Sister Widows: Wives of dead polygamist rebuild their lives

Salt Lake City Tribune/November 1, 2006
By Dawn House

After three years of mourning the death of a husband she shared with six other wives, Elizabeth Joseph is mourning to the traditional culture of mainstream Protestantism she lived as a youth. She is throwing herself into a more conservative way of life with the same gusto she employed as a sister-wife and spokeswoman for the controversial, yet often-endearing Alex Joseph clan that built a town near Lake Powell in southern Utah. The one-time outspoken lawyer is studying to become a Methodist minister.

I didn't live the polygamist lifestyle because of a religious doctrine," Joseph said from her home in the remote desert community of Big Water. "I fell in love with a man who happened to have more than one wife. I see myself as a widow and single mother, not a religious fanatic. I won't be preaching polygamy, but I won't renounce my past either."

Evelyn Roberts, pastor of the Community United Methodist Church in Page, Ariz., said a polygamous past should not bar Joseph from the ministry.

"All candidates must complete their schooling and go through an extensive interview process," said Roberts. "But we're probably one of the most inclusive of churches. I see Elizabeth as a caring, compassionate, believing individual who wants to serve God." Elizabeth Joseph had no ties to offshoot Mormon groups or fundamentalist Christians who claim polygamy is inspired by God. She said she has always shunned the belief, common to many of Utah's estimated 25,000 to 50,000 polygamists, that religious leaders are prophets -- some of whom dictate members' marriage partners. The Joseph clan worshipped in what Alex Joseph had dubbed the"Long Haul Church" but all members had veto power "so nothing ever got done,'' she said. Members still get together, even though Alex Joseph died in 1998 after a long bout with liver cancer.

Alex Joseph had been one of Utah's best known polygamists, but he did try to pressure others to practice the lifestyle he had chosen after studying the Old Testament. None of his 20 surviving children practice polygamy, and the seven women who remained with him the longest (all together, he had 20 marriage partners at various times) are either living as widows or are in monogamous relationships.

Joseph's wife Dawn, who entered a marriage contract with Alex when she was 9 but did not marry him until she was 18, is now the wife of Alex's adopted nephew, Trace. The couple run a successful construction business and continue to live in Big Water with their 2-year-old daughter -- Dawn's only child. Diane, who now has a relationship with a retired stock broker, maintains a second home in Big Water.

Margaret, a concessionaire, lives in Big Water near several of the five children she had with Alex. Leslie, a midwife, spends her time operating an upholstery business. Joanna supervises tours "and has lots of men chasing her," according to Elizabeth Joseph. Boudicca is Big Water's only real-estate agent. And Delinda, who divorced Alex, is living in Las Vegas and studying for a stockbroker's license.

The women who married Alex Joseph had been so close that rumors circulated they were lesbians.

"Alex had 21 children. We were definitely heterosexual," said Elizabeth. "We just happen to care deeply about each other." When Elizabeth did not conceive, Delinda, who had two other children by Alex, offered her third baby for Elizabeth to adopt. London, now 12, "became mine at the moment of conception,'' said Elizabeth. Before Dawn married Alex, Elizabeth home schooled her in geography, history and English.

"She was a mentor and surrogate mother to me,'' said Dawn. "I learned that I could do anything if I set my mind to it."

Elizabeth Joseph had been active in a Methodist youth organization 28 years ago when she met her husband-to-be while attending the University of Montana at Missoula. She and her roommates, Joanna and Boudicca, would all marry the charismatic Alex Joseph, who was "funny, intelligent and to us, ancient," said Elizabeth. He was 37 years old at the time and had four other wives.

Alex dropped by the women's apartment whenever he was in Montana. He had a pilot's license, and often flew from his northern California home to Pinesdale, Mont., to visit a polygamous group that he had briefly joined. Alex became acquainted with the group's leader, the late Rulon Allred, after meeting a follower at the LDS General Conference in Salt Lake City. The mainline Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints banned the practice of polygamy 1890, in part to gain statehood.

"Alex came to believe that Allred was no prophet,'' said Elizabeth. "In those days members didn't tithe, they lived the law of consecration, which meant you gave them everything you had. Corruption was not too strong a word. It was -- and is -- all about money and power."

Alex Joseph had converted to Mormonism, but was excommunicated for practicing polygamy.

The courtship of Elizabeth's two roommates lasted a single day for each. Alex took all the roommates and their boyfriends to dinner, then tarried with one of the women. After one of his visits in March of 1973, Joanna returned months later as a plural wife. Boudicca came back the day after another visit to announce that she would marry Alex that same afternoon.

For her part, Elizabeth had a boyfriend and planned to become a lawyer. In high school, she had been yearbook editor, president of the student senate and an honor student.

"My family was educated and we were lifelong Methodists," she said. "My father had an appraisal business and my mother was a social worker, and was a feminist ahead of her time. She expected me to go to college and have a career."

Once Boudicca married Joseph, she did not forget her friend. She pestered her husband to take Elizabeth as a sister wife. "She wouldn't give Alex a moment's rest about me," said Elizabeth. "She put my picture on the headboard of his bed, and she wrote me every day."

Joseph invited Elizabeth to his ranch in southern Utah. She agreed to go. They married, and she returned to Montana to finish her final quarter of school. Alex, who was selling vitamin supplements, paid for her to attend law school at the University of Utah.

Elizabeth Joseph did much of the legal work when the Joseph clan tried to squat on public land in 1975. The government sued and the clan lost the case, but Joseph passed the bar and went into private practice. She has since lost interest in the law. Joseph said she defended "too many people who were guilty," and was devastated when her license was temporarily suspended for commingling a client's funds with her own. "I did it so an adopted daughter of Alex could have immediate access to her money," Joseph said. "There was never an allegation I took any of the money in the trust case, only that it had been commingled. It was a stupid mistake."

For a time, Joseph was a radio announcer but nowadays, she works at a convenience store "so I can pad my resume," she joked. She plans to attend a private religious college in the fall.

"There are fraudulent aspects of polygamy, like old men marrying young girls or families living on welfare,'' Joseph said. "But that's true in monogamous relationships as well. People should be able to do what they want to do if it isn't hurting anyone. I personally wouldn't engage in a homosexual relationship because I don't think it is morally correct. . . . As for polygamy, from a feminist perspective, a woman should marry the best man she can have, regardless of his marital status. Both polygamy and homosexuality aren't going away."

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