Treasures: Penitentiary Letter



These are my 2nd great-grandparents, Susan Kaziah Davis and Frederick William Ellis.  They were both born in England.  They each joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and immigrated to America.  They made their way to Utah where they met.  In 1869, they were married in Salt Lake City.  They had ten children.  Their youngest son, Claude Albert Ellis, is my great-grandfather.  His daughter, Mary Margaret Ellis, is my grandmother.  In 1930, Frederick was a widower and is found living in the home of his son Claude.  This means that my Grandma spent some of her growing up years with her Grandpa Ellis living in her home.  She knew him well.  And, that is probably why I have so many Ellis family treasures.

Back to Frederick and Susan.  And Sarah.  In 1881, Frederick married Sarah Jane Barker.  Frederick was a polygamist.  He and Sarah had six children.  It wasn’t long after his marriage to Sarah that polygamy became a felony.  LDS polygamists were forced to make a choice.  Frederick was not willing to divorce Sarah.  And so, on two occasions, he spent time in the Utah Penitentiary.

Growing up, my Grandma only had happy, positive things to say about her grandparents.  She had a framed picture hanging on her wall of the Frederick William Ellis family.  At the time it was taken, Sarah was no longer living.  Front and center are Frederick and Susan, surrounded by 12 of the children from both wives.  (One had died, I’m not sure why the other three were not in the photo, maybe they lived too far away at the time it was taken.)  Grandma seemed to have no negative feelings about polygamy.  And since it was so close to her, generationally speaking, it had an impact on my perspective.  I just really didn’t think much about it.  It just was.  And now that I am older, I wish I had thought to ask my Grandma more questions about what polygamy was like for her grandparents.  But I did not ask.  And so I am left to try to glean what I can from the bits of their lives they left behind.

This letter, was among the treasures in my Grandma’s boxes.  It was written by Frederick to Susan on 1 January 1887.  It is 131 years old.  What a treasure!




Utah Penitentiary

Jan 1st 1887

Dear Susey,

I recived your letter yesterday and wase very glad to hear from you and to know you wase feeling better, I have been watching for a letter evry day for a week, Mother and Father sent me up a cake and a Pie and apples and candy for Christmas, I expect thay well come up and see me before thay go Back,

We had a concert on Christmas eve and we had a good time, being on of the committee you know what part I have to take, We have one evry week, I feal a little more at home now I have on my my new close, I do not feal

-page 2-

so much like a black sheep thay say I look good in them

Bro Tracey Left here the other day and I expect he will call on you some day

I have got one of the school arithmetic now but I do not know wether I well go to school or not yet, as Bro Butler is in this Cell he his willing to tell me all I want to know

I have sent to Father to get me some Books and some over shoe’s and you can fix it with him when he comes home

I sent to you the other day for a few things I expect you have recived the letter before this

Pleas tell Fredy not to do anything to the hay Rack before I come home as I well be home in time then I well make a new one tell him

-page 3-

to get some good strate stakes about 3 or 4 feet long to go around the rack if he has time

I would like the children to write to me at any time as it well be all the news I well get from home and tell them to be good children and I well see them again some day

I hope you had a Merry Christmas and I wish you a happy new year remember me to the Bishop and tell him I well write to him some day this is about all I have to say at Present

Hoping this will find you all well

I Remane yours


F. W. Ellis

If I had my slippers I would like it


That last line may be my very favorite part.  There is something so gentle and understated about it as well as the fact that it just catches me off guard each time I read it and I usually laugh out loud a bit.

There is something so cool about holding a letter this old.  What a joy to be the current steward of this family treasure.


