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A Polygamist In Peril – Susan Elizabeth Bench’s Escape to Mexico

Author’s Note: This is not an actual letter from Susan Elizabeth Bench to her grandchildren but a historical narrative based off facts from Susan’s life as noted in her biography.


My Dearest Grandchildren,

I write you this letter to clarify some of my life as you have asked. The stories of my life I would not want to repeat for any of you, but they have shaped me into who I am today.

Back in 1886, I met you grandfather, Francis George Wall in Glenwood, Utah while he was a Sunday School counselor and I was the Sunday School Secretary. Early the next year, in the snowy days of February I made my way by wagon to Nephi with Francis. Once when we arrived in Nephi, we left our horses and wagon and took a train to Salt Lake City.

Susan Elizabeth Bench
Susan Elizabeth Bench

When we arrived in Salt Lake, it was a blinding snow storm, but we were able to make it for my Grandmothers (Honor Hannah Watson) home at 647 South Main Street. Francis and I stayed with my family for just one day before taking the train to the People’s Hotel in Logan.

On the 18th of February 1887, Francis and I went to the Logan LDS Temple where we were married by a C.D. Felstead. We stayed three days in the People’s hotel before returning to my Grandmother Honor’s home in Salt Lake City.

The next few days were a flurry of activity as we made our ways back to our respective homes, I didn’t see Francis (or as I called him, Brother Wall) again until November of that same year (1887).

No one in town knew where I had gone for those few days, because polygamy had started to be looked upon with disdain by non-members and member of my church alike. In fact, I lived “underground” (as it was commonly called) for three years, without ever publicly declaring my marriage to Francis.

Francis George Wall
Francis George Wall

Our first son, John Edward Wall was born on the 13th of February of 1890 in Manti, Utah. When John was only a week old, I was arrested on charges of bigamy and put under a $2,500.00 bond and ordered to appear in court in Salina, Utah by the United States Deputy Marshall to answer the charges of five years.

On the 21st of March 1890, my brother John drove the team of oxen with me in the back of the wagon box after a deep and hard snow storm while I took my son, John Edward, with me.

As it goes with the court, dates change and the next morning after arriving in Salina, I was informed I was to appear in Spring City on the 1st of June in that year.  After that appearance, the court date was again pushed back until the 27th of September 1890, this time in Provo, Utah — before a grand jury.

I was quite worried that they were going to put me away and that my little son, John Edward would be without a mother. The night before I was supposed to be in court, I stayed with the Farr family and told the wife that if I never came back to retrieve my boy that she could have him.

During all this time, Francis was nowhere to be found, as he had already made his escape to Mexico on the advice of our Church President, John Taylor. At this point, Brother Wall had never even seen our son.

While at court, I could hear all the other women give their testimonies in court about their polygamist lives. In fact, there was one woman, Bell Harris who had her small child in her arms during the whole ordeal, and she was sentenced to five years.

When my turn came, they locked the door as if I would escape and asked me all the questions they could think — I told the truth as my husband had instructed me to do so. After all was said and done, I was released on bail. It probably helped that the prosecuting attorney was Aunt Jane’s (one of my father’s polygamous wives — Jane Nickland) brother.

Provo Utah Courthouse
Provo Utah Courthouse

Just the very next year, in June of 1891, I left my home in Manti, Utah for Mexico to escape the persecution for practicing polygamy, which was now officially declared unfit for members of my church. John Edward was only a year and a half when we left.

From Manti, we traveled by train to Deming, New Mexico — which took three days. From Deming, I had to try and find anyone that would take me and my baby to Mexico, as no trains were running into the country at that time. I was able to find two men (Charles Shumway and Henry Marteneau.) that would take me there.

We were set to leave the next day, but little Ted (John Edward) broke out with scarlet fever, and it took us more than three weeks to leave. By that time, Francis had heard we were there and came up to meet up with a team and wagon to take us to our new home.

And that my dear children, is how I had to escape to Mexico because I chose to marry a man who already had a wife. I pray that this letter finds you well.

Your grandmother,

Susan Elizabeth Bench Wall


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The Sister Wives Saga: The Gardner Girls

Author’s Note: This information is as accurate as found in my current research. 

Some men had one wife, others 56. Elias Gardner (son of William and Ann Gardner of Massachusetts)  landed somewhere in the middle. He had nine wives — Harriet, Amy, Betsy, Diantha, Ruth, Ellen, Ann, Emily + Martha.  This is their story.

