Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Angus M. Cannon: Cannon v. U.S., 116 U.S. 55 (1885)

Angus Munn Cannon was the grandson of Captain George Cannon, the son of George Cannon the Immigrant, and the brother of George Q. Cannon, my ancestor. He was the defendant in a court case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court which had a significant impact in the struggle between the U.S. government and the LDS Church over the issue of polygamy.
On January 20, 1885, Angus was arrested for unlawful cohabitation. On February 7th Angus entered a not guilty plea in court. His trial began on April 27th in front of Judge Charles S. Zane, with U.S. attorney William H. Dickson handling the prosecution. Angus was represented by Franklin S. Richards, son of apostle Franklin D. Richards, who had previously represented the Church in the court battles over the Brigham Young Estate, and later, from 1903-1908, represented Joseph F. Smith during the Reed Smoot hearings.

To set the stage, Angus had four wives at the time: (a) Sarah Maria Mousley, his wife of 27 years and mother of six of his children, four still living; (b) Ann Amanda Mousley, Sarah’s sister, married to Angus immediately after Sarah, thus the second wife and mother of ten of his children, nine still living; (c) Clarissa (Clara) Moses Mason, a widow, with two living children from a prior marriage, Angus’s wife of 10 years and mother of three of his children, one still living; and (d) Martha Hughes, who Angus married just three months before he his arrest. It is apparent that the prosecutor was not aware of Martha who lived in a separate residence. Angus was prominent in the community as president of the Salt Lake Stake, which included all of the wards in Salt Lake County, and had been for nine years. His brother, George, was first counselor to John Taylor, president of the LDS Church. Angus had been in Judge Zane’s courtroom the year before, as a witness in the polygamy trial of Rudger Clawson, an apostle.

The U.S. government had taken many steps over the years to get the Mormons to abandon polygamy, including various laws that had been enacted without much success. In 1879 the U.S. Supreme Court case of Reynolds v. U.S. struck down the freedom of religion defense relied upon by Mormons in polygamy prosecutions, but prosecutors still had to prove a marriage ceremony had taken place, which was difficult to do and a significant barrier to prosecution. In 1882 Congress enacted the Edmunds Act which made polygamy a felony with a maximum sentence of five years and a fine of $500, for marriages entered into after March 22, 1882. It also made cohabitation a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of six months and fine of $300. However, the Edmunds Act did not define cohabitation, which became the issue in the Cannon case.

At trial there were only three witnesses, all called by the prosecution: Clara, Angus’s third wife; George M. Cannon, the son of Sarah, his first wife; and Angus M. Cannon, Jr., the son of Amanda, his second wife. 

The substance of the trial came down to one issue: Did the government have to prove that Angus had sexual relations with Amanda and/or Clara, his second and third wives, after passage of the Edmunds Act, in order to prove cohabitation? Franklin S. Richards offered jury instructions which said, yes, sexual relations were an element of the crime of cohabitation and the government had to prove that sexual relations had occurred. Judge Zane disagreed and allowed jury instructions which said that if Angus lived in the same house with Amanda and Clara and held them out, by language or conduct, or both, as his wives, he should be found guilty.

On April 29, 1885 the jury returned a guilty verdict. At a sentencing hearing on May 9th, Judge Zane asked Angus about his intentions in the future, as it might impact the sentence he would order. Angus replied, “I cannot state what I will do in the future…I have become a [U.S.] citizen. When I did so I had no idea that a statute would be passed making my faith and religion a crime; but having made that allegiance, I can only say that I have used the utmost of my power to honor my God, my family and my country. In eating with my children day by day, and showing an impartiality in meeting with them around the board, with the mother who was wont to wait upon them, I was unconscious of any crime. I did not think I would be made a criminal for that. …[T]he consciousness of my heart is visible to the God who created me, and the rectitude that has marked my life and conduct with this people bears me up to receive such a sentence as your Honor shall see fit to impose upon me.” Following Angus’s remarks, there was vigorous applause from the audience. Judge Zane responded that since “the defendant had declined to promise to obey the law, and advise others to obey it, no leniency could be shown him.” He imposed the maximum sentence of six months in prison and a $300 fine. On June 27, 1885, the Utah Territorial Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and sentence in an opinion written by Judge Jacob S. Boreman.

By September 1885, after the number of prosecutions for polygamy and cohabitation increased dramatically because of this successful trial, the LDS Church First Presidency directed Franklin S. Richards to try and negotiate  a way out of the prosecutions. This was unsuccessful, so Richards tried to retain a former U.S. senator from Missouri, George G. Vest, to argue Angus’s case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Vest had previously argued in a Supreme Court case on behalf of the Mormons and had also worked against passage of the Edmunds Bill in the Senate. Unable to secure Vest, Franklin S. Richards represented Angus in the matter. Richards filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court on October 21, 1885 and apparently did not have to do an oral argument, at least none is mentioned.

After Angus spent six months in prison, the full term under his sentence, Angus voluntarily stayed in prison because of concern by his attorney that if he was no longer in prison, the U.S. Supreme Court would deem the issue moot and refuse to rule on the merits. The LDS Church wanted a ruling on this issue.

