The current issue of Journal of Mormon History carries a letter to the editor by Connell O’Donovan  commenting tangentially on “Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism” by Jonathan Stapley and Kristine Wright in an earlier issue of JMH. He provides some biographical detail, chiefly on Augusta Adams Cobb Young’s (I’ll call her Sister Cobb for brevity) medical training with the (unsourced) claim that Sister Cobb “felt that mainstream medicine, combined with common sense and priesthood blessings/faith healing were the best path”).
Then he provides excerpts from two documents, dated December 1847 and February 1848, written by Sister Cobb. Those excerpts contain the claims:
This blessing dear sister I seal upon your head in the name of Jesus C by virtue of the priesthood vested in me 
I do this in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by virtue of the Holy Priesthood vested in me 
And from these two statements by Sister Cobb, the author boldly concludes:
In future academic research and thoughtful debate on the issue of female sacerdotal and spiritual authority in Mormonism, Augusta Adams Cobb’s two statements must now be included, weighing heavily on the side of women’s full right to hold and use LDS priesthood.
I will not argue here about Sister Cobb’s or any woman’s “right to hold and use LDS priesthood.” I do argue that it is essential to read historical documents for what they actually say, and not read into them anything they do not say, or that we might wish they said – and that’s exactly what the author has done here.
The most that can possibly be drawn from these two statements is that Sister Cobb claimed or believed she held the priesthood – not that she in fact did hold the priesthood. (Neither, by the way, do these statements demonstrate that whatever Sister Cobb meant by holding the priesthood is the same as what contemporary parties [including the author] mean by that claim; that is a necessary point for evaluation, although I won’t discuss it further here.)
Other than her own statement – and anybody can claim anything without its necessarily being factually correct, of course – what evidence is there that Sister Cobb held the priesthood? Does she (or the author) provide the date of ordination, or the name of the person ordaining her, or any other information about the circumstances? Mormon teachings assert that “no man taketh this honor unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron” (Hebrews 5:4), and it has been an important facet of Mormondom’s claimed authority that Joseph Smith and others were ordained directly under the [resurrected] hands of John the Baptist, or of Peter, James and John. Everyone holding the priesthood today can – or should be able to – trace his authority step by documented step back to the Lord Jesus Christ. A simple claim to holding the priesthood, without the lineage to back that up, holds no water. (And again, my argument here is not that Sister Cobb had no such priesthood lineage, only that no evidence is given to support Sister Cobb’s claim or the author’s conclusion.)
Is there any independent evidence to substantiate Sister Cobb’s assertion? Was a certificate given? Is the ordination recorded in minutes, or on a membership record? If there is such documented evidence, it is not cited and both Sister Cobb’s assertion and the author’s conclusion remain unsupported.
The author asserts that Heber C. Kimball and Willard Richards “actively believed” that Sister Cobb held the priesthood because they witnessed her 1848 will. All my experience, having witnessed hundreds of wills and trusts and similar legal documents, is that witnesses certify only that the document was signed by the person whose signature is affixed, and that such person declared a document to be valid, and that such person appeared to be mentally competent. I have been privy to the contents of some documents because I was the secretary who typed them, but in no case was I, as a witness, endorsing a single word of a document’s contents beyond attesting to the signer’s signature and apparent competence. The witnesses to Sister Cobb’s will cannot be assumed – absent other evidence – to have known its contents or to have certified any claim the testator made. The signatures of Kimball and Richards do not constitute evidence of an “active belief” in Sister Cobb’s priesthood.
Did Sister Cobb really understand the claim she was making? That is, had she lived in Nauvoo long enough to receive significant doctrinal instruction, and was she privy to the kinds of councils and meetings where functional understanding of the priesthood was shared? Did she know enough about the Church and its authority claims to make a competent assertion to a priesthood “vested in [her]”? I ask this, because in this very 1848 document Sister Cobb requested to be sealed as a plural wife to the Lord Jesus Christ. At the very least this request calls into question her theological understanding; it may also signal a grandiose opinion of herself and her eternal standing that does not reflect well on her understanding. (And yes, I’m aware of the 19th century speculative assertions that Jesus married – even polygamously – during mortality; I am not aware that such speculations had been made before Orson Hyde’s 1854 sermon, or that such speculations had any bearing on Sister Cobb’s peculiar request.)
Historians very often use historical records as evidence for ideas the makers of those documents were not aware they were recording. (This same issue of JMH includes a collection of essays written by young Mormon scholars about interdisciplinary history ; Kate Holbrook demonstrates, for example, how seemingly simple cooking recipes can reveal facets of lived religion.) But in all cases, historians must analyze those documents and apply a logical chain of reasoning to extract the evidence they contain. Historians must always be wary of uncritical, unanalyzed acceptance at face value, especially of novel claims. And above all, historians must be careful not to read their own desires into documents.
In this case, the evidence provided does not support the claims of Sister Cobb or the conclusions made by the author. The documents do not support Sister Cobb’s assertion of priesthood, nor the author’s assertion of “heavy weight” toward women’s right to priesthood.
 “Augusta Adams Cobb Young: Priesthood Holder,” Journal of Mormon History 38:2 (Spring 2012), vii-ix.
 Augusta Adams Cobb to Amey C. Aldrich, December 28, 1847, Theodore A. Schroeder Collection on Mormonism, Wisconsin State Historical (microfilm copy of this collection available at the Church History Library)
 “The Last Will and Testament of Augusta Adams,” February 21, 1848, Brigham Young Collection, Church History Library.
 Rachel Cope, “New Ways In: Writing Interdisciplinary Mormon History,” with essays by Rachel Cope, Matthew Bowman, Amy Easton-Flake, Ryan G. Tobler, Rebecca de Schweinitz, and Kate Holbrook, Journal of Mormon History 38:2 (Spring 2012), 67-145.