Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » From our exchanges: “‘The Goose Hangs High’: Excerpts from the Letters of Martha Hughes Cannon”

From our exchanges: “‘The Goose Hangs High’: Excerpts from the Letters of Martha Hughes Cannon”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 13, 2008

The Utah Historical Quarterly is a rich source of Mormon history that is less well known to the broader LDS community than the more obviously Mormon-themed periodicals like Dialogue, Journal of Mormon History, and BYU Studies. This review of an article from 1980 illustrates the kind of material that can be found in UHQ’s files.

Constance L. Lieber, “‘The Goose Hangs High’: Excerpts from the Letters of Martha Hughes Cannon,” Utah Historical Quarterly 48:1 (Winter 1980).

Martha (“Mattie”) Hughes Cannon figures prominently in the collected stories of 19th century Latter-day Saint women. Intelligent and highly educated (she held a medical degree from the University of Michigan and a bachelor of sciences degree from the University of Pennsylvania), Mattie practiced and taught modern medicine among the Saints in Utah.

As the first woman elected to the legislature after Utah gained statehood – and in part because of the irony of her having garnered more votes as one of the slate of Democrats than her husband won on the Republican ticket – Mattie is remembered as a political figure who championed the cause of public health. Following her short formal political career, she continued as a private citizen to promote the cause of women’s rights.

Mattie became the plural wife of Angus M. Cannon in 1884, during the federal raids to stamp out plural marriage among the Mormons. Cannon was serving a prison term for unlawful cohabitation in 1885 when Mattie’s daughter Elizabeth was born. Rather than expose Cannon to further prosecutions, Mattie went into exile – not on “the underground” in Utah as so many plural wives did, but in Europe. Independent and proud, she preferred the separation from family and the life of a wanderer to the hiding and “sneaking” she felt she would have to endure to remain in Utah.

From the spring of 1886 to the summer of 1888, Mattie and her baby traveled, chiefly in the Midwest and in England. Her letters to her husband, excerpted in this article, record her movements, her feelings regarding her separation, and her attempts to maintain a long distance, loving, marital relationship and to create and maintain the father-daughter relationship between Elizabeth and Cannon.

Sweet Elizabeth … now lies rolling on the floor, has kicked off her stockings and is licking your photo. The way she crowed when I gave it her – I do believe she thought it had some connection with her pa.

She encountered other Mormon wives in exile, including Emily Wells Grant, a wife of Heber J. Grant, who wrote:

I would advise [Mattie] to remain away from Utah, for were any of her enemies there to get one peep of little [Elizabeth], they could convict the whole family. I never saw such an image in my life.

The author describes the subterfuges, including pseudonyms and coded references to people and places, which Mattie and her husband resorted to in their efforts to preserve privacy should Mattie’s letters fall into the wrong hands. She identifies Mattie’s English relatives and members of the Cannon family whom Mattie met while in exile, and traces Mattie’s travels on the European continent, where Mattie reported her brief stay in Paris as

a period of enchantment such as I never thought to experience on this mundane sphere. That I have seen some sad days in Europe, is a reality, but this visit to this surely most beautiful city in the world or the most beautiful I have ever seen has compensated for all. … When I return to England I shall make it a point to stay over a day or so in Paris again and then go to the grand Opera. Do not think I am becoming intoxicated with the alurements of Babylon. Not so, I look upon this treat as an oasis in the dreary desert I have trod for the past two years: an oasis sent from God, to chase away the shadows that have enthralled me.

Such glimpses into the personal life of a public woman make this article a valuable addition to Mormon women’s studies, a sample of the quality of Mormon material that can be found in the UHQ, an often scholarly and always readable source that is sometimes missed by out-of-Utah readers. This article is not now available on the web.

A greatly expanded work on Mattie’s letters is published as Constance L. Lieber and John Sillito, Letters from Exile: The Correspondence of Martha Hughes Cannon and Angus M. Cannon, 1886-1888 (Salt Lake City: Signature Books; Smith Research Associates, 1989). This limited edition (500 copies) may be difficult for most casual readers to find, leaving the UHQ article the most easily accessible taste of Martha Hughes Cannon’s experiences.

The “Utah History Suite,” a digital compilation of the UHQ from 1928 to 2003, together with the centennial series of Utah county histories and other local resources issued by the Utah State Historical Society, is available for purchase from the Society through cfuller [at] utah [dot] gov (or 801-533-3538) at a cost of $39.95 + $3 s/h.



  1. Excellent stuff, Ardis. Thanks. The UHQ is definetely an underappreciated source for Mormon history, and Mattie Cannon is a fascinating figure in Mormon history that probably deserves more attention than she has received.

    Comment by Christopher — May 13, 2008 @ 12:59 pm

  2. I love Martha. I have only had a bit of time to go through her collection at the LDS Archives, but in the short time I have spent with it, I have found some gems. I was unaware of that specific article, though I have found that digital collection an excellent investment.

    Martha corresponded with Barbara Replogh, a friend from medschool. In one letter from SLC, dated May 1, 1885 she indicated how she is under $200 bond to appear at the trial of Samual B. Smith as lead witness against him for delivering his baby. She says she will “skin out” and doubts that they will “oath her” again. Then she goes on to say:

    When are you going to wed? After all, this to my mind, is the true state of womanhood neither, if properly managed should it interfere with her true advancement, in whatever sphere she might cast her talents. Tis not the bringing of noble spirits into the world – to me, a mother is woman’s brightest glory – that dwarfs talent, and retards her intellectual advancement but it is the multiplicity of household drudgery which only belongs to servants – and the conformity to the vile customs of modern society.

    Barbara, even if we have to be poor let us not waste our talents in the cauldron of modern nothingness – but strive to become women of intellect, and endeavor to do some little good, while we live this protracted gleam called life.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 13, 2008 @ 3:50 pm

  3. Pretty impressive story!


    but it is the multiplicity of household drudgery which only belongs to servants

    is rather less so. Don’t the servants deserve the same opportunity for intellectual expansion? Didn’t she realize how many of those servants are usually poor women trying to keep their families fed? She sounds like a very spoiled upper-middle class wife.

    Comment by Proud Daughter of Eve — May 13, 2008 @ 4:30 pm

  4. Perhaps, PDoE. At the same time, having domestic help then wasn’t like it is now. Often times it was a way for poor children to make a living and get some measure of independence. Look at folks like Patience Loader Rozsa Archer. The RS even set up a employment Bureau in SLC to help match young girls with employers in the city. Even the barely able would often have domestic help. They had none of the conveniences of Modernity.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 13, 2008 @ 4:46 pm

  5. Sweet Elizabeth … now lies rolling on the floor, has kicked off her stockings and is licking your photo. The way she crowed when I gave it her – I do believe she thought it had some connection with her pa.

    What a delightful vignette! I’m certain that it made Angus smile.

    Comment by Justin — May 13, 2008 @ 5:00 pm

  6. This is touching, Ardis. I am interested in her description of God’s gift of an oasis. That is such a striking image. Paris must have been truly a vision compared to Utah.

    Comment by Ray — May 13, 2008 @ 7:38 pm

  7. Mattie was a very interesting and complex person. Her relationship with her husband, Angus is interesting. I wish we knew more about her relationship with his other wives. I wonder how they felt about her. I would also like to know about Angus’ relationship with their children as they became adults. I always have questions.

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — May 13, 2008 @ 8:16 pm

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