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Emily W. Jensen: Were Mormon women assaulted in 1838?

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Rumors that Mormon women were sexually assaulted by Missouri militiamen during the 1838 Mormon-Missouri War have been notoriously hard to prove.

That is until now.

Joseph Johnstun argued his relative, Hannah Kinney Johnstun, is the only documentable case of rape and publically shared her story for the first time at the Mormon History Association on Saturday, May 29.

"It is not a recent thing to attempt to discredit the stories," Johnstun explained, "For shortly after the end of the Mormon War, John Corrill (a former Mormon leader) discounted the rumors saying, 'it was said that women were insulted and even ravished, but I doubt the truth of the latter.'"

Johnstun said that contemporary historians also call the charges "improbable" citing the lack of definitive evidence. Johnstun concedes that "even today, rape is a very difficult thing to prove." And this is made more difficult by the fact that all available witnesses to the 1838 attacks are long dead and forensic evidence lost long before that.

So what does he offer as evidence of his great-great-grandfather's sister Hannah Kinney Johnstun being a victim of rape from the 1838 Mormon-Missouri War?

"It's been an oral tradition in my family for nearly a century and a half that something terrible happened to one of my ancestor's sisters in Missouri, with the unspoken understanding that the 'something terrible' was rape," Johnstun explained. And as he began searching through census and historical records, he found further evidence.

In a patriarchal blessing given to Hannah by Joseph Smith Sr., on Feb. 5, 1839, "Father Smith told her 'thy character stands fair, no sin is chargeable against thee...thy virtue is unsullied, thy name stands pure.'" Johnstun explained that to 19th century listeners, this language showed that even though she was sexually assaulted, Hannah was unaccountable for it as the victim.

But the most telling piece of evidence was found in the census records, which showed that after moving with her family to Quincy, Illinois, in April 1839, Hannah Kinney Johnstun had a baby girl sometime that summer.

Unfortunately, as Johnstun explained, "tragedy continued to visit the family and on 14th August 1840, the little girl died."

He choked up as he explained that a little over a month later, her mother, the now 23-year-old Hannah Kinney Johnstun, followed her daughter to death.

Johnstun concluded the story by explaining that both the mother's and daughter's graves now lie in Madison Park in Quincy, underneath a playground, where he hoped "she is happy to hear the children's laughter that now sounds over her grave."

Joseph Johnstun is a former director of tourism for Nauvoo as well as a historian, researcher and author. He also lectures on early Illinois and Mormon history.