Desperately (or not) Seeking Eliza

10.3.11 | | 15 comments

In my searches through early Mormon literature, I recently came across a somewhat unusual item: a  2-canto poem from 1841, titled The Latter-day Saints by “Omer, author of Eliza or the Broken Vow.” The unusual part is not the poem or its title, but rather the reference to the earlier work, which could, if found, replace Pratt’s Joseph Smith and the Devil (1844) as the earliest work of Mormon fiction. Unfortunately, Eliza or the Broken Vow is a lost work.

While I’m not desperate, unlike what the title of this post suggests (hey, a good title is more important that accuracy, isn’t it?), I do have some hope that this work can be found. Unlike many lost works, we actually know quite a bit about this one. But the only newspaper that I know included the work is largely gone — just a few issues exist in libraries.

Normal library searches for Eliza or the Broken Vow turn up nothing. Searching worldcat, for example, just turns up Omer’s The Latter-day Saints. And searching for the author “Omer” turns up an impossible list of authors and works.

Part of the initial mystery for those who encounter the above reference to this lost work is the identity of its author. Fortunately, a lot of research has been done into early Mormon monographs, especially by Peter Crawley, author of A descriptive bibliography of the Mormon Church, a two-volume (so far) work that describes each monograph published up to 1852. There, Crawley establishes Omer’s identity as Lyman Omer Littlefield, noting that Littlefield claimed authorship in his later memoir, Reminiscences of Latter-day Saints, published in 1888.

Crawley also notes that Littlefield, who participated in Zion’s Camp, became a printer in Missouri, working as an apprentice for the Upper Missouri Enquirer. After the Saints were expelled from Missouri, Littlefield moved to Illinois and briefly worked in Rushville, Illinois for a newspaper called the Illinois Republican. It was in this newspaper that he published Eliza or the Broken Vow probably in 1840.

In Reminiscences, Littlefield describes his removal to Illinois this way:

One day, at noon, I was the first of all the employees [at the Missouri Enquirer] to return from dinner. While near a “standing galley,” from which I was about to lift some type for distribution, a voice, clear and distinct, said, “you must go to Illinois and marry a young widow.” This was indeed strange and excited my surprise, as no person was visible in the room. I knew not how to understand it. Neither did I know a “young widow” in that State. However, after a few days, the circumstance passed out of mind.

Soon after I purchased a pony, (Santa Fe by name) a saddle and bridle,”and, with a few dollars in my pocket, started upon my journey to Illinois.…

… I crossed the river, where I was soon made happy in the society of many of my exiled friends. I found my father and family quite comfortably situated, on a farm he had rented, about one and a half miles east from the city.… I found temporary employment in the office of the Quincy Argils.

Among many other acquaintances, I found Lysander Gee, who had been a Far West associate. Enquiring of him of the whereabouts of many friends, I asked concerning the residence of our friend Samuel Kingsley. Said he, “he has been dead a few months and his’wife and sisters are living but a few blocks from us.” Accompanied by him, I soon made them a call. Mrs. Kingsley had a babe then about’rive months old. She informed me she had buried her husband near Beardstown, on the Illinois river, and, being left among strangers, she concluded to remove to Quincy and live with her sisters-in-law. I called several times at that residence. That lady and myself attended a few parties together, and, not to be circumlocutional, right here it might as well be told the reader in plain words, that, in due time, Mrs. Kingsley, at my suggestion, consented to substitute the name of Littlefield for that of Kingsley.… Singular enough the occurrence of my hearing the voice in the printing office in Liberty had not occurred to me until that prediction thus had its fulfillment.

