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The Biggest Family in the World

October 25, 2011

“Take my word for it–ten or eleven wives is all you need–never go over it.”–attributed to Brigham Young

The Wall Street Journal reports that an Indian man named Ziona, with 39 wives and 94 children, is the father of the largest family in the world.  You can see plenty of photos of Ziona and some of his wives and children here.

I was tempted to do some comic riffing on Ziona’s family, but I have nothing to add that Mark Twain did not observe about the most famous large family of his day, the household of Brigham Young. I will defer to Twain’s story, because, to paraphrase Fats Waller’s comment on Art Tatum, “I just tell jokes–today God is in the house.”

This is an excerpt from Chapter 15 of Twain’s travel/adventure book, Roughing It, describing his wanderings across the Western states and territories from 1861-1867.

According to these Gentile friends of ours, Brigham Young’s harem
contains twenty or thirty wives. They said that some of them had grown
old and gone out of active service, but were comfortably housed and cared
for in the henery–or the Lion House, as it is strangely named. Along
with each wife were her children–fifty altogether. The house was
perfectly quiet and orderly, when the children were still. They all took
their meals in one room, and a happy and home-like sight it was
pronounced to be. None of our party got an opportunity to take dinner
with Mr. Young, but a Gentile by the name of Johnson professed to have
enjoyed a sociable breakfast in the Lion House. He gave a preposterous
account of the “calling of the roll,” and other preliminaries, and the
carnage that ensued when the buckwheat cakes came in. But he embellished
rather too much. He said that Mr. Young told him several smart sayings
of certain of his “two-year-olds,” observing with some pride that for
many years he had been the heaviest contributor in that line to one of
the Eastern magazines; and then he wanted to show Mr. Johnson one of the
pets that had said the last good thing, but he could not find the child.

He searched the faces of the children in detail, but could not decide
which one it was. Finally he gave it up with a sigh and said:

“I thought I would know the little cub again but I don’t.” Mr. Johnson
said further, that Mr. Young observed that life was a sad, sad thing–
“because the joy of every new marriage a man contracted was so apt to be
blighted by the inopportune funeral of a less recent bride.” And Mr.
Johnson said that while he and Mr. Young were pleasantly conversing in
private, one of the Mrs. Youngs came in and demanded a breast-pin,
remarking that she had found out that he had been giving a breast-pin to
No. 6, and she, for one, did not propose to let this partiality go on
without making a satisfactory amount of trouble about it. Mr. Young
reminded her that there was a stranger present. Mrs. Young said that if
the state of things inside the house was not agreeable to the stranger,
he could find room outside. Mr. Young promised the breast-pin, and she
went away. But in a minute or two another Mrs. Young came in and
demanded a breast-pin. Mr. Young began a remonstrance, but Mrs. Young
cut him short. She said No. 6 had got one, and No. 11 was promised one,
and it was “no use for him to try to impose on her–she hoped she knew
her rights.” He gave his promise, and she went. And presently three
Mrs. Youngs entered in a body and opened on their husband a tempest of
tears, abuse, and entreaty. They had heard all about No. 6, No. 11, and
No. 14. Three more breast-pins were promised. They were hardly gone
when nine more Mrs. Youngs filed into the presence, and a new tempest
burst forth and raged round about the prophet and his guest. Nine
breast-pins were promised, and the weird sisters filed out again. And in
came eleven more, weeping and wailing and gnashing their teeth. Eleven
promised breast-pins purchased peace once more.

