A Widow's Tale: the 1884-1896 Diaries of Helen Mar Whitney,
Edited by Todd M. Compton and Charles M. Hatch
Published by Utah State University Press, Oct. 1, 2003

Winner: 2004 Mormon History Association Award: Steven Christensen Award for Best Documentary History of the Year
Winner: WILLA Finalist Award, in the category of Nonfiction. This is from the Women Writing the West organization.
See Women Writing the West

This can be ordered at Utah State University Press.
Their toll-free number for orders is 800-239-9974.

It is also available at the bookstores listed in the In Sacred Loneliness part of this website.

Two mini-essays:
Editing A Widow’s Tale
Why Read A Widow’s Tale?

Editing A Widow’s Tale

This is how A Widow’s Tale came to be edited. While I was researching In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith, one of my chapters was on Helen Mar Whitney, who had married Joseph Smith, Jr., in Nauvoo. Therefore, while I was working in the LDS church archives, I found two notebooks of diaries by Helen in her later life, starting in 1884, when her husband Horace K. Whitney died. Absolutely delighted, I transcribed them and used them in one of my early drafts of In Sacred Loneliness. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher suggested that I include Helen’s diaries in a book in her Life Writing of Frontier Women series (which had not yet published its first volume). However, while In Sacred Loneliness was being edited for Signature Books, one of the readers of the manuscript, Michael Marquardt, alerted me that there were further diaries by Helen at the Merrill Library at Utah State (again, from Helen’s later life), and that a Charles “Chick” Hatch had done a transcription of them.

I contacted Chick, and we exchanged transcriptions. I found that there were eleven notebooks at Merrill Library, making thirteen in all. I was delighted to find so much more primary material on Helen; Chick was pleased with the Church Archives notebooks because they filled in gaps in the sequence in the eleven notebooks at Merrill Library, and the account of Horace’s death in the first notebook, in 1884, furnished the historical beginning of Helen’s widowhood. We had restored the entire 1884 to 1896 diary as one seamless whole.

Chick had been preparing the diaries of Helen Mar for publication with Utah State University Press, at the suggestion of editor John Alley and Merrill Library archivist, A.J. Simmonds. I found that he had done a superb job in transcribing the eleven Utah State notebooks. We agreed to collaborate on an edition of the full diaries, as it didn’t make much sense to publish the two sets of diaries separately. Utah State University Press ended up publishing Beecher’s Life Writings of Frontier Women series, so that worked out easily.

As it turned out, Chick ended up working primarily on the text of the Helen Mar diaries, and I contributed the introduction, notes, and register of persons. However, my research into the people, places and events mentioned in the diaries allowed me to help establish the text of the diaries, and I made numerous corrections to it. Also, when my introduction and notes were done, Chick suggested edits for them. (We had also brainstormed on what should go into the introduction previously.) Under editor John Alley’s guidance, my original 80 page introduction was whittled down to its present length – for which readers of the book owe him a debt of gratitude, no doubt.

As I wrote the introduction and notes, I became immersed in that painful, fascinating, transitional period of Mormon history, the 1880s to early 1900s. To identify the people in Helen’s diaries, I worked with contemporary “address books” – phone books were not yet in existence. They often gave the name, address, and occupation of Salt Lake City residents (but married women were not listed, unless they were widows!). I also made good use of four or five fabulous Mormon and Utah history CD-ROMs, that allow you to search for specific names -- Infobases' LDS Family History Suite; Utah History Suite from Utah State Historical Society; and Signature Book’s New Mormon Studies CD-ROM: A Comprehensive Resource Library. Many puzzles were solved by a source as mundane as Webster’s Third International Dictionary.

Helen Mar was an avid reader of the Deseret Evening News, so I read through the entire run of Deseret Evening News during the time of the diaries, to see if events mentioned by Helen were reported in the paper. Since Helen wrote in a time where there was a profound polarization between Mormons and non-Mormons, Helen would often read an article, get very irate, and almost repeat the Deseret News article word for word.

I also read important diaries that correlated with Helen’s – such as the diary of her son, the brilliant Orson F. Whitney (later an apostle), and the diary of her relative Emmeline B. Wells – who had married Helen’s father-in-law, Newel K. Whitney as a plural wife.

Any word, person or event that I did not understand I looked up in all the libraries, archives, CD-ROMS, dictionaries, I had available. It was endlessly intriguing to gradually understand Helen, her circle, her religion, and her world better.

The manuscript was send to two readers, one of whom, Lavina Fielding Anderson, gave a characteristically generous and insightful response. The other, anonymous, reader, also offered valuable insights.

When it came time for publication, I felt, based on my perception of the amount of work the two editors had contributed to the book, that the attribution should be simply “Edited by Todd Compton and Charles Hatch.” Chick did not agree, and felt that his name should come first. When it looked like the book might not get published, I agreed that the book should be published with the attribution that it has now, though I was not, and am not, happy about it. But I decided that the overriding concern was that Helen Mar’s diaries should get published in their entirety; receiving what I felt was the correct credit on the title page was less important. I should state that my disagreement was with Chick Hatch, not with Utah State University Press.

