James Thornton Cobb

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James Thornton Cobb

Birthdate: (76)
Birthplace: Beverly, Essex County, Massachusetts, United States
Death: February 1, 1910 (76)
Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, Utah, United States ("Kidney Trouble", nephritis)
Immediate Family:

Son of Henry Cobb and Augusta Young
Husband of Camilla Clara Cobb
Ex-husband of Mary Young
Father of Luella Cobb; Ives Emanuel Cobb; Lucy Augusta Cobb; Albert Karl Cobb; Henry Ives Cobb and 3 others
Brother of Mary Elizabeth Cobb; Albert Adams Cobb; Lucy Almira Candler; Charlotte Ives Kirby and Brigham Y. Cobb

Managed by: Randy Stebbing
Last Updated:

About James Thornton Cobb

Deseret Evening News

(Mon., Jan. 31, 1910)



Well Known Resident Died Here Early This Morning.

James Thronton [sic] Cobb, died of kidney trouble at 4 o'clock Monday morning at his home, 250 Canyon road. The funeral announcement will be made later, owing to the absence of members of the family. The burial will be in the city cemetary.

The deceased was born at Beverly, Mass., December 15, 1833. He was educated at Dartmouth college. He was a profound student, taking a deep interest in the celebrated Bacon-Shakespeare contest that so much disturbed the literary world some years ago. Oliver Wendell Hilmes was a personal friend of Mr. Cobb'sm and the family has a letter from the great poet in which he writes to Mr. Cobb:

"Your mind has gone to depths and reached heights which no human mind since the days of Shakespeare has, and you have almost converted me."

In his earlier days Mr. Cobb was engaged in newspaper work. He came to Utah in 1858, following his mother here, she having joined the Mormon Church, and has been a resident here ever since. He had a genial disposition. Even up to within an hour of his death his mind was bright and his heart light, and the family surrounding the deathbed could hardly believe that his last hour was at hand.

He is survived by Mrs Camilla C. Cobb, and the following children. Ives E. Cobb, Mrs. Nat M. Brigham, Henry Ives Cobb, Rufus K. Cobb, James Kent Cobb. There are many relatives living in Boston and other cities of the United States.


According to the 1921 Amherst College Biographical Record, James Thornton Cobb finished high school in Beverely MA before attending Amherst between 1851 and 1853. He transfered to Dartmouth College and became a member of the Phi Beta Kappa and Psi Upsilon fraternities. After graduating from Dartmouth in 1855 James worked as a broker in what was perhaps the family business in Boston, then relocated to Prescott, WI, where he taught school from1856 to 1858. James helped found the Union Academy in Salt Lake City in 1860. After working briefly as a journalist with the Salt Lake Tribune, James assisted John and Edward Tullidge with their Tullidge's Quarterly and Western Galaxy magazines, in the 1880s.

History has not recorded what brought James T. Cobb to Utah Territory in 1858, after his scholar's years at Amherst and his subsequent graduation from Dartmouth College. Certainly he must have wished to see his mother and sister who were then living in Salt Lake City. Augusta Cobb Young was emotionally (if not mentally) somewhat unstable and it appears that in 1858 she was living through a period of estrangement from her husband, Brigham Young. In 1848, two years after being sealed to Young "for eternity," Augusta had managed to get that attachment broken and to have herself sealed to the late Joseph Smith, Jr. forever. She apparently also began to ask Brigham for a temporal divorce in 1858. It is possible that James originally went to "the Valley" with the intention of helping his mother and sister move back to the east, but ended up staying in Salt Lake City and marrying his first wife there that same year (see below for James' marital history).

Whatever his reason for moving to Utah, James was soon taken into the household of his step-father, in matters of social position and protection at least. In an address made in the Salt Lake Tabernacle during the spring 1860 LDS General Conference, Brigham announced his intention to "devote the large building on the east side of Union Square to school purposes." President Young wasted no time in getting his new "Union Academy" up and running, it was to open the following day (Apr. 9, 1860) with Orson Pratt and his son Orson, Jr. in charge of the instruction of "boys and young men." To these two Mormon intellectuals Young added a third brainy educator, his step-son James T. Cobb. (The Journal of Discourses, vol. 8, pp. 39-44).

It seems that young James was still on his step-father's good side at the end of the year, for he was chosen to be one of the regents in the academy's successor institution, the Deseret University. The following is taken from "The University of Utah" in Daughters of the Utah Pioneers and Their Mothers:

In 1860 the University, known then as Union Academy, was opened in the building that had been intended for a hotel, and built by Mr. David Wilcken in 1858... It took the name of Union Academy from Union Square, which was opposite, and in time became the site of the University of Deseret The principal of the school at this time was Orson Pratt, and he, with Orson Pratt, Jr., and James Cobb, were the teachers. In the autumn of 1867, David O. Calder became principal, and in 1868 Dr. John R. Park was elected president by the board of regents. From 1881 to 1901 the University was in the buildings now occupied by the Salt Lake High School. In 1901 it was moved to its present home on the hill immediately east of the city...

