John C. Bennett's Alleged Abortion Clinic in Nauvoo

An unusual amount of blogosphere discussion lately has been devoted to the number of plural wives sealed to Joseph Smith. Often the headlines are followed by innuendos or direct statements tying the reason for the number to an insatiable libido. If he were in actuality jumping from bed to bed for years, then the natural question is “Where are all his children?” An explanation that seems to be gaining unwarranted traction is: “Joseph Smith’s friend,” they say, “John C. Bennett, had a curette. …” The implication is that abortions were performed on Joseph’s pregnant plural wives by John C. Bennett. It is perhaps time to explore this possibility from an evidentiary perspective.

John C. Bennett entered Nauvoo in September 1840. He boarded with the Smiths for the next thirty-nine weeks. During this time, Joseph Smith and Bennett seemed to share an amiable relationship with Bennett eventually being named as Assistant President of the Church, General of the Nauvoo Legion, and Nauvoo Mayor. This friendship did not last long, however. Within months of his arrival, Joseph learned that Bennett had been previously involved in a pattern of immoral activity. He continued his escapades and was confronted. He promptly confessed his sins, and Joseph forgave him upon his resolution to improve. However, Bennett did not change and by the spring of 1842, the friendship between the two was irreparable. Bennett was excommunicated and left town in June, never to return. He did, however, not quietly exit Nauvoo, instead turning his unbridled wrath upon the Prophet. First he published a series of articles in a local newspaper accusing Joseph of immorality, later compiling those into a book entitled The History of the Saints. Months later he would write: “He [Joseph Smith] has awakened the wrong passenger … and must suffer.”[1]

Although a well-documented philanderer, John C. Bennett did not leave behind a trail of pregnancies and illegitimate children.[2] He was a trained obstetrician and presumably would have had the knowledge of how to abort a pregnancy.

There are in fact three historical documents that associate Bennett with abortion. Hyrum Smith testified in 1842 that Bennett assuaged the fears of the women he seduced by promising: “He would give them medicine to produce abortions, providing they should become pregnant.”[3] Also, Mrs. Zeruiah Goddard affirmed on August 28, 1842: “Mrs. Pratt stated to me that Dr. Bennett told her, that he could cause abortion with perfect safety to the mother, at any stage of pregnancy, and that he had frequently destroyed and removed infants before their time to prevent exposure of the parties, and that he had instruments for that purpose, &c.”[4] Sarah Pratt described the instrument Bennett may have used: “a pretty long instrument of a kind I had never seen before. It seemed to be of steel and was crooked at one end.”[5]

These statements document that Bennett claimed he was capable of inducing (via medications) or performing (with surgical instrumentation) an abortion. As a licensed physician and experienced obstetrician, he may have done so in Nauvoo. In 1825 John C. Bennett passed the exam then required to practice medicine.[6] In 1837 he published The Accoucheur’s Vad Mecum, an account of his obstetrical experiences.[7]

Sarah Pratt also claimed in the late 1880s that Bennett not only performed abortions in Nauvoo, but some of them were on Joseph Smith’s plural wives. Anti-Mormon writer Wihelm Wyl quoted Sarah:

You hear often that Joseph had no polygamous offspring. The reason of this is very simple. Abortion was practiced on a large scale in Nauvoo. Dr. John C. Bennett, the evil genius of Joseph, brought this abomination into a scientific system. He showed to my husband and me the instruments with which he used to “operate for Joseph.” There was a house in Nauvoo, “right across the flat,” about a mile and a-half from the town, a kind of hospital. They sent the women there, when they showed signs of celestial consequences. Abortion was practiced regularly in this house.[8]

Sarah claimed many things about Joseph Smith throughout her lifetime, but this is probably one of her most over-the-top statements. She made other allegations that contradict more reliable historical data. For example, when asked about the statement, “Joseph had eighty wives at the time of his death,” Sarah Pratt replied: “He had many more, my dear sir; at least he had seduced many more, and those with whom he had lived without their being sealed to him, were sealed to him after his death.”[9] Currently there is no evidence for “eighty wives” or “many more” than eighty as Pratt alleged.