Happy Monday!  Do you have any old family letters?  If so, what is the oldest letter you have?



ps – If you are curious about polygamy in my tree, let me tell you a bit.  My Dad descends from all LDS pioneers.  In his part of my tree, I counted 19 pioneer men and only 4 were definitely polygamists and 2 might have been (more research is needed on those men).  Additionally, I have one female ancestor, Sarah Jane Marler, who was married to a man who was not a polygamist (from whom I descend) and then when he was killed she married his best friend who was already married.  Many people are under the impression that polygamy was practiced by all members of the LDS church.  That is not true.  Many LDS men were never polygamists.  The church issued what was known as the Manifesto in 1890, officially ending the practice of polygamy.  Of course, that wasn’t something that could be followed immediately.  But it did mean that no more men entered into the practice of polygamy.  I have heard that a few more marriages somehow happened, but generally speaking, no more polygamous marriages occurred after 1890.


33 thoughts on “Treasures: Penitentiary Letter”

  1. How long did he spend in prison each time? It sounds like he was not alone in being there for polygamy. I am somewhat fascinated by the whole practice as I can’t imagine sharing my husband with anyone! And why are there still cases of polygamy among Mormons if it is no longer part of religious doctrine? I am thinking of that Reality TV show, for example. Are these people considered unacceptable by the LDS church in modern times?

    1. Hello,
      I think you may have transcribed one of the words incorrectly. You have “… as Bro Butler is in this bell…”. I think that “bell” should be “Cell.” He has a tendency to capitalize random words. His capital C also changes in appearance. At the end of the first page the “C” in “Close” looks the same.

    2. Good question. I don’t know. And if I weren’t about to start teaching piano, I would do some quick checking. He definitely was not alone. If you google you can find pictures of a bunch of LDS men from that time in photos wearing prison garb.

      I get the fascination. I would never be okay with it either.

      There are no LDS church members that are polygamists. It is not allowed. There are some people who consider the LDS church to be true, but can’t participate because they are polygamists. There are also several splinter groups who separated from the LDS church but now follow some version of the church’s doctrines under a different name who are polygamists. I know it seems confusing, but just to be clear – you cannot be a polygamist and be a member of the LDS church. One of our core beliefs is the importance of obeying the laws of the land. Polygamists don’t obey the laws of the land here in the US. If an LDS church member were to become a polygamist they would lose their membership in the church. Yeah, that guy – are you talking about Sister Wives…? – is not LDS.

      1. Thank you so much for the clarification. Yes, it was Sister Wives. I think there is a lot of misinformation out there about LDS (and about almost anything else). I thought it was still church doctrine but that it just wasn’t really practiced any more. The other common rumor is that the Mormons are baptizing all our dead relatives to save their souls and that’s why they are interested in genealogy. I hope I am not being offensive in asking about these things. I know that people always have questions about Judaism also—like about dietary restrictions and holidays and the old myths about having horns and killing Jesus. Only education can stop prejudice!

        1. Having horns? I’ve never heard that one. Yes, lots of rumors for so many groups. I agree! Education is essential to stopping prejudice.

          You are not being offensive at all! While LDS church members do complete ordinances for their own loved ones who have died, that is only one part of why genealogy is important to the church. Family is at the heart of everything and knowing where you have come from, who your ancestors are, what they have overcome, and so on, strengthens us, gives us a sense of identity and purpose, a healthy resilience in the face of challenges. The LDS church is dedicated to preserving the genealogical records of the world to help individuals accomplish their genealogy efforts and experience all of those good things. Family is everything. And knowing about our families, well, that is powerful. ❤️

          1. Thanks, Amberly, for responding—I was really afraid I might offend you with the question. I have seen people say things like, “I won’t use FamilySearch because the LDS church wants to baptize my ancestors and I won’t support them.” I’ve always dismissed it as myth, but heard it enough to wonder if in fact it was true. I want to be able to respond with some authority when I see/hear that again.

            You know how strongly I believe that it is important to know and understand who and where you came from. Family is central to much of Judaism as well.

            1. Of course! 🙂 Family really is at the heart of everything – who we are, and who we become as individuals and as a society. I love this quote from Barbara Bush (politics aside…): “You must read to your children and you must hug your children and you must love your children. Your success as a family, our success as a society, depends not on what happens in the White House, but on what happens inside your house.”

