Popular stories of the 19th century had it that Brigham Young had so many children that he couldn’t even recognize them when he met them on the street:
Riding in the outskirts of the city one day, Brigham Young came upon two boys fighting. Descending from his carriage, he boxed their ears, and asked them whose boys they were. “Mother says we’re Brigham Young’s,” whimpered one of the boys. [See “The Puissant Procreator,” Sunstone Magazine, November-December 19__, for this and other examples.]
And then there’s that well-known folk song that emphasizes numbers over personality:
Brigham, Brigham Young, it’s a miracle he survives,
With his roaring rams and his pretty little lambs, and his five-and forty wives.
Number forty-five’s about sixteen, number one is sixty and three,
And among such a riot how he keeps ’em quiet is a downright mystery to me.
That notion that plural families were so large that a patriarch couldn’t possibly know his familial flock short of tracking them by number was cemented in the popular mind by the title of the tell-all book by Ann Eliza Webb, the notorious ex-Mrs. Young: Wife Number Nineteen – a ranking that Irving Wallace inflated in his 1961 retelling of Webb’s story as The Twenty-Seventh Wife.
Brigham’s daughter Susa was touring the Anasazi ruins in Mesa Verde National Park in 1916 when she ran into a group of tourists who had drunk deeply from the well of popular ignorance:
Our small party reached the ruins about the same time with nearly 70 sightseers who came from Mancos, all in automobiles. The Methodist Episcopal conference had just closed, the evening before in Mancos, and they had been honored with the presence of Bishop Eugene Hendrix who presides over that diocese. He himself was in the party. President [Davis A.] Halls knew some of the ministers in Mancos and introduced members of our party to those with whom he was acquainted.
It was to laugh when one minister was introduced to the writer with the added explanation that she was a daughter of Brigham Young.
“Would you pardon me,” said the minister hesitatingly, “what number of child were you?”
“I really do not know,” I replied smilingly, “my father had fifty-six living children, ten of them dying in infancy. Out of the forty-six I am one, but I haven’t the remotest idea just where I belong in the line.”
The shocked expression which stole over the ministerial features gave way to another glance of eager inquiry.
“What number of wife was your mother?” he inquired gently.
“I am as little able to answer that question as the first one,” I laughed.
“Didn’t your mother know?” he asked.
“Not that I ever heard of. I don’t think she ever counted, and I am sure I never did, although I am the genealogist of the family. We all lived together in the same house when we were children, and I can’t recall any of the wives stating what number they were, or any of the children figuring out just where we belonged. We loved each other and our mothers and we adored father. I never heard one of my father’s wives quarrel with another wife in my life. I never heard a disrespectful word spoken to my father or about him by any member of his family. He was a very great man, and an ideal father and husband.”
All day long we heard remnants of this conversation as we passed groups of the party, in going about the ruins, but everyone with whom we came in contact treated us with respect and consideration, a very different attitude of mind from what some of us knew a quarter of a century ago. …
The return journey on the train to Montrose found our party in company with the ministerial party, who were returning at the same time, and we enjoyed a very delightful, occasional visit with the genial and learned bishop who could not forget that I could not remember what number of wife my mother was in my father’s family.
For the record, since I know there will be readers who won’t be able to sleep tonight if they don’t have an answer to the question …
If you count all of Brigham Young’s marriages, with no regard to the definition of “wife” except that a ceremony was held, Susa’s mother Lucy Bigelow was Brigham’s 42nd wife. And if you count the biological children but skip over those who were adopted, Susa was Brigham’s 42nd child.