In mid-December 1885, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the Utah Territorial Supreme Court in Cannon v. United States, 116 U.S. 55 (1885). Samuel Blatchford wrote for the majority and was joined by Chief Justice Morrison Waite, who authored the Reynolds opinion, and Joseph P. Bradley, John M. Harlan, William B. Woods, Stanley Matthews and Horace Gray. Samuel Miller and Stephen J. Field dissented, based on their belief that proving sexual intercourse must be an element of the crime. 

By the time of the ruling, Angus had served about eight months in prison, two months voluntarily.

After this ruling which made prosecution of polygamy and unlawful cohabitation much easier, prosecutions increased dramatically. Making things even more difficult, Congress enacted the Tucker Amendment to the Edmunds Act in 1887. It: (1) Required wives to testify against their husbands by repealing the spousal immunity; (2) Allowed prosecutors to jail witnesses until trial if they suspected them of being uncooperative; (3) Added the crimes of adultery, incest and fornication; (4) Required an anti-polygamy oath of all jurors, office holders and voters, effectively eliminating many Mormons; (5). Repealed suffrage, negating womens’ right to vote; (6) Annulled incorporation of the Church as a charitable entity as well as the Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company; and (7) The attorney general was directed to seize and liquidate Church holdings on behalf of the government.

By 1890, about 1,300 Mormons were convicted of crimes related to polygamy and over $100,000 in fines had been collected by the government. Perhaps the needle that broke the camel’s back, on May 19, 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Late Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints v. United States, which upheld the seizure of Church holdings by the federal government. Within a few months, in September 1890, President Woodruff issued the Manifesto which ended the practice of plural marriage by the LDS Church.

Ken Driggs, the author of “The Prosecutions Begin: Defining Cohabitation in 1885” Dialogue 21 (1988), pp. 109-125, from which most of the information in this article was obtained, gives his opinion that it was the Cannon decision, not the Reynolds decision, which had the greatest impact in ending the practice of polygamy, because it paved the way for successful prosecutions.

But aside from the importance of the Cannon case, which I was unaware of, I was fascinated by the look inside the polygamous household which the facts of the case provide.

After passage of the Edmunds Act, legal counsel for Angus offered to prove that Angus abided by that law and did not have physical relations with his plural wives, or at least Clara, but continued to support them and take meals with them. In this light, Angus’s marriage to Martha Hughes, only a few months before his arrest, after the effective date of the Edmunds Act, becomes more interesting.

The house owned by Angus was located at 246 First South in Salt Lake.  
It was divided into three apartments, one for each of the three wives that lived there. Each apartment had an adjoining parlor and dining room and a separate kitchen located at the back of the house. A hall ran through the ground floor and each of the three apartments opened on to the hall. Clara’s parlor and dining room were located on the east side of the hall. Amanda’s parlor and dining room were located on the west side of the hall. The location of Sarah’s parlor and dining room was not given. Angus ate all meals with each family every third day, or twice a week. On Sunday he had breakfast with Clara and her family, dinner (the main meal, at midday) with Sarah and her family, and supper (the evening meal) with Amanda and her family.

The second floor had four bedrooms, with two bedrooms on each side of a hall. Clara used the bedroom in the northeast corner which had two beds. She shared the bedroom with her three year old daughter through Angus, her 23 year old daughter from a prior marriage, and two orphaned children, both girls, ages 10 and 12, children of her niece who left them to Clara when the niece died. Amanda used the bedroom in the southwest corner. She slept there along with her eight children still living at home. Angus used the bedroom in the southeast corner and Sarah must have used the bedroom in the northwest corner, along with her four children. Before passage of the Edmunds Act, Angus alternated sleeping in the bedroom and bed of each wife. After the Edmunds Act was passed, Angus’s attorneys offered to prove that he intended to live the law and did not occupy the rooms or beds or have sexual intercourse with at least Clara, and presumably Amanda, as well. However, he continued to eat with them, support them and allowed them to occupy the separate apartments.

Following his prison sentence, it is clear Angus continued to have relations with at least three plural wives. Martha Hughes, whom he married three months before his arrest, bore him three children, one of which was born after the trial and before the U.S. Supreme Court decision. On March 11, 1886, less than four months after the Supreme Court decision, Angus married Maria Bennion and fathered three children. A year later, on March 21, 1887, he married Johanna Cristina Danielson and fathered one child with her, which died in infancy.  The Cannon Family Historical Treasury, edited by Beatrice Cannon Evans and Janath Russell Cannon (published by George Cannon Family Association, 1995), which also provides information for this post, notes that these wives lived on the “underground” in an attempt to avoid prosecution.


  1. very interesting... I have read that supposedly Brigham Young admitted to his daughter, and prolific writer, Susa Young Gates, that he wished he could have provided separate houses for each of his wives. However, I have not tracked down an original source.

    The book that gave my understanding of polygamy, especially in the Joseph Smith Era, and the period just after his death was, _The Four Zinas_. I highly recommend it if you are interested in learning more.

  2. very intresting that was a nice story