American West Latter-day Saint History

Who was Martha Hughes Cannon?

She became a doctor, fought for women’s suffrage, ran for office, and lived as a plural wife.

Martha Hughes Cannon was the first female state senator in the United States, and her home state of Utah was the location of the first legal vote by a woman. Cannon was mentored by Emmeline B. Wells, studied and became a doctor, fought for women’s suffrage, ran for office in the Utah senate (and won), and lived as a plural wife of a significant figure in Utah. This interview with Constance L. Lieber discusses her biography of Martha Cannon.

Read more about Martha Hughes Cannon in Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon: Suffragist, Senator, Plural Wife.

Table of Contents

Who was Martha Hughes Cannon?

Martha Hughes Cannon, 1857-1932 was a Latter-day Saint physician and politician, and the first female state senator in the United States. She was the fourth (of six) wives of Angus Munn Cannon, a brother of Church apostle George Q. Cannon and president of the Salt Lake Stake.

What is the Signature Books Brief Biography series?

It is a series of short biographies (ca. 100 pages) of significant personalities in Mormon History, including historian D. Michael Quinn, state senator Martha Hughes Cannon, Church president Harold B. Lee, author Virginia Sorensen, and Latter-day Saint apostles George Q. Cannon and John A. Widtsoe. Other titles are forthcoming.

What challenges did Constance L. Lieber face writing this biography?

I had written a 400-page biography of Martha “Mattie” Cannon, which, since Signature Books wanted it for their Brief Biography series, I had to reduce to 100 pages. The decision on what were the most significant events of her life and how to cut 300 pages was complicated.

How does one represent fairly someone’s life and at the same time cut important events? I still wonder if I should have included things I deleted or have deleted events I included!

A second problem was working with her family—great and great-great grandchildren. They were uniformly delightful, but had very different ideas about what information should be revealed or what would be better suppressed. One great-granddaughter basically did not want anything written by an outsider.

Her son burnt all her papers.

Others were much more open. I did not want to offend any one of them; at the same time, I wanted to present Mattie’s life events in as unbiased a manner as possible. Their input was invaluable since so few records about her life remain: her son burnt all her papers—including journals and correspondence—upon her death (at her request). They shared family stories, opened up photo albums and showed me other ephemera including her senate autograph album.

A third problem is that I was living in Hangzhou, China, while I wrote the biography, which obviously made it impossible to double-check sources as often as I would have liked.

What is it like to write a biography?

Little is written about the process of writing biography. The layperson may assume that research is as simple and straightforward as going to a library and reading the journals and correspondence of the subject of the biography. That, of course, assumes, that those original sources are extant and that they can be believed.

The main question throughout all my research and writing was how to interpret the extant writings and other sources. The writings we have from Mattie are only her letters to her husband (thank goodness he ignored her requests that he burn them) and the letters she wrote to her friend from the National School in Philadelphia, Barbara Replogle.

I fell into this trap myself.

It is tempting (and easiest) to read the letters literally, in other words to assume that what she wrote is what she meant. However, the letters, especially those to Barbara, were staged documents.

For example (see the biography, page 24) Mattie outright lied when she told Barbara she was not contemplating marriage—in fact, she married Angus M. Cannon four days after writing the letter. Answering the question “why did she stage the information in the letters?” forces the biographer into the uncomfortable realm of speculation.

If I never speculated, I would have written a pamphlet. Verifiable facts are only in Angus’ cryptic journal entries, newspaper reports, and the diaries of Abraham H. Cannon, Angus’ nephew. But even those newspaper reports can be suspect.

The famous interview of “Annie Laurie” with Mattie after her election to the senate shows Mattie at her best as she manipulates the press to her best advantage. Very little of that interview can be taken as truth. Other interviews, for example Beatrice Webb’s account of her visit with Mattie in 1898 is suspect because of Webb’s blatant condescension.

Another problem is the biographer’s assumption that everything that could be discovered about the subject has been discovered and that the biographer’s assumptions are valid. I fell into this trap myself. I thought I knew that Mattie had always meant to go from the University of Michigan Medical School on to the University of Pennsylvania Auxiliary School of Medicine for a supplemental degree and that while there, she decided to also attend the National School of Elocution and Oratory to prepare herself for public speaking. Nothing I found contradicted that scenario—until a letter that she wrote to President John Taylor recently surfaced.

