Martha Hughes Cannon of Llandudno

On 21st April 2022, History of Deganwy Group members, old and new, gathered in Peniel Chapel to hear Wil Aaron tell us a fascinating story which deserves to be much better known locally. Wil has had a long career in television, beginning at BBC Wales in 1961 before moving to and working in New Zealand. On his return to London, he worked on the BBC current affairs programme Twenty-Four Hours with Max Hastings in places including Vietnam, Kashmir and the Middle East. In 1978, he set up an independent company based in Caernarfon which was involved in such classics as C’mon Midffîld!. Since his retirement, Wil has written a book, Welsh Saints on the Mormon Trail, and his talk focused on one particular woman who as a small child joined that trail from her home town of Llandudno, and who was to have a huge impact on US history.

Martha Hughes Cannon became the most distinguished woman of her time in Salt Lake City, where to this day she is regarded as a heroine and commemorated with an 8 foot statue in the Utah State Capitol building. The main building of the Utah Health Department is named after her, and a plaque in the centre of the city lists her achievements: ‘In memory of Dr Martha Hughes Cannon. Pioneer doctor. First woman state senator in the US. Author of Utah sanitation laws. Member of the first state Board of Health’. An even more remarkable honour is in the process of being bestowed upon her, as the Utah Senate has recently voted to send a statue of her to the National Statuary Hall in Washington DC. In this hall, each state is represented by 2 of its most famous citizens – e.g. Virginia is represented by George Washington and Robert E. Lee. From this year, Utah will be represented by Brigham Young and Martha Hughes Cannon. However, she is barely known in her native Llandudno.

She was born Martha Maria Hughes in Madoc St in 1857, the daughter of Peter and Elizabeth Hughes. Peter was a carpenter, and both parents were part of the small community of Mormons who met on the Orme in the gardens of Tŷ Coch, an old farmhouse. These meetings are described in Thomas Rowlands’s Atgofion am Llandudno – locals would join with the Mormons in the garden in lively and friendly discussions. When the Mormon elders spoke of the duty to sacrifice everything to gather on the shores of the Great Salt Lake, the Hughes family were amongst the many from Wales who responded. They set off in 1860, when Martha was four.

It was an incredibly arduous journey, crossing the Atlantic and then following the Mormon Trail across Omaha, Nebraska and Wyoming to Utah – the journey by wagon or with handcarts took months. Thousands of Welsh speakers made the journey between the 1830s and the 1860s, though little is known about them in the country they left. Utah was described as ‘Hell on Earth’ by chapel goers, to whom the Mormon faith seemed heretical and scandalous – especially the doctrine of polygamy or plural marriage. When Welsh Latter Day Saints obeyed the call to emigrate, the chapels were happy to see them go and they vanished from our history. Their travels are very well-documented however: hundreds of journals by Welsh Mormons are preserved in the Utah library, recording the many historic events they witnessed during their journey. These include being passed by the first transatlantic stagecoaches, the Civil War, the Pony Express and the coming of the railways. Those who emigrated included characters such as William Ajax of Llantrisant, who after settling dug out an underground shop the size of 4 tennis courts in the desert, using only a wheelbarrow and a pick, as it was too hot on the surface. It became known as the ‘eighth wonder of Utah’.

Martha’s journey did not go smoothly: her elder sister died on the Plains, and her father died 3 days after they arrived. This may have been the impetus for her later medical career – in 1878 she studied for an MD degree at the University of Michigan, and then took a postgraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania. She followed this with a qualification from the National School of Elocution and Oratory, as if she foresaw the path her life would take. She returned to Utah, and joined the staff of the newly-built maternity hospital, where it seemed a distinguished and worthwhile career lay ahead of her.