              1. Great quote—although it takes both a good and loving home and the government to make our society a success for everyone.

                1. I agree, government is so important – for everyone. But I also agree that a community and nation are strengthened more by strong families than by strong political leaders. And strong families in turn can create strong individuals who make better political leaders.

                  One of my favorite opportunities came when I was the PTO president of my children’s elementary school. Their school had an immigrant population of about 20%, most of whom were very new arrivals to the US. I was able to start a free English for Families program. We held it one evening each week. We had three tracks – one for adults with no English, one for more intermediate English speakers, and one that focused more on reading and writing English. The school district donated the adult teachers, we arranged the curriculum for the children’s class. We provided transportation for anyone who did not have it. We took children of all ages in the children’s class and any adult family members of students at our school were welcome in the adult classes. The beginning class started with school language – like how to call the school and tell the secretary that your child is home sick without needing to ask for an interpreter (as these individuals were teachers and keeping them teaching was important) or understanding parent teacher conferences. Then they moved on to conversational English for other day-today tasks. One of my favorite outcomes was that some of our most dedicated parent volunteers (who helped run the children’s class) were able to meet some of our most timid immigrant families. That led to a general feeling of increased community. Our immigrant parents were more comfortable attending school events and we saw an increase in participation in parent-teacher conferences and other important school events. I watched families feel supported, welcome, and included. Those families seemed to be strengthened each week as they became more confident with English and more connected to their school community. That led to the children of our immigrant families being more successful at school. Prior to this program, quite a few parents were frustrated with our status as a magnet school for English Language Learners. Those children who were bussed in from other areas struggled, their parents weren’t very involved, and so on went the complaints. Those very same parents who had been frustrated were completely changed as they helped support this program. The complaints went away, the school felt more unified (which is understandably challenging to accomplish when such a large portion of the student population does not live near the school). That experience taught me a lot about community and the ability we have to strengthen our community and the families within our community without the government needing to be involved. That was reinforced when the following year, the school district took over the program, moved it to a community college outside of our district boundaries, and expanded it to include all families in our district. Our program had been so successful that they wanted to “grow” it to reach more people. It was a great idea in theory, but in practice, it failed. It didn’t have any of the same school community benefits and very few families from our school attended at the new location. I’m not suggesting that government programs don’t work, or that the government should leave everything up to local communities. Only that sometimes community efforts are more effective in strengthening families. And that strong families help strengthen our communities and nation.

                  It really was such a joy to get to know so many families I hadn’t had the opportunity to meet before. I will never forget one family that I met in the fall of that year who had literally just arrived from Russia. They didn’t speak any English. I was helping at Back to School night and they came to my table. We had to resort to improvised hand signs to figure out which grade their daughter was in. That same family participated in our English for Families program later in the year. One evening after class, the mother tearfully told me about the wonderful opportunities her family had experienced in America. When she rattled them off, things like her 12-hour night shift at the tortilla factory, I was in awe of her gratitude and work-ethic. And even more so, of her very quick work at learning English. She had learned so much between that Back to School night and the start of our program that she and her husband attended the intermediate class. It was incredibly humbling to be involved in such an awesome program.

                  Sorry for the big long ramble… 😉 It’s just really important to me to help strengthen my community in practical, hands-on ways when I can. I feel passionately about helping to strengthen families. I’m guessing that it stems mostly from three things – the fact that my mom grew up in a family that struggled, from my experiences as a teacher, and from my experiences as a foster parent.

                2. What a fabulous program! I commend on your work on this, and I can tell you feel very rewarded by the outcomes.

                  So yes, community and volunteerism can do a lot and should do a lot. But I remember Bush 41’s points of light—it didn’t work to rely on charity alone. The government should be working to protect and coordinate and support all its residents. To me, that is the purpose of government, not simply defending our borders.

                3. Thank you, Amy! Yes, I’m with you, there are definitely some things that need to be run by the government. But things like this, it’s awesome when community members see a need and find a way to try to fill it. It’s so unifying.

