snow) and recorded by author Fawn Brodie in the mid 1880’s.

Fawn Brodie gave credence to this rumor by including it in her book, No Man Knows My History. She wrote:

There is a persistent tradition that Eliza conceived a child by Joseph in Nauvoo, and that Emma one day discovered her husband embracing Eliza in the hall outside their bedrooms and in a rage flung her downstairs and drove her out into the street. The fall is said to have resulted in a miscarriage. (This tradition was stated to me as fact by Eliza's nephew, LeRoi C. Snow, in the Church Historian's Office, Salt Lake City.) Solon Foster, coachman for the prophet, was present in the Mansion House when the incident occurred. Years later he met Emma's sons, who were then publicly denouncing polygamy in Utah, and reproached them for their attitude: "Joseph, the night your mother turned Eliza R. Snow into the street in her night clothes you and all the family stood crying. I led you back into the house and took you to bed with me. You said, 'I wish mother wouldn't be so cruel to Aunt Eliza.' You called her aunt, because you knew she was your father's wife. He did not deny it."[1]

In 1885, Dr. Wilhelm Wyl, an author and correspondent from Germany, spent six months in Salt Lake City interviewing Mormons for a book which he was writing. In an interview with C. G. Webb the story was further corroborated:

There is scarcely a Mormon unacquainted with the fact, that Sister Emma, on the other side, soon found out the little compromise arranged between Joseph and Eliza. Feeling outraged as a wife and betrayed as a friend, Emma is currently reported as having had recourse to a vulgar broomstick as an instrument of revenge; and the harsh treatment received at Emma's hand is said to have destroyed Eliza's hopes of becoming the mother of a prophet's son.[2]

Clearly these accounts demonstrate that by 1885 the story of Emma throwing Eliza down the stairs at the Mansion House had become a widespread tradition among Mormons. We must note here that this story is a second hand hearsay story. Leroi claims to have been told by Br. Solon, who claimed to have been present. But Br. Solon’s story might have errors in it.

In a confrontation in 1885, Joseph Smith III, the son of Joseph Smith Jr., challenged Br. Solon regarding his account. As a child Joseph both knew and was fond of Br. Solon, but in his retelling of the confrontation says, “In the earlier part of our conversation I had learned that he (Br. Solon) was not at Nauvoo for about two years before Father's death. Therefore he could not possibly have known of things happening in 1843 and early in 1844 up to the time of the tragedy.”[3]

As the conversation continued Br. Solon acknowledged that he never attended a marriage ceremony with Joseph Smith Jr. and a polygamist wife, never saw Joseph alone with any woman but Emma and never saw Joseph act in a “familiar” or intimate manner with any woman but Emma.[4]

Joseph Smith III’s statements are not unbiased and do not conclusively falsify Br. Solon’s statements. Smith III was a leader in the Reorganized Mormon Church and he fought endlessly to prove that his father never practiced polygamy. However, his statements should cause us to reconsider the source. Was Solon telling the truth of an atrocity he witnessed, or relating a story he heard and attempted to claim a degree of fame by saying he was there? To answer that question, let’s examine the case of Br. Charles C. Rich.

As retold by LeRoi Snow, Apostle Charles C. Rich saw Emma and Eliza at the head of the stairs, heard a commotion, then saw Eliza come tumbling down the Mansion House stairs. LeRoi's notes state:

Charles C. Rich called at the Mansion House, Nauvoo, to go with the Prophet on some appointment they had together. As he waited in the main lobby or parlor, he saw the Prophet and Emma come out of a room upstairs and walk together toward the stairway which apparently came down center. Almost at the same time, a door opposite opened and dainty, little, dark-haired Eliza R. Snow (she was "heavy with child") came out and walked toward the center stairway. When Joseph saw her, he turned and kissed Emma goodbye, and she remained standing at the banister. Joseph then walked on to the stairway, where he tenderly kissed Eliza, and then came on down stairs toward Brother Rich. Just as he reached the bottom step, there was a commotion on the stairway, and both Joseph and Brother Rich turned quickly to see Eliza come tumbling down the stairs. Emma had pushed her, in a fit of rage and jealousy; she stood at the top of the stairs, glowering, her countenance a picture of hell. Joseph quickly picked up the little lady, and with her in his arms, he turned and looked up at Emma, who then burst into tears and ran to her room. Joseph carried the hurt and bruised Eliza up the stairs and to her room. "Her hip was injured and that is why she always afterward favored that leg," said Charles C. Rich. "She lost the unborn babe."[5]

Interestingly, when the stairways at both the Homestead and the Mansion House are examined, it is obvious that the event could not have happened at either place. The stairs in the Homestead are very narrow and they turn sharply near the bottom. The top of the stairs cannot be seen while standing in the room below.

Likewise, the hallway at the top of the stairs in the Mansion House can not be seen as Charles Rich described it. The stairway is narrow (only three feet wide) with only a small landing (about three feet square) and at the top, a blank wall on the right, a small door straight ahead, and small hallway on the left. When standing at the foot of the stairs, the small door is the only thing visible. It is straight ahead and it is the door to a small split-level room where the Smith children slept. The door to Joseph and Emma's room cannot be seen from the bottom of the stairs and no other door is visible. Br. Rich testified he "saw the Prophet and Emma come out of a room upstairs" and "a door opposite opened and dainty, little, dark-haired Eliza" came out of it. Historically there was no "door opposite."

