Tickled by the Fringes

For more than 200 years, my father’s family has lived in western New York, centered between Canandaigua and Palmyra. Whenever anyone publishes a description of Joseph Smith’s neighborhood and the neighbors who knew him or hired him or harassed him, I scour the writing for familiar names. Surely my ancestors knew or knew of the Smiths, and surely they were aware of gossip about gold plates and a strange new religion in their midst. What did they think of it all? I have no idea. The past is filled with characters like my ancestors who were tickled by the fringes of Mormon history, whose stories we will never know.

One woman whose life brushed Mormonism is Harriet Rogers Grandin, wife of Egbert Bratt Grandin, who printed the Book of Mormon at Palmyra.

Eighteen-year-old Harriet married Grandin in December 1828; in November 1829, about midway through the presswork on the Book of Mormon, her first son, Carlton Rogers Grandin, was born. Carlton died about 1835 of “typhus fever and swelling in his leg,” a diagnosis familiar to the parents of Joseph Smith, who had nursed their son through the same illness a generation earlier.

Harriet bore five other children – Mary Sophia (born 1831), Ellen Amanda (“Nellie,” born 1833), William Edward (“Willie,” born 1834), Harriet Aurelia (“Hattie,” born 1837), and Carlton Pomeroy (born 1840). These children all lived to adulthood.

Harriet was widowed in 1845; in 1848, still in Palmyra, she married Stephen Titcomb, a widower and relatively wealthy businessman of English birth, living in Waterford Village, far to the east of Palmyra on the Hudson River north of Albany. Harriet and her children moved to Waterford to the large home Stephen shared with his adult children. She lived there until her death in 1875, when her body was returned to Palmyra for burial in the Grandin plot.

What did Harriet think of Mormonism? Not much, apparently, or at least not often:

“Mr Brigham Young or Mr Joseph Smith Jun I dont know which I ought to address –” she began an 1856 letter, revealing that she had not followed news of Mormonism even cursorily. “No doubt you have a distinct recollection of Mr E.B. Grandine the man who printed your Bible.”

She went on to outline the course of her life, perhaps exaggerating its difficulties. “I am now living with a second husband who is now weary of my children and unwiling to have them with him any longer –” Regardless of Mr. Titcomb’s willingness, Harriet’s children in fact continued to live with the couple until they married, the youngest daughter living under Mr. Titcomb’s roof until she was 37 years old.

Then she came to the real point of her letter: “The thought occured to me that your people might take pleasure in contributing out of their abundance something which would help me to give my daughters advantages so as to enable them to maintain themselves – I would like to give them a little more education so as to fit them for teachers – The oldest one has a fine talent for music – with a little more instruction she could maintain herself –”

I can imagine how unimpressed Brigham Young would have been by such a plea. In Utah, his own people were ending two years of hunger approaching famine, with a prospect of the first decent harvest in years. Clothing was in such short supply that visitors commented on the near nakedness of many of the Mormons they encountered. Beyond Utah, Brigham struggled with finding the means to bring thousands of American and European Saints to Zion – this plea from Harriet Titcomb for music lessons was delivered by a mail carrier who would have sped past the Martin and Willie handcart companies in the early weeks of their travel. Despite Harriet’s assurance that “we would be thankfull for even a very small favor” and her calculated play on past associations and a bid for sympathy (“my mind often resorts back to the time your Bible was printed when I was not a Widow and my children fatherless –”), Brigham Young ignored her letter.

Harriet tried again the year before her death, reminding Brigham Young of her identity as “the wife of E B Grandin. The man who printed your Golden Bible” and asked once more for a donation. Her husband was ill (“ His cure is hopeless, being softening of the brain”). “How I would like to visit your people,” she claimed, closing with the realistic admission “but probably never will.”

So ended Harriet Rogers Grandin Titcomb’s series of small brushes with Mormonism.

28 comments for “Tickled by the Fringes

  1. Thanks for posting this. The personal perspective makes history more real and enjoyable.

  2. Ardis, thanks for the interesting, yet kinda bizzare post.

    Kathryn, you almost got me fired for laughing so hard.

  3. Very interesting, Ardis! I’m still trying to find any evidence that E. B. Grandin was a Freemason–something often stated. His name is conspicuously missing from any of the local lodge records which remain in existence. I wanted to consult his diary in a local historical archive out there, but didn’t get a chance to do it.

  4. Jacob, I gave a particularly loud snort because my mother’s middle name is Harriet and my stepfather liked to call her “Harry.” So I was thinking Harry Titcomb.

    Sorry, Ardis. I couldn’t resist.

  5. Be my guest, Kathryn — you should know by now I appreciate the absurd!

    Nick, as always, I’ll report any Masonic leads I find. Haven’t run into any.

    Enjoy, all. Itty bitty blips in Mormon history are fun to track down.

  6. Ardis, I know you have a huge list of names for that time period and location. I’d be willing to privately share my transcriptions of lodge member names from Palmyra and Canandaigua, if you’d like. It would probably be easier than having you give me all those names to look up.