James labored as an instructor under LDS Apostle Orson Pratt for four years. During that period he converted to Mormonism. Or, more likely, he re-converted, following a lapse in membership missing from the religious records. He was baptized (or, perhaps, re-baptized) on Oct. 24, 1863 by Elder Karl G. Maeser. In fact, James may have been converted to the affections of Dr. Maeser's young ward, Miss Camilla Clara Mieth, more than he was to Mormonism. In what was perhaps a move to postpone James' marital intentions and strengthen his religious commitment, his step-father saw that he was ordained and called away to a mission to the east. On Apr. 24, 1864, Elder James Thornton Cobb was blessed by Apostle George A Smith in the Church Historians's Office and thus set apart for his proselytizing work. No word has survived as to exactly when James left Utah or who his missionary companions were, but a letter written to him by President Young on Feb. 21, 1866 counsels the 33 year old elder to "preach the gospel without purse and scrip, travel from place to place."

By the end of September, 1866 James had finished his church work in the east and had returned to Salt Lake City, where spoke at a sabbath meeting in the Bowery, expressing "his feelings and his undoubting confidence in the work of God, a testimony of the truth of which he had received since he left some two and a half years since to go East." According to Wilford Woodruff's Journal, James testified thusly for only five minutes, while other Saints spoke for up to three quarters of an hour. Although James "expressed his desire to cling to the truth," he was already wavering in his devotion to Mormonism.

James had taken a vacation from his missionary duties long enough to marry a second wife in Salt Lake City on Nov. 14, 1864. When he spoke in the Bowery two years later, his second wife was no doubt looking on -- and looking forward to seeing her husband settle down and take up a position in the community befitting a son of the President of the Church. If so, her hopes were soon dashed upon the rocks of James' apostasy from the LDS faith.

The First Family of James T. Cobb

James Thornton Cobb's first marriage -- to Mary Van Cott -- is not well documented. Salt Lake "Endowment House" Records, say he married her there on April 18, 1856. Susan Easton Black's "Pioneers of 1847" gives the date for this union as April 8, 1865. Sketchy accounts relate that the couple had one child, Luella Van Cott Cobb, who was born in Salt Lake City on Oct. 21, 1860. James T. Cobb's obituaries indicate that he was not in Utah until 1858, and a marriage to Mary Van Cott during that year would perhaps be more consistent with the fact that Luella was born in 1860.

James' marriage to Mary did not last long. The couple divorced in 1867 (see Elias Smith's Journal, extracts of which were published in the Utah Historical Quarterly XXI:3, July, 1953, p. 248, where Smith says in his entry for May 16, 1867, "I spent part of the forenoon in settlung a divorce case between Mary Cobb & her husband James T. Cobb"). Remarkably, on Jan. 8, 1868, Brigham Young attached her to his own harem (see Mary's obituary in the Deseret Evening News, Jan. 5, 1884, p. 5). She was married to Brigham while her mother, Augusta, was still technically his wife as well -- making James T. Cobb simultaneously both the son and ex-husband of the two "Mrs. Young." Brigham and Mary had one child, Fannie Van Cott Young, born Jan. 15, 1870 in Salt Lake City.

Mary Van Cott was born Feb. 2, 1844 in Canaan, Columbia co., NY. She moved to Utah with her father's family, arriving in "the Valley" on Sept, 25, 1847. Mary Van Cott Cobb Young died in that same place on Jan. 5, 1884. In the Feb. 21, 1866 letter to James (then in New York City on his mission) Brigham Young says: "Your Mother and wife and Charlotte and all the folks are well," indicating that James had only one faithful wife (Camilla) by that date. The historian can only guess what complications arose in James' one attempt at practicing plural marriage and whether President Young was the 1867 seducer or the 1868 protector of Mary Van Cott Cobb. At any rate, James' failure to produce a successful polygamous family did not bode well for an adopted son of the Mormon President.

The incestuous cross-pollination between the Young and Cobb families did not end with Mary's espousal to Brigham Young, however. In Feb. 1876 James' fifteen-year-old daughter, Luella Van Cott Cobb, chose to become the fifth plural wife of middle-aged John Willard Young, a son of Brigham Young by his first wife. It is not known whether John and Luella had any children. John died in 1924, but long before his demise, in May of 1890, he and Luella were divorced (see Abraham H. Cannon's Diary entry for Apr. 9, 1890). On June 18, 1894, Luella married Nathaniel "Nat" Maynard Brigham. He also was a relative of Brigham Young. Nat and Luella died some time after 1910.

