Reynolds v. United States would eventually resolve the dispute over polygamy and religious freedom in favor of the United States government. But before the case could get to the Supreme Court, George Reynolds needed to be convicted—and he wanted to fight the charge.
Although Congress passed the Morrill Anti-bigamy Act in 1862, twelve years later in 1874 no court had yet found a single member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (sometimes nicknamed “Mormons” in that time) guilty of having multiple wives. While the rest of America condemned Mormon polygamy as a barbaric heresy and theocratic threat to democracy, Church leaders insisted the First Amendment to the Constitution protected their plural marriages under the free exercise of religion. Meanwhile, most Latter-day Saint polygamists lived in remote western U.S. territories. Latter-day Saints held electoral majorities for years, effectively guaranteeing territorial law enforcement, judges, and juries were friendly to Latter-day Saints.
However, in June 1874 Congress passed the Poland Act, granting United States district courts exclusive criminal jurisdiction in the territories, thereby putting judges, juries, and polygamy cases in the hands of the federal government instead of territorial voters. Within a year, federal prosecutors finally had a trial for an anti-polygamy case against George Reynolds, a clerk in the office of the Church’s First Presidency who had married a second wife earlier that year. Reynolds originally agreed to be indicted as a “test case” negotiated between the Church and federal prosecutors to settle the Church’s First Amendment claims, but the agreement fell apart after his October 1874 indictment. By the time of Reynolds’s trial in March 1875, Reynolds was fighting for a not guilty verdict.
Court convened on March 31, 1875 for United States v. Reynolds. Although Latter-day Saints were among the jury, they agreed to respect the trial court’s ruling on the Morrill Act’s constitutionality for the sake of deciding the verdict. But Carey, the prosecutor, soon found himself at an impasse anyway. He declared his intent to prove Reynolds lawfully married Mary Ann Tuddenham in 1865 and unlawfully married Amelia Jane Schofield in 1874, but the fourteen witnesses he subpoenaed—including friends and family of Reynolds—had planned ahead of time to give testimonies that would obscure as much as possible Reynolds’s relationship to Schofield. Historian Bruce van Orden observed, “their testimonies bordered not merely on evasion but on lying.” Daniel H. Wells, who had officiated the marriage, testified he could not clearly remember the ceremony. Reynolds’s sister Julia, who shared his home, admitted that a woman besides Reynolds’s first wife did live in the house but insisted she did not know if the second woman and Reynolds were married. In later polygamy cases, other families made similar efforts to dance on the edge of “truth” to avoid implicating husbands and wives.
Before the end of the trial’s first day, the prosecution team privately agreed they were failing to prove the case—but they were not ready to give up. There was one potential witness they had not subpoenaed already: Amelia Jane Schofield, Reynolds’s second wife. Since the government did not recognize their marriage as lawful, they could justify subpoenaing Amelia to testify against her husband. The prosecution quietly obtained a subpoena, and while they waited for a deputy marshal to escort Amelia to the courthouse, Carey asked for and received a brief recess.
Not long after, Amelia arrived. Benjamin R. Cowen (sometimes spelled Cowan), Assistant Secretary of the Interior, was in the courtroom audience and believed “the ghost of Joe Smith would scarcely have produced a more profound sensation.” Now several months into her pregnancy, Amelia was obviously carrying someone’s child, and “she must either have sworn herself the lawful wife of George Reynolds or tacitly confessed to being his concubine,” Cowan thought.
In the end, her cross-examination was even simpler. Because the prosecution had not previously subpoenaed Amelia, she had not been part of the other witnesses’ preparation. Carey asked Amelia who she was married to, and she calmly testified that Reynolds was her husband.
Court reconvened on April 1, 1875, and Carey rested his case. J.G. Sutherland, Reynolds’s defense attorney, pivoted his strategy and admitted Reynolds and Amelia indeed were married, but he asserted the First Amendment protected their marriage as a religious practice. The prosecution objected to the statement as irrelevant, and the judge upheld the objection—establishing grounds for Reynolds to eventually bring his case to the Supreme Court. The jury—Mormons and all—returned a guilty verdict after deliberating for thirty minutes.
Several legal snafus followed the trial, including an appellate court decision to overturn the trial’s verdict for irregularities in the original indictment. But after a second trial in which Reynolds’s defense again insisted the First Amendment protected his practice and a second judge again declared this defense invalid, a second jury again declared Reynolds guilty. On December 21, 1875, Judge Alexander White sentenced Reynolds to serve two years in prison.
Reynolds and the Church immediately appealed the decision, and the government postponed his sentence in the meantime. But when the Supreme Court upheld the Morrill Act as constitutional in 1879, Reynolds’s two-year prison sentence caught up to him. On June 16, 1879, Reynolds handed himself over to federal marshals. Latter-day Saints called him a “living martyr,” “imprisoned for conscience’ sake.”