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?