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“How Many Wives Have You Got?”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - November 30, 2009

George D. Pyper (1860-1943) – member of the Tabernacle Choir, manager of the Salt Lake Theater, and General Superintendent of the Sunday Schools – tells this story about his time in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1897, when he was directing Utah’s exhibit at the Tennessee Centennial:

I had been pestered to death, as the saying goes, with the questions, “Are you a Mormon?” and “How many wives have you got?” so I thought I’d try an experiment, even though it might be a little dangerous. In the crowd visiting my booth was a very haughty but rather handsome woman, and the following conversation occurred:

“Are you from Utah?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Are you a Mormon?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Then bluntly, “How many wives have you got?”

I looked hurriedly around to leave the impression that I didn’t want anyone else to hear, then said:

“I have only six now, but if you’ll say ‘yes’ I’ll make it seven.”

I’ll never forget the look of surprise on that woman’s face. She uttered a sound something between a shriek and an indignant snort and hurriedly left the booth.

I had a good laugh over it and thought it a successful method of disposing of impertinent people, until one day a pert black-eyed young woman planked herself down at my table and began the regular inquisition:

“Are you from Utah? Are you a Mormon? and, How many wives have you got?”

I looked her straight in the eyes and said, “I’ve only got six now, but if you’ll say ‘yes’ I’ll make it seven.”

She looked me straight back in the eyes, shot her hand across the table and fairly shouted, ”I’ll go you.”

It was then my turn to renege, which I did as gracefully as possible, and didn’t try that stunt any more.



16 Comments »

  1. George’s mom Christiana is one of my favorite people in 19th century Utah. I don’t know much about George, though this is a pretty funny anecdote.

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 30, 2009 @ 2:10 pm

  2. I don’t know Christiana at all, J. — have you written about her somewhere?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 30, 2009 @ 2:21 pm

  3. Duh, I just turned a page in the magazine I’m reading and ran across a bio of Christiana.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 30, 2009 @ 2:24 pm

  4. Nice! I’ve not read anything published, but some of her paper’s are in George’s collection at the UU and she was a wonderful example of spiritual power exercised alone and with others (both men and women).

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 30, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

  5. That reminds me of a story told among missionaries in Japan 35 years ago. A missionary looked across the train car and saw a beautiful Japanese woman, and said, in English: “If I weren’t a missionary I’d come over and kiss you.”

    She replied, in unaccented English: “And if I weren’t married, I might just let you.”

    If only she’d said “Oh, why not do it anyway?” he might have had to follow George Pyper’s example and do some quick reneging!

    Comment by Mark B. — November 30, 2009 @ 8:50 pm

  6. A situation like this happened with my mom in the late ’70s in Indianapolis. Widowed young with three children 6 and under, her second husband was a divorcee with a young child, and together they quickly set up a yours-mine-and-ours arrangement. Another baby was coming, so we were having a yard sale before moving to a bigger house, when a lady shopper approached to pay for something. They struck up conversation about the little one obviously on the way, and when the lady realized how many kidlets were running around, she asked my mom: Are you one of those Mormons?

    Mom proudly announced that she was indeed.

    Glancing around and leaning forward, the lady lowered her voice and asked: “Which number wife are you?”

    Mom got a wicked gleam in her eye, and whispered honestly in the lady’s ear: “I’m his second wife!”

    The lady’s eyebrows flew up, her mouth dropped open, and she scurried off to her car as fast as she could go, her yard sale treasures left behind.

    We still get a laugh out of that.

    Comment by Coffinberry — November 30, 2009 @ 9:49 pm

  7. :D

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 30, 2009 @ 10:02 pm

  8. Isn’t Mormon culture funny. We laugh and joke about polygamy. But bristle when a “gentile” laughs and jokes about Mormon polygamy.

    Comment by Steve C. — December 1, 2009 @ 7:07 am

  9. Great story. When my dad was in school, he had a colleague who asked him where his other wives were, when he found out my dad was from Utah. My dad thought he was joking and said “I only brought this one with me. I left the others in Utah.” The other guy laughed, but believed him, because several months later he asked how my dad’s wives back in Utah were doing.

    Ardis, is this the same George Pyper who wrote a history of the Salt Lake Theater? I need to find a copy of it soon.

    Comment by Emily M. — December 1, 2009 @ 9:55 pm

  10. Emily, he’s the very same man. (I found a copy of that history at Sam Weller’s. If you need me to check something in it, just tell me what.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 1, 2009 @ 10:04 pm

  11. Ardis, thank you for the offer!
    I’m tentatively beginning research for a historical fiction novel I want to write. I am not a historian, so I will need to get my hands on a copy and read the whole thing, as well as find other books that give me a feel for late 1800′s American theater right now. The whole project is kind of nebulous right now, so I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for. Everything from daily operation of how to put on a play back then, to traveling theater groups that visited. I have no idea what details might be useful, because it’s not very fleshed out. But if you’re willing, I may have a few more specific questions for you at some point, because you seem to find the kind of stories I would like to incorporate.

    Comment by Emily M. — December 2, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

  12. My answer to “How many wives do you have?” is “I’m still looking for my first.”

    Comment by Bookslinger — December 2, 2009 @ 12:34 pm

  13. Bookslinger, my first husband is still looking for me — he isn’t you, is he? :) /Bookslinger blushes/

    Emily, write to me at AEParshall at AOL dot com anytime.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 2, 2009 @ 1:09 pm

  14. Thanks, Ardis. :-)

    Comment by Emily M. — December 2, 2009 @ 4:31 pm

  15. Remember George Romney’s classical answer during his presidential campaign in 1968:
    .
    “How many wives do you have?”
    .
    “As many as I want — (count to three) — ONE.”
    .
    or his son, Mitt, pointing out during his own presidential campaign that he was the only Republican candidate to have had only one wife.

    Comment by manaen — December 5, 2009 @ 8:45 pm

  16. I remembered Mitt’s response but had completely forgotten George’s — thanks for the reminder. Ya gotta have a sense of humor.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 5, 2009 @ 9:07 pm

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