A Widow’s Tale is a big book, and as we approached publication, editor John Alley began looking around for some financial contribution to the book to keep the price down and allow us to print the complete diaries. (Many scholarly books of this size would be priced in the $100.00-$200.00 plus range.) Thanks to BYU’s Charles Redd Center for Western Studies and the Smith-Pettit Foundation for their financial contributions.

Now that A Widow’s Tale has been published, I’m pleased that it has won some awards. I wish more people were reading it, but I suppose one can’t expect that diaries will become a bestseller. Nevertheless, I can’t help but contrast the experience readers of Lund’s The Work and the Glory receive, contrasted with reading a great diary from Mormon history, such as A Widow’s Tale, or the Wilford Woodruff journals or John D. Lee’s diaries or the Patty Sessions diaries. In The Work and the Glory, the author has done all the work for the reader; rough edges are smoothed over; fascinating problems are ignored. Secondary history, and historical novels, have their place, but how much better to dive into a diary and get your hands dirty working yourself in the garden of history.

Why Read A Widow’s Tale?

Many Mormon historians, including myself, have understandably spent a great deal of time on the “heroic” periods of Mormon history: Joseph Smith receiving revelations in New York, the persecutions in Missouri, building up and leaving Nauvoo, crossing the plains, exploring and settling Utah. But the transitional era of 1880 to 1920 has been neglected, despite the fact that it is equally exciting and fascinating. This was the period of bitter polarization between Mormon and non-Mormon in Utah, the “raid” and imprisonment of polygamists, the Manifesto, achieving statehood, post-Manifesto polygamy. This was the crucible that shaped modern Mormonism. So I highly recommend Thomas Alexander, Mormons in Transition, E. Carmon Hardy, Solemn Covenant, Kathleen Flake, The Politics of American Religious Identity. But Helen’s diaries show you what it was like to live day by day in this fascinating period, in downtown Salt Lake City.

In addition, Mormon history tends to emphasize elite male leaders developing influential policies. This aspect of history should not be ignored, but Helen’s diaries give insight into how a woman lived daily life during this era, which is equally interesting and important.

Striking aspects of the diaries:

Helen’s experiences as a widow. This book gives a first-hand, massive record of the experiences of a widow, as she struggles for financial stability. Many of her trials are ambiguous. She was certainly constantly worried about money, and felt she could not pay her debts or taxes. Was she comparatively well off, or impoverished? Her bishop was her own son, Orson F. Whitney, later an apostle – was this an advantage or a disadvantage?

Daily life in Salt Lake City in the 1880s and 1890s. I was impressed by how dusty Salt Lake was, before paved roads. And reader of these diaries will receive many similar shocks of alienation and recognition. We see the beginning of public transportation in Utah, with mule-drawn cars, then electric cars. We see Salt Lake City growing to the east and south. We shop with Helen Mar at ZCMI; we travel with her through Salt Lake Valley and Utah as she talks to Relief Societies and Primaries. While these entries are not dramatic in the usual sense, they are endlessly fascinating. As Lavina Fielding Anderson has written, there are treasures in every paragraph.

Daily life in Salt Lake City: Mormon vs. non-Mormon. The political and religious battle in Utah in the 1880s and 1890s was tremendous. The passion shown in these conflicts may come as a shock for many Mormons today. Helen’s acidic descriptions of the parades of the Liberals (non-Mormons) are priceless. She referred to the Salt Lake Tribune as “the dirty lying Tribune.” During the early part of these journals, many prominent polygamists went to prison. Helen speaks of the “underground railroad” and visits the brethren at the State Pen in Sugarhouse.

Helen’s diary is a record of the twilight of polygamy. As Helen had married Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, she was occasionally called upon to witness Joseph as polygamist to skeptical visitors in Salt Lake City. Her diary entries often reflect polygamous family members and friends. Her diary shows her amicable relationship with her sister wife, Mary Cravath Whitney, and her sister wife’s children. Her daughter Lil apparently had an unsuccessful plural marriage.

Helen’s health problems are enigmatic. She repeatedly endured what she called “deathly spells,” in which she apparently lost consciousness or felt great pain. A psychiatrist friend of mine thinks the diagnosis should be “panic attacks”; others have different views. Helen consulted a variety of colorful doctors and tried quack medicines for her never-ending health problems, and she also struggled with depression.

Helen’s diary has moments of great drama. These moments includes heart-rending accounts of family deaths, including her husband’s death by dropsy, and the suicide of her son. Two of her daughters also had dramatic marriages – one marrying a non-Mormon after a secret engagement, the other marrying polygamously. It is fascinating and moving to see how both marriages played out in the tapestry of Helen’s life.

Helen Mar often records her dreams. These will become a happy hunting ground for psychologists, but for non-specialists they are fascinating reflections of Helen’s times, her aspirations, her insecurities, her religion, seen through the prism of the unconscious mind.