The Press Saturday, September 19th 1998
Women all to wall this week, especially for Mormons. I don't know what provoked the latest flurry of interest in polygamy: perhaps it was a piece in the online magazine Salon about a month back. But all of a sudden, everyone is sending reporters to Utah to talk to a group of survivors and rebels called "the Tapestry of Polygamy". The longest and best piece was in You magazine, where Russell Miller had investigated a traditionalist clan whose founder, John Ortell Kingston has 65 children by twenty or so wives.
Polygamy means keeping wives in the family, so John Daniel Kingston, one of this patriarch's sons, married his own half sister amongst other people; when one of their daughters reached 15, he decided to marry her to his brother, then 32. She would rather have stayed in school; the bridegroom, in photographs, looks respectably Mormon: spectacles, dark suit, tie, high forehead and an air of high-mindedness, but this was not enough to win her heart. After being married at a secret ceremony in Salt Lake City when she turned 16, she ran away twice. The first time, her father simply returned her to his brother. The second time he punched her and then flogged her with a leather belt as well; and she walked seven miles through the night to call the police.
Her father and uncle/husband now face jail terms of up to 15 years. But there is plenty more crawling out from under the tablets of Mormon law. Rowenna Erickson, now 58, is one of the founders of Tapestry of Polygamy after 30 years married to Leon Kingston, whose other wives included her sister. They helped each other deliver their babies. "My life was very formal, almost sterile. I worried that my children never saw any feelings or emotion between their father and me."
In fact one of their daughters did not even know how her father was until she was eight, when it was explained to her that he was a man she had supposed was her uncle. In order to conceal their relationships, the Kingstons keep their families distributed around the towns they own.
"I would cry in the shower so no one could hear me. I never loved my husband and I don't think he loved me — when I was pregnant he would never once ask when the baby was due. And when I say the way the leaders of the group had the pick of the young girls, I was disgusted. They don't call it lust, but that's hat it was, and it made me sick. Parents rarely objected because it was considered and honour for a leader to take their virgin daughter as his life."
She does not say what happened if a parent did object. Two thoughts occur on this subject. The first is that patriarchy must have been like that in the old testament, too, though mitigated by more frequent deaths; the second is the way in which the Kingstons fund the whole thing. Despite al the traditions of rugged individualism, and the clan's considerable wealth, the women are distributed around town in considerable poverty and largely funded by social security. The fathers disclaim all financial responsibility for their tribes: "One mother of 13 children unblushingly told investigators that she worked in a Kingston-owned store and that when male customers came in and asked for sex, ahs took them into a back room and obliged."
None the less, the father ended up paying a considerable sum in restitution for what they had defrauded the state of. The moral is clearly that polygamy is too expensive to survive in a modern economy. At least these stories show what a huge advance for women the traditional teaching about chastity was. Real patriarchy is not like that at all.
And I will never laugh at American fundamentalist superstitions quite so heartily again: one of the wives who had escaped explained that every time she went to the supermarket she would stand at the cash register shaking with fear because she had been taught that bar codes were the marks of the beast. There's plenty of Christians who believe and preach that.
My apologies to Macclesfield. Someone wrote in to point out that if it did get mentioned in the Yorkshire Post, this would be on the foreign news pages. Michael Brown followed up his scoop about Sister Frances Meigh, who turns out to be unusual among nuns in having three children, as well as in having herself ordained. It is the first time I have seen in print the phrase "once-married". Still it is important to keep count of these things.
Still in the North, Martin Wroe had a wonderful story in the Observer. He had found the disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker in Sheffield "Praise the Lord and pass the contrition" said the headline. Where once Bakker could see nothing straight, he now sees how badly he behaved in the past, when he stole millions of pounds, though he only got caught for spending some of them on a secretary he'd Lewinsky'd. She posed in Playboy, and he went to jail for l45 years, though this was reduced on appeal. He found prison a distressing experience. "It is a cesspool of smoking, cursing, and poor vocabulary. A man twice tried to rape me, but God rescued me."
Bakker's vision of the future remains extravagant. "Last week, he married again and is Britain on his honeymoon. He is taking the chance to say sorry to British Christians and announce the end of the world. 'God has given me a message for the last days.' He said. 'The four horsemen of the apocalypse are about to enter the world stage. There will be famines and earthquakes and economies will collapse. People will be blowing their brains out as they did in the great depression'." I hope these reflections make his honeymoon even more enjoyable.