The all absorbing question then was how and where wore, we to live? We were both poor; I was out of a permanent situation in business; but we were young and willing to employ our energies in the accumulation of the comforts of life. Just at that time I saw in a newspaper an advertisement stating that a printer was wanted at Rushville, Schuyler County, to take the charge of and print a Democratic paper in that place, the office and material being then in position for immediate operation. 1 told my wife that was our opportunity. She was of my opinion, as is always the case with a devoted wife during the honeymoon period. Leaving her at my father’s home, 1 took the stage for Rushville, where Hon. Mr. Richardson, the proprietor, made au agreement with me. A paper had been printed there entitled The Illinois Republican, and I continued it, retaining the same title.

[While Littlefield's account may seem a little off-topic, there is a connection to Eliza or the Broken Vow that will become clear later.]

About a year later, early in 1841, Littlefield moved to Nauvoo and began working for the Church’s newspaper, the Times and Seasons, and by June 15th, the poem The Latter Day Saints was published in a 16 page pamphlet. Littlefield went on to serve a mission in England in 1847 and 1848, where he worked for the Millennial Star, and then worked in Iowa for the Council Bluffs Bugle and Crescent City Oracle for ten years before immigrating to Utah in 1860. Not surprisingly, he found work in Utah at a series of newspapers, including the Deseret News and Salt Lake Daily Telegraph, before moving to Smithfield, Utah (near Logan), where he passed away in 1893.

Elsewhere in Reminiscences, Littlefield makes clear that Eliza or the Broken Vow was published in The Illinois Republican. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, few, if any, issues of the newspaper exist. Library catalogs do report having copies of some scattered issues, but there doesn’t appear to be more than a handful of issues in existence. The catalogs don’t even know when the Republican ceased publication.

Where does this leave Eliza or the Broken Vow? It is still possible that the relevant issues of the Republican could turn up somewhere—in a family collection, as part of someone’s papers or among the collection of a small library whose catalog isn’t on the Internet (much like the LDS Church History Library was not on the Internet until earlier this year). Another possibility is that Eliza or the Broken Vow was reprinted in another publication, as frequently happened at the time (especially since Littlefield worked as a printer for several subsequent publications, many of which have not been indexed yet). Another possibility is that Littlefield kept a copy of Eliza or the Broken Vow in his personal papers, which, if extant, may be in the possession of family or an uncataloged archive. Perhaps a long shot, but still possible.

Littlefield did, however, leave what amounts to a summary of Eliza or the Broken Vow in the following somewhat personal excerpt from Reminiscences:

In the Missouri Enquirer office… ample opportunities were afforded for meditation, as the past and present came up for review. Joseph and his fellow prisoners [in Liberty Jail]… were actually, so to speak, within a stone throw of the place of my employment.… For me or any others of our faith in that place to have tried to aid* them would have been useless, if known to the people. There were those, however, who did aid them in a certain way.

Just across the street, directly opposite the jail lived a family of Latter-day Saints, who were full of sympathy for their imprisoned brethren. This family befriended them in the only way within their power. Having heard it whispered that their food was not, at all times, of a very good quality, they, as often as convenient, and when safe to do so, found means to pass to them through the prison grates, (which could be reached by a person standing upon the ground from the outside) various articles of food, such as cakes, pies, etc., which they themselves prepared. This had to be done very cautiously, under the cover of night. The names of those who performed these good Samaritan-like deeds, were Samuel Kingsley and his wife Olive Martha; also his sisters Rachel, Eleanor and Flora. The doubtful character of the food sometimes placed before the prisoners, by those to whom that duty had been assigned (it is said that human flesh had actually been given them to eat) doubtless caused them to duly appreciate and relish these wholesome repasts, knowing, as they did, that they had been carefully prepared by the hands of sympathizing friends.

We will here digress a little and relate a melancholy episode connected with the termination of the earthly existence of Miss Eliza Kingsley, who. was the sister of Brother Kingsley, just named. The circumstances, briefly related, are as follows:

Sister Eliza’s age, at the time of her demise—which took place in Liberty—was perhaps a little over twenty years. In appearance and manners she was highly prepossessing. Her character was above reproach. She had been for some time under engagement of marriage to John McDaniel, a merchant of Liberty.

