For much of the first half of 1841, John C. Bennett, the mayor of Nauvoo, was the subject of bawdy hearsay noting his having been seen frequenting the city’s whorehouse, rumored to be seducing married women, and even being an abortionist. All these tales paled in comparison to the salacious whispering that, as Major General of the Nauvoo Legion, Bennett was said to be promoting young brethren to high-ranking positions in the Nauvoo Legion for sexual favors. So for some time Joseph Smith was informed of the rumors that Bennett was sodomizing young Nauvoo Legionnaires who hoped for advancement in the city’s militia. These rumors were, of course, reported back to a troubled Smith who pondered what to do with his former confidante.
In particular, the name mentioned the most was 21-year-old Francis [Frank] Marion Higbee, who was promoted to colonel under Bennett’s command. The fact that Higbee rose so quickly within the ranks of the city’s militia, had tongues wagging and it was gossiped that he was commissioned a colonel for sexual favors given to Bennett. Higbee may not have been the only young “Brethren” in Nauvoo hoping to advance in the militia by offering sexual favors to Bennett. Brigham Young suggested that other men may have had sexual encounters with the major general when he stated, “one charge [against John Bennett] was seducing young women, and leading young men into difficulty — he admitted it — if he had let young men and women alone it would have been better for him.”
Smith was well aware of Higbee and his family. Higbee came from a solid Mormon family. He was a son of Elias Higbee, an old Missouri Danite, who had served as the official church historian and recorder. The young Frank Higbee was a veteran of the Missouri Mormon War of 1838. He was ambitious and intelligent, but in Nauvoo Higbee was earning the reputation of living a dissipated life. The young man was known to be “rakish” or having a slightly disreputable reputation.
Informants reported that the young colonel was often seen in the company of Bennett and accompanied the doctor to the only brothel in Nauvoo, where evidently Higbee had contracted a venereal disease from “a French woman” from Warsaw. This affliction caused Higbee to need medical assistance upon discovering he was diseased. Higbee went to both Smith and Bennett seeking a cure. Bennett gave the young man medical treatment while Smith administered a priesthood blessing in order to heal Higbee’s condition but complained that “it was irksome” doing so.
There was no proof of Bennett’s “homo-libertine” behavior until July 4, 1841, when Smith discovered Bennett in a compromising position with Higbee. On that date, Smith called upon Bennett to inform him of the incriminating letter Smith had of his having deserted a wife in Ohio. Smith later claimed his intention in going to the residence was to administer another blessing to Higbee. However, more than likely, the prophet deliberately sought out the pair after informants reported Bennett and Higbee being alone together.
After appearing unexpectedly, the prophet was shocked to find the general and the young colonel in a compromising position.
“I was called on to visit Francis M. Higbee; I went and found him on a bed on the floor.” The reporter at this point wrote. [Here follows testimony which is too indelicate for the public eye or ear; and we would here remark, that so revolting, corrupt, and disgusting has been the conduct of most of this clique, that we feel to dread having anything to do with the publication of their trials; we will not however offend the public eye or ear with a repetition of the foulness of their crimes anymore.”
What possibly could have been the offense committed by Bennett that it could not be named? In 19th century parlance that meant the deed was so offensive that it could not even be described in print.
It is not unreasonable to assume that anal sex was the offense called too “revolting, corrupt, and disgusting” as later Bennett would be accused of “buggery,” which is simply another term for sodomy.
The Mormon newspaper Times and Seasons had at various times accused Bennett of a variety of loathsome offenses including “seduction, adultery, attempted murder, prostitution, and abortion.” The “only charge that could have been worse … was sodomy.”
Some historians refuse to believe that Bennett committed sodomy in Nauvoo. Their logic is that since he was accused of seducing the “sisters” of Nauvoo, Bennett could not have been a homosexual. Bennett was probably not a homosexual in the modern sense but rather polyamorous; open to a variety of sexual experiences.
Smith was now in complete control of his former trusted confidante, having witnessed Bennett “in flagrante delicto.” Smith then summoned a church council to hear Smith’s accusations of immorality against the physician and the colonel.
Bennett pleaded with Smith not to shame him in front of a church high counsel, but Smith, having the upper hand, was determined to humble him. When Bennett could not dissuade Smith from bringing him before a tribunal, he attempted suicide by drinking poison. It was a botched effort. Skeptics suggested that as a physician, Bennett knew exactly how to avoid a lethal dose of poison and probably the act was an extreme attempt to solicit sympathy. Still, “the public impression was that he was so much ashamed of his base and wicked conduct that he had recourse to the above deed to escape the censures of an indignant community.”
The drastic measure of taking poison is substantiation that the deed in which the mayor was caught with Higbee was so shocking and shameful to the customs and conventions of the 19th century, that if made public the dishonor and disgrace of it warranted suicide. “While fornication was frowned on, it was at least understood. For 19th century Americans—especially religious ones—homosexual behavior was beyond the pale.”
Bennett and the young colonel were brought before a church court for censure. Neither one denied the charges of immorality. Brigham Young noted how “downcast” both Higbee and Bennett were, with Young commenting, “When I came into the room, Frank Higbee rather recoiled and wished to withdraw; he went out and sat upon a pile of wood. He said ‘it is all true, I am sorry for it, I wish it had never happened.'”
Higbee’s intense shame as recorded by Young gives added weight to the assurance that the doctor and he had been charged with committing sodomy.
Another reason to believe that the July 1841 immorality trial of Bennett dealt with sodomy is that the disciplinary action against Bennett and Higbee are absent from official church records confirming that they were guilty of “a crime not fit to be named.” Obviously the court proceedings were handled quietly and discreetly by Smith with only a few church leaders knowing of the event.
This discretionary course of action is understandable only in the context that “the crime of buggery” was involved. Smith would not have dared made record of “accusations of sodomy against Bennett public for fear of destroying the reputations of other young men whom the mayor had seduced.” Even more damaging, if the trial was made public, is the reaction that Smith had put a “sodomite” in high positions within the church. Evidently, for Smith it was enough having Bennett exactly where he wanted him, submissive to his domination.
After Bennett began publishing his tell-all letters about what he called villainy in the City of Joseph, William Smith, Joseph Smith’s brother and editor of The Wasp‘s retaliated in comments published July 27, 1841. He wrote that Bennett only saw Joseph Smith as “a great philanthropist as long as Bennett could practice adultery, fornication, and — we were going to say — buggery, without being exposed.”