Wife #1: Harriet Snow Smith

Harriet Snow Smith was the first of Elias’s wives, only 17 when they married on the 1st of January 1826 in Berkshire County, Massachusetts. A few short years later, in 1830, at the age of 22, Harriet Snow Smith died, leaving Elias with two small children — a toddler son by the name of Walter Elias and a five-month-old baby daughter by the name of Harriet Elizabeth. There was no indicator of death and the only mention of the possible cause we have is ‘suddenly’ as indicated on Vital Record Transcripts (see below):

Massachusetts, Town and Vital Records, 1620-1988
Massachusetts, Town and Vital Records

Harriet died before her husband became a Mormon polygamist with eight other wives. One would wonder what she would have thought or said about his actions after her death. Little else is known about Harriet except the words left on her tombstone by her husband which reads:

“In Memory of Harriet Gardner Wife of Elias Gardner Who died March 2, 1830, in her 22-year. Sleep, till death doth silence all, Nor wake again, till Jesus calls Then from the grave, in haste arise, And soar to worlds above the skies.”

Gravestone of Harriet Snow Smith Gardner
Gravestone of Harriet Snow Smith Gardner

Wife #2: Amy Pritchard

Amy was Elias’s second wife after his first died at a young age.  According to family lore, the two met at some sort of dancing event, and that between the two of them, they could clear the dance floor. The two were married the day before Valentines on the 13th of February in 1832.

In 1840, Amy, her husband Elias and her step-son Walter joined the Mormon Church where her husband began to learn about the secretive teachings of polygamy that the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith taught and practiced.

The family began to move around and follow the Mormon migration patterns from Massachusetts to Ohio (Portage/Kirtland) to Illinois (Nauvoo) and lastly to Nebraska (Winter Quarters) where Amy Pritchard passed away on the 24th of November 1846 after taking sick with the chills — this mother of four (three daughters and one son) was buried in an unmarked and unnamed grave along with others that had died so quickly in the winter season that year.

Her children’s names were:

  • Nancy Maria
  • Mary Amelia
  • Henry Erastus
  • Permelia Frenette

Wife #3: Betsy Elizabeth Markham

Before Elias’s second wife, Amy passed away, Betsy and Elias met, but it wasn’t until a scant seventeen days after Amy died that Elias married Betsy Elizabeth Markham at Winter Quarters, Nebraska, she was thirty-two years old when she became his wife.

The two traveled across the plains with Harriet’s son Walter and Amy’s living children. Betsy bore two more children to Elias (bringing his total of children to eight at this point). A son named William Kimball (died in infancy) and a daughter named Vilate.

 

Betsy Elizabeth Markham Gardner
Betsy Elizabeth Markham Gardner

Betsy was the first wife to make it past the age of 45. In fact, Betsy didn’t die until she was 91 years of age in Payson, Utah from bronchitis, in 1906.

Betsy Elizabeth Markham Gardner Death Certificate
Betsy Elizabeth Markham Gardner Death Certificate

Wife #4: Diantha Hanchett

Less than a year after he married Betsy, Elias married a young 17-year old girl by the name of Diantha Hanchett, who at this time became Elias’s first polygamous marriage and his fourth wife.

Diantha Hanchett
Diantha Hanchett
from the BYU University Lee Library

 

To this union, seven children were born:

  • Sarah Diantha
  • Susan Locretia
  • Joseph
  • James
  • Marilla
  • Betsy Ann
  • Nathaniel

While living in Utah Territory, (which eventually became the state of Utah), this particular polygamous group of the Gardner family clashed with local indigenous tribes as they began to encroach upon their lands.

Diantha ended up being a queen-of-all-trades. She learned how to make candles as a teenager. She home-schooled each of her seven children and taught many neighbor children over the years. Not one to follow all the rules, Diantha enjoyed a good cuppa tea and even told her children and grandchildren on occasion, “Better a poor bellie burst than good tea waste.”

It did not take long until Diantha was no longer the newest sister-wife in the family. After only five years into her marriage to Elias, he added another wife to the family.

Wife #5: Ruth Markham Abbott 

Like many of Elias’ polygamous wives, Ruth Abbott (née Markham) was kin to his other wives. Ellen Elizabeth Abbott and Emily Ann Abbott were Ruth’s daughters from her first marriage to Joshua Chandler Abbott.

