My Favorite Mormon: Martha Hughes Cannon

Guest Post from Ed S. as part of the Doves & Serpents and The Exponent Blog Swap. Ed S writes occasional posts for D&S under Rogue Cinema and Stacks.

While teaching gospel doctrine classes over the years I often considered myself a kind of Mormon History Johnny Appleseed. I felt a part of my calling was to spread ripened ovules of the most vivid anecdotes I dug out of the loamy pages of LDS history, trusting the fruit of my research would add some flavor and fiber to the blandly correlated instruction materials I was expected to present to my different congregations. My favorite bucket of seeds was A Book of Mormons by Richard Van Wagoner and Steven C. Walker (now available as a part of the Signature Books online library), where I first met and fell in love with Martha Hughes Cannon, my favorite Mormon.

“Mattie” Hughes joined the LDS Church in Wales and emigrated to Utah in 1860. As a 15 year old, Mattie was called by LDS Church leaders to set type for The Deseret News and The Woman’s Exponent. She later attended the University of Deseret, saving her typesetting income to go to medical school in pursuit of her childhood dream of being a physician. By 1878 Mattie was set apart by President John Taylor for medical training, which she received at the University of Michigan Medical School, earning
there her M.D.

Moving back to Salt Lake City, Dr. Cannon first practiced private medicine and worked as a resident physician at Deseret Hospital. Outspoken about women’s issues, she said, in one of her more biting remarks: “You give me a woman who thinks about something besides cook stoves and wash tubs and baby flannels and I’ll show you, in nine times out of ten, a successful mother.”

In 1884 she met and married her polygamous husband, Salt Lake Stake President Angus Cannon, in secret, a man 23 years her senior, Mattie being his 3rd plural wife. By every indication, Mattie believed in “The Principle,” but all things considered, absent such a testimony, she would “undoubtedly have given plural marriage a wide berth,” although she once wryly noted: “If [your] husband has four wives, [you have] three weeks of freedom every month.” In spite of her attempts to accept polygamy gracefully, excerpts from her letters exhibit her inevitable jealousies and disatisfaction:

“[Angus], perhaps this very moment you are basking in the smiles of your young Maria [Bennion, your new wife]. Well bask and be happy–but remember that your blessed neck is at stake … if you ever tell that I am jealous.”

“I grow heartily sick and disgusted with it–polygamy.”

Every time Mattie became pregnant she was forced into hiding, leaving Salt Lake City and her medical practice in order to prevent her husband’s arrest. Eventually she was forced into exile in Europe to avoid legal process during the period of 1886-87. Of her decision to go underground with other Mormon mothers in polygamous relationship, she wrote:

“I am considered an important witness, and if it can be proven that these children have actually come into the world, their fathers will be sent to jail for five years …. For me it is a serious matter to be the cause of sending to jail a father upon whom a lot of little children are dependent, whether those children were begotten by the same or by different mothers–the fact remains they all have little mouths that must be fed.”

Her correspondence with her husband from this period is poignant reading and has been collected by Constance Lieber and John Sillito in Letters from Exile: The Correspondence of Martha Hughes Cannon and Angus M. Cannon, 1886-1888, published by Signature Books.

Even after her return from Europe, she and Angus were never able to live together in public as husband and wife. Soon Mattie became an active women’s rights advocate. In 1896 she became the first female state senator in the U.S., running as a Democrat against, of all people, Angus Cannon, her Republican husband. A local newspaper remarked about his defeat: “Mrs. Mattie Hughes Cannon, his wife, is the better man of the two. Send Mrs. Cannon to the State Senate and let Mr. Cannon, as a Republican, remain at home to manage home industry.”

Mattie Hughes served two terms in the Utah State legislature and focused her efforts on public health issues, including funding for speech and hearing impaired students, the establishment of the Utah State Board of Health, and laws regulating working conditions for women and girls. She died in 1932, aged 75, in Los Angeles where she worked eventually as an orthopedist at the Graves Clinic. She is buried in the Salt Lake City Cemetery.

Share some seeds from your bucket. Who is your favorite Mormon and why?

Starfoxy

Starfoxy is a fulltime caretaker for her two children.

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11 Responses

  1. Ed S says:

    My apologies for lack of footnotes! The quotes can be found in the article in A Book of Mormons, Letters from Exile, and, in another article I failed to note about Matties in Sister Saints, edited by Vicky Burgess-Olson. Also, Mattie and Angus were not the sole candidates running for only one seat, so the reality of this incident was not so dramatic as it appears, but why let that ruin a great story?

  2. April says:

    Martha HC is one of my favorite people from Mormon history, too. I first met her when I got a job in a building that is named for her. I learned details about her that I did not know before in this post, and if possible, I like her even more now. Thank you.

  3. Alisa says:

    Awesome post, Ed! It brightens my day to read about this smart, faithful, spunky, conflicted, and strong Mormon woman. I intend to study Church history more, but right now I guess is not the season of my life for that, so I truly appreciate reading posts like these. It makes me see there are many ways of being a Mormon woman–we have a long tradition of that!

    • Ed S says:

      Yes–that generation of LDS women was remarkable indeed and overlooked today, or, worse, studiously ignored. But I’m thinking 100 years from now people will be reading about the bloggers and readers here and thinking the same thing about all of you.

      • Ed S says:

        That is, that you all are remarkable indeed! (and hopefully not overlooked or studiously ignored in the future)

  4. Rachel says:

    I am ashamed to say I’d never heard of this amazing woman.
    I’m thinking about her, in contrast to Stella’s Growing Up post. It seems in Church antiquity, women had to be more self-sufficient? If Martha could comment on Stella’s, I wonder what she’d say.
    One of my favorite Mormons is my Nana, and not just because of her name (Effie Zeola Friddle). Her parents were found by missionaries not long after one of their first babies died, and had been told by their pastor that since the baby hadn’t been baptized, the baby would be in hell, etc.
    Their family was sent to establish Enoch, Texas–maybe Heather has heard of Enoch? and she attended schools taught by young sister missionaries. She was the first sister missionary called from Texas, and went, at 18 to Missouri for, I believe, 18 months.
    Like Martha, Effie was a strong, independent woman. She married late, and prior to marrying had a good job with the Dept of Agriculture.
    Her first marriage, arranged by her mission president, ended in disaster because the poor guy ended up robbing banks all the way from SLC (for their sealing) back to Texas. He went to prison and she had the marriage annulled. (So that marriage didn’t really count). She married her second husband, a non-member. They were very in love, and he was supportive of her raising Mormon boys deeeeep in Bible belt country.
    Effie was active in politics, took no crud from anyone, and could cook better than anyone I know, and in pure Paula Deen style. She understood teenagers and could get anyone to spill their guts about what they really thought/felt. She had a sharp wit, was an insatiable practical joker, was hot-tempered, and had an ample arm, and bosom, to lean on. I miss her terribly.
    I also married a non-LDS man, so she is an example to me of how to do it well.

  5. Jessawhy says:

    Ed,
    Thanks for this great post! It makes me want to teach about her in RS. I love the idea that we have women with colorful and brave lives to remember and honor.

    This post was such a treat.

  6. spunky says:

    What a delightful woman! Thanks for sharing, this is an excellent post! Umm… my fav Mormon… there are so many, but I feel inspired to give credit to Juanita Brooks. Anyone who brings forth truth is a hero; her determination in bringing forth truth is exceptionally admirable, in my book.

    • Ed S says:

      Juanita Brooks–amen. What a fiercely courageous woman. I forget to whom she said it, but her “Nothing but the truth is good enough for my church” is scripture.

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