Here is the text of the letter:

Honored Brother:

The cause of my not forwarding to you a copy of the lecture on the subject of our people and their system of government, etc., last summer is this: After re-writing it, I did not like it. Following came my graduating year. July 1st, ’86, I received a diploma. Since then have been engaged in the practice of medicine. With what money I have earned in this way, added to other means forwarded from Salt Lake City, proceeds of complimentary entertainments gotten up by my friends, I had sufficient means to spend one winter in the Oratorial School in Boston, which is reported to be the best in the U.S. While there I also intended working on and completing, if possible, my lecture, and would have had opportunities of visiting patients in the New England Hospital which is near the school. I have friends connected with this institution who would conduct me through the wards.

My intentions in attending the School of Oratory were to prepare myself to appear before the public in a creditable manner, providing I have your consent to engage in a lecture tour.

I find many persons extremely ignorant in regard to us as a people – hence prejudiced. Ann Eliza’s narrative has found its way into nearly every town and village in the Union, two or three have already been thrust into my notice since my brief sojourn here. It will require considerable sound logic to neutralize this obnoxious influence. My efforts might not be sufficient to bring individuals to a knowledge of the gospel, but they would probably, in a measure, be the means of dispelling prejudice from the minds of the people. Large audiences would assemble out of curiosity if nothing more. One half of the proceeds would be yours – at your disposal. The remaining half I would try to put to an honorable use.

I have received notice from the Boston University that the Department I desired to enter has been discontinued – this has been a disappointment. There are other Oratorial Schools, one in New York, another in Philadelphia, and I have sufficient means to take me to either. Shall I go? None others but yourself and my parents know of my plans. I await your answer. If convenient, please telegraph me I will pay cost upon delivery of telegram.

The one word go! with your signature attached thereto, will give me sufficient courage to face the whole world.

I remain your

Sister in the Gospel,

Mattie Paul Hughes

P.S. When I get the lecture in better shape, will forward a copy to your address. Respect. M.P.H.

Letter to President John Taylor, 2 September 1886
Written from Algonac, St. Clair, Michigan

Earthshattering? Perhaps not, but this is a letter that may be believed—after all, it is written to the Prophet. It gives some hints about the negative opinions about Latter-day Saints that she had had to contend with and shows initiative in proposing how she might counteract them.

There is no evidence that Mattie ever wrote or gave the proposed lectures, but I have learned my lesson and will not conclude definitively that she did not, but hope to find evidence one way or the other.

What’s an interesting experience from writing the Martha Cannon biography?

Doing research on the spot is so rewarding. I visited Wolverton, England, and neighboring villages where Martha Cannon was in exile. I first knocked on the door of the Reverend John Nightengale, the vicar in Wolverton (after driving from Birmingham—most of the time in terror that I would forget to drive on the left side of the road).

Serendipity is a powerful ally.

I explained what I was after; he was intrigued and took my friend and me on a tour of the area, looking for the home of Mattie’s distant relative, Joseph Twyman. We went past several possibilities with no luck.

All of us had nearly given up hope when we arrived at Rose Cottage. Mrs. Read, the owner, told us to come on in because she just happened to have all the old deeds of ownership spread out on her kitchen table—and there it was: a deed with the name Joseph Twyman. I had found tangible evidence of Mattie.

The idea of a plural wife having lived in the area a hundred years previously astounded everyone we spoke with. Serendipity is a powerful ally of research.

Reverend Nightengale was amazed and intrigued that plural wives had lived in the area in 1886. He was so amazed that he arranged for me to be interviewed on a local radio station. The interviewer was likewise so amazed that he kept forgetting to ask questions. I practically had to interview myself.

They were essentially hunted down.

How it helped my understanding of Mattie’s predicament, alone with an often-ill daughter, when I climbed the deeply rutted stairs of the next place she lived. It was a row of tumble-down ruins, one end of it inhabited by the family she was boarding with. The front door was only five feet high. I had to duck. Mattie may have been able to navigate the place—she was barely five feet tall, but I kept bumping my head.

The two rooms she lived in were so minute, I wondered how even a small twin bed could be put in them. The building was so old—built about 1550—that the wooden floors had worn unevenly and were no longer level, making getting around the rooms a balancing act. There was no privacy, as the rooms had no doors.

The next place was worse. The landlord in Mattie’s day had hung his poached rabbits up the narrow staircase and Mattie and Elizabeth had to brush against them every time they climbed up to their rooms.

Why was it important for Martha Cannon to be set apart?

I can only speculate as to why it was important for Martha Hughes Cannon and others to be set apart before leaving Utah for their education. The world of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was very small in the 19th century. Most of the people who had important or influential positions in the Church or in society knew each other. It was not unreasonable (as it would be today) to expect a Church leader, even an apostle, to have to time to set members apart for their new roles.

