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Bennett, John Cooklocked

(03 August 1804–05 August 1867)
  • Michael Quinn

Bennett, John Cook (03 August 1804–05 August 1867), physician, religious leader, and entrepreneur, was born in Fair Haven, Bristol County, Massachusetts, the son of John Bennett, a shipowner, and Abigail Cook. At his father’s death in 1817, he moved with his mother to Ohio to stay with relatives. In 1825, after a three-year apprenticeship with a physician and an oral examination by an Ohio medical society, Bennett received his M.D. and a license to practice. That year he married Mary Barker; they had three children. There is no evidence supporting his claim to have attended Ohio University or McGill College in Montreal; he did, however, become a Freemason in 1826.

Doubling as a lay preacher, Bennett successfully lobbied Ohio’s legislature to incorporate the Methodist Episcopal church in 1827. He published his first medical article in the Western Journal of the Medical and Physical Sciences in April 1829, followed by four other articles in the next eight months concerning cases of disease or problems during childbirth. Bennett combined traditional medicine with the vegetable remedies advocated by Samuel Thomson.

When the Ohio legislature resisted Bennett’s lobbying to incorporate a Methodist college in 1830, he abruptly joined Alexander Campbell and the Disciples of Christ. In 1833 he became the president and later the chancellor of the “Campbellite” Christian College in New Albany, Indiana. To bolster the college’s finances, he sold diplomas in medicine, law, divinity, and the arts and sciences to persons without training, apprenticeship, or exams. He also authorized others to issue diplomas in his name and sold diplomas from the Midwest to Boston. This was apparently the first “diploma mill” in the United States.

Early in 1834, before Campbell and the Indiana college repudiated him for selling diplomas, Bennett unsuccessfully lobbied Ohio’s legislature and the Baptist church to establish a college and medical school in that state. His illicit awarding of diplomas not only embarrassed the Disciples of Christ, but also led the Ohio Masons to make an unsuccessful attempt in February to expel him.

Undeterred, in November 1834 Bennett became a professor of medicine and the faculty president of the Willoughby University in Chagrin, Ohio. Bennett retained that position for five months, after which the trustees expelled him for selling diplomas. Nevertheless, by September 1835 he was professor and president of the Sylvanian Medical College in Erie, Pennsylvania. Bennett resigned in March 1836 after granting M.D.’s to the college’s four students after only five months of training.

Meanwhile, as an extension of his emphasis on Thomsonian medicine, Bennett had begun promoting the medicinal benefits of the tomato and refuting its reputation as being poisonous. Bennett’s writings about the tomato in the mid-1830s were published throughout the United States and succeeded in popularizing the tomato as an edible fruit. To the end of the century, Bennett’s articles about the tomato were cited in medical journals and gardening magazines as far away as Europe and Australia.

After legislators had rejected his petition to form a militia in Ohio, Bennett abandoned his wife and children in June 1838. (She had already been estranged because of his extramarital affairs.) He moved to Illinois, where he signed a petition asking the legislature to incorporate the state’s first private militia.

After the incorporation of the Invincible Dragoons in February 1839, Bennett became its brigadier general in April by appointment of the governor. This began Bennett’s remarkable success and notoriety in Illinois, where he became the founder and secretary of the state medical society in June 1840. In July the governor appointed him as the quartermaster general for the entire state.

Two months later Bennett moved to Nauvoo, Illinois, the new headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). Nauvoo was the boom town of Illinois as a result of its geometric growth created by Missouri’s expulsion of the Mormons in 1839. Seeing vast opportunities for self-advancement, Bennett converted to Mormonism and successfully lobbied the Illinois legislature to incorporate Nauvoo. Its city charter allowed extensive autonomy, including its own militia. Because Mormons voted as a bloc, nomination by church president Joseph Smith, Jr., guaranteed Bennett’s unanimous election as Nauvoo’s mayor on 1 February 1841. The Mormon capital was now larger than the state capital of Springfield, formerly the largest city in Illinois.

This was only the first of Bennett’s rewards for helping to make Nauvoo a virtual city-state in Illinois. Within days of his mayoral election, Bennett became the major general of the newly organized Nauvoo Legion, the chancellor of the city’s university, and the secretary of its Masonic lodge. In April 1841 Smith appointed him as an assistant counselor in the First Presidency of the LDS church, despite Smith’s knowledge that Bennett had a reputation for adultery. In May, Judge Stephen A. Douglas also appointed the physician-mayor (and fellow Democrat) as the judicial master in chancery for Hancock County. Bennett unsuccessfully fought his dismissal as the state quartermaster general for accepting the Nauvoo Legion position.

