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Reynolds v. U.S.: 1879

Congress Strengthens Anti-bigamy Law

After the Civil War, Congress regained interest in the question of Mormon polygamy. Congress strengthened the Morrill Act by passing the Poland Law in 1874. The Poland Law increased the powers of the federal judiciary within the territory of Utah. Because federal judges were federally appointed, they were more likely to be non-Mormons and thus more aggressive about enforcing the law.

Mormon leader Brigham Young and George Q. Cannon, territorial delegate to Congress and advisor to Young, decided to challenge the federal government in court. They were confident that if the government tried any Mormons for bigamy, the United States Supreme Court would throw out the convictions, based on the First Amendment right to free exercise of their religion. Therefore, they planned to arrange for a "test case" to be brought to court. Young and Cannon chose Young's personal secretary, a devout Mormon and practicing polygamist, George Reynolds.

Young and Cannon were successful: the government indicted Reynolds for bigamy in October 1874. Reynolds had to be re-tried, however, due to juryselection problems. The government indicted Reynolds again in October 1875. The judge was territorial Supreme Court Chief Justice Alexander White, and the prosecutor was William Carey. George W. Biddle and Ben Sheeks represented Reynolds.

The government charged that Reynolds was currently married to both Mary Ann Tuddenham and Amelia Jane Schofield. The prosecution had little difficulty in proving that Reynolds lived with both women, despite some trouble in serving Schofield with her subpoena. The following dialogue is an excerpt from the prosecution's questioning of Arthur Pratt, a deputy marshal sent to serve a subpoena on Schofield:

Question: State to the court what efforts you have made to serve it.

Answer: I went to the residence of Mr. Reynolds, and a lady was there, his first wife, and she told me that this woman was not there; that that was the only home that she had, but that she hadn't been there for two or three weeks. I went again this morning, and she was not there.

Question: Do you know anything about her home, where she resides?

Answer: I know where I found her before.

Question: Where?

Answer: At the same place.

Following more evidence of Reynolds' two marriages, which the defense had no chance of refuting, Judge White gave instructions to the jury. White's instructions smashed Reynolds' defense that by virtue of the First Amendment he was innocent because of his Mormon religious beliefs:

[If you find that Reynolds] deliberately married a second time, having a first wife living, the want of consciousness of evil intent, the want of understanding on his part that he was committing crime, did not excuse him, but the law inexorably, in such cases, implies criminal intent.…

The jury found Reynolds guilty on December 10, 1875. On July 6, 1876, the territorial Supreme Court affirmed his sentence. Reynolds appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. On November 14 and 15, 1878, Biddle and Sheeks argued to the Supreme Court that it must overturn Reynolds' conviction on the basis of the First Amendment.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882Reynolds v. U.S.: 1879 - Congress Strengthens Anti-bigamy Law, The Supreme Court Destroys Mormons' Hopes, Suggestions For Further Reading