Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Living History: Diary a glimpse at complexities of plural marriage

Living History: Diary a glimpse at complexities of plural marriage
The Salt Lake Tribune/January 6, 2008
By Kristen Rogers-Iversen

In 1884, Charles Ora Card divorced his first wife, Sarah Jane
(Sallie) Birdneau. As Charles wrote in his diary, their 16-year
marriage had been troubled with "difference in our faith." In a time
when Mormons practiced polygamy, Sallie believed "no man wants more
wives than one except to gratify his lust."

The diary does not reveal much of the beginnings of the strained
relationship, but in 1878 Charles wrote, "My wife Sallie came to me &
begged my pardon for the opposition She had made to my Self & in
regard to the principle of É [plural] mariage & Said she had a great
desire to do better. I forgave her & told her to seek the Lord & I
would help her." (Charles had married his second wife in 1876.)

The next hint of trouble came in April 1879 when Sallie was discovered
in "Intimacy" (whatever that means!) with Lewis Palmanteer. The
incident devastated Charles.

In 1883, Sallie filed for divorce. Charles wrote, "During the Last
nearly 7 yrs I have sought to avert anything of the Kind that my
family might be preserved intact and Labor in the spirit of the Gospel
for a Salvation in the Kingdom of God. Many is the day I have tried to
drown those afflictions with hard Labor & Seeking the Lord for

"After Supper a passedt an hour with her and advised her to repent for
the step she had taken was on the downward course and would lead her
to death and degradation. After which I retired tired & weary &
considerable annoyed at the course of my wife."

The following March, while Charles was courting his third wife, Sallie
again insisted on divorce. He wrote, "I am not guilty of that which I
will have to acknowledge to appease the wrath of an unjust woman who
has not faith in God and his purposes."

Fortunately for Sallie, divorce laws in Utah were relatively liberal,
and it was fairly easy for women, at least, to initiate divorce.
According to Kathryn Daynes, Mormon divorces were "simple,
non-legalistic, and participant-run. [The church] acknowledged that
irreconcilable couples were better off apart. Divorced, each could
then marry a compatible partner."

The divorce cost Card financially and personally. "I am 'dancing' to
the tune of about $2000," he wrote. Sarah got a new home and
guardianship of their two children. In January 1885, Charles asked her
"to allow our children to walk in the ways of the Lord" and told her
he was not her enemy. She wept at his "kind words."

But three months later, after an explosive run-in with his ex-wife, he
wrote, "After Laboring so hard for the Salvation of my dear children I
have to ask my God how long Shall a wicked & ungodly mother have an
influence over them."

Beliefs, interests, dispositions and commitment all contribute to the
success of modern-day marriages. Charles' diary entries give glimpses
into the added complexity and the tangle of lives and emotions that
existed in plural marriages of the time.

Was it Card's plural marriage to Sarah Jane Painter in 1876 that led
Sallie to seek intimacy outside her marriage? Why would he court other
women while trying to hold onto his first wife, whose main complaint
was that her husband was a polygamist? How do we explain Sallie's
weeping in front of her ex-husband? We can only begin to surmise the
conflicting emotions they must have felt.

As for Sallie, she went on to marry Benjamin Ramsel and testify in
court against her ex-husband on charges of unlawful cohabitation.

Sources: The Diaries of Charles Ora Card: The Utah Years, 1871-1886,
edited by Donald G. Godfrey and Kenneth W. Godfrey; More Wives Than
One: Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1840-1910, by
Kathryn M. Daynes. To see more documents/articles regarding this

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