“I’ll throw a mantle of charity over your sins,” Smith had proclaimed in a sermon to Nauvoo’s Mormons, but this philosophy backfired with Bennett. He seduced several women and appointed them as the “spiritual wives” of anyone he sent to them for casual sex. Smith tried to avoid a public scandal by having Bennett quietly resign his civil and church positions, but the rumors soon forced the LDS president (who was also Bennett’s successor as mayor) to publicly denounce Bennett in May 1842. In quick order, Bennett lost his positions in the Nauvoo Legion, the university, and the Masonic lodge. Amid the scandal he also resigned as the county’s master in chancery in a possible quid pro quo with Douglas, who secured Bennett a quick divorce from his abandoned wife.

Bennett was furious at what he regarded as a hypocritical betrayal, since Smith secretly had polygamous wives of his own. By June Bennett was exposing and embellishing Nauvoo’s secrets in lectures throughout the Midwest and the East. He published an expanded version of his lectures as The History of the Saints; or An Expose of Joe Smith and Mormonism in 1842 in Boston. In August of that year, a Mormon newspaper retaliated by referring to Bennett’s bisexual conduct, and Mormon apostle Brigham Young even publicly identified Bennett’s 21-year-old boyfriend. In March 1843 Bennett married Sarah Rider, whom he had met while lecturing in Massachusetts.

Bennett was now Mormonism’s Benedict Arnold; yet Smith had forgiven other apostates and restored them to their church offices. That prospect probably motivated Bennett to repay his financial debts to Smith in December 1843. However, no reconciliation had occurred by the time anti-Mormons murdered Smith in June 1844. Bennett then tried to establish links with nearly every possible successor except Young, who never forgave disloyalty. Bennett forged an alleged revelation from Smith appointing Sidney Rigdon as Smith’s successor. Rigdon’s followers promoted the bogus revelation in 1845 even though Rigdon himself seemed embarrassed by it.

James J. Strang was the only Mormon succession advocate to accept Bennett, who became Strang’s secret counselor in 1846. Although Strang’s was not a military organization, he allowed Bennett to adopt the title “general-in-chief.” He also ignored Bennett’s expressions of his love for a young man and fellow physician while Bennett’s wife remained in Massachusetts. Many of Strang’s followers could not forgive Bennett’s former treachery and refused to acknowledge his offices. For a year Strang supported Bennett, but he had to repudiate him in 1847 because of increasing disclosures of his sexual improprieties with women.

By the end of 1847, Bennett had returned to his wife in Massachusetts. At Plymouth he began experimenting with chloroform as an anesthetic. In 1848 he reported 127 successful surgeries performed with chloroform and promoted it in medical journals.

Often (probably erroneously) credited as the originator of the Plymouth Rock chickens, Bennett organized the first large exhibition of poultry breeders in 1849 at Boston. Poultry breeding provided him a comfortable living for the rest of his life.

Bennett began visiting Iowa in the late 1840s to spend time with the physician, Pierce B. Fagen, who had sparked his bisexual interests during Bennett’s association with Strang. The man had married the daughter of railroad entrepreneur B. T. Hoxie, but Bennett moved to Iowa in 1853 to renew their association. His friend abruptly moved to California, but Bennett continued to await his return to Iowa.

After Bennett’s wife joined him in Iowa, he became the postmaster of Des Moines in 1856. He was a justice of the peace in Polk City, Iowa, in 1857. During the Civil War, he was a major in Iowa’s Tenth Regiment and a field surgeon in the U.S. Third Infantry. At his death in Polk City, the Des Moines Daily State Register noted: “For many months he was a helpless invalid, and death to him was probably a welcome visitant. He was a kind neighbor and public-spirited citizen.”


Bennett’s book on poultry breeding is The Poultry Book: A Treatise on Breeding and General Management of Domestic Fowls (1850) Biographical works on Bennett include Andrew F. Smith, The Saintly Scoundrel: The Life and Times of Dr. John Cook Bennett (1997); James J. Tyler, “John Cook Bennett: Colorful Freemason of the Early Nineteenth Century,” Proceedings of the Grand Lodge of Ohio (1947): 140–48; Smith, “Dr. John Cook Bennett’s Tomato Campaign,” Old Northwest 16 (Spring 1992): 61–75; and Smith, “ ‘The Diploma Peddler’: Dr. John Cook Bennett and Christian College at New Albany, Indiana,” Indiana History 90 (Mar. 1994): 26–47: Also see D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (1994); Roger Van Noord, King of Beaver Island: The Life and Assassination of James Jesse Strang (1988); and Quinn, Same-Sex Dynamics among Nineteenth-Century Americans (1996).