David Hyrum Smith: He was the sweet singer of Israel


By Dennis Lythgoe Deseret News staff writer

Valeen Tippetts Avery’s fascination with the last son of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith came while she was working on a biography of the prophet’s wife, Emma.David Hyrum Smith was born in 1844 after the death of his father, and Avery became so interested in him that he became the subject of her Ph.D dissertation.

The title was changed from “Insanity and the Sweet Singer” to “From Mission to Madness: Last Son of the Mormon Prophet,” and her dissertation in history at Northern Arizona University became a prize-winning book. (Winner of the locally prestigious Evans Biography award, given by Utah State University, and the Mormon History Association’s award for best biography; it has also been nominated for several other awards, including the nationally prestigious Bancroft Prize in History.)According to Avery, David Smith was “the sweet singer of Israel to congregations in the Midwest, because his preaching resembled that of Old Testament prophets — but he could also sing.”

Speaking by telephone from her home in Flagstaff, Ariz., where she teaches history at NAU, Avery said Smith’s life was one of both success and tragedy. Although a brilliant and charismatic poet, painter, philosopher, naturalist and highly effective missionary for the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in IIlinois, Smith was stricken with mental illness while still in his 30s. He was committed to the Northern Illinois Hospital and Asylum for the Insane, where he remained until his death in 1904.

While his older brother, Joseph Smith III, was serving as president of the RLDS Church, David Smith felt that going on a mission to Utah, to try to convert the “Brighamites,” was his most important duty, and he did so several times. In spite of the conflict that existed between the LDS and the RLDS Churches, Smith managed to make friends with many Utah Mormons. And even though he and Brigham Young exchanged harsh words, there is evidence that they felt a natural affinity for one another. There was no one Young respected more than Smith’s father, and he wanted Smith in the Utah Church. Meanwhile, Smith felt moved to teach Young the error of his ways.

Implicit in this story is the connection between the LDS and RLDS churches, which also intrigued the author. “I didn’t understand the relationship between the two churches, most of all the sons of Joseph and Emma, and Brigham Young, and the church in the West, ” she said. Avery, who is LDS, could see this was a story about which church would be most successful in establishing Mormonism as an American religious tradition.

“Who would control Mormonism in the American experience? Would it be the more moderate RLDS version that conformed more to Protestant viewpoints and refused to accept polygamy or the doctrine of the gathering? I would have bet that Joseph III, with his more moderate Mormonism, would have appealed to a larger number of people. But I would have been wrong.The Western LDS Church was more stringent, more radically different than standard Christian theology, yet it succeeded in identifying itself more as an American religion.”

Avery did not set out to write a history of the two churches, although she believes that needs to be done. But she admits that “If there’s another book in me, the thing that excites me the most is a book about Mormons vs. Mormons over who would determine the shape of Mormonism in American culture.”

Avery plans to let a year pass before plunging into another project, however. She also knows she has emerged as a biographer and is not sure if she “can tell the story of a movement and a competitive religious agenda with the same success as that of a human life.”

But “From Mission to Madness” is also more than a biography. Avery puts this Mormon story into the larger context of “a 19th Century American family defining who they were, how they made a living and how they would deal with an extraordinary son and brother who becomes mentally ill. Its value to the 20th Century is not only telling that story but suggesting that families are not perfect. There are struggles to find answers to the problems of individual family members. It’s a story that reaches out to all of us. It was a joy and an agony to write. It was wonderful to see this family figure out how they were going to live their lives.”

Avery struggled herself with the degree to which she should analyze David Smith’s illness. Should she talk to professionals and try to make a definitive diagnosis? Should she shorten other aspects of the book so she could treat the medical problem in a speculative way? She finally decided to describe Smith’s character the best she could and leave the decision of what his illness might have been to modern clinicians. She has already heard from a variety of medically-trained people who have suggested Smith had hypoglycemia, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or even a frontal lobe tumor.

“I finally decided David deserved to have his story told without a footnote that said his illness might have been alleviated with pills. I’m turning it loose now for the medical professionals.”

While Avery was researching her book, Smith’s grandson, Lynn Smith — then in his 80’s — would occasionally call her and read an intriguing line from a letter in the family collection he was keeping. That way, she knew he had a valuable collection she needed to make the story complete. Lynn would not let her see the papers, but when he died, he donated them to the RLDS Church in Missouri, which granted her immediate access.

An intriguing aspect of Avery’s study is that David Smith never knew his own father. But as he traveled to Utah and talked to many people who did know his father, Smith learned an enormous amount about him. And he started to understand various aspects of his own personality as they related to his father’s.