“That is a specimen,” said Mr. Young. “You see how it is. You see what
a life I lead. A man can’t be wise all the time. In a heedless moment I
gave my darling No. 6–excuse my calling her thus, as her other name has
escaped me for the moment–a breast-pin. It was only worth twenty-five
dollars–that is, apparently that was its whole cost–but its ultimate
cost was inevitably bound to be a good deal more. You yourself have seen
it climb up to six hundred and fifty dollars–and alas, even that is not
the end! For I have wives all over this Territory of Utah. I have
dozens of wives whose numbers, even, I do not know without looking in the
family Bible. They are scattered far and wide among the mountains and
valleys of my realm. And mark you, every solitary one of them will hear
of this wretched breast pin, and every last one of them will have one or
die. No. 6’s breast pin will cost me twenty-five hundred dollars before
I see the end of it. And these creatures will compare these pins
together, and if one is a shade finer than the rest, they will all be
thrown on my hands, and I will have to order a new lot to keep peace in
the family. Sir, you probably did not know it, but all the time you were
present with my children your every movement was watched by vigilant
servitors of mine. If you had offered to give a child a dime, or a stick
of candy, or any trifle of the kind, you would have been snatched out of
the house instantly, provided it could be done before your gift left your
hand. Otherwise it would be absolutely necessary for you to make an
exactly similar gift to all my children–and knowing by experience the
importance of the thing, I would have stood by and seen to it myself that
you did it, and did it thoroughly. Once a gentleman gave one of my
children a tin whistle–a veritable invention of Satan, sir, and one
which I have an unspeakable horror of, and so would you if you had eighty
or ninety children in your house. But the deed was done–the man
escaped. I knew what the result was going to be, and I thirsted for
vengeance. I ordered out a flock of Destroying Angels, and they hunted
the man far into the fastnesses of the Nevada mountains. But they never
caught him. I am not cruel, sir–I am not vindictive except when sorely
outraged–but if I had caught him, sir, so help me Joseph Smith, I would
have locked him into the nursery till the brats whistled him to death.
By the slaughtered body of St. Parley Pratt (whom God assail!) there
was never anything on this earth like it! I knew who gave the whistle to
the child, but I could, not make those jealous mothers believe me. They
believed I did it, and the result was just what any man of reflection
could have foreseen: I had to order a hundred and ten whistles–I think
we had a hundred and ten children in the house then, but some of them are
off at college now–I had to order a hundred and ten of those shrieking
things, and I wish I may never speak another word if we didn’t have to
talk on our fingers entirely, from that time forth until the children got
tired of the whistles. And if ever another man gives a whistle to a
child of mine and I get my hands on him, I will hang him higher than
Haman! That is the word with the bark on it! Shade of Nephi! You don’t
know anything about married life. I am rich, and everybody knows it. I
am benevolent, and everybody takes advantage of it. I have a strong
fatherly instinct and all the foundlings are foisted on me.

“Every time a woman wants to do well by her darling, she puzzles her brain
to cipher out some scheme for getting it into my hands. Why, sir, a
woman came here once with a child of a curious lifeless sort of
complexion (and so had the woman), and swore that the child was mine and
she my wife–that I had married her at such-and-such a time in such-and-
such a place, but she had forgotten her number, and of course I could not
remember her name. Well, sir, she called my attention to the fact that
the child looked like me, and really it did seem to resemble me–a common
thing in the Territory–and, to cut the story short, I put it in my
nursery, and she left. And by the ghost of Orson Hyde, when they came to
wash the paint off that child it was an Injun! Bless my soul, you don’t
know anything about married life. It is a perfect dog’s life, sir–a
perfect dog’s life. You can’t economize. It isn’t possible. I have
tried keeping one set of bridal attire for all occasions. But it is of
no use. First you’ll marry a combination of calico and consumption
that’s as thin as a rail, and next you’ll get a creature that’s nothing
more than the dropsy in disguise, and then you’ve got to eke out that
bridal dress with an old balloon. That is the way it goes. And think of
the wash-bill–(excuse these tears)–nine hundred and eighty-four pieces
a week! No, sir, there is no such a thing as economy in a family like
mine. Why, just the one item of cradles–think of it! And vermifuge!
Soothing syrup! Teething rings! And ‘papa’s watches’ for the babies to
play with! And things to scratch the furniture with! And lucifer
matches for them to eat, and pieces of glass to cut themselves with!
The item of glass alone would support your family, I venture to say, sir.
Let me scrimp and squeeze all I can, I still can’t get ahead as fast as I
feel I ought to, with my opportunities. Bless you, sir, at a time when I
had seventy-two wives in this house, I groaned under the pressure of
keeping thousands of dollars tied up in seventy-two bedsteads when the
money ought to have been out at interest; and I just sold out the whole
stock, sir, at a sacrifice, and built a bedstead seven feet long and
ninety-six feet wide. But it was a failure, sir. I could not sleep.
It appeared to me that the whole seventy-two women snored at once.
The roar was deafening. And then the danger of it! That was what I was
looking at. They would all draw in their breath at once, and you could
actually see the walls of the house suck in–and then they would all
exhale their breath at once, and you could see the walls swell out, and
strain, and hear the rafters crack, and the shingles grind together.
My friend, take an old man’s advice, and don’t encumber yourself with a
large family–mind, I tell you, don’t do it. In a small family, and in a
small family only, you will find that comfort and that peace of mind
which are the best at last of the blessings this world is able to afford
us, and for the lack of which no accumulation of wealth, and no
acquisition of fame, power, and greatness can ever compensate us.
Take my word for it, ten or eleven wives is all you need–never go over

Some instinct or other made me set this Johnson down as being unreliable.
And yet he was a very entertaining person, and I doubt if some of the
information he gave us could have been acquired from any other source.
He was a pleasant contrast to those reticent Mormons.


From → Humor

  1. 94 children?! No thank you!

  2. sarahjones permalink

    dam that foo got to work

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