                  And… I know I’ve heard the phrase points of light, but I’m so young, I don’t have any recollection other than the name. 😬

                4. OK, now that’s not nice! 🙂 It was George Bush I who said it as a way of justifying smaller government—charities would be points of light, helping people instead of the government doing it.

                5. Haha! Sorry. 😉 I’m a huge fan of homegrown service, and if he ever said something that caused someone to do some act of kindness, great. But I’m with you, certain things need to be provided.

  2. What a great letter! I really like how he addresses the letter. You know he calls her Susey rather than Susan. I wonder if that’s what everyone called her.

    The most poignant line is “tell them to be good children and I will see them again some day.” Some day? He just missed Christmas and New Years and doesn’t know how long he’ll be there. That’s so sad.

    1. Thank you, Van. Yes, I’m not sure if others called her Susey, or just him. I should look through a few more things and see if I can find a pattern.

      Yes! So sad. But then there is the part saying he’ll be back in time to make a new hay rack. I’m not sure if he already knew when he would be coming home…? There are other letters not in my possession that have been scanned, I need to spend a little time reading through them and see what else I can learn. So much to do, so little time. 😉

  3. What a fascinating account, Amberly. Polygamy is so completely “foreign” to so many of us raised in the U.S. that if we don’t have LDS roots it is mind-blowing to think about. Which is why a post like this is such a good idea. And what a TREASURE.

    1. Thank you, Luanne. It’s interesting that the older I get, the more foreign it feels to me. I don’t really know how to explain that… I think spending so much time studying the lives of my ancestors continues to shape my perspective. I have two distinct halves of my tree, my dad’s side is completely filled with LDS pioneers. My mom’s side doesn’t have a single one. Studying those two distinctly different sides has given me a very unique perspective. If only I had time to explain more of what I mean, but I’m about to start teaching piano. 😉

  4. I suppose I knew that polygamists had been sent to the penitentiary, but I’ve never read any personal accounts of it. Thanks for sharing such a great story. I do have some old letters, the oldest from 1855. Plus I have scans of letters and transcripts of some earlier letters from the same family. I am using them to tell a tale from the California gold rush. I see one similarity with your letter and that is how father wants to instruct the son while he is absent. They don’t ever want to relinquish that authority, no matter how inconvenient for everyone else!

    1. Hello Eilene! I’m glad you enjoyed this small bit of Frederick & Susan’s story.

      Wow, your letters sound fascinating. Are you sharing the story online or preparing a book?

      We have the gold rush in common. Except my family were in Alaska. They got to Dawson before the rush, mined throughout the rush and did well. My 2nd great-grandparents actually married in Dawson in 1897.

      Haha, yes, that is so true! Dad’s were used to being in charge, even when they aren’t home.

      1. Yes, I am working on a non-fiction book based on the family letters and a ton of additional research.

        Did your ancestors leave you any gold nuggets?🙂

        1. Yes! Well, not to me specifically, but my mom and aunt have necklaces of gold nuggets linked together to form a chain and then with a larger nugget as the pendant. I have a necklace that is a small glass case filled with gold flakes that my great-grandfather mined/panned (not sure which). It is a treasure! How about you?

  5. What a wonderful treasure this letter is. A window into their lives. Of course, you can likely find, if you haven’t already, the records of his time in prison, but this is so much more personal. Not having LDS ancestry I did not know when the Manifesto had ended bigamy. The Q & A in your comments are as interesting as your posts, Amberly.

    1. Thank you, Cathy! I haven’t ordered his prison records, or any other records for that matter. He is on my Dad’s side. I mostly work on preservation on this branch of my family. I have so many cousins working on the research on this side that I just leave them to it. My Mom’s side on the other hand… it’s rare that I find anyone working on those branches so that’s where I focus. But sometimes, when I preserve something like this, I think maybe I will add a few new research to-dos to my list. 😉 Man, that list just gets longer, and longer, and longer.

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