For Mattie and others, who were leaving Utah for education and who would be in contact with people who had little idea of who Mormons were—other than what the sensational popular press reported—it would have been important and reassuring to have a personal blessing from Church leaders to guide them as they navigated those new roles.

How did plural marriage complicate Martha Cannon’s life?

Martha Hughes Cannon described that very well herself. She wrote Angus that had they been married and been having children in the 1850s and 1860s, as he and his first three wives did, what she termed an “ordinary plurality,” their married life, or “extraordinary plurality” would have been very different.

Since she was married at the height of the persecutions of the polygamists and because she and her husband were prominent members of Church and Utah society, the federal marshals gave them no rest.

They were essentially hunted down and spent much of their time dodging the officials, going from safe house to safe house, and, in Mattie’s case, going into exile.

She had to close and then reopen her medical practice several times, which made it impossible for her to earn the income she needed to sustain the lifestyle she expected. Angus was unable to make up that difference in income, which added to their personal difficulties.

What led to Martha Cannon’s habit of keeping people at arm’s length?

Again, I can only speculate. I imagine Martha Cannon began keeping personal things from her classmates in Michigan and Philadelphia because she couldn’t trust them with anything to do with her membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for fear of how they would react.

The secrecy continued after her return to Utah because her courtship and marriage had to be kept secret (even from her parents).

In exile in England, she could not reveal anything that might allow people to guess who she was. At the same time, she wrote letters to her husband in which she told him everything that she was doing and that she was thinking. That included her personal opinions of prominent people they both knew: Emmeline B. Wells, Romania B. Pratt Penrose, Emily Wells Grant, Eliza R. Snow.

She was very frank and her opinions were (except in the case of Eliza R. Snow) not complimentary. Naturally, she would not have wanted them to know what she thought of them since Mattie expected to associate and work with them upon her return to Salt Lake City. In the course of her life—during Angus’ trials for polygamy, Mattie’s political campaigns and during her two terms as senator, and in the aftermath of Gwendolyn’s birth—Mattie also attracted a lot of attention, even notoriety, from newspaper reporters, which she resented.

Much of the reporting was accurate, but some (for example, that she was going to California to help the women there get the vote) was not.

Mattie was a favorite of Emmeline and the staff of the Exponent.

Her personal journals post-exile were certainly just as packed with her frank opinions of the people she associated with as her letters from exile were. If the opinions were as insulting as what she wrote to Angus from England, she would not have wanted anyone else to know what she was thinking.

The necessity coupled with her desire to keep her private life private grew and eventually bordered on compulsion. The culmination of this obsession with privacy was her asking her son, James, to burn all her journals and papers after her death.

Sadly, he complied.

How is the story of her defeating her husband for state senate more nuanced than the usual telling?

The main problem in how this is told is reflected in how the above question is phrased: “the story of her defeating her husband.” Even the press in 1895 portrayed the senate race as one between husband and wife. That can only be because the story told that way is more dramatic.

In fact, no one candidate was running directly against another one; they were all candidates at large. Any configuration of candidates might have been elected. Martha Cannon and Angus might have both been elected. Or neither of them. Or (as happened) only one of them.

Neither rose to the bait.

If any candidate might have been thought of as running directly against Mattie, it would have been Emmeline B. Wells, as Emmeline was asked to run on the Republican ticket so that the Republicans would also have a woman on the slate.

There was no campaigning as we know it today. At least Mattie said she didn’t canvass for votes, but stayed close to the Democratic Party ticket and did what the Party asked her to do, went where they asked her to go, and said what they asked her to say.

The local press tried very hard to get Mattie and Angus to feud (or debate) publicly, but neither rose to the bait. The general opinion was that Angus would win, as he was a more public figure through his position as Salt Lake State President.

Mattie won because she was running as a Democrat and the Democratic platform—William Jennings Bryant and the silver standard—swept the country. She received the least votes of all the Democrats; still, it was more than any of the Republicans.

We do not know what her personal reaction to her victory was because her journals were destroyed. And if she wrote to Angus during this time, he did not save those letters.

Not much has been written about how those who were defeated reacted. Angus took care to be seen as one who was not unduly upset by his upset.

But he was, in fact, very upset, even humiliated. That is evident in his letters and notes to Mattie during her two terms. Generally, he interpreted her slavish adherence to the Democratic Party platform as evidence that she did not care for him as a wife should and that she was not as faithful to the Church as he thought she should be.

His conclusions were incorrect and unfair. His assumption that a difference of opinion was proof of lack of either affection of conviction was based, in my opinion, solely on his inability to work through his humiliation.