Avery was impressed with the ways Smith tried to combine his interest in religion with that of science, and how he tried to explain scientific concepts in terms that the average RLDS Church member in Missouri and Iowa could understand. Avery believes that when David became institutionalized, the RLDS Church lost its most compelling spokesman. “They lost the one man most uniquely qualified to bridge the gap between their identity and the larger American public. He understood Mormonism, in the context of both churches, so he could have explained it to the larger American culture.”

Avery also believes that Smith “combined the musical talent of his mother with the charismatic qualities of his father and came out with the very best of both those very strong people.”

(During a visit to Salt Lake City this week, Avery will discuss her book and sign copies during the Sunstone Symposium at the Salt Palace, Friday, July 16, beginning at 12:45 p.m.)

Emma’s fond wish nears fulfilling


Descendants of Joseph and Hyrum Smith are joining in a project to renovate and landscape the Smith family cemetery in Nauvoo where the Prophet and his brother and 25 of their family members are buried.

The burial site, overlooking the Mississippi River, is next to the old log Homestead where Joseph and Emma lived prior to their move kitty-cornered across the street into the Mansion House. Among those buried at the site, in addition to Joseph and Hyrum, are Joseph Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith, Emma Smith, and Samuel and Don Carlos Smith, brothers of the Prophet.Project chairmen said that two of the driving forces behind upgrading the hallowed grounds are the limited access to the Smith family grave site area, and particularly a plea of Emma Smith, made to her son Joseph III in 1867:

“I have always felt sad about the neglected condition of that place, and as I do not expect ever to be able to build me a house to live in, I would like to fix a place to be put away when I have done all my work on the earth. . . .

“I have got twenty-five dollars that no one has any right to but myself. . . . I feel anxious to apply that money on the graveyard. After I have done that I think we can ask our Smith relations to help mark Father’s and Mother’s graves, if no more.”

The “Smith relations” mentioned by Emma Smith – the descendants of Joseph and Hyrum – last year formed the Joseph & Hyrum Smith Family Foundation. The foundation is currently raising funds to landscape, beautify and provide for open public access and ongoing maintenance of this historic cemetery.

In the project, new monuments will be placed on the graves of Joseph, Emma and Hyrum Smith. A patio and a lighted brick walkway leading to Water Street and a new sprinkler system will be installed. Additional trees and flower beds will dot the grounds.

A dedication ceremony for the completed project is planned for Aug. 4 at 4 p.m. in the cemetery. President Wallace B. Smith of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a great-grandson of Joseph Smith, will participate.

Also taking part will be Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Council of the Twelve, a great-great-grandson of Hyrum Smith, and other family members.

As part of the dedication, a time capsule will be encased in the new monuments with the names of those who helped or contributed to the project in any way.

The project leaders said, “A new-found spirit of unity is developing through this project in the spirit of Joseph and Hyrum, of whom it was said, `In life they were not divided, and in death they were not separated!’

“These brothers set the example to their descendants through their love which was expressed by Hyrum near the time of the martyrdom when, given the opportunity to escape, he told his brother, `Joseph, I can’t leave you.’ ”

Eldred G. Smith, a great-great-grandson of Hyrum Smith and project co-chairman, said, “The RLDS Church has been very cooperative and gracious in working with us and allowing the Joseph and Hyrum Smith Family Foundation to undertake this project.”

Dan M. Larsen, a descendant of Joseph Smith and executive director of the project, declared, “I truly believe this can be a beginning of an extraordinary relationship between the Smith family members and the RLDS and LDS churches and an opportunity to once more work together in old Nauvoo.”

Elder Ballard referred to Joseph Smith’s expressed desire: “The place where man is buried is sacred to me. . . . In the morning of the resurrection let me strike hands with my father.”

Elder Ballard added, “I am sure there will be personal joy and satisfaction for each one of us knowing that we helped provide a pleasing resting place from which these great ancestors of ours can rise on the morning of the resurrection and `strike hands.’ “

Joseph Smith’s Surgeon



Church members have been thrilled by the story of eight-year-old Joseph Smith’s courage during the time when the bone in his leg became infected and amputation seemed the only solution. We remember his willingness to endure the pain of an alternative operation by having his father hold him in his arms, rather than try to relieve the pain with alcohol. As a surgeon I have always wondered about Joseph Smith’s operation and particularly about the physicians who successfully performed it.

This was, after all, 1813, in the most rural area of New Hampshire. The infection in Joseph’s bone (osteomyelitis) followed an epidemic of typhoid fever that affected all the Smith children. In those days and up until the discovery of antibiotics in this century, osteomyelitis was a devastating problem. Since the day of Hippocrates of ancient Greece, the standard method of treatment had been the simple application of poultices and plasters to the inflamed flesh. This had little effect: when infection occurs in the bone, long segments of the bony shaft die, and the body, growing new bone, encases the dead material within a living layer. Inevitably, the dead bone separates and lies in the center of an abscess cavity, draining continuously or spreading infection to other parts of the body, resulting in death. Usually in the late stages the leg had to be amputated.

