Unless one is a student of Mormon history, the name John C. Bennett won’t ring a bell. His place in Mormon history has been swept under the rug. Illinois Gov. Thomas Ford said of him, “This Bennett was probably the greatest scamp in the western country.”
Nevertheless from 1840 to 1842, Bennett was the second most powerful man in the Mormon Church. Prior to joining the Church, “General Bennett” was a noted physician, surgeon, Quarter Master General for the Illinois Militia and a successful legislature lobbyist. During the two years he was a Mormon, Bennett was Nauvoo’s first mayor, first chief justice, first chancellor of the University of Nauvoo, the first major general of the Nauvoo Legion and also an assistant to Joseph Smith in the office of the First Presidency. What a resume!
Upon arriving in Nauvoo, the handsome and charismatic Bennett immediately became Smith’s best friend and his most trusted confidante. The Mormon Prophet even moved Bennett into his home. There, he became Smith’s hero when he got the Illinois legislature basically to set up Nauvoo as an independent city-state. Especially exciting for the prophet was Nauvoo’s municipal court. It was granted the powers of habeas corpus. This allowed the Mormon Prophet to flip-off the authorities in Missouri who wanted to haul his fugitive butt back to that state to be tried for treason.
Bennett was the toast of Nauvoo and popular with both the ladies and the gents. As mayor, he was considered an eligible catch for the ladies and as major general, he was popular with young men hoping to make rank in the city’s army. However, Bennett had some baggage of which most of the Saints were unaware. As a doctor he was an abortionist, he still had a wife who left him, and he was a “homo-libertine.”
In Nauvoo, gossip surrounding the doctor’s sexual antics began to worry the Mormon Prophet fearing that it might spill over onto his own secret sexual antics, “spiritual wifery.” For some time Smith had heard rumors that Bennett was advancing young Nauvoo Legionnaires in exchange for sexual favors. Smith also probably heard Nauvoo tongues a-wagging about Colonel Frank Higbee’s meteoric rise within the ranks of the city’s militia appointed by the major general.
Smith eventually felt his buddy was getting too big for his britches. He decided he needed some dirt on the mayor to reel him in. Smith got the scoop on Bennett in the form of two letters revealing he had deserted his wife and kids, but that all paled in comparison to the shenanigans the Prophet witnessed firsthand on July 4, 1842. He caught fireworks going off between the 37-year-old doctor and 21-year-old Col. Higbee. Bennet’s influence within Nauvoo that day came to a screeching halt.
Higbee’s daddy was church historian, recorder and an old Missouri Danite so he came from a “good family.” However, Higbee seemed mostly interested in “dipping his wick” at the local whore house that Bennett had had built in Nauvoo. He was a “sport” and well, when you play you pay, and Higbee soon caught the Clap. The young Higbee, discovering his wang burned when he peed, did what every Mormon boy does having the Clap: get a priesthood blessing and go see a doctor. The Mormon Prophet gave the colonel a blessing (on which head not sure, but he did say it was “irksome”) and then Bennett, as a physician, provided the young lothario some 19th-century remedy.
So back to Independence Day, 1841, Smith, with the blackmail letter in hand, went seeking Bennett, thinking probably, “I got you now, you old rascal.” However, when the Prophet found Bennett, he and Col. Higbee were canoodling. Well the way the Mormon Prophet put it was slightly different. He said he found Higbee on a bed on the floor in an act that was deemed “too indelicate for the public eye or ear” and “so revolting, corrupt and disgusting.” In 19th-century parlance, “canoodling” between men was a “revolting” crime. The very thought of men engaging in butt sex was considered so loathsome, it was often called an “unspeakable crime.”
Some silly historians refuse to believe that Bennett committed sodomy in Nauvoo. Their logic is that since Bennett was accused of seducing the “Sisters” of Nauvoo, he could not possibly be a homosexual. Don’t fall down laughing. I put it to you that it is not unreasonable to assume that butt sex was in the mix. Especially later when Bennett was on the outs, he would be accused of “buggery” by those in the know.
Well you can’t have your mayor, chancellor, chief justice, major general, and your assistant president to the Church buggering a kid. It doesn’t look right. And Smith now had the goods on Bennett, having witnessed him in “flagrante delicto,” to do something about humbling the major general.
Bennett begged Smith not to shame him in front of his peers, but the resolute Prophet said, “forget it.” Not wishing to be humiliated and disgraced before a church court, Nauvoo’s mayor took poison. However he blotched it. Smith claimed the shot at suicide was real and that Bennett “very much resisted” the antidote administered to save the mayor’s life. Less generous folks claim that as a physician, the good doctor knew exactly how much poison to take to get sick but not to kill him, and that Bennett was playing for sympathy. Whatever. The taking of poison by Nauvoo’s mayor is confirmation that the “abominable” act in which he was caught was so disgraceful and shameful to him that the ensuing dishonor and humiliation warranted suicide. “While fornication was frowned on, it was at least understood. For 19th-century Americans—especially religious ones—homosexual behavior was beyond the pale.”
Bennett and his young colonel were dragged before a secret church court for censure. Neither one denied the charges but was “filled with shame and remorse.”
Brigham Young noted “When I came into the room, Frank Higbee rather recoiled and wished to withdraw; he went out and sat upon a pile of wood. He said it is all true, I am sorry for it, I wish it had never happened…”
Not so strange, the 1841 ecclesiastical trial of Bennett is absent from Mormon Church records. Obviously the church court proceedings were handled quietly and discreetly. Some believe Smith did not dare make a record of “accusations of sodomy against Bennett for fear of destroying the reputations of the other young men.” A scandal of that magnitude would give fodder to the enemies of the Saints. A more compelling case for why the trial was secrecy is that the Mormon prophet did not want it publicly gossiped that he had put a “sodomite” in such a high position within the Church. That the “Frank Higbee Affair” was not a one-time fling comes from Brigham Young, who stated Bennett “was seducing young women, and leading young men into difficulty … if he had let young men and women alone it would have been better for him.”