The relationship between Joseph Smith’s youngest son and another man
David Smith returned to Utah in July 1872 on another church mission. While in Utah, he “seemed to lose the sense of his religious purpose.” He even attended some Spiritualist seances to contact his father, whom he never knew. Charles would later blame David’s involvement in Spiritualism for his mental illness, believing an evil spirit had controlled him.
However, historians believe that David’s breakdown was probably due to the fact that while in Utah, he discovered accurate information about the origin of polygamy, which was “more compelling than seances,” and that his mother’s adamant denial of Joseph Smith practicing polygamy was false.
During much of the nine months he was in the west, David wrote letters to Charles Jensen in which the strength of their love and friendship was evident. In one, he mentioned bathing in the warm springs now known as Warm Springs Park. He wrote to Charles, “Oh, if you could have been with me. I wish you were here, and we would go up the mountain and spend a day and rambling, take a lunch basket and a bottle of pop. Well love me long.”
Charles Jensen was born in Denmark. While there is no record of a father, his mother Catherine converted to Mormonism and came to Salt Lake City in 1854. She later became dissatisfied with the doctrine of polygamy and returned with her son to Council Bluffs, Iowa, in the summer of 1857. His mother settled among other disaffected Scandinavian Mormons. Charles walked most of the way across the plains back to Council Bluff when he was 10 years old, where he lived out the remainder of his life. The 1860 federal census listed his mother as a “washer woman,” and his mother would marry in 1864 when Charles was seven years old.
After a branch of the RLDS church was established in Council Bluff, Charles Jensen attended the North star Branch where Charles and David met as youths in 1863. David Smith was 19, and Charles Jensen was 16. Afterwards, whenever David Smith visited the branch in Council Bluff, he would stay with Charles’ family, and as was the frontier custom, they would share a bed.
Charles and David were “close friends” from 1869 until late 1873 when Smith’s “mental breakdown made him too deranged to sustain it. However, Jensen was said to have been loyal to him “to the end.”
Charles was baptized by Joseph Smith III as a member of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in 1871 when he was 24 in Council Bluffs. He never married and declined to accept ordination to the priesthood, never offering a reason for his decision, although he attended the Council Bluffs Branch and served as a Sunday school teacher, a superintendent, a district clerk, and a historian. He was a faithful member until his death, and in his will, he left some of his estate to the Council Bluff branch of the RLDS church to support the poor.
In many of David’s letters written while in Utah, the subject of marriage was discussed in order to cure Charles’ complaints of his loneliness and perhaps to curb his expression of his love for David, which caused Smith to exhort Jensen to marry as he had in 1870. When Charles told David that he “decided never to marry,” Smith assured him, “that each person’s life choices are uniquely his own,” but counseled him to “seek out the company of women” and “appoint some young and handsome lady to embrace you for me.”
In one letter, Charles wrote David that he was a “bad egg.” David wrote him that was “nonsense.” Smith referred to Jensen as a “good man” and suggested he consult a doctor if he felt “sick.” Charles probably was referring to his attachment to David as a sickness.
In one of the many letters to “Charlie”, David wrote “keep me in a warm place in your heart Charles, for I too feel the world to be a cold and cheerless at times.” Also, in one, he wrote, “Dear friend Charlie, I would be a friend, would do good, and am under great obligation to you for many a good turn. But I am naturally bad at heart, so do not trust me; think just as much of me as you please, but do not place confidence in me for human nature is weak and I am a weak specimen; so, take me with all due allowances, or you may be disappointed.”
At one point on his mission, David “suffered a complete physical and emotional breakdown.” The Salt Lake Tribune wrote a blurb stating that David was suffering from “Brain Fever,” which was the 19th-century term for an emotional and mental collapse.
Later, answering a letter where Charles must have confided his love for him, David wrote “I do not intend to drop you” and “you know nothing of the real shadows of darkness. I believe, at any rate, assured that having as I do the depth of your affectionate nature, I can readily guess the direction those imperfections would take.”
In 1873 Charles may have written regarding trying to suppress his feelings for David, as he wrote back to Charles, “you must not become too good my gentle friend, or your poor caring favorite will be left behind, unworthy as he is and will feel as he had no friend. Your friend that would be.”
David returned home in the spring of 1873 in the care of Josiah Ells, an RLDS apostle. Not knowing of David’s severe illness, his brother Joseph Smith III, President of the RLDS church called him to serve in the First Presidency in April. David seemed to feel better away from Utah. He and his wife set up housekeeping in Plano, Illinois, the church’s headquarters, “but his illness overtook him, and he was never well enough to serve in that capacity due to ongoing bouts of depression and confusion.” David was unable to fulfill his responsibility in the First Presidency. His brother, however, refused to release him from that position which he held until his death. Joseph Smith III claimed that God had called David to that office, and only God could release him.
David’s marriage had not brought the “emotional fulfillment” he desired, and he may have been thinking of Charles when he penned this poem: “Through this cold world we must smother, Each feeling that once was so dear, Like that young bird I’ll seek to discover, A home of affection elsewhere, The heart may cling to thee fondly, And dream of sweet memories past, Yet hope like the rainbow of summer, Gives a promise of life at last.”
The last coherent letter to Charles from David was wriiten in 1874. From 1874 through 1876, David’s family struggled to care for him, “passing him back and forth between Plano, Illinois and Lamoni, Iowa. “When he became violent, it was decided there was nothing that could be done except to place him in the asylum for the mentally ill in Elgin, Illinois. Joseph Smith III took this sad step on 19 January 1877. David was thirty-two.”
Charles stayed involved in David’s life even after his mental collapse, and Joseph Smith III was said to have “found in Charles a trusted and sympathetic ear,” as that David’s wife had moved away from the Smiths.
For the rest of his life, David had “times of lucid thought but it did not last. His book, “Hesperis,” a book of Poems published in 1875, brought a small income to his wife and child who left Illinois and moved to Iowa to raise her son near her own parents. The family struggled financially.
Some suggested that David’s illness was brought about from being attacked in Utah, even poisoned, but his brother denied it. “His emotional and physical breakdown was not due to his missionary labors in Utah as some mistakenly implied.”
David died in 1904, three months short of his sixtieth birthday. Charles remained in Council Bluff, where he worked as a salesman for a druggist and bought his own home. He died in 1925 and was buried next to his mother.