However, life was not to be straightforward for Martha, who contained two opposing forces: she was deeply religious, but also politically radical. After a year or so at the hospital, she had secretly married one of the directors, Angus Munn Cannon, who was a prominent Mormon and 23 years older than her. She was his 4th wife, and he already had 17 children. She was not by any means pushed into this marriage by a patriarchal society – she was a spirited and independent feminist, who knew what lay ahead, but was deeply in love: she wrote to Angus saying that she would rather spend an hour with him than a whole lifetime with any other man.

Martha Hughes Cannon in 1880

Unfortunately for Martha, both public opinion and the law were strongly against the doctrine of polygamy, and not long after the birth of their first child, Lizzie, Angus was arrested and charged. Rather than give evidence against him as she was required to do, Martha fled abroad with her baby. She went to her mother’s family in Birmingham, where she was regarded with suspicion as a single mother, and then to Paris, Switzerland and Germany. Her regular letters to Angus (who had meanwhile secretly married two more women – one just a few days before Martha left for Europe) are preserved in the Church archive of Salt Lake City.

Her exile was lonely and miserable, so when the warrant for her arrest expired in 1887, she returned. She established the first training college for nurses in Utah, and threw herself into the women’s rights movement. Utah had allowed women to vote from 1870 to 1887 (the earliest state to do so apart from Wyoming), and when this right was revoked, a fierce fight began to win it back. The suffrage campaign ran alongside the campaign in support of polygamy, and Martha was passionately involved in what may seem to us now as conflicting movements. The Federal Government continued to imprison, fine and confiscate the property of polygamous men, and eventually in 1890 the incumbent Mormon prophet decreed that plural marriage should end. Men were expected to support all their wives and children, but should only co-habit with one wife. Martha and Angus’s marriage was legally over – so when she became pregnant by him again, she had to abandon her career and flee once more, this time to California where she gave birth to a boy.

She returned to Salt Lake City a few months later, and continued her private practice. She was a prominent member of the Suffrage Association, and became well-known not just in Utah but across the United States as an excellent speaker. In a resounding victory for the women of Utah, they regained the vote in 1896 when the territory achieved statehood…and Martha immediately looked for another battle to fight. This was public health: cholera, TB, measles and other diseases were rife, water was polluted and sewage systems were needed. When campaigns began for the new state elections, Martha stood for the Democrats – and one of the Republicans campaigning against her was her husband, Angus. This gained a lot of attention in the press, but the Salt Lake City Herald declared that Martha was ‘the better man of the two’. She swept to victory along with the other Democrat candidates, becoming the first woman to be elected to any senate in the United States. Her Mormon faith made it all the more remarkable.

Utah State Senate 1897

She was a very successful senator, introducing many bills to improve public health, the lives of women and disabled children, and in 1899 she was being considered for nomination for a seat in the United States Congress. However, once again her career was devastated by pregnancy, and this time it was in the full gaze of the public eye. As her marriage had been declared illegal 10 years previously, she was seen to be brazenly ignoring the law and became the subject of a national scandal. When Gwendolyn was born, Angus was arrested and fined but Martha paid the heavier price. Her political career was over, and she had to retire from public life.

She became increasingly despondent, and her relationship with Angus was reduced to demands for money to support the children. She eventually left Utah, and went to live with her son in Los Angeles, where she died in 1932. Sadly, she felt that her life had been a failure, and asked for her letters and diaries to be burnt.

For decades she was forgotten by the nation, but in the 1970s, her story was revived by women’s rights groups. Martha was recognised as an inspirational figure who had fought for better opportunities for women throughout her life, despite the additional difficulties presented by her belief in plural marriage and her Mormon faith.

Many thanks are due to Wil for bringing this complicated and driven woman to life for us. He has arranged for the production of a memorial to Martha in her home town – a plaque has been made, with the support of town and county councillors, and will be sited on the Orme near the family home of Tanygraig. Hopefully, it can be unveiled at the same time as the Washington statuary ceremony. We are very grateful to Wil for allowing us to celebrate Martha’s life, and we hope that following the installation of the memorial on the Orme, her fantastic story will be better known.

Lucinda Smith

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