Emmeline B. Wells was—as far as we can tell from extant writings—the only adult in the room. She summed up her experience, after noting that she was “devastated” to have lost as follows: “[This experience] has been very exciting for me and quite new too—we are all beginners.” [p. 55]

Describe the relationship of Martha Cannon and Emmeline Wells.

Their relationship started out very strong, with Emmeline B. Wells acting as mentor to Mattie. In her position of editor of the Woman’s Exponent, Emmeline published the minutes of the Young Women’s Retrenchment Association of the Salt Lake Tenth Ward, where Mattie was secretary.

The Exponent also recorded Mattie’s departure for and graduation from the University of Michigan Medical School, her success in practicing medicine in Michigan before her departure for Philadelphia, and her successes as a student at the National School of Elocution and Oratory.

It is clear that Mattie was a favorite of Emmeline and the staff of the Exponent.

From Mattie’s letters to Angus (written from her English exile), she appears to have been very jealous of Emmeline’s influence among Utah women.

But was Mattie really that jealous—or was this a reflection of her being outside of Utah and not only having no influence herself, but also having been rendered basically invisible? There is no way to tell.

We are left to wonder.

Emmeline’s journals make very little mention of Martha Cannon. Was that because Emmeline really didn’t think much of Mattie herself—or because she simply didn’t record anything? Again, we cannot know.

The Exponent did not comment on the 1895 election. The only mention made of Mattie’s political career is a notation Emmeline made that she had been busy explaining political matters to Mattie. Mattie does not mention any of this in her letters to Angus. As in so many matters pertaining to Mattie and her life, we are left to wonder and always regret the destruction of her personal papers.

What do we know about Martha Cannon’s mental health struggles?

Oh my, how some Prozac might have helped her! She had so much to contend with: the difficulties in being a plural wife in the late 1800s, having to continually open and close and reopen a medical practice, and financial struggles—both from her interrupted medical practice and Angus’ inability to earn enough to support his families.

From reading her letters to her husband, it is clear that she felt things deeply and was unable to shrug things off easily, which most likely led to her feeling unimportant and dismissed by the people she interacted with.

One of her great-granddaughters said that Mattie was difficult to get along with, and added “but everyone loved her.” That “everyone” was Mattie’s children. She seems to have been generally ignored by the people she knew and worked with. She is seldom mentioned in their journals or correspondence.

Why? I can only speculate. I suspect they seldom sought her out or wrote about her precisely because she was difficult to get along with.

Her mental health issues appear to have begun upon her return to Salt Lake City after her education. She writes her friend Barbara that she had what sounds like a mental breakdown, whereupon her physician forbade any “brain work.”

But Mattie was not one to take such advice; much more her tendency was towards overwork. She had a similar breakdown as she was preparing to leave her exile in England and return to Utah.

She had a difficult menopause complicated with some sort of heart disease, probably congestive heart failure. As a physician, Mattie could recognize the symptoms of mental illness—depression and anxiety. As Samuel M. Brown, M.D. noted, the fact that emotional problems could cause physical illness was accepted in her day, but also carried a stigma with it, much as it does today.

He sums Mattie up as a woman “wracked with self-doubt about her weakness—Why can’t I always be happy? Why am I anxious? Why do I need medications to function?” He concludes that this probably resulted in her doubting her own worth. [Quotation on p. 89 of Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon: Suffragist, Senator, Plural Wife by Constance L. Lieber, Signature Books, 2022.]

She visited San Francisco shortly after the 1906 earthquake. “Poor San Francisco, ‘tis the same no more,” she wrote Angus.

Nor was Mattie. She told Angus: “Well, I will soon be home to what purpose I know not.”

What are some of your favorite Martha Hughes Cannon quotes?

One of my favorites is in one of Martha Hughes Cannon’s first letters to Angus written on 20 April 1886, shortly after her ship had sailed from New York City. She is in high spirits and writes: “Everything is lovely and the goose hangs high.”

She was not a woman of our time.

When I first read Mattie’s letters to her husband, I looked up that phrase. It means that things are pleasant, desirable, or joyous, being an illusion to the idea that geese fly higher during pleasant weather and also that if the geese “hung” high in the sky, evil spirits were not present. It could also allude to a plucked goose hanging in a larder which promises the family will eat well. It is a sign that the family will have something to eat for the foreseeable future. But why is it hanging high? In any case, a goose hanging high is a good thing—except possibly for the goose.

Learn more about Martha Hughes Cannon in this brief biographical video produced by Better Days 2020.

I also really like the way she could paint a picture using few words.

