Living History: Diary a glimpse at complexities of plural marriage

The Salt Lake Tribune/January 6, 2008

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 consolation.

"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 group/organization/subject click here.