A close examination of the structure and shape of the stairways in both the Homestead and Mansion House clearly show that Charles Rich's account did not happen, at least as he claimed. Essentially, we have a second hearsay story from LeRoi Snow describing Emma pushing Eliza down the stairs, except this second story is historically falsifiable. It would appear that either 1) Br. Rich invented the account; 2) Leroi Snow invented the account or 3) LeRoi grossly misunderstood the details of Br. Rich’s account. However, because there are no other recorded accounts of Br. Rich story, its validity has to be suspect.

Additionally, there is a great difference in the accounts given by Charles C. Rich and Solon Foster. Rich asserts that he saw Joseph carrying Eliza "up the stairs and to her room," while Foster declares that Emma "turned Eliza R. Snow into the street in her night clothes." Both men claim to have witnessed this event and mention other people present, but neither man mentioned the other. Both men claimed that they saw Eliza tumble down the stairs at the Mansion House—but, according to Eliza’s own journal, history shows Joseph and Emma did not move to the Mansion House until after Eliza moved away from their home.

According to the now published journal of Eliza Roxcy Snow, she and her family moved from Missouri in March 1839 with her family settling in Quincy, Illinois while Eliza and her sister went to live in nearby Lima, Illinois.[6]

At the invitation of her former Church of Christ minister, Sidney Rigdon, Eliza Snow moved from Lima to Commerce (Nauvoo) in July of 1839. She lived at the Rigdon home and taught the Rigdon family school. She remained with the Rigdons until the winter of 1839-1840 when she returned to the home of her parents.

Eliza then, with her parents, moved to La Harpe, Illinois where they remained for one year until returning to Nauvoo, this time with her whole family, in the spring of 1841. She remained with her family until June 20, 1842.[7]

At this time Eliza's father, Oliver Snow, became so distraught about events connected with Dr. John C. Bennett that he and his family left Nauvoo and moved seventy-five miles away to Walnut Grove, Illinois.[8] Eliza chose to stay at Nauvoo even though no other member of her family was living there.

Because of scarce housing in Nauvoo, on August 13, 1842, Emma Smith sent for Eliza and invited her to share her home. On the 18th of this same month Eliza moved into Emma and Joseph's home (the Homestead). [9]

During this time Eliza taught school at the Red Brick Store with the Smith children being some of her pupils. Eliza's diary clearly shows that she was treated kindly by Joseph and Emma and there was no evidence of either a plural marriage or contention.
On February 11, 1843, after having lived with Emma and Joseph for almost six months, Eliza moved out of the Homestead.

Interestingly, the day after she moved, Eliza taught school as usual. She exhibited no evidence of having received a beating or having suffered a fall or a miscarriage. Surely if Eliza had been injured so severely that she suffered a life-threatening miscarriage, she would not have been able to teach school the next day, but the records show that she did not miss a single day of teaching.[11]

Of further interest, on the last day of school, March 17, 1843, Eliza happily recorded in her diary that she had “the pleasure of the presence of Prest (sic) J. Smith and his lady”.[12] Her "pleasure" at their presence shows a friendly regard for both the Prophet and Emma, and again indicates that there were no hard feelings between the two.

Shortly after the end of the school term, Eliza moved from Nauvoo to Lima to live with her sister, Leonora.[13] Eliza's journal shows that she never again lived with Emma and Joseph, And according to Church history, Joseph and Emma moved into the Mansion House August 31, 1843, several months after Eliza moved from their home at the Homestead.[14]

Eliza's diary never alludes to any intimacy with Joseph and indicates that she most likely was not married to him. Her writings in relation to him were always formal, and though she showed respect for him as the Prophet and President, she did not use any term which a wife would naturally use in referring to her husband. Certainly if she had been his wife, there would have been some reference to the fact in her personal record, or at least terminology depicting intimate affection, all of which are suspiciously absent in her writings. Additionally, there is no hint of any ill will between Eliza and Emma. In fact, every entry in regards to Emma was that of respect. Surely, some indication of ill will would have appeared in her journal if Emma had truly beaten her and/or pushed her down the stairs.

In summary, it appears that the stories of Emma pushing Eliza Snow down the stairs are false. The source of both stories is second hand hearsay. One account was by a man who was out of the state during that alleged occurrence while the second account is demonstrably false in that the alleged “facts” of the story are inconsistent with historical reality. Furthermore, Eliza’s own diary shows that she was never living in the Smith mansion (the location of the alleged attack testified to be both “witnesses”) and her diary shows nothing but respect for Emma.

Ironically, there is no published statement from Eliza herself. Her testimony was of tremendous importance in the struggle between polygamy and anti-polygamy which raged during the last thirty years of her life. Her lack of public denial or public acceptance of the stories is suspicious. By saying nothing she appears to have passively encouraged the allegations of her alleged marriage to Joseph.

Of supreme irony is that this characteristic was not uncommon among those who were accused of being polygamist wives to Joseph, indicating that they possibly swore an oath of secrecy regarding a secret marriage, and despite the later accepted practice of polygamy, they didn’t want to break their oath; or perhaps allowing the allegations to be spread provided a way for some of these women to feel important through an alleged association, such as polygamy, with Joseph while never requiring them to actively lie about it.

[1] Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History, 470–471
[2] Dr. Wilhelm Wyl, Mormon Portraits, Page 58
[3] Saints' Herald 83 [March 24, 1936]: 368.
[4] Ibid., 368
[5] Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, 135
[6] Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Ensign 9 [June 1980]: 66–67; see also Beecher, Personal Writings, 15
[7] Ibid., 52
[8] Beecher, Ensign 9 [June 1980]: 67
[9] Beecher, Personal Writings, 54
[10] Ibid., 64
[11] Newell and Avery, Mormon Enigma, 136
[12] Beecher, Personal Writings, 66
[13] Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Eliza and Her Sisters, 58
[14] History of the Church 5:556