  7. Fascinating, Ardis. Brings to mind all those fringe people who hope to get some money from churches because of some kind of former connection. Typical for the mission field in poorer countries! And still, whatever their reasons which we sense as selfish, the connection as such is interesting to know about because it shows the traces the chuch has left or is leaving on its environment. The somewhat weird perspective of these people gives the reality of church history an extra dimension.

  8. Just goes to show what a difference a century or so can make. The local aid seekers seem to catch wind of new bishops before they are sustained, even if they do betray their distance to the faith with odd terminology as did their foremothers.

  9. Wow, Kathryn. The first one caused a laugh; the update nearly made me pass out!

    Ardis, this was fascinating – on more than one level. Thank you for sharing it.

  10. I too have ancestory which overlaps the Smiths and early restoration events in Palmyra. Mine are the Terrys (Parshall Terry and family, although Ardis claims no relation to them.) I too have wondered what they knew or thought about the great events going on around them. I have never found anything about their thoughts on the subject. However the granddaughter of Parshall Terry I, Hannah, married her first cousin from Canada, Parshall Terry III, in about 1800 and moved to Canada. They were among my earliest convert ancestors. I have wondered if they stopped in Palmyra to see her mother on their way to Kirtland and what her mother would have thought about this branch of her family taking up with the Mormons? This couple crossed the plains in 1849 when they were in their late 60s and early 70s. Hannah died in the redrock country of southern Utah, a place a girl from Palmyra could hardly have imagined. (Any other Terrys out there?)

  11. That’s not quite true, Marjorie — the Terrys may be disreputable cousins who turned traitor in the midst of a Revolutionary siege in Pennsylvania and abandoned their own father to a war prison, but I still claim ’em as kin! Parshall Terry (the convert) is my third cousin five times removed and bears no blame for his father’s transgressions.

  12. I have ancestors who lived in Palmyra when the Smiths were there, too. I just always kinda figured they were probably part of the mob.

    Their name was Durfee. And a couple Thayers, too.

  13. You know you are Mormon if you can say, with a straight face and correctly, that someone is your third cousin five times removed.

  14. Ray, I’m so Mormon that, with a straight face and correctly, I can call Wilbur and Orville Wright my sixth cousins three times removed. And Lillian Gish my fifth cousin (no removes). And Noah Webster my fourth cousin five times removed. And …

  15. I’ve got a Lemuel Durfee who according to the info I have was born and died in RI, but his parents were in Palmyra. Is that the same Lemuel Durfee who hired the Smiths on his farm?

    Can you drop me an email, Ardis? I can’t find an email for you on this site. whenigodeaf at gmail dot com.


  16. Hey, I am down here in FL, only a second generation Mormon with no pioneer ancestors. However my presbyterian Great-Grandmother has meticulous geneolgy records, and in going over them six months ago, I realize my Durfee ancestors from Tiverton, RI are cousins with Lemuel Durfee in Palmyra. Lemuel was friendly to the Mormons, but there is a Durfee who signed an affadavit against Joseph Smith. I like to try to forget about him, though. I just went to the pageant about a week ago and one elderly guide knew all about Lemuel and his family. We had a great conversation.

    By the way, Susan M, I have a Durfee geneology book published at the turn of the century that lists the family in great detail. It talks about the “golden bible” farm and all the Durfee relations up there. If there is a way for me to give you my email address I can give you more details. For someone like me who never thought I had any connection with the church, it has been an interesting find!!

  17. Amy, do you have any information on the Durfee family’s involvement with Freemasonry in New York? If you do, it would be very helpful to me! You can e-mail me directly at abraxas_bear at-sign comcast dot com.

  18. Well, I see the story a little different. It is true that brothers fought in the same Revolutionary War battle on opposite sides. (These brothers were the fathers of the cousins who married in Palmyra.) But Parshall II clearly didn’t kill his father (as some accounts say) since his father was later living in Palmyra. Parshall II was also a member of the first Legislature of Upper Canada (Ontario). The Terrys were clearly pugnacious Conneticutt Yankee types. The missionaries who found them in Canada thought they were most unlikely types to join the Church, yet they were the only ones from Albion to do so. Since I could be both a Daughter of the American Revolution and a United Empire Loyalist, my feelings are mixed. I think if I had been living on the coast (Boston, New York, etc.) I would have been a Patriot. On the frontier I would more likely have been a Loyalist–and definately a Loyalist in the War of 1812. Whether history sees you as a hero or scoundral is often just a matter of the point of view. (I’m pretty fond of all my Terrys–Patriots or Loyalists.)

  19. Nick, I have not come across that information so far, but I will keep looking and let you know. We have just had all this info passed down recently and we are still combing through it.

  20. Please forgive my continued threadjack here, but Nick I tried to email you the info and your email address did not go through. You can try me at aes74atmsndotcom

  21. Its funny that she didn’t know Joseph Smith was dead (9 years later!), but she knew where to send her letter.

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