Early Footage of Emmeline B. Wells

By Brenda L. Homer, missionary, Church history biographical team coordinator
7 April 2020

Follow a team of historians, archivists, and missionaries as they uncover the mysteries of remarkable footage from the Church History Library collection.

The Church Historian’s Press recently published the diaries of Emmeline B. Wells. The diaries are available online on a comprehensive website that also includes video clips, images, a chronology of Emmeline’s life, information on her contemporaries, and a list of her published works.

Emmeline Blanche Woodward Harris Whitney Wells, the fifth General President of the Relief Society, was born in Massachusetts, where she eventually joined the Church. Her life traversed from Massachusetts to Nauvoo, Illinois, and across the plains to Salt Lake City, Utah. Emmeline was an active member of the Relief Society, Deseret Hospital, Woman Suffrage Association of Utah, Utah Woman’s Press Club, the National Council of Women, and the National American Woman Suffrage Association and often served in leadership roles. She supported many other groups as well. She was personally introduced to United States presidents, royalty, renowned poets, and artists as she traveled the world representing the women of Utah. Emmeline was a prolific writer, poet, and longtime editor of the Woman’s Exponent.

While searching through the Church History Catalog, the team hoped to identify a gold nugget among the library’s collections to enhance the new Diaries of Emmeline B. Wells online experience. They came upon a collection of early film reels created by the Clawson Brothers Film Company1 (AV 1056), which included footage of the Relief Society general board. The team immediately recognized the small woman in the film as Emmeline, dressed in her signature light-colored dress and hat. The stop action of the movie was difficult to view, but with the help of archivists and technicians, a better version of the film was located with remarkable, flowing images of Emmeline B. Wells walking, talking, and laughing with six other women.

The team now had to identify the location of the footage, the approximate date the film was made, and Emmeline’s companions.

Emmeline B. Wells emerging from the Osmyn Deuel cabin.

The women were filmed walking out of a cabin that looked similar to the Osmyn Deuel cabin,2 which now sits between the Family History Center and the Church History Museum. The team searched the catalog and Utah Historical Library photos housed at the J. Willard Marriott Library to create a photographic history of the Deuel cabin. Comparison confirms that they were, in fact, exiting the Deuel cabin while it was located under the pergola on the southeast corner of the temple block.

With the structure confirmed, a beginning date could be established. The cabin was placed on Temple Square in April 1919.3 To establish an ending date, the team consulted researcher Cherry Silver, coeditor of The Diaries of Emmeline B. Wells. “Emmeline did not record making this film in her diaries,” she states. “She was quite sick for months before she died in April 1921. I would say that this film did not happen in the year 1921.”

With parameters of April 1919 through December 1920, the team could begin to identify the other women in the film. This task was given to the Church history biographical team of missionaries. The team has worked for two years completing biographies of family, friends, and associates of Emmeline for the diaries project.

The missionaries used the Church History Library’s extensive collection of photographs of the General Relief Society Presidencies and boards, as well as books that contained photographs and biographies of Emmeline’s contemporaries, like Daughters of the Utah Pioneers and Their Mothers and The Testifiers of the Prophet Joseph Smith, to compare to the women in the film. The team was able to positively identify the tall woman with glasses as Julina Lambson Smith and the small woman wearing a broad collar and large-button coat as Sarah Jenne Cannon. Others in the movie clip may be Clarissa Smith Williams, Ellis Reynolds Shipp, Phebe Young Beatie, Julia P. M. Farnsworth, Rebecca Neibaur Nibley, Romania Bunnell Pratt, Elizabeth Stevenson Wilcox, Elizabeth Claridge McCune, and Ida Dusenberry. All of those women were members of the general Relief Society board with Emmeline B. Wells.

Seated from left to right: Emmeline B. Wells, Elizabeth Claridge McCune. Standing from left to right: Ellis Reynolds Shipp or Ida Smoot Dusenberry; Sarah Jenne Cannon; Phebe Young Beatie, Rebecca Neibaur Nibley, Romania Bunnell Pratt, or Elizabeth Stevenson Wilcox; Julina Lambson Smith; possibly Clarissa Smith Williams. Still photo.

A still photo of the film was sent to Carol Cornwall Madsen, author of Emmeline B. Wells: An Intimate History and An Advocate for Women: The Public Life of Emmeline B. Wells, 1870–1920. She said, “I’m quite sure that Ida Smoot Dusenberry or Rebecca Nibley would have been part of this moving picture. Ida Dusenberry was very active during this time of Emmeline’s life.”

The team researched Relief Society minutes in the Church History Library Catalog and gained some remarkable clues that supported Madsen’s insight. Following the instructions of the First Presidency, the general Relief Society created an entertainment committee chaired by Ida Smoot Dusenberry. After some planning, the general board agreed to create a moving picture for the April 1920 Relief Society general conference. The Salt Lake Tribune reported:

“The history of the Relief Society was shown in pictures, featuring portraits of all the women who have figured prominently in the organizations, as well as women of national fame. Mrs. Annie Wells Cannon explained the pictures as they were thrown on the screen. Moving pictures of conference crowds and Church officials were shown. . . . Mrs. Ida Smoot Dusenberry was in charge, assisted by Mrs. Cannon, Mrs. [Clarissa] Williams, and Susa Young Gates.”4

The Deseret Evening News reported on the same event:

“Pictures of Church interest from the time of the birth of the prophet to the present, pictures taken in New York, Ohio, Missouri, Nauvoo and Salt Lake were thrown on the screen, including scenes of Salt Lake as it was known to the pioneers, and in 1920.  The original Relief Society officers were also shown, together with the present officials. A ‘movie’ of ‘Aunt Em,’ aged president of the Relief Society and a stake officers’ session just adjourning were also features, together with interesting reels of Church officials.”5

“The search continues to positively identify the remaining women in the film,” said Sister Paddy Spilsbury, chair of the biographical team. “But what a joy it has been to see Emmeline come to life, with her quick smile and signature hat. We have read her diaries and researched her associates, but seeing her interact with her friends and sisters brings our work into focus. These women enjoyed being together.”