Ruth Markham
Ruth Markham

In this case, Elias married a mother and her two daughters — having 14  children in combination with those two daughters. Ruth became the grandmother to these particular children, twice over. In addition to being the mother of two of Elias’ wives, Ruth was also the biological sister of another of his wives, #3 Betsy Elizabeth Markham.

According to one family story, “Ruth finally agreed to marry him [Elias], but she would never live with him as a wife as long as he was married to her daughter. She couldn’t stand the thoughts of sleeping with her daughter’s husband.”

Ruth and Elias never had any children together.

Wife #6: Ellen Elizabeth Abbott

In February of 1852, Elias took a 6th wife and third in his polygamous series of wives. Her name was Ellen Elizabeth Abbott and she was only 14 years old.  Elias was 43 – a 29-year age gap. To this union, eleven children were born.

Ellen Elizabeth Abbott
Ellen Elizabeth Abbott

Why was she so young? It turns out the Ellen Elizabeth had traveled across the plains with Elias and her aunt Betsey Elizabeth Markham (wife #3) at the age of nine. Which gives question if she was being groomed for a position as one of Elias’s many wives. While official records state that Elias was ‘called’ into polygamy right before he married Ellen Elizabeth, it is clear that he already had two other wives before her. Their children were:

  • Elias Jr.
  • John
  • Ellen Elizabeth
  • Ruthette
  • Joshua Abbott
  • George
  • Orawell
  • Iris and Ira (twins)
  • Martha Jane

Wife #7: Ann Elizabeth English

Out of all Elias’s nine wives, Ann Elizabeth English was the only foreigner he married and there was a reason for that. Elias met Ann and her mother Martha while he was a missionary for the Mormon Church in England.

Ann was born in South Shields, County Durham, England and married Elias when she was only 18 years old and he was 47. She was his seventh wife and fifth polygamous marriage.

Ann Elizabeth English
Ann Elizabeth English

Ann Elizabeth arrived in the states in 1855, and in late November of 1855, she married Elias. About five years later, her mother Martha Todd English (Elias’s last wife) died when Ann was only 23-years of age. The union between Elias and Ann Elizabeth produced 12 children:

  • Eliza Roxanna
  • Verona
  • Elizabeth
  • Annie
  • Thomas Francis
  • Edna Mae
  • Lewis Edward
  • Emeline
  • Lorena Jane
  • Benjamin
  • Martha Ann
  • John William

When Ann and her mother first came to the states, it was thought (according to family lore) that through tradition she would marry one of Elias’s sons, possibly Walter or Henry, but Ann told her granddaughter years later, “I did not want to marry Walter or Henry, I wanted to marry your grandfather.”

Wife #8: Emily Ann Abbott

The last of his living wives, Emily Ann Abbott was the younger sister wife (number six) and daughter of wife number five.  The story goes that Emily Ann had spent most of her life growing up in Elias Gardner’s household and that because of her poor health, she was encouraged to marry a much older man in polygamous marriage.

Emily Ann Gravestone

When they married she was only 19, but Elias was 60, a 41-year difference in age. On the same day that Emily Ann was married to Elias, he was also “married” to the deceased mother of his seventh wife.

To the marriage of Emily Ann and Elias, four children were born:

  • Lois Ann
  • Harriet
  • Franklin
  • Emily

Due to what seems to be her poor health, Emily Ann passed away in 1880, at the young age of 31 years old, her husband was 72 years of age.

Wife #9: Martha Elizabeth Todd

Martha Elizabeth was Elias’s last wife, and also the mother of his sixth wife Ann Elizabeth. Martha’s marriage to Elias wasn’t one that you would commonly see in society other than in Mormon-run circles. Martha was never physically married to Elias in the flesh, but after she passed, using Mormon rites, she was ‘married’ to him for the afterlife.

This is a curious type of marriage as according to family stories, Martha declined to marry Elias while she was alive, even though Elias assure her that she would always be cared for.

*****

From all accounts, it appears as if Elias wanted to keep his sister wives a literal family matter and married into two families — The Markhams and the Abbotts, which were in turn, related to each other. Now, much of this data has been retrieved from the Mormon Church and still is being verified, so if you have any additional documentation, please share with us below!


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