For example, in a 3 January 1887 letter from England to Angus, she explained why she and “Mrs. Hull” (Anna Balmer) had to leave their rural retreat:

…we were discussed in the highways, byways, private gatherings, at firesides, and particularly at the ‘Red Horse’ and ‘Bell Inn’ over the beer pots. Just think what important personages we are, and all this went on long before it reached our ears. Latterly the name Mormon became associated with us and the tune changed. Those who did not know the meaning of the word, and they a vast majority, were enlightened by those who thought they did.

If women are granted the privilege to vote, it is not going by any means to sweep away all existing wrong in the world . . . There will still be some drunken, brutal husbands, there will still be parsimonious and contemptable heads of families, there will be poverty, aching heads and hearts; there will be fraud and wrong, but the skirts of the law will be clean.

Martha Hughes Cannon to Mrs. Hull (Anna Balmer)

Why is it dangerous to try to make Martha Cannon a woman of our time?

Precisely because she was not a woman of our time. Although her experiences may have had some things in common with what we experience, we can never conclude that she thought like women and men in 2023 do.

We have nothing in common with a woman who had to navigate marriage and family life through the lens of plural marriage.

Her outlook on national and foreign politics could have little in common with ours. She did not experience the Second World War, the rise of communism and the division of the world into East and West and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union and communism. China would have barely been on her radar.

The social issues she struggled with included how to get an education commensurate with that of men. Even though most schools were open to both males and females, they still saw nothing wrong with segregated classrooms or giving a female student a B.S., while her male cohorts were granted PhDs .

Nothing could be further from the truth.

She also did not experience the changes in how gender is defined. It would have been incomprehensible to her that one could change one’s gender or marry someone of the same gender. Regardless of how we stand on such issues, our outlook is informed by those changes.

The statue of Martha Hughes Cannon (the first female state senator in US history) at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City.
A statue of Martha Hughes Cannon at the Utah State Capitol.

In her day she could state (as she did) that the women of Utah were of a decided “Hebraic type,” and that would attract no negative attention. She would have no idea how to navigate the perilous notion of “political correctness” that we deal with daily.

Martha Cannon simply would not react to events and changes as we do because she had not lived through the events that made such changes possible or even inevitable.

Worse, is the rather simplistic reading of what she said in an attempt to make her relevant to our times and enable us to relate to her.

For example, as I mentioned in the biography, one person read Mattie’s harsh comments on the difficulty of living in polygamy in the late 1880s as proof that she struggled with her testimony of the Gospel and suggested that we invite those struggling with their faith in 2023 to find commonality with her.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Mattie’s faith remained strong throughout her life.

Another problem we have is when we attempt to use examples from how she medicated herself for menopause and congestive heart failure to prove that she abused drugs. One person suggested we use Mattie as sort of a poster child to help today’s drug addicts.

Mattie did not abuse drugs. Medical knowledge was rudimentary or incomplete in Mattie’s day. She prescribed medications in conformance with the medical knowledge of her day. Today we know that certain drugs were ineffective and that others, prescribed in excess could lead to dependence. She did not and should not be judged in the light of medical practices today, ninety years after her death.

What lessons can we learn from Martha Hughes Cannon today?

We can learn perseverance, even in the face of disappointment. Martha Cannon refused to be boxed in by the norms of her day. Her granddaughter, Mary Nichols, was asked what she most remembered about her grandmother. Basically, Mary responded that Mattie was not “sorted by the old”—she thought outside the box, as we phrase it today.

She did not allow herself to be deterred by difficulty, but went ahead to achieve her goals. She also did not allow disappointment to deter her, but just kept “forging ahead and making the best of whatever” she had to manage.

We can learn that goals are achievable, even if they seem unlikely to be reached.

Her whole life, Mattie took two clashing ideologies that couldn’t possibly work together—and found a way to make them work. Perhaps that is her greatest accomplishment: that she was able, for most of her life, to force doors to open and contradictions to coexist.

From that tension, public opinion was modified and influenced in ways that many of her contemporaries had not really wanted or been able to consider.

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About the interview participant

Constance L. Lieber is a historian and linguist. She has been fascinated with Martha Hughes Cannon since she discovered her exile letters to her husband which had been misfiled at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Historical Library Archives, where she was working as an archivist in the mid-1970s. She has a B.A. (history) from the University of Utah; an M.A. (Germanic and Slavic Languages) from Brigham Young University; and a Ph.D. (Languages and Literature) from the University of Utah.

Further Reading

Martha Hughes Cannon Resources

By Chad Nielsen

Biotech professional. Armchair historian. Latter-day Saint.

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