Written by Gracia Jones for 2016 Joseph Smith Sr. Family Reunion Published: 07 September 2016
Lewis Crum Bidamon was born in Williamsport, Jefferson, West Virginia, 16 January 1806, to John Dedrich and Rosina Crumb Bidamon. In the mid-1700’s, his paternal ancestors had come to America from Germany, where the name was spelled Beiteman.1 When he was 14 years old his father moved his family to Ohio where Lewis grew to adulthood. In 1827 he married Nancy Sebree. They had a son, Charles, born in 1828, who died shortly after his birth. They had two daughters, also born in Ohio, Zerelda, 1835, Mary Elizabeth, 1836. Lewis moved his family to Canton, Illinois where he and his brother, John Bidamon, operated a carriage building business, among other enterprises. His wife died, and he remarried about 1842. It was not a happy situation as his wife became disappointed for she had assumed Lewis was wealthy, but he was only comfortably well off, and that depended on him working steadily. She also objected to his girls showing him affection or even eating at the family dining table. They were divorced within a few months and Lewis was looking to move on.2
In 1846, Lewis decided to move to Nauvoo where he was able to purchase goods and property being sold cheap by Latter-day Saints who were moving west after being driven out of Illinois in the wake of the Martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith.3 During the months after the Nauvoo Charter was canceled by the State Legislature (January 1845), Nauvoo became a dangerous place, and the brethren had placed guards over the homes of the leader’s families. There was no municipal government or city police force. The priesthood had organized to protect the city, but their placing the guards around the Smith home caused misunderstanding. Alexander Hale Smith, (only 6 years old at the time) in later years expressed the feeling the guards were there to control them and not as protection.4
Joseph’s death, without a will, had left the Church, and his family, in an extremely uncertain financial situation. His widow, Emma Hale Smith, with her four children, Julia 13, Joseph III 11, Frederick 8, Alexander 6, and her last baby, David Hyrum born 14 November 1844, had decided not to go west with the main body of the Church. She found little or no comfort from those who had been placed in charge of disposing of the Mormon assets. Besieged by creditors, aware of the growing threat of the mob-invasion which hovered over Nauvoo throughout the summer of 1846, she felt threatened from every direction. In September she prevailed upon a friendly riverboat captain to stop at the landing in Nauvoo where she and her family boarded the Toby, to go north to Fulton, Illinois, for refuge. They heard the first volley of shots as the Battle of Nauvoo began.
Telling of his first experiences arriving in Nauvoo, in April 1846, I found the city menaced by a wicked mob, who, notwithstanding the majority of Mormons had already gone into the wilderness, were relentless in their persecutions of the few who remained behind. I was soon convinced the “Mormons” were a much abused people.” He soon found himself siding with the Saints, as he witnessed how “they brought illegal and vexatious lawsuits, on trumped up charges, against innocent individuals, often dragging defendants into out of the way places in order to waylay them, often for the purpose of whipping and murdering them.”5
Lewis was appointed by a committee of “New Citizens” to negotiate with the mobbers for peace and also to see Governor Ford to try to get him to address the situation and protect them from the actions of the mobs. Governor Ford refused indicating he had already had to much trouble with that area. He said he would not spend any more money in the interest of Hancock County. Lewis shamed Governor Ford into making at least a token effort for them; it was not of much account. He ended up making another visit to the governor and found himself taken into the camp of the mobbers again, where he pled the case of the poor Mormons, especially the women and children. He heard one reply, “drive the women into the river and throw their damned young ones in after them.”6 They asked him to sign a pledge that they would see the Mormons all out by a certain date. Lewis refused to do that. It made his blood boil to think of their evil behavior. When he returned to Nauvoo without any agreement with the mobbers, it was clear Nauvoo would soon be under attack. When the attack came, Lewis fought by the side of Captain Anderson, who, along with his young son, was killed. After the battle was over, the mob released the names of two men whom they would shoot on sight; Lewis says he was one, and the other was Wandle Mace7, a machinist, who had helped set up a defense plan which prevented the mob from destroying the city. Likewise, under threat was William Pickett, who later married Agnes Smith, widow of Joseph Smith’s brother Don Carlos Smith. These men had to get away as quickly as possible or be killed. The small group of brave Mormons and New Citizen defenders had prevented the city from being destroyed. Pickett went to St. Lewis, Mace went on west, but Lewis Bidamon returned to Nauvoo once peace was restored.
