Friday, November 05, 2004

Madame Lydia Mary Olive Mamreov von Finkelstein Mountford and Interpreting the Past 

by John H
Thanks to the wonders of genealogy (and the marvelous Family History Library in Salt Lake), more than a few Latter-day Saints scratched their heads when they researched ancestors and learned they had been married in a polygamous union after 1890 when the Manifesto was issued. Post-manifesto polygamy has since become a fascinating topic for researchers, and was well-explored by Ken Cannon, D. Michael Quinn, and B. Carmon Hardy.

Hardy and Quinn argue that one post-1890 marriage took place on ship off the coast of San Francisco. The couple? Wilford Woodruff and Madame Lydia Mountford, a colorful, if largely forgotten character from Mormonism’s past. Madame Mountford waltzed into Salt Lake City in early 1897 as part of her speaking tour on the Holy Land. She was Russian, had lived in Jerusalem, and her background lent credence to her showmanship; her lectures on the New Testament and Christ’s life included actors and larger-than-life costumes. She met with members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. Some of the Brethren were skeptical - Anthon Lund noted that she had no foreign accent (Lund would know, speaking five languages himself). But Woodruff was enchanted by the woman. He attended most (if not all) of her lectures in the Tabernacle, and after she left Salt Lake, he continued to correspond with her.

It turns out that after their initial meeting 5 February 1897, in the next eighteen months before Woodruff's death, no other person was mentioned as many times in his diary as Madame Mountford. In fact, only his health received more attention in his daily journal. Woodruff started referring to her only as “M” and in one entry mentioned that he benefited from her “massage treatment.” In September 1897 Wilford Woodruff departed for a vacation to the west coast. He refused to let his wife and daughter join him (although they wanted to) and he and personal secretary L. John Nutall traveled under assumed names. They arrived in Portland, Oregon first. Then they traveled to San Francisco, stayed only two days, and took a ship back to Oregon. Who happened to be staying in San Francisco at the time of their journey? Madame Mountford.

Woodruff and Nutall returned back to Salt Lake a few days later. Hardy and Quinn theorize that Woodruff married Mountford (with Nutall officiating) on the ship - a common practice of post-manifesto marriages so as to create plausible deniability. After all, they weren’t married in the U.S. but on the ocean.

It’s a fascinating tale to be sure, and one that I’ve been doing a lot of reading on. Mountford was friends with Susa Young Gates, so I’m combing her papers for any kind of a hint in the correspondence between the two that suggests Woodruff and Mountford married. When one reads Quinn or Hardy, it’s next-to-impossible to not believe the marriage took place. But this raises the grand dilemma for all historians and our quest to understand the past.

We tend to view individuals as if their lives were a series of blips on the linear radar screen. In this case, a reference to Mountford pops up, then another, then more. The dots are easy to connect, giving us the evidence that we’re looking for. But then, we forget that the people in our story aren’t blips or just colorful characters. They’re humans, living day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute.

Perhaps if Wilford Woodruff were here (and being totally candid, of course) I could ask him, and he might smile and say he did marry Mountford, and that she fascinated him. He might congratulate Quinn and Hardy on their detective work, putting two and two together. But what if he was stunned at the insinuation. What if, when questioned, he just said he doesn’t know why Mountford appeared in his diary so much. It certainly wasn’t intentional, he might insist. After, he probably wasn't counting the number of times he referred to something, the way later historians would. And what if he said he isn’t sure why he decided to only stay two days in San Francisco, or why he doesn’t record anything about Mountford when he’s there (Quinn calls this, accurately, I suspect, a “deafening silence.”) Haven’t we all done things that, in retrospect, might not make sense to someone who views our behavior from the outside? We might have a perfectly logical explanation, or we might not even be sure ourselves. It’s human nature.

Thomas Alexander offers a nice alternate view to the Mountford-Woodruff connection. Were the two married? I don’t know. (Actually, even if they were, I’m not sure why it’s as important as others make it out to be; the two clearly never intended to share a life together or even reside in the same state, let alone act as husband and wife.) It can’t help but make me wonder, what if our visions of the past are off-base. Actually, it wouldn’t be all that bad. I’d love to sit down with Joseph Smith someday, see him smile, and tell me, “Here’s what really happened.”

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