John Q. Cannon and Louie Wells, a Utah Camelot scandal
I’m haunted by a ragged PDF-copied photograph, courtesy of the Utah State Historical Society, of Louisa “Louie” Wells, who 130 years ago was a princess in Mormon Salt Lake City. The poor quality of the reproduced photo does not hide that she was a beautiful young woman. “Louie” Wells was the daughter of Mormon elitist Daniel Hamner Wells, Salt Lake City mayor, and Emmeline Blanche Wells, Mormon feminist and magazine editor.
Besides being favored with beauty, and a steady, esteemed Mormon suitor, journalist Robert W. Sloan, Louie was as accomplished as a Jane Austen heroine. She sang beautifully, she performed in Salt Lake City plays and operas, including “The Mikado,” was an early leader of the LDS ladies Mutual organization, and was an excellent essayist, writing accounts of her travels to the eastern United States and Europe for the LDS journal Women’s Exponent. She was groomed to be a Mormon woman icon, perhaps as well known today as Eliza R. Snow.
Today, in a corner of the Salt Lake City cemetery, a tombstone, well over a century old, bears the name “Louie,” and nothing else. Louie Wells died an agonizing death at 24, far from home, with her mother at her side, helpless to save her. In less than a year, her bright future and presumed happiness was extinguished. The events that led to her death roiled Salt Lake City and nearly destroyed the kinship between two prominent families, the Wells and the Cannons.
Historian Kenneth Cannon III’s article, “The Tragic Matter of Louie Wells and John Q. Cannon,” is must reading if one wants to learn more after reading this blog. In 1886, in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, John Q. — the eldest living son of Mormon elder George Q. Cannon, and a former Ogden Standard editor, Deseret News reporter, counselor in the LDS Church Presiding Bishopric, and husband of Annie Wells Cannon, Louie’s sister — shocked a crowd gathered to worship by confessing to adultery. He was immediately excommunicated, promptly divorced from Annie, and then married to Louie.
Although John Q. Cannon did not mention the “other woman,” the hasty marriage to Louie made it easy to guess whom he had slept with. Try to imagine an LDS general authority today confessing to adultery during a stake conference and one understands how shocked Mormons were at the time. On the other hand, the anti-Mormon Salt Lake Tribune was delighted. It had, in 1884, published gossip that John Q. and Louie had secretly married. At the time, John Q. had tracked down the reporter, and beat him up.
After his 1886 confession to adultery, divorce and new marriage, federal marshals — always on the lookout for polygamists — arrested John Q., claiming his quick divorce from Annie was illegal. Louie, already pregnant, went into hiding but was located by authorities. She spent a humiliating time in court denying she was a plural wife.
The case against John Q. eventually lost steam. Long before its resolution, Louie was sent to San Francisco by her family to have the baby. It was not the first time that she had been made pregnant by her brother in law. John Q. confessed to an intimate that he had impregnated Louie in 1885 and that she had miscarried. This news seems to lend partial credibility to the controversial Tribune article, although no marriage occurred. The source for that article, according to Kenneth Cannon’s piece, was Angus Cannon Jr., the despised, “scoundrel” son of Angus Cannon Sr., polygamist and stake president, who had accompanied John Q. when he confessed in 1886.
Louie Cannon Wells died six weeks after suffering her second miscarriage. Her death at 24 was due to dropsy, and she suffered terribly. Mom Emmeline was unable to help ease her pain, which must have been exacerbated due to stress, hiding and traveling. During their short marriage, Louie and her husband were likely never together. He was not at her side when she died. Shortly after Louie’s death, John Q. and Annie Wells were remarried. Several years later, Louie was sealed to John Q. in a temple ceremony.
At Louie’s funeral, an already bad situation was dangerously increased when stake president Angus Cannon publicly identified Louie as the adulterous partner of John Q. This created a feud between the Cannons and Wells that eventually led to Angus Cannon physically striking Louie’s sister, Mell, and threatening to tell more about the affair. Later, John Q. threatened to kill Angus Cannon. Tensions were finally eased thanks to the Wells family matriarch, Emmeline. Tolerant, and a peacemaker at heart, she reached out to the Cannons, and the situation calmed. However, the rift never died, as Emmeline Wells’ diary entry of May 17, 1898, footnoted by Kenneth Cannon, reads, “Angus is 64 years old today. ... He has seen much sorrow and as he has been unkind and ungenerous to others harsh in his judgment one need not be surprised that it comes back upon him — As ye mete it out to others so shall it be unto you, and therefore he should expect it.”
As with any tragedy, there are “why” questions. Why didn’t John Q. make Louie a plural wife, and avoid church punishment? One answer may be that plural marriage for younger LDS scions was being subtly discouraged at a time when Utah leaders wanted statehood. More likely is that John Q. could not control his lust for a beautiful, younger sister in law living in the home, particularly when his own wife was pregnant. In his article, Kenneth Cannon points out that despite being the favored older son, (John Q. had been called to be an apostle long before the adultery was revealed, only to have that blocked by LDS Church President John Taylor), John Q. was a dysfunctional man. He was prone to drinking, gambling and carousing. It’s possible that inebriation fueled his lust. Also, one two occasions, John Q. embezzled thousands of dollars while held positions of trust. He was bailed out both times by his family’s influence.
Time, and staying alive, returned John Q. to society’s esteem. After his remarriage, he was restored to membership to the LDS Church and was a Deseret News editor. He and Annie had 12 children. John Q. is buried in the Cannon family plot next to his wife Annie. Elsewhere, in the Wells family plot, sits the stone with the sole word, “Louie,” on it.
A previous version of this column was published at StandardBlogs.