Following the battle of Nauvoo8, Lewis was given the honorary title, “The Major.” Determined to settle in Nauvoo, he concluded to try to rent the Nauvoo House from Emma Smith, who, he discovered, had fled 150 miles north, to Fulton, Illinois with her family.
Writing to Emma, 11 January 1847, Lewis asked if he might rent the hotel; she replied that it was already rented. A short time later he wrote to her again to let her know that the renter was planning to leave town taking her belongings with him. Emma is quoted as saying at this time, “I have no friend but God and nowhere to go but home.” Emma made a hasty return to Nauvoo with her family and caught the man in the very act of loading her property. Thus, in February 1847, Emma moved back to an all but deserted Nauvoo, reclaimed her Mansion House and began to operate it as a hotel.
Soon, Emma was being courted by two men, Dr. John Bernheisle and Lewis C. Bidamon. Each had been attentive and helpful to her; each made their interest known. Emma chose to give her attention to The Major. When they were married, it was a point of intense displeasure to some of the agents the brethren had left in charge of disposing of the Church assets. They indulged in some intense sarcasm and ridicule toward Emma. Emma, while hurt by their ridicule, considered herself to have done the only thing possible for a mother, to protect her children, and stay where she knew she had a business to run to provide for them. She also would not leave her cropped mother-in-law, Lucy Mack Smith, whom she would care for most of the next ten years until her death 14 May 1856.
Lewis C. Bidamon proposed to Emma saying, “You are alone and I am alone, let’s join together and go on in life together.”9 He told the story years later that he fell in love with Emma “after seeing the darns in her stockings.” They were married 23 December 1847, in Nauvoo, by the itinerate Methodist Minister. The bride wore a plumb colored brocade dress with a white kerchief and a watch, her only adornment; there was dancing after the ceremony.10
Lewis moved into the Mansion House bringing his daughters, Zerelda 13, and Mary Elizabeth 12. The girls were welcomed by Emma and her children, as so many others had been welcomed there, 1849, Lewis went on a desperate trip to California gold fields hoping to gain funds to relieve them of the debts; this proved futile as cost of living took all he made. He returned a year later, as poor as when he left. While he was gone his daughter Mary Elizabeth married and left for Canton taking Zerelda. Their relationship with Emma’s family seems to have been warm, uncomplicated, with cordial feelings remaining throughout the rest of their lives.
Emma’s marriage displeased many of the Saints, particularly the men who had been placed as agents over the Church business in Nauvoo. But, to some extent, her marriage alleviated some of the pressures. One of the interesting aspects of the law at that time was that a widow had to petition the court for guardianship of her children. She not only had to pay for the privilege, she had to account to the court yearly on what she spent to support a minor child.11 If a woman remarried, her children became wards of the step-father. With this marriage to Joseph’s widow, Lewis did not gain anything financially, but took upon himself the responsibility of being a father to her children, a role he seems never to have resented nor shirked. They shouldered the burden of debt, court litigation, even the forced sale of the property, more than once. During one of these troubled times, Lewis’ brother Christian Bidamon stepped forward to purchase the property and Emma was enabled to buy it back from him. Visitors to Nauvoo today owe thanks to Major Lewis C. Bidamon for helping Emma preserve the Smith homes, which so many enjoy visiting. Had Emma not stayed, and Lewis not given her his unstinting support, these homes would not have survived into the 20th Century.
