In Her Own Words: Emmeline B. Wells

21 June 2022

Join researcher Brenda Homer as she describes her research into the life of Emmeline B. Wells using Emmeline’s own words, as recorded in journal entries and elsewhere.

A while back, we published a blog post about researching the life of Emmeline B. Wells, the fifth General President of the Relief Society. At the time, the Church Historian’s Press had recently published annotated transcripts of many of Emmeline’s diary entries online, which provided a new and valuable resource for researchers.1  We hoped that highlighting this new publication, along with the many Church History Library collections related to Emmeline, would enable researchers to explore Emmeline’s experiences as a leader both in the Church and in the women’s suffrage movement.

One researcher, Brenda Homer, decided to do exactly that. Here, she details her research process as she reconstructed events in Emmeline’s life using Emmeline’s diary entries; Brenda quotes many excerpts from the diaries below. She also suggests some resources that researchers could use if they wanted to expand their research beyond the diaries. We hope that Brenda’s research can highlight the resources that are available and how they might be helpful in your research.


I set out to research the impact of the Spanish influenza pandemic on Emmeline’s life because I was interested in seeing if there were parallels to the COVID pandemic. As I read through her diary entries (more on those in a moment), I felt a true sisterhood with Emmeline. Her attitude toward adversity in general—not just the pandemic—was inspiring. Allow me to share my research journey.

I began the research process by identifying the actual years of the Spanish flu by visiting the Center of Disease Control and Prevention’s Past Pandemics webpage.2  Although CDC experts acknowledge that there isn’t a clear starting date or location for the virus, the Spanish flu is primarily associated with 1918 and 1919.

With those dates in mind, I then turned to the diaries of Emmeline B. Wells. The diaries’ transcriptions give a very detailed account of Emmeline’s life history, often using individuals’ full names and describing their roles in the Church, if applicable. The 1918 dates available on the Church Historian’s Press website are October 1–14; for the balance of year, I referenced Emmeline’s digitized 1918 diary at the Harold B. Lee Library’s (HBLL) digital collections website.

Throughout the pandemic, Emmeline frequently reported on the condition of her daughters, her counselors in the Relief Society General Presidency, and others. For example, note Emmeline’s description of the death and funeral of President Joseph F. Smith:3

11 September 1918 – Wednesday
President Smith came down in the Auto to call for Aunt Julina [Lambson Smith, Joseph F. Smith’s wife who served as a counselor to Emmeline in the General Presidency]. I was very much shocked to see him. He looks very bad indeed.

19 November 1918 – Tuesday
The Pres. died at 4.50 this morning. Clarissa [Smith Williams, counselor to Emmeline] & I went up to the Bee Hive House but Julina was resting and we did not see her. We went in however and saw the president. I am greatly grieved.

21 November 1918 – Thursday
I went up to the Bee Hive house to day to see the President. He looks very grand and beautiful in his lovely robes...

22 November 1918 – Friday
The morning was wet & stormy and very depressing for the people on this solemn occasion. The funeral of Pres. Smith. I rode in the carriage with Sister [Romania Pratt] Penrose, Clarissa, Ida [Smoot Dusenberry]. I did not get out at the cemetery because of the cold…The funeral was not at all satisfactory but the flowers were wonderful. and many people came.

I was curious to see if Joseph F. Smith died from influenza. His death certificate, which is accessible on, says that he died of bronchial pneumonia with the contributing factors of chronic cystitis, pyelitis, and prostatic hypertrophy.4  While bronchial pneumonia was a common side effect of influenza, it is unclear whether President Smith’s case came from the pandemic or simply occurred on its own. (On a personal note, I have lost three neighbors to COVID-caused pneumonia. I, like Emmeline, am greatly grieved.)

Emmeline’s diaries also provided glimpses into the lives of other Church leaders during the pandemic in some noticeably short diary entries:

4 February 1918 – Monday
Clarissa & Amy [Cassandra Brown Lyman] were holding a meeting of stake presidents on Red Cross work.5

9 October 1918 – Wednesday
This morning at 11 o clock the stake presidents met with the members of the genl board and planned the method of providing linen for the Red Cross.

10 October 1918 – Thursday
Annie [Elizabeth Ann Wells, Emmeline’s daughter] was with me nearly all the afternoon and just after she left Katharine [Katherine Cannon McKay, Emmeline’s granddaughter] came in on her way home from the depot. Her school is closed because of the quarentine on account of the influenza.

13 October 1918 – Sunday
There were no meetings to day and I miss them very much especially going to the Tabernacle.

14 October 1918 – Monday
There was not much going on as all meetings are barred. The stake presidents [stake Relief Society presidents] of the city stakes were up stairs sorting linen for the Red Cross.

29 November 1918 – Friday
Hebie [Heber Daniel] Wells died this morning of influenza…The funeral will be Sunday. [Heber Daniel Wells, age 33, died of bronchial pneumonia brought on by influenza.6]

1 December 1918 – Sunday
If we only had the part meeting Sunday it would not seem so lonesome…This morning I went to Hebies funeral.

These entries all sound remarkably familiar—quarantines, canceled events—when compared to our own pandemic.

