Young, Ann Eliza (Webb)

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YOUNG, Ann Eliza (Webb)

Born 13 September 1844, Nauvoo, Illinois; died after 1908

Daughter of Chauncey and Eliza Churchill Webb; married James L. Dee, 1863 (divorced 1865); Brigham Young, 1869 (divorced 1873); Moses R. Denning, 1883 (divorced 1893); children: two sons

Ann Eliza Young was the fifth child born to Mormon parents shortly after their prophet, Joseph Smith, was murdered by an angry mob in the Mormon community at Nauvoo. When she was only four, her family joined the Mormon exodus from Illinois, following Brigham Young to Salt Lake City. In compliance with Smith's doctrine of polygamy, her father married four more women in Utah; his second wife bore him 11 children. An especially strong bond developed between Young and her mother, strengthened by their mutual dislike of polygamy.

As Young reached maturity, her beauty attracted the attention of Brigham Young, who persuaded her to become an actress with the Salt Lake City Theatre and live with his many wives and daughters in his home. She was moderately successful in her stage career, and it was while acting that she met her first husband, James Leech Dee, a plasterer and amateur actor who was a Mormon convert. She was awarded a civil divorce in 1865 when Dee became interested in taking a second wife.

Young and her two sons lived with her parents until 1869, when she married Brigham Young because, she later claimed, he had threatened to excommunicate her parents and bankrupt her brother unless she did so. More likely, Young's hostility to plural marriage was overwhelmed by a proposal from the most powerful man in the Mormon church and community. In 1873 she filed for divorce from Young, and she immediately became a celebrity.

Young traveled the country with a highly profitable lecture tour. She developed three themes in her lectures: "My Life in Bondage" discussed her childhood and her tenure as a member of the Young household; "Polygamy as It Is" was a discussion of the institution of plural marriage from the viewpoint of women and children; and "The Mormon Religion" was a lecture devoted to denunciation of the horrors of the Mormon faith. To increase her appeal on the lecture circuit, she published the very successful Wife No. 19; or The Story of a Life in Bondage in 1876.

Attractive and ladylike, Young was a popular lecturer, discussing Mormon sexuality under the guise of lectures on the evils of polygamy. She spoke before members of Congress and President and Mrs. Ulysses Grant, and continued to lecture until passage of the Edmund Bill in 1882 which outlawed polygamy in the U.S and all its territories. She then lived with her third husband, Moses R. Denning, a wealthy lumber and coal dealer, in Michigan, where she devoted her time to the Christian Science church and the woman suffrage movement. She divorced Denning in 1893, charging him with adultery.

In 1907, due to financial problems and a fear that the U.S. Congress would seat as Utah's senator the polygamist Reed Smoot, Young revised Wife No. 19. Shortly after the publication of her second book, which was never the success its predecessor had been, she disappeared, and no record of her movements after 1908 can be found. The most notorious of all Brigham Young's many wives, popular author and lecturer, and at one time the most newsworthy woman in the U.S.—she died in anonymity.

Although authorship of Wife No. 19 has been disputed, it is likely Young wrote the original draft from the notes of her lectures and then had it polished for publication by a professional writer. It was a very popular book in its time, although it was sold only by subscription. It was considered respectable by rigidly moral middle-class men and women shocked by polygamy at the same time that it appealed to their sexual curiosity. Overemotional, melodramatic, biased in content, and repetitive, it is filled with the tragic life stories of plural wives and diatribes against Mormon leaders and the institution of polygamy. At the same time, however, it gives the historian of Mormon family life an invaluable inside look at the household of Brigham Young and the effects of polygamy on family life.


Wallace, I., The Twenty-Seventh Wife (1961). Woodward, H. B., The Bold Women (1953).

Reference works:

NAW (1971).


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Young, Ann Eliza (Webb)

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