Major Lewis C. Bidamon, best known because he was the widower of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s widow, was respected enough in his community to be voted into the office of Justice of the Peace, and as assistant Constable for three consecutive terms. Contrary to some reports, he was not lazy. He taught the boys to work, and he worked beside them in the hay fields and on the farm; he showed great interest and effort to help the boys get educated and prepared for useful careers. He and Emma grew grapes and harvested them, they tried many avenues to survive the difficult economic distresses and managed to eventually retire the debts. What a great day it must have been, 2 June 1856, when the U.S. Congress issued an “Act of Congress” for the relief of Emma Bidamon.12 It would be some years after that before the legal resolution for Joseph’s estate would be settled and the burden of debt finally lifted. Lewis and Emma, against all odds, had weathered the years of debt, also suffering personal trials such as Lewis’ four-year-old illegitimate son, Charles Edmond (Charlie), coming to them in 1868. Emma held onto her marriage, and kindly embraced the child who called her “Grandmother.”
In 1871-1873 Lewis undertook to tear down some of the partial walls and foundation of the unfinished Nauvoo House and built a large home/hotel on the southwest corner. This would be Emma’s home for the final six years of her life. In the process of dismantling the foundation, Lewis uncovered the cornerstone, in the southeast corner, where Joseph had deposited the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon. Lewis gave portions of the fragments that survived the moisture of that location to members of each of the Latter Day Saint churches. A portion given to LDS apostle Franklin D. Richards, in 1885, was kept for many years by him, then given to his son, Charles C. Richards, who presented it to President George Albert Smith, in December 1946.13 The surviving pages and fragments were carefully treated and preserved in a special manner. A sampling of these precious Book of Mormon manuscript pages are on display in the LDS Church’s Museum of History, in Salt Lake City.
When Emma died on 30 April 1879, she and Lewis had been married a little over 32 years; Charlie, who was fifteen years old, praised her with fond words. This unlikely couple saw Emma’s five, and Lewis’ three children grown, and all but Charlie, married. Lewis became an indulgent grandfather to Emma’s grandchildren as well as he own. Some of them recalled how they would follow at his heels as he worked about the place, he never became cross or irritable with them.
A year after Emma’s death, on 20 May 1880 Lewis married Nancy Perriman Abercrombie, Charlie’s mother, as Emma, on her deathbed had asked him to do. Emma was buried in the yard of the Old Homestead, in the vicinity of the spot it was believed Joseph and Hyrum lay, the exact spot long forgotten except for some lilacs; a brick book-like marker was placed over her grave.
After Emma’s death, the Bidamon’s continued to live in the old “Nauvoo House”renamed, “Riverside Mansion.” In 1885 Charlie Bidamon married Rosetta Wilhelmina Walther. Between 1886 and 1905 they had eleven children born to them during the more than twenty-five years they lived in the Riverside Mansion. After Lewis passed away there in 1891, Charles’ family remained.
Emma’s sons had long since moved on, leaving Nauvoo to become ministers, and leaders for the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints [now Community of Christ]. Joseph Smith III as president, Alexander Hale Smith as counselor, then Patriarch, established headquarters at Lamoni, Iowa, from 1880 to 1905 when the headquarters were moved to Independence, Missouri. Alexander died in Nauvoo, 12 Aug 1909, while visiting his brother-in-law, John Kendall, and family, who were living in the Mansion House, David Hyrum died in Elgin, Illinois, in 1904, and Joseph Smith III died in Independence, 15 December 1915.
In 1909, “The RLDS Church purchased the building, and the city block where it sits, from Charles Bidamon.”14 The Bidamon’s were reluctant to move, bud did after some nudging, move to Cook County, Illinois before the end of that year. In 1915, the Homestead was deeded to the RLDS Church, and two years later, the Mansion House was acquired from Alexander Hale Smith’s family. These properties formed the nucleus, along with the Red Brick Store, and Visitor’s Center, and other historic homes were the beginning of what is known today as the Joseph Smith Historic Center.15
In his later years, Major Bidamon became a favorite with reporters passing through Nauvoo. He was always good natured, cordial, full of jokes and entertaining stories. He never allowed anyone in his hearing to get away with disparaging words about the Prophet Joseph Smith. Though he was not a religious and sometimes rather roughly irreligious, he defended the Mormon’s right to believe what they chose and did all he could to defend Nauvoo.
