Ann Eliza Webb: The Woman Who Divorced Brigham Young

Maren Peterson History, Research

Photo of Ann Eliza Webb Young.
Photo of Ann Eliza Webb Young from Utah State Historical Society’s Classified Photo Collection.

The Utah State Archives and Records Service holds vital records for the state of Utah, including birth and death certificates, divorce records, and court records. Sometimes when perusing these records, an interesting story emerges. In a District Court Territorial Minutes book, Records and Information Management Specialist Maren Peterson unravels the story of Ann Eliza Webb suing her estranged husband, Brigham Young, for alimony.

Early Life

Ann Eliza Webb was born in Nauvoo, Illinois in 1844 only two months after Joseph Smith died. Her parents, Chauncey Webb and Eliza Churchill, were devout believers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which Joseph Smith founded.

Ann was one year old when her father started to practice polygamy. He eventually married six women, each named some variation of Elizabeth. Ann writes, “I was consecrated to sorrow by the baptism of my mother’s tears upon my baby brow… I came to her when the greatest misery of her life was about to fall upon her.” Ann does not remember abundant happiness growing up in a polygamous household. When she was four, Ann and her family moved to Salt Lake with some of the earliest settlers.

First Marriage

At the age of seventeen, Ann had a suitor. Brigham saw them together and told Ann’s mother to ‘cut the connection.’ Ann was resentful of this interference, and a friend teased that perhaps Brigham wanted to marry her himself. Ann told her that she would never marry Brigham, even if he asked a thousand times. 

Brigham hired Ann to be an actress for the Salt Lake Theater. While she was an actress, she lived in the Lion house, where twelve of Brigham’s wives lived with their children in twenty bedrooms. It was during this time that Ann fell in love with James Dee and married him when she was nineteen. Brigham officiated the ceremony. The couple lived with Ann’s mother, while her father lived with his polygamous wives. Ann and James had two children together, but it was not a happy marriage. During their engagement, Dee had promised that Ann would be his only wife, but after marriage he frequently threatened her with polygamy. After an act of domestic violence, Ann’s father threw James out of the house. Ann filed for divorce, which was granted in 1865.

Marriage and Divorce from Brigham

Brigham pursued Ann for two years after her divorce. He offered her a house and $1,000 a year. Ann still refused, enjoying her independence and affirming that she would never marry again.

At this time, Brigham hired Ann’s brother, Gilbert, to put up telephone poles. Gilbert did so, but Brigham didn’t pay him the agreed fee. Gilbert was left with employees to pay and large debts. One of those debts was to a member of the faith, but he paid his debts to non-Mormon bankers first, which enraged Brigham. Brigham thought the LDS banker, who happened to be his close friend, ought to be paid first. He intended to disfellowship Gilbert for the infraction. Ann writes that this display was all put on for her, and she finally capitulated to the marriage proposal. Gilbert never received the money he was owed, but he was not disfellowshipped from the church. Ann and Brigham married on April 7, 1868. 

Brigham set Ann up in a separate house. He provided minimal groceries and the promised allowance was never paid. Ann worked to support herself and her two sons. In a year’s time, Brigham grew disinterested and stopped calling on her. Eventually, Brigham allowed her to run a boarding house out of her home. However, Ann’s stove was too small to cook dinner for her family and boarders. When she requested funds for a new stove from Brigham, he refused, saying, “If you want a cooking-stove, you’ll get it yourself. I’ve put you into a good house, and you must see to the rest. I cannot afford to have so many people calling on me for every little thing they happen to think they want.”

Ann went home and asked her boarders, Mr. and Mrs. Hagan, help in filing divorce, since Mr. Hagan was an attorney. He encouraged Ann to proceed, saying it was a test case and would show polygamous women where they stood in the eyes of the law.

She filed for divorce in July of 1873. She then sued Brigham Young for court fees and alimony, stating that he had not taken care of her financially during the marriage, and had forced her to work until she needed medical care, which he refused to pay for. After some deliberation it was decided that the Third District Court had no jurisdiction in divorce proceedings and dismissed the case.

Photo of Series 1649 District Court Territorial minute books, Book 3
The case of Ann Eliza suing Brigham Young for alimony was ‘set aside and quashed.’ From Series 1649– District Court Territorial Minute Books, Book 3.

In 1874 a Territorial Utah Supreme Court case established precedent that the District Courts did have jurisdiction in divorce cases. Shortly afterwards, a federal law also passed, giving district courts jurisdiction in divorce cases. Ann and her attorneys refiled her suit for alimony.

Photo of  Series 1649 District Court Territorial minute books, Book 3
Brigham Young did not pay the backlog of alimony owed, and appealed the decision that he should have to pay alimony while the case was ongoing. From Series 1649– District Court Territorial Minute Books, Book 3.

Brigham Young started by denying that his marriage to Ann was legal, as it was a polygamous marriage and therefore could not be used to demand alimony. He also refuted Ann’s assertion of his wealth (she claimed he had eight million dollars) and stated he only had $6,000 a month ($158,000 today) to support the other 63 people in his family. He asked that the judge take that into consideration and not demand alimony from him.

Photo of Series 1649 District Court Territorial minute books, Book 4
The case was settled, with Brigham Young ordered to pay $3,000 in court fees, $9,500 in retroactive alimony, and $500 a month in alimony from now on. From Series 1649– District Court Territorial Minute Books, Book 4.

Judge McKean ruled that even a marriage in the Mormon tradition of polygamy would qualify for compensation. Brigham was ordered to pay $3,000 in court fees and $500 a month in alimony to Ann, as well as back payments for alimony during the court case. Brigham refused to pay and was arrested, spent the night in jail, and then was forced to pay the court fees.

Photo of Series 1649 District Court Territorial minute books, Book 4
Brigham refused to pay any money and was found in contempt of the court, jailed for one night and fined $25. From Series 1649– District Court Territorial Minute Books, Book 4.

Brigham promptly filed an appeal for paying the alimony. Judge McKean was replaced by Judge Lowe, who decided that there was not enough proof of the marriage, and therefore alimony could not be demanded. The divorce was finalized in January of 1875.

Photo of  Series 1649 District Court Territorial minute books, Book 5
Photo of Series 1649 District Court Territorial minute books, Book 5
There was not enough evidence of the ‘alleged marriage between the plaintiff and the defendant’ and it was ruled Brigham did not have to pay any alimony. From Series 1649– District Court Territorial Minute Books, Book 5.

Post-Divorce Life

Ann had become disillusioned with the LDS faith while married to Brigham. When she left him, she also left his religion behind. She was officially excommunicated from the LDS church in 1874. 

She traveled the country telling her story and advocating against polygamy. She became a Methodist, and published an autobiography titled Wife no. 19. She testified in front of Congress about polygamy, and was influential in the anti-polygamy laws that were passed in the 1880’s.

Ann married a third time to a man named Moses Denning. After she caught him having an affair with a maid, she divorced for the third time. She moved to Nevada in 1910 and died in 1917.