Twice the wedding day had been fixed upon, and each day the marriage had been postponed; the first time, in consequence of the death of Mr. McDaniel’s mother, which was a legitimate reason; but the second ceremony was prevented only by some alleged important business matter. He gradually grew indifferent and finally absented himself altogether from her company.

Her affections were firmly fixed upon him and an abandonment on his part was what Eliza could not endure. She sank into a settled melancholy and her declining health was noticed with alarm by her friends. She was usually reticent about the occurrence, only alluding to it in the presence of her most intimate friends and those whom she knew were conversant with the circumstance.

While laying very low upon her bed of death, she frankly spoke of her sad condition and blighted hopes to her friend, the writer. Earth, to her, was henceforth bereft of enjoyment, and she felt willing to seek a place of rest in the bright world beyond, where she hoped to have strength and knowledge sufficient to counteract the sting of disappointed hopes that had darkened her earthly path. Death came to her relief and she welcomed the messenger without any expressions of regret.

Her remains were conveyed, by her friends, to the burial ground at Far West, some forty miles distant, that they might rest where the ashes of the Latter-day Saints reposed. When we had performed the sad rite of burial we returned to Liberty, where we again resumed the cares of life.

But there is a sequel to this episode which must not be omitted: John McDaniel, not long after her death, took a trip out west to Santa Fe. Soon after his return he was arrested, charged with the murder of a Santa Fe trader, for his money. He was tried, convicted and finally hung for the crime in the city of St. Louis, Missouri.

These facts were subsequently chosen as the foundation of a romance which was published in the Illinois Republican, entitled Eliza, or, the Broken Vow.

While Littlefield calls Eliza, or, the Broken Vow a “romance,” I don’t think we can take that to mean that it is prose. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that it is a romance told in poetry. Still, with Littlefield’s co-workers at the Times and Seasons claiming that Littlefield’s work showed “evidence of poetic genius,” it would be interesting to read it.

And so, I am, although not desperately, seeking Eliza.

15 comments: “Desperately (or not) Seeking Eliza

  1. Marilyn Brown

    Okay, who’s going to write it? (Now that I’m finished with FIRES OF JERUSALEM after six long years of all the opposition you could imagine!) Eliza’s broken heart might be EASIER!

  2. Wm Morris

    This is fascinating, Kent.

    I find this rather evocative: “she felt willing to seek a place of rest in the bright world beyond, where she hoped to have strength and knowledge sufficient to counteract the sting of disappointed hopes that had darkened her earthly path.”

  3. Katya

    OK, here’s the WorldCat record for the Rushville Illinois Republican: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/8797341

    According to that record, there are four libraries which hold copies of any issue of that paper: The Library of Congress, the Chicago History Museum, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, and the Rock Island Public Library.

    Here’s the record at the Library of Congress: http://lccn.loc.gov/sn82015019 Oddly, I can’t seem to find any holdings information.

    I can’t find an online catalog for the Chicago History Museum and I can’t find the item in the Rock Island Public Library catalog, which leaves the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

    Here’s a list of the newspaper holdings of the Lincoln library: http://www.illinoishistory.gov/lib/newspaper-City.htm#Rushville If you scroll down to “Rushville,” you can see that the Illinois Republican had a number of different names. (It was called the Phoenix in 1838, the Illinois Republican in 1840, and the Political Examiner in 1841.) This is nice, because it means we can narrow down our search to the year (or so) that the paper was called the Republican, in 1840

    However, if we don’t have a more specific date of publication then we don’t have enough information to do an ILL request, because ILL librarians don’t have time to look through 50+ issues for the one article/poem/story we’re looking for.

    So, I submit that it would probably be best if someone could visit either Springfield, Illinois or Washington, D.C. in person to look for the item (after calling ahead to verify the holdings of the library in question so as not to waste a trip). Does anyone have a friend in Illinois or DC who owes them a favor?