Lewis and Nancy Ambercrombie Bidamon lived with Charlie and his family in the Riverside Mansion about eleven years. Her children from her first marriage lived in Nauvoo interacting with the Smith’s during their youth, considering Emma as a Grandmother. Nancy moved to Kansas City, Jackson, Missouri, with her daughter and died there in 1903. Charlie Bidamon, his wife, and some of his children moved to Cook County, Illinois after 1910; some of his grown children moved to California. Two of his daughters, Ruth Brown and Nancy Kalk converted to the LDS Church.
Lewis C. Bidamon died, on 11 February 1891. Death claimed the intrepid old Major after a lingering decline over three years, with no disease, only a body worn out by time. His funeral services were held in 13 February in the yard of the Homestead, with Emma’s son, Joseph III, presiding.
After many years, all evidence of location for the graves of Joseph, Hyrum, and Emma, and Lewis Bidamon, had become obliterated by weather and time. Frederick M. Smith, Emma’s grandson, now president of the RLDS Church, had a search made by W. O. Hands, in 1928. After considerable difficulty and some fasting and prayer, the burial place of the Martyrs was found16, and Emma’s and Lewis’ as well. Joseph, Hyrum, and Emma’s remains were reinterred and their burial place was marked. A new monument was placed for them by the Joseph Smith Sr., and Lucy Mack Smith Family, in 1991. Lewis’ grave was never marked until recently, 3 Aug 2016.
We, on the occasion of the Joseph Smith Sr., and Lucy Mack Smith Family Reunion, now gladly participate in recognizing the newly set stone-marker for a man whose life has been rarely explored and little understood – the second husband of Emma Hale Smith Bidamon. Long overdue, we remember you here, and thank you for all the good things you did which may never be known in full. God knows them.
Rest in PEACE Major Lewis C. Bidamon. You shall surely not lose your just reward.
Obituary for Lewis C. Bidamon Known as “The Major”
An Obituary written in Nauvoo Independent , Feb. 13, 1891:
THE DEATH OF A NOTED CITIZEN
Wednesday morning at 8 o’clock occurred the death of Major Lewis C. Bidamon after a lingering illness of three years. He suffered no disease whatever simply wearing out of vital forces, A natural result of old age. Mr. Bidamon has been near death’s door for the past year or more and therefore his death was not an unexpected surprise to our Citizens. By his death passes one of our pioneer citizens, a quaint and well known character of Mormon times, Mr Bidamon was born in Williamsport, Jefferson Co., [West Virginia], January 6, 1806 and therefor was 85 years and 25 days old. He was a Lieutenant colonel of the 32nd regiment of Illinois Infantry, and moved to Nauvoo in 1846 and thence took an active part among the New Citizens in the existing difficulties.
He was more widely known perhaps on account of marrying Mrs. Emma Smith, the widow of the great Mormon Prophet, Joseph Smith, shortly after the Exodus of the Mormons, and joined her in keeping the mansion house, which they conducted for years and which was the chief hotel in the city. Deceased was probably best known in the city, he became widely known to the general public, as the husband of Joseph Smith’s widow and the visits of all noted people, newspaper corrospondence, authors, etc., was never complete without paying a visit to the Major and the old mansion house; and all writer’s account of Nauvoo invariably gave an elaborate write up of him. He was good natured, humorous and a jocular character and he scarely left a visitor go without first telling him of his “red hat” and “dark closet” jokes – Jokes that have become famous. He was always spry and healthy until three years ago when he slowly began to fail, and finally succummed to the inevitable. The funeral was held Sunday afternoon, Feb 15th, in the burial lot on the home stead grounds, beside the grave of his wife Emma Smith.