The likelihood that Bennett performed abortions on any of Joseph Smith’s plural wives seems highly unlikely. Virtually no evidence has been found supporting that the Prophet confided in him regarding any of Joseph’s plural marriage teachings or activities. Bennett admitted in October 1843 that Joseph never taught him about eternal marriage and Joseph never taught plural marriage except within the context they could be eternal.[10] As a polygamy outsider, Joseph would not have readily consulted him for any purpose associated with the practice.

More importantly, Sarah Pratt’s timeline is problematic. When Joseph Smith and Bennett split in early 1842, Joseph was arguably the only man practicing authorized polygamy. Also, there is no evidence that Louisa Beaman (sealed for “time and eternity” on April 5, 1841) or Agnes Coolbrith (married “for time” but with no evidence of sexuality) had become pregnant. These were the only two plural wives with whom I believe he would have been experiencing sexual relations. It seems if Bennett performed abortions during his 22-month stay in Nauvoo, they would have been on women made pregnant by him or his followers, but no supportive evidence has been found.

Of less importance to critics, but of great significance to Nauvoo polygamists is that Joseph taught that plural marriage was to “multiply and replenish the earth” (D&C 132:63). Abortion produces the opposite result. The duplicity, if it had ever occurred, not only would have created confusion amongst his morally-conservative followers but also would have branded him a hypocrite. No such allegations are found in the historical record.

While Bennett may well have performed abortions on women that he and his “spiritual wifery” followers may have impregnated, extrapolating that he also performed abortions of Joseph Smith’s plural wives is not supported by the historical record. It also does not answer the question: “Where are the children from all of Joseph’s plural wives if intimate relations occurred commonly in those relationships?”

[1] John C. Bennett to Sidney Rigdon and Orson Pratt, letter erroneous dated 10 Jan. 1842, but was probably penned one year later. Typescript in Journal History, CHL, under the date 10 Jan. 1842.

[2] See “Dear Sir: On being requested. . . ,” The Wasp 1 (October 1, 1842): 24; Joseph Smith, “To the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and to all the Honorable Part of Community,” Times and Seasons, 3:839-40 (July 1, 1842).

[3] Affidavit of Hyrum Smith, the second affidavit published in Affidavits and Certificates, Disproving the Statements and Affidavits Contained in John C. Bennett’s Letters. Nauvoo, Illinois, August 31, 1842. These affidavits have been listed as an “Extra” either to The Wasp (more common) or The Times and Seasons. It was printed as a single, two-sided sheet apparently not associated with either newspaper. Also republished as “Affidavit of Hyrum Smith, Times and Seasons 3 (1 Aug. 1842):870–72.

[4] “Testimony of Mrs. Zeruiah Goddard,” the seventh affidavit published in Affidavits and Certificates, Disproving the Statements and Affidavits Contained in John C. Bennett’s Letters. Nauvoo, Illinois, August 31, 1842.

[5] Sarah Pratt quoted in Wyl, W[ilhem]. [pseud. for Wilhelm Ritter von Wymetal], Mormon Portraits, or the Truth about Mormon Leaders from 1830 to 1886, Joseph Smith the Prophet, His Family and His Friends: A Study Based on Fact and Documents (Salt Lake City: Tribune Printing and Publishing Co., 1886), 60–61.

[6] Andrew C. Skinner, “John C. Bennett: For Prophet or Profit?” in H. Dean Garrett, ed. Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint Church History: Illinois (Provo, Utah: Department of Church History and Doctrine, BYU, 1995), 249–50.

[7] Andrew F. Smith, “John Cook Bennett’s Nauvoo,” The John Whitmer Historical Association 2002 Nauvoo Conference Special Edition, Nauvoo: JWHA, 112.

[8] Sarah Pratt quoted in Wyl, W[ilhem]. [pseud. for Wilhelm Ritter von Wymetal]. Mormon Portraits, or the Truth about Mormon Leaders from 1830 to 1886, Joseph Smith the Prophet, His Family and His Friends: A Study Based on Fact and Documents. Salt Lake City: Tribune Printing and Publishing Co., 1886, 59 (see also 128). (Italics in original.)

[9] W. Wyl, pseud. [Wilhelm Ritter von Wymetal], Mormon Portraits, or the Truth About Mormon Leaders From 1830 to 1886 (Salt Lake City: Tribune Printing and Publishing Co., 1886), 54.

[10] See John C. Bennett, “Letter from General Bennett,” Hawk Eye, December 7, 1843, 1.