  4. Kent Larsen Post author

    Katya, you’re repeating some work I’ve already done.

    We are indeed looking for the Republican in 1840. Littlefield married the widow in Feb 1840 and went to work at the Republican immediately afterwards. They were in Nauvoo a year later.

    I do go to the LOC from here in NYC on occasion, and I do plan to take a look.

    BUT, I also think that I may send some email messages ahead of time. My impression from the catalog records is that there are just a handful of issues extant. I won’t be surprised if, on visiting these libraries, there are 3 issues or fewer available.

  5. Lee Allred

    After a little searching, I think I found it, or at least a fragment:
    .
    .
    “Sexton,” Eliza’s white lips whispered, pointing to the prison grate,
    With its crossed bars iron rusted, bars crossed tight like darkened fate,
    “I’ve a prophet in the prison, doomed to eat most dreadful chow
    At the ringing of the chow bell, so I ask you break your vow.
    Old Guv Boggs comes not til sunset,” and she held preserve jar tight
    As she spoke in husky whispers, “Chow bell must not right tonight!”
    .
    “‘Liza,” calmly spoke the Sexton (every word like succotash
    Fed to her with small anchovies, smelling like five day old trash).
    “Long, long years I’ve rung the chow bell in that dank and dreary jail
    Every breakfast, every lunchtime, served them slops from my pig pail.
    I have done my duty ever, tried to do it just and right:
    Now I’must, I must not miss it. Chow Bell must be rung tonight!”
    .
    Wild her eyes and pale her features, Liz must win him. How, oh how?
    Change his mind and stop that chow bell, make him break his solemn vow.
    Then remembeed with advantage what old Ma Mack Smith once said.
    Quickest way to menfolk’s heartstrings, tempt their tummies not their head.
    So she opened wicker basket, plums preserves and cold ham bright;
    Sexton speaking through a mouthful: “Chow bell mufth nnnnth ring tonightfh!”
    .
    Then with quick step ‘Liz bound forward, sprang against the cold jail wall,
    Left the Sexton chowing downing on the string beans canned last fall.
    Not one moment paused the maiden, second basket held in tow,
    Hefted up the sweet peach cobbler, cold cuts swinging to and fro.
    Hefted up the Boston baked beans, Angel Food’s cake moist and light,
    Upward held her wicker basket. “Chow bell shall not right tonight!”

  6. Lee Allred

    More like “What in the Rose Hartwick Thorpe …?”

    (Kids today. Don’t they teach anything in Lit classes these days?) :)

  7. Kent Larsen Post author

    Lee, that wasn’t part of any general literature class I’ve ever taken. Seems a tad on the obscure side.

  8. Lee Allred

    I was joking before about Lit classes, but you’ve both got me really wondering now. “Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight” used to be one of those poems they made every school kid memorize, like Paul Revere’s Ride. My high school Lit text had it.

    It was one of the poems James Thurber illustrated in FABLES FOR OUR TIMES (Im looking at it right here in my THURBER CARNIVAL omnibus). Katherine Hepurn recited it in the movie DESK SET (long a favorite movie of mine):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KiDgkGRCBq0&feature=player_detailpage#t=75s

    If you’re telling me it’s now down the culture’s collective memory hole, you’re making me feel really, really old …

    — Lee

  9. Kent Larsen Post author

    I dunno, Lee. I think I’m about your age, and I don’t remember it at all. Perhaps its just a difference in where and how we were educated.

  10. Katya

    Katya, you’re repeating some work I’ve already done.

    Indeed. I thought it wise to double check that no stone was left unturned. (Speaking of which, I did eventually find the online catalog of the Chicago History Museum and it turns out that the University of Chicago might also own an issue.)

    And I may reverse myself regarding my earlier ILL statement. If so many libraries own just one or two issues of the Republican, it might be reasonable to ask them to look for the poem, after all.

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