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Melissa Lott (Smith-Bernhisel-Willes): 32nd Wife of Joseph Smith

Age 19 – Married 20 September 1843 (Joseph Smith, age 37)

“On 20 October 1885, a remarkable meeting took place in the small town of Lehi, Utah, northwest of Provo, in Utah County. An imposing, grave man stood on the doorstep of a modest cottage and knocked on the door. His build and features were very much like those of Joseph Smith, Jr. – tall, large-framed, with an aquiline nose – though a full white beard set him apart from the Mormon prophet.

“A sixtyish-looking woman opened the door and smiles lit up both faces as they realized they were old friends. They had not seen each other for forty years, but when they had first known each other they had shared a real affection. The woman, as a teenager, had tended the bearded man when he was a young boy.

“But now a psychic chasm separated these two. The bearded man was Joseph Smith’s oldest son, who, following his mother’s idealizing account of his father’s life, preached that his father had not been a polygamist. This man, Joseph Smith III, had made an anti-polygamy crusade a central focus of the church he headed, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. When he made missionary trips to Utah, he spent time trying to discount any possible evidence that his father had married plural wives. When Utah Mormons produced wife after wife, Joseph III interviewed them with careful legalistic questions to disallow the evidence of documents and testimonies of surviving veterans of Nauvoo. The woman in the cottage was Melissa Lott Willes, who had lived with young Joseph in the Nauvoo House and had led him to and from school every day. Mormons in Salt Lake had told Joseph III that Melissa had married his father, and so he had stopped in Lehi to renew an old acquaintance and to once more confront a personal demon, his father’s polygamy.

“Melissa and Joseph both left versions of the subsequent conversation. According to an affidavit by Melissa given eight years after the event, Joseph Smith III asked if she would answer ‘a few plain questions’ for his own special benefit.

“‘I will do so with pleasure,’ answered Melissa.

“‘Were you married to my father?’ asked Joseph.

“‘Yes,’ answered Melissa flatly.


“Melissa handed Joseph the Lott family Bible and opened it to a page of genealogical information entered in the hand of her father, Cornelius Lott. ‘You’ll find it there,’ she said.

“Joseph peered at the rough writing of Lott, who had managed his father’s farm in Nauvoo. It indeed recorded a marriage of Joseph and Melissa on 20 September 1843.

“The first line of Joseph’s defenses were down, so he retreated to the next. ‘Were you a wife in very deed?’ he asked. If he could prove that there was no sexuality in the alleged marriages, he might explain the unions as mere ceremonies for eternity, not authentic marriages.

“But Melissa replied, ‘Yes.’

“So Joseph resorted to his trump card: ‘Why was there no increase, say in your case?’ No children proved no sexuality, in his mind.

“Melissa answered, ‘Through no fault of either of us, lack of proper conditions on my part probably, or it might be in the wisdom of the Almighty that we should have none. The Prophet was martyred nine months after our marriage.’

“Joseph continued to press the argument: ‘Did you know of any Brother or Sister of mine by my father’s plural wives?’

“‘I did not know of any.’

“Then Joseph asked a question that showed a lack of historical perspective: ‘Did my father give his consent for you to marry Ira J. Willes?’

“‘Certainly not, your father was dead a number of years before I married Mr. Willes. I married Mr. Willes 13 May 1849, with the full understanding that it was for time only.’

“Joseph then advanced the argument that was most convincing for him, personally: ‘My mother, in the presence of witnesses, denied that my father had any wives other than her.’

“Melissa answered quickly, ‘Yes, you took your mother before Mr. Bideman, a bitter enemy of our people, and then asked such questions of her as you wished … I have no doubt that your mother told you the truth so far as she could under the circumstances; but if you had taken her by herself, as you have done me and asked your questions, she would probably have answered you as I have done.'” 

Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1993), 593-594.