In 1874 the techniques of operating on the bone to remove the dead fragments and allow drainage were described and widely accepted. This operation, known as sequestrectomy, became standard procedure after World War I.

That was a century later. But here is Lucy Mack Smith’s description of the operation in 1813:

“The surgeons commenced operating by boring into the bone of his leg, first on one side where it was affected, then on the other side, after which they broke it off with a pair of forceps or pincers. Thus they took away large pieces of bone.”

What Lucy Smith is here describing is the technique that became known in 1874! How was such a surgical feat possible sixty years before its time in the tiny community of Lebanon, New Hampshire?

The answer is one that Latter-day Saints would hardly call coincidence. In a little known note to the Manuscript History of the Church, Joseph named his doctors: “Smith, Stone and Perkins” of Dartmouth Medical School in Hanover, New Hampshire, 8 kilometers from the Smith home.

These were not the ordinary, poorly trained country physicians so commonly found in those days. Nathan Smith, graduate of Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, sole founder of the Dartmouth Medical School, later to found three additional New England medical schools, was also president of the New Hampshire Medical Society and had, prior to treating Joseph Smith, accepted the position of the first professor of medicine and surgery at Yale Medical School in New Haven, Connecticut. He had delayed moving to New Haven so he could care for the victims of the 1813 typhoid epidemic in the communities surrounding Hanover, New Hampshire.

Cyrus Perkins was Nathan Smith’s former pupil and a graduate of the Dartmouth Medical School. Perkins had later returned to the area to become the professor of anatomy and join his former teacher in a medical practice.

Stone was very likely also a former student of Smith’s: earlier class rolls of the Dartmouth Medical School lists several Stones.

Even more significantly, Nathan Smith was one of early America’s greatest medical men and had, on his own, devised an operation for osteomyelitis as early as 1798 that he published in 1827 but that was not used for two generations. In other words, generations ahead of his time, he was the only man in America who could have saved Joseph Smith’s leg.

Without a college education, Nathan Smith apprenticed himself to a country physician for three years, then began his own practice in Cornish, New Hampshire. Dissatisfied with his preparation, he applied to the newly founded Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Massachusetts three years later. He became its fifth graduate and returned to his country practice in 1790.

Now he felt his mission included raising medical standards and proficiency among his colleagues as well. He petitioned Dartmouth College trustees to establish a medical school and spent a year in Edinburgh, Scotland, accumulating equipment, books, and clinical experience. His opening lecture in 1797 was the beginning of Dartmouth’s medical college.

For thirteen years, he single-handedly taught anatomy, chemistry, surgery, remedies, and the theory and practice of medicine, until the New Hampshire legislature allowed Perkins to join him as professor of anatomy in 1810.

Neither one received a salary for the teaching: tuition fees and their joint medical practice made up their income. Since Dr. Smith had trained many of the physicians in upper New England, he was consulted on many difficult cases, which meant travelling as much as 160 kilometers on horseback over rough dirt roads. He routinely invited ten to twenty of his medical students along on these trips as part of their training.

This pattern was repeated in Joseph Smith’s case. After Dr. Stone had unsuccessfully performed two operations on Joseph’s diseased leg, his mother insisted on another opinion and requested a “council of surgeons.” Nathan Smith, his partner, Cyrus Perkins, and medical students from Dartmouth came to do the necessary surgery.

At first an amputation was suggested: Lucy Mack Smith instead asked for the experimental operation of removing only the diseased bone. Her description of the procedure is accurate and parallels the description of the operation found in early Dartmouth medical student notebooks.

The operation was successful, and Joseph’s wounds healed. The fact that a wound with the exposed shaft of bone healed so readily is truly miraculous; however Nathan Smith had achieved an unusual record of good results—he never described amputation following his operation. Joseph used crutches for three years but his life and his leg were spared.

After the epidemic and the operation, both Nathan Smith and Joseph Smith left New Hampshire, Nathan Smith to become a professor at Yale Medical School and Joseph to return to Vermont for three years before moving to Palmyra, New York, where he eventually began his great work.

It is hard to call it an accident—a boy plucky enough to refuse amputation despite two unsuccessful operations; a mother who requested the experimental procedure, not knowing Nathan Smith was the only surgeon in the United States who had such a successful experience treating osteomyelitis; and the undramatic conjunction between the right man and the right time.