Despite the adversity of dealing with a pandemic at an advanced age, 1918 was a banner year for Emmeline: she turned ninety years old and was moving forward with purpose. Sadly, I did notice that her writing was becoming less legible as she aged, perhaps due to injuries she sustained, such as this one:

20 February 1918 – Wednesday
Belle [Isabel Modalena “Belle” Whitney, Emmeline’s daughter] went over to Temple and I dressed to go out to a luncheon at Mrs Flora B. [Bean] Hornes given by the Daughters of Pioneers in my honor Annie [Elizabeth Ann Wells, as above] came to go down with me and also Clara Bebbee [“Beebe”]. It was a very nice party Belle came down from Temple. Annie prepared supper in our room and Belle came up to go with me to the lecture in Bishop’s Building. Just as we went to step on elevator it shot up & I fell in the shaft. I caught a cable & hung until rescued. Belle held on to me by lying flat on the floor. After I was taken out I came over to the hotel and Dr Middleton [George William Middleton] came and dressed my arm and hand and attended me. Both Belle & I and every one.

Yes, it’s true—Emmeline fell down an elevator shaft and survived thanks to her (and her daughter’s) quick thinking. Nor was that the only significant injury she suffered that year:

17 September 1918 – Tuesday
At evening I went down to Seraces7  to get a cup of tea and on my return was hit by a street car and severely injured. Was brought in to the Hotel and attended by Dr. [John C.] La[n]denberger & Dr. Middleton. Belle & Annie stayed all night and waited on me I had a most distressing night until about 2 A.M. then fell into a good natural sleep, which refreshed me exceedingly.

Eyewitnesses to the accident reported that Emmeline repeatedly told them “I am not dead yet” as she was being treated in the lobby of the Hotel Utah.8

After these two accidents, there are even days that she doesn’t write her own entries—her daughters act as her scribes. Of course, if her hand was injured by hanging onto an elevator cable or being hit by a streetcar, it’s logical that writing would have been difficult.

Because these entries were not written in Emmeline’s own handwriting, I wanted to verify that the entries were truly being made on the dates of the events described in them. Using, available through the CHL, I compared diary entries’ content and dates to newspaper reports.9  I was able to find corresponding reports in several newspapers, including the Salt Lake Herald-Republican,10  the Deseret News,11  and the Salt Lake Telegram.12  Another benefit of this cross-referencing is that I could confirm the identify of her doctor—Dr. George W. Middleton, as referenced above—who was quoted in the Logan, Utah-based Journal: “That Emmeline B. Wells has a charmed life is the opinion of her physician, Dr. George W. Middleton.”13 

For those who also want to research Emmeline’s life in her diaries, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • The Church Historian’s Press publishes the only accredited transcription of the diaries; the transcription was created by Cherry Silver and Sheree Bench using resources from Carol Cornwall Madsen.
  • The diary transcriptions available through the Church Historian’s Press are searchable, whereas the HBLL diary images are not.
  • The Church Historian’s Press also includes compiled, indexed biographies of persons named in the diaries.
  • When researching Emmeline’s diaries at the Harold B. Lee Library (HBLL), note that the volume numbers were assigned by the library, not by Emmeline herself.
  • Volumes 1–45 cover 1844, then 1874–1920. Throughout these volumes, Emmeline mentions then-contemporary historical events, monetary expenses and contributions from Relief Society, suffrage, the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association, names and addresses of persons she visited or with whom she corresponded, and detailed genealogy.
  • There is a 29–year gap (1844–1874) between volume 1 and 2.
  • Volume 2 covers 1874 in full and Jan–May of 1875.
  • Volume 3 is May-Dec of 1875 and Jan–Oct of 1876.
  • Volume 26 covers 1876, 1899, and 1900.
  • There is an Emmeline B. Wells diary transcription in the HBLL that is an unedited student project. Thus, if you are looking for a transcription, ensure that you are looking at the version that best suits your needs.14
  • The Archives of the West at the University of Utah provides photocopies of the diaries for reference but not for any type of duplication.

Obviously, Emmeline’s diaries are only one way to research her life through her own words—she was, after all, a journalist, author,15 editor, poet, and suffrage advocate, in addition to serving as Relief Society General President. Thus, if I wanted to continue researching in this vein, I would use the resources listed in the blog post mentioned above, especially issues of the Woman’s Exponent, the periodical for which she served as editor for 37 years, beginning in 1877. Emmeline provided frequent commentary in the Woman’s Exponent, especially about the women’s suffrage movement. She was also the driving force behind the historical printings of Heroines of “Mormondom” (M270.07 H559) and Charities and Philanthropies: Woman’s Work in Utah (361 W453c), the latter of which was created for the 1893 World’s Fair. Both books contain important cultural and biographical information about Latter-day Saint women of Emmeline’s era.

As editor of the Woman’s Exponent, Emmeline wrote about the lives of the women of the Church, suffrage, the silk industry, and women’s organizations.16 The Woman’s Exponent is one of my favorite sources for researching women’s positions in Primary, YLMIA, and Relief Society at the ward, branch, and area levels. But Emmeline wasn’t just the editor of the Woman’s Exponent—she also wrote and edited collections of poetry and essays, which give researchers another opportunity to know her through her own words. (In cases where she didn’t add an editor’s foreword, Emmeline often included a poem of her own.) Also, the Church History Library has many letters both to and from Emmeline, many of which provide a glimpse into conversations she had with the individuals mentioned in her diaries.

I hope that my experience can help inform your research into Emmeline’s life and writings. She was an amazing woman, and I am grateful that I got to know her better through her own words.