Wednesday, March 4, 2020

One at a Time, Dears.

In this 1906 Life Magazine illustration, Bayard Jones depicts a Mormon patriarch being greeted by several wives on his return from a trip. The Mormon practice of plural marriages prompted federal legislation that forbade entry of "polygamous" immigrants. Young women from European countries with a Mormon mission presence were sometimes given extra scrutiny at Ellis Island. This illustration comes from "The Comedy of Life," available at the Internet Archives.
A Mormon patriarch is welcomed home by his wives.
Inspectors at Ellis Island sometimes suspected that immigrant
women destined for the West were coming to join polygamous 
Polygamy and Immigration
The media recently reported that Utah’s State Senate had passed a bill to decriminalize polygamy.*  Should the legislation be voted and signed into law, the practice of taking multiple wives would be reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor. The story reminds me of an old Life Magazine cartoon. In “Married Life in Utah” (1906), illustrator Bayard Jones depicts a Mormon patriarch being greeted by several wives on his return from a trip. The traditional Mormon practice of plural marriages earned the ire of Congress in the 19
th century.  Lawmakers passed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, which President Lincoln signed into law in 1862.

The federal government has also long forbidden entry of "polygamous" immigrants to the United States. Under federal pressure, Mormon leadership issued a manifesto against polygamy in 1890, but the U.S. government remained skeptical. At Ellis Island, young women from European countries with a large Mormon mission presence were often suspect and questioned by inspectors. Back then, Muslims might also have been asked the polygamy question, but they were the rarest of immigrants. Today, immigrants and refugees from Islamic countries are more common, but taking multiple wives is rarer than in the past, particularly among educated arrivals. In sum, immigrants may still be asked if they have more than one wife and barred from entry if they do. Polygamy may also qualify as a bar to citizenship.

In the cartoon, the old man tells his wives, “One at a time, dears.” That seems to be the American consensus. Having more than one spouse is okay, but only if it’s one at a time.  

*Anthropologists use “polygyny” for multiple wives and “polyandry” for multiple husbands.

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