The Polygamous Family of James T. Cobb

James Thornton Cobb's second marriage -- to Camilla Clara Mieth -- is more clearly clearly recorded. They were married in Salt Lake City, on Nov. 14, 1864 by James' step-father, Brigham Young. She was born: May 24, 1843; in Dresden, Saxony (now Germany); arrived in Utah with her foster father, Dr. Karl G. Maeser, in 1860; and died in Salt Lake City on Oct. 16 1933. The Cobb couple had seven children, the first of whom was conceived while James was still married to Mary Van Cott.

1. Ives Emanuel b. 1867; Salt Lake City m. 1892; Mary Swanell d. bef. 1910

2. Lucy Augusta b. 12 May 1869; Salt Lake City m. 1890; Edward Gordon Ivins d. 21 May 1891

3. Karl Albert b. 27 Jul 1874; Flatbush, Long Island, NY d. 1 Nov 1875

4. Henry Ives b. 11 May 1877; Salt Lake City m. 1902, Elsie Bowman d. 25 Mar 1919

5. Rufus Kellogg b. 1 Sep 1878; Salt Lake City m. 1903, Jane Beatie d. 9 Feb 1945

6. James Kent b. 7 Aug 1884; Salt Lake City m. 1922, Rachel Haycock d. 14 Sep 1962; Los Angeles, CA

7. Grace Camilla b. 9 May 1888; Salt Lake City d. 21 May, 1891

The Apostasy of James T. Cobb

James' younger sister, Charlotte Ives Cobb was born Aug. 3, 1836 in Massachusetts. She was not yet ten years old when her mother took her first to Nauvoo and then on to Utah, to live in the home of Brigham Young. On Feb. 21, 1866 Brigham had written James saying that Charlotte was "well" in the Mormon kingdom, but, on Apr. 7, 1869, she chose to marry a leading Utah liberal and rebel, William Samuel Godbe (1833-1902). Six months later her husband was brought before the Salt Lake Stake High Council to be tried for his membership in the LDS Church. William S. Godbe's attempts at "respectful dissent" came to a bitter end when the High Council moved to excommunicate him. A vote was called for among the attending Mormon priesthood and all present, except five members, voted to sustain their leaders in cutting off the troublesome Godbe. Among those five objector was James Thornton Cobb. Cobb's public action on that day effectively ended his career as a member of Brigham Young's extended family, as well as his active participation in Mormonism. Henceforth James would be marked as a liberal and an apostate.

Godbe had already founded Utah Magazine, the 1868-69 forerunner of the Salt Lake Tribune. It appears that James T. Cobb picked up some journalistic odd jobs on the staffs of both of Godbe's publications, as well as on the "Godbeite" Tullidge brothers' magazines, a decade later. Whether or not he and Camilla followed several other of the Godbeites into their experiment with spiritualism remains unknown. The City Directory of 1867 lists him as a "school teacher" residing in downtown Salt Lake City. Probably the 1870 and 1880 Federal Census reports list him as a journalist rather than an educator.

Who Wrote the Shakespeare Plays? (and other questions)

Since James Thornton Cobb was one of the leading intellectuals and literary connoisseurs of the nineteenth century American West, it does not come as a total surprise that James immersed himself in the scholarly controversy over who wrote the plays attributed to William Shakespeare. As the "Oxfordian" explanation to that mystery had not yet become a popular one, Cobb opted for the "Baconian" thesis and carried on an avid study and correspondence concerning this inexplicable literary and historical enigma. While devoting his attention to investigating the Bacon-Shakespeare disputation during the late 1870s and early 1880s, Cobb was well prepared to silmultaneously delve into the question of Book of Mormon authorship. Little survives in the way of a record of Cobb's scholarship in the matter of the Bard's plays; much can be said, however, about his views concerning the origin of the Book of Mormon.


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James Thornton Cobb's Timeline

December 15, 1833
Beverly, Essex County, Massachusetts, United States
October 21, 1860
Age 26
Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, Utah, United States
August 1867
Age 33
Salt Lake City, Salt Lake, Utah, USA
Age 35
July 27, 1874
Age 40
Brooklyn, New York, United States
May 11, 1875
Age 41
Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, Utah, United States
September 1, 1878
Age 44
Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, Utah, United States
August 7, 1884
Age 50
Salt Lake City, Salt Lake, Utah, USA
